Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Value of Self-Contradiction in Zhuangzi

The ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (4th c. BCE) often contradicted himself, or at least made statements whose superficial readings stood in tension with each other.  This self-contradiction, I contend, is not sloppy, nor does it necessarily reflect different authorship of different parts of the text or different stages in the development of Zhuangzi's thought.  Rather, his self-contradiction is purposive and crucial to the power of the text, serving two distinctively Zhuangzian functions.

For example, in multiple passages, Zhuangzi seems to state or assume that it's better to "live out your years" than to die young (1:14-15; 3:1-3, 3:5-6, 4:17; 6:3-4).  However, in multiple other passages, Zhuangzi seems to state or assume that dying young is no worse, or at least no more to be regretted if one is wise, than living a long life (2:38-40; 6: 9-11; 6:25-28; 6:40-47).  In one other passage, Zhuangzi seems to embrace still a third option: We don't know whether or not death is better than life (2:41-42).  (See my 2018 paper "Death, Self, and Oneness in the Incomprehensible Zhuangzi" for a detailed discussion of these passages.)

Similarly, Zhuangzi doesn't appear to have a consistent view concerning skepticism.  In multiple passages, Zhuangzi seems to embrace seemingly extremely radical forms of skepticism according to which we know nothing or at least very little, including dream skepticism (2:41-42; 2:48-49), skepticism about resolving disagreements (2:43-44), and skepticism about whether words and labels and ever be accurately and meaningfully used (ch 2 throughout, esp. 2:29-32).  He appears to admire a sagely character who declines to say he knows anything (2:38) and another who considers no one wrong and sometimes thinks he's a horse or an ox (7:1).  Most of this is in Book 2.  However, in the remainder of the Inner Chapters (generally regarded as the authentic core of the book), Zhuangzi appears to endorse and criticize philosophical views, with little seeming residue of the radical skepticisms of Book 2.  In some places, he appears to explicitly state that philosophical knowledge is attainable (5:9-11, 6:1-6).  (For more on Zhuangzi's contradictions concerning skepticism, see my 1996 paper "Zhuangzi's Attitude Toward Language and His Skepticism".)

In a text this short (52 pages in Ziporyn's English translation), this is a striking amount of contradiction.  It's not like I've been trolling through Kant's gigantic corpus to find scattered passages that don't quite fit together.  The self-contradiction is frequent, blatant, unmissable once you start looking for it -- seemingly intentional.

Of course, we could deny that Zhuangzi is really so self-contradictory.  We could attribute the passages to different authors, or to different periods in his thinking.  Or we could argue that the passages fit together in some subtle way, so that, properly interpreted, they don't really contradict each other.  "Charitable" readings of historical philosophers typically try to find a coherent, sensible view beneath what might seem on a casual read to be contradictions or implausibilities in the text.  Most interpreters of Zhuangzi are charitable in this way, looking to find a reasonable Zhuangzian view beneath the surface of the text -- Zhuangzi's single, coherent opinion about death, skepticism, the use of uselessness, the limits of language and logic, the value of morality, etc.

I reject this conventional interpretive approach.  The most charitable way to read Zhuangzi involves rejecting the principle of charity as it is conventionally applied.  Zhuangzi need not have a single, coherent worldview.  It is uncharitable -- in a broader sense of interpretive charity -- to think that Zhuangzi did have a single, coherent worldview that he could have stated in a plain, self-consistent manner but did not.  That renders him either inept (if he wanted to be clear and self-consistent but failed) or intentionally misleading (if he sought to disguise his real view under a mass of contradictions).

I propose, instead, that Zhuangzi's self-contradictions serve two broadly Zhuangzian purposes.

First, self-contradiction allows Zhuangzi to express alternative points of view that he might regard as each having some merit, without having to decide where the truth lies.  Although we tend to think of great philosophers as having settled opinions on all the topics they address, the normal human condition might more commonly be not to have settled philosophical opinions on many matters, but rather to feel the pull of alternative positions.  Zhuangzi might be a normal human in this respect.

Indeed, it would be Zhuangzian for him not to have a settled opinion on many philosophical issues (perhaps even including the issue of how much one should have settled philosophical opinions).  One theme that shines through the text is that deep philosophical understanding of the world might be beyond the comprehension of most ordinary people, and Zhuangzi might regard himself as an ordinary person in this respect.  Another theme, central to Chapter 2, is that words and doctrines often fail us, since they require us to draw sharp and stable lines across a reality that might not be so neatly divided, a reality that regularly defies human categories.  For good Zhuangzian philosophical reasons, Zhuangzi might be uneasy about going all-in on particular philosophical doctrines, preferring to present more than one side of an issue without definitely settling the question.

Second, self-contradiction is anti-authoritarian and anti-dogmatic in a way that fits nicely with the general spirit of Zhuangzi.  Zhuangzi employs many tools to undercut his own philosophical authority, including making claims and then calling those claims into doubt, putting much of the text in quotation from various dubious sources (seeming sages with funny names, ex-criminals, people who are devalued and at the margins of society, a mock "Confucius" who sometimes admits he has messed things up), and telling absurd parables that the reader will not take literally.  Self-contradiction is another tool in this arsenal -- a means of jostling sympathetic readers out of whatever default tendency they might have to treat Zhuangzi's words as authoritative.  Readers inclined to agree with one of Zhuangzi's positions are likely to find another conflicting passage later, knocking them out of their confidence that they understand Zhuangzi's view and agree with it.

Also through self-contradiction, Zhuangzi parodies the confidence and self-seriousness of other philosophers.  He engages in logical puzzle-making or moral pontificating that superficially reads like what a more self-serious philosopher might say; but then his humor, absurdity, and self-contradiction helps make it clear that this confident self-seriousness is a humorous pose.  After a sympathetic reading of Zhuangzi, it's harder to go back to reading the Mohist logicians, or the Daodejing, or the Confucian moralists, with quite the same reverence.

Zhuangzi is in this way an exceptional philosopher -- one untroubled by, and maybe even seeking, self-contradiction, as an acknowledgement of the complexity of the world and the incompleteness of his own understanding, and in rebellion against the idea of philosophy as the construction of coherent systems of philosophical truth.  Other historical philosophers who embrace self-contradiction for similar reasons might include Montaigne, Nietzsche, and/or the later Wittgenstein -- though none as baldly and pervasively as China's original self-undermining sage.

[image modified from a Dall-E output for "ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi speaking"]



"The Humor of Zhuangzi, the Self-Seriousness of Laozi" (Apr 8, 2013).

"Against Charity in the History of Philosophy" (Jan 8, 2017).

"Zhuangzi Might Prefer the Passive Knife to the Skillful Cook" (Jan 11, 2019)


Kaplan Family said...

go, Zhuangzi!

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Ah, the inscrutability of the Ancients! I left a comment this morning on another blog regarding religion and whether one is equal to another. Self-contradiction is a different sort of device, to be sure. I have seen scholars use this to either a. See if an audience is paying attention, or, b. Re-start a flagging discussion which has hit a conundrum but is worth rekindling. There are numerous motivations for this tactic, as pointed out in your discussion. Ancients, especially eastern ones, played discussion and argument as a chess game---always aiming to be several moves ahead of the other participant(s) much more lucid than that ubiquitous UM, employed by poorly prepared speakers. In today's parlance, other less sophisticated devices are brought to play. 'Strategic Ambiguity', for example.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Yes, go, Zhuangzi!

Paul, my view is that probably the ancient and modern are not *so* different -- with both chess-gamers and sincere plodders both then and now. Not that Zhuangzi is exactly a chess-gamer in my view....

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Hi,Eric: with you--to a point. Interests, preferences and motives do not change dramatically within a cultural milieu. The ancient thinker may not have had the foggiest notion of chess. But he knew culture and expectation. Possibly, even the game of 'go'---requiring a strategy all its' own.

chinaphil said...

Calling Zhuangzi an exceptional philosopher seems very radical to me - because I'm so accustomed now to thinking of Zhuangzi not as a person, but as a collection of texts. I think that's got to be the key factor, hasn't it? If we look at the Zhuangzi as a collection of statements in a collection of (timeless) texts, then contradictions among those statements are unlikely to do anything more than create dissonance and incoherence. But if we conceptualise Zhuangzi as a person, then contradictions take on meaning.
Perhaps it's reasonable to take our cue from the compilation itself: it was given the name Zhuangzi (we think), so the compilers perhaps *wanted* us to read it as representing the thought of a person. That would seem to justify your approach.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I was writing from limited understanding of what I had read. I believed it was in reference to a person, not a system of thought or teachings. I stand corrected.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

chinaphil: I'm inclined to think of the Inner Chapters as mostly written by a single person (or maybe a few closely related people). There's a similarity of style and themes that shines through. It seems distinctive and is different from what is evident in other texts of the period (and different from what one sees even in the Outer and Mixed Chapters). (I'm inclined to wonder whether the first part of Chapter 4 really belongs in the Inner Chapters, though.) Of course if we think of even the Inner Chapters as a collection of text written by different people who disagree with each other, then the contradictions are no longer puzzling!