Beyond Rationalism: The parables of Zhuangzi

by Brandon Tan

A brief survey of Western Modern philosophers demonstrates that there is  cause for alarm when one is at the limits of rationality or reason. This is especially true in the area of existentialist philosophy, such as when Kierkegaard struggles to take his ‘leap of faith’. In his description of Abraham’s mental state during the Binding of Isaac, ‘He believed by virtue of the absurd; for all human reckoning had long since ceased to function. That sorrow can derange a man’s mind, that we see, and it is sad enough.’[1] Other philosophical traditions, however, do not share that pessimism.

           In a post-truth world where, owing to the increasingly decentralised global order, there is a proliferation of competing and bewildering narratives, perhaps it is valuable to glean insights by comparing distinct epistemic structures and how they might diverge in history. Philosophy, after all, is situated within history and is a product of philosophers, who despite their occasional claims to universal truth are nevertheless restricted by their temporal and spatial contexts. Case in point is the distinction between religion and philosophy as separate discourses with which the western mind is all too familiar. That distinction breaks down for Daoism, Buddhism, and to a lesser degree for Confucianism . At their core Daoism and Buddhism are soteriological practices, which means, religiously, their aim is salvation from the mundane by human effort – an idea that would horrify Latin Christian orthodoxy. Philosophically, both Buddhism and Daoism claim to have knowledge of the underlying reality of the world, and both aim to use that knowledge as practice towards salvation, rather than modern philosophy’s obsession with truth for truth’s sake. In short, there is no genuine Daoist philosophy without taking seriously its soteriological aims. 

            By looking briefly at two of master Zhuangzi’s (475BCE to 221BCE) parables in the text of the same name – a foundational text in the Daoist canon – we can perhaps explore how Chinese and European philosophical thought diverged and how such a divergence can be made sensible. The first parable is a short dialogue between Zhuangzi and his friend Huizi (惠子) who is identified with the dialectical school in pre-classical China. The story serves as a brilliant case study for the theoretical implications of a reversal in the valuation of the rational. Here we find a view that privileges positional knowledge over general knowledge and that holds reason as subject to language’s instability. The second is a cosmogony parable, i.e. a myth of coming into being, which reveals the ethical implications of a scepticism to reason.    

Zhuangzi’s Historical and Religious Context

Master Zhuangzi (莊子) (369BCE – 286 BCE) who composed the work of the same name lived during the Warring States Period of Chinese history, which is correlated to the blooming of the Hundred School of Thoughts in Chinese historiography. The waning of the authority of the Zhou Dynasty (1046BCE – 256 BCE), and the power vacuum and disorder it left behind would eventually culminate in two and a half centuries of bloodshed between and beyond the flood plains of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. Interestingly, it would seem to be in parallel with our present situation of a post-truth world with multiple legitimate and yet conflicting narratives. This is the period that we see the compilation of the Chinese classics and emergence of various schools of thoughts such as Confucianism, Daoism, Moism, Legalism and the like. One gets an impression of a world in transition. Zhuangzi was very much in the Daoist tradition, originating in traditional Chinese historiography from the near mythical Lao Zi (老子), author of the classic the Dao De Jing (道德經). Zhuangzi and Lao Zi saw the proliferation of the many schools of thought as counterproductive to a state of perfect human nature that is in tune with the nature of the world underlined by the Dao (道), esoterically translated usually into English as, ‘The Way’. The Dao itself escapes rational explanation. Hence, the numerous schools of thought that were spawned by de facto transfer of real authority from the Zhou family to local vassal lords who eventually formed their own individual states, were at best artificial. From the Daoist’s perspective they  advanced social order for order’s sake as in the case of Confucianism and Legalism, or in the case of Moism anthropomorphised the divine or tian (天) into an entity of universal love, still within the bounds of human reason. At worst they were the highest kind of hypocrisy. In the words of Lao Zi:

When the great Dao declined, the doctrines of humanity (仁, ren) and righteousness (義, yi) arose. When knowledge and wisdom appeared, there emerged great hypocrisy. When the six family relationships are not in harmony, there will be the advocacy of filial piety. When a country is in disorder, there will be praise of loyal ministers. (Chan, 1963, pp. 148–149) – Dao De Jing Chapter 18.[2]

 The best example of a soteriological method in the milieu of Daoism is the practice of Wuwei (無爲) or non-action, which places on emphasis on letting nature, underlined by the principle of the undefinable Dao, take its course. And hence in Chapter 32 of the Dao De Jing:

If a feudal prince or the king could guard and hold it (Dao), all would spontaneously submit themselves to him. Heaven and Earth (under its guidance) unite together and send down the sweet dew, which, without directions of men, reaches equally everywhere as of its own accord.[3]Dao De Jing Chapter 32.

Positional Knowledge and Trick of Language

Zhuangzi recounts a story where he is arguing with his friend, Huizi (惠子). Though the pun in the story does not translate well into English (which further strengthens the point) it boils down to an emphasis on the instability of language over the logical linear thinking preferred by the Greeks of around the same period of history, as seen in Plato’s dialogue Laches..

        莊子與惠子遊於濠梁之上。莊子曰:「儵魚出游從容,是魚樂也 。」 惠子 曰:「子非魚,安知魚之樂?」莊子曰:「子非我,安知我不知魚之樂?」 惠子曰:「我非子,固不知子矣;子固非魚也,子之不知魚之樂,全矣。」 莊子曰:「請循其本。子曰『女安知魚樂』云者,既已知吾知之而問我,我 知之濠上也。」

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling (you 遊) on the dam of the Hao River.

 Zhuangzi said, “How these minnows jump out of the water and play about (you 游) at their ease (cong rong 從容)! This is fish being happy (le 樂)! ”

Huizi said: “You, sir, are not a fish, how (an 安) do you know (zhi 知) what the happiness of fish is?” Zhuangzi replied: “You, sir, are not me, how (an 安) do you know (zhi 知) that I do not know (bu zhi 不知) what the happiness of fish is?”

Huizi said: “I am not you, sir, so I inherently don’t know you; but you, sir, are inherently no fish, and that you don’t know (bu zhi 不知) what the happiness of fish is, is [now] fully [established].”

Zhuangzi replied: “Let’s return to the roots [of this conversation]. By asking “how (an 安) do you know (zhi 知) the happiness of fish,” you already knew (zhi 知) that I know (zhi 知) it, and yet you asked me; I know (zhi 知) it by standing overlooking the Hao River.”

Zh. 17. Trans. Meyer, “Truth Claim”, 335, modified in Lea Cantor, ‘Zhuangzi on ‘happy fish’ and the limits of human knowledge’

On reading this playful dialogue between Zhuangzi and his dear friend Huizi (the depth of their friendship is fully revealed in Zhuangzi’s lament during Hui Zi’s funeral in the 25th Chapter of Zhuangzi), the modern philosopher lets out a sigh of relief. In the sea of esoteric and mystical parables in the Zhuangzi, there is at last something that is very clearly philosophical, or more specifically, epistemological – in this case Huizi’s opposition to Zhuangzi’s claim to knowledge of the ‘happiness of fish’.

            There has been attempts to force Zhuangzi into a position where he is not purely subverting rationality, i.e. as a mystic or as a linguist. There is much merit in that endeavour, although at times it can eclipse the very clear soteriological aims already mentioned. At their core, these attempts emphasise a relativistic objectivity in the Zhuangzi. That is, correct knowledge about something is contingent on the position of the subject holding the knowledge. As argued by Lea Cantor, the crux of the matter in the discussion between the two friends was the issue of ‘Species Relativism’. Zhuangzi holds to the attainability of objective knowledge but only from the perspective of the human.[4] That is, the knowledge that Zhuangzi had of the ‘happiness of fish’ is only valid so long as it appears to be so to humans.

There is also a deeper epistemological point – a rejection of knowledge obtained via inference in this story.  Such an inference requires the use of general knowledge and does not take into account the subject’s relative position to what is to be known. Huizi first moves from Zhuangzi’s assertion about a particular school of fishes being happy, to happiness of fish in general. When refuting Zhuangzi for the second time, he tacitly agrees with Zhuangzi that, due to Zhuangzi having the exclusive experience of being himself, Huizi can only claim knowledge of Zhuangzi relative to his own self. Yet Huizi proceeds to end the argument as such:

Huizi said: “I am not you, sir, so I inherently don’t know you; but you, sir, are inherently no fish, and that you don’t know (bu zhi 不知) what the happiness of fish is, is [now] fully [established].”

            The problem is that the two masters have already denied themselves the use of knowledge  independent from a positional base. And hence, the inference that Huizi uses to know what is inside the mind of Zhuangzi is invalid since it violates its initial premise:

  1. I am not Zhuangzi
  2. So, I cannot know what Zhuangzi knows or does not know.
  3. Zhuangzi is not a fish
  4. So he does not know what the happiness of fish is.
  5. But I have admitted to 2. So, the claim in 4. Is invalid.

However, the punchline of the story goes much deeper than what is usually given credit for in purely philosophical readings of this parable. Zhuangzi can very anachronistically be labelled a post-structuralist, in the sense that he is highlighting the instability of language as affecting knowledge. The positional element of knowledge is pushed to its extreme and is not simply a matter of ‘species relativism’, but rather of linguistic relativism. In that sense, Daoist philosophy does not fall into the logos-language trap. Let me explain. 安知 (anzhi) when translated from Classical Chinese to English, means ‘how do you know?’. However, unlike modern Chinese where 安 is rendered as ‘safe’, 安 in Classical Chinese is rendered as ‘from whence?’. 安知 (anzhi) literally translated thus means ‘from whence do you know?’, so this is therefore another hurrah for positional knowledge. The joke is that semantically Zhuangzi’s esoteric final reply of ‘I know (zhi 知) it by standing overlooking the Hao River’ is perfectly valid, precisely because 安, and for the most part any sign in language, has no stable inherent meaning. Our very Chinese example has rather confirmed the post-structuralist position that a sign (or a word) does not have a referent in objective reality. The reply is simultaneously a joke on language and epistemologically drives the point home to Huizi that Zhuangzi’s assertion of knowing that ‘those fishes were happy’ is more valid, precisely because it is at the very least positional from the bank of the river overlooking the fish.

The Limits of the Mind  

            An interesting exercise is to compare the valuation of ‘knowledge’ in the Zhuangzi to other philosophical traditions, like the Socratic tradition. Specifically, the key difference, as we mentioned before, is Zhuangzi’s insistence on the value of positional knowledge, while the Socratic tradition would privilege general knowledge. Both traditions have the same aim – the good life. However, each seem to favour different methodologies. The Laches by Plato provides us with a fascinating point of comparison. The conversation between Socrates, Laches and Nicias revolves around ‘how “to make the souls of young men as good as possible”’, which ultimately leads to an attempt to define courage as a part of virtue.[5] The position that Socrates takes is that to possess a quality is to know this quality, and to know a quality is to be able to explain clearly what it is, i.e. give it a definition. ‘And of that which we know, I presume, we can also say what it is.’[6] This is precisely what I meant by the logos-language trap that Zhuangzi, with his appreciation of the positional nature of knowledge from the perspective of linguistics, would resist; the assertion that language can adequately stand as a faithful representation of absolute knowledge.

            There are further still very clear epistemological differences between the Laches and the Zhuangzi. When Laches provides a definition of courage as ‘anyone who is willing to stay at his post and face the enemy, and does not run away’, Socrates goes further by insisting that knowledge of a particular instance of courage is not sufficient and edges Laches on to provide a general account of courage, ‘which is the same in all of these cases’[7] [8]. As we have already seen this sort of general knowledge is not privileged in Zhuangzi’s parable of the happy fishes. Inferences made from a general position were invalid in the dialogue between Zhuangzi and Huizi. At the end of the conversation in the Laches, despite failing at arriving at a definition of courage, Nicias and Socrates did better than they expected and defined the whole of virtue as “knowledge of the Good and Bad” in all situations.[9] There is much to therefore suggest that general knowledge about virtue is the ‘motivational force’ that drives virtuous actions in Socratic intellectualism.[10]

            To illuminate why there is such a divergence between Zhuangzi and Plato, compare the relationship between morality and knowledge in both Daoism and Socratic intellectualism. From our discussion of the Laches it is clear that under Socratic intellectualism, there is a straightforward approach to that relationship. Knowledge drives virtuous action. However, that is not so for Zhuangzi, as shown in this parable:

南海之帝為儵,北海之帝為忽,中央之帝為渾沌。儵與忽時相與遇於渾沌之地,渾沌待之甚善。儵與忽謀報渾沌之德,曰:「人皆有七竅,以視聽食息,此獨無有,嘗試鑿之。」日鑿一竅,七日而渾沌死。

The Ruler of the Southern Ocean was Shu, the Ruler of the Northern Ocean was Hu, and the Ruler of the Centre was Chaos. Shu and Hu were continually meeting in the land of Chaos, who treated them very well. They consulted together how they might repay his kindness, and said, ‘Men all have seven orifices for the purpose of seeing, hearing, eating, and breathing, while this (poor) Ruler alone has not one. Let us try and make them for him.’ Accordingly, they dug one orifice in him every day; and at the end of seven days Chaos died.[11]

Zhuangzi (莊子) (trans. by James Legge 1891)

In this creation myth, Chaos is a ruler of a central kingdom that separates the northern and southern seas. It is named 渾沌 (Hundun)  means ‘muddled, mixed, chaotic’[12]. There is an instance in the older Dao De Jing which features the logographic character渾 in its 25th chapter as 渾成 (huncheng) which means ‘formless yet complete’[13] or ‘undefined and complete’[14]. More importantly, Hundun, or chaos is only chaos because it did not have七竅 (qīqiào), or because it did not have the ‘seven orifices’; the mouth, ears, nostrils and eyes, which are the organs required for sense perception. Though Hundun could not differentiate between objects by virtue of having no face, it continued to treat the two kings with hospitality. His fate after receiving the gift of perception was his own death. It should also be noted that the intentions of both King Hu (儵) and King Shu (忽) were in the right place and based their decision to drill holes into Hundun on what seemed like a good idea from their position. [15] The drilling of the holes into the face of Hundun was meant as a reward.

               The story suggests that the truly ethical lies beyond the perceptible. Hundun, the gracious host, dies with the birth of his faculties of perception. Killed by the kindness of Shu and Hu, who thought that ‘Men all have seven orifices’. This therefore explains Zhuangzi’s privileging of positional knowledge over general knowledge.  It is precisely here that the boundaries between philosophy and religion as understood in the modern European context collapses in Daoism. The motivational forces behind good actions do not lie in knowledge as the other schools of thought during the Warring States period of Chinese history and Socratic intellectualism maintain. That is not to say that Zhuangzi rejects the value of knowledge entirely. Absolute knowledge is unattainable but still exists, and all forms of attainable knowledge are ultimately positional. But the emulation of the Dao or the underlying principle of nature, which is inexpressible due to its fluidity, is what drives good actions. Above all, it is possible to revert back to the faceless state of Hundun who in his innocence continues to play the magnanimous host. 


[1] Soren Kierkegaard Fear and Trembling translated by Walter Lowrie (1941), pp, 15.

[2] (大道廢,有仁義;智慧出,有大偽;六親不和,有孝慈;國家昏亂,有忠臣.) Dao De Jing, Chaper 18, trans by W.-T. Chan in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton 1963), in Wu Meiyao, ‘Hundun’s Hospitality: Daoist, Derridean and Levinasian readings of Zhuangzi’s parable’ in Education Philosophy and Theory, 46:13, 1435 – 1449.

[3] 道常無名。樸雖小,天下莫能臣也。侯王若能守之,萬物將自賓。天地相合,以降甘露,民莫之令而自均。始制有名,名亦既有,夫亦將知止,知止所以不殆。譬道之在天下,猶川谷之與江海. Dao De Jing Chap 32, trans by James Legge in Sacred Books of the East vol. 39 (1891), viewed on (25/07/2020) https://ctext.org/dao-de-jing.

[4] Lea Cantor, ‘Zhuangzi on ‘happy fish’ and the limits of human knowledge’, in British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 28:2, pp, 216 – 230.

[5] Jörg Hardy, ‘The knowledge about human well-being in Plato’s Laches’ in How Should One Live? Comparing Ethics in Ancient China and Greco-Roman Antiquity (2011, Berlin) ed. by R.A.H. King and Dennis Schilling, pp, 170 – 190.  

[6] Plato, Laches, 190c in http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0176%3Atext%3DLach.%3Apage%3D178 .

[7] Ibid, 190e.

[8] Ibid, 190e.

[9] Hardy, ‘The knowledge about human well-being in Plato’s Laches’ pp, 171.

[10] Ibid, pp, 171.

[11] Zhuangzi, ‘The Normal Course for Rulers and King’, Chapter 7, trans by James Legge, in Sacred Books of the East vol. 39 (1892), viewed on (25/07/2020) https://ctext.org/dao-de-jing.

[12] Wu Meiyao, ‘Hundun’s Hospitality: Daoist, Derridean and Levinasian readings of Zhuangzi’s parable’ in Education Philosophy and Theory, 46:13, 1446.

[13] Ibid .

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

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