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This week’s post follows the previous one and should be taken in the same light: namely, that while my views expressed in it have developed in response to a thoughtful and valuable exchange between me and Chris Fraser, it should not be taken to imply any views on Fraser’s part that are not already expressed in his published works.

I have long noted how for a philosopher, the most productive way to examine a text from another time is to examine the mind behind that text – so that one can follow Thomas Kuhn’s advice to “ask yourself how a sensible person could have written” that text with all of its apparent absurdities. This approach runs into trouble with composite texts, which are not the work of a single author. In thinking about the composite work attributed to Śāntideva, I had found it quite satisfactory to instead identify a single redactor. Last time, however, I noted how such an approach may be problematic for a text like the Zhuangzi, where the redactor of the edition known to us, namely the commentator Guo Xiang, has a Confucian agenda that appears to be at odds with some of the statements in the text itself.

But if that’s so, the next question is: what then is the best approach to take, as philosophers and not just philologists, to a composite text like the Zhuangzi? If we want to learn something of value from the text, I do think there is no substitute for Kuhn’s method of identifying great mind behind a great text and looking for how that mind’s apparent absurdities might be less absurd than we thought. The important caveat is that it might not be a great mind we are looking for, but rather a set of them. That is important. But then what? One approach is always to take our best guess at source criticism, and try and identify the minds at work based on linguistic evidence combined with apparently different views. Then we have multiple teachers to learn from within the text, even if we can only give them hypothetical names (like “J” and “Q”). Harold Roth seems to do something like this in his Stanford Encyclopedia article on Zhuangzi.

Fraser’s article, in its third footnote, refuses this approach as “a project that simply cannot be carried out convincingly, given the nature of the text and our lack of historical information about it.” But what then is the alternative? The one alternative I can see to such a source-critical approach is to identify Guo Xiang as himself the relevant redactor here – so that when we say Zhuangzi now, we may mean Guo Xiang. I don’t know much about Guo, I admit, but it would startle me to find that he did not intend to produce a coherent text. Guo may say something different from what the Zhuangzi authors had intended – but if we really want to piece together what they said separately from what he said, it seems to me, we land back in historical criticism. Without reference to the historical criticism I’m not sure we can even say that Guo did distort the meaning of the text, that his agenda is at odds with the text’s. For in that case there is no “the text” for him to distort the meaning of, just a random jumble of unrelated texts whose meaning Guo then effectively creates.

So while it may not be appropriate to identify a single “Zhuangzi” as the mind behind the text, to find such a mind we can either turn to Guo, or do the best we can with source criticism to try and piece out other authors as separate minds. But what I still don’t think we should do is try to separate out different themes within the Zhuangzi without reference to the source criticism, as Fraser’s emptiness article tries to do. I am especially concerned when the result looks like what I have called the shopping cart – an approach that picks and chooses, that selects the parts that we like and downplays the parts that we don’t. (I see the “shopping cart” approach in that article given that Fraser there clearly expresses his own preference for the instrumental and moderate views over the radical.) My concern with such an approach is that the result will then likely be the simple confirmation of our own biases – it would seem even that such confirmation is effectively what we were looking for. And when that’s the case one wonders whether there’s any point to reading the ancient texts in the first place. If we want to advocate spontaneity and perspectivism but reject a disregard for the personal (as this article does), why not just advocate spontaneity and perspectivism but reject a disregard for the personal, with our own arguments on our own terms? Why seek the authority of selected pieces of an ancient library? For me, the value in reading the Zhuangzi or any other text (or library of collected texts, as one could argue the Zhuangzi is) is to get something out of the worldview that we wouldn’t get just on our own – i.e. that we don’t already agree with.

Certainly one might find a few insights here and there that one hadn’t already thought of, but those insights will not be connected to anything else in the text. A few decades ago I heard an analytic philosopher say “if it’s an interesting argument, we don’t care whether it was found in the writings of David Hume or on a piece of pasta.” When one has neither historical criticism of the parts nor the tradition’s attribution as a whole, it seems that that is where one is left: because one can no longer meaningfully attribute any semi-coherent mind to authoring the text, that mind or its coherence is no longer relevant to our interpretation – so it no longer matters whether an argument was found in the Zhuangzi or on a fortune cookie.