Eske Mollgaard an Introduction to Daoist Thought Action, Language, And Ethics in Zhuangzi Routledge Studies in Asian Religion and Philosophy 2007

February 3, 2018 | Author: Vidyaraja22 | Category: Deconstruction, Continental Philosophy, Hermeneutics, Discourse, Laughter
Share Embed Donate

Short Description




There has been a growing interest in Daoism in the West, not only in academia but also in the culture at large. This is the first work available in English which addresses Zhuangzi’s thought as a whole. It presents an interpretation of the Zhuangzi, a book in 33 chapters that is the most important collection of Daoist texts in early China. The author introduces a complex reading that shows the unity of Zhuangzi’s thought, in particular in his views of action, language, and ethics. By addressing methodological questions that arise in reading Zhuangzi, a hermeneutics is developed which makes understanding Zhuangzi’s religious thought possible. The book is a theoretical contribution to comparative philosophy and the cross-cultural study of religious traditions. Additionally, it serves as an introduction to Daoism for graduate students in religion, philosophy, and East Asian studies. Eske Møllgaard received his PhD in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University. He currently is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at University of Rhode Island. His teaching interests include Asian philosophy, comparative philosophy and continental philosophy. He is particularly interested in the ways East Asian traditions of thought make us reconsider and rediscover salient features of Western philosophical traditions.


ROUTLEDGE STUDIES IN ASIAN RELIGION AND PHILOSOPHY 1 Deconstruction and the Ethical in Asian Thought Edited by Youru Wang 2 An Introduction to Daoist Thought Action, language, and ethics in Zhuangzi Eske Møllgaard


AN INTRODUCTION TO DAOIST THOUGHT Action, language, and ethics in Zhuangzi

Eske Møllgaard


First published 2007 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada by Routledge 270 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10016 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2007. “To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s collection of thousands of eBooks please go to” © 2007 Eske Møllgaard All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Møllgaard, Eske, 1954– An introduction to Daoist thought : action, language, and ethics in Zhuangzi / Eske Møllgaard. p. cm. — (Routledge studies in Asian religion and philosophy) Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-415-42383-0 (alk. paper) 1. Zhuangzi. Nanhua jing. 2. Philosophy, Taoist. I. Title. BL1900.C576M66 2007 299.5′1482—dc22 2006100289 ISBN 0–203–94482–8 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN10: 0-415-42383-X (hbk) ISBN10: 0-203-94482-8 (ebk) ISBN13: 978-0-415-42383-0 (hbk) ISBN13: 978-0-203-94482-0 (ebk)




Der Erde Rund mit Felsen ausgezieret Ist wie die Wolke nicht, die Abends sich verlieret, Es zeiget sich mit einem goldnen Tage, Und die Vollkommenheit ist ohne Klage. (The Earth round adorned with rocks Is not like clouds that disperse at night, It shows itself one luminous day, And the completion is without lament.) Friedrich Hölderlin, ‘Der Herbst’






On reading Zhuangzi Can we understand Zhuangzi? 1 What bothers the other? 3 Is Daoist thought philosophy? 5 The religious 9 The figure of Zhuangzi 11



Zhuangzi’s fundamental figures of thought The view of the world 14 Life against completion 15 Human life 17 The life of Heaven 20 The Way 22 Two kinds of transcendence 24 Non-understanding 27



The drive towards completion Technique negates the Way 30 The Confucian view of technical action 32 Totalitarianism and strategic thinking 36 The metaphysics of action 39 Form (eidos) and completion (cheng) 43



Unraveling the drive towards completion Care for life 47 From potentiality to actuality 52 In-between Heaven and man 57 The occurrence of the ordinary 61





Saying the unsayable Indicative and logical discourses 67 Saying and disputation 70 The double-question 71 Shifting signifiers 72 The intended meaning 74 Language in itself 76 Impromptu words 80



Bungled discourse Suddenly there is nothing 85 Just now something is born 89 Accept “this” for what it is 94 Is Zhuangzi a Sophist? 97 Zhuangzi and Socrates 101



Ethics Confucian concern 105 Mutilation 109 Beyond the will to power 113 The moral law 117 The ethical subject 120 On Zhuangzi’s supposed naturalism 124



Spiritual exercise Loss of self 126 Emotions are like music from empty spaces 130 Techniques of inner training 132 Completion without lament 137 To see the unique 138


Glossary References Index

142 149 156



A small part of Chapter 1 appeared in “Eclipse of Reading: On the ‘Philosophical Turn’ in American Sinology,” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 4(2) (Summer 2005), pp. 321–40. Parts of Chapter 2 and the last section of Chapter 7 appeared in “Zhuangzi’s Notion of Transcendental Life,” Asian Philosophy, 15(1) (March 2005), pp. 1–18 ( journals). Chapter 5 contains some material that appeared in “Dialogue and Impromptu Words,” Social Identities 12(1) (2006), pp. 43–58 (http:// Parts of Chapter 7 appeared in “Zhuangzi’s Religious Ethics,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 71(2) (June 2003), pp. 347–70.





[Zhuangzi] contains both the very small and the very large. One half is like Kafka, but there’s another half as well – thus, he’s all the more complete. Elias Canetti Above Zhuangzi wanders with the Creator of things, and below he is friend with those who are beyond life and death and have no beginning and end. The Zhuangzi

Can we understand Zhuangzi? The study of Asian thought occupies a strange position in the postmetaphysical climate of the modern West. As Peter Sloterdijk points out, the metaphysical enthusiasm that once characterized Western thought is now largely excluded from the academy, but it has survived in exile in predominantly philological disciplines like Indology and Sinology. Today it is in these disciplines that scholars consider metaphysical propositions such as “you are that” (tat tvam asi), or “the way that can be spoken is not the constant Way (dao ).” The orientalists, says Sloterdijk, are the “bookkeepers of the ecstasies” imported from Persia, India, and China. Their day-to-day life as researchers and teachers at the universities may be prosaic, nevertheless “they can, as a matter of course, cite the thesis that notknowing, avidya, is the matter from which reality is made” – or, as Zhuangzi says, that “not-knowing is profound, knowing is superficial” – and in their professional capacity “they handle the ‘great sayings’ of the East, like trusted Bank employees move gold bars around in the security vaults under the Bahnhofsstraße in Zurich” (Sloterdijk 1993: 218). But what if we aspire, perhaps unreasonably so, to be more than bookkeepers of ancient wisdom? What if we want to understand what is said in the entries made in our scholarly works? Here we, as scholars, run up against the limits of scientific understanding. For it seems to be true that, as 1


Hans-Georg Gadamer writes, “the enigmatic statements of profundity and wisdom, which were developed in other cultures, especially in the Far East, stand in an ultimately incommensurable relation (nicht überprüfbaren Verhältnis) to what is Western philosophy, especially because science (Wissenschaft), in the name of which we ask, itself is a Western discovery” (1986b: 77). Since our science is ours, a Western discovery, it has not been able to free itself from prejudice. In hindsight, as has been demonstrated with abundant evidence, the previous generations of orientalists were prejudiced to an almost comical degree, and it is not reasonable to expect that progress in our science will give us less to laugh about in the future. This is probably all for the better, for, contrary to the well-known saying, the one who laughs last does not laugh best. The last laugh (or the last word) is only conceivable in complete abstraction from our historical existence, and therefore it will sound rather hollow. Instead of such hollow laughter, we should have enough sense of humor to appreciate Gadamer’s point that our prejudices far from being an impediment to understanding are in fact the very source of understanding. For, says Gadamer (1986a: 302), we always “understand differently,” if we understand at all. This does not mean that we entirely give up the notion of objectivity that is central to reading in the human sciences. For understanding is gained through a certain detachment from our prejudices that allows us to play out our prejudices against the other and so reach a more objective point of view. In the human sciences this detachment is codified in historical and philological methodologies, but as Gadamer has emphasized, methodologies do not by themselves deliver truth. In the human sciences, says Gadamer, we are concerned with “the experience of truth that transcends the domain controlled by scientific method.” The exemplary texts we study in the human sciences embody “modes of experiences in which a truth announces itself that cannot be verified by the methodological means of science” (Gadamer 1986a: 1–2). In regard to Indology, Richard King points out that scholars have “tended to believe that a rigorous and detailed knowledge of the culture, language and tradition under consideration would yield the true import of the text,” but, King continues, “[i]n the light of Gadamer’s work, this can be seen to be hermeneutically naïve” (1999: 80). The same holds true in Sinology. Sinological methods are helpful tools in understanding ancient Chinese thought, but a thinker like Zhuangzi  cannot be understood within the confines of a Sinology that subscribes to a naive historical objectivism and has no speculative-hermeneutic dimension. To suppose that “what Zhuangzi meant” is deposited in the past context and ready to be sifted out by some appropriate methodology only shows an acute lack of hermeneutic imagination that hampers productive research. With some humor Martin Heidegger once remarked that suppose “there could be an explanation and



representation of the poetry of Sophocles in itself and that it fell under the eyes of Sophocles, he could only find this interpretation utterly boring” (Clark 2002: 95). It would be even more comical to imagine what Zhuangzi would have thought if presented with a historicist reconstruction of “what he said.” For Zhuangzi explicitly says that he himself is not sure if he has really said something with what he has just said.

What bothers the other? It is a well-known but under-appreciated fact of translation that we know that even our best translation is not adequate, but we do not know exactly what it is we know in knowing this. For instance, we know that the English word “humanity” does not quite cover the meaning of the Chinese ren , but we do not know precisely what it is we know when we know this (if we did the deficiency could easily be remedied). But Confucius  himself was not really sure what the word ren meant. For him, too, the word had an uncanny excess of meaning that he could not express. Furthermore, just like the modern translator, Confucius knew that he did not know the full meaning of the word, but he did not know precisely what he knew in knowing this. This uncertain and ambiguous knowing is not reducible to a linguistic or conceptual base, and it is not a definable “problem.” It is perhaps the mark of philosophy, but it is surely where universality and cross-cultural understanding come into play. Referring to this “context-free” openness of language precisely where “words fail,” Slavoj figek makes the insightful observation that in trying to understand another culture we should not focus on its specificity (on the peculiarity of “their customs,” etc.); we should rather endeavor to encircle that which eludes their grasp, the point at which the Other is in itself dislocated, not bound by its “specific context.” . . . I understand the Other when I become aware of how the very problem that was bothering me (the nature of the Other’s secret) is already bothering the Other itself. The dimension of the Universal thus emerges when the two lacks – mine and that of the Other – overlap. (1997: 50) On the basis of figek’s insight Eric Santner proposes his notion of a “universal-in-becoming,” which is not the abstract universal of “global consciousness” but rather an existential, embodied universal based on the experience of “the agitation and turbulence immanent to any construction of identity, the Unheimlichkeit or uncanniness internal to any and every space we call home.” Santner writes:



What makes the Other other is not his or her spatial exteriority with respect to my being but the fact that he or she is strange, is a stranger, and not only to me but also to him- or herself, is the bearer of an internal alterity, an enigmatic density of desire calling for response beyond any rulegoverned reciprocity; against this background, the very opposition between “neighbor” and “stranger” begins to lose its force. (2001: 9) The other, just like the self, is always also an other or a stranger to herself. Precisely in this split in the self and in the other lies the possibility for a concrete universality. For if the other is a stranger to herself, then the dichotomy between the familiar and the strange, the self and the other, is unsettled. What is important is that something bothers the other, something is beyond the grasp of the other, that is to say, beyond the possibilities inherent in her context. In reading the other this “beyond” is also what bothers us, and since both self and other are bothered by the same thing, there is the possibility of a “we.” In other words, linguistic, conceptual, spatial, and temporal differences are not essential; what makes the other “other” is her strangeness, not only to an other but also to herself, and this split in the other contains the possibility of a “we.” The split in the other is also the condition for thought. Thought is precisely what does not coincide with its own context (Deleuze and Guattari 1994), and therefore it necessarily has universal import. Since thought always exceeds its context, Daoist thought is not coextensive with Daoism. Furthermore, the extension of the term “Daoism” is hard to define. If we, with Russell Kirkland (2004), define Daoism broadly as the vast corpus of texts collected by self-identifying Daoists in the Daozang , then we find that this collection includes the Zhuangzi  but also the Mozi  and the Hanfeizi  , texts that today are not considered Daoist by any definition. If we, on the other hand, define Daoism narrowly as the so-called “philosophical Daoism” of the Laozi  and the Zhuangzi, then we find that these two “founding” texts of Daoist thought are very different, not just in their content but in the very nature of their thought. The Zhuangzi, and the first seven chapters in particular, is an eminent example of thought in the emphatic sense I use the term here. A. C. Graham says that in reading Zhuangzi we get “the sensation of a man thinking aloud, jotting the living thought at the moment of its inception” (1969/1970: 137). In the Laozi, on the other hand, there are, as Hans-Georg Moeller points out, no “individual thoughts,” no “unique insights,” no “dialogues,” and “no discernable issue at stake,” one simply has “to identify with its teachings” (2006: 3). The Laozi proclaims in voiceless anonymity, secure in its teachings and bothered by nothing: unlike Zhuangzi, the Laozi never interrupts itself to ask “what did I just say?” This unbothered anonymity is even more pronounced in the 4


Neiye  (Inner Training), an early manual of self-cultivation that some scholars now consider to be “original Daoism,” that is to say, more original than the Laozi and the Zhuangzi and the real precursor for later Daoism (Roth 1999, Kirkland 2004). In light of these considerations, I suggest that no matter how one defines the scope of the term “Daoist,” Zhuangzi – who could not identify himself as a Daoist, since no such classification existed at his time – will be included, and if we look for an introduction to Daoist thought in the emphatic sense of this term, then the text that bears his name must be considered the best place to begin.

Is Daoist thought philosophy? We witness today an increasing technification and professionalization of philosophy, and philosophy itself is about to dissolve into methodologism. Generally, technical philosophy adopts one of three methods in reading Chinese thought. The first method is to read Chinese thought in terms of universal “problems of philosophy.” Here the Chinese thinker is subjected to a purely formal questioning that can be applied to any thinker at any time. We ask, for instance, is Zhuangzi a relativist? Is he a realist, a pragmatist, or an antirationalist? But this formal questioning has little to do with what specifically motivates a particular thinker, and it has not been proved that the specific set of problems that constitutes modern philosophical discourse also constitutes philosophy as such. Furthermore, an essential ambiguity may be characteristic of all philosophy, just as it is characteristic of human existence itself, and his essential ambiguity cannot survive if it is objectified as a “problem” with some positive solution. The second method by which technical philosophy reads Chinese thought emphasizes difference. It is claimed that the West and China rely on opposed conceptual schemes: whereas the West values being, individuality, freedom, and rights (as in human rights), the Chinese value becoming, relation, spontaneity, and rites (or ritual). To be sure, awareness of difference is important, but the construction of contrasting conceptual schemes comes at the price of interpretive reductionism. For the very moment we establish the difference between the two traditions, we homogenize difference within each of the traditions. All Chinese thinkers are now mere representatives of underlying linguistic and conceptual formations, and the same holds true for the Western interpreter. The result is that all unique (existential) features are abstracted as the other as well as the self is objectified in the manner of scientism. Furthermore, as Haun Saussy (2001: 91–117) has shown, these constructions of China as other are all rhetorical constructions that say more about the time and place they were made than about China itself. What does it really tell us about Chinese thought when we are told that the Chinese lack notions of objective truth, dialectics, and definition? It depends on your point of view. Not long ago it would have relegated Chinese thought 5


to the densest substantiality without any development towards autonomy. In the present postmodern climate of the Western academy, Chinese thought is seen rather as an aesthetic expression liberated from all foundationalism. The third method technical philosophy adopts in reading Chinese thought is a standardized form of deconstruction that is inspired by but should not be confused with the notion of deconstruction developed by Derrida (which is not a methodology at all). This method deconstructs the first two methods and reveals how sameness and difference are produced historically and rhetorically. Deconstruction shows that we are all embedded in a web of signifiers from which we can never escape, and that the ethical demand to understand the other as other is likewise infinite and inescapable. This is a valuable lesson, but deconstruction too easily falls back into the bad infinity characteristic of positivistic historical research. Like construction, upon which it exercises its beneficial parasitic activity, deconstruction is an endless response to infinite complexity but never says anything about the thing itself. Haun Saussy, who engages in deconstruction understood as a reading that reveals the rhetorical means by which various comparative projects produce differences, says that his task of deconstruction situates him in “an infinite web of nonhierarchical distinctions to which any node (or particular signifier) provides an entry” (2001: 187). Similar to positivistic historical research, which, as Gadamer has shown, chases a “phantom object,” deconstructive readings oscillate in pious distance before the other. Technical philosophy is a particular ritual performed in the academic world, “repeating the same structures over and over again in a quasi-obsessive manner” (Faure 2004: 47), and there is no reason why this particular obsession should be imposed on Zhuangzi, who employs prose poems, fables, satire, song, fictitious dialogue, spiritual exercise, didactic verse, aphorisms, and a number of other literary genres we have still not identified and understood, and who presents us with a series of striking images – in the first chapter alone, we have the darkness of the Northern Ocean, the bird Peng, the cicada and the dove, the giant gourd and the useless tree, a weasel, and a yak. This proliferation of genres and images suggests that literary reading, not philosophical analysis, is best suited to bring out the thought of Zhuangzi (Hoffmann 2001). For Zhuangzi employs what Pascal Quignard (1995) calls “speculative rhetoric,” a mode of thought that cannot be understood by philosophical analysis but only by reading. We elude the essential task of reading Zhuangzi by solving philosophical puzzles, chasing the phantom objects of historical reconstruction, constructing contrasting typologies, and playing with the infinite complexities of deconstruction. There is another kind of philosophy that is not purely positivistic but accepts the essential ambiguity in metaphysical questioning; a philosophy that takes into account what is existentially at stake in reading, and where there is no clear division between philosophy and literature (or philology). This kind of philosophy is rather imprecisely called “continental philosophy.” 6


Continental philosophy offers an abundance of figures of thought that conceptualize even the most ambiguous phenomena of human experience, and with its origin in the exegesis of religious texts, the hermeneutic tradition in continental philosophy remains close to the religious experience (which is alien to technical philosophy). Continental philosophy is also known for its emancipatory intent, its critique of power and its call for personal transformation, and such engagement, and not just detached scholarship, is essential if we want to understand Zhuangzi at all. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, continental philosophy has a view of language that is radically different from that of analytic philosophy. Whereas most modern philosophy of language has an objectified (scientific) view of language, continental philosophy has an experience with language (Critchley 2001: 103–4), and this is also true of Zhuangzi. I suggest, then, that something like the way of reading characteristic of continental philosophy will be most appropriate in reading Zhuangzi, and in the following I will draw on continental philosophers when I find that they can help us understand what is at stake in Zhuangzi. Continental philosophy does not, however, entirely heal the split between knowledge and wisdom and remains tied to the idea that philosophy is exhausted in philosophical discourse, and this limits its heuristic value for our understanding of Zhuangzi. For, as Pierre Hadot points out, in ancient philosophy, philosophical discourse does not have the dominant role it has in modern philosophy, and therefore to understand an ancient thinker like Zhuangzi entirely at the level of propositional discourse is to impose an anachronistic view of philosophy on his thought. In particular, Hadot advises that we should not “conflate language and cognitive functions,” because in reading ancient philosophy we continually “encounter situations in which philosophical activity continues to be carried out, even though discourse cannot express this activity” (2002: 5). This is good advice to heed in reading Zhuangzi. For in Zhuangzi the activity of philosophy goes on beyond discourse in the pursuit of the Way. In ancient philosophy, says Hadot, it is first of all a question of adopting a way of life, and theoretical discourse is only philosophical to the extent that it justifies and supports such a way of life. The most immediate expression of the philosophical life is the set of spiritual exercises promoted and practiced by the philosopher. Zhuangzi too has a number of spiritual exercises that express his way of life. Among the most important are how to contemplate death so we can meet it without fear; how to analyze the distinction between the inner (nei ) and the outer (wai ) so we know what is important for the spiritual life and what is not; how to relate to our emotions in such a way that we neither repress them nor indulge in them but let them unfold in a clarity that cannot be disturbed; how to treat all things as equal, which is the necessary step to attain the universal (cosmic) point of view; how to know the difference between the realm of man (ren ) and 7


the realm of Heaven (tian ), which is the prerequisite for being a true human being; how to transcend the self and plunge into the infinite; and, above all, how to be aware in the present moment of self-emerging life (sheng ). In one form or another all these exercises are also found in ancient philosophy in the West, and in India as well, and Hadot’s description of the goal of such exercises applies perfectly to Zhuangzi. The aim of spiritual exercises, says Hadot, is to “become aware of the splendor of existence” and to perceive each moment of time “as if it were the first, in all the stupefying strangeness of its emergence” (2002: 196, 230). When we see that in ancient philosophy spiritual exercise is the heart of philosophy, then we will avoid the interminable quarrels about epistemological relativism and incommensurability between traditions that plague comparative philosophy. For these disputes make sense only if we consider theoretical discourse in isolation; from the point of view of philosophical practice the disputes are irrelevant. Hadot points out that philosophical practice is relatively independent from philosophical discourse. The same spiritual exercise can be justified after the fact by widely different philosophical discourses, in order to describe and justify experiences whose existential density ultimately escapes all attempts at theoreticizing and systematizing. . . . Seen in this way, the practice of philosophy transcends the oppositions of particular philosophies. (2002: 275–6) The theoretical discourse of Plato is very different from that of Zhuangzi (Plato talks about the Forms, Zhuangzi about the Way), but the practical goal of their philosophies may be the same, namely to attain the universal (cosmic) perspective. Therefore, if we wrongly assume that in Zhuangzi discourse is primary, and we try to make Zhuangzi’s thought conform to the technical requirements of modern philosophy, then we may become entangled in problems of incommensurability between his and our own conceptual schemes. If, on the other hand, we see that in Zhuangzi spiritual exercise is more important than discourse, then we will recognize the similarity between the attitudes adopted by Zhuangzi and those adopted by ourselves or someone we know in our own tradition. Although cautious about making comparative claims, Hadot believes that the forms of life experimented with in ancient Greece and Rome “correspond to constant, universal models which are found, in various forms, in every civilization, throughout the various cultural zones of humanity” (2002: 278). Therefore Hadot can cite passages from Zhuangzi to exemplify the notions of indifference and transcendence that are so important in ancient philosophy in the West. Today’s academy is not the place to experiment with such spiritual exercises. As Hadot points out, “[i]n modern university philosophy, philosophy 8


is obviously no longer a way of life or form of life – unless it be the form of life of a professor of philosophy” (1995: 271). Today the experimentation that is essential for philosophy takes place outside the university in groups organized around various teachers and traditions. There is, however, still the possibility that the academic study of Zhuangzi may become more than historical reconstruction and philosophical analysis and become the spiritual exercise that Zhuangzi calls for. For, as Hadot (2002: 175) points out, in ancient philosophy philosophical discourse not only justifies a way of life and explains the exercises we must adopt; philosophical discourse can also in itself be spiritual exercise, or a practice to transform our perception and being. In Plato, for instance, dialogue is such a discursive practice, and Plato invites the reader of his dialogues to take part in this practice. Zhuangzi’s discourse too is a spiritual exercise in which the reader is invited to take part. This means that even the academic reader – if he or she is able to muster enough hermeneutic imagination, and that requires above all the ability to question the science in the name of which we ask – will be able to understand Zhuangzi’s discourse as spiritual exercise. This understanding, however, cannot be expressed in a set of propositions (a theory); it is expressed rather in the actual practice of reading Zhuangzi as the understanding that first allows us to say anything true about Zhuangzi at all.

The religious Zhuangzi rejects sage-knowledge (shengzhi ), and so he ultimately goes beyond the tradition of ancient philosophy elaborated by Hadot and enters a realm we can only call the religious. The religious, however, is notoriously difficult to define. Instead of discussing the competing definitions we may follow Jonathan Z. Smith (1998: 281) and define religion formally as a “disciplinary horizon” projected by scholars of religion. But here again we face the question: what is this science in the name of which we ask? Paul J. Griffiths (1999: x) provocatively answers that it is a science that is incapable of reading its subject. Even worse, scholars of religion actually destroy the very traditions they study: “Indologists and anthropologists have done more to destroy traditional Sanskrit learning than ever Christian missionaries could” (Griffiths 1999: 185). For, according to Griffiths, religious studies and the academy at large has succumbed to “consumerist reading”: The university treats what comes within its grasp with the same unnuanced deadness that McDonald’s and Exxon give to what comes within theirs: the former consumes in the service of witty display, and requires the same of its acolytes; the latter consumes in the service of profit, and requires the same of its servants. (1999: 184) 9


Perhaps the religious is not that easy to obliterate. A distinction must be made between the religious, or religion in the singular, and the various religious traditions, or religion in the plural. Borrowing a distinction from Heidegger, Derrida (1998: 16–21) says that all revelation (Offenbarung) conceals a more originary revealability (Offenbarkeit), unless it is the other way around, and one particular revelation (Christianity) has revealed revealability itself, and therefore this particular revelation is more originary than revealability itself. Derrida further suggests that a “new ‘tolerance’ ” could issue from the respect for this “indecisive oscillation” between revelation and revealability. In other words, the properly religious can come into view only if we keep open the possibility that besides the various religions there is religion in the singular. This is particular important to emphasize today when the so-called “turn to religion” in the academy privileges the position of the Christian revelation. When Zhuangzi says that the Way (dao ) is more originary than the highest god, does that not mean, in Derrida’s terms, that the Way is revealability as such, and not this or that revelation? Or, in more formal terms that owe less to Christianity – but then perhaps owe too much to the Greeks (as if we could only escape the one by fleeing to the other) – is the Way not pure appearance (no-thing) as opposed to the appearance of this or that thing? And is it not precisely the recognition of this difference that, for Zhuangzi, is the religious? We must postpone answers until the following chapters, but we can already suggest that it is from this oscillating difference between what appears (revelation) and appearance as such (revealabilty) that Zhuangzi’s religious thought emerges. Where does this leave our science? Like Griffiths, Hent de Vries notes that “relentless historicization and conceptual reduction” and “the conscientious and methodological study of religion” have “undermined the very object of its inquiry” (1999: 1). Unlike Griffiths, however, de Vries (2002: 236) believes that this nearly obliterated object of inquiry (religion) may return and decisively affect conceptualization in the human sciences, especially in the field of cultural analysis. Hent de Vries says that there are embedded in the religious traditions figures of thought that, if we turn to them with proper conceptual seriousness, may return and recast our conceptual schemes. Surely, we find figures of thought in Zhuangzi that can stand side by side with any of the “philosophemes” around which the turn to religion turns, such as, to mention just one, Levinas’ notion of adieu, which de Vries thematizes infinitely. Perhaps the turn to and return of religion does not curb the desire that Griffiths sees as the bane of the scholars of religion, namely “the desire to mention (but never to use) the vocabulary, the conceptual tools, and the practices of what they study” (1999: 184). And yet, there may be a genuine humbleness in the turn to religion. There may be a sense that philosophy



(science) should be practiced within the limits of the religious alone – as if the religious placed conceptual boundaries for thought. Fundamentalists and postmodernists agree that truth is generated by and confined to particular practices. Science, however, is the practice that lets truth emerge from the particular, not in the light of natural reason, but through that crack in the other that opens because the other is also an other to itself. A science that itself is fragile detects a slight trembling in the other, and a light (an aura perhaps) appears when the particular passes into the universal without being cancelled out. Science can do this if it does not fall into scientism, or, worse, consumerism, but takes its own historicity into account, and above all if it becomes what it was originally (and therefore still is essentially): spiritual exercise.

The figure of Zhuangzi Zhuangzi flourished in the late fourth century , and like Socrates he is known to be atopos, “strange, extravagant, absurd, unclassifiable, disturbing” (Hadot 2002: 30). The earliest assessment of Zhuangzi is contained in the last chapter of the collection of texts that bears his name. It recognizes that Zhuangzi is unique (du ): “unique he came and went with the spirits of Heaven and Earth” (33/65– 6) (references are to chapter and lines in Zhuangzi yinde). This recognition is, however, quickly displaced by the disapproval of Zhuangzi’s “absurd,” “extravagant,” and “bizarre” language and unease with his unrestrained freedom and “liberation from things” ( jie yuwu  ). Ultimately, in the judgment of these early scholars, Zhuangzi is incomprehensible (33/62–9). In his “biography” of Zhuangzi, the historian Sima Qian  (c.145– 86 ) also singles out Zhuangzi’s language as a central characteristic: “His saying surpassed all bounds and followed his whim.” To this Sima Qian adds, “therefore the men in power could not utilize him” (1959: 2144). As Jean François Billeter points out, this remark by Sima Qian should be allowed its full weight. Sima Qian, who himself was a victim of imperial power, saw in Zhuangzi a man who could not be appropriated by the rulers but would always remain the site of a radical critique of power (Billeter 1996: 876–877). The early testimony is sparse, but we gather these essential facts about Zhuangzi: he is unique and therefore unclassifiable; he is one of those remarkable people who are liberated from things; his use of language is astonishing and disconcerting; and he puts forward a critique of power so radical that it cannot be assimilated by the tradition. As a historical person Zhuangzi hardly exists, but his unique and uncanny cognition can be clearly recognized. As Billeter rightly points out, the strangeness of many of the passages in the Zhuangzi



is not primarily due, as one might be inclined to think, to their being Chinese or ancient, but to their being creations of minds that had a sharp sense of the intrinsic strangeness of human existence, with the consequence that we can only grasp their truth by discovering, or rediscovering, this underlying strangeness for ourselves. (1995: 23–4) Zhuangzi’s essential cognition can be recognized today – differently but just as well as in the past. (As Kierkegaard pointed out, hearing the Gospel does not depend on historical proximity but on being truly provoked by the word.) In the first decade of the twentieth century, in the midst of CentralEuropean bourgeois culture, Martin Buber heard in Zhuangzi a call for the “truthful life” (Herman 1996: 70–1). In the midst the chinoiserie of the Victorian period, Oscar Wilde read in Zhuangzi a critique of a culture where we are “always trying to be somebody else” and so miss our “own existence” (1969: 223). In London in the late 1970s, after the rise and fall of the counterculture, A. C. Graham saw in Zhuangzi a “man so much himself that, rather than rebelling against conventional modes of thinking, he seems free of them by birthright” (1981: 4). It is precisely because everything depends on such recognition that anybody who seriously engages Zhuangzi must begin with the claim that Zhuangzi is as yet not understood. The Zhuangzi is divided into thirty-three chapters. The first seven chapters, the “Inner Chapters,” are generally considered to be the work of Zhuangzi himself. The rest of the book contains texts that are consistent with and in many cases develop and elucidate the thought of the “Inner Chapters.” Some of these texts may well be by Zhuangzi himself. There are, however, also texts that do not agree with the “Inner Chapters.” How one distinguishes between these two strands depends, at least to some extent, on one’s interpretation of Zhuangzi’s thought. The following reading of Zhuangzi is based mainly on the “Inner Chapters.” When I quote from the “Outer Chapters” and the “Mixed Chapters,” I introduce the quotation with “the Zhuangzi says” as opposed to “Zhuangzi says.” I do believe, however, that all the passages I use from the later chapters elucidate Zhuangzi’s thought from a position identical with or very close to his own. In these cases the Zhuangzi is the first and best commentary on Zhuangzi. (For textual studies of the Zhuangzi, see Rand 1983, Graham 1990a, Liu 1994, Roth 1991, and Roth 1993.) The thirty-three chapters of the Zhuangzi extant today were edited by Guo Xiang  (d. 312). This edition together with Guo Xiang’s commentary became very influential among the Chinese literati, who, especially in times when they had to retreat from their positions of power, found consolation in Zhuangzi. The Chinese literati were, however, tied to their ideology of social and aesthetic harmony, and François Jullien (2000: 321) rightly questions if they could fully understand and accept Zhuangzi’s transcendent 12


freedom. Jean François Billeter says that Guo Xiang’s commentary transformed Zhuangzi’s thought of radical autonomy into an apology for disengagement that served the literati’s “natural conservatism by offering an imaginary counterpart to their servitude” (2002: 133). The emphasis on harmony and adaptation in recent Western aesthetic-pragmatic interpretations of Zhuangzi is in line with this traditional Chinese view. The Zhuangzi is of such immense scope, polymorphic thought, and boundless variety of expression, and it shows such disdain for our attempts to make sense, that some scholars declare it beyond unified comprehension. This judgment, however, only reflects our failure to gain a thematic focus for our reading. Once we collect ourselves and ask the right questions, the unity of Zhuangzi’s thought will become apparent. Billeter correctly points out that beyond Zhuangzi’s “disconcerting imagination” we find “a well determined philosophical position and an intellectual coherence without faults. Zhuangzi expresses simple things that are difficult to say, not obscure things that it is permissible to say any old way” (1990: 165). In order to discover the conceptual coherence in Zhuangzi, we should follow the advice of the early interpreters of the Bible, who recognized that in order to understand a text we must first consider its scopus, the central thought of the text, “its inexplicit logos” or “the view with respect to which the book was composed” (Grodin 1994: 43). I will, therefore, before the specific textual analysis and the arguments that follow, first consider Zhuangzi’s fundamental figures of thought.




Wir suchen überall das Unbedingte, und finden immer nur Dinge. Novalis What things things is not a thing. Zhuangzi

The view of the world It is a metaphysical tendency in human beings to enclose themselves in a world of their own making and neglect the experience of the world qua world. The neglect of the world through technical mastery is a universal problem. It may be particularly pronounced today in the age of technology, but, as Pierre Hadot points out, it was already evident in antiquity: People in antiquity were unfamiliar with modern science, and did not live in an industrial, technological society; yet the ancients didn’t look at the world any more than we usually do. Such is the human condition. In order to live, mankind must “humanize” the world; in other words transform it, by action as well as by his perception, into an ensemble of things useful for life. Thus, we fabricate the objects of our worry, quarrels, social rituals, and conventional values. That is what our world is like; we no longer see the world qua world. (1995: 258) The world qua world is not an object extended in space – it is not a thing – but the ceaseless coming-into-being of things, and we neglect the cominginto-being of things when we fabricate our world of things. Zhuangzi brings to view the world qua world before it is humanized and turned into the world of man (ren ), which is Zhuangzi’s technical term for humanity fallen into the realm of things. 14


Zhuangzi’s essential experience is of the moment just when ( fang ) something appears or comes forth (chu ). This coming-into-being is not yet a thing (wu ), but it is also not the absence of things (as when things remain absorbed in a primordial unity). Zhuangzi acknowledges the simple, almost banal fact that there is something rather than nothing, or as Isabelle Robinet says, that “ ‘there is’ world” (‘il y a’ du monde). Zhuangzi’s thought, says Robinet, is entirely oriented towards the “coming of the world” (l’avènement du monde) and “coming into existence” (advenir à l’ex-sistence): the moment when something begins to emerge from nothing (wu ) into being (you ) – or, from “there is not” to “there is” – without as yet being a positive, differentiated, and identifiable thing. This moment – Robinet calls it the “birth of beings” and the “origin of the world” – is ceaseless, but it is not a fact in the world, it is “a hole in time, an atemporal forgetfulness” (un trou dans les temps, oubli atemporal ). When we experience this moment of emergence, we feel the force of the spontaneously self-so (ziran ), or the force of nature as self-emerging being (Robinet 1996: 115–16). In order to regain this sense of self-emerging being, Zhuangzi develops his discourse as spiritual exercise, through which, to borrow the words of Hadot, the world then seems to come into being and be born before our eyes. We then perceive the world as a “nature” in the etymological sense of the word: physis, that movement of growth and birth by which things manifest themselves. We experience ourselves as a moment or instant of this movement; this immense event which reaches beyond us, is always already there before us, and is always beyond us. We are born along with the world. (1995: 260) Or, as Zhuangzi says, “Heaven and Earth are born together with us” (2/52). For we too are born of the ceaseless movement of self-emerging life, and in experiencing ourselves as being born of this movement we live engendered by Heaven (tianersheng  ).

Life against completion Normally, however, we do not experience self-emerging life (sheng ), for we are too preoccupied with bringing things to completion (cheng ). Zhuangzi’s most important rhetorical gesture, the opposition between life and completion, captures the human predicament. Life is the spontaneously emerging life generated by Heaven; completion, with connotations of “formation” and “fulfillment,” “accomplishment” and “achievement,” is what human beings add to life (yisheng ), when they enclose themselves in a world of their own making. This opposition structures Zhuangzi’s thought on action, ethics, and language: 15


life (sheng) is engendered by Heaven; completion (cheng) is fashioned by man (ren). Technical action – skill ( ji ), method (shu ), and making (wei ) – serves the drive for completion (cheng); non-technical action, or non-action (wuwei ), does not aim at completion, but cares for life ( yangsheng ). Technical language, completed, conclusive, and valid discourse (chengyan ) imposes a completion (cheng) on the world; Zhuangzi’s own saying, in particular his impromptu words (zhiyan ), are exposed to life (sheng) itself.

This opposition between life (sheng) and completion (cheng) must be understood in its full psychological and metaphysical depth. The completion that human beings add to life is a defense against the inevitable (budeyi  ) course of life ending in death, and the remarkable acceptance of death in Zhuangzi, which Graham (1981: 23–4) in particular has emphasized, is due to the fact that Zhuangzi is free from what I call the drive towards completion. As Zhuangzi sees it, the real human tragedy is that the very drive that tries to avoid death withdraws from life itself. But what exactly is this drive towards completion, this excess human beings add to life? Here we can take our cue from Eric Santner’s analysis of the Jewish-German philosopher and religious thinker Franz Rosenzweig. At the center of Rosenzweig’s philosophy is the attempt to break with metaphysical thinking and return to the experience of being “in the midst of life.” According to Santner, here “metaphysical thinking” should not only be understood as philosophy (German Idealism) but as a tendency inherent in everyday life itself, namely “a kind of withdrawal from, a kind of fantasmatic defense against, our being in the midst of the flow of life” (2001: 21). Santner explains: We are dealing here with a paradoxical kind of mental energy that constrains by means of excess, that leaves us stuck and paralyzed precisely by way of a certain kind of intensification and amplification, by a “too much” of pressure that is unable to be assumed, taken up into the flow of living. (2001: 22) Paradoxically, everyday life gives rise to fantasmatic defense structures that “keep us from opening to the temporal flow of life even though they are in some fundamental way immanent to, constitutive of, everyday life” (Santner 2001: 23). Santner says that these defense structures are the 16


fantasies that effect “social adaptation” and the “the social bond”; they are “the fantasies that underlie our political and ideological captivation, that sustain our psychic entanglement with regimes of power and authority, our psychic attachment to existing social reality” (2001: 24). They are “the fantasies that keep us in the thrall of some sort of exceptional ‘beyond’,” for we are “captured” by social relations and this hinders “our openness to the world, our being in the midst of life” (Santner 2001: 31, 100). This is a psychoanalytic formulation of what Hadot describes as the humanization of the world that results in the neglect of the world qua world. In Zhuangzi’s terms it is the drive towards completion (cheng) that results in the neglect of life (sheng). To this Santner adds the important point that, strangely enough, it is precisely our absorption in the fantasmatic structures of social relations that prevents the ethical experience, or the true encounter with the other. The truly ethical encounter with the other can only happen through an unbinding of the fantasmatic structures so we again inhabit the “midst of life.” “I am suggesting,” writes Santner, “that the task of truly inhabiting the ‘midst of life’ involves the risk of an unbinding or loosening of this fantasy as well as the social bond effectuated in it” (2001: 33). As we will see, precisely such risky unbinding ( jie ) of the drive towards completion (cheng) is at the core of Zhuangzi’s ethics.

Human life What is most evident in Zhuangzi is dark despair and a pitiless wisdom that at times seems unbearable. It is strange, therefore, that so many scholars find in Zhuangzi mainly sunny optimism, playful aestheticism, happy immersion in know-how, and an apparent ability to entertain everyone to no end. In a recent comparative work on Zhuangzi and Kierkegaard, we learn that Zhuangzi’s vision is “remarkably optimistic,” and that Zhuangzi assures us that “[t]hings are fine – and we too are just things among things – just as they are” (Carr and Ivanhoe 2000: 120). One may perhaps have expected that the comparison with Kierkegaard would have precluded this misunderstanding. For Zhuangzi despairs precisely at the fact that we have become things among things and treat each other as things, that is to say, as objects that can be manipulated, mutilated, killed, and discarded. To be sure, Zhuangzi also celebrates our freedom, but as Chen Guying (2005a) rightly points out, Zhuangzi’s “free and easy wandering” must be seen against the background of a “tragic consciousness”. In the Zhuangzi we read the following chilling description of the human condition. Intellectuals are not happy without the permutations of thoughts and ideas. Disputers are not happy without well-ordered arguments. Investigators are not happy without the task of making accusations. All of them are confined by things. . . . Farmers are uneasy without 17


the busyness of plowing and planting; merchants are uneasy without the busyness of buying and selling. The common people exert themselves diligently when they have occupations from dawn to dusk; the various artisans are full of vigor when they exercise their skills with tools and machines. If their money and goods do not accumulate the greedy worry; if their power and influence do not increase the ambitious are sad. Those who go for power and material things delight in changes – the moment something can be put to use, they cannot but act. They all follow the times and change with things. They rush their physical forms and their natures and are submerged in the thousand things. All their life they never turn back. How sad! (24/33–8) We should easily recognize ourselves in this description. The Zhuangzi precisely describes what happens when we, as Hadot says, “humanize” the world by transforming it “into an ensemble of ‘things’ useful for life.” When we turn the world into a realm of things (wu), the various objects of our concern, then we are “confined by things” (you yuwu  ) like animals in a pen. Once enclosed in a world of our own making, we are unable to be happy unless we are engaged with our own thoughts, arguments, and technical abilities, and we feel uneasy without this constant busyness. Preoccupied with things, we learn timely action and how to change along with things. The Zhuangzi laments: “How sad that human beings are only inns for things! They understand what they encounter [as a thing] and do not understand what they do not encounter [as a thing]” (22/82). In other words, human understanding has become a mere container for the transit of things and does not understand anything beyond this commerce. “Now that we have already become things,” says the Zhuangzi, “if we wish to return to the root [the Way], will it not be difficult?” (22/10). It is a pervasive theme in the Zhuangzi that human life (renzhisheng  ) is a life of misery and a sad delusion. Human life, says Zhuangzi, is tied to our form (xing ), that is to say, to our body and self, both of which are visible in the outer (wai) realm. The body, obviously, is visible, but the self ( ji ) too is visible in names (ming ) and achievements (gong ). As long as we identify with this outer body/self we exhaust ourselves in competition with others and in pursuit of imaginary goals. Zhuangzi writes: Once we have received the completed physical form, we do not forget it while we wait for extinction. Cutting into and grinding together with things we rush on to the end like a galloping horse no one can stop. Is it not sad? All life we labor and do not see any results. We exhaust ourselves in tiresome labor and do not know where it comes to rest. Is it not lamentable? (2/18–19) 18


Furthermore, the human heart-and-mind (xin ) has become mechanical, swift and deadly in its judgments, and right (shi ) and wrong ( fei ) fly from it like arrows from the crossbow trigger. Such mechanical heartsand-minds, says Zhuangzi, decline day by day, until they can hardly be made to recover life (2/11–13). In the view of Zhuangzi, human life is a dream. We think that we are awake and with dense, stubborn confidence we say: “Ah, there is a ruler! Oh, that is a shepherd!” (2/83). For we know our way around in our world, and we take it for real. But this absorption in the symbolic order, which is characteristic of human life, is a defense against the inevitable (budeyi) course of life ending in death. Zhuangzi wants us to overcome this defense mechanism, and therefore he repeats again and again that we must give up our love and lust for human life, and that the perfected person views life and death as one unity and is not affected by the transformation of one into the other (2/73, 4/44, 5/5, 5/30, 6/1, 6/8, 6/24, and 6/69). This release from human life into the life of Heaven, the life beyond “life and death,” is like a great awakening. Because human life is a miserable delusion, Zhuangzi’s sage does not identify with the states and activities that define human life. The sage, says Zhuangzi, sees “knowledge as a curse, social bonds as glue, virtue as making connections, and skill as peddling. The sage does not scheme, so what use does he have for knowledge. He does not split things up, so what use does he have for glue. He is deprived of nothing, so what use does he have for making connections? He has nothing to sell, so what use has he for peddling” (5/52–3). But if the sage does not take part in the commerce of human life how does the sage sustain himself ? The sage, says Zhuangzi, “receives food from Heaven, so what use does he have for man?” (5/53– 4). To be sure, the sage has the form of a human being, and so in the outer realm the sage “groups together with humans” (5/54), but the sage does not have the essence (qing ) of a human being, that is to say, he does not issue nor is he affected by value judgments in terms of right and wrong (the deadly arrows from the crossbow). The key point is that for the sage the center of gravity has shifted from human life to the life of Heaven: “How tiny and small is that which categorizes him as a human being, how huge and great is the way he uniquely completes his Heaven” (5/54 –5). In the immediately following passage, Zhuangzi elaborates on what it means to be without the essence (qing) of the human. It means, says Zhuangzi, that “human beings do not harm themselves inside with [value judgments in terms of ] good and bad, but rather always follow the spontaneously self-so ( yinziran  ) and not add to life” (5/57–8). Zhuangzi’s friend and interlocutor, Hui Shi , is obviously shocked at Zhuangzi’s proposal and asks: “If human beings do not add to life how can they even maintain themselves [as humans]?” (5/58). In other words, if nothing essentially human is added to life, how can there be human life at all? Zhuangzi answers that 19


the appearance and form of human beings have been given us by the Way and by Heaven. It is our fate to have the form of a human being, but the form is merely something outer, it is not our true being. Unfortunately we do not recognize this but get lost in appearances and entangled with things. Look at yourself, says Zhuangzi to his friend, you wear yourself out with your sophistic logic and disputation, and in the process you harm your inner (nei): you “push your spirit (shen ) into the outer realm and wear out your vital essence (qing )” (5/58–60). It may seem that Zhuangzi totally strips the human subject of all that is quintessentially human – the ability to impose values on the world, the exercise of skill, logic, virtue, and even wisdom – and that he is rightly criticized, as he was early on, for being absorbed in Heaven and neglecting the human. But Zhuangzi’s meditations on human life are spiritual exercise, where it is not a question of providing information but rather of provoking transformation. Zhuangzi wants to liberate human existence from the false values and views we have added to it; above all he wants us to see through the human form to the ceaseless emergence of life itself. Therefore, when Zhuangzi negates human life he at the same time affirms that very life as being engendered by Heaven. Furthermore, when Zhuangzi negates the human, then it is not an outlandish proposition but a view shared by many ancient philosophers. In regard to the ancient Greek philosophers, Hadot writes: Doesn’t “stripping off man” mean that the philosopher completely transforms his vision of the universe, transcending the limited viewpoint of what is human, all-too-human, in order to elevate himself to a superior point of view? Such a perspective is in a way inhuman; it reveals the nudity of existence, beyond the partial oppositions and false values which human beings add to it, in order, perhaps, to attain a state of simplicity prior to all distinctions. . . . This tendency to strip ourselves of “the human” is constant throughout the most diverse schools – from Pyrrho, who remarked on how hard it is to strip ourselves of the human, to Aristotle, for whom life according to the mind is super-human, and as far as Plotinus, who believed that in mystical experience we cease to be “human.” (2002: 113, 211)

The life of Heaven The word tian , which I translate as “Heaven,” is sometimes translated as “nature,” but in Zhuangzi tian does not mean “nature” in our modern sense of a natural world understood in terms of biological evolution, nor in the seventeenth-century sense of matter extended in space and governed by a set of mechanical laws, nor in the Christian medieval sense of God’s creation 20


subservient to His purpose. If we must translate tian as “nature” the word should be understood rather in the ancient Greek sense of an alive, intelligent, ceaseless movement of coming-into-being (Collingwood 1960: 3–13). In this sense nature is not an outer object but rather an inner experience. As Pierre Hadot writes, according to ancient Greek philosophy nature ( phusis) is “that movement of growth and birth by which things manifest themselves,” and it is “within ourselves that we can experience the coming-intobeing of reality and the presence of being” (1995: 260). Zhuangzi says that perfected human beings rely on Heaven’s texture (tianli ) (3/6), draw on their Heavenly mechanism (tianji ) (6/7), equalize things within the bounds of Heaven (tianni ) (6/90), rest in the potter’s wheel of Heaven (tianjun ) (2/40), illuminate things in the light of Heaven (zhaozhi yutian  !) (2/29), and ultimately they enter into unity with vast Heaven (ruyu liaotian yi  !") (6/82) and live engendered by Heaven (tianersheng  ) (6/1). This inner experience of Heaven (tian), should be distinguished from the common experience of heaven and earth (tiandi ), that is to say, physical nature, or the experience of things as things. Physical nature can, of course, give us intimations of the transcendent. In Zhuangzi tian often means “sky” in the concrete sense of the sky above us, and since the vast blue sky above us seems to be infinite, Zhuangzi wonders: “Is the deep blue of the sky (tian) its true color? Or is it that it is so distant that it reaches no limit?” (1/4–5). Here the sky, part of physical nature, comes to represent the infinite (wuqiong ) associated with Heaven. Heaven is opposed to the realm below Heaven (tianxia ), that is to say, the world in general and the world of human beings in particular. According to A. C. Graham (1989: 107–11), this split between Heaven (tian) and the realm of man (ren) caused a “metaphysical crisis” in the fourth century . Zhuangzi’s thought is a response to this crisis, but it should be emphasized that for Zhuangzi the split between Heaven and man does not preclude the experience of Heaven; on the contrary, the split is the very condition for this experience. For only by breaking with the natural, prereflexive unity with Heaven, which is proper only to animals, do human beings attain the experience of Heaven. The crucial point is that, according to Zhuangzi, we can transform our human life and experience that this life is moved by Heaven, or, better, that it is the movement of Heaven. “The life of the sage,” says the Zhuangzi, “is the movement of Heaven” (15/10), and “when he [the sage] moves he is moved by Heaven” (15/18). Zhuangzi’s experience of wandering (you ), which is his spiritual exercise par excellence, is precisely this experience of being moved by Heaven. Wandering is not a technique or a method, but the simple release of human life into its pure coming-into-being, which is the inner experience of being engendered by Heaven. Victor Mair says that in Zhuangzi “’wandering implies a ‘laid-back’ attitude towards life in which one takes things as they come and flows along with the Tao [Dao] 21


unconcernedly” (1994: 385). A. C. Graham, for his part, says that in Zhuangzi the term you (wandering) is “used rather like the ‘trip’ of psychedelic slang in the 1960s” (1981: 8). We should follow rather Fukunaga Mitsuji (1946), who understands Zhuangzi’s wandering in terms of the profound religious experience of surrendering to the chaos of self-emerging life, entering Heaven and becoming a friend of the Creator of Things. For Zhuangzi uses the term you (wandering) in a very precise sense that can only be understood against the background of Zhuangzi’s crucial distinction between human life (renzhisheng  ) and the life of Heaven (tianzhisheng  ). Human life is engendered by Heaven, but usually we are so immersed in human life that we have no sense of being engendered by Heaven. Wandering ( you) happens when we do experience ourselves as being engendered by Heaven and experience a freedom and joy that is not found within the confines of human life. Far from simply going along with the flow of things and the events of human life, which is precisely what prevents us from experiencing the life of Heaven, the person who is wandering is liberated from things.

The Way In Zhuangzi the Way (dao) and Heaven (tian) are closely connected. The Way is, as Isabelle Robinet says, “the essence of life” (2002: 80), and Heaven engenders life. The Way is the pure self-emergence of beings, but it is not itself a being. Things flourish and decay, but the Way, which is the movement of this flourishing and decay, does not itself flourish and decay (22/51). Things complete and destruct, but the Way, which is the movement of this completion and destruction, does not itself complete and destruct (2/35–6). Like Heaven, the Way is the transcendental life that gives life to the living but does not itself live and die. Like Heaven, the Way is an inner experience. As Izutsu Toshihiko says, the Way is the absolute, beyond being and nonbeing, but “man alone is in a position to grasp the Way from the inside, so to speak. He can be conscious of himself as a manifestation of the Way. He can feel and touch within himself the palpitating life of the Absolute as it is actively working there” (1984: 53). Similarly, Livia Kohn explains that “one always participates in the Tao [Dao], the absolute, the One. The absolute is the now; it is right here to be participated in absolutely” (1992: 55). A. C. Graham remarks that in Zhuangzi the Way is an “inner experience,” it is an “unformulable path” and an “unnamable whole.” The Way, says Graham, is entirely beyond any distinctions we can draw, it is “nothing less than the universe flowing from its ultimate source (not just the course of its flow, which would be to draw a distinction)” (1989: 188). Chen Guying (2005b), for his part, explains, that for Zhuangzi the Way is the inner experience of the totality of things after we break out of the confinement of the



completed mind and the objectified self and attain cosmic consciousness. These scholars come close to explaining Zhuangzi’s Way, but ultimately the Way is supra-discursive, and any discourse on the Way can only be an exercise in saying the unsayable. Zhuangzi says: The Way is real and true. It has no action and no form. It can be handed down but not received. It can be apprehended but not seen. Rooted in itself, founded in itself, before there were Heaven and Earth, from ancient times assuredly existing. It divinizes the ghosts and the highest god. It engenders Heaven and Earth. It is above the highest point without being high, it is below the world without being low; it is prior to Heaven and Earth without being longlasting, it is senior to high antiquity without being old. (6/29–31) It is a widely held opinion among Western scholars that for the ancient Chinese thinkers the real is one homogeneous process, a continuity of being without ontologically different levels of being. François Jullien (2000: 280), for instance, argues that unlike the Greek tradition with its difference between being and becoming, the intelligible and the sensible, in the Chinese tradition “the difference introduced within the real operates between two stages” and there are not different ontological levels of being. To be sure, the Way (dao) is invisible and escapes the senses, but, according to Jullien, in China the invisible “does not constitute another level, such as another world . . . The invisible is indeed beyond the visible but as an extension of it; it is of the order of the evanescent and not the unintelligible (noeton). . . . This invisible is rather the diffuse basis of the visible from which the latter ceaselessly actualizes itself. In short, this invisible lacks metaphysical consistency.” Therefore, although the Chinese stages of the visible and the invisible constitute “an original dialectic that can be seen as parallel to Western ontology,” they do not imply “an ontological rift” (Jullien 2000: 290–1). In China, says Jullien, “there is no metaphysical rupture between the phenomenal and its foundation,” and in reading Chinese texts “we quit Greek ontology for the Chinese conception of the process of the real” (2000: 280–1), which instead of ontological levels operates with stages between the not yet actualized and the actualized. The Zhuangzi, however, explicitly says that the Way is beyond the dichotomies of full and empty, root and branch, to accumulate and to disperse (22/51–2), that is to say, the Way is beyond the continuum that according to Jullien constitutes the totality of the ancient Chinese philosophy of process. The Zhuangzi also explicitly says that the Way cannot be attained through meditation, reflection, knowing, abiding, submission, following, or by any method in general (22/1–28). Therefore it is highly questionable if in Zhuangzi,



as Jullien says, the Way “is of the order of the evanescent and not the unintelligible.” When the Zhuangzi speaks of the Way as the real (qing ) beyond form, color, name, and sound (13/67), then it is not thinking of a Platonic form (eidos). Nevertheless, in these discussions the Zhuangzi does, as Christoph Harbsmeier says, enter “a higher metaphysical realm” (1998: 236), and it is unnecessary to insist with Jullien that Zhuangzi’s conception of the Way “lacks metaphysical consistency.” Zhuangzi’s categorical distinction between the realm of things and the Way makes the transcendence of the Way especially clear. In Zhuangzi the realm of things, including human beings (as things), is the totality of facts that make up our world as every thing we perceive, name, and use. All these facts are relative, they are all a this as opposed to a that, and this opposition gives rise to disputes, strife, and general insecurity. Therefore, according to Zhuangzi, the highest attainment of the ancients was to realize that there is “a realm [or state] before there are things” (2/40). The realm before there are things is the Way, which “things things” (wuwu ) but is “not a thing” (22/75), and so, strictly speaking, is nothing. Zhuangzi says that the realm “before there are things,” namely the Way, is posited at a different level from things, distinctions, and the ensuing value judgments (2/40–2). There is no continuity between these two realms: “what things things,” the Way, “has no border with things,” for borders are only found in the realm of things (22/50–1), and the outer (wai), or the realm of things, and the inner (nei), or the realm of the Way, “do not touch upon each other” (6/66–7). In this way, Zhuangzi makes a categorical if not ontological distinction between the realm of things and the Way. Western Zhuangzi scholars generally disregard this crucial difference between the realm of things and the Way, but Chinese and Japanese scholars often treat it as central to Zhuangzi’s thought. Ikeda Tomohisa (1996: 143–52), for instance, places early Daoist thought squarely in the fields of ontology and metaphysics, and he says that in Laozi and Zhuangzi there are two distinct realms: the realm of things (wu), which is under the constraint of time and space, and the realm of the Way (dao), which transcends beings and forms in time and space.

Two kinds of transcendence On November 12, 1210, some followers of Amalric of Bena were burnt at the stake, because Amalric had interpreted the claim of the Apostle that “God is all in all” to mean that, as Giorgio Agamben writes, “God is in every thing as the place in which every thing is, or rather as the determination and the ‘topia’ of every entity” (1993: 13). Agamben adds that the consequence of this heretical view is that the transcendent “is not a supreme entity above all things; rather, the pure transcendent is the taking-place



of every thing” (1993: 14). Agamben then extrapolates on this idea of transcendence: God or the good or the place does not take place, but is the takingplace of the entities, their innermost exteriority. The being-worm of the worm, the being-stone of the stone, is divine. That the world is, that something can appear and have a face, that there is exteriority and non-latency as the determination and the limit of every thing: this is the good. Thus precisely its being irreparably in the world is what transcends and exposes every worldly entity. (1993: 14) We should, then, distinguish between two kinds of transcendence. In the first kind, the orthodox Western kind from Plato’s Forms to Descartes’ cogito, transcendence means that there is a realm or an entity y that goes beyond and surpasses x. This beyond is conceived of as static, abstract, and absolute. In the second kind of transcendence, it is the taking-place of x, the being-such of x, that goes beyond x as a thing or an object. Or, as Agamben says, it is the very “taking-place of the entities,” their “being irreparably in the world,” the very fact “[t]hat the world is, that something can appear” that is “the pure transcendent.” This second kind of transcendence eludes the distinction between immanence and transcendence, and I suggest that this is the fundamental sense of transcendence in Zhuangzi. It is this second kind of transcendence that Isabelle Robinet has in mind when she says that Zhuangzi’s essential experience is the moment when something begins to emerge from there is not (wu) into there is ( you) without as yet being a positive, differentiated, and identifiable thing. According to Robinet, in Zhuangzi there is a wu (nothing) more radical than the wu that is opposed to you (something). The Zhuangzi calls this radical nothing the “non-existence of nothing” (wuwu ) (22/67), which Robinet renders with “the absence of absence” or “the non-being of non-being.” Robinet says that this radical nothing, which is also the Way, transcends the continuum of opposites that define an immanent process. For the radical nothing is the ontological precondition for “there is world,” but it itself is never given as a fact in the world. There is, then, a genuine ontological difference at work in Zhuangzi between what appears (differentiated things) and appearance as such which does not appear. Robinet writes: In regard to the order to which the undifferentiated and the differentiated pertain, the difference is absolute. . . . This invisible [the radical nothing, the Way] manifests as invisible in the visible, as that which cannot appear and does not appear. The possibility of this double mode of being, invisible and yet visible (invisible et par



là visible), is a sign of its irreducible immanence. That is to say, that one should not confuse that which appears, the ontic content, with the event of appearing independent of this content (le fait d’apparaitre indépendant de ce contenu). (1996: 125) When Zhuangzi says, “that which gives birth to the living [Heaven, the Way] is not born” (6/42), Robinet adds the explanatory comment: “and so it does not appear, in the same way as appearance does not appear (l’apparaitre n’apparait pas)” (1996: 141). We have in Zhuangzi, then, an ontological difference between the event of appearing and that which appears. As Robinet points out, this ontological difference is not incompatible with immanence – but an immanence more radical, indeed more transcendent than the transcendence of some y in relation to some x: “To insist, as does Jullien, on the immanence of the foundation of the world and not see that the nature of this immanence is to be irreducibly and forever invisible is to stop half-ways. That which is immanent can never become an object of knowing without losing its character of immanence” (1996: 125, n. 27). The essential form of transcendence in Zhuangzi is the pure appearance of things, which transcends things without being some-thing beyond the realm of things. And yet, Zhuangzi mentions a Creator of Things (zaowuzhe ) (6/67) and a Creator of Transformations (zaohuazhe ) (6/59), and so he brings into play the other kind of transcendence, where there is a y (a Creator) that is beyond and causes x (things). Indeed, one of the earliest accounts of Zhuangzi, which is found in the last chapter of the Zhuangzi itself, characterizes Zhuangzi as someone who “above wanders with the Creator of things” (33/67). Zhuangzi describes the Creator of Transformations as a smith whose forge is heaven and earth (6/59–60). The Creator is a kind of Demiurge who fashions the material world. Similarly, Zhuangzi says that the Way and Heaven give forms to things (5/56). The picture of Heaven as a transcendent creator is reinforced when Zhuangzi says that Heaven determines the destiny of things (5/10) and their life-span (6/2), and that Heaven can punish human beings (5/31, 6/71). This conception of Heaven and the Creator of things as anthropomorphic, transcendent causes of things seems incompatible with the idea of the Way and Heaven as the self-emergence of things. Why does Zhuangzi vacillate between these two notions of transcendence? From a historical point of view, the answer is that Zhuangzi joins a wider debate in the fourth century concerning the question of whether or not there is something that causes the changes in nature (Tu 1985: 1–10), but one may also venture a psychological explanation. For it is perhaps natural that someone like Zhuangzi, whose essential experience is the awareness of pure coming-into-being – the astonishing fact that the world is – should sometimes retreat from this experience and contemplate how the world comes into being. Furthermore, it is much 26


easier to understand transcendence as some y that surpasses and causes x than to tarry with the notion of transcendence as the pure emergence and being-such of x as opposed to x as a thing. The difficulty is, on the one hand, not to let this form of transcendence collapse into a simple immanence, and, on the other hand, not to objectify pure self-emergence into a principle or a force external to things themselves. Everything here depends on being able to think transcendence without a transcendent object or being. For it is a split in the thing itself that constitutes transcendence, namely the split between the thing as being this or that thing and the thing as beingsuch as it is and indifferent to differences. Finally, it may also be pointed out that the vacillation between seeing the ceaseless emergence of beings (nature) either as self-generated or as caused by some agent is a universal problematic. The Greeks, as we have noted, saw nature (phusis) as a ceaseless self-generating movement of coming-into-being. Plato shares this notion of nature, but in Book ten of the Laws, he argues that a movement that engenders itself can only be ascribed to the soul – the soul that is “older than matter.” For, says Plato, selfgenerating motion is “the source of all motion” and “infinitely superior to all other forms of motion.” In other words, the self-engendering movement of nature is now seen as a first principle and a first cause (Laws 889e–899d, cf. Hadot 2002: 11). There seems, then, to be a universal tendency for transcendence as the pure emergence and being-so of the thing to slip into transcendence as an agency and cause beyond the thing.

Non-understanding The Zhuangzi radically questions the distinction between understanding (zhi ) and non-understanding (buzhi ), or knowing and not-knowing: “Is then not to understand to understand? Is then to understand not to understand? Who understands that understanding which is notunderstanding?” (22/61). Zhuangzi himself says: “How do I know that what I call to understand is not not-to-understand? How do I know that what I call not-to-understand is not to understand?” (2/66). The Zhuangzi says that not to understand is the more authentic way of understanding: “Not to understand is profound, to understand is shallow. Not to understand is inner (nei), to understand is outer (wai)” (22/60–1). Furthermore, “to conform to what understanding understands is shallow indeed” (22/84). The Zhuangzi says that understanding is to connect with ( jie ) the object and then to scheme (mou ) in making use of it. In other words, it is a technical ability. This agrees with the Mohist logicians’ definition of understanding (Graham 1978: 266). Zhuangzi’s non-understanding or not-knowing, on the other hand, is like looking awry (ni ), for nonunderstanding does not confront and appropriate the object as something that enters the field of vision as a thing (23/71). This non-objectifying field 27


of vision (non-understanding) is the precondition for understanding anything at all. Or, as the Zhuangzi says, just like the ground on which we do not step is the precondition for taking any steps at all, non-understanding is the precondition for understanding anything at all and in particular for understanding Heaven. For Heaven is not a thing and therefore it cannot be connected with ( jie) understanding. The foot treads on the earth, but even as it treads, it relies on where it does not tread in order to walk far. Man understands little, but little as it is, he relies on what he does not understand in order to understand what we call Heaven. (24/104–5) For Zhuangzi non-understanding has to be retained as the essential element in understanding, in order for understanding to be more than a merely technical procedure and open to Heaven. To understand on the basis of non-understanding is, says Zhuangzi, like a wingless flight. To leave no tracks is easy, but not to walk on the ground is difficult. What is caused by man is easy to falsify, what is caused by Heaven is hard to falsify. You have heard about flying by having wings, but you have never heard about flying by having no wings. You have heard about understanding by having understanding, but you have never heard of understanding by having no understanding. (4/30–2) The understanding that comes from non-understanding cannot be falsified, for it is not the result of a method but generated by Heaven. When we live engendered by Heaven, then “to understand seems like not to understand; only when there is non-understanding can there be understanding” (24/109). True understanding is granted only by non-understanding, and, as we will see in the following chapters, the situation is the same in regard to authentic action and saying: authentic action is granted only by non-action, and authentic saying is granted only by non-saying. Zhuangzi’s non-understanding runs counter to the Western tradition from Aristotle, who begins his Metaphysics by stating that “all men by nature desire to know,” to Heidegger, who in Being and Time (1996: 309) defines understanding as a fundamental characteristic of our very being-in-the-world. According to this tradition non-understanding is a deficiency that indicates a failure to fully actualize one’s human potential. And yet, Friedrich Schlegel recognized that incomprehension, far from being a deficient state, is in fact the productive force in comprehension. In addressing the criticism of the Athenaeum for being incomprehensible, Schlegel, with some irony, writes:



But is incomprehensibility really something so unmitigatedly contemptible and evil? Methinks the salvation of families and nations rests upon it. . . . Yes, even man’s most precious possession, his inner happiness, depends in the last analysis, as anybody can easily verify, on some such point of strength that must be left in the dark, but that nonetheless shores up and supports the whole burden and would crumble the moment one subjected it to rational analysis. Verily, it would fare badly with you if, as you demand, the whole world were ever to become wholly comprehensible in earnest. And isn’t this entire, unending world constructed by the understanding out of incomprehensibility or chaos? (1971: 268) Werner Hamacher points out that the dominant tradition in the West has interpreted understanding “as techne, ars, art, and has furthermore taken it for a methodologically controllable procedure.” But, says Hamacher, there remains “something uncomprehended and incomprehensible . . . an incapacity and an impossibility” at the heart of understanding. What remains is “nonunderstanding,” which is not the opposite of understanding but “its inconceivable ground and ungraspable background. . . . incomprehensibility is what first grants understanding, discloses its possibility, and preserves it as a possibility.” Therefore, says Hamacher, “understanding must understand itself from its impossibility” (1996: 2–5). Similarly Zhuangzi claims nonunderstanding as the very condition for understanding, and in particularly for understanding Heaven. Zhuangzi’s discourse is a spiritual exercise that aims to retain this productive element of non-understanding in understanding – and the reader is invited to take part in the exercise.




It is not right for what is to be incomplete. Parmenides Do not sacrifice yourself for completion. The Zhuangzi

Technique negates the Way Technical mastery of the world is something specifically human, and technique is as enigmatic a phenomenon as the human being itself. Technique, writes Arnold Gehlen, “truly mirrors man – like man himself it is clever, it represents something intrinsically improbable, it bears a complex, twisted relationship to nature. . . . Technique constitutes, as does man himself, nature artificielle” (1980: 4–5). It belongs to the enigmatic nature of man to be a product of nature and at the same time to be able to negate nature, and technique takes part in this ambivalence. On the one hand technique is a continuation of nature with other (human) means (technique is merely a function of unchanging natural laws), on the other hand technique goes against nature (technique neutralizes certain natural laws by means of others in order to achieve a goal) (Hösle 1995: 94). For instance, the waterwheel is made to rotate by the force of the natural downward flow of the water, and by this action it forces the water to run upward against its “nature,” so it can irrigate the fields. It is in simple but ingenious contraptions like the waterwheel that the essence of human action becomes an object for philosophical reflection. We are told in the Zhuangzi, that during his travels Zigong , one of the leading disciples of Confucius, sees a gardener watering his plot of land: “through a dug tunnel he entered the well, embracing a jug he came out to water the garden. Huffing and puffing he used a lot of energy but saw little result.” Seeing this Zigong says to the man: “There are machines for this that can irrigate a hundred plots of land in one day. You’ll use very little energy and see great results. Wouldn’t you like one?” The gardener asks 30


how it works, and Zigong explains the mechanics of a well-sweep (12/52–5). Having heard this the gardener “puts on an indignant look and says with a laugh”: I have heard from my teacher, that if there are mechanical contraptions, then there is sure to be mechanical dealings; when there are mechanical dealings, then there is sure to be a mechanical heart; when a mechanical heart exists in the breast, then the pure and simple is impaired; when the pure and simple is impaired then the spiritual life-force is unsettled. When your spiritual life-force is unsettled then the Way does not carry you along. It is not that I do not know [about mechanical contraptions], it is out of a sense of shame that I do not act that way. (12/55–7) According to the gardener the use of technology has far-reaching consequences. First, the use of mechanical contraptions will cause human beings to have a mechanical mind ( jixin ). Second, when the mind becomes crafty and mechanical, it will impair the pure and simple ground of human existence. Third, once this ground is impaired, then the spiritual life-force becomes unsettled, and human beings will no longer be supported by the Way. Therefore, for the gardener, it would be shameful (we would say immoral) to rely on such technical mastery. Zigong is mortified and has no reply to the gardener. The gardener then asks Zigong what he does. Zigong answers that he is a disciple of Confucius. This provokes the gardener to a diatribe against the Confucians, which ends with the words: “You can’t govern your own self, so what leisure do you have to govern the world?” Later, when he has recovered from the shock of the encounter, Zigong tells his disciples that he has heard from Confucius that the way of the sages consists in seeking success in one’s affairs, seeking completion (cheng) in one’s undertakings, and in using little energy and seeing great results. In other words, the way of the sages consists in that drive towards completion and wish for great results that is the essence of technical mastery. However, after having met the gardener Zigong realizes that the opposite is true: to truly follow the way of the sages, one must forget all about results, profit, mechanical ingenuity, and skillfulness. A person who is able to do this, says Zigong, is unaffected by praise and blame and oblivious to whatever the common opinion may be (12/57–67). This story contains the main points of the critique of technical action that we find in the Zhuangzi. First the Zhuangzi affirms an un-made “ground” as the source of all authentic human action. This “ground” is here described as being pure and simple, but is also called the uncarved block ( pu ). The image of the uncarved block indicates that state of pure potentiality that Zhuangzi wants to retain in human action, so that completion (cheng), the 31


aim of technical action, does not end in total closure, and human action can nourish life ( yangsheng). The uncarved block is not a static substratum but an active force that moves human beings along together with everything else, and this movement is also named the Way. The experience of being moved along in this way is the experience of ceaseless self-emerging life (sheng). According to Zhuangzi, human beings lose touch with this moving ground, when they become preoccupied with governing the world through their technical ingenuity. When human beings enclose themselves in a world of their own making, they become obsessed with controlling the outer (wai) world, the world of man (ren), and they lose contact with the inner (nei). They are no longer able to govern themselves, and morality deteriorates into mere moralism, where the demands put on others are only an excuse for not facing the demands that are always already placed on oneself. For Zhuangzi there is a deep connection between moralism and technical cleverness: both focus on mastering the outer and neglect the inner; both are fragmented and anxious states; and both lose touch with the movement of the Way. Therefore, in transcending the drive for technical mastery, Zhuangzi’s sage remains unaffected by the moralistic praise and blame of the outer world of man (ren), and he exhibits a certain absentmindedness in his dealings with the world of man, which is an indication that he has withdrawn from that world and is in contact with the inner or the movement of the Way.

The Confucian view of technical action The Zhuangzi criticizes the Confucians for having a technical view of human action. It may be objected that this critique cannot be leveled at Confucius  (551–479 ) himself, who is generally suspicious of all artificial and technical intervention into the natural order of things. Confucius finds aesthetic, even moral enjoyment in nature (Lunyu 6.23), and he contemplates the natural flow of water as an image for the ceaselessly emerging and swiftly passing flow of life (Lunyu 9.17) (chapter and section follow Lau 1983). In teaching moral conduct Confucius emphasizes a similar nontechnical, natural and spontaneous movement. He says that the moral influence of the noble man works spontaneously like nature itself, without the need for techniques or methods to implement it: “the virtue of the noble man is like the wind; the virtue of the vulgar is like the grass. When the wind blows over the grass, the grass must bend” (Lunyu 12.19). The example of the noble man spontaneously instills a sense of shame in the vulgar, so that they willingly submit and reform themselves (Lunyu 2.3). In governing a state, Confucius wants, ideally at least, to rely on the rituals (li). Confucius sees that in ritual action, broadly understood as all civilized conduct ranging from a formal greeting to an animal sacrifice, the spontaneous force of the symbolic order comes into play, and when the individual submits to this force he or she is naturally “carried” to moral 32


action. According to Confucius, ritual action is natural and unforced, it has a passive and spontaneous element as its constitutive part, and therefore it is qualitatively different from technical mastery, which is artificial and forced and relies on skill and cunning. Where technical mastery is always close to being immoral, in ritual action human beings act morally and spontaneously at the same time. Herbert Fingarette has well described that elusive non-technical dimension of ritual action that Confucius took as the paradigm for all truly moral action. Through ritual, writes Fingarette, we can accomplish our will “directly and effortlessly” without “strategies and devices” and without using “coercion or physical forces.” The participant in ritual “simply wills the end in the proper ritual setting and with the proper ritual gesture and word; without further effort on his part, the deed is accomplished” (Fingarette 1972: 3). To be sure, ritual action has a spontaneous dimension, but it cannot be denied that ritual action is a technique, namely the technical ability to function within the context of references that structure a particular culture. The performative ritual act does not really function by magic but depends on the cultural setting. As Fingarette himself observes: “I cannot effectively go through the ceremony of bequeathing my servant to someone if, in our society, there is no accepted convention of slavery” (1972: 12). Zhuangzi, for his part, sees ritual action as a form of technical action, it depends on a particular setting and a pre-determined goal, and therefore it cannot be authentic ethical action. Mencius  (371–289 ), a contemporary of Zhuangzi, claims for morality the same non-technical and effortless character that we see in Confucius. The difference is that whereas in Confucius it is the ritual gesture that spontaneously unfolds our humanity, in Mencius it is the good heartand-mind (xin ) that serves as a similar starting-point. Thus, where Confucius says that he who knows the explanation of an important sacrifice could manage the world as easily as if he had it in the palm of his hand (Lunyu 3.11), Mencius says that when one governs with the heart of compassion, “then ruling the world is as easy as rolling it in your palm” (Mengzi 2A6) (numbering follows Lau 1984). Both Confucius and Mencius have tremendous faith in their own prescriptions – one will, as Zigong says in the Zhuangzi passage discussed above, see great results from using little energy – but at the time of Mencius the spontaneous force of the symbolic order had weakened, and Mencius could only hope to recover this spontaneity in essence by turning inwards towards human nature (xing ). According to Mencius human nature naturally tends towards the good. Mencius does not claim that the good is actually effective in the world – the endless strife of the Warring States period (403–221 ) would make a mockery of such a claim – but that moral impulses are present in their incipient stage and can be the place from which the saving power arises in a time of brutality, craftiness, and cunning. According to Mencius, these moral 33


tendencies are part of that dimension of life which human beings cannot, need not, and indeed should not control. This is the point of Mencius’ story about a man who tried to force his seedlings, or his incipient moral tend=encies, to grow by pulling at them, but in this way only destroyed them (Mengzi 2A2). If these moral tendencies are properly attended to and nourished, then moral action will be “like a fire catching on and a spring gushing forth” (Mengzi 2A6), it will be an irresistible force “like streams and rivers bursting their banks, flowing in torrents, and nobody can hinder it” (Mengzi 7A16). Mencius valiantly defends this idealistic view of the irresistible force of spontaneous moral tendencies in a time that increasingly turned to the technical mastery of humanity and nature. Mencius denounces the men of mere technical ability, “the clever who make cunning devises and tricks,” in the strongest terms he knows: the clever are without shame, which, for Mencius, is equivalent to being without the source of morality, or the sense of what is right ( yi ) (Mengzi 7A7, 2A6). Mencius says that he detests the wise (in the sense of the overly or aggressively clever), but if only the wise were like the sage Yu , who in regulating the waters “moved them along the path of no resistance” – or, as Lau translates, “guided the water by imposing nothing on it that was against its natural tendency” (1984: 169) – then Mencius would approve of them (Mengzi 4B26). In this way Mencius tries to retain a dimension of something effortless and natural in the technical action of the sages, just as he argues for something that is not made, forced, or calculated, at the heart of moral action. Zhuangzi shares Mencius’ contempt for the merely technical and his emphasis on the spontaneous dimension in human action; and yet, Zhuangzi thinks that Mencius’ ideal is “hopelessly confused” (2/70). For, although it is true that authentic, ethical action issues from a spontaneous source, Mencius turns things upside down when he claims that specifically Confucian values – humanity (ren ), righteousness ( yi ), ritual (li ), and wisdom (zhi ) – issue from this source. This is, says Zhuangzi, like claiming that one can set out for one’s destination today and arrive yesterday (2/22). For, according to Zhuangzi, all human values are a product of prejudice (chengxin ), or some particular way of proceeding (xing ), and they do not sprout naturally in human nature. In spite of Mencius’ attempts to show the opposite, Confucian values are made (wei ), they are a technical achievement, and therefore, according to Zhuangzi, not authentically ethical. It was up to Xunzi  (c.335–230 ) to bite the bullet and resolve the contradiction inherent in the Confucian view of ritual and moral action as at once natural (spontaneous) and man-made (technical). Zhuangzi had already noticed this contradiction, but contrary to Zhuangzi, who develops a view of non-technical action, Xunzi gives up the earlier Confucian claim that Confucian rituals and values are natural, and he unabashedly affirms 34


the supremacy of technical action. Unlike Confucius, Xunzi has no patience with passive contemplation of nature. Rhetorically he asks: “What is better, to contemplate things and observe them, or to order things and not let them slip?” (Xunzi 17.9) (chapter and section follows Knoblock 1988–94). Correspondingly, Xunzi sees nothing positive in the spontaneous, non-technical dimension of human action. Unlike Confucius, Xunzi describes the rituals as methods or standards, and he views them as external restraints just like the marking line and the compass and the square, the tools with which the craftsman imposes his order on the material (Xunzi 19.2). For Xunzi the rituals are tools or techniques to laboriously form human nature, regulate desires and so strengthen the state. With Xunzi it becomes clear, as François Jullien writes, that “[i]n the last analysis, ritual itself, the basis of Chinese civilization as a whole and Confucian morality in particular, can be considered purely as a mechanism” (1995: 66). Zhuangzi, of course, already knew this. Unlike Mencius, Xunzi does not try to pass off Confucian values as if they sprouted spontaneously in nature. Xunzi decisively breaks with the earlier Confucians when he not only affirms the world of man (ren) but affirms it as an artificial construction. Xunzi drives home this point when he promotes not just human action (wei) but human artifice (wei ), using a term that traditionally had negative connotations meaning “artificial,” “counterfeit,” and “false.” For Xunzi the only truly human action is the action that is the result of conscious effort, the action that goes against nature and therefore is artifice. Relying on such artifice, human beings are able to organize themselves in a unified group and dominate chaotic and dangerous nature, so they can “can obtain houses and dwell safely” (Xunzi 9.16a). Xunzi’s technical term for this ability to form groups is qun , a word that has connotations of “crowds” and “herds,” and that, as a description of human association, would have offended the sensibilities of Confucius. The societies that arise out of these crowds must, of course, organize themselves according to what is right and proper according to the methods of the Confucians (rushu ) (Xunzi 10.9). If one follows the methods of the Confucians, says Xunzi, then goods and commodities will “flow inexhaustibly like a spring, torrential like the Yellow River and the sea.” As if he had a premonition of the accelerated circulation and “over-production” characteristic of advanced capitalist societies, Xunzi even foresees that this artificial production may become a force as overpowering as the very nature it replaces: the goods and commodities “will pile up like hills and mountains. If you do not burn them from time to time, there will be no place to store them” (Xunzi 10.9). Xunzi pushes his vision of the total control of the world into the imaginary, and he celebrates a situation where, to borrow the words of Hans Jonas, “the natural is swallowed up in the sphere of the artificial, and at the same time the total artifact . . . generates a ‘nature’ of its own” (1984: 10). 35


Those who seek in Confucianism the root of the economic success of industrial East Asian or, for that matter, the cause of the appeal of Maoism in China, need look no further than Xunzi. Here we have the total mobilization of all natural and human resources for the sake of production, and everything is ordered from the perspective of utility and profit. To be sure, utility and profit are under the constraints of what is right (yi), but this moral constraint is largely justified in terms of the ultimate goal: the wealth and power of the state. Xunzi shows no reluctance to subdue and master the world ( pace Max Weber), nor does he exhibit that ecological consciousness that has recently been claimed for Confucianism. Xunzi has a wish to dominate nature as strong as any Western thinker – only Xunzi did not have the powerful modern economic and technical means to fulfill his wish. Philosophically Xunzi expresses his will to dominate nature and spontaneously self-emerging life in his valuation of completion (cheng) over life (sheng). For Xunzi life as such is of little importance – as he points out, even grass and plants have life (Xunzi 9.16a) – and it is useless to yearn for the experience of life (Xunzi 17.9). It is the completion of life through human action that alone counts, for, says Xunzi, “Heaven is able to give life (sheng) to things, but it cannot differentiate things. Earth can support man, but it cannot govern man” (Xunzi 19.6). Consequently, the proper division of labor is that “Heaven and Earth give it life (sheng), but the sage completes (cheng) it” (27.41). In refusing to live with the contradictions inherent in the earlier Confucian world-view, Xunzi admits that Confucian ritual and moral action essentially is a technical drive towards completion. Zhuangzi had already seen that and criticized the Confucians for being out of touch with ceaseless self-emerging life. Xunzi, for his part, thought that to be of no consequence.

Totalitarianism and strategic thinking From Confucius to Xunzi the Confucians increasingly emphasize the technical side of human action and the completion (cheng) imposed on life (sheng) by man (ren). This drive towards completion is also seen in the other major contemporary schools of thought, and here I will briefly consider the Mohists, the Legalists, and the theorists of warfare. Mozi , who flourished in the late fifth century , had been a student of Confucian practices but became very critical of the contemporary followers of the teaching of Confucius. Mozi thought that Confucian ritual practice was anachronistic and only showed that the Confucians were unable to meet the exigency of the present time. For Mozi there is nothing inherently right (yi) about Confucian practices, such as their elaborate funeral rituals and long mourning periods, they are simply a matter of custom. A particular practice is right only if it brings profit under the present circumstances, 36


and from this perspective the Confucian practice of lavish expenditure in funeral rites is clearly wrong. Mozi also strongly objects to the Confucians’ constant reference to fate (ming ), because such fatalism prevents the creation of a rich and wellordered state. For Mozi, writes Benjamin Schwartz, there is no “preexistent, immanent order of things,” rather order must be achieved by strenuous efforts of the will, for “the good is nothing pregiven. The good must be achieved!” (1985: 141–3). Mozi is the first to break with the early Confucian way of dwelling in a world that is already completed by ritual, the order of Heaven, and fate, and he introduces the self-assertion and the drive towards completion that became characteristic of the Legalists and later Confucians like Xunzi. The Mohist, says Schwartz, is “an aggressive activist in every sense” (1985: 158). The beginning of argumentative philosophy in China is closely connected with this break with the pre-existing order. Among the Mohists arose the idea that rational discourse in the form of disputation (bian ) is the way of attaining truth. Unlike the Confucians, who relied on their ritual action and their moral sense, the Mohists excelled in argumentation and technical knowledge. Schwartz, rightly, sees this as a change in the very notion of truth in ancient China. Whereas Confucius relied on a pre-existing truth that he could only transmit, the Mohist creates his truth. The Mohist is a craftsman who brings forth a new, artificial reality: “Like the good craftsman, the Mohist is an active, goal-oriented individual bent on realizing his project in the world” (Schwartz 1985: 167). According to the Legalists, rewards and punishments are the “two handles” held by the ruler to govern the state. Hanfeizi  (c.280–233 ) tersely explains the use of this most important tool: “To inflict mutilation and death on men is called punishment; to bestow honor and reward is called favor” (Watson 1963: 30). The Legalists call for “a regime based on invariant laws and manipulative ‘techniques’ ” (Lewis 1999: 71), and they promote “a vision of society in which ‘objective’ mechanisms of ‘behavioral’ control become automatic instruments for achieving well-defined sociopolitical goals” (Schwartz 1985: 328). The ultimate goal is the wealth and power of the state, and the Legalists laid the theoretical foundation for “the all-powerful Chinese state,” which, as John King Fairbank writes, is “the greatest of all China’s technological-social achievements” (1985: vi). Zhuangzi, for his part, as Heiner Roetz writes, sees that the primordial ground of the ethical “perishes with the emergence of technique, the bloody foundation of the state with its physical and psychical means of coercion, and the spreading of overrefined culture” (1993: 250). The Legalists clearly recognized the essence of the totalitarian aspiration, namely that technical mastery of the world will create a second nature in which the primary oppression is felt as freedom. Jullien explains that according to the Legalists, 37


the whole strength of totalitarian authoritarianism lies in the following in no way paradoxical fact: oppression carried to extremes will no longer be seen as oppression but as its opposite, something spontaneous, natural, and requiring no justification. This is the case partly because such pressure creates a long-term habitus that becomes second nature to the individuals subjected to it. More fundamentally, human law, in becoming inhuman, takes on the characteristics of natural law. Insensitive and hence equally pitiless and omnipresent, it imposes its constraints on everyone, at every moment. As the Chinese Legalists saw it, the law they establish is a perfect extension of the Dao and accords with the logic of things: it merely translates the inherent order of nature into social actuality. (1995: 51–2) We should see in this Legalist view a specific interpretation of a more general idea that became dominant in ancient China. This idea can be formulated as follows: it is possible to reach the Way (dao) through technical mastery, for at its height technical mastery of the world becomes indistinguishable from the Way itself. From this point of view, Confucian ritual mastery follows the same logic as Legalist state craft, for in both cases it is a question of developing something man-made (rituals or laws) to the point where it appears completely natural. This idea is also evident in the art of warfare that developed between the fifth and the third century . In ancient China warfare was not merely a particular domain of the exercise of state-power, it was the enacted substance of the state itself. “The great services of the state,” says the Zuo zhuan , “are sacrifice and warfare” (Lewis 1999: 138). The theory of warfare therefore went far beyond its proper field and, as Jullien writes, “projected its form of rationalization on reality as a whole” (1995: 25). This is particularly evident in the writings of Sunzi  (fourth century ), who explains that the ideal military commander never takes a fixed position but flexibly responds to the movements of the enemy, just like the changes of day and night and the seasons follow the logic of nature. This flexibility assures that the dynamism of the situation works to the commander’s advantage. “In this way,” writes Jullien, “the military commander becomes as unfathomable as the great process of the world itself in all its infinity (the Dao) that, never settling into any particular disposition, is bound to be unique, and offers no clue to its reality” (1995: 33). The Confucian sage exhibits the same flexible response and total control of the situation as the military commander, and, as we will see, Sunzi’s picture of the ideal military commander is nearly identical with Mencius’ description of Confucius as the timely sage who never takes any particular position but always falls in with what is right.



The metaphysics of action Ancient Chinese philosophy is characterized by what I call a metaphysics of action. To begin to explain this, it may be helpful to provide a schematic overview of the terms that enter into the disputes between the various strands of thought in ancient China.

sheng (life) > xing (nature) > ming (fate) >/ yu (desire) > < xin (mind-heart): shi (right) fei (wrong) > shu or ji (technique) > cheng (completion)

Sheng (life) is self-emerging life; it is comparable to Greek phusis as “that movement of growth and birth by which things manifest themselves” (Hadot 1995: 260). Xing (nature) is the spontaneous movement and natural development of a being in the movement of life. Graham says that the xing of a thing “is its proper course of development during its process of sheng” (1990b: 10). The particular course of life of a being is fated (ming ). With human desires (yu ) there first arises the possibility of a break with this natural development (indicated with /). For the human heart-and-mind (xin) may have to go against nature and regulate desires (indicated with >
View more...


Copyright ©2017 KUPDF Inc.