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Last year, I made several posts criticizing Chris Fraser‘s interpretation of the Zhuangzi, supported by a previous post on interpretive method. Fraser was kind enough to reply at length to my posts by email, for which I am very grateful, and his replies have provoked my own thoughts further. I have not received his express permission to quote my exchange with him, however, so what follows should not be taken to imply any views or lack thereof on his part – beyond what is in his published papers. Rather, it should be taken solely as a description of how my own views on related subjects have developed and evolved.

Where my views have shifted above all is on the question of how one may best interpret a text – and especially a composite text. The approach I previously outlined for approaching such a text stems from my dissertation on Śāntideva. While it may well be that the works we now associate with Śāntideva are the product of multiple authors, it seemed to me that we can plausibly use the name “Śāntideva” to name the redactor who put them together in the forms we now know through the tradition. I still believe that to be the case. I am, however, far less confident now that that approach can be generalized to other composite texts – most notably the Zhuangzi itself. Is it appropriate to describe that text as the work of an author (or redactor) named Zhuangzi?

Let me start by distinguishing between two approaches to interpreting a text, which can be in tension with each other though they are always related to each other as well. For lack of a better word, I might call the first “philological” and the second “philosophical”. I realize that I have not distinguished enough between them to date, in my own mind as well as in existing discussions.

The philological approach, as I understand it, seeks above all to explain the text, as Alexander Nehamas does – that is, to make sense of all the text’s features. Here what matters above all is understanding the text “as it is”, rather than in terms of what we can learn from it now. To the extent that that is our goal, it seems to me, we have no choice but to take into account all attempts, however limited they might be, at source criticism. Nehamas’s postulated author becomes postulated authors in the plural, for sure – but then philological tools are absolutely essential to understanding which author is which. In the case at hand, it matters a great deal whether or not we postulate one single author to explain the “inner chapters” (chapter 1-7). A.C. Graham identified those as the work of a single author; if his hypothesis is right, then we should take at least chapters 1-7 as the work of a single author, and since (according to Fraser’s article) those seven chapters do contain all three of what Fraser has called the “instrumental”, “moderate” and “radical” views, then we should try to read those views as compatible (as I did in my substantive post).

Some have argued that Graham is wrong on the basis that those seven chapters themselves contain linguistic differences within them. But if we are trying to postulate different views within those chapters in order to explain the text, it seems to me vital that we then specify what those linguistic differences are – in order to make some alternative postulation (one hopefully better than Graham’s) of the different people who put those different views in the text. If, for example, we had half-decent linguistic evidence that (primarily instrumental) chapters 2-4 are composed by one writer’s hand and (primarily radical) chapters 6-7 by another, then Fraser’s separation of instrumental from radical views would make good sense. We must note, though, that his article provides no such evidence.

Now my own overarching concern in all of this is less philological and more philosophical, as I think Fraser’s is as well, and that can involve a wider range of approaches. As philosophers, it seems to me, our task is not only (probably not even primarily) to explain the text’s features but to learn from it, to draw lessons applicable to our own constructive philosophical reflection today. And here, I think, more guesswork is admissible; we do not necessarily need to dive into the work of separating out historical authors with philological tools. What I do think is helpful is to follow something like Thomas Kuhn’s advice to put together the apparent absurdities – not with the goal of reconstructing the historical writer’s thought, but of the payoff Kuhn identifies, that we can learn something new, where passages we thought we understood have changed their meaning. That’s the method I try to follow in my substantive post on Zhuangzi.

The question, however, is whether it is legitimate to take this approach to a composite text, as the Zhuangzi seems to be. I previously had an answer that I thought worked well: postulate a redactor instead of a writer. But I have come to realize that this answer may not be a sufficient one. The redactor approach worked just fine for Śāntideva – I developed it with reference to him – but it may well not work for the Zhuangzi. Harold Roth notes in his article on the text that the version we have of the text was effectively created by the commentator Guo Xiang; Guo threw away portions of the text he didn’t like. And Guo appears to have had an identifiable agenda to synthesize the concerns of the Zhuangzi with Confucian concerns not found within it.

But the next question is: what then is the best approach to take, as philosophers, to a composite text like the Zhuangzi? I will turn to this question next time.