Friday, January 11, 2019

Zhuangzi Might Prefer the Passive Knife to the Skillful Cook

... contra the currently dominant "skill" interpretations of the Zhuangzi.

Among the most famous and striking passages by the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi is the following:

A butcher was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. Wherever his hand touched, wherever his shoulder leaned, wherever his foot stepped, wherever his knee pushed -- with a zip! with a whoosh! -- he handled his chopper with aplomb, and never skipped a beat. He moved in time to the Dance of the Mulberry Forest, and harmonized with the Head of the Line Symphony. Lord Wenhui said, "Ah, excellent, that technique can reach such heights!"

The butcher sheathed his chopper and responded, "What your servant values is the Way, which goes beyond technique. When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I couldn't see the whole ox. And now, I encounter them with spirit and don't look with my eyes. Sensible knowledge stops and spiritual desires proceed. I rely on the Heavenly patterns, strike in the big gaps, am guided by the large fissures, and follow what is inherently so. I never touch a ligament or tendon, much less do any heavy wrenching! A good butcher changes his chopper every year because he chips it. An average butcher changes it every month because he breaks it. There are spaces between those joints, and the edge of the blade has no thickness. If you use what has no thickness to go where there is space -- oh! there's plenty of extra room to play about in. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my chopper is still as through fresh from the grindstone.

"Still, when I get to a hard place, I see the difficulty and take breathless care. My gaze settles! My movements slow! I move the chopper slightly, and in a twinkling it's come apart, crumbling to the ground like a clod of earth! I stand holding my chopper and glance all around, dwelling on my accomplishment. Then I clean my chopper and put it away."

Lord Wenhui said, "Excellent! I have heard the words of a butcher and learned how to care for life!"

(Kjellberg trans., Ch. 3).


Based partly on this passage from the (generally regarded as authentic) Inner Chapters and several related passages from the (more textually dubious) Outer Chapters, it is more or less orthodox to treat the celebration of skillful artisanal or athletic activity as central to Zhuangzi's worldview (e.g. Graham 1991; Hansen 1992; Ivanhoe 1993; Slingerland 2007; Fraser 2014).

However, if we take the Inner Chapters as our guide to the core "Zhuangzi" outlook, a puzzle arises. Nowhere else in the Inner Chapters is artisanal or athletic skill of this sort singled out for praise. Indeed, skill is frequently criticized, or associated with negative outcomes. Zhuangzi celebrates the useless yak in contrast to a weasel or a dog who is skilled at catching rats (the weasel ends up dead in a trap [Ziporyn trans., p. 8] and the dog bound by a leash [p. 51]). His "desk slumping" friend Huizi's logical skill brings him nothing but trouble. Skilled musical practitioners end up quarreling (p. 15), and people who test their skills in contests start bright but end up in dark conniving (p. 28); "skill [is] mere salesmanship" (p. 48); the divine creator or teacher "supports heaven and earth, and carves out all forms, but without being skillful" (p. 49).

If skillful activity, guided by the spirit rather than the eyes, is central to Zhuangzi's values, why doesn't he say so anywhere else in the chapters that form the authentic core of the book? Why doesn't he celebrate the skillful weasel rather than the unskilled yak and the various other seemingly unskilled characters in his stories, such as Horsehead Humpback (p. 35-36)?

The answer, I think, is that Zhuangzi doesn't particularly value skillful artisanal or athletic activity. Celebrating the skill of the butcher in one place and deriding skill in others is an example of Zhuangzian self-contradiction. I have argued (here and here) that Zhuangzi intentionally contradicts himself within and between passages, in his project of undercutting doctrinaire adherence to any set of motivating values.

So how should we interpret the passage of the butcher? How does the butcher's activity teach the king "how to care for life"?

The first thing to notice is that the long-lived thing is not the butcher. It's the knife. After nineteen years, the knife is as sharp as if fresh off the whetstone. In contrast, the butcher is in danger! As Zhuangzi says in Chapter 4 and elsewhere, it is dangerous to display your talents before a king. If you please the king, he might bind you into servitude; if you displease him, he might kill you.

What's good about the knife, or at least what leads to its healthy longevity, is that it simply follows along through empty spaces, rather than hacking and slicing. It lets the butcher's hand lead it, not fighting, not resisting, but also not helping things along. The knife itself has no skills. Due to the butcher's skill, the knife itself needs to do almost no cutting at all.

Going along with things, doing nothing, lounging in the shade, standing useless and quiet, like a yak or an ancient gnarled tree -- that's closer to Zhuangzi's core vision than acting with impressive skill, like an accomplished artisan or athlete.


For a fuller treatment of these issues see my forthcoming essay, "The Unskilled Zhuangzi: Big and Useless and Not So Good at Catching Rats".

[image source]


Callan S. said...

Maybe it's an unconscious drawing of connection between 'in his project of undercutting doctrinaire adherence' and carving up a carcass, since they're both done in a similar way. I mean I've seen the problem in 'not taking a way' is that that in itself is a way. Isn't avoiding doctrinaire it's own doctrine? And heck, how much of a parallel is there in 'undercutting' to butchery? Maybe he has bumped into a parallel of his own doctrine and lauds it in observing its finest execution for being akin to his own level of skill, in contradiction to his other writings on skill.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Callan! The "undercutting" language is mine, not Zhuangzi's -- but probably you're right that there was an unconscious pun there.

I agree that not being doctrinaire can become its own doctrine, and that if Zhuangzi was at all like a normal human being, he must have had some pride in his impressive skill in writing and philosophy, even while criticizing skill and philosophizing. To his credit, though, I interpret him as one of the few philosophers aware of his own inconsistencies and not seeking to hide them away under jargon and excuses.

Dan Korman said...

Agree! Also, notice that the butcher's immediate response to being praised for his skill is "What your servant values is the Way, which goes beyond technique." Or in the Watson translation: "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill." He seems to be *rejecting* the idea that it's a skill or technique that should be praised & appreciated, in this very passage.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Dan! I do think that phrase supports my interpretation. However, I prefer not to lean on it too heavily, since I think it's also open to being interpreted as "such good technique that calling it 'technique' hardly gives it justice".

Seth_blog said...

I don't think Zhuangzi wants us to think of the knife as having it's own agency. More likely the knife is metaphor for a heart-mind--striped of fixed pre-conceptions-- and attuned to the intersection of the entire entire situation. The skill acquired over years of practice is a skill of releasing dependence on any particular technique. A virtuousity of skills allows one to move where the path presents itself, but only if the heart-mind is empty of pre-condition and attuned to situation.

I think much of the Zhuangzi is corrective our tendency to think we have found universal answers, knowledge of universal rights and wrongs. He is not anti-skill development, but he is anti falling in love with any narrowly focused skill.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Seth. Something like that would fit with my view of Zhuangzi. However, at some point "skill" might not be the best word choice if it tends to be specifically associated with artisan-like ability. For example, "releasing dependence" or not having it in the first place, might be a natural, unpracticed state for some people or creatures, or it might involve avoiding certain errors rather than having any positive ability.

Seth_blog said...

I appreciate the response Eric, thanks.

Do you see in the Zhaungzi examples of human beings-- presented as exemplars of virtue or embodying wu-wei-- who were simply naturally attuned to the way (big T Tao), and undertook no practice (small t tao), before releasing their dependence the practice to achieve the attunement?

The practice is explicit in the butcher Ting passage. There is some type of meditation, cultivation/practice implied at the beginning of chapter 2 whereby Ziqi is able to lose himself. At the beginning of chapter 4 we see Yan Hui being advised, “The Consummate Persons of old made sure they had it in themselves before they tried to put it into others. If what is in yourself is still unstable, what leisure do you have to worry about some tyrant?". This also seems a suggestion of the need to develop an attunement.

I'm asking because my bias is that practice is essential to approaching the type attunement that Zhaungzi advocates. My bias could be affecting the read I read the motives of the text.

Quote if from:
Zhuangzi; Ziporyn, Brook. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Hackett Classics) (p. 24). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Seth, Horsehead Humpback and the yak might be examples. Also, the passage you quote is also compatible with my interpretation. Checking whether you have it is consistent both with practicing it first and with having it for some other reason than practice, yes?

Seth_blog said...

Eric, thanks again. In the quote, ' If what is in yourself is still unstable', suggests to me a stage in a process of development that is in progress and not yet ready for virtuous application. This also seems to me the proper reading considering the context of it's place in the diaglogue in which Zhuangzi places it.

I am not a professional philosopher and don't want to press the point. Just thought I raise some counterpoints.

Appreciate your responses, thanks.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, I agree it's open to interpretation.