RE-THINKING THINKING XXI

[YESTERDAY’S POST MIGHT HAVE BEEN LOST IN THE ETHER; IT CAN BE FOUND ON THE BLOG SITE.]

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The question of what is of Nature and what is of humanity is an important one in classical Chinese philosophy which mostly concerned itself with finding a dao (guidance) that could ensure the greatest social and personal harmony. Can principles be discovered in Nature that will provide a “constant” dao? Or is it up to humanity to formulate its own? The Daodejing (1) tells us that a Constant (Heavenly) Dao, cannot be articulated thus rendering every dao a merely human and therefore relative dao. Yet we are also told that at a higher level these two are one. We quote the first chapter in its entirety:

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The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.
These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery—
The gateway of the manifold secrets (Lau).

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The mystery of inexplicable Dao, though it relativizes the language-bound daos of humanity, does not negate the value and affirmability of human daos or of language; it merely re-embeds them in Mystery and thereby renders them equally mystery. The use of language (like “desires”) is thus completely endorsed. Only it is now informed by Mystery and must therefore understand itself as also mystery and in this sense as incoherent, that is, not capable of articulating a constant and unchanging dao.

RE-THINKING THINKING XX

One passage in the Zhuangzi especially considers this aspect of language:

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“When Gongwen Xuan saw the Commander of the Right he was astonished. ‘What manner of man are you, that you are so singularly one-legged? Is this the doing of Heaven or of man?’
He answered, ‘It is of Heaven, not man. When Heaven generates any ‘this’, it always makes it singular, but man groups every appearance with something else. Thus, I know that whatever it is, it is of Heaven, not man’” (3:7; Ziporyn, p 23).

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There are several complex philosophical themes involved here; however the one that most interests us here is the idea that everything that arises from Nature (Heaven) is absolutely unique, but that humanity in its use of language necessarily obscures things in their singularity.

RE-THINKING THINKING XIX

We have thus far addressed how language is seen as severing things from their oneness in Mystery. Philosophical Daoism also sees it as obscuring the not-oneness of things, their inviolable uniqueness. The reasoning mind understands things according to their kinds. There are many thousands of species of trees; yet all these differences are negated when upon seeing a tree we say “tree”. There are many species of oak; yet when we see an oak and say “oak”, we have forgotten how it differs from all the other oaks. There are millions of valley live oaks; yet when we see one and call it a valley live oak, we obscure its own absolute uniqueness. There is no other oak like this one. Yet language cannot grasp this since it must of necessity deal in abstractions. Some more immediate pre-cognitive experience of this particular oak seems necessary. This is tree-hugging as a mystical experience. That those who value exploitation over respect for nature use the term “tree-hugger” disparagingly only serves to illustrate the radical nature of such a paradigm shift. Philosophical Daoism might help us all to not only become more thorough tree-huggers, but also sky-huggers, rock-huggers, stream-huggers, ocean-huggers, and yes, even exploitative-human-huggers.

RE-THINKING THINKING XVIII

The clearest and most intriguing example of Zhuangzi’s use of Chaos to speak of impenetrable Mystery is found in the final passage of the Inner Chapters:

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“The emperors of the Southern and Northern Seas frequently met in the land of the Middle whose emperor was Chaos. Thinking to repay him for his hospitality they decided to give him the seven holes of humanity which he presently did not have. So, every day they gave him a new hole. On the seventh day, Chaos died” (7:21).

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The arising of the human mind with its self-reflexive awareness of the world was the death of Chaos. Now everything needs to be understood. Now meaning and purpose are required. Now gods and religion arise to save us. This would not be a problem, even though impossible to realize, if it were not that human beings are also aware in their deepest experience of the absurdity of these aspirations. The result is suffering—fear and despair. It is for this reason alone that philosophical Daoism proposes a return to an appreciation of Chaos, the Uncarved Block, Dao, yin—in pre-cognitive, pre-language experience. Admittedly, this does not provide the Answer to our needs, except as a kind of non-answer. Doubt and our inherent adriftedness are not eradicated, but rather, by being completely embraced, are made the means to our soaring freedom.

RE-THINKING THINKING XVII

Zhuangzi uses the term “uncarved block” once. This is to describe the “awakening” of the legendary sage Liezi:

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“At this Liezi finally realized that when it comes to Dao, he was clueless. So he returned home where he remained for three years, forgetting all convention—cooking for his wife and treating his pigs like honored guests—abandoning all ‘spiritual’ ambition, and allowing his carefully carved character to return to the uncarved block. Like a clod of earth, seemingly a chaos, he thus remained for the rest of his days” (7:18).

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“Chaos” (hundun), seen in the last sentence above, is Zhuangzi’s preferred term. However, before looking more closely at this we should consider his use of the idea of carving off from that block:

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“When something is carved off, something is left uncarved. When debate settles something, something else is left out. What’s left out is always the most important thing of all. What is it? The sage hides it in her embrace and does not divide it with words. Most people feel obliged to try and prove it to others, but this just leaves it left out once again” (2:42).

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Here we see the shift to an emphasis on “what is left out”, “the most important thing of all”. Words and the debaters that use them can come to conclusions, but unless they realize their grounding in the incoherence that renders them similarly ultimately incoherent they are abiding in self-deceiving fantasy. The sage, on the other hand, like Liezi, embraces the yin, her own rootedness in Mystery. We might call this the nameless Dao, but even this is a carving off if thought to somehow identify something. “I know not its name, so I call it ‘the Dao’” (Daodejing 25). This Dao, once spoken, is immediately forgotten; further discussion negates it. But this brings an end to our debate; and our difficulty in doing just that is a better lesson in Dao, than speaking of Dao could ever be.

RE-THINKING THINKING XVI

This emphasis on a recontextualization of all things in Mystery is perhaps the most significant paradigm shift presented by Daoism. The metaphor of yin and yang can help to illustrate this. Yang is assertive—the carved off, being, doing, knowing, coherence. Yin is passive—the uncarved, non-being, yielding, not-knowing, incoherence. Humanity, because its most precious experience is that of being, defaults to yang-ing. Classical Chinese philosophical and religious endeavors prior to Daoism pursued a dao of seeking for fast and sure principles in history, human nature and Nature which could effectively guide our societal and individual behavior—it was all about yang-ing. Daoism answered that since all things emerge from yin, Mystery, we would do better to trust what pre-cognitively arises from our unfathomable being. “He [the sage] returns to the state of the Uncarved Block. . . . Truly, the best carver does the least carving” (Laozi 28; Waley).

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There are strands of thought within the Daodejing that tend toward the extreme in the rejection of language and human inventiveness, advocating for a kind of radical primitivism. Invention, curiosity and the pursuit of all knowing are dismissed. This same extreme position is taken up and amplified in some chapters of the Zhuangzi, but Zhuangzi, though he agrees with the basic premise, takes a much more balanced approach. This is again exemplified by his idea of walking two roads at once—allowing yin to inform our yang-ing, universal incoherence to inform our coherences, non-being (emptiness) to inform our being, and the limits of reason and language to inform our use of them, without the complete negation and abandonment of anything.

RE-THINKING THINKING XV

The idea that to name something is to sever it from its greater context in Mystery is a central theme of the Daodejing. “Dao is forever nameless; the Uncarved Block, though seemingly of no account, is greater than anything that is under heaven” (33; Waley: 1958; with some editing). This metaphysical Dao is metaphorically described as the “Uncarved Block”, reality before the human mind carves it up with names. It remains “nameless” because to name it would be to carve it and thus to destroy it. It must remain incomprehensible, not because it is too big to know—if only we were smarter, or enlightened—, but because it is necessarily incoherent.

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Every human artifice, whether it is the making of a vessel or the use of names, is an act whereby a piece is cut from this block to the loss of its greater context and meaning. Nothing can be fully and genuinely appreciated outside this context. This is why it is the “greatest” despite its seeming uselessness. Every act of “knowing” something requires a distortion of its true nature. But that nature is rooted in Mystery, which means that it cannot in fact be known or its “meaning” discerned. This ambiguity is its only apparent meaning; a meaning that cannot be cognitively grasped, but only viscerally honored.

RE-THINKING THINKING XIV

Finally, philosophical Daoism suggests that language necessarily distorts the true nature of things in at least two fundamental ways. It robs them of their mystery, their oneness in Mystery. And, paradoxically, it robs them of their inviolable individual uniqueness, their not-oneness. Both are unavoidable. However, neither requires the abandonment of language. What is required is that we experientially understand how this is so and thus not allow language to distort our behavioral interface with the world.

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When we realize that sense in which we cannot fathom the true nature of things we are more inclined to respect and honor them. Knowing is a kind of possession; that which we believe we know, we own, and are therefore inclined to use as we wish. A recognition of the mystery of things is to have a sense of awe before them. All things are “holy”. Our necessary use of them is thus tempered by a sense of reverence and thankfulness. The common practice among first people hunters of honoring and thanking the freshly slain animal is much more than empty ritual; it is an expression of a deep sense of mutual connectedness.

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Similarly, to understand an individual thing as belonging to a category is to rob it of its inexplicable uniqueness, its not-oneness. When we see a cow we think “cow” and that is typically the end of it. This particular cow, in all its infinite particularities, is lost in its objectification as a cow. Needless to say, this is expedient; we can hardly become enraptured with the incredible uniqueness of everything we see. When this becomes our primary manner of interfacing with the world, however, our respect for and honoring of all things is diminished.

RE-THINKING THINKING XIII

What we see here is a complete disassociation from any idea that there is an ideal Truth to which our pronouncements must conform. They are rather a consequence of our own unique perspectives. Dao for Zhuangzi is the understanding that all expressions are affirmable:

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“When we are able to see that sense in which they are no longer opposites, this can be called Dao as Convergence, the point of view that allows all daos to converge into a oneness. This point of view is like being at the center of a circle from which one can respond with equanimity to the endless parade of rights and wrongs that spin around one.” (2:19)

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What is also implied in these three passages is the broadening perspective that sees every human expression as equally an expression of Nature, just as we take all other things to be. We do not deem some ant behaviors as “wrong” and others as “right”; they are all simply ants being ants. Army ants are not “bad” and leaf-cutting ants are not “good”. Is there a similar level at which we can deem all human behaviors (without abandoning that which does so judge)? This is a major perspectival paradigm shift that Zhuangzi suggests we entertain to positive effect, and we will consider it in depth later. For our present purposes only its implications for our use of language concerns us:

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“You believe that human speech is different than the chirping of baby birds, but is there a sense in which they are in fact the same? When we understand how they are the same, we wonder if our differences of opinion are really ultimately different at all.” (2:14)

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From the human point of view human speech is indeed different from the chirping of birds, but if we can realize another, “higher” perspective in which it is not, our purely human perspective can be transformed and with it, something of our behavior. Here again we see the idea of walking two roads.

RE-THINKING THINKING XII

Something of the nature of Zhuangzi’s skeptical nominalism can be seen in the following passages:

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“How could it be that our understanding of the various daos could be so darkened that we consider some genuine and others erroneous? How could our understanding of the various theories be so darkened that we deem some right and others wrong? . . . Where can we go without that being a dao? What can we say without that in some sense being affirmable?” (2:15)

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“Something is ‘right’ only because someone deems it so. Something is ‘wrong’ only because someone says it is. Daos (ways) come to be when people walk them. Things are ‘the way they are’ because we understand them as such. They are so because people say they are so. Every individual thing can in some sense be said to be ‘so’, and that ‘so’ can in some sense be affirmed as good and acceptable.” (2:21)