I’ve recently been engaged in a number of projects (some of which I’ll discuss in more detail in future posts here on UPJ), including writing a book on self-cultivation in various Eastern philosophical texts. I’m currently working on a chapter on the Zhuangzi for this book. Even at a basic level (this book is aimed mainly at people with little or no philosophical background, such as intro students or the general public), it is not easy to get a grasp on just what the Zhuangzi is trying to say, or whether it even had any overarching theme or goal at all. I actually will suggest the latter in a post that will appear sometime soon on Warp, Weft, and Way (where currently Dan Robins has a very interesting post on the issue of Cook Ding’s “skill” in Zhuangzi chapter 3).
What’s been on my mind most recently concerning the Zhuangzi is the oddity of the text, and whether this has any significance as far as how we ought to interpret it. Analytically minded philosophers such as myself tend to neglect stylistic issues (for the most part) in our interpretations (and I think this is why I’ve had such difficulty understanding the Zhuangzi for years), but I’m coming to think that for the Zhuangzi, the style might be a key to understanding the text.
I am also finding myself returning to the “Zhuangzi as skeptic” view I initially held concerning the text but abandoned years ago. If the Zhuangzi offers us a kind of skeptical message, however, it is very different from that of the Academics or Pyrrhonians. It doesn’t posit a distinction between appearances and reality at all, and so there is no “suspension of judgment” concerning something underlying ideas. There is, as far as I can tell, no representationalism in the Zhuangzi.
Rather, the skepticism surrounds the idea that there is a narrowly right way to experience and perceive things–that seeing ourselves as humans rather than as the butterflies we think we are when dreaming is somehow more valuable, or that seeing the world through the preconceived notions of use/uselessness, right/wrong, etc. is the way we ought to see it. If this is right, then the Zhuangzi is endorsing something like following the appearances, but concerning the value of experiences and how we ought to respond to them, rather than the accuracy of our judgments. The Zhuangist sage simply acts as a butterfly when he experiences himself as a butterfly, responding to the world in a way a butterfly would, and acts as a human when he experiences himself as a human. It is important to note here that there is no single standard for action that the Zhuangist sage then uses, he simply responds to situations. There is no “self” then, insofar as this describes characteristic actions, values, or goals–rather there is openness and response to situations. This, I think, is linked to the “fasting of the mind” discussed in chapter 4.
The weirdness and seemingly disjointed quality of the text can be instructive here. Just like the Zhuangist sage will be one who responds to situations and doesn’t attempt to synthesize their experience into that of a coherent “self” with certain motivations, goals, values, etc., the ideal Zhuangist text will be one that is disjointed and impossible to fully synthesize as one coherent text with a central message. Part of what may be going on here, that is, is that the fragmentary nature of the text may be part of the way the Zhuangzi attempts to move us away from the tendency to synthesize our experience, to see it as relating to a single self that acts and perceives in certain ways and that leads to the devaluation of experience that is seemingly incompatible with this self. So, for example, we move away from rejecting or devaluing our experiences of being butterflies while dreaming on the basis of their incompatibility with our “real” existence as humans.
So my current view on the Zhuangzi, although it initially sounded defeatist to me when I first entertained it, now seems to me compatible with the style of the text and the possible purpose of this style. Trying to synthesize and understand the theme or meaning of the Zhuangzi is to engage in the kind of devaluation of disjointed and individual or unrelated experiences that Zhuangzi decries.
Of course, there are problems with this reading as well, which I will try to raise in my WW&W post…