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As I noted last week, I owe a real intellectual debt to Chris Fraser‘s work for helping me figure out Zhuangzi – or the Zhuangzi, as Fraser would say. His interpretations have been of incredible value to me in understanding this very difficult thinker (or text, if you prefer). I have my difficulties with him, though, when it comes to methods of constructive application – of trying to apply Zhuangist philosophy to our contemporary context.

I am referring here primarily to the method that Fraser takes in his 2008 article “Psychological emptiness in the Zhuangzi. The article explores the Zhuangzi‘s concept of xu 虛, which Fraser renders into English as “emptiness” – but with the connotations of “insubstantiality, indeterminateness, and receptiveness.” The Zhuangzi clearly praises xu, above all in a psychological sense. Or rather, multiple psychological senses – and this is where the trouble begins.

In deference to Fraser’s usage, I refer here to “the Zhuangzi” as a text rather than to Zhuangzi as a postulated author-redactor, despite my preference for the latter. The difference is important in the case of this particular article, for here Fraser attempts to identify three different ways in which the Zhuangzi praises xu 虛 as psychological emptiness or receptivity – and to separate them from each other.

Fraser distinguishes: first an “instrumental” view of xu, wherein an empty, receptive state of mind allows one to be more effective at accomplishing preexisting goals; second a “moderate” view, wherein an empty, unselfconscious and adaptive state of mind is one intrinsically good element of the good human life; and finally a “radical” view, wherein a good life consists of emptying one’s mind in order to cease identifying with oneself and instead identify with the highest way (dao 道) or nature (tian 天). Fraser makes it no secret that he likes the instrumental and moderate views, even is prepared to advocate them (though he doesn’t have space to do so in the article). But he finds himself repulsed by the radical view and expects his readers to be as well. So the key aim of his article is to analytically cleave the radical view off from the instrumental and moderate, that we might accept the instrumental and moderate views without the radical.

I think this would be a valuable and valid strategy if it were supported by text criticism — if, that is, Fraser had delved into the difficult task of teasing out the different historical writers whose views are recorded in this composite text, as scholars of the Hebrew Bible have done. But in his third footnote, Fraser explicitly disclaims any attempt at source criticism:

because little historical information is available on the authorship and provenance of the Zhuāngzǐ, I believe the appropriate interpretive approach is to focus on the texts, not their unknown authors. That is, instead of attempting to reconstruct the systematic thought of one or more authors—a project that simply cannot be carried out convincingly, given the nature of the text and our lack of historical information about it—interpreters should focus on exploring and reconstructing the rich discourses on various themes found in the anthology.

Fraser is quite clear, then, about what he is not claiming. He is not telling us that each of the three views he identifies was held by a distinct historical person or persons. The claim of three views is not a historical or textual claim; it is entirely an interpretive claim, an interpretive strategy, as is my preferred strategy of reading for coherent authorship. But Fraser’s stated aim is to take the opposite strategy to mine – rather than looking for coherence in the Zhuangzi, he picks it apart.

He therefore is not following Thomas Kuhn’s advice that we “ask ourselves how a sensible person could have written” the apparent absurdities in an important work – in this case, the radical passages of the Zhuangzi. Rather, his approach is to establish that they are absurdities, in order, effectively, to throw them out. And that is an approach that I find terribly limiting.

Of the radical view as an ethical ideal, Fraser says that it “calls not for refutation so much as simply diagnosis of the psychological assumptions and ethical-religious beliefs on which it rests—beliefs that are no longer a live alternative for most of us today.” But this claim begs the most important questions. Perhaps these beliefs should be a live alternative for most of us today. It would seem likely that the authors and redactors of the Zhuangzi thought that they indeed should be so. And it seems to me that those might even be the most interesting and valuable beliefs we could find in the Zhuangzi. Indeed I find it’s quite typically the case that the background assumptions are the most important thing to learn from a text.

For the very alienness of a foreign worldview is what gives it the capacity to transform us, to make a real difference in our lives. The most valuable lessons I learned from Buddhism – that suffering comes not from not getting what we want but from the want itself, that we should wish our enemies well, that one can live well without political engagement – these were all lessons that I resisted at first, that I found as “implausible” and “unappealing” as Fraser finds the radical Zhuangist view. (In the latter case, a colleague tried to tell me, as others often do, that “we cannot today accept” an ethical worldview that does not involve political action; much of my work on Śāntideva has been inspired by a conviction that Śāntideva helps us refute views like my colleague’s.)

And we shouldn’t be surprised if the most valuable lessons are also the ones that, at first glance, look implausible and unappealing. If they didn’t look that way, it would likely be because we were already so close to those views that they wouldn’t change us very much. Fraser’s readiness to discard the implausible and unappealing is common in cross-cultural philosophy, but it’s also somewhat unfortunate. Colleagues of mine in graduate school referred to it disdainfully as the “shopping cart” approach to cross-cultural philosophy. I noted at the time that that disdain wasn’t necessarily called for. After all, what’s wrong with shopping carts? Don’t we need to carry groceries? But it is true that in the shopping cart something is missing: when we can pick and choose exactly what we want, as we do at a supermarket, then we are not challenged, we are not provoked to undergo any sort of deep transformation. For that, we need to explore and understand ideas we don’t like. To paraphrase Zhuangzi himself: everyone knows the appeal of the appealing, but nobody knows the appeal of the unappealing.