WORDS VII

Huizi’s chief criticism of Zhuangzi’s philosophy was that his words were “big but useless”. (1:15) For the rationalist, the utility of words stops at their ability to designate a fixed and sure meaning.

The “rectification of names” was a central concern for philosophers of many stripes in Zhuangzi’s time. If we could just make absolutely clear and fixed what words mean, then we would have a Dao that could be spoken. Then we would have sure, cognitive guidance. We could take our minds as our teacher.

Confucius purportedly (this may be a later interpolation) declared the rectification of names the “first thing to be done” if we want to transform society: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” (Analects 13; Legge)

The Daoist revolution, as seen in the opening statement of the Laozi, emphatically declared that no such cognitively fixed guidance was possible: “The dao that can be spoken is not the genuine Dao.”

So, if we are to forget Zhuangzi’s words once we have grasped their meaning, what is that meaning? Only more words can say it, but it cannot be spoken. A bit of a conundrum, it seems. But this need not stop us: “Where is the man who has forgotten words that I might have a few words with him?”

Here are a few words about his meaning: There is the possibility of wandering in freedom if we depend on no words—though we must make use of them to imagine it.

This is a possible psychological response to our experience in life. Words would have us make it the correct response. But forgetting words disallows our doing so. This can be the crux of it. There is a cutting off of fixity, since it is words that are inherently fixed.

Being unfixed is the capacity to wander.

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