Thursday, April 23, 2015

New Essay: Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi

Every nineteen years, I should write a new essay on the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, don't you think? This one should tide me over until 2034, then!

Death and Self in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi defies interpretation. This is an inextricable part of the beauty and power of his work. The text – by which I mean the “Inner Chapters” of the text traditionally attributed to him, the authentic core of the book – is incomprehensible as a whole. It consists of shards, in a distinctive voice – a voice distinctive enough that its absence is plain in most or all of the “Outer” and “Miscellaneous” Chapters, and which I will treat as the voice of a single author. Despite repeating imagery, ideas, style, and tone, these shards cannot be pieced together into a self-consistent philosophy. This lack of self-consistency is a positive feature of Zhuangzi. It is part of what makes him the great and unusual philosopher he is, defying reduction and summary.
Full draft here.

As always, comments, objections, suggestions welcome, either by email or as comments on this post.

See this post from March 5 for a briefer treatment of the same themes.


chinaphil said...

I like it, but I think it's definitely lit crit.

And where you make comments based on not what is *in* the text, but what is *not in it*, there I think you've moved over the line to a more free-associative, Zhuangzi-inspired mode of your own thought.

"You’d think that if Zhuangzi literally thought that bugs’ arms were conscious, he’d give us a better sense of how this works... However, he does no such thing."

The one objection that I can see is that Zhuangzi never seems to embrace doubt (as you do, for example). In all his stories there does seem to be a truth; there's ignorance, but there is always a potential for knowing/right thinking if only the ignorant one could find it. So the mayfly only knows a day, but the tree knows hundreds of years - objectively more. The tree knows all the mayfly knows, and more. Lady Li doesn't just change her mind, she regrets her tears. She was wrong to hate being captured, and had she known more, she could have got it right. Confucius loses his debate with the men who sing around a body. Even when Master Long Desk expresses skepticism, he notes that a third party, with even less insight into the truth than the disputers have achieved, would be more benighted.

So while it may be that Zhuangzi doesn't know, and tries many different ideas and approaches, I can't quite see that he is celebrating this lack of knowledge. Accepting of his own limitations, perhaps, but if he is delightfully inconsistent, then I think the delight must be ours, not his.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting comment, chinaphil! Thanks for taking the time to read it (and for your patience with my comments-moderation experiment).

I think I agree with your last thought: the delight is ours, and Zhuangzi would rather see through to the truth. He doesn't seem *as* perturbed by ignorance and self-contradiction as most philosophers would be, but I don't think he relishes them in a way that a certain type of anti-rationalist might.

I don't think I quite agree with your penultimate paragraph. I think there's a strand in Zhuangzi that might be interpretable as suggesting that superior beings can achieve enlightenment; but I doubt there's any final enlightenment -- at most relative levels of insight vs. benightedness. If there's a truth, we never quite hit it.

At least, that's how I prefer to read the text. I allow that the text admits multiple readings with competing sets of advantages of disadvantages.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Uziel Awret writes:

Chuang-Tzu is indeed incomparable, hard to situate his are radical, profound, humorous and even compassionate depictions of the human condition combining a healthy measure of irrational exuberance with a keen analytic eye . Echoes of Chuang-Tzu’s voice can be heard in disparate writings, from certain later Japanese Zen monks such as Joshu and Nansen to Haiku poets like Issa Kobayashi and Basho, to Japanese death poems, to Nachman of Braslev’s Hassidic short stories and Borges’ “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge” to post-modern philosophers like Georges Batailles. Chuang-Tzu resists interpretation (Susan Sontag) just like certain poems and works of art. Excessive learned interpretation of Chuang-Tzu’s writings is tantamount to drilling holes in it. Drill enough holes and you will be left with its corpse.

Still, if I had to describe Chuang-Tzu I would say that he harbors an intense dislike of dogmatic structural excess whether theoretic (I wonder what he would say about that runaway train, current analytic philosophy), religious or bureaucratic. For Chuang-Tzu the production of excesses is a uniquely human phenomenon contrasted with his attitude towards nature which by definition does not produce excesses. As Issa says:

He can certainly take care of himself,
The Watermelon.

(Im translating from Hebrew, Yoel Hoffmann, “The book of Issa”. In Hebrew ‘It’ and ‘He’ are the same word.)

The same attitude towards nature as lacking structural excess is reflected in the story about a Zen master on his death bed who orders his disciples to lay his body to rest in the forest under a tree. Aghast, they protest, “But master the birds of the sky will eat your flesh.” “Yes”, responds the dying Zen master, “From above the birds and from bellow the worms, why take from one and give to the other?” ((Also from Hoffmann. BTW Hoffmann who is probably Israels’ most pre-eminent modern writer, and who is fluent in Japanese, has a fantastic little book on Chuang-Tzu ,“The voices of the earth”, alas in Hebrew . He prefers the English translation of Burton Watson which he finds to be a bit more ecstatic and less interpretive.)

Chuang-Tzu’s thinking itself formed in opposition to the arbitrary, capricious and stifling structural excesses of Confucianism whether ceremonial or theoretical. While Chuang-Tzu’s path cannot be followed (He had no disciples and warned - “Do not follow me, my path is crooked”) reading his writings conjures other thinkers.

Like Max Weber he warns of the irrational in the heart of the rational but unlike Weber exercises the art of the rational in the midst of the irrational. Like Batailles he notices the production of structural excess, perhaps as extravagant and irrecuperable forms of expenditure, and like Batailles he embraces reality as a sort of radical heterogeneity.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...


Chuang-Tzu does not philosophize about the excesses of philosophy. Unlike post-modern thinkers, who struggle with using philosophy to deconstruct itself, thus borrowing from that which they wish to deconstruct, he ridicules philosophy without using philosophy and manages to remain an outsider. The themes of a philosophy that destroys itself appearing in Batailles and Derrida are in some sense already put to play in Chuang-Tzu. Derrida termed the structural excesses generated by rationalism and efficiency - ‘logo-centrism’, or the ‘metaphysics of presence’, as subject to the kind of self-destruction typical of conceptual architectures in general and which became the hallmark of Derridean deconstruction. Likewise, Gache writes about “ Bataille's vigilance regarding the pernicious and multiple forms of rationalism -- also once known as the metaphysics of presence” Batailles too believed that the most a good work of philosophy can do is destroy itself. Chuang-Tzu’s self-effacing style of writing style seems to reflect this realization.

Chuang-Tzu accepts some structure as a necessary evil but knows that especially reason, if left unchecked, can result in capricious and excessive structure. He is opposed to an ‘uncritical’ embrace of the reasoned and the efficient and suspects that epistemological projects are human projects and as such prone to produce stifling excess. He was especially weary of the structural excesses generated in the name of reason and efficiency and suspected that those could result in monstrosities, however even he, wild imagination and all, could probably not have imagined the Holocaust. For Jean Francois Leotard the whole post-modern movement was seen as exposing the excesses of rationalism and efficiency generated under the banner of the enlightenment, and summed up in one word - ’Auschwitz’.

Chuang-Tzu might have captured the essence of the ‘technological’ 2500 years ago even though, or perhaps because, he was far removed from what we call technology. (He did not even know about the deformed feet of the Japanese women) So even if he does not lend himself to ‘analysis’, as a son of Holocaust survivors I find him to be profound. Philosophically one could claim that Chuang-Tzu captured the essence of the technological because ‘there is nothing technological about the essence of technology’ and perhaps nature and man have one essence and technology another. Its possible that the essence of the technological reveals itself in the wooden shoes that deformed countless pretty feet. The distance from the stifling structural access of the wooden shoes to Weber’s ‘Iron Cage of Modernity’ is small. This conjures Heidegger’s “Questions concerning Technology” and Derridas’ “Of Spirit” which redicules Heidegger’s essentialist thinking, but that’s a project in itself. Its all quite ironic and when you think about it, Chuang-Tzu’s implicit ridicule of the project of philosophy seems well deserved.

Wonder what Chuang-Tzu would say about whole families and people on dates in restaurants absorbed by their iphones. Talk about drilling holes.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

(I'm inclined to broadly agree with that picture of Chuang Tzu / Zhuangzi.)

chinaphil said...

Those are very interesting comments. Without wishing to essentialise, they were especially interesting to me because I recently read comments suggesting a critique of Daoist ideas from a Jewish perspective.

"I find the “pragmatic” and somewhat “rationalistic” approach to emotions that both you and Massimo describe both artificial and unappealing...They are a part of the real, meaningful experience of being human and thus, a part of what we are. Cut them out or suppress them and you lose whole dimensions of human experience and cut off the source of some of the highest forms of human expression. There is an entire literature and great swathes of music devoted to the subject of unrequited love. The same is true — even more so, perhaps — of mourning and lamentation. The Mourner’s Kaddish is probably the most familiar and powerful prayer in the Jewish liturgy. It’s repetition every week re-engages us with those we have lost and with the feelings that accompany such loss."

Comment by Aravis,

Aravis seems to be suggesting that at least one kind of human excess - emotional excess, particularly as expressed and intensified by art - is enormously valuable, and perhaps a key part of being human. And he seems to have a point. It's hard to imagine a Daoist building the Taj Mahal, and yet it's one of the wonders of the world.

I find writing this whole comment rather uncomfortable, because I really, really don't want to reduce either Aravis' or Uriel's comments to a "Jewish reading" of Zhuangzi, but they struck me as an interesting contrast of readings.