It needs to be said that Zhuangzi’s skeptical nominalism was only part of a larger project of freeing us from every dependence; he was not particularly interested in the conclusions of the School of Names for their own sake. He did not depend on the validity of their arguments, but simply made use of them in that they helped to illuminate the “obvious” experience of our existential dangle, our ever-present suspension in ambiguity and doubt. What he depends on is Everything, which means that he depends on nothing in particular. Entrusting oneself to the Happening means to be free of dependence on any particular happening.
Nominalism is described as a metaphysical position regarding whether of our verbal distinctions, especially universals like “beauty”, exist in reality. Nominalism, in opposition to realism (e.g. Plato’s Idea of the Good), does not take them as existing and thus moves away from Idealism. We call Zhuangzi a skeptical nominalist because, in the light of his not-knowing, he would see no basis for weighing in one way or the other. Because we do not know, we are free to choose what best fulfills or needs. Idealism, in his view, does not in that it requires us to depend on what is undependable and thus sets us up for the doubt that saps our spirit since it is in opposition to our belief. When we cling to only one side of any dyad of simultaneously generating opposites we will be plagued by the other side. The doubt that does not sap our spirit is the doubt that is fundamental to our experience. It does not arise in relation to belief, and when embraced becomes that upon which we soar. A parallel can be seen in Zhuangzi’s treatment of the apparent ever-changing nature of all things; opposing change in favor of a constant such as one’s self-identity brings grief; embracing it such that one becomes it, brings freedom. Being change itself, where can one be lost in the process of change?
A CRITIQUE OF LANGUAGE
Another aspect of Zhuangzi’s critique of reason concerns the ability of language, words, to adequately represent reality, or more importantly, to not distort it. In this he was a skeptical nominalist and in sympathy with some within the so-called “School of Names” (mingjia), a diverse group of philosophers who flourished during the Warring States Era (479-221 BCE). His friendship and anecdotal sparring with Hui Shi (Huizi), a prominent exemplar of this “school”, seems to have especially influenced him in this regard. Huizi used a number of paradoxes to demonstrate, among other things, that our definitions of things are determined by our perspective rather than by something innate in the things themselves. This led him to a form of relativism which he used as an occasion for sophistry in the winning of debates. Zhuangzi was in essential agreement with this thesis, but put it to a far better use. Zhuangzi’s perspectivism is a central point of departure for his use of new, recontextualizing perspectives as a means to transforming our interface with the world so as to realize greater harmony with ourselves, others and the world.
One of Zhuangzi’s central themes is that to depend on anything is to set oneself up for disappointment and, when one’s entire raison d’etre requires that something be “true”, despair. To depend on reason and ideas is to lean on a flimsy reed. As an alternative he suggests we learn to reconnect with our own unmediated life experience which simply is and requires no reason to be. This movement is ultimately one of entrusting oneself to the unknowable, for one remains “ever not-knowing one’s source”; no surety, no reason to be, is on offer. But this is an idea. So, for Zhuangzi ideas are very important. But more important still is that we realize that to which they point and then forget them.
We might here make profitable use of Kierkegaard’s metaphor of sewing without having a knot at the end of the thread. We can sew to our heart’s content, but we can never pull it up firm and tight; it has no anchor. We remain adrift while we pretend otherwise. His critique of Hegel’s Logic suggests the same. We quote Ziporyn’s reference (Being and Ambiguity, p xvii): “If this had been prefaced by the words, ‘The following is all only a thought experiment,’ it would have been the greatest work of all time; as it is, it is merely laughable.” Hegel’s mistake was to believe that his system was True, that Reason could establish itself. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t “work”, even as Newtonian physics still works despite having been overturned by Einsteinian physics.
Another way in which Zhuangzi seeks to put reason in its proper context is to simply point to its lack of any sure foundation. Having just made a case for the advantages that would accrue from understanding what is of Nature (a given) and of the human (a choice) he immediately tells us that this is a vain search: “However, there is a problem here. For our understanding can be in the right only by virtue of a relationship of dependence on something, and what it depends on is peculiarly unfixed” (6; Ziporyn, p 39). His principal point is that every representation of knowledge is always contingent upon a point of view, where one presently finds oneself. This is necessarily different from every other point of view, but also from those that will arise from one’s ever changing circumstances which in turn yield ever changing points of view. We will look at this perspectivism in more detail in the next chapter. For the moment we wish to point out how this also applies to a lack of any true foundation. Reason is very adept at building castles, but they are always built on sand. Reason is its own proof and thus fails of reason. It is circular. It depends on what cannot be demonstrated. We look for a raison d’etre, a reason to be, a firm and unshakeable foundation upon which to establish ourselves in surety, but we will not find it. Yet we make the attempt nonetheless, for we would rather live with our inauthenticity than live adrift. “Drift and doubt” are among the inescapable givens of the human experience, its essential “existential dangle”.
It is rationalism, the belief that only reason can give us proper guidance in life, which he [Zhuangzi] rejects. Rationalism cannot forget the words. No passage better demonstrates his affirmation of reason while recognizing its limits than this one also previously cited in part:
“Therefore, when the rationalizing mind restfully settles in what it cannot know, it has fully realized itself. The proof that uses no words, the Dao that is not-a-dao—who can ‘know’ them? The ability to in some sense ‘understand’ these I call tapping the Heavenly Reservoir. It is poured into, but never full, partaken of, but never emptied. Yet we are ever-not-knowing from whence it comes. It is simply life itself. Let’s call it The Dark Brilliance.” (Zhuangzi 2:44)
When reason discovers its limits and we let that point us to where reason cannot go it has realized its fullest potential. Zhuangzi agrees with Laozi that “the dao that can be spoken is not the Constant Dao” (Daodejing 1). Daos are spoken guidance, articulated paths. They are necessary, but should not be taken as representing Truth; they too need to be forgotten. This dao as expressed above points us to the inexplicable mystery of our own self-arising, the life experience that we are, and suggests another more immediate and unmediated way to experience it. This experience of the up-welling of life he calls the Heavenly Reservoir and The Dark Brilliance. It is dark because its source remains shrouded in utter Mystery. It is a Brilliance because we experience it as the deepest intimacy possible. And we can speak of it as well. Only we should not let our words forget the Mystery. Nor should we take the Heavenly Reservoir for some “thing”, a true nature—its roots are in Mystery and thus it too is Mystery. It is the occasion of life, a happening without apparent causation.
This exercise of imagining a cosmos without moral judgment is in fact one of the recontextualizations we are attempting to now justify. Imagine a universe without humanity; do moral judgments apply in such a place? Was there good and evil in the Jurassic Age? Even now, is there good and evil on Uranus? In this way we broaden our perspective, see the world from a non-anthropocentric point of view. But we are, of course, human and as such we exercise our faculty for moral discrimination. Only now it is informed by a relativizing “higher” view. This is Zhuangzi’s “walking two roads” at once. The many ways in which this informs our behavior we will consider anon; here, we simply wish to make the point that Daoism is thereby able to embrace all that obtains to the human experience, including the faculty of reason.
This recontextualizing perspective also allows us to understand that human beings are what human beings do, and if we are to affirm humanity unconditionally, then we must also be able to transcend our moral judgments concerning its behavior. Zhuangzi addresses the misuse of reason, not its use; but even this misuse is affirmable in as much as it is an expression of humanity as it naturally manifests. Much in the world strikes us as dysfunctional—the “savagery” of the survival of the fittest, the useless but dangerous appendix, and the evolution of a creature, the human being, as a self-aware “god that shits”, and thus fearful of its own mortality—but all of it is ultimately affirmable. His critique can thus both affirm humanity as it is and suggest a way that might prove more conducive to human flourishing.
Some have suggested that Zhuangzi was anti-reason. This, we believe, is to completely distort his position. Most fundamentally, it misses that Zhuangzi and Daoism generally negate nothing of the human experience. Ultimately, all things are affirmable by virtue of their having arisen at all. This means that even the misuse of reason, or any other human faculty, is, within the broadest possible context, also affirmable. By “affirmable” we do not mean “good” as opposed to “evil”; we mean that it is possible to imagine apparent reality as beyond good and evil. We will have occasion to address this again in more detail as it pertains to the inherent value of all things. Our point here is that Daoism embraces all things generally and all expressions within humanity specifically. The faculty of a reasoning mind has its problems, but this does not mean it should be eliminated. The same can be said for every other human faculty, including the self which is so often disparaged and vilified.
In order to understand Zhuangzi’s primary methodological approach to self-transformation, what we are calling “transformative recontextualization”, we need to begin with an understanding of his critique of reason and language. For this, we could not do better than to begin with a passage attributed to Zhuangzi which we have already cited in part:
“A fish trap is there for the fish. When you have got hold of the fish, you forget the trap. A snare is for the rabbits. When you have got hold of the rabbit, you forget the snare. Words are for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a few words with him?” (Zhuangzi 26; Ziporyn, p 114)
From this we understand that words—language—are an entirely necessary and affirmable human facility. Only they should not be taken as an end in themselves; their true purpose is to direct us beyond themselves, to an appreciation of their intent that affects our interface with that of which they speak. To make this movement is to forget the words.
We can understand this as suggesting that we move from the letter to the spirit of what is said. By way of example, consider Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees as represented in the Christian Bible. The Pharisees objected to Jesus healing the sick on the Sabbath. The Law says that one should do no work on the Sabbath. However, Jesus replied that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. The Pharisees, in following the letter of the Law, missed its spirit, namely the betterment of the human condition. Forgetting the words and realizing the intent can lead to real behavioral change.