Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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New SEP Entry on Neo-Taoism (xuanxue)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Neo-Taoism”, by Alan Chan (at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, formerly of National University of Singapore’s philosophy deparment), just became available on October 1. From He Yan and Wang Bi to Guo Xiang — everything you wanted to know about post-Han Daoism, encyclopedically considered; here’s a teaser:

Both He Yan and Wang Bi were known for their expertise in the Yijing. Both were deeply interested in the Laozi. The fifth-century work Shishuo xinyu (New Accounts of Tales of the World), which is indispensable to understanding early medieval Chinese literati culture, relates that He Yan was working on or had just completed a commentary to the Laozi, but when he saw Wang Bi’s Laozi commentary, he recognized the superiority of the latter and reworked his own into two essays on the Dao and “Virtue” (de) instead (4.7 and 4.10). Wang Bi’s Laozi and Yijing commentaries occupied a privileged place in the formal xuanxue curriculum later, and arguably they remain the most important philosophical treatment of the two classics today. However, it should be noted that both He Yan and Wang Bi wrote on the Confucian Lunyu as well. Through their extant writings, we gain a good view of the central concerns of Neo-Daoist philosophy.

From the Jin shu account cited above, He Yan was credited with having introduced the concept of wu into mainstream Chinese philosophical discourse. Whether that was historically the case is unimportant; what is certain is that the concept of wu plays a pivotal role in xuanxue philosophy. The question is what does it mean?

The concept of wu gains prominence from the Laozi and has been variously translated as “nonbeing,” “nothing,” “nothingness,” or “negativity.” In classical Chinese, wu generally conveys the sense of “not having” something—e.g., “not having a name” (wu ming)—and functions as the opposite of the common word you, “having” something. In the Laozi, it seems to have been used as an abstract noun as well. Specifically, the Laozi declares that wu is the source of all beings (chapter 40) and the basis of all functions (chapter 11). To He Yan and his contemporaries, there is little doubt that the meaning of Dao is to be sought in the concept of wu; but, it does not follow that they all understood the latter in the same way.

He Yan’s writings exist only in fragments today. The most important are (1) his commentary to the Lunyu, which was, however, a collective effort jointly submitted to the throne with several other scholars, and (2) quotations from two of his essays entitled Wuming lun (Discourse on the Nameless) and Dao lun (Discourse on Dao) preserved in later sources. In the former, He Yan explicitly defines the Dao as “that which does not have anything” (wu suo you zhe ye). In what is left of the Dao lun, He Yan writes:

Beings depend on wu in coming into existence, in becoming what they are. Affairs on account of wu come to fruition and become what they are. Now, one tries to speak about wu, but no words could describe it; name it, but it has no name; look at it, but it does not have any form; listen to it, but it does not give any sound. Then, indeed, it is clear that the Dao is complete. Thus, it can bring forth sounds and echoes; generate qi-energies and things; establish form and spirit; and illuminate light and shadows. What is dark obtains its blackness from it; what is plain obtains its whiteness from it. The carpenter’s square is able to make a square because of it; the compass is able to make a circle because of it. The round and the square obtain their form, but that which gives them their form itself does not have any form. The white and the black obtain their name, but that which gives them their name itself does not have any name.

Few scholars in early medieval China would question the general assertion that the Dao is the “beginning” and “mother” of all things, as the Laozi phrases it (chapter 1). There was also widespread acknowledgement of the namelessness and formlessness of Dao. “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the constant Dao,” after all, as the opening words of the Laozi famously declare. The real issue is how can that which transcends language and perception be said to be the creative source of all beings?

According to He Yan, the solution to the mystery of Dao lies in recognizing its “completeness” or undifferentiated wholeness (quan). Precisely because the Dao is whole and complete, it is able to bring forth heaven and earth and the myriad creatures. For the same reason, in its undifferentiated fullness the Dao does not have any particular form, and as such cannot be pinned down conceptually and named. Even the term “Dao,” as the Laozi makes clear, is but a metaphor, a “forced” effort to reference that which is ultimately ineffable (chapter 25), a point which He Yan also emphasizes in his “Discourse on the Nameless”: “The Dao fundamentally does not have a name (dao ben wu ming) [i.e., what the word “Dao” stands for cannot be named]. Thus, Master Lao [i.e., Laozi] said he could only force a name on it.”

Put differently, indeed the Dao can only be described as wu, in the sense that it does not have any distinguishable feature or property characteristic of things. On this reading, wu does not signify ontological absence but on the contrary attests to the fullness and fecundity of Dao. More precisely, through a process of differentiation, the Dao generates the yin and yang qi-energies that constitute all phenomena. The Laozi has also made the point that the Dao is “undifferentiated and complete” (chapter 25). This is now shown to be the source of the yin and yang qi—vital forces, pneumas, or loosely, “energies”—that engender, shape and sustain life. In this respect, He Yan adhered generally to the yin-yang cosmological theory established since the Han dynasty. Properly understood, the nothingness of Dao has important implications for ethics and political philosophy.

Comments, questions, etc are welcome, as usual.

October 23, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | 12 Comments

Hansen’s Tao Te Ching

A little blogging while I’m running around and setting up the transition to the group blog…

Chad Hansen’s translation of the Daodejing is available now. I happened to see it at the Yale Book Store, did a double-take, and snatched it up. It has a kind of boutique feel to it, literally — the hardcover has an elegant silky-cloth finish with an embossed 道 on the front; the paper quality seems expensive; there are myriad glossy photos and art reproductions throughout. This attention to reader aesthetic experience suggests that the volume is not primarily meant for scholarly reference, most scholars being more utilitarian about the print quality of their reading material. On the other hand, what translation of the Daodejing after Legge’s really targets an academic audience? Nonetheless, I’m always a sucker for translations of the DDJ by scholars that I like.

The translation differs from what I remember of the one he had on line for a while (that page is no longer available from Hansen’s website — why?!). It’s more elegant, I think, but of course remains faithful to Hansen’s guidance-dao/performance-dao, non-mystical interpretation. Since chapter 1 is usually how people tend to judge translations of the DDJ, here is Hansen’s version, including his titular heading for it:


Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways.
Names can be named; they are not fixed names.
“Absence” names the cosmic horizon,
“Presence” names the mother of 10,000 natural kinds.
Fixing on “absence” is to want to view enigmas.
Fixing on “presence” is to want to view phenomena.
These two, emerging together, we name differently.
Conceiving of them as being one: call that “fathomless”.
Calling it “fathomless” is still not to fathom it.
…the door to a cluster of puzzles.

The volume is not without notation. There is a brief, readable Hansen-commentary for each chapter, in the section following the full translation of the text. Here is the beginning of his commentary on chapter 1:

You ask, “Where is the way” I say: “Over there.” I have dao-ed you to a dao. The way I recommend consists of other signposts, markers, or structures that you can follow correctly — or not, just as you can follow my “over there” correctly or not. If a 道 dao can guide or recommend something (also written 道 but used as a verb), then it’s not a constant dao.

What is a fixed or constant dao — one you can’t get wrong; one to which you do not need to be guided? The movements of the stars and celestial objects trace a constant or fixed dao. You do not ask, and I can’t tell you, how to digest an apple. The process of digestion is fixed. The normal biological processes of life are naturally fixed.

The key difference between recommendable ways and fixed ones is words (名 ming, “names”) and their counterparts — signs, markers, demonstratives and gestures…

I think that’s about as clear an explanation of Hansen’s approach to the DDJ as I’ve read by him.

Comments, requests for how Hansen translated line x of chapter y, etc are welcome.

October 19, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | , | 9 Comments

Agency Versus Freedom

Just wanted to share a snippet from a book I just read, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It’s an excellent book, very readable, that is part social theory and part personal history of someone who left philosophy, as a profession, but kept it with him into his career as a motorcycle mechanic. The primary thrust in the book is to rethink the partitioning off of manual labor as a non-thinking, non-intelligent activity and at the same time to rethink the social engineering that has taken place in the past century of turning labor in general, whether white or blue collar, into something that is divorced from types of activity that contribute to human excellence. You might say it’s a book against the trends in contemporary life that promote both mindlessness and alienation from the “mechanism” of the world. The book is written with style and without any pretentiousness. Great reading; I finished the entire book on a 5 hour flight.

Apropos this blog, I thought there was some excellent resonance in the book with the “skill-mastery” portions of the Zhuangzi, particularly in the ways that Crawford talks about how “freedom” and “autonomy” have been co-opted by the consumer ethic that has taken over our lives. Here’s a bit of it:

…there is a whole ideology of choice and freedom and autonomy, and that if one pays due attention, these ideals start to seem less like a bubbling up of the unfettered Self and more like something that is urged upon us. This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.

Thinking about manual engagement seems to require nothing less than that we consider what a human being is. That is, we are led to consider how the specifically human manner of being is lit up, as it were, by man’s interaction with his world through his hands. For this a new sort of anthropology is called for, one that is adequate to our experience of agency. Such an account might illuminate the appeal of manual work in a way that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather simply gives credit to the practice of building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, as an element of human flourishing. (pp. 63-4)

Crawford’s discussion of music that follows this, reminded me of the Zhuangzi skill passages, not so much in style, but in content:

The errors of freedomism may be illuminated by thinking about music. One can’t be a musician without learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of of frets or keys. The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an ongoing submission. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary — there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically. … These facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them. I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making. These limits need not be physical; the important thing is rather that they are external to the self. (p. 64)

Crawford discusses music and its consumption as an example of the loss of the type of agency discussed above:

In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways. Such hardness is at odds with the ontology of consumerism, which seems to demand a different conception of reality. The philosopher Albert Borgmann offers a distinction that clarifies this: he distinguishes between commanding reality and disposable reality, which corresponds to “things” versus “devices.” The former convey meaning through their own inherent qualities, while the latter answer to our shifting psychic needs.

As an instance of “the eclipse of commanding reality and the prominence of disposable reality,” Borgmann focuses on music. People play musical instruments a lot less than they used to; now we listen to the stereo or iPod. An instrument is “arduous to master and limited in its range,” whereas a stereo is undemanding and makes every sort of music instantly available, granting us a kind of musical autonomy. (p. 65, emphasis added).

So, according to Crawford a sort of increase of freedom, or autonomy, afforded by consumer culture also “enables” a lack of interest in pursuing agency-promoting activity. Ultimately, he argues, this makes human life worse.

Comments welcome, as always.

(For some background on the skill-mastery aspects of the Zhuangzi see previous posts and discussion here, here, here, and here.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | , | 14 Comments

Confucianism — Saving the Planet!

I don’t know; I’m a bit skeptical. Someone convince me otherwise.

From the Christian Scientist Monitor:


How Confucianism could curb global warming

China openly debates the role of Eastern thought in sustainability.

By James Miller
from the June 26, 2009 edition

Kingston, Ontario – Now here’s a curveball to secular Western policy experts: China’s intellectuals are openly debating the role of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in promoting the Communist Party’s vision of a harmonious society and ecologically sustainable economic development.

Nowhere is the question of what to do about the environment more vital than in China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – especially because scientists agree that climate change disproportionately affects the poor and the disenfranchised and that climate change will affect future generations far more than the present.

Yet the general impression of China’s role in issues relating to environment is one of foot-dragging because it hasn’t bought into a Western model to address it.

But Pan Yue, China’s vice minister for environmental protection, is calling for China to capitalize on traditional Chinese religions in promoting ecological sustainability.

He says, “One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature. Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Taoist view of the Tao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society.”

And this just might work.

As The New York Times recently reported, China is in the midst of a transformation to cleaner forms of energy.

Although much of China’s energy needs are still met by inefficient, coal-fired power stations with poor track records in terms of emissions, China has begun to invest heavily in cleaner coal technology in an effort to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.

Because of this, the International Energy Agency reduced its estimate of the increase in Chinese emissions of global warming gases from 3.2 percent to 3 percent even as the same agency raised its estimate of China’s economic growth. China is managing to increase its economic output at a greater rate than its emissions.

This is good news for everyone.

But buried innocuously in the middle of this report was the startlingly frank statement of Cao Peixi, president of the China Huaneng group, China’s largest state-owned electric company.

When asked about his company’s decision to invest in more expensive but cleaner technology he replied: “We shouldn’t look at this project from a purely financial perspective. It represents the future.”

The $64,000 question facing economists and politicians across the world is how to make decisions that take into account the big picture beyond the “purely financial perspective.”

This is a hard question for Western economic and political theorists to answer, because their theories are based on the Enlightenment view of the self as an autonomous, rational individual.

But how are we to make decisions that take into account the interests of those who have not yet been born?

Being respectful to the interests of past and future generations is key to the Confucian view of the self and groups. To the question, “Who am I?” the Confucian answers, “I am the child of my parents and the parent of my children.”

Confucianism begins from the proposition that human beings are defined by kinship networks that span the centuries. From this perspective the interests of the individual are bound up with the interests of the kinship group as it extends forward and backward across the generations.

This will be a key factor in the way China handles present and future environmental issues.

Consider the views of Jiang Qing, a leading Confucian intellectual. According to a recent report by Daniel Bell, a political theorist at China’s Tsinghua Univeristy, Mr. Jiang proposes a political system that can take into account the interests of those who are typically ignored in modern democracies, such as foreigners, future generations, and ancestors.

“Is democracy really the best way to protect future victims of global warming?” he asks.

As China assumes a greater leadership role on the world stage, we can expect the emergence of a variety of models of sustainable development rooted in a plurality of cultural traditions, including Confucianism.

The time when Westernization was the only credible model of development is over.

(James Miller is a professor of Chinese studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston. He is currently researching the relationship between religion, nature, and modernization in China.)

June 26, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Taoism | | 27 Comments

Like the Infant

Sent along by Chris Fraser (much thanks!) — comments welcome:

Scientific research supports Daoist ideas? … (Chris’s question)



To Be a Baby

Bibliolog/ by Evan Lerner / May 5, 2009

Alison Gopnik describes new experiments in developmental psychology that show everything we think we know about babies is wrong.

Thomas Nagel famously asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” That question has become a staple of Philosophy 101 courses, but we might be better served asking a more basic one: What is it like to be a baby? Though all of us experience life as a baby firsthand, we’ve long held misconceptions about what babies are capable of thinking, feeling, and understanding. Only recently have we overturned dominant theories of development in which very young children were thought to be barely conscious at all.   

In The Philosophical Baby developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik compiles the latest in her field’s research to paint a new picture of our inner lives at inception — one in which we are, in some ways, more conscious than adults. Gopnik spoke with Seed’s Evan Lerner about how babies and young children learn from us and what we can learn from them. 

Seed: How does a better understanding of what’s going on in the minds of babies help us as adults?
Alison Gopnik: One of the things we discovered is that imagination, which we often think of as a special adult ability, is actually in place in very young children, as early as 18 months old. That ability is very closely related to children’s ability to figure out how the world works. Imagination isn’t just something we develop for our amusement; it seems to be something innate and connected to how we understand the causal structure of the real world. In fact, the new computational model of development we’ve created —  using what computer scientists call Bayesian networks — shows systematically how understanding causation lets you imagine new possibilities. If children are computing in this way, then we’d expect imagination and learning to go hand in hand.

Seed: You describe children as being “useless on purpose.” What do you mean by that?
AG:  It’s related to one of the basic things that came out of our research: Why do children exist at all? It doesn’t make tremendous evolutionary sense to have these creatures that can’t even keep themselves alive and require an enormous investment of time on the part of adults. That period of dependence is longer for us than it is for any other species, and historically that period has become longer and longer.

The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use. So one of the ideas in the book is that children are like the R&D department of the human species. They’re the ones who are always learning about the world. But if you’re always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world. And when you’re making things happen, it helps if those actions are based on all of the things you have learned and imagined. The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don’t have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We’re free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we’re adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.

Seed: You think Freud’s and Piaget’s conceptions of young children’s theory of mind are wrong. What do we know that they didn’t?
AG:  Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both. The picture we used to have of children was that they spent all of this time doing pretend play because they had these very limited minds, but in fact what we’ve now discovered is that children have more powerful learning abilities than we do as adults. A lot of their characteristic traits, like their pretend play, are signs of how powerful their imaginative abilities are.

Seed: So is this just a matter of a changing frame of reference, where we now value imagination more?
AG: Well, the science has changed, too. For Freud and Piaget, it was a perfectly good hypothesis. If you just looked at young children and babies, they just did not seem very smart. We have new techniques we use to get more subtle measurements of what’s going on in children’s minds, and that’s the thing that has overturned that earlier view. When we take more than a superficial look at what children are doing, it turns out that they both know much more and learn much more than we ever thought before.

Seed: What are these techniques? How can we interrogate the minds of people who can’t yet fully communicate?
AG: Children are not very good at spontaneously telling you what they are thinking. With adults, we give them a questionnaire and have them give us answers. That doesn’t work for babies, who can’t talk, and for young children, who can only give a kind of stream-of-consciousness response. So one thing is to look at what they do rather than what they say. This works if you give them very focused questions with very simple answers. Rather than ask a child to explain how a toy machine works, we’ll ask, “Do you think this block or that block will make the machine go?”

Seed: What have you found?
AG: These techniques show that children can work with very complex statistical information. In the machine example, we show children’s patterns of conditional probability, the relationship between certain blocks and the machine turning on or off. If I tried to give you just a description of the sequence of events in one of these experiments in a conversation, I’d probably get it wrong and you wouldn’t be able to remember it — it’s pretty complicated for even adults to describe. But when you give kids these complicated sets of relationships and then just ask them to make the machine go or make the machine stop, they do the right things. Although they can’t consciously track how these conditional probabilities work, they are unconsciously taking that information into account. And they do this in the same way that sophisticated Bayesian network machine-learning programs do.

Seed: What about less objective causal inferences, such as ones dealing with morality?
AG: One of my favorites of these experiments is one that’s been around for quite awhile but hasn’t been fully appreciated. Two-and-a-half-year-olds already recognize the difference between moral principles and conventional principles. You can ask them if it would be okay to hit someone at daycare if everyone said it would be okay, versus asking them whether it would be okay to not hang up your coat in the cubby if everyone said it would be okay. These children say it’s never okay to hit someone, but whether or not you have to put your clothes in the cubby could change from daycare to daycare. They already seem to appreciate the difference between the kinds of morality that comes from empathy and the kind that comes from our conventional rules. From the time they are two, they recognize both are important but in different ways. That’s pretty amazing.

Seed: So where do adult philosophers go from here?
AG: Back to the 18th century, in some ways. If you look at someone like David Hume, he thought he was doing a kind of theoretical science — he didn’t think there was a line between what we find out from science and what we find out from philosophy. Increasingly, modern philosophers say that we can learn about the big questions by looking at science. But science, especially developmental psychology, can also tell us about philosophy; it can tell us about what we start with, what we learn, and what the basic facets of human nature are. The kind of picture you often get from scientifically oriented philosophy is often very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology, with everything innate and genetically determined. But one of the more important things that has come out of developmental work is that there’s also a powerful capacity for change. And we’re starting to understand how that change takes place at a very detailed neurological and computational level. 

And the same is true when we look at our moral development. A lot of moral psychology has been saying that we have these innate moral instincts, or innate moral grammars. When we look at children, we do see some of these innate moral intuitions, but there is also this tremendous capacity for moral revision. In some ways, I think those are some of the most distinctively human abilities. They give us the ability to say, “Oh wait, the way that we’ve been operating is not working, and that’s wrong.” And this gives us the ability to change those things that are wrong and get to better moral principles than we started out with.

May 17, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | 9 Comments

Daodejing Translations

I’ve been off the air for a bit, trying to catch up to a few things. One of them is ordering books for the Fall semester. I’m teaching a Daoism course and I’ve been pondering a change in the Daodejing translation that I use. I’ve used the Addiss and Lombardo recently–I’m kind of a sucker for their sparse style. I’ve used Lau in the past, and once tried using LaFargue. I’d like to do something different from any of those. I’ll take suggestions. As I implied, I like translations that are not as wordy as Lau and that have some poetry to them. I also like consistency–e.g. dao 道 translated with either the same or with a cognate form of the same word each time. A lot of translations flub that, as far as I’m concerned, in the very first lines of the traditional Chapter 1. Anyway, it’s a good way for me to get back into the flow of blogging. So tell me about a translation you like, and why you like it. Thanks!

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Daoism, Pedagogy, Taoism | 21 Comments

Zhuangzi: Big and Useless — and Not So Good at Catching Rats

by Eric Schwitzgebel (guest blogger)

[Cross-posted at The Splintered Mind]

Okay, I’ve written about this before; but, to my enduring amazement, not everyone agrees with me. The orthodox interpretation of Zhuangzi puts skillful activity near the center of Zhuangzi’s value system. (The orthodoxy here includes Graham, Ivanhoe, Roth, and many others, including Velleman in a recent article I objected to in another connection.)

Here is one reason to be suspicious of this orthdoxy: Examples of skillful activity are rare in the Inner Chapters, the authentic core of Zhuangzi’s book. And the one place in the Inner Chapters where Zhuangzi does indisputably praise skillful activity is in an oddly truncated chapter, with a title and message (“caring for life”) suggestive of the early, immature Zhuangzi (if one follows Graham in seeing Zhuangzi as originally a Yangist). Even the term “wu wei”, often stressed in skill-based interpretations as indicating a kind of spontaneous responsiveness, only appears three times in the Inner Chapters, and never in a way that indisputably means anything other than literally “doing nothing”.

Zhuangzi writes:

Maybe you’ve never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low — untill it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there’s the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly knows how to be big, though it doesn’t know how to catch rats (Watson trans., Complete, p. 35).

On the one hand, we have the skill of the weasel, which Zhuangzi does not seem to be urging us to imitate; and on the other hand we have the yak who knows how to… how to do what? How to be big! It has no useful skills — it cannot carve oxen, guide a boat, or carve a wheel — and in this respect, Zhuangzi says it is like the “big and useless” trees that repeatedly occur in the text, earning Zhuangzi’s praise. Zhuangzi continues:

Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? (ibid.)

That is the core of Zhuangzi, I submit — not the skillful activity of craftsmen, but lazy, lounging bigness!

Where else does Zhuangzi talk about skill in the Inner Chapters? He describes the skill of a famous lute player, a music master, and Huizi the logician as “close to perfection”, yet he calls the lute-playing “injury” and he says these three “ended in the foolishness of ‘hard’ and ‘white’ [i.e., meaningless logical distinctions]” (p. 41-42). Also: “When men get together to pit their strength in games of skill, they start off in a light and friendly mood, but usually end up in a dark and angry one, and if they go on too long they start resorting to various underhanded tricks” (p. 60-61). He repeatedly praises amputees and “cripples” who appear to have no special skills. Although he praises abilities such as floating on the wind (p. 32) and entering water without getting wet (p. 77), these appear to be magical powers rather than perfections of skill, along the lines of having “skin like ice or snow” and being impervious to heat (p. 33); and its unclear the extent to which he seriously believes in such abilities.

How did the orthodox view arise, then? I suspect it’s mostly due to overemphasizing the dubious Outer and Mixed Chapters and conflating Zhuangzi’s view with that of the more famous “Daoist” Laozi. Since this happened early in the interpretive tradition, it has the additional force of inertia.

December 20, 2008 Posted by | Daoism | , | 17 Comments

What Would Zhuangzi Do?

Over on Facebook, Hagop Sarkissian dropped the question: WWZZD (what would Zhuangzi do)? That of course made me think, first, “He would do nothing” but I immediately realized that I was confusing WWZZD with WWLZD. My second thought, and the one I trust more, was that WWZZD isn’t really formulated correctly. It should be HWZZDT–”How would Zhuangzi do this (or that, depending on perspective)?” As far as I can see, Zhuangzi isn’t concerned so much with aims as much as methods. Does anyone read Zhuangzi differently? ‘Zhuangzi’ here refers to the nonhistorical persona that haunts the Zhuangzi text; maybe there’s more than one such specter.

(HWZZDT seems to roll off the tongue so much better than HWCTDT, doesn’t it?)

December 2, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | 7 Comments

Little Fish, Little Fish, Swimming in the Water…

Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) 60 begins with:

“To govern a large state: like cooking small fish…” (治大國,若烹小鮮)

Dan Robins and I were wondering how to interpret “cooking small fish.” The first thing that comes to mind seems to be to be careful because of the fish’s delicacy. I’ve favored in the past, thinking of small fish as actually requiring less delicacy–i.e. small fish can just be tossed onto the pan and cooked whole, without any cutting or cleaning–sort of like smelt (which only helps you if you’ve ever cooked or eaten smelt). But Dan pointed out to me that at least in contemporary China and probably in the recent past, larger fish are also often cooked whole without any cutting or cleaning, as anyone who’s gone to a good Chinese restaurant can attest. So, I guess I don’t really have a compelling interpretation, unless cooking large fish whole is only a recent development. Any thoughts? Any early Chinese cuisine experts out there? Any other interesting or weird interpretations? Jump in…

October 20, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | 155 Comments

Guidance through Principles vs. Concepts/Terms–What’s the Difference?

So, continuing some thoughts about language and theory in ethical thought, I’ve been thinking about what significant difference there is supposed to be between ethical guidance through principles as opposed to guidance through some form of “conceptual mastery” or even “skill mastery.”

One way to think of the difference, roughly, between Western and early Chinese ethical thought is to think of the former as emphasizing formulation of principles and guidance through them and the latter as emphasizing either mastery of some sort of “thick” ethical concepts or some set of “ethical skills.” Hence, dominant forms of ethical theorizing in the modern West seem concerned to formulate correct principles of right action so that people can adopt them for deciding how to act, in morally relevant contexts of choice. On the other hand, what seems of concern to early Confucianism seems to be to grasp the meaning and import of certain important terms such as ren 仁 (“humaneness”), li 禮 (“ritual piety”), and so forth; and/or to master certain sorts of “moral perception” skills that involve some kind of correct “connoisseur” responses and judgments–e.g. seeing something as ren or as failing to be li.

There are a few questions about the accuracy of these generalizations that call for some narrowing. Isn’t “Western” really just a gloss for a particular style of theoretical inquiry, largely in the modern era, that models itself on scientific inquiry or on legal reasoning? Shouldn’t something be said about the role of “manuals” of ritual and ceremony, e.g. the Zhouli (The Rituals of the Zhou) and the Liji (The Record of Ritual) for Confucian thinking about ritual piety? They seem to provide discursive action-guidance, and maybe even justification (as a set of rules) for particular ritual actions and attitudes, if not for the institution as a whole (which is something I take Xunzi to have been trying give). Also, the Mohists seem pretty clearly to be formulating an action-guiding principle–viz. to promote benefit.

But those sorts of questions aside, I wonder how different in practice competent application of principles could be from expressions of competence with respect to concept application or skill implementation. What I have in mind is that application of a principle, like application of a concept, actually requires a skill–call it a “connoisseurship of principle application”–that then subsumes the process under similar sorts of success-conditions as any other skill: there has to be something like a “correct perception” of when a principle applies to a situation, just as in the situation where one sees that a concept applies.

Those who know the later Wittgenstein views could maybe see a connection here–I’m not at all an expert on Wittgenstein and it’s been years and years since I read anything on his views, so that would be helpful if someone could speak to the connection or its lack. Those familiar with W.D. Ross should see some connection here, I think, because Ross’s intuitionism requires some kind of noetic perception of one’s true duty from the interactions among considerations of prima facie duties that apply to a situation. That sounds like a skill to me, not unlike skill in legal reasoning (?)–someone who knows about this could also speak to it better than I.

This is all to suggest, tentatively, that there really isn’t much difference when we get down to the business of ethical living between having a “principle-based” view and some more “skill-based” view. Or is there? I’m inclined to reduce principle-application and concept-application to considerations of skill, albeit some kind of mental or “perceptual” skill, but maybe there are problems with that…

July 20, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, Taoism | , , , | 13 Comments


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