Thursday, March 05, 2015

Zhuangzi's Delightful Inconsistency about Death

I've been working on a new paper on ancient Chinese philosophy, "Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi" (come hear it Saturday at Pitzer College, if you like). In it, I argue that Zhuangzi has inconsistent views about death, but that that inconsistency is a good thing that fits nicely with his overall philosophical approach.

Most commentators, understandably, try to give Zhuangzi -- the Zhuangzi of the authentic "Inner Chapters" at least -- a self-consistent view. Of course! This is only charitable, you might think. And this is what we almost always try to do with philosophers we respect.

There are two reasons not to take this approach to Zhuangzi.

First, Zhuangzi seems to think that philosophical theorizing is always defective, that language always fails us when we try to force rigid distinctions upon it, and that logical reasoning collapses into paradox when pushed to its natural end (see especially Ch. 2). Thus, you might think that Zhuangzi should want to resist committing to any final, self-consistent philosophical theory.

Second, Zhuangzi employs a variety of devices that seem intended to frustrate the reader's natural desire to make consistent sense of his work, including: stating patent absurdities with a seeming straight face; putting his words in the mouths of various dubious-seeming sources; using humor, parable, and parody; and immediately challenging or contradicting his own assertions.

Thus, I think we can't interpret Zhuangzi in the way we'd interpret most other philosophers: He is not, I think, offering us the One Correct Theory or the Philosophical Truth. His task is different, more subtle, more about jostling us out of our usual habits and complacent confidence, while pushing us in certain broad directions.

Given the brevity of the text, his comments about longevity and death are strikingly frequent. In my view, they exemplify his self-inconsistency in a fun and striking way. I see three strands:

(1.) Living out your full span of years is better than dying young. For example, Zhuangzi appears to advocate that you "live out all your natural years without being cut down halfway" (Ziporyn trans., p. 39). He celebrates trees that are big and useless and thus never chopped down (p. 8, 30-31). He seems to prefer the useless yak who can't catch rats to the weasel who can and who therefore hurries about, dying in a snare (p. 8). He seems to think it a bad outcome to be killed by a tyrant (p. 25, p. 29-30) or to die because well-meaning friends have drilled holes in your head (p. 54). A butcher so skillful in carving oxen that his blade is still as sharp as if straight from the whetstone is described as knowing "how to nourish life" (p. 23).

(2.) Living out your full span of years is not better than dying young. In seemingly more radical moments, Zhuangzi says that although the sage likes growing old, the sage also likes dying young (p. 43), that the "Genuine Human Beings of old understood nothing about delighting in being alive or hating death. They emerged without delight, submerged again without resistance" (p. 40). He seems to admire groups of friends who are not at all distressed by each others' deaths, who "look upon life as a dangling wart or a swollen pimple, and on death as its dropping off, its bursting and draining" (p. 46-47). Of "early death, old age, the beginning, the end", the sage sees "each of them as good" (p. 43).

(3.) We don't know whether living out your full span of years is better than dying young. This view fits with the general skepticism Zhuangzi expresses in Chapter 2. It doesn't have as broad a base of direct textual support, but there is one striking passage to this effect:

How, then, do I know that delighting in life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like an orphan who left home in youth and no longer knows the way back? Lady Li was a daughter of the border guard of Ai. When she was first captured and brought to Qin, she wept until tears drenched her collar. But when she got to the palace, sharing the king's luxurious bed and feasting on the finest means, she regretted her tears. How do I know the dead don't regret the way they used to cling to life?" (p. 19).
You could try to reconcile these various strands into a consistent view. For example you could say that they are targeted to readers of different levels of enlightenment (Allinson), or maybe they reflect different phases of Zhuangzi's intellectual development (possibly Graham), or you might think try to explain away one or the other strand: Maybe he really values death as much as he values life, as part of the infinite series of changes that is life-and-death (possibly Ames or Fraser), or you might think that Zhuangzi's view is that it's only remote "sages" who are lacking something important who are unmoved by death (Olberding). But each of these interpretations has substantial weaknesses, if intended as a means by which to reconcile the text into a self-consistent unity.

[revision 6:40 pm: These statements are too compressed to be entirely accurate to these scholars' views and Olberding in particular suggests that in the course of personal mourning (outside the Inner Chapters) Zhuangzi seems to have a shifting attitude.]

My own approach is to allow Zhuangzi to be inconsistent, since there's textual evidence that Zhuangzi is not trying to present a single, self-consistent philosophical theory. If Zhuangzi thinks that philosophical theorizing is always inadequate in our small human hands, then he might prefer to philosophize in a fragmented, shard-like way, expressing a variety of different, conflicting perspectives on the world. He might wish to frustrate, rather than encourage, our attempts to make neat sense of him, inviting us to mature as philosophers not by discovering the proper set of right and wrong views, but rather by offering his hand as he takes his smiling plunge into confusion and doubt.

That delightfully inconsistent Zhuangzi is the one I love -- the Zhuangzi who openly shares his shifting ideas and confusions, rather than the Zhuangzi that most others seem to see, who has some stable, consistent theory underneath that for some reason he chooses not to display in plain language on the surface of the text.

Related posts:
Skill and Disability in Zhuangzi (Sep. 10, 2014)
Zhuangzi, Big and Useless -- and Not So Good at Catching Rats (Dec. 19, 2008)
The Humor of Zhuangzi; the Self-Seriousness of Laozi (Apr. 8, 2013)
[image source]

Update April 23:

A full length draft is now up on my website.


Dan Korman said...

Hi Eric,

I’m a longtime admirer of Zhuangzi, but don’t know anything about the literature on him -- which may be obvious from what I’m about to say!

I’m all for interpreting Zhuangzi as an internally inconsistent rabble-rouser. But I’m not convinced that the passages you cite in support of the first strand really support the view that living out a full lifespan is better than dying young. As I read most of these passages, he’s issuing a warning, that if you get too entangled in the hustle-bustle of everyday life (like a good Confucian), you’re going to run yourself ragged and be unhappy. Dying early is just a sign that you’ve become entangled, perhaps because you’ve made too much of an effort to make yourself useful to people (unlike the old tree, and unlike Crippled Shu who stands in the crowd waving goodbye when the authorities call out the troops), or because you’re running around like a madman (the weasel), or because you’re making futile attempts to effect social change (which is how you get yourself killed by a tyrant).

I think the holes in the head story is trying to make a very different point, something like: it’s important to be attuned to differences between different people (and different creatures). The point isn’t that Hun-Tun died and that’s bad, but that the friends stupidly assumed that what would make him happy is the same as what would make other people/creatures happy. (Likewise with the sea bird who’s unhappy even though they take him to the ballet and Michelin starred restaurants.)

I think the Cook Ting passage has a similar moral: always applying simple principles is going to lead you astray. In the Hun-Tun case, it’s that they thwart your well-intentioned attempts to help others. In the Cook Ting case, it’s that they thwart your attempts to take care of yourself. If you use an inflexible rule for butchery, you’re going to mess up your knife; if you want to take care of your knife, you need to be attuned to all the little things that make one animal different from the others. Similarly, if you live by inflexible rules, you’re going to mess up your life; if you want to take care of yourself (nourish life, “care for life” in my translation), you have to be attuned to all the little details that make one situation different from the others.

So I think interpretations (2) and (3) are right (and not inconsistent with one another). I don’t think Zhuangzi thinks death is a bad thing per se. (How could anyone possibly know if dying makes you worse off?) But living a long life is some indication that you’re doing something right.

Luke said...

> First, Zhuangzi seems to think that philosophical theorizing is always defective, that language always fails us when we try to force rigid distinctions upon it, and that logical reasoning collapses into paradox when pushed to its natural end (see especially Ch. 2).

This reminds me of two quotations:

>>     From the interpretive point of view what is most striking about structuralism is not its difference from but its continuity with the older reductionism. That massive continuous theme is the priority and independence of logical structures and rules of inference from the contexts of ordinary understanding. As Lévi-Strauss puts it, one must avoid the "shop-grip's web of subjectivity" or the "swamps of experience" to arrive at structure and science. The ideal or "hope" of the intrinsic intelligibility of structures apart from "all sorts of extraneous elements" is the same animus that propelled the Vienna Circle. Ricoeur, in several of his essays, has drawn the clearest implications of this position. For him, the goals of structuralism can be accomplished, in fact already have been, but at a price the structuralists ignore. The conditions which make the enterprise possible—the establishment of operations and elements, and an algebra of their combinations—assure from the beginning and by definition that one is working on a body of material which is reconstituted, stopped, closed, and in a certain sense, dead.[19] The very success of structuralism leaves behind the "understanding of action, operations and process, all of which are constitutive of meaningful discourse. Structuralism seals its formalized language off from discourse, and therefore from the human world.[20] (Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look, 12)

19] See Paul Ricoeur, "Structure, Word, Event" in Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 79.
[20] Ibid.

>> Discourse is ambiguous; it is never clear. It arrives from one person's unconscious aggregate of experiences, desires, skills, and knowledge, only to fall into another person's, thus producing a different meaning. Because of these continual misunderstandings, new life is breathed into the relationship. We must constantly begin all over again, and as a result the relationship becomes a rich, complex landscape, with unexpected mountain passes and inaccessible peaks. By all means let's not turn language into something mathematical, nor reduce the rich complexity of human relationships to identical formulas.
>> Meaning is uncertain; therefore I must constantly fine-tune my language and work at reinterpreting the words I hear. I try to understand what the other person says to me. All language is more or less a riddle to be figured out; it is like interpreting a text that has many possible meanings. In my effort at understanding and interpretation, I establish definitions, and finally, a meaning. The thick haze of discourse produces meaning.
>> All of intellectual life (and I use the word "all" advisedly), even that of specialists in the most exact sciences, is based on these instabilities, failures to understand, and errors in interpretation, which we must find a way to go beyond and overcome. Mistaking a person's language keeps me from "taking" the person—from taking him prisoner. (The Humiliation of the Word, 18–19)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those comments, folks! About to dash off to visit a class in Claremont, but more soon!

Amy Olberding said...

Hi, I actually agree that there are multiple views of death in the Zhuangzi and explicitly resist trying to make Z consistent. The piece of mine to which you refer specifically argues this, although I should hasten to note that that article is about bereavement, not death full stop (a difference I think makes a difference in Z). The view of the sage you identify with my view is one I criticize in favor of an alternative view available in the text: the view implicit if you take Z in his own bereavements as exemplar. At any rate, just wanted to clarify.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for clarifying that, Amy! Actually in the longer version of the paper, I attribute you a more nuanced view which recognizes Zhuangzi's shifting his attitude in the course of grieving (and which I thus say is a view somewhat close to my own). I was trying to finesse the issue a bit in the post because (I think) you do have the view that the sages who feel no grief are missing something important. In retrospect, I think I should have been clearer that you don't endorse this as a way of making Zhuangzi entirely consistent.

Does that sound right?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Dan: That's a pretty sensible interpretation, both overall and for the particular passages you mention -- as plausible a reading of the text as most specialists', I'm inclined to think. From my point of view, the challenge there is that if you're really committed to (2) as the interpretation, don't you kind of have to say is that Zhuangzi really doesn't think that longer life is any sort of benefit or advantage, despite its *seeming* to be the case that he is saying or implicitly accepting that in those passages. That might be particularly awkward to say if you think that skillful activity -- not "messing up" -- in general is a good thing, because death in these cases is just an extreme version of such messing up.

Also although (2) and (3) aren't formally inconsistent, aren't they at least expressively inconsistent in that endorsing (3) means you can't really commit to endorsing (2)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those quotes, Luke! I agree that there are some similarities on these issues between Zhuangzi and some people in the later Continental tradition. I would also add Nietzsche and the later Wittgenstein, at least certain dimensions of their writings.

Luke said...

Nietzsche and Wittgenstein—I need to read them. Foucault, too. I don't know if you've come across Bent Flyvbjerg's Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice, but it basically says that we have to care about power as well as rationality. The Enlightenment is very weak on power.

Perhaps one could say that words aren't nice, docile little things, doing precisely what we want them to do. Was it Heidegger who argued that language has a life of its own? I haven't read him yet, but I recall some discussion of this in Charles Taylor's Philosophical Arguments.

Dan Korman said...

Okay, that's right, he can't consistently be affirming both (2) and (3). So let me back off of (2), and go with interpretation (3). [Sorry to move the target!] I'd say that, for Zhuangzi, a long well-lived life is filled with good things and benefits. What we don't know is whether there's even more good waiting for us after death. So we don't know whether, all things considered, a longer life is a benefit compared to cutting right to the afterlife ASAP.

So what about the support you give for (2)? What I take him to be doing in those passages is warning against our taking a certain attitude towards death: hating it, or getting worked up about it. But that falls short of (2): just because something's bad for you doesn't mean you should get worked up about it. ("Resign yourself to what cannot be avoided", from chapter 4.) So I don't see him as taking any stand there on how bad death may or may not be for us. I think this is so even in the final passage (the sage sees both of them as good). Whether or not something is bad for you, if it's not under your control, you should find a way to welcome it and view it as a good thing.

Amy Olberding said...

Hi, Eric,
I’m not sure Zhuangzi’s attitude does *shift* in grieving. I don’t think we have textual evidence to conclude that Z’s reactions to losses are a move away from another view he held prior to the losses. These reactions may well be ones he would, prior to loss, have reflectively endorsed. So, I think there are multiple views but I would not treat them as changes or shifts, but just plainly multiple. My own philosophical preference would be to see the stories of Z’s grieving as having interpretive priority of a sort, with the stories of sages being in part hortatory, useful for a learner, but not necessarily live possibilities for summary appropriation. (This is consonant with my thinking they’re not very good models to adopt fully!) But all the text directly gives is multiplicity.

Another thought perhaps worth incorporating here is that it may well not work to conflate remarks and reactions to loss with remarks and reactions to the individual’s death. I don’t think, for Z, “the problem of death” = “the fact that I shall die.” Yet in western philosophy, when we speak of death, we seem almost inevitably to intend “my death” - I.e., how the individual thinks of her end, with loss featuring (if it does at all) as either a variation on this purportedly covered by any arguments regarding my death or as a subsidiary, lesser issue. My own sense is that Zhuangzi counts the problem of loss the far harder problem. Encountering one’s own end is comparably easy. And I think it’s good to keep these distinct in order not to assign more priority to death (qua my death) in the text than it warrants. Put another way, when Z speaks of death, we shouldn’t assume that he means, principally or exclusively, my own death. Thinking that reference to death is reference to my own death (and attendant fears, anxieties, etc.) strikes me as an unacknowledged assumption deeply embedded in most western philosophy. But I find much in Zhuangzi and indeed most of early Chinese philosophy that would contest this assumption.

The above need not entail any unifying impulse toward the text, but may enhance the complexity of readings that resist simple unity. E.g., the passage concerning the 4 sages at ease with death or the 2 sages singing over their friend’s corpse read to me as having the comic lightness they do not, or not principally, because the sages are at ease with dying themselves, but because they are together. What makes lightness possible here may well be the company of others, the ability to “share” death together. I worry we too quickly incline to seeing the text’s view on death as an achievement of individuals, in other words, as if each person comes to terms with her own end. This will in turn incline us to look for the propositional claims and doxastic states in individuals, rather than at the narrative settings. But that neglects the possibility that death is a shared phenomenon in the text, not highly individuated in a way that would make the achieved attitudes of the dying or the mortal the main priority. Where dying with ease and absent anxiety is concerned, what one thinks of death may well be secondary to dying in the presence of friends.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for those thoughtful comments, Luke, Dan, and Amy!

Dan: That doesn't seem unreasonable to me as an interpretation, but I'm inclined to think it strains a bit against some of the passages that seem to treat death as of similar value as continuing to live; maybe specially against the sages who see life as a pimple -- arguably, that particular passage is overstatement or color, but to acknowledge that is already to go at least a bit of the way toward the view that Zhuangzi's statements about death are not self-consistent.

Amy: That's a very nice point about seeing the problem of death as primarily the problem of bereavement for ZZ rather than primarily the problem of personal death, though of course both are interesting. I prefer to focus on the Inner Chapters where bereavement does not play as large a role. I think you're right that it's a problem to quickly assimilate the two. On "shifting" I didn't mean to attribute the view that ZZ's discovers what he didn't know before but rather something weaker than that, which I don't *think* you would deny based on what you say in your essay, something closer to shifting back-and-forth with circumstances. I hope you don't mind if I send you the full draft once it's in circulating shape; I don't want to get your view wrong!

Callan S. said...

Perhaps it was a shot at philosophy about philosophy? Perhaps it struck him that while philosophy asks questions of subjects, it may avoid questions against it (against how it asks questions)

It's a bit of a blunt method to simply chop and change though rather than describe what he was getting at (making me wonder if I'm being too charitable and he was just a bit nuts?), but I guess it could avoid assumptions sneaking in. Or having to humour the snuck in assumptions of others. Assumptions being along the lines of '*wink* Despite it all, were both together in on the real deal!'

chinaphil said...

There is some irony in rejecting the idea that The Zhuangzi is consistent at the illocutionary level but then actively seeking a way to make it coherent at the perlocutionary level.

But I think you run into quite a significant problem when you try to do so: the illocutionary force of a speech act (book, in this case) can be understood from the language only. But the whole point of perlocutions is that they only emerge in context, and they explicitly involve intention. Here you are reading Zhuangzi very much out of his context, so attributing intentions to him in any way is weird.

I've been thinking about philosophy as literature for a while now, and of course it's easier with Zhuangzi than with most. But this reminds me of nothing so much as what literature types call "creative misreading."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Callan: At my presentation in Claremont, Robin Wang suggested similarly that in not trying to reconcile the strands I am taking "the easy way out". I do see some merit in that concern. Of course, sometimes the easy way is the right way!

Chinaphil: There is something a bit odd about ascribing intentions to Zhuangzi, I agree. Maybe I'm okay with accepting that oddness, as long as it's not *too* odd. Perlocutions emerge in context, yes, but maybe the whole of the Inner Chapters can create the context, as well as the history of the disputes between the Confucians and the Mohists and the logicians? Would you want to commit to never interpreting the perlocutionary force of an ancient text *ever*?

chinaphil said...

"Would you want to commit to never interpreting the perlocutionary force of an ancient text *ever*?"
Ha, no indeed. I think I'd say you can't - humans always understand speech acts as their perlocutionary force, whether we want to or not.
And given that we always find perlocutions (=always interpret), this interpretation is certainly as good as any. I think that what you end up with is a process of doing philosophy with Zhuangzi, rather than a process of interpreting The Zhuangzi. (I don't think interpreting has any special value or status, but it does seem to have a conventional form of assuming consistency and avoiding assumptions about intentions.)

Callan S. said...

Eric, sorry, me writes badlies!

By 'It's a bit of a blunt method to simply chop and change though rather than describe what he was getting at' I meant HIS method was a bit of a blunt one. He's giving contradictory statements. Sure, this leads to question marks raised about the statements and perhaps about philosophy overall. But if that's what he was doing it's a blunt method of his. Though it might avoid certain problems, as I described. Sorry to be confusing!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

chinaphil: Yeah, I think I'm okay with that.

Callan: Sorry I misunderstood! I suspect there's more truth in thinking of me as blunt than Zhuangzi. If I've made him seem blunt, then probably it's just the fault of my own bluntness.

Callan S. said...

Maybe he'd have liked to have been thought of as blunt - he didn't want to present the easy pill? Avoid being one so easy to swollow it soon becomes 'truth' rather than speculation. He does seem pretty contradictory. And seems to battle Batman a lot... ... ...