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Difficulties With The Zhuangzi Philosophy Essay

Readers of the Zhuangzi inevitably have to struggle with two sets of difficulties. One set concerns the content of Zhuangzis thought presented within his writings. By this content I mean, for instance, Zhuangzi’s views regarding the ideal ethical way of life, his views on uselessness, on death, and on the limitations of language and philosophical discourse. The problem is that these views often appear paradoxical and even contradictory. In other words, the content of the Zhuangzi seems, at times, incoherent, nonsensical and downright baffling. This makes any attempt to state, let alone understand, Zhuangzi’s views difficult.

A second set of difficulties is generated by Zhuangzi’s writing style. The text almost never states a point or argument outright; instead the Zhuangzi is a lively text full of humorous stories, ironical anecdotes and populated by a cast of unlikely characters. Rather than state his point of view and argue for it, Zhuangzi transports the reader into a beautiful and mystical landscape of talking trees, dreaming butterflies, craftsmen, beggars, deformed people and leper women. Consequently, it is a text that resists rational analysis and constantly raises questions about how the reader is to engage with it.

We might think that the problems facing the philosophical interpreter of Zhuangzi are purely those posed by the first set of difficulties. But this is not so. I believe that the two set of difficulties are closely related: the content of Zhuangzi’s thinking is inseparable from the manner of his writings. This means that coming to terms with his style is necessary to understanding his thought. At the very least, to say that understanding Zhuangzi’s style is important to understanding his thought is to say that since the style of his writing is unusual and peculiar, making sense of Zhuangzi necessarily requires making sense of what he is trying to say amid his stories and parables.

After all, Zhuangzi does not exhibit the features we have been accustomed to expect of philosophical discussions prevalent at that time. [2] This suggests that the style of the Zhuangzi is no accident: rather, it seems more likely to think that certain intent determined the way it was crafted. On the other hand, I also assume that like every other writer, Zhuangzi writes to be understood, that he too wanted his audience to appreciate and accept his views. Ideally, any interpretation of the text should thus be able to offer some explanation as to why the style is purposefully structured as such. It would be strange to think that he writes so as to be vague and unclear, and not to be believed.

In this thesis, I shall be examining an aspect of the style of the Zhuangzi as providing a way to communicate a philosophy that could not be communicated in an ordinary and usual way. In particular, I will be focusing on how Zhuangzi uses the device of humour brought about by a certain language and writing style to achieve a therapeutic effect on his audiences. I will begin by introducing the kind of philosophical discourse occurring at the time of Zhuangzi and his desire to distance himself from it. Then I will discuss how he tries to contribute to the debates by employing writing techniques that result in humour. By looking at three of those techniques, I hope to illustrate exactly how Zhuangzi engages in the debate to communicate his ideas that could not be said with ordinary words.

But in order to understand Zhuangzi’s project, it is first necessary to understand the intellectual-historical context in which he operated in. In the rest of this introduction, I will briefly present a fairly traditional account of this context. [3] 

1.2 The Intellectual-Historical Context of Zhuangzi

My aim in this section is to highlight how, by Zhuangzi’s time, what began as a concern to discover and live the ethical ideal became a philosophical quest for the right way to express that ethical ideal in language, and to justify that expression in intellectual debate.

According to Ziporyn, the dates for Zhuangzi are 369-286 B.C.E. This puts him roughly the middle of the Warring States Period of Early China (5th to 3rd century BC). This period, with its many thinkers and vibrant debates between them, is often seen as the classical or formative period of Chinese Philosophy. It is also a period of political conflict between the various states that compose China and perceived moral decline among the people. A.C. Graham notes that the thinking of the Warring States philosophers is largely a response to the perceived breakdown of the moral and political order, and for these thinkers, the critical question is “What is the truth?” but “Where is the Way?”, the way to order the state and conduct personal life. [4] In other words, their main concern is ethical in that it concerns how one should live, and the term for the goal of their inquiry is “the Way”, or dao.

As the search for the Way flourished, different and conflicting views about what the Way consists in, or, as Kwong-loi Shun puts it, different conceptions of the ethical ideal were put forward. These views are all rooted in practical concerns such as to how to best restore social orders and to conduct oneself in the troubled and dangerous times. [5] They are the views we associate with such thinkers (retrospectively identified) as the Confucians, Mohists, Daoists, Yangists and so on. [6] But for my purpose of setting Zhuangzi in his context, two groups are of particular interest as they are often mentioned and criticised specifically by Zhuangzi in the text. They are the Confucians and the Mohists.

According to Han Feizi (ca 280-233 B.C.E), writing towards the end of the period, the Confucians and the Mohists were the prominent schools of the times. The Confucians represent the traditional status quo in the intellectual landscape from the time of Confucius, who advocated a return to the traditional rites of the Zhou dynasty, and a system of cultivation of virtues via study of the rites, ancient texts and music. The Mohists challenged this state of affairs by establishing themselves as a highly organised philosophical group and the first major competitor to the Confucians. The Mohists can be seen as proposing a form of consequentialism with the aim to maximise li (benefits/profits) for the states and the people.

The Mohists believed that they would be able to persuade people to accept their ideas using the power of reason. Since they were relatively new and were directly challenging the well-accepted Confucians, the Mohists therefore set out to systematically present their teaching in collections of essays, giving clear reasons and arguments for them. This marked the beginning of systematic philosophical debates in China.

One important innovation concerns the Mohists’ emphasis on yan. Kwong-loi Shun notes the frequent association of yan and dao as indicating that yan is often a teaching about dao. [7] We can thus think of these yan (that express dao) as “doctrines” or “action guiding maxims”. The crucial point is that Mohist were probably the first thinkers of Early China to systematically articulate their conception of dao as a set of doctrines—their ten core theses. In fact, not only did the Mohists treat yan as the verbal counterpart to the dao and thus see the latter as the fit subject of expression in language, they went so far as to present opponents as coming from opposing doctrines and in several occasions, to identify rivals by the doctrines they putatively held on to. [8] One assumption that the Mohists seemed to be operating on was that humans learn the proper way of life by endorsing a certain doctrine (yan). [9] Finally, in defending their various doctrines, the Mohists also discussed the methods of assessing yan and came up with a system of “Three Gauges” to assess if we should accept a certain yan. [10] Arguing with the Mohists therefore becomes an argument about the right yan.

The Mohists, in their defence of various doctrines, frequently used methods of assessing and gauging yan. For example they came up with a system of using gauges or tests mentioned in their textto assess if we should accept a certain yan. [11] One assumption that the Mohists seemed to be operating on was that humans learn the proper way of life by endorsing a certain doctrine (yan). [12] Loy Hui-chieh argues that given the usage of yan in the Mohist’s core chapters, it is better to construct yan as a “maxim of conduct or the verbal counterpart to dao – ‘the right ways about things’ – and within the specific context of the MCC (Mohist’s core chapters)”. [13] Arguing with the Mohists therefore becomes an argument about the right yan.

With this development, the Confucians were compelled to similarly defend their dao with arguments. In Mencius 3B9, the Confucian thinker Mencius (fourth century B.C.) defended himself against the accusation that he is “fond of disputation” by pointing to the need to counter the pernicious yan of the Mohists and Yangists. He says that he simply had no alternative, for “the world [having] declined and the Way fell into obscurity, heresies and violence again arose”. He wishes to “safeguard the way of the former sages against the onslaughts of Yang and Mo and to banish excessive views.” Whoever can do so with words, according to Mencius, is “a true disciple of the sages.” [14] 

As the various schools are launched fully into debates, there emerged for the first time thinkers who were fascinated by the mechanics of disputation (bian) and verbal paradoxes. They were collectively known as the Mingjia (“School of Names”). [15] As their name suggests, much of their discussion centres on ming (names) and their connection with the actual world. Some of these thinkers were also known as Bianzhe (“disputers”) and were known for their expertise in disputations. Together with the later Mohists, who were also interested in geometry, optics, mechanics, and economics, these groups believed that disagreements could be resolved if distinctions were clarified and that disputations would get to the roots of socio-political issues by clarifying the status of names and their connection with the actual world. [16] 

1.3 Zhuangzi’s dao

This was the philosophical landscape when Zhuangzi came onto the scene: Various schools were presenting and arguing for their ideal Way, their dao through debates and arguments. Zhuangzi referred and alluded to many of the ideas from the different schools in his text, and attacked and criticised views that were remarkably similar. [17] From these passages, we can clearly discern that Zhuangzi’s disinclination towards the views of the various schools. The question that we are faced with now is whether Zhuangzi himself has a dao, an ethical ideal, which he wanted to advocate or was he simply expressing disagreement with the dao of others?

Further more, does his dao has a positive content in itself? Chad Hansen, for instance, believes that Zhuangzi is a relativist, which will suggest that he does not hold to a dao, strictly speaking. [18] 

This is a matter that has been widely debated over. Numerous authors have advanced views that challenge both the view Zhuangzi is a relativist and the view that he does not have a dao of his own. Eric Schwitzgebel, for instance, points to the existence of evaluative claims that endorse and reject certain ways of living. [19] He argues that saying that Zhuangzi does not have a dao or viewing Zhuangzi as a relativist would fail to account for the visionary and evaluative claims inherent in the text, as most prominently featured in the series of “knack stories” throughout the text, such as the Cook Ding story.

The task of this essay, however, is not to give an exhaustive account and evaluation of the issue as to whether Zhuangzi is a relativist. Rather, my aim is to examine an issue that arises if we assume the existence of a positive ethical project found in the Zhuangzi. I assume that we can form a coherent reading of Zhuangzi that can takes into account the positive ethical ideal in the Zhuangzi without rendering the text unintelligible or self-contradictory. In this regard, Zhuangzi is not a skeptic or a relativist, but he subscribes to a certain positive ethical ideal that can be realised. This means that at one level, Zhuangzi is just like the rest—also concern with answering the question “Where is the Way?”, and to offer guidance towards the best way to live one’s life and to conduct oneself in the troubled and dangerous times.

However, he chose not to present his ideas in the usual discourses found in the other schools, and developed his own unique writing style to offer an alterative answer to the debates. The reason for this, as I will argue shortly, is because Zhuangzi is skeptical of the usefulness of the debates that were dominant during his time and he wanted to point out the futility of the philosophical tradition. He is a skeptic in another aspect, - specifically of the use of language to offer any useful guidance or justification in the debate concerning “What is the Way?” Because of this skepticism, he is forced to engage in an alterative writing style that distinguishes Zhuangzi from other philosophical works of the time.

I will use the term “doctrine skepticism” to refer broadly to this particular set of views that Zhuangzi holds regarding the nature of language in debates concerning the ethical idea way of life. In the next section, I will explain this view of doctrine skepticism and offer textual evidences to support them.

2. Skepticism and Humour

2.1 Zhuangzi’s skepticism on guidance towards the Way

The first part of Zhuangzi doctrine skepticism concerns his view on knowledge of the dao, and how the very nature of this knowledge cannot be described in words. Zhuangzi’s point is basically that the knowledge that we acquire through debates, arguments and reading and so on, are book knowledge that could not guide us to follow the dao. True and useful knowledge of the dao comes in another form. We can appreciate this difference in the kind of knowledge, by classifying knowledge into expressed and operative knowledge. Expressed knowledge includes what we can articulate, including for example our knowledge of how a ball travels through the air in an arc, described by a mathematical expression. Operative knowledge includes for example, knowledge such as how to run to a particular spot in a field to catch a football. While our expressive knowledge may be used to explain why we run to that location, it is largely useless in a football game. Even though our expressed knowledge about the ball’s parabolic trajectory might be used to inform us about where to run if we had a great deal of time and sophisticated measuring instruments, it is of little use in the practical circumstances of a football game. In reality, getting to the right spot is of greater relevance even though we can’t articulate the principles underlying this knowledge. A lot of our skills, for example language, music, certain mathematics truths, and object perception, are largely categorised under forms of operative knowledge. [20] 

We can best comprehend the ideal way Zhuangzi envisioned by the various evaluative passages which endorse and reject certain ways of living, most evidenced by the knack stories scattered throughout the text. Within the inner text, the Cook Ding story demonstrates a certain sort of knowledge that cannot be expressed verbally or even be directly taught.

The story begins by saying that Cook Ding is butchering a cow, his knife and movement are in perfect harmony, as though dancing along to rites music, and Lord Wen-hui was exclaiming his remarkable skill, and Cook Ding insisted that “What I care about is the Course [way], something that advances beyond mere skill”. [21] He has cultivated and refined the skill of butchering to the extent that he “encounter[s] it with the spirit rather than scrutinizing it with the eyes.” [22] Of course, the kind of skill to butcher cows, however well, is not going to help us rule nations or to live a good life. Yet Lord Wen-hui concludes: “Excellent! I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to care for life.” The motif of these knack stories occurs throughout the inner and other chapters, the characters that exhibit the same kind of extraordinary skill: the boatman, woodcarver Qing, wheelwright Pian, the cicada catcher, the old swimmer, and so on. The knowledge and knack that these characters display is different from another form of knowledge, the kind of knowledge which is used in disputes and debates.

Another attribute of these skills and knowledge is apparently also that they cannot be transmitted via words to another person. In chapter two of Zhuangzi, there is a passage about three different masters who have a deep understanding of their arts, “Zhao Wen’s zither playing, Master Kuang’s baton waving, Huizi’s desk slumping…” [23] According to Zhuangzi, they wish for other people to also share their love and understanding of their arts, but “thus some ends their days debating about the obscurities of ‘hardness’ and ‘whiteness’, and Zhao Wen’s son ended his days still grappling his father’s zither string.” [24] This passage is a clear reference to the futility of the Mingjia’s project, “debating about the obscurities of ‘hardness’ and ‘whiteness’”, in trying to convey or teach someone about certain skills and knowledge. [25] The masters have not only failed to transmit their skills and understanding to others, but have fallen into a pointless debate about words.

This idea that true knowledge of the Way must come in the form of operative knowledge is also captured in Zhuangzi’s metaphor of the perfected person who “uses his mind like a mirror.” [26] Ivanhoe remarks that in such a state, one is able to accurately reflects the way things really are and one’s spontaneous tendencies and intuitions will then lead one to respond appropriately [27] , he also points out the significance of the mirror as not just a passive reflector, but for the ancient Chinese, as accurate and appropriate responsders to whatever comes before them. [28] 

Taking into account all these examples in the text, any attempts to construct Zhuangzi’s ethical ideal, therefore, must acknowledge that Zhuangzi’s idea of the dao, or the ideal way to live, is a form of operative knowledge. Although it may be possible to articulate the principles behind the operative knowledge, the articulation is certainly not the operative knowledge itself. And the articulation is largely useless in helping people to acquire the operative knowledge. Since the dao according to Zhuangzi, is in the form of an operative knowledge, it also cannot be articulated or transmitted in words. That is to say, debates and disputations cannot yield any useful guidance towards the Way.

This conclusion is the first part of Zhuangzi’s doctrine skepticism, a kind of skepticism regarding the philosophical traditions of his time, especially the projects of the Mingjia and the Mohists. Zhuangzi did not believe that the debates and discourses by the various schools were able to provide any guidance towards the dao. It may be more accurate to say that his view is not skepticism per se, but just a conception of the genuine knowledge of the Way that excludes the possibility of using language to relate or provide guidance towards its attainment. However, it contributes nevertheless to Zhuangzi’s stand on the futility of the debates and the disputations going on between the schools and it could be expressed as a belief in limitations of language to provide guidance towards the Way.

2.2 Zhuangzi’s skepticism on justification of the Way

Having understood Zhuangzi’s conception of true knowledge of the Way as a form of operative knowledge, it does not rule out the possibility that the Way can nevertheless be expressed. We have previously discussed that an expressive knowledge of the Way will be largely useless in any practical sense to provide guidance. However, can an expressive knowledge of the Way serves any other uses? Ideally, if an expressive knowledge of the Way can be articulated accurately, then it should be possible to use this accurate articulation to prove or justify the validity of the Way to another party.

Zhuangzi however, expressed skepticism concerning the possibility of justifying to another person the correct dao or the correct Way of life. This is the second part of his doctrine skepticism. It is a view that expresses skepticism about the intellectual project going on at that time, which was concerned with the use of language to reach an agreement on the Way.

This skepticism against justification is partly a result of his views concerning language. I wish to first argue that for Zhuangzi, evaluative distinctions made in doctrines are relational and relative, therefore any terms or words used have purposeful meanings only within particular perspectives. The existence of these different perspectives however, hinders the resolutions of debates and discourses.

Zhuangzi articulated his skepticism on words adeptly in the follow passage:

Words are not just winds. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? [29] 

Berkson makes the claim that this passage suggests that for Zhuangzi, the problem with language is that it depends on the perspective of those speaking, the context and the understanding of other words. [30] Berkson divides his idea of Zhuangzi’s skepticism into two forms. I will deviate slightly from his account and offer what I consider a more accurate description.

Firstly, Zhuangzi recognises the relativity of language which arises based on the position of the agent using it, an agent who is operating within a system of meanings and concepts, that may not shared by other parties in a debate. Because of every agent’s different perspective, what we can say of the world will not consist of objective facts about reality, but an expression of a term within a language system. Language therefore fails to act as an adequate vehicle to capture the world as it is.

Van Norden gives the example of two people referring to a lectern to illustrate Zhuangzi’s point. “Say you are on the other side of the room from me, and there is a lectern immediately in front of me. I shall refer to the lectern as "this lectern," while you refer to it as "that lectern." If you and I got into a heated dispute, in which I insisted that it was really "this lectern," while you insisted that it was really "that lectern," it would be obvious to others that this was a purely verbal disagreement. Relative to me, it is "this lectern," relative to you, it is "that lectern." Likewise, Zhuangzi seems to be saying, whether something is beautiful or hideous, benevolent or unbenevolent, righteous or unrighteous depends on one's perspective. For Confucians, having greater concern for one's own relatives than for total strangers is benevolent; for Mohists, it is unbenevolent.” [31] 

Secondly, Zhuangzi recognises that the meaning of certain words as only meaningful relationally, when set up against other words. Berkson uses the example of the demarcation of the temperature of water as an analogy of arbitrariness of the binary oppositions in language. The temperature of water rises in a smooth and undivided continuum. There is no exact range of temperature which we can definitively mark out as inherently “hot”; the water is “hot” only when an individual interacting with it applies the concept of “hot” in relation to other concepts he holds. Thus we see how the concepts we use in the language system are not naturally “in the world”, but an arbitrary creation of man to categorize and organize our experience of the infinite world. As Zhuangzi remarks, “Something is affirmative because someone affirms it. Something is negative because someone negates it. Courses are formed by someone walking them. Things are so by being called so.” [32] 

Several passages in the chapter two of the text Qi wu lun (Equalizing Assessments of Things) suggest that even the most fundamental terms in disputation, "that's it" (shi) and "that's not" (fei) are relative terms, just like the demonstrative pronouns "this" (shi) and "that" (bi):

There is no being that is not “that.” There is no being that is not “this.” But one cannot be seeing these from the perspective of “that”: one knows them only from “this”… [33] 

In his recognition of the relativism that is inherent in the structures of language, Zhuangzi expressed a view that contributed to his doctrine skepticism. I have argued that for Zhuangzi, evaluative distinctions made in doctrines are relative and relational. It is relative based on the position of an agent using it and the system of meanings and concepts that an agent is working from. It is relational because some words have meanings only when set up against other words to demarcate an arbitrary concept. By considering the use of words, specifically evaluative distinctions made in doctrines, as a form of individual expression of reality, Zhuangzi is skeptical of the possibility of finding a common platform in which the debaters can come to a common understanding. This therefore led to Zhuangzi skepticism of the possibility of justification of the Way. I will now offer some textual evidences in support of this view.

We can see Zhuangzi’s skepticism regarding the possibility to justify, or to convince another person to your point of view in a skilful argument in chapter two, Qi wu lun:

Suppose you and I get into a debate. If you win and I lose, does that really mean you are right and I am wrong? If I win and you lose, does that really mean I’m right and you're wrong? Must one of us be right and the other wrong? Or could both of us be right, or both of us wrong? If neither you nor I can know, a third person would be even more benighted.

Whom should we have straighten out the matter?

Someone who agrees with you? But since he already agrees with you, how can he straighten it out? Someone who agrees with me? But since, he already agrees with me, how can he straighten it out? Someone who disagrees with both of us? But if he already disagrees with both of us, how can he straighten it out? Someone who agrees with both of us? But since he already agrees with both of us, how can he straighten it out? So neither you nor I nor any third party can ever know how it is - shall we wait for yet some “other”? [34] 

Karyn Lai highlights why, from Zhuangzi’s point of view, the debate between the Confucians and the Mohists is doomed from the start. Both sides are convinced that their view is the correct one, and they assume both the objectiveness and universality of their view. “What ‘is’ for one of them is ‘not’ for the other.” [35] This necessitates the question of how one is to decide which theory or Way is the correct one. Casting this enquiry into two more specific questions, we can ask: Whom do we ask to adjudicate? What criteria do we use in the adjudication of such matters?

In the first analysis, the passage is arguing for the non-existence of an unprejudiced judge that could resolve the dispute to the satisfaction of the two parties, since a person necessarily has some opinions and perspective of his own that the two parties would each agree or disagree with. On a more reflective level, we could also extend the argument to cover the impossibility of a common standard or gauge with which we could use to resolve the dispute. Just like the introduction of the third person into the dispute, if the standard only conforms to the position of one party, the other party will disagree with it. If the standard conforms to both or none of the parties, then it is of no help at all in the dispute either.

This line of thought is in direct contrast to the stand taken by the Mohists who laid down standards that guides sound doctrine, their Test of Doctrine. Loy Hui-chieh elaborated on what the Mohists mean for a thing being a standard for something else by considering the Mohists’ “Artisan Tools Analogy” found in the TianZhi (Heaven’s will) chapter of the Mohist Core Chapter. Heaven’s will is said to be used by Master Mozi as “the compass is to a wheelwright or the setsquare is to a carpenter.” [36] Loy argued that a close consideration of the Artisan Tools Analogy illustrates that the standard - Heaven’s Will, is presented primarily as a tool for evaluating practices and doctrines, rather than a rule for guiding their successful pursuit or formulation of the same. The guiding aspect, as in the case of the craftsmen’s compass and setsquare, while certain present, is not emphasised in the Artisan Tools Analogy. This suggests that for the Mohists, the Tests of Doctrine were primarily employed within a context of justification. A doctrine that passes the Tests is deemed to be justified as sound doctrine and also as amounting to a morally right conduct. [37] 

It is interesting to note that virtually all the disputers at the time agree at least that their view consists of obedience to Heaven. For example, Mencius and Yang Zhu, who appealed to Heaven to justify their views.Yang Zhu argued that the natural dictations are embodied in our inborn physical structure. Heaven’s will therefore is for us to realise and fulfil our length-of-life capacity. Mencius agreed with Yang Zhu that Heaven is the ultimate authority, and Heaven demonstrates its preferences via natural endowments. However, besides a preference for life (for the Yangist) or benefits (of the Mohists), Heaven also instilled in us a “detailed inclination to moral judgement and action.” [38] And it is these moral instincts that give raises to the traditional rituals li, so therefore, following the li is obeying Heaven’s will.

The disagreement of what it means to follow Heaven’s will is an example of the futility of debates to settles disputes using justifications. Because of the different perspectives and paradigms of the various parties, debates and disputations could not be carried out meaningfully on a common platform, therefore for Zhuangzi, language cannot be used to provide justification for the Way.

Reviewing the content of Zhuangzi’s doctrine skepticism, I have thus far discussed the two parts constituting it. First is Zhuangzi’s view that any real and useful knowledge of the Way must be in the form of operative knowledge, and that the very nature of operative knowledge elude the use of words to provide guidance towards it. Second, because words and terms are relational and relative, even if we manage to articulate the expressive knowledge of the Way, the articulation cannot be used to either provide justification or to convince others. Since Zhuangzi viewed the futile debates as a failing of the various schools, he did not wish to participate in the same activity. He must find another way to communicate his views.

2.3 Apophatic language as a textual strategy

As we have seen by the end of the last section, Zhuangzi is faced with a problem, if as we assumes, he does have a positive ethical ideal that he wants to convey and he also is a doctrine skeptic like we have discussed, then it seems Zhuangzi’s views have driven him into a corner. On the one hand, given his view on doctrine skepticism, he has no ways to directly offer any guidance or give justifications for the Way. On the other hand, any effort on his part to engage in discussion of the dao will seemingly undermine his view on doctrine skepticism.

Zhuangzi considered discussing the Way with a cramped scholar that is “shackled by his doctrines” [39] as meaningful as discussing the ocean with a frog in a well that is limited by space. And at the same time Zhuangzi lamented that he longs for someone who share his view on language, who forgets about the fish-traps when one has the fish, someone “who has forgotten words, so that he can have a word with him”. If Zhuangzi did not only want to convey his ideas on the Way, but to also expose the inadequacies of language without falling prey to his own devices, are there any textual methods that let him do it?

Mark Berkson brings in the use of apophatic language as a textual strategy used by Zhuangzi. The employment of apophatic language is marked by several characteristics: “1) The recognition that nothing about the topic can be said directly or referentially, and 2) the subsequent use of language in a negative or indirect way.” [40] He further identifies three marks of apophatic language.

Firstly, apophatic language is characterized by the writer’s use of some form of apology or pact. This refers to a deliberate word of caution from the writer at the outset, admitting that for lack of choice he is forced to use terms that might in fact be misleading or inadequate. In warning his readers not to take his words as wholly accurate, a pact between the reader and the writer is made to provisionally accept the words without clinging on to them as definitive and referential, and to see language as a pragmatic and “temporary” means that is to be withdrawn or abandoned once it has served its purpose. [41] Once the words have done their job and conveyed their intention, they should be forgotten. [42] 

The two other elements that characterize apophatic language involve the undermining of binary logic by self-undermining, regression and reductio ad absurdum; and the use of non-discursive language in the form of paradoxical language, stories, and parables. Examples of these devices abound in Zhuangzi. Apophatic language relies on the use of contradictory and paradoxical statements in order to undermine our confidence in rational discursive thought, thereby tearing down confidence in rational discursive discourse.

The humour in Zhuangzi, I assert, is the result of Zhuangzi’s attempt to employ apophatic language in his text. This is not to say that Zhuangzi necessarily intended his text to be humorous, although I personally think so, and he certainly deserves credit for employing this superior technique if he had intended it to be humorous. Nevertheless, humour is a direct result of the various devious techniques he employed. By examining this humour, we can better understand the methods how Zhuangzi’s method of communications works.

I will now introduce the Incongruity theory of humour and use the theory to explain and understand the presence of humour in Zhuangzi as a result of the use of the apophatic language.

2.4 The Incongruity Theory of humour

Thinkers and philosophisers from the time of Plato have written on the concept of humour and what makes a thing humorous. The concepts can roughly be grouped into four types of theories [43] , which hold that humour can result from feelings of superiority, incongruity, ambivalence, or relief from inhibition or restraint. Of all the three theories, the most widely held theory is probably the Incongruity theory. I assert that the use of apophatic language in the text fits in with the presence of humour when you take into account the Incongruity Theory of humour.

The theory holds that what makes something funny is our perception of unexpected elements in a given scene or situation. Kant in the Critique of Judgement, proposed a kind of incongruity theory. He defines laughter as “an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” [44] Kant says that we hold certain expectations to how stories or jokes will turn out, and when our expectations are suddenly vanished by a punch line, the mind responds in laughter. Arthur Schopenhauer also have a version of the theory, it states that humour arises when there is a clash between a concept, or abstract knowledge, of something and the sensory perception of something. “The cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through in some relation, and laughter itself is just the expression of this incongruity.” [45] We can perhaps think of a humour situation as the mind having wound up and ready to proceed in a certain direction, or to expect certain features or experience, and then suddenly sprang off its path and turned in a new direction.

An example of an incongruity joke that uses our sense of logic to push us further and further away into amusement is the following funny story, found in the Zhuangzi:

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the bridge over the Hao River.

Zhuangzi said, “The minnows swim about so freely, following the openings wherever they take them. Such is the happiness of fish.”

Huizi said, “You are not a fish, so whence do you know the happiness of fish?”

Zhuangzi said, “You are not I, so whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?”

Huizi said, “I am not you, to be sure, so I don’t know what it is to be you. But by the same token, since you are certainly not a fish, my point about your inability to know the happiness of fish stands intact.”

Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to the starting point. You said, ‘Whence do you know the happiness of fish?’ Since your question was premised on your knowing that I know it, I must have known it from here, up above the Hao River.” [46] 

The story constantly challenges our pre-existing expectations of what the correct answer should be, and the final punch-line introduces incongruity into the whole discussion. As Ziporyn explains, Huizi’s initial question showed his acceptance of the principle that one does know another’s experiences, since the question itself could only have been in response to his knowledge that Zhuangzi thinks he knows the happiness of fish. [47] The makes fun of the usual fixed and inflexible ways for perceiving, judging, and evaluating the world, by suggesting a missed, alterative answer that we should have picked up on.

There are many different categories of phenomena that are included within the Incongruity Theory. They range from logical contradiction, equivocation or ambiguity, to strikingly contrasting qualities, and disparities between one mode of thinking and perception and another. The key to identifying these phenomena is to identify instances of Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s idea of the mind derailed from a mode of perspective and shifted onto a new perspective.

One of the few things that commentators and translators agree about Zhuangzi is the humour present in the text. The humour therefore provides a natural entry point to examine his thoughts. I will, in the next section, apply the Incongruity Theory to explain the humour in Zhuangzi and argue that the humour resulting from the use of apophatic language is a solution to his dilemma in using language to express his views. In the rest of the thesis, I will examine the text Zhuangzi to identify the three elements of apophatic language. Using textual evidence, I wish to highlight the operation of the Incongruity Theory within the text and evaluate the effects and use of the humour in the text.

3. The Humour in the Zhuangzi

3.1 Disparity and striking contrasts in things and their qualities

The first element of apophatic language is an apology or pact that the words are not to be taken seriously. The author warns his readers not to take his words as wholly accurate; a pact between the reader and the writer is made to provisionally accept the words without clinging on to them as definitive. Zhuangzi engages in precisely such agreements with his readers, deploying various descriptive and visual exaggerations in his text to humorous effect. He sometime expresses the point explicitly. For example, in one of his discussions he says, “I’m going to try speaking some reckless words. How about listening just as recklessly?” [48] Zhuangzi appears reflective of the significant or insignificant of his dialogue, often ending his words with a disclaimer: “Now I have just said something. But I do not-yet know: has what I said really said anything? Or has it not really said anything?” [49] And even to go as far as admitting that he is caught in the same illusion as everyone else: “Confucius and you are both dreaming! And when I say you’re dreaming, I’m dreaming too.” [50] 

At other times, Zhuangzi conjures up bizarre and peculiar images in the reader’s mind. The text does so often by narrating scenarios and stories that have unlikely characters and unusual and unbelievable situations. The qualities of the things and people in the text are often distorted and strikingly contrasted with our normal experiences and expectations.

The use of visual disparity and self-refuting statements in the Zhuangzi induce a shift in the perspective of the reader, who has his or her usual expectation broken by the use of the unusual imagery or by a conflicting statement. We can see the use of visual disparity and striking contrasts as Zhuangzi’s way of trying to get us to not take his words as absolute truths or try to understand them literately.

The book begins with the story of Kun, a giant fish thousands of miles wide swimming in the “Northern Oblivion” and then transforming into a giant bird Peng, also thousands of mile wide flying towards the “Pool of Heaven”.

This passage is clearly not meant to be understood literally. First we have the existence of creatures that are almost impossibly bigger than their usual size. Secondly we have an impossible transformation from a fish, a thing swimming in the water, to a bird, a thing that flies in the air. This passage has the characteristic of a “myth”, as described by Allinson. He considers the use of the myth at the beginning of this text to serve two purposes. One is an implicit message to the reader that what is to be said cannot be said directly. And two, what is to be said is not to be understood as literally true. [51] 

This can be likened to the act of telling a joke. When someone tells a joke, there is usually some kind of behavioural cue to prepare the audience for the joke. It could be a vocal inflection, a physical behavioural cue like a wink, a mock serious tone, or the explicit direct “have you heard the one about…”, “stop me if you have heard this one…” We can understand this as saying, in effect, “this whole business is false, unreal, not to be taken seriously, and I’m joking”. There is an air of “This is not an everyday sort of communication.” [52] 

The passage, being the first passage, set up the background and framework for the rest of the text. Allinson stated in his book that when ever the mind encounters a “myth-like” story being told, the first reaction is the relaxation of the analytic faculty, and second reaction is the calling fore of another dimension of the mind, namely the “mind of the child”, which has the initial acquaintance with the intuitive or aesthetic cognitive power of the mind [53] . So in effect, the readers’ usual reading patterns are being shifted. Instead of the usual frame of mind that the readers are used to when reading philosophical works, usually an analytical point of view based on language and arguments, the readers are nudged to engage the philosophical topics with a different approach. After all, the readers are not going to read it as a series of fairy tales. They are expecting a text discussing philosophical topics, and at the start their usual pattern of thoughts is already interrupted by Zhuangzi.

Let’s consider the example of humour at play in the parable of Hui Shi and his large gourd. This story firstly conjure up the comical image of some clumsily large gourds, and secondly of Hui Shi, the ever logical practical man, trying to put these gourds to use. He described his attempt to use them to hold some water, but they can’t be lifted. Hui Shi then tried to cut them open as dipper, but they are too big to scoop up anything. Frustrated and out of ideas, Hui Shi decided to smash them apart. Our perspective is firstly shifted by the large unusual gourds, and then again by a frustrated Hui Shi. Zhuangzi then move in to call Hui Shi stupid, and offers a suggestion as to what he would have done with the gourds. We too, at this point, are wondering exactly what good these gourds can do, there is a “strained expectation” to for the answer. Zhuangzi deliveries a great punch line by saying that he will use the gourds to go float carefree around the rivers and lakes. This apparently random and valid answer, accompanied by the image of Zhuangzi sitting on a big tub made out of a gourd is enough to provoke our amusement.

Zhuangzi has a series of amusing transformation stories, for example the story of Ziji, Ziyu, Zili and Zilai. When Ziyu took ill and Ziji went to see him he saw that Ziyu is in bad shape. “His chin was tucked into his navel, his shoulders towered over the crown of his head, his ponytail pointed towards the sky, his five internal organs at the top of him, his thigh bones taking the place of his ribs, and his yin and yang energies in chaos.” But Ziyu says that there is nothing to dislike about his state:

“Not at all. What is there to dislike? Perhaps he will transform my left arm into a rooster; thereby I’ll be announcing the dawn. Perhaps he will transform my right arm into a crossbow pellet; thereby I’ll be seeking out an owl to roast. Perhaps he will transform my ass into wheels and my spirit into a horse; thereby I’ll be riding along-will I need any other vehicle?...” [54] 

Immediately after this, the story went on to say the Zilai has suddenly fallen ill, and this time Zili came to visit him and started addressing the weeping family:

Zili, coming to visit him, said to them, Ach! Away with you! Do not disturb his transformation!” Leaning across the windowsill, he said to the invalid, “How great is the Process of Creation Transformation! What will it make you become? Where will it send you? Will it make you into a mouse's liver? Or perhaps an insect's arm?” [55] 

The comic elements in the story are clear, so much so that when facing such grievous subjects such as deaths and sickness (or perhaps maybe so), we cannot help but laugh at the images that Zhuangzi has chosen to portray and describe the sick and dying people. The outlandish image of an arm transforming into a rooster or a crossbow, and the image of wheels attached to the human body as a result of illness is so incomprehensible by our usual train of thoughts when we think about illness that we cannot but be amused. There is something absurdly funny about someone leading along the windowsill, earnestly telling his dying friend to look out for a transformation that will turn him into a mouse’s liver or an insect’s arm. If we laugh at Zhuangzi’s example of a person transforming into a mouse’s liver, then why do we cry at a person transforming in death? Zhuangzi is trying to shift our habitual respond to another prospective, and he is doing so with absurd and outlandish images and examples that provoke us into laughter.

The rest of the chapters are similarly illustrated with visual reference and rich imageries that serve to make the text a light-hearted read. Whenever possible, Zhuangzi would try to include a small imagery or a little comic situation in his text, be it a praying mantis waving its arms angrily to stop an oncoming carriage, or a story of a horse lover who uses a fine box to hold the dung of the horse and a giant clam shell to hold the urine of the horse.

In short, Zhuangzi derails us from our usual habitual framework of thoughts when he transport the readers at the onset into a landscape of fantasy and visual disproportion, and he continues to use visual disparity and comical illustrations throughout the text to engage the audience, and to jolt certain humours reaction in the readers.

3.2 Logical incongruity

The second element is the undermining of binary logic. Zhuangzi made use of several reductio ad absurdum arguments and logical paradoxes in his text. They all serve to shift our perspective from one expectation to another, or in some cases, induced us into holding two conflicting perspectives.

According to our discussion of the Incongruity Theory, a comic reaction can result when the mind is derailed from one mode of perspective and shifted onto a new perspective. We have looked at some such situations when a certain expectation is not met and the mind is coerced to perceive or accept a previously unnoticed or unexpected perspective or concept.

Building upon this idea of a shift in perspective resulting in humour, we can consider another instance of incongruity. Instead of a shift in perspective, we can also include instances of holding two different perspectives and being unable to decide between them.


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