This post is inspired by reflections on Zhuangzi and philosophy in a reading group I participated in during Fall 2020 with three of my colleagues.
Oh no! A being, plopped into the world, forced to make sense of it, to choose how to live, act, think, and be. What to do?! What to pay attention to?! Where to look, where to turn the head, focus the eyes?! What in the world to do with this stream of informational input?! What is this world?! What is me?! What chaos! Can Zhuangzi help? Maybe he can’t help us sort out our mess of conceptual confusions and determine what is true, and what it is to make sense of things, and what it all means, and what we should do. But I think he might be able to point us in the right direction (or, away from the wrong one).
Introduction: Where should I begin?
We must begin at the beginning. Stories are like that, language is like that, we are like that. We simply must pick a place to start, if we want to say anything at all. So where should I begin? Nature itself doesn’t seem to provide clear and determinate boundary lines, so why should I? Perhaps I should just stay silent, since no starting point seems privileged. I am paralyzed by my indecision. And yet… I have stories to tell. Questions to ask. Things to say (I think). And even if no starting point for telling these stories is objectively correct, the place from which we choose to begin is not arbitrary - it makes sense to us.
Suppose, for example, that my passion is oak trees. I want to know everything there is to know about oak trees - their nature and function, their origins, their inner workings, their shape, their component parts, their interactive abilities. I want to know their past, I want to know their present, I want to know all the possibility spaces for their futures. Suppose, as a thought experiment, that I somehow succeeded in encoding all the possible information there is to know about oak trees. But suddenly, a mysterious plague hits every known oak tree in existence, and they are no more. No longer can humans born into this new world know an oak tree directly by acquaintance, no longer can they place their hands on its bark, no longer can they smell its aroma or marvel at its strength or listen to the way the wind filters through its leaves. They can only learn of the oak tree’s majesty through records and stories. And I, as the world’s resident expert on oak trees, am in a privileged place to tell these stories.
If my future child came to me, with a spark of passion in her eye, and asked me, “please, tell me the story of an oak tree,” I would be met with an overwhelming cacophony of information in my mind, unsure where to begin. First I might smile, pleased that she wanted to know. It may take me many lifetimes to tell the story she wanted to hear, and I may never be finished doing so, but I wouldn’t let this stop me from beginning. There are many places I may begin. I may begin outside the narrative frame, using metaphor to give her an idea of the shape and content of the kind of thing we are talking about. I would relate the multimodal experiences of oak trees to experiences she was more familiar with. This is all well and good, but she wants a story, with a temporal structure. She wants to know how and why oak trees, as individuals and kinds, came to be into existence. Stories have beginnings, birthings and dyings, origins, generations: geneses.
One story I may tell her may begin and end with an acorn falling from a branch. Story begins: acorn falls, acorn hits ground, from acorn springs roots, burrowing into the ground in search of water. Spring arrives and soil moistens, acorn cracks open, sends up a young shoot, using energy stores its mother tree had left it with. Seedling emerges from soil, converts sunlight to energy, seedling grows taller, and stronger, and then, if it is lucky, seedling develops into tree. In spring, tree flowers, pollen fertilizes flower, flower swells, ripens, forms acorn. Tree nourishes acorn, provides it with food so that it may flourish when left to its own devices. Acorn ripens. Story begins again: Acorn falls. “This is the life cycle of an oak tree, darling,” I may say to her. At any point along this cycle I can provide more information, at increasing levels of specificity, since my hypothetical knowledge is complete, but I will wait to see what questions she asks.
I could have begun this cycle anywhere, and ended up at the same place. I simply chose to begin telling the story at the moment of separation between an acorn and its mother. But even this moment may be indeterminate, fuzzy. “Even if I were telling your story, darling,” I may say to her, “I may begin with your birth, or the time we cut your umbilical cord, as the moment of our physical separation, but notice that even before this moment there were senses in which we were separate and even after this moment there were senses in which we were not separate. So too with the oak tree. The acorn begins to develop as its own being while it is still attached to its mother-tree, and its mother-tree continues to nourish it even after its physical detachment.” The story could have started anywhere, it’s just about what we decide we want to focus on. This cyclical story has no real beginning or real ending, but it is still a story.
As an aside, I then may interject to my child, not wanting her to think that I have a privileged perspective for telling any story but the oak tree’s, or perhaps not even that... not wanting her to think that her biological origin in my body implies a mental origination outside herself, wanting her to recognize the uniqueness of her very own perspective type, saying “But you, my darling, have something special about your story that the oak tree lacks. I may not know the best way to tell the oak tree’s story, where I should begin, what I should learn from it, what matters most, I can only simply gather information from where I stand. I can ask it and I can listen, but it has no mouth to speak with, it cannot tell me what I should pay attention to in my quest to understand it. So I run in circles around it, gathering all the information I can, but still I can only tell its story from my perspective. I may do this to you, sometimes too, you know. Forgive me for the times I write a story of your life as told through my mouth. These stories may be stories of you, like the stories of the oak, but they are not your stories. The oak may have real stories of his very own to tell, but we will never know because he has no mouth. But you, my dear, have a fantastically magical power to do what he cannot. You are growing older, you are learning to take ownership of your wants and needs, you are learning to listen and to speak from a position that only you can. You can tell your own story of who and what you are, where you begin and end, where you’ve been, where you are, where you are going. Your own story of what matters, a story that is uniquely yours, a story no one else can tell. You have a mind of your own that can think and speak for itself. And no one can ever take that away from you.” Keep to the center.
Subjective stories are a funny thing. The story of my life can take any form I choose. A linear temporally structured event-mapping that begins with my “birth” and ends with my “death” may be one of many stories of me…
So, too, I may tell her a story that begins with an acorn’s “birth” and ends with an oak tree’s “death.” I would have to pick the point at which I wanted to say the acorn counted as “born” and the point at which it counted as “dead.” I would have to fix the referent of my terms. Is the acorn born when the flower is fertilized? When it takes on the shape of “acornness”? When it falls from the branch? When its roots spring out? When it sprouts? It isn’t clear, and we needn’t pick one. The acorn may have many birth-like moments, a continual process of becoming. What about its death? Is it dead after its leaves fall for the last time? Is it dead after a single branch is brittle and breaks? If most of them do? If all of them do? Is it dead when its bark becomes cold and flaky? When the innards of its trunk begin to rot? When its roots cease exchanging nutrients with soil? When they begin to emerge from the soil cold and hard? When it falls? When it disintegrates into the earth? It isn’t clear, and we needn’t pick one. The oak tree may have many death-like moments. It may at the same time be both being born and dying.
Another set of stories I may tell her may be phylogenetic ones, at varying levels of description and analysis. What was the “first” oak tree ever in existence? What is the genesis of the kind, “oak tree?” What nucleic structure makes an oak tree the thing that it is, and how did this nucleic structure come to be? What genetic mutation distinguishes this species from that which came before it? Was the moment of this mutation the origin of the kind? Or was it the moment when this mutation proved to be adaptive and the species went forth, flourished and reproduced? Or should we go further back, to determine the origin of trees in general, or plants in general, or life in general? No one of these starting points seems better than any other. Origin stories of kind terms have many possible starting points and temporal structures.
We may start with the acorn in one context, we may start with a nucleotide in another, and in yet another we may start with a primordial soup of atoms in a void. How we should tell the “story” of the oak tree, and where we should begin, depends on why we are telling the story. It depends what matters to us, about the oak tree. If we had a specific goal in mind, such as using the oak tree’s story to prevent future catastrophic species-eliminating blights in the future, our starting point and the path forward would be guided and filtered by that goal. If our goal was simply to know all there is to know about this thing called “oak tree,” we could start anywhere we liked, and take any path we liked, guided and filtered only by the goal of relating all received information back to the concept, being, or kind under investigation.
Beginning at the beginning doesn’t mean localizing a determinately correct starting point for saying what you want to say, learning what you want to learn, telling the story you want to tell. There is no one thing that it means - it depends. What is your goal? What is it that you seek to understand? How can this goal be used to direct your attention, and/or to filter and sort the content that falls under that attentional gaze?
If we know our goal, know what we hope to achieve, where we might want to end up, we may not know how to start or how to get there, but we’ve got a frame to work with, we can make a map, we can just start walking and use our map and our relative distance from our goal to determine that we’re headed in the right direction. A map is comforting. A well defined cartography delineating where we stand, where we want to end up, and how we hope to get there. Maps are flexible. The shape of the space may change as we move in it. We encounter obstacles we didn’t foresee. But forward is forward no matter how slow, as long as there is just one thing you know, which is where it is you want to go. Pick a starting point, some are better than others but any will do, and start moving. Go from there.
But what if we have no clear goal, no clear place we want to end up? What if we don’t know what it is yet? What if we just have curiosity? What if, unlike the oak-tree enthusiast, our curiosity is domain-general, such that there is not even one clear “thing itself” to serve as any kind of starting point for our attentional focus? What if everything that fell under our gaze were to seem infinitely fascinating, spiralling our focus outward in a million directions simultaneously, a manifold of possibility for thought and action splayed before us? How could we possibly pick one to move in, walk through, live through, with no guidelines whatever?
It would have been easier to not even have considered the question. Easier to keep eyes shut tight to possibility space, to “oughts,” to distinguishable concepts, of beginnings and endings, of right and wrong, better and worse, true and false, forward and backward, motion and stillness, self and other, signal and noise, of sense and nonsense. Easier to not have to ask “which direction is up again?” Easier to not have to choose, choose how to live, what to think, what to look at, how to look at it, choose what world to be in, choose how to be in it, what moves to make, what words to say, what feelings to feel, what maps to make, what spaces to build, where to go, who to be, who to love and how.
And yet here we are. And we must begin at the beginning. But when we don’t know where we’re going, any starting point will do. When no maps have been made yet, when forward motion hasn’t been defined yet, all you can do is move. All you can do is move, and wait, and watch, and listen, and learn. Like the infant before he finds his feet, wriggling about. He is open to learning what his experience has to teach him. He has no clear goal in mind, yet like the oak tree, he grows. He doesn’t know what growth is or what direction forward is or exactly what it is he is supposed to be learning, yet he grows and he moves forward and he learns. Newborn brains are incredibly plastic, their minds soft and supple. We have a lot to learn from them.
The current curiosities are domain general, but our source is the writings in the Zhuangzi. Our attentional gaze can wander free and easy amongst the words in this text. There may not be a single endpoint that will render us as having a full and complete understanding of Zhuang Zhou’s intended meaning (if such a person even existed). Debates in the literature abound about the “correct” interpretation of Zhuangzi, and we needn’t settle on one. In fact, I say, if we choose to settle on one interpretive frame for understanding Zhuangzi’s intended meaning, then we will have missed the point entirely.
Zhuangzi’s Philosophical Style
Historically, not much is known about the person Zhuang Zhou himself, if such a person existed. In a sense, it does not matter whether he was a real person, or a fantasy constructed by some collective imagination of writers and interpreters. This uncertainty makes his very being seem vague, elusive - and if he were a real person (and I will continue to speak as if he were), perhaps he would have wanted it this way. Zhuangzi’s philosophical style is riddled with fantastical musings and playful allegories. Hansen describes it as “philosophical fantasy,” in which Zhuangzi “seemingly dares us to say which voice is really his” (p. 255-6). A style that leaves us uncertain as to which perspective is speaking to us through the words on the page, and uncertain as to what might be the appropriate perspective for interpreting the meaning of these words, is crucial to making his “points.” The style and form through which he expresses meaning is inseparable from that meaning itself. There’s a convergence of structure and content, syntax and semantics, form and meaning, figure and ground.
Take the above passage, for example. I think one could write multiple book-length treatments of this passage alone, even on a single sentence within it. Zhuangzi jumps into rabbit holes that provide interpreters infinite opportunities for greater depth, greater clarity, further distinctions to be made and lessons to be drawn out. Yet he never stays inside of these rabbit holes that he points to, instead playfully skipping on the surface, noticing them, and moving on. He is like the flattest rock being skipped on a pond, and in following him to try and analyze the ripples he makes, we may fall in (*plunk*). He ends this passage unsure whether he has even said anything at all - but he must have meant something, else why would he have written it? Zhuangzi was not a silentist. Words can be meaningfully uttered, we can do things with them, things worth doing.
It is easy to read Zhuangzi and come away with a strong skeptical, mystic, or Daoist takeaway. It is tempting to think of him as advocating for withdrawal from the social world and the world of words entirely. It is also tempting to think of him as not advocating for anything, to think that prescriptive claims and normativity would make no sense in the picture he paints for us. But I think there are lessons to be learned, even if we cannot always encode these lessons into propositional content with determinate truth-conditional “meanings.”
One reason there are so many different, non-mutually exclusive ways to understand Zhuangzi’s writings is because his style makes use of metaphor. Linguistic metaphors involve using words in a way that is not intended to be interpreted literally: a word is used metaphorically when the word is used to represent something in some way other than the literal “referent” of the term in public language.
“There is nothing in the world bigger than the tip of an autumn hair, and Mount Tai is little. No one has lived longer than a dead child, and Pengzu died young. Heaven and earth were born at the same time I was, and the ten thousand things are one with me.
We have already become one, so how can I say anything? But I have just said that we are one, so how can I not be saying something? The one and what I said about it make two, and two and the original one make three. If we go on this way, then even the cleverest mathematician, much less an ordinary man, can’t tell where we’ll end. If by moving from nonbeing to being, we get to three, how far will we get if we move from being to being? Better not to move but to let things be!”
“The Way has never known boundaries; speech has no constancy. But because of [the recognition of a] “this,” there came to be boundaries. Let me tell you what the boundaries are. There is left, there is right, there are theories, there are debates, there are divisions, there are discriminations, there are emulations, and there are contentions. These are called the Eight Virtues. As to what is beyond the Six Realms, the sage admits it exists but does not theorize. As to what is within the Six Realms, he theorizes but does not debate. In the case of the Spring and Autumn, the record of the former kings of past ages, the sage debates but does not discriminate. So [I say,] those who divide fail to divide; those who discriminate fail to discriminate. What does this mean, you ask? The sage embraces things. Ordinary men discriminate among them and parade their discriminations before others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.
The Great Way is not named; Great Discriminations are not spoken; Great Benevolence is not benevolent; Great Modesty is not humble; Great Daring does not attack. If the Way is made clear, it is not the Way. If dis- criminations are put into words, they do not suffice. If benevolence has a constant object, it cannot be universal. If modesty is fastidious, it cannot be trusted. If daring attacks, it cannot be complete. These five all are round, but they tend toward the square.
Therefore understanding that rests in what it does not understand is the finest. Who can understand discriminations that are not spoken, the Way that is not a way? If he can understand this, he may be called the Reservoir of Heaven. Pour into it and it is never full, dip from it and it never runs dry, and yet it does not know where the supply comes from. This is called the Shaded Light.
So it is that long ago Yao said to Shun, “I want to attack the rulers of Zong, Kuai, and Xuao. Even as I sit on my throne, this thought nags at me. Why is this?”
Shun replied, “These three rulers are only little dwellers in the weeds and brush. Why this nagging desire? Long ago, ten suns came out all at once, and the ten thou- sand things were all lighted up. And how much greater is virtue than these suns!”