I’ve begun one of my periodic re-readings of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that coalesced during the late Warring States period (476-221 BCE). It’s an intricate text, the work of many voices representing many perspectives. Stylistically, it consists of parables, anecdotes, poems, arguments, and much else besides. It’s often impossible to tell whether a given story is a straightforward depiction of a great sage or simply an elaborate prank (or both). My aim with this reading is simply to move through it slowly, picking apart each anecdote and seeing what results. I have no axe to grind and no clear sense where I am going. I am writing about it here simply to force myself to elaborate and organize my thoughts. Should any other readers find what I write interesting or useful, that is an added bonus.
This post concerns the first fable in the Zhuangzi. Here is how it begins (all passages are from the Ziporyn 2009 translation):
There is a fish in the Northern Oblivion named Kun, and this Kun is quite huge, spanning who knows how many thousands of miles. He transforms into a bird named Peng, and this Peng has quite a back on him, stretching who knows how many thousands of miles. When he rouses himself and soars into the air, his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens. The oceans start to churn, and this bird begins his journey toward the Southern Oblivion. The Southern Oblivion—that is the Pool of Heaven.
Already in this paragraph, Zhuangzi confronts us with three of his central themes: perspectivism, transformation, and forgetting. I’ll take up each in turn.
The Zhuangzi delights in the variety of perspectives that the world offers. Were there a view from nowhere, I do not think Zhuangzi would see much value in it. Our first taste of this comes in the very name of the mysterious fish in the Northern Oblivion: Kun (鯤). The name literally means “fish roe.” The Kun is simultaneously unfathomably huge and extremely small. A later passage in the fable discusses how other animals perceive the Peng as it flies:
The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at [Peng], saying, “We scurry up into the air, leaping from the elm to the sandalwood tree, and when we don’t quite make it we just plummet to the ground. What’s all this about ascending ninety thousand miles and heading south?”
Zhuangzi comments: “What do these two little creatures know? A small consciousness cannot keep up with a vast consciousness; short duration cannot keep up with long duration.” Here the emphasis is on the largeness of the Peng—its size makes it incomprehensible to smaller creatures. Yet in naming the fish Kun, Zhuangzi asks us to consider whether there is not some further perspective in which it plays the role of the small, uncomprehending creature. Even as he praises the lofty perspective of the Kun/Peng relative to the cramped laughter of the cicada and dove, he seems to be grinningly deflating any attempts to treat that perspective as ultimate.
This is further confirmed by Zhuangzi’s remarks on dependence in this passage. Zhuangzi notes that the Peng has to fly especially high to fly at all:
And if the wind is not piled up thickly enough, it has no power to support Peng’s enormous wings. That is why he needs to put ninety thousand miles of air beneath them. Only then can he ride the wind, bearing the blue of heaven on his back and unobstructed on all sides, and make his way south.
Later, toward the end of the parable, Zhuangzi draws the moral more explicitly, when he discusses the cases of Song Rongzi and Liezi. Song Rongzi is admirable because he “clearly discerned where true honor and disgrace are to be found.” And yet he is not fully admirable: “there was still a sense in which he was not yet really firmly planted.” Paralleling the Peng even more closely, “Liezi rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful.” And yet, “there was still something he needed to depend on.” None of the three—not Song Rongzi, not Liezi, not Peng—have fully achieved independence. None are quite able to go “wandering far and unfettered” (the title of the chapter).
So how might one unfetter oneself? Here the second and third themes are relevant. If the Zhuangzi has any central message, it is that one should make peace with change. In particular, one should come to recognize even death itself as merely one more change. Thus, in a later parable, we see Zhuangzi being berated by a skull for thinking that life is obviously preferable to death. In another episode, presumably after the incident with the skull, we see Zhuangzi happily banging away on pots and pans after his wife has died. When his friend Hui Shi confronts him about this, he admits feeling sad at first, but then he remembered that death is merely one of the changes, and his sorrow left him.
It is striking, then, that the Zhuangzi opens with a drastic transformation: Kun becomes Peng. This is a total transformation: from one kind of creature to another, from one form of life to another, from one element (water) to another (air). What identity is preserved across this transformation? In what sense can we say that Kun and Peng are the same? It hardly seems there is any. And yet there is no lamentation, no sense of loss or regret. Kun simply transforms, and then, as Peng, goes on his journey. It is as if Peng has totally forgotten his former existence. And that brings us to the final theme: forgetting.
What is the significance of Peng’s journey? It is noteworthy that we are told little about the journey itself, beyond how it looks to an observer (“his wings are like clouds draped across the heavens”). What we are told is the journey’s endpoints: Peng travels from the Northern Oblivion to the Southern Oblivion. (The Southern Oblivion is identified with the “Pool of Heaven”, though later in the parable it is the Northern Oblivion that is so identified.) Oblivion indicates forgetfulness, the absence of memory, its total destruction. It is hard, at least for me, not to read this journey as a metaphor for life: from the oblivion before death to the oblivion after death. We have no experience of either state; we simply move from one to the other.
But oblivion is not limited to the periods before birth and after death. There is a case to be made that forgetting plays a central role in Zhuangzi’s conception of the sage: the sage is one who forgets. (On this point, I have learned a great deal from this interesting paper by Linna Liu and Sihao Chew.) I have already mentioned the story of Zhuangzi playing drums after his wife’s death: he has forgotten his sorrow. The third story in the Zhuangzi praises the great ruler Yao because, on seeing the “masters of distant Mt. Guye […], he forgot all about his kingdom.” The sage’s ability to forget appears to free them from their past. As the later commentator Wang Fuzhi glosses the chapter title: “’Unfettered’ means echoing beyond the dissolving tones—forgetting what has passed.”
The first parable of the Zhuangzi ends with a summary statement of its moral: “Thus I say, the Consummate Person has no fixed identity, the Spirit Man has no particular merit, the Sage has no one name.” I have long found it puzzling how this moral emerges from the stories that precede it, but now I think I see. Those stories show us a variety of perspectives, show us transformations between them, and counsels us to forget, at least to an extent, one’s past. It is not that this ideal person has no identity, no merit, or no name. Rather, their identities, merits, and names are inconstant and shifting. One forgets who one was and becomes someone else, and so wanders far and unfettered.
I want to end by drawing attention to one last feature of this parable. It overflows with laughter. Zhuangzi cites a (probably made up) text in his support; the name of this text is The Equalizing Jokebook (see my thoughts on this here). The cicada and the fledgling dove laugh at Peng. In another version, a quail laughs at Peng. Song Rongzi “would burst out laughing” at a man “whose understanding is sufficient to fill some one post.” It seems that everyone, whether they are being held up as admirable or as limited (or both), is always laughing. This is one of the most endearing features of the Zhuangzi.
One of the curious features of the Zhuangzi, an enigmatic and delightful text that emerged during the Warring States period (476-221 BCE), is its apparent citations of other texts. For example, the book opens with a parable about a fish named Kun that transforms into a bird named Peng and undertakes a long journey. Immediately after describing this, the text continues:
The Equalizing Jokebook, a record of many wonders, reports: “When Peng journeys to the Southern Oblivion, the waters ripple for three thousand miles. Spiraling aloft, he ascends ninety thousand miles and continues his journey without rest for half a year. (Ziporyn 2009, p. 3)
This alleged quotation adds little information to what comes before it. So why is it there? One hypothesis, defended by A. C. Graham (1981), is that these quotations are the product of scribal errors. Some later commentator noted a parallel between the Zhuangzi and some later text, and these comments were eventually copied into the Zhuangzi itself. A more traditional hypothesis is offered by the commentator Lin Xiyi (1193-1270?):
This doesn’t mean such a book really exists, necessarily. Zhuangzi invents a story and then cites this book as his own verification. This another example of his playful theatrics. (Ziporyn 2009, p. 130)
On this view, Zhuangzi’s invented citations satirize the Confucians, who sought to support their claims with references to various authorities. For my part, I do not know that evidence will ever resolve this dispute. Nor need it. The Zhuangzi is unquestionably a polyvocal text, with contributions from authors separated in both time and thought. Zhuang Zhou himself lurks as an elusive presence within it, ostensibly the author of its first seven chapters (the so-called “inner” chapters), though none of it can be definitively attributed to him. The book contains a cacophony of perspectives—a state of which Zhuangzi himself would surely have approved. Ultimately, there is only the text as we have received it, shaped by many hands with many and clashing intentions. In this regard, I think it best to treat these citations as proper parts of the text, and see how they contribute to its overall effect. (Henceforth, I will speak of Zhuangzi as “the” author of the text. This should be understood as referring to the whole conglomerate of authors, not merely the historical Zhuangzi.)
Seen in this light, I can only take Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook as itself a rather clever joke. Looking at the Zhuangzi as a whole, two features especially stand out. First, the book is very funny. Wittgenstein famously said that a work of philosophy could be written consisting entirely of jokes; he was apparently unaware that this had already been done more than 2000 years ago. The authors of the Zhuangzi are constantly pulling the reader’s leg, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. (Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio have written a very good book, Genuine Pretending, that takes seriously the Zhuangzi’s status as a “jokebook.”) Second, insofar as the book does have a central philosophical aim, “equalizing” captures it fairly well. The second chapter is called “Equalizing Assessment of Things”, and the book constantly works to upset our attempts to draw conceptual divisions, one side of which can be viewed as good/desirable and the other as bad/undesirable. It’s worth noting, at this point, that the word 諧 (xié)—translated by Ziporyn as “joke”—can also mean “harmony”, a meaning that Zhuangzi is surely exploiting.
My proposal, then, is that Zhuangzi’s citation of The Equalizing Jokebook is in fact a humorous citation of the Zhuangzi itself. Were it not customary to name such books after their alleged authors, I doubt one could find a better name for the Zhuangzi. One advantage of this proposal is that the citation is not merely made up. After all, by including the citation within the text, the quotation does indeed become a part of the text. Such a self-validating self-reference would, I think, have appealed to Zhuangzi. It’s his kind of humor.
Even more important, however, is the way that this view allows us to expand on Lin Xiyi’s commentary. There is a serious philosophical point hidden in Zhuangzi’s “playful theatrics.” It is, as suggested above, a parody of the Confucian practice of supporting their claims with references to certain authoritative texts. What I want to suggest is that treating the citation as self-referential helps to sharpen this satire, in a way that merely citing a made-up text would not. The reason for this concerns Zhuangzi’s comments on independence in this parable.
I will post a more detailed interpretation of the whole parable at some later point. For now, however, I simply want to focus on a passage toward the end of the parable, as Zhuangzi starts to home in on his central moral. There, he discusses the example of Liezi, a central figure in Daoist thought. For Zhuangzi, however, Liezi is admirable but imperfect. Though he “rode forth on the wind, weightlessly graceful,” and though “he did not involve himself in anxious calculations,” nonetheless “there was still something he needed to depend on” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 5). That dependence on something external is Liezi’s key flaw. It opens Liezi up to being hindered. Zhuangzi goes on to paint an image of one who escapes even this last vestige of dependence, such that “your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt. You would then be depending on—what?” (Ziporyn 2009, p. 6).
It is in this context that self-citation matters. For authentication of the story of the Kun/Peng, there is nothing outside the Zhuangzi on which one can rely—not even a fictional text. The text rests on itself, validates itself. Yes, Zhuangzi is mocking Confucian epistemology. But he is also exemplifying his own.
By Liam Kofi Bright and Aaron Novick
(joint work with equal contributions)
Originally hosted at The Sooty Empiric
Kongzi, on being asked the first thing to do in administering government, gave a surprising answer:
Zilu asked, “If the Duke of Wei were to employ you to serve in the government of his state, what would be your first priority?”
Rectifying names (正名 zhengming), Kongzi says, is the basis of social flourishing. If names are out of order, speech will not match reality, plans will be impossible to put into action, culture will decline, and punishment will be ineffective. The central task of the gentleman, then, is put names in order. As Kongzi puts it, “The gentleman simply guards against arbitrariness in speech” (13.3).
We suggest that Carnap (though we expect that similar things could be said for others of the logical empiricists) had an interestingly similar conception of the philosopher’s intellectual task. Our aim here is to draw out these connections, focusing especially on Xunzi’s constructivist Confucianism and Carnap’s work on logical analysis. For Xunzi, we are highly indebted to Kurtis Hagen’s interpretation in The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction (2007, Open Court).
Xunzi attempted to provide a theoretical basis for Kongzi’s emphasis on the importance of rectifying names. This basis he substantially co-opted from Zhuangzi, who had argued for the conventionality of both language and social customs. Zhuangzi saw these insights as posing a serious challenge to Confucianism; Xunzi sought to show how they could support it. He granted that “names have no predetermined appropriateness” (“Correct Naming”, tr. Hutton), by which he meant not just that the application of a particular sound to a particular kind of object is arbitrary, but also that the the boundaries between kinds, (henceforth “kind-boundaries”) are themselves not to be evaluated against a standard set by nature or the metaphysical structure of the world. For instance, we may use the word “cow” to pick out certain animals. The animals picked out by our usage of this term will in some ways be similar to other critters that we do not label with “cow”. Likewise the critters picked out by “cows” will have certain dissimilarities with each other. The privileging of certain (dis)similarities as more important than others is a pragmatic matter: it requires the judgment that those (dis)similarities are relevant to the tasks for which it is important to distinguish cows from non-cows. (Throughout this paragraph especially we are following Hagen; see his book for a full defense of this interpretation.)
The question, then, is how names and their associated kind-boundaries are established. Here, Xunzi offers an empiricist, pragmatist theory. Kind-boundaries are established on the basis of perceivable similarities and differences. Each of the senses has a proper realm of differentiation (e.g. “form, color, and pattern” for the eyes), while the heart/mind (心 xin) “has the power to judge its own awareness,” i.e. to recognize what the senses detect and to form judgments on that basis.
Because kind-boundaries are not predetermined, the criterion of good judgment cannot be correspondence to reality. Rather, the criterion is pragmatic. Xunzi thinks that language is open to social design, and that it should be judged based on its effectiveness in facilitating social order and human flourishing. Consider the following passage, in which Xunzi criticizes claims advanced by earlier philosophers:
Claims such as “To be insulted is not disgraceful,” “The sage does not love himself,” and “To kill a robber is not to kill a man” are cases of confusion about the use of names leading to disordering names. If one tests them against the reason why there are names, and observes what happens when they are carried out thoroughly, then one will be able to reject them.
Appropriate naming is naming that can be put into practice with beneficial social consequences. As Hagen argues, this implies that there may be multiple acceptable systems of naming, each of which facilitates social ordering. The point is just to pick and adopt one, on the basis of its ability to be taken up and applied to good end by both the government and the people.
A central task of the intelligentsia, for Xunzi, is to rectify names. Often, the form that this takes is bringing into alignment the descriptive and normative aspects of thick concepts. This can be done by either insisting on stricter application of a term’s present meaning, or clarifying the sense of a term to resolve ambiguities. One of Kongzi’s central concerns, for instance, was to modify the sense of the word junzi (君子), which roughly means “gentleman.” Kongzi recognized that the term picked out both those who were noble by birth and also those whose behaviour was noble in the sense of being morally admirable, and, crucially, was often misleadingly used to imply that those who were noble by birth were therefore morally admirable. He thus claimed that the term was more properly reserved for those whose behaviour qualified them as moral exemplars (regardless of birth), and modified his use of junzi accordingly.
For Xunzi ideally a sage king or ideal ruler would judiciously design a language system and propagate it throughout the empire. But short of direct instruction from a sage king, the ruist (i.e. Confucian) intelligentsia, which a good ruler would employ as ministers, would also be engaged in zhengming.
Further, as part of the task of rectifying names, advisors to the ruler were expected to remonstrate: in effect, to call out the ruler for failing to live up to his obligations. Rectifying names involved clarifying social roles (e.g. “parent” signifies both a biological fact and an associated set of obligations), and this clarification was not merely theoretical. For instance, a ruler who governed oppressively must be corrected. At the extreme, a ruler who failed in his obligations could lose all claim to the title (and to life), as in this case, from the Mengzi (tr. van Norden), concerning the tyrant Zhou:
The King said, “Is it acceptable for subjects to kill their rulers?”
Moving on to Carnap, we begin with the well known fact that he was a verificationist. The exact form that verificationism took changed over his life - for a reasonably mature and influential statement of his view see here. But the broad idea of the more mature position is that any claim that is a candidate for truth or falsity must either be analytic or stand in some kind of (dis)confirmation relation to empirical evidence. Simplifying somewhat, this is to say that if the “claim” or its negation is not made true by our logico-mathematical framework, and there is no empirical evidence an ideal (team of) scientist(s) could gather that should leave you any the wiser as to whether my “claim” is true or false, then I have failed to make a cognitively meaningful claim. The hedging of “cognitively” before “meaningful” is to accommodate Carnap's recognition that there are other things one may wish to do with language besides make descriptive claims, and he was fine with that; but he thought that it was improper to try and evaluate as true or false such linguistic acts as commands, questions, poetical expressions of our yearnings, or exasperated sighs.
Carnap was also a conventionalist about kind-boundaries. For detailed discussion of the origins and development of this element of his thought, see here. For our purposes suffice it to say that according to Carnap there are no natural kinds, joints in nature, or Platonic forms, which our linguistic practices must or will inevitably line up with or pick out and attach to. Rather, we may decide upon linguistic practices on the basis of their pragmatic usefulness in achieving certain practical or theoretical goals that various language forms stand to assist us in attaining.
Most famously this view is elaborated upon by Carnap in Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology - but the same idea can be found (perhaps in more restrictive contexts of application) in other works. For instance in The Continuum of Inductive Methods Carnap discusses how one should pick an inductive method as such:
The adoption of an inductive method is neither an expression of belief nor an act of faith, though either or both may come in as motivating factors. An inductive method is rather an instrument for the task of constructing a picture of the world on the basis of observational data and especially of forming expectations of future events as a guidance for practical conduct. X may change this instrument just as he changes a saw or an automobile, and for similar reasons.
Finally, we draw attention to the fact that Carnap also thought that an important task for a philosopher was bringing people into line with the austere verificationist standards he advocated. This was the basis for the (in)famous attack on Heidegger in Carnap’s The Elimination of Metaphysics. But such language policing was also advocated as a proper intellectual activity elsewhere. For instance in the Vienna Circle manifesto, which Carnap helped edit, it is said that in the glorious philosophy of the future “[n]o special 'philosophic assertions' are established, assertions are merely clarified”. Implicitly in the former but explicitly in the latter, it is clear that the authors of the manifesto believe that rendering language empirically tractable will assist the progressive segments of humanity hold to account the representatives of the failed ancien regime. Strikingly, it is even claimed that “in many countries the masses now reject [metaphysical] doctrines much more consciously than ever before, and along with their socialist attitudes tend to lean towards a down-to-earth empiricist view”. Carnapian linguistic policing is thus meant to help ensure our theoretical or scientific projects are fruitfully and efficiently carried out, and our shared social life is free of superstition and the obscurantist propaganda of tyrants.
To review, we have now seen that according to both Xunzi and Carnap the following are true. Linguistic categories do not and need not reflect some objective true or accurate mode of dividing up the world. Rather, we have a kind of epistemic free choice in deciding upon our preferred kind-boundaries. That is not to say, however, that there are no standards of better or worse for linguistic conventions: it is just that the appropriate way of evaluating proposed linguistic conventions is how well they help us advance our practical goals. Both Carnap and Xunzi think that if this is done properly we will end up with a system wherein our utterances are answerable to empirically discernible features of the world. They then think an important task for intellectuals is to ensure that people are in fact engaging in this kind of empirically responsive and responsible speech.
As an aside, we note that there is even a kind of stylistic similarity between them in their more condemnatory modes. Here is Carnap on where Heidegger and those like him go wrong:
Thus, the words of the foolish person are hurried and rough. They are agitated and have no proper categories. They are profuse and jumbled. He is one who makes his words seductive, muddies his terms, and has no deep concern for his intentions and thoughts. Thus he exhaustively sets out his words yet has no central standard. He works laboriously and has no accomplishments. He is greedy but has no fame.
Compare this with Xunzi’s talking about those who lack enough culture to express themselves clearly:
The harmonious feeling or attitude, which the metaphysician tries to express in a monistic system, is more clearly expressed in the music of Mozart. And when a metaphysician gives verbal expression to his dualistic-heroic attitude towards life in a dualistic system, is it not perhaps because he lacks the ability of a Beethoven to express this attitude in an adequate medium? Metaphysicians are musicians without musical ability. Instead they have a strong inclination to work within the medium of the theoretical, to connect concepts and thoughts. Now, instead of activating, on the one hand, this inclination in the domain of science, and satisfying, on the other hand, the need for expression in art, the metaphysician confuses the two and produces a structure which achieves nothing for knowledge and something inadequate for the expression of attitude.
This degree of similarity between these thinkers so divided by time, geography, and culture, is, we think, enough to merit a blog post! However, before concluding we note some pertinent contrasts. The first thing we acknowledge, just to satisfy the increasingly agitated scholars in the back, concerns the details of their metasemantic theories. Xunzi claimed that each word functions as a name for some feature of the world we can discern with our sensory apparatus, and that a sentence consists in stringing together names in order to ever more precisely narrow down the class of things one is concerned with. Desirable tractability of a sentence is thus achieved when each name is itself properly tractable. Carnap, on the other hand, had a more sophisticated syntactic theory, and eventually allowed that it is (logically interlinked networks of) propositions or sentences which must be answerable to empirical evidence, rather than individual terms. This is indeed a difference in the letter of their theories, but nonetheless we think the spirit is the same. These differences seem to us largely due merely to the fact that (writing thousands of years earlier) Xunzi had available a much less sophisticated theory of language and logic than Carnap.
The second contrast is the particular kinds of terminology to which Carnap and Xunzi applied their respective zhengming. Xunzi tends to be in the business of clarifying thick ethical concepts and policing usage of them to ensure that those so described live up to the attached normative requirements. Carnap, on the other hand, is largely concerned to clarify concepts for use in the mathematical or empirical sciences. This is not to deny that he would police language that was of socio-political significance - one of us has a published discussion of Carnap’s linguistic reformism regarding human racial taxonomy. But the direct analysis of thick ethical terms is absent from the vast majority of his corpus (though it is gestured to in the Aufbau). Here it seems somewhat arbitrary features of what caught Carnap’s interest limited his philosophical purview, and Xunzi’s more expansive project of zhengming strikes us as liable to be more philosophically fruitful for anyone who wanted to revive this project.
Finally, there is the question of why one ought be a linguistic empiricist of any sort - and especially how this aspect of their thought related to their conventionalism. Xunzi, as we read him, is clearer that the linguistic empiricism of his position in Correcting Names is itself a convention. It is a semantic stance one adopts or guiding principle to be used when engaged in zhengming, because shared and empirically tractable terminology is an enabling condition for various of the social goods Xunzi hopes to secure through clarification of terms. Carnap’s position on exactly why we ought be verificationists seems on the other hand to have been unclear, and at times in his intellectual development to have left him open to charges of vicious circularity or self-refutation. Perhaps in the end Carnap had a position close to that which we see in Xunzi. But, in any case, Xunzi has at least outlined an attractive rational for any project of empiricist zhengming, which it seems Carnap or those sympathetic to him may themselves wish to explore and adopt.
Both authors of this blog post are sympathetic to something like empiricist zhengming as a fruitful project for contemporary philosophers. We thus hope that, this connection being noticed, the modern heirs to the logical positivists and modern ruists may seek greater community and dialogue. However, we think there is something to be appreciated here even if one does not wish to take up the task of rectifying names through the logical analysis of language. Philosophy, at its best, embodies a kind of cosmopolitan ideal. The superficial distinctions between people are erased, and what remains are opportunities for peaceful collaborative effort in a transnational and transtemporal republic of letters. That thinkers as different as Xunzi and Carnap gesture towards a common project is, we think, an example of such cross cultural discourse that might inspire even those who do not share their peculiar concerns.