Classical v. Romantic

I’ve been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance again. It’s a great book, and I try to recommend it to everybody who asks. My dad had originally suggested that I read it, but I was always hesitant. Even though he insisted that it wasn’t really about motorcycles, I still didn’t think it’d be something I’d like. But then I saw it on our list of outside reading options in Senior year, and decided to give it a try.

I love it, hence the second read. It’s also EXTREMELY dense reading… another reason for a second read-through. I’ll most likely read it again sometime soon, taking fairly detailed notes along the way. But this read-through is just to re-acquaint myself with the themes, and get myself thinking again.

The first time I read it, the concept that really stood out was that of Quality, and the suggestion that it isn’t inherent in objects, but ascribed by our minds. Quality is a construct of our mind.

It reminded me of the line from Hamlet that goes something along the lines of “Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (I think that’s a Hamlet line… I’ll have to double-check at some point).

I haven’t gotten to the discussion about Quality yet, as I’m not very far. That discussion takes up a lot of the book, which is why I remember it more than anything else. But by not starting it yet, I’ve been able to absorb another, underlying concept – that of the dichotomy in world views.

To summarize, we can split the views of the world into two different camps: “classical” and “romantic” (I use quotes because these are the words of the author… I think I’d prefer more descriptive names, personally, though I’m not sure what they’d be).

The romantic view is the more common one these days, I believe. The author asserts that fact about the 70s, when the book was written, but I’d say it still holds. Basically, romantic thinkers view things for what they are, and ascribe values in that manner. The book makes use of motorcycles in lots of examples, and says that a romantic thinker sees the motorcycle for what it is, what it looks like, what it does.

Classical thinkers, on the other hand, are more concerned with the HOW. They see the underlying form of objects, and ascribe values to that. Mechanics, for example, don’t see motorcycles as motorcycles, but as a complex system of valves and pipes and spark plugs and so on.

The problem, the author claims, is that there is little, if any, reconciliation between these two world views. There’s a really nice example in the book, which I’ll summarize, to (hopefully) illustrate this:

The narrator is a classical person, and his friend and fellow motorcyclist is a romantic. When his friend, John, is having issues with his bike (a brand new BMW), he brings it to the narrator to look at.

The narrator discovers that the problem can be solved by using a shim – a thin piece of metal. So he goes, grabs a beer can off the workbench, and begins to cut a small piece from it to use.

John, however, freaks out about this idea, and refuses to do this, and leaves.

The underlying issue was that the narrator, a classical thinker, sees the how, the underlying form of the bike (and the problem). He sees a solution, and sets about solving it. He sees WHAT the shim does, HOW it works, and ascribes value (a fairly high one, incidentally) to it as a result.

His friend John, however, sees only a slice of a beer can, and for whatever reason, doesn’t want to fix his bike with a beer can. He sees only WHAT the shim was – a beer can – and ascribes a value (a very low one, incidentally) to it as a result.

The reason that this whole discussion has been weighing on my mind is that I am very much a “classical” person. Now, most people, I feel, can exist at some level in either view. But primarily, we are attached to one view, and for me, it’s the classical one.

I would have NO problem using a slice of a beer can to fix something, provided it’ll do the trick. And we can see that in other aspects, such as the dress shoes argument (which I’ll have to write about in detail later). To people like Aubrey, there is a HUGE difference between dress shoes and “normal” shoes; there are significant differences in what they ARE.

But to me, they’re both a pair of shoes; to me, they DO the same thing. The underlying form is very similar, if not identical. And that’s the source of our disagreement on the topic. Neither view is right or wrong; they’re just two sides of the same coin.

They’re just two ways of looking at the world.

One of the things I found interesting while reading about the classical view though was the claim that the word “good”, as well as all of its synonyms and antonyms, don’t exist in a purely classical view.

I agree with this, to an extent. I think that when you’re discussion something classically, there isn’t a need to use those words. Now, they can be used, and I think people will understand what you mean, but they just aren’t that precise. I think the more appropriate base word would be “efficient”, or perhaps “effective” (depending on the situation).

In the case of the shim, you can decide to compare a real, factory-made-and-guaranteed shim to one cut from a beer can. Both are effective, though perhaps the “real” one is MORE effective. I think people would be tempted to say that the factory one is “better”, which has a similar meaning, but just isn’t as precise as saying “more effective”. But even this is a shaky use, because if the beer can shim WORKS, then it’s not really fair to suggest that another one is “more effective”. The beer can solves the problem – that’s the crux of effectiveness (and, you could argue, it's far more efficient too!).

I could go on about this, but I think this gives a good intro idea to how I usually see things in the world, and why I’m often at odds with other people as a result. I’d like to write more on this general topic, using other examples beyond the book, but that’ll have to come later, as I’m overdue now for some sleep.


Aubrey said...

In regard to your shoes comment (haha you KNOW I must comment on this), I beg to differ on the question of function. If, as a classical thinker, you focus more on an object's functionality, then you indeed would consider dress shoes and "normal" (ie, casual) shoes different.

Yes, they are both shoes. If you regard them simply as a foot covering that allows you to have some traction as you walk and protection from the elements, then yes, they are the same.

But let me tell you what dress shoes DO and HOW they work: On the most superficial level, they complete a nice outfit. Ok. So that's out of the way. [Let's put the rest of this in the context of a nice dinner and dancing.] Dress shoes also allow you to glide across the floor smoothly, without the squeaks, scuffs, and drag of rubber soles, such as those on the bottom of your black "normal" shoes. They also usually have a slight heel so that you can gain some height if accompanying a woman in stilettos.

Here's what casual shoes do: They complete a casual outfit. They allow you to walk comfortably for long periods of time, and are designed to withstand long days of use, over long periods of time.

So yes, these two types of shoes, while both shoes, have entirely different functions. Even if you examine the construction of these shoes, you'll see that they are quite different.

I will fight tirelessly until you become a supporter of dress shoes.


Jeremy said...

I mainly made the dress shoes comment to explain why I was such a hard sell on getting shoes - as I'd said, the problem was that I never did anything that required them.

Dress shoes do, as you've shown, have some function that's different than my normal shoes; but that's only in specific cases.

When considered in my normal contexts, they have no tangible difference in function, which is why I never saw a need to buy any.

Of course, I have some now, and I would choose to wear them, in the appropriate context. If it ever arises.

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