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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

Do Chinese Philosophers Think Tilted Coins Look Elliptical?

by Eric Schwitzgebel (guest blogger)

[Cross posted at The Splintered Mind]

In my 2006 essay “Do Things Look Flat?“, I examine some of the cultural history of the opinion that visual appearances involve what I call “projective distortions” — the opinion, that is, that tilted coins look elliptical, rows of streetlights look like they shrink into the distance, etc. I conjecture that our inclination to say such things is due to overanalogizing visual experience to flat, projective media like paintings and photographs. In support of this conjecture, I contrast the contemporary and early modern periods (in the West) with ancient Greece and introspective psychology circa 1900. In the first two cultures, one finds both a tendency to compare visual experience to pictures and a tendency to describe visual experience as projectively distorted. In the latter two cultures, one finds little of either, despite plenty of talk about visual appearances in general.

I didn’t do a systematic search of classical Chinese philosophy, which I love but which has less epistemology of perception, but I did find one relevant passage:

If you look down on a herd of cows from the top of a hill, they will look no bigger than sheep, and yet no one hoping to find sheep is likely to run down the hill after them. It is simply that the distance obscures their actual size. If you look up at a forest from the foot of a hill, the biggest trees appear no taller than chopsticks, and yet no one hoping to find chopsticks is likely to go picking among them. It is simply that the height obscures their actual dimensions (Xunzi ch. 21; Basic Writings, Watson trans., p. 134)

Though I can recall no ancient Chinese comparisons of visual experience and painting, both Xunzi and Zhuangzi compare the mind to a pan of water which can reflect things accurately or inaccurately, an analogy that seems related (Xunzi ibid. p. 131, ch. 25, Knoblock trans. 1999, p. 799; Zhuangzi, Watson trans., Complete Works, p. 97). In medieval China, which I know much less about, I noticed Wang Yangming saying such a comparison was commonplace (Instructions for Practical Living, Chan trans., p. 45).

So my question is, for those of you who know more Chinese philosophy than I, are there other passages I should be looking at — either on perspectival shape or size distortion or on analogies for visual experience? I’m revising the essay for a book chapter and I’d like to expand my discussion to China if I can find enough material. Any help would be much appreciated!

(I also wouldn’t mind more help on Greek passages, too, if anyone has the inclination. Some of the more obvious passages are Plato’s discussion of painters in the Republic and Sophist, Aristotle’s discussion of sensory experience as like impressions in wax, Sextus’s lists of sensory distortions in experience and his discussions of wax impressions, Epicurus’s discussions of the transmission of images, discussions of the sun as looking “one foot wide”, and Euclid’s and Ptolemy’s optics.)

December 11, 2008 Posted by | Comparative philosophy | 11 Comments