Montana State University

MSU to award honorary doctorate to philosopher Robert Pirsig at December commencement

November 16, 2012 -- MSU News Service

Robert Pirsig with his son, Chris, on a motorcycle trip that inspired the iconic "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." Pirsig will be honored in December with an honorary doctorate from Montana State, where he once taught. Photo courtesy of Tina DeWeese.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Robert Pirsig, the author and former Montana State English instructor who inspired a generation to look inward to the "high country of the mind" with his book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," will receive an honorary doctorate in December from Montana State University, university officials announced today.

Pirsig, 84, will be honored on Dec. 15 at MSU's fall commencement ceremony. It is the first time that Montana State has held a fall commencement ceremony in more than a half-century.

"Montana State is privileged to honor Robert Pirsig, an esteemed member of the MSU family who is eminently deserving of this recognition," said MSU President Waded Cruzado. She added that the innovative philosopher is the perfect choice for the renewed fall commencement.

"It is rare, we believe, to have a Montana honoree whose writings speak so eloquently to what may be the most pressing issue of the present time: the recognition of quality in all our lives."

Time magazine listed "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" on its 2011 list of "All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books." The book is on the simplest level a narration of a father and son's summer motorcycle trip across America's Northwest, including a stop in Bozeman and Cottonwood Canyon outside the city to visit his friends, the late MSU art professor Bob DeWeese and his wife, Gennie.

"Pirsig has universalized these people, that canyon road, and this university town as completely as James Joyce universalized the people and places of Dublin," said Michael Sexson, MSU English professor who was introduced to Pirsig by their mutual friends, the DeWeeses. Pirsig worked at what was then Montana State College from 1959-1961. Sexson said Pirsig's writings have earned him comparison with Dostoyevsky and Melville.

On another level, however, "Zen" is a blend of philosophy, literature and religion that sold five million copies over the past four decades since it was published in 1973. The book is still taught in classes throughout the world. Each summer "Pirsig's Pilgrims," people from throughout the world who are inspired by the book to trace the pilgrimage of Pirsig's literary hero, stop in Bozeman and at MSU to see the office Pirsig once occupied in Montana Hall. MSU students have dedicated a plaque in the building that honors Pirsig.

In 1991 Pirsig also published "Lila: An Inquiry into Morals." Sexson is expected to accept the award for Pirsig, who is in ill health and rarely travels outside his home in Maine.

In connection with Pirsig's honorary doctorate, the university will host a two-day Chautauqua on Dec. 7-8 celebrating Pirsig's work. Chautauqua 2012 will include appearances by national and internationally known speakers and teachers, philosophers and artists, filmmakers and motorcycle enthusiasts who will discuss Pirsig's work, its meaning, and its legacy. All events will be held on the MSU campus and are free and open to the public. For a full schedule, see the Chautauqua's website,

For more information about MSU's December commencement, see

Tracy Ellig (406) 994-5607,