A ghost is a disembodied spirit or soul, usually believed to have originated from a person that has died.

  1. Origins/Etymology
  2. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  3. See Also
  4. References & Notes
  5. External Links
If the Buddha may reside in the circuits and gears of a motorcycle, what of its ghost?


The idea of the existence of ghosts as the disembodied soul/spirit/self of a person (usually dead) has probably been a part of human cultures very nearly as long as there has been human cultures in the first place. The most ancient literary and religious texts that we currently have, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh tablets or the Pyramid Texts provide evidence of complicated belief systems which included concepts of human/self existence after death or apart from the human body. It is reasonable to assume that the concept of ghosts has been a part of human culture for tens of thousands of years.

The notion of a self that may be divisible or separate from the physical body relies upon a (minimally) dualistic metaphysical system (i.e. mind as separate or separable from the physical processes and properties of the physical body). The term Ghost in the machine was coined by Gilbert Ryle in 1949 to describe the dualistic metaphysical system wherein a mind may be viewed as separate from the body.

Old Norse (pre-Christian) culture allowed for a self which was comprised of four components: The hamr was the skin or body which was capable of some mutability; the hugr  (thought, mind) was believed to be capable of separation from the body (hamr) during sleep or trance; the fylgja was an external companion linked to a person’s fate yet could leave the person after death; and the hamingja was believed to be the embodiment of a person’s luck. Like the fylgja, the  hamingja  was separable from the person after their death. Mutability and divisibility of the self is an example where a dualistic metaphysical system was minimally necessary.

The word ghost appears to have roots in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language which pre-dates most modern European languages, including English. The PIE root word gheis was used in words which described excitement, surprise and fear. The Old English word gast referred variously to breath, spirits, and human beings. The word that we use today appears to have been in use for between 600 and 700 years.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

In this part of Zensylvania, we’re going to begin to explore the notion of “ghosts” in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In previous episodes of the podcast, I discussed the first two chapters of the book and the wide variety of themes and ideas that were introduced. While review of those previous episodes may be of interest to you, I’m going to do my best to ensure that you won’t need to listen to those episodes to follow-this one.

Picking up our review of the book in chapter three, Pirsig firmly establishes Zen and the Art as a kind of ghost or gothic story and we’ll be outlining how that happens.

Up to this point in my examination of the book, I’ve avoided dips into later chapters of the book as I wanted to avoid getting ahead of the ideas that Pirsig presented when he presented them. In this episode, I’m going to break with that trend as it seems necessary to explain why the idea of a ghost is so critical to explore.

Whether we believe in ghosts, or not, is very much to the overall purpose of Zen and the Art of Motorcycles and indeed Pirsig’s metaphysical system. Not only is it a consideration that has been with humanity as long as there has been a humanity, it is a consideration that gathers strange new meanings in our contemporary era. Gilbert Ryle’s metaphor of the ghost in the machine is so thoroughly taken-up by Pirsig that he argued the Buddha may as easily resided in the gears and circuits of a motorcycle’s transmission as a human body. And here in the twenty-first century we have Artificial Intelligence computer programs that are on the edge of self-awareness, if they haven’t already achieved this. If a sentient computer program, could well reside in one set of microchips as readily as another, even simultaneously so, in what way does that reflect on what we believe about one of our most ancient and vexing of notions…what is a ghost, exactly?

Before we proceed with that question, let’s back to Henry James. We started this exploration with the first several paragraphs of James’ The Turn of the Screw. That phrase is rather interesting when placed in context of Pirsig’s work. The phrase is a metaphorical way to describe something that makes an already bad situation worse. We can imagine a turn of the screw as the mechanical tightening down of some torturous pressure. In his novel, Henry James increases the pressure presented by a ghastly and grisly presence going after a child by having a ghostly presence going after two children. The stakes are even higher. In his way, Pirsig takes this metaphor and applies it to his story. The increased pressure for Pirsig is presented by the alienating mechanistic world in which he lives…a turning of the screw which he portrays as certain ghosts pursue both him and his son, Chris. It’s no small irony, of course that this mechanical torture, this turning of the screw, is so fundamental to motorcycle maintenance as an activity and to motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for caring for the self.

In the Introduction to the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition of Zen and the Art, Pirsig explained that Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw  had a significant influence on his writing of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. According to Pirsig, he had attended a creative writing seminar in the 1950’s wherein instructor explained that Turn of the Screw is not just a straightforward ghost story.  Turn of the Screw is a novel “in which a governess tries to shield her two proteges from a ghostly presence but in the end fails, and they are killed.

Henry James was a novelist who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both his father, Henry James Sr , and his brother, William James were philosophers. William James is renowned for his contributions to pragmatism – an area of philosophy which Robert Pirsig’s philosophy is very comfortable with – and psychology. While it is important to differentiate between Henry James and William James as different people with very different works – knowing that Pirsig cites one of the brothers as a significant influence on the writing of Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance inevitably brings the other into consideration as well. William James’ roll in psychology is one area of concern given that a significant feature of Pirsig’s book considers mental health. William James was also a proponent of radical empiricism, a philosophical perspective that “experience includes both particulars and relations between those particulars, and that therefore both deserve a place in our explanations. In concrete terms: Any philosophical worldview is flawed if it stops at the physical level and fails to explain how meaning, values and intentionality can arise from that.

This perspective is entirely consistent with ideas that John Dewey, another pragmatist philosopher, had expressed. In the Zensylvania exploration of Quality, I examine similarities between Dewey’s Experience and Pirsig’s Quality. Whether by chance or by design (and I tend to think that design is at play) by referencing the Henry James novel, Pirsig telegraphed some comfort with comparison of his ideas to those of William James.

But let’s get back to Henry’s book. The Turn of the Screw was published in 1898 and had an extensive history of analysis even by the time that Pirsig read it in the 1950s and published Zen and the Art in the early 1970s. Pirsig claimed that he initially believed the story was just as it seemed to be – a straightforward ghost-story. When he attended the writing seminar, he learned that James had written with ambiguous language which allowed for either a straight-forward (let’s say naive or accepting) interpretation of the story or a different one. A second interpretation might be that it was not a “ghost who kills the children but the governess’s hysterical believe that a ghost exists.

It is interesting to note that Pirsig describes his early interpretation as the literal/naive interpretation that the book received from its initial publication up to the 1930s when the ghosts in the story started to be considered as figments of the governess’ imagination. It was the 1970s when text ambiguity was actively promoted as the writing method that allowed the interpretation. If Pirsig’s claim is true that a writing instructor put him on that path in the 1950s, then the instructor was well ahead of the established interpretations.

In the 25th-edition introduction, Pirsig explains that the use of a first-person narrator allowed James to lock the reader’s attention into whatever the narrator has to say….and this say trick is something Pirsig uses in ZAMM.  In this Zensylvania episode, we’re going to explore some of the ways that Pirsig leveraged the ghost-story techniques he learned in the 1950s. 

I’m going to read a plot synopsis of The Turn of the Screw currently Wikipedia because it serves as well as any other. For those who may have some objection to use of Wikipedia as a source, well that may be fair and reasonable in some contexts but I consider this to be a common-knowledge detail and not worthy of the quibble. At some later time, I’ll write my own plot-synopsis based on a fresh reading of the book. I’ll post that as an entry in my own Zensylvania.com Eric-o-pedia when I do. In the meantime, the common-knowledge repository will have to do.

On Christmas Eve, an unnamed narrator and some of their friends are gathered around a fire. One of them, Douglas, reads a manuscript written by his sister’s late governess. The manuscript tells the story of her being hired by a man who has become responsible for his young niece and nephew following the deaths of their parents. He lives mainly in London and has a country house in Bly, Essex. The boy, Miles, is attending a boarding school, while his younger sister, Flora, is living in Bly, where she is cared for by Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. Flora’s uncle, the governess’s new employer, is uninterested in raising the children and gives her full charge, explicitly stating that she is not to bother him with communications of any sort. The governess travels to Bly and begins her duties.

Miles returns from school for the summer just after a letter arrives from the headmaster, stating that he has been expelled. Miles never speaks of the matter, and the governess is hesitant to raise the issue. She fears there is some horrible secret behind the expulsion, but is too charmed by the boy to want to press the issue. Soon after, around the grounds of the estate, the governess begins to see the figures of a man and woman whom she does not recognize. The figures come and go at will without being seen or challenged by other members of the household, and they seem to the governess to be supernatural. She learns from Mrs. Grose that the governess’s predecessor, Miss Jessel, and another employee, Peter Quint, had had a close relationship. Before their deaths, Jessel and Quint spent much of their time with Flora and Miles, and the governess becomes convinced that the two children are aware of the ghosts’ presence.

Without permission, Flora leaves the house while Miles is playing music for the governess. The governess notices Flora’s absence and goes with Mrs. Grose in search of her. They find her on the shore of a nearby lake, and the governess is convinced that Flora has been talking to the ghost of Miss Jessel. When the governess finally confronts Flora, the girl denies seeing Miss Jessel, and asks not to see the new governess again. Mrs. Grose takes Flora away to her uncle, leaving the governess with Miles, who that night at last talks to her about his expulsion. The ghost of Quint appears to the governess at the window. The governess shields Miles, who attempts to see the ghost. The governess tells Miles he is no longer controlled by the ghost, and then finds that Miles has died in her arms.

From that synopsis three features stand out for immediate comparison to Zen and the Art: an un-named narrator, a son who returns home for a summer holiday overshadowed by some seemingly dark secret, a child that dies in the arms of their protector.

The fact that there is a dark secret with Miles for most of the book and that the governess is overseeing the children is a parallel to the relationship displayed between Pirsig and his son, Chris.

The dying in the arms is echoed by Pirsig in his recital of Goethe’s Erlkonig in Chapter Five. The narrator is telling his companions that Chris has been experiencing troubling mental health issues and that he, the narrator had put an end to Chris’ visits to psychiatrists because they aren’t kin; this reminded the narrator of the Goethe’s poem which he describes as, “A man is riding along a beach at night, through the wind. It’s a father, with his son, whom he holds fast in his arm. He asks his son why he looks so pale, and the son replies, ‘Father, don’t you see the ghost?’ The father tried to reassure the boy it’s only a bank of fog along the beach that he sees and only the rustling of the leaves in the wind that he hears but the son keeps saying it is the ghost and father rides harder and harder through the night.” And then explains that in the end, the child dies and the ghost wins. This description of the Erlkonig is a vivid link between the inspiration that Pirsig took from The Turn of the Screw and the drama which unfolds on the motorcycle ride taken by the narrator and Chris.

The reference to the Erlkonig in Chapter Five is the fist major reinforcement of the ghost theme that was first established in Chapter three. The narrator’s rejection of mainstream professional mental health care also connects to his comments in Chapter Three with their skepticism and dis-alignment with science. Chapter five even has a brief dream-sequence where the narrator’s dream casts him and Chris in the roles of the father and son in the Erlkonig. Pirsig is clearly emphasizing that this connection should be made.

The fact that the narrator explicitly rejects professional psychology should seem odd as we contemporary parenting expectations would be troubled to reject professional help. It is also interesting to consider the ironic associations to William James and psychology. Later in the book, of course we find that the narrator had troubling experience of psychiatry given his peronsl history of having received electro-convulsive shock therapy. We’ll explore that in a later episode along with a variety of parallels to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Today we’re going to try to stick to the ghosts.

By establishing a parallel between the characters and the narrative methods of The Turn of the Screw, Pirsig invites similar analysis of the book’s plot and scrutiny of the narrator’s trustworthiness as a source of factual information and indirectly a concern with radical empiricism and its relationship to ghosts of various kinds.

Chapters Three and Five both feature settings that are classic ghost-story fare. Chapter three builds up to the ghost story with the riders arriving in town on a dark and stormy night. Both chapters feature the requisite campfire scenes and Chapter five has a silvery moon as the narrator reflects on these matters.

Who the ghost may be and why it may be haunting the family motorcycle ride is not revealed at this point in the narrative. But there are considerable hints so far: science is questioned, the validity of ghosts from a cultural perspective is allowed, mental health is brought in as a concern.

To get us started, I want to compare a couple of definitions of what a ghost is. I consulted several dictionaries and the most common primary definition of a ghost is that it is a disembodied soul or the spirit of a dead person. Clearly there are a variety of usages of the word ghost which draw on its primary meaning. For example, a “ghost of an image” is a faint impression, trace or outline rather than a fully detailed image. But let’s stick with the primary definition for a moment – that is the “disembodied spirit or soul of a person.” 

With some word definitions, it can be extremely difficult not to find oneself running around in circles when attempting to pin down what a word means. To say that a “ghost” is a disembodied “spirit” or “soul” as a definition implies that one knows what those other words mean.  But what if you don’t? What does it actually mean to be “disembodied”? These words rely on reference to concepts within a pretty complicated metaphysical system. If you don’t know how that metaphysical system is supposed to work, well  you really can’t get at what the word “ghost” means.

The word “ghost” relies on the notion that there is something about people that can be separated from a physical body which retains some kind of singular and identifiable consistency or relatedness to the physical body. It’s a pretty extraordinary concept.

In the usual definitions of the word “ghost”, it is almost impossible to avoid indications that “ghosts” are that singular and identifiable something which can be separated from a physical body and that the original person is in fact dead. Clearly there’s a suggestion that ghosts arise pretty much exclusively from dead persons. Indeed, in most understanding of ghosts, physical death of a person’s body is a kind of pre-requisite condition for a ghost condition to be in play. 

The etymology of the word “ghost” suggest that it comes from a proto-Indo-European root word, “gheis’ which implied fright, amazement and fear. This is an important root meaning or implication of the word ghost and we shouldn’t let that stray too far from our attention.

In chapter 3, the narrator advances a proposition that a ghost is something which has no matter and no energy. According to the narrator, this is depiction of two key attributes of a ghost fits is consistent with science and the laws of physics…and very shortly thereafter, uses the same attributes to argue that the “laws” of physics, numbers and other such things should also be disbelieved because they have no matter no energy.

Clearly Pirisg is attempting to disrupt the reader’s comfort with what it means to be a ghost…and thereby the metaphysical principles that such a word relies-upon.

Pirsig has taken this definition and, rather uncomfortably for many people, applied it to the “laws of science”. In what way do these laws exist that is different than ghosts. Well one might say that the phenomena would exist in physics regardless of whether we humans explain those phenomena in language or not. If a tree falls the forest, there is sound whether there’s a observing individual or not.

Pirsig introduces the idea that things may be considered “real” within a cultural context. The “real” ghosts of one culture may not necessarily be the “real” ghosts of another culture. I think Pirsig is doing this to shake our confidence in how we view descriptions of “reality” put forward by mid-twentieth century science. This is done early in the book  to allow Pirsig space to develop an alternate depiction of how reality works.

In the spirit of The Turn of the Screw, Pirsig seems to be suggesting that the subjective view of reality put forward by our narrating culture (in this case, a culture heavily influenced, if not quite dominate by science) may not actually have any ghosts other than those which we ourselves embody.

Over the course of ZAMM, it becomes increasingly clear that the narrator of the story is haunted by the “ghost” of an earlier self. In Pirsig’s case, this haunting is depicted as a sharply real situation based on the severing of one version of himself from another version via electro-convulsive shock therapy. The narrator is telling the story of Pirsig’s life as though he did not directly experience it and only has access via documents and notes and occasional flashes of recollection. 

For the narrator, the “ghost” which haunts him is not only “in his mind” but is his mind. This is a way to examine and critique a concept of dualism which allows a separation of mind and body. If the “self” which occupied the body of Robert Maynard Pirsig has driven out by electro-convulsive shock therapy, is it possible for that “self” to continue to exist as a kind of “ghost”? If not, in what way is that earlier version of the self that is capable of producing a “ghost”?

In what way are memories, idea or other phenomena anything other than ghosts?

The narrator makes an unexpected declaration when he claims that nothing outside of the mind exists. This is rather like the position taken by George Berkeley in the late 1700s. Berkeley’s subjective realism (aka empirical idealism) argues that objects in the physical world cannot exist without being perceived. Berkeley’s perspective is a kind of monism (where everything that exists is comprise of some single fundamental thing). In Berkeley’s case, this seems to be a version of “mind” (a deity’s and human).

We must also consider the various alternative positions represented by William James ( radical empiricism, a philosophical perspective that “experience includes both particulars and relations between those particulars, and that therefore both deserve a place in our explanations. In concrete terms: Any philosophical worldview is flawed if it stops at the physical level and fails to explain how meaning, values and intentionality can arise from that.

Again the point here is to shake our confidence in models of reality which rely-upon or tolerate dualism. The idea that nothing exists outside of our mind is ridiculous but that doesn’t mean that some philosophers who proposed such an idea weren’t well regarded in their own time – let alone today.

A reasonable person must also question whether the argument that mind only exists as a consequence of materiality (the opposite extreme position of dualism) may also be considered ridiculous.  What makes the proposition that mind only exists as a consequence of physical processes exits within our culture as a result of ghost-like propositions which do not have any physical reality in themselves.

In an experiment to fill a Klein bottle, the presenter  states that a number of directly observable things (such as a contained volume) may not be readily obvious to mathematics. Mathematics is a language that may be used to depict the world but the language must be worked out over time by observers who develope ability to depict a particular truth but may not understand the given language which would be required to explain it.

This is the lesson of striving toward an accurate, necessary and true explanation of the universe. Languages, whether they are Greek, Chinese, English, mathematics or something else altogether are developed over time to explain complicated physical and conceptual portions of reality. What is the mathematical terminology for “tiger”? As far as I know, there isn’t one. Yet I can stay “tiger” and the vast majority of English-speaking people will know exactly what I am referring to.

See Also

References & Notes

  • Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London. 1925.
  • Granger, David A. John Dewey, Robert Pirsig and the Art of Living: Revisioning Aesthetic Education. Palgrave Macmillan. New York. 2006.
  • James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. The Macmillan Company. New York. 1898.
  • James, William. The Meaning of Truth. 1909.
  • Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Free Press. 2004.
  • Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. William Morrow Company (Harper Collins). New York City. 1974.
  • Price, Neil. The Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books. New York City. 2020.
  • Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus. Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones. London. 1818.

External Links

  1. https://www.etymonline.com/word/ghost
  2. Is it Possible to Completely Fill a Klein Bottle by The Action Lab

This page was last edited on 05 January 2023.

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