This post contains excerpts from Robert Pirsig's book Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

The words are all his, the editing choices are all mine, the consequences of reading are all yours.

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No one wants to admit it, but that’s really the reason the insane get locked up. It’s not just that they have absurd ideas that no one else believes. What makes them ‘insane’ is that they have these ideas and are a nuisance to somebody else. The only thing that’s illegitimate is the cover-up, the pretense that you’re trying to help them by getting rid of them.

… As long as you’re stuck with the old conventions, insanity is going to be a ‘misunderstanding of the object by the subject’. The object is real, the subject is mistaken. The only problem is how to change the subject’s mind back to a correct comprehension … But with a Metaphysics of Quality the empirical experience … is an experience of value patterns produced by a number of sources …

When an insane person … or a hypnotized person or a person from a primitive culture, advances some explanation of the universe that is completely at odds with current scientific reality, we do not have to believe he has jumped off the end of the empirical world. He is just a person who is valuing intellectual patterns that, because they are outside the range of our own culture, we perceive to have very low quality. Some biological or social or Dynamic force has altered his judgment of quality. It has caused him to filter out what we call normal cultural intellectual patterns just as ruthlessly as our culture filters out his. Obviously no culture wants its legal patterns violated … That’s what mental hospitals are partly for. And also heresy trials. They protect the culture from foreign ideas that if allowed to grow unchecked could destroy the culture itself.

… [he] had seen that the psychiatrists were … required to deal with insanity as cultural representatives … priests saving heretics. Psychiatrists seemed to fear the taint of insanity, much as inquisitors once feared succumbing to the devil. Psychiatrists were not allowed to practice psychiatry if they were insane. It was required that they literally did not know what they were talking about.

To this … they could counter that you don’t have to be infected with pneumonia in order to know how to cure it and you don’t have to be infected with insanity to know how to cure it either. But the rebuttal to that goes to the core of the whole problem. Pneumonia is a biological pattern … scientifically variable. Insanity … is an intellectual pattern … it has no physical/biological reality. No scientific instrument can be produced … to show who is insane and who is sane. The scientific laws of the universe are invented by sanity. There is no way by which sanity, using the instruments of its own creation, can measure that which is outside itself and its creations. Insanity isn’t an ‘object’ of observation. It’s an alteration of observation itself …

… Insanity always exists in relation to others. It is a social and intellectual deviation, not a biological deviation. The only test for insanity is conformity to a cultural status quo. That is why the psychiatric profession bears such a resemblance to the old priesthoods. Both use physical restraint and abuse as ways of enforcing the status quo.

That being said, it follows that the assignment of medical doctors to treat insanity is a misuse of their training … [they] are trained to look at things from an inorganic and biological perspective … their cures are biological: shock, drugs, lobotomies, and physical restraints … [he] had seen that if you want to get out of an insane asylum … persuade them that you fully understand that they know more than you do and that you are fully ready to accept their intellectual authority. That is how heretics keep from getting burned. They recant.

… In time this strategy has brought [him] enough smiles to get out. It made him less honest … more of a conformist … It wasn’t a happy solution, to always role-play with people he had once been honest with. It made it impossible to ever really share anything with them. Now he was more isolated than he had been in the insane asylum …

Now, years later, his resentment … had lessened … somebody has to deal with the degenerate forms of society and intellect. The thing to understand is that if you are going to reform society you don’t start with cops. And if you are going to reform intellect you don’t start with psychiatrists. If you don’t like our present social system or intellectual system the best thing you can do … is stay out of their way.

“Insanity isn’t an ‘object’ of observation. It’s an alteration of observation itself ...”
“If you don’t like our present social system or intellectual system the best thing you can do ... is stay out of their way.”