Huizi (380–305 BCE) and Gongsun Long (ca. 325–250 BCE) were part of a philosophical trend latter called the School of Names. Other descriptive names for them are the Logicians, Dialecticians, and Sophists. All of these address some aspect of their approach. They used reason to demonstrate that reason is “peculiarly unfixed” (it has no sure foundation), does not correspond  to the non-differentiation that lies beyond words, and fails to get at the root of anything. They were skillful at philosophical debate. And, since they believed they had proven that there is really no fixed truth, they were willing to argue for any truth that met their fancy. They had the makings of good lawyers.

I must admit that my eyes quickly cross when trying to understand the School of Names, but it can in fact go a very long way in helping us understand most all classical Chinese philosophy. This is the thesis of Chad Hansen’s A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. He would also have Zhuangzi belong to this school and dismisses the idea that he was a mystic. Zhuangzi did indeed make use of these methods and conclusions, only I argue that they led him to a kind of mysticism, rather than away from it.

Hansen rejects a Zhuangzian mysticism within the traditional definition of mysticism—that some Truth, propositional or otherwise, is discovered. I would suggest that his mysticism as a release into not-knowing was empty of all such content and that this also entailed a release into the life-experience itself. The deconstruction of language led him out of rationalism and into an all-in acceptance of the human experience.

The question pondered by the School of Names is whether words actually correspond to reality (realism) or not (nominalism). Since words are the very stuff of all our reasoning and thought processes generally, this matters.

Confucius and his followers required a realistic position—fixed truth is necessary. Thus he encouraged the “rectification of names”—making sure they correspond to reality. “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. . . What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.” (Analects XIII, v 3,7; Legge)

The Laozi (and Daoism generally) takes the opposite view: “A dao that is spoken is not a Sustainable Dao; names that are named are not sustainable names.” (1)

Every philosopher between these two had to favor one side or the other. Can we know and rely upon (depend on) a fixed (sustainable) Dao, or not?

Zhuangzi position was nominalist. “You take it [human speech] as different than the chirping of baby birds. But is there really any difference between them?” (2:15) “Now, daos have never had any sealed borders, and words have never had any constant sustainability.” (2:34)

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