Last week I critiqued Chris Fraser‘s readiness to discard the “implausible, unappealing radical” view that he found in the Zhuangzi. My reflections there were general and methodological. Here I want to plunge into the details and see what might happen if we read the Zhuangzi in the way that I recommended there, rather than the way that Fraser takes in his article.
Let me be clear that what follows is the work of a rank beginner in the study of Daoism. Indeed, most of what I know of the Zhuangzi comes from Fraser himself. So I acknowledge that my attempted interpretation here may be totally wrong. But just based on the passages Fraser himself translates, I find it a more satisfying interpretation than the one that Fraser takes.
We are speaking of what Fraser identifies as the “radical view” of psychological emptiness (xu 虛) in the Zhuangzi. As Fraser describes it, in this “radical view”, xu 虛 is
an element of an ideal psychological state, but… the degree of emptiness and the form of life advocated are those of the Daoist sage or saint, who has transcended mundane human concerns to merge with Tiān 天 (Heaven, Nature) or the Dào 道 (Way) of the cosmos and lives a life hardly recognizable as human. (124)
Fraser finds problems in this worldview, features of the worldview that he believes are “compelling grounds” for rejecting it. He believes that the radical view presents internal contradictions, i.e. that it contradicts other views found in the Zhuangzi; and he believes that one could not actually live according to the worldview in practice.
Now as I noted last time, I take my methodological cue for reading from Thomas Kuhn in The Essential Tension: “When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them.” And as I noted a couple weeks ago, this advice applies to composite texts like the Zhuangzi as well. When we read an important composite work, we should ask: how could a sensible person have composed its components, and how could another sensible person have put them together? So with respect to the Zhuangzi, the first task I wish to undertake is to look at the kinds of problems Fraser describes with the radical view — and figure out how a sensible person could have written the relevant passages. This task is what Fraser’s article leaves undone. So, despite my far more limited knowledge of the text, language and tradition, I will attempt here to undertake it myself. Let’s see how it goes.
The radical ideal is clearly articulated in this passage:
Do not be the incarnation of a name; do not be a storehouse of plans; do not undertake affairs; do not be a master of knowledge. Identify fully with the limitless and roam in the sign-less. Exhaust what you receive from Heaven without any thought of gain. Just be empty (xū), that’s all. The ultimate person’s use of the heart is like a mirror, neither welcoming nor escorting, responding without storing. So he can overcome things without being harmed. (7/31–33)
Fraser thinks that this approach contradicts the lessons of the text’s narrative portions, such as the story of Yan Hui, who asked for guidance in an attempt to reform a tyrant, or the master engraver Qing. One cannot merely respond to one’s environment in the way advocated. The characters treated as moral exemplars still act in the world, in a way that this ideal seems to conflict with:
Phenomenologically, such responses may indeed seem to be driven purely by events in the agent’s environment—in the way that a tennis player in the xū state returns a serve automatically, without thinking—rather than by the agent’s intentions. Excepting reflexive or biologically driven responses, however, they can occur only within the context of intentionally initiated tasks or projects. And even such immediate, automatic action is ultimately intentional: Yán Huí must resolve to reform the tyrant, Qìng must set out to carve a bellstand, and the swimmer must dive into the river before they can simply empty their heart and respond to things. Perfected action thus cannot issue from the utterly unthinking, non-intentional “emptiness, nothingness, calm, and indifference” of the radical conception of the sage. (139)
But is this really the case? I see nothing criticizing any word translated as intention in any of the passages Fraser quotes endorsing the radical view. Especially, the “radical” passages do not seem to criticize zhi 志, the word that Fraser translates as “intention”, and which seems to be praised in some of the “instrumental” or “moderate” passages. Of zhi 志 Fraser says:
In many pre-Hàn texts, it can be interpreted roughly as “intention,” in effect the direction of the heart or the end toward which it is directed, often settled through deliberation. Zhì may be conscious or dispositional. We might think of it as fixing the direction of the heart or programming the agent to act in a certain way.
So why could the radical Zhuangist not have zhi? Zhi, as explained here, could simply be the process by which the world acts on the Zhuangist – a process of causation by which he comes to act appropriately, without thought. He would have cultivated proper responses to the point that they become “reflexive or biologically driven”, like a fiddle player’s playing. Why could a dispositional “fixing of the direction of the heart” – let alone a “programming” – not be similarly reflexive? Perhaps Yan Hui can be attuned enough to the proper way of things that the task of reforming a tyrant comes to him naturally and reflexively, without mental resolution.
Elsewhere the text says “let your heart wander in plainness, merge your qì 氣 with the vastness, follow along with how things are in themselves, making no room for the personal (si 私), and the world will be in order” (7/10–11). Si potentially refers to all aspects of individual identity, motivation, and judgment.” So the ideal Zhuangist seems to take an impartial view, acting not on his own initiative but responding automatically and immediately to any situation that arose.
In response, Fraser says: “The problem, of course, is that for finite beings such as ourselves, this ideal is unreachable even in principle, since the level of impartiality, knowledge, and skill it demands could be attainable only by a god.” (139) But is this so? Is it really “of course” that no human being could ever reach an ideal of impartiality not only in practice, but even in principle? Surely such a claim at least requires some evidence, of which Fraser provides none. Even if it were, one might ask whether it is nevertheless at least worth striving for asymptotically, trying to get ever closer to the ideal even if one never quite makes it. And if the idea’s wrongness is so obvious as to merit an “of course”, we need to explain how the text’s writers and redactor didn’t see something so obvious.
I find Fraser’s explanations of such textual features unsatisfactory. About the closest Fraser comes to a sympathetic understanding of the radical view is to say that it “is grounded in the religious faith—understandable, in pre-Hàn China—that Tiān or Dào constitutes an ultimate normative order, that the best life is therefore one that fully conforms to or identifies with it, and that conscious thought and human agency are not only not part of such a life but the main obstacles to it.” Here the radical view is at least viewed as “understandable” – but “understandable” means only something like “if you lived in the primitive barbarian culture of pre-Han China, you’d probably believe crap like this too. Good thing we don’t, eh?” But is it really fair to rule out pre-Han China’s entire swath of background assumptions as credulous superstition? Could it not be that we have something to learn from this too? In asking how a sensible person could have written something apparently absurd, it is not enough to say he was simply misled by the superstitions of a stupid and gullible culture – not when ideas in that culture are just what we’re trying to learn from. How could the sensible people within this culture have believed such a thing?
It seems to me that there is a real power to the “radical” view of xu expressed in the Zhuangzi – a view that could perhaps be described as getting over yourself, making a drastic and spiritually beneficial shift away from the personal. It is not the same as the shift that Śāntideva advocates, but it bears similarities to it, and it suggests similar benefits – perhaps most notably, getting over the fear of death.
Now after all this I suppose it’s important for me to answer the question: so having defended the Zhuangzi like this, do I agree with it? The answer is: I don’t think so. I have many concerns about the life the Zhuangzi advocates, many or even most of which overlap with Fraser’s. But I do see enormous power and appeal in its approach. I certainly don’t think Fraser’s arguments are sufficient to knock the Zhuangzi‘s “radical” view down, just as my dissertation tried to show that Martha Nussbaum’s anti-Stoic arguments are not sufficient to knock down Śāntideva’s views on external goods. The matter ended unresolved – not unresolvable, just unresolved. For the dissertation was only the beginning of an inquiry. And so is this post.