Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Happiness of Fish

The Happiness of Fish
Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the bridge over the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “The minnows swim about so freely, following the openings wherever they take them. Such is the happiness of fish.”

Huizi said, “You are not a fish, so whence do you know the happiness of fish?”

Zhuangzi said, “You are not I, so whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?”

Huizi said, “I am not you, to be sure, so I don’t know what it is to be you. But by the same token, since you are certainly not a fish, my point about your inability to know the happiness of fish stands intact.”

Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to the starting point. You said, ‘Whence do you know the happiness of fish?’ Since your question was premised on your knowing that I know it, I must have known it from here, up above the Hao River.”
~ from Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings With Selections from Traditional Commentaries by Brook Ziporyn ~
This delightful little exchange between Zhuangzi and his good buddy, the logician Huizi, certainly demonstrates what is the happiness of philosophers. And Zhuangzi would laugh and say, “Yes, it certainly does. But from whence do you know it?”

I confess that at my first readings it seemed to me that Zhuangzi had ‘won’ the debate, but only by virtue of a devious, semantic sleight of hand — the suggestion that to embed the premise in the question is to affirm the premise. Yet, though this may very well be another facet of Zhuangzi’s playful argumentation, there is much, much more here to learn. Indeed, the passage is a veritable seed pod ready to explode its fertile spores within the imagination.

How, then, does Zhuangzi know the happiness of fishes? The answer, in part, is to be found in how he describes what it is in which that happiness consists: The minnows swim about so freely, following the openings wherever they take them. These fish are simply doing what fish do, and this is their happiness. It’s that simple.

This falls within what Zhuangzi calls the Illumination of the Obvious, the rightness of each individual thing within its own perspective. This is not simply a matter of the rightness to itself of its own opinions, though this too applies, but is something much more organic, namely, that the expression of its nature, being what it is, is its rightness. This is obvious. And it instructs us. This may not be what we, as humans, think of as happiness, but that is because happiness for humans is generally conceived as something altogether different, humans being, in some sense, altogether different.

How are we different? What we do is to choose what to do and our choices seem almost inevitably to result in something other than ‘happiness’. Indeed, it would seem that the ability to choose, something as innate to us as swimming freely is to fish, is the source not of our happiness, but of our unhappiness. And this, of course, refers us back to the heart of Zhuangzi’s project, namely, to return us to the spontaneous, pre-cognitive expression of the up-welling of Life within us. This is true human happiness — surrender into the flow of life, freely following along with wherever it takes us, just like fish. In other words, Zhuangzi would have us return to being like fishes, though, being human and self-aware, that spontaneity would be expressed in an altogether different way.

Zhuangzi knows the happiness of fish because fish do what fish do and he can see them doing it. The same could not be said after observing humanity — quite the contrary. But having observed humanity, Zhuangzi has discovered what could return us to that very same happiness. And, assuming that he has himself experienced this return to rootedness in the spontaneous up-welling of Life within, then Zhuangzi knows the happiness of fish because it is also his own happiness.

Little of this has to do with the actual logical structure of the debate, of course, but I think Zhuangzi would have intended us to find and ponder it, nonetheless. With this profound thinker there are always wheels within wheels. But this logical structure and two glaringly different ways of ‘knowing’ reality do here take center stage.

Zhuangzi expresses his knowledge of the happiness of fish, but Huizi will have nothing of it. Since Zhuangzi is not a fish how could he possibly know what brings them happiness, just as the two of them cannot possibly know what the other knows or does not know. What is immediately clear is that Zhuangzi’s apples are Huizi’s oranges. What the former means by ‘knowing’ is not what is meant by the latter. Huizi is a logician and attempts to understand reality logically. That in this he excels is plainly seen here. He no doubt left the bridge over the River Hao convinced that he had won the debate, though, as usual, his wily adversary somehow seemed to make it seem otherwise.

Logically, according to Huizi, the south is both bounded and boundless, so one can go to Yue today and get there yesterday. To understand the world is to understand that you cannot understand it. But isn’t this precisely what Zhuangzi so forcibly declared: when the understanding consciousness comes to rest in what it does not know, it has reached its utmost. Yes, but what for one is the end of all organic integration with the world is, for the other, the very means to that integration. [Though Huizi declared the oneness of all things: Love all things without exception, for Heaven and earth are one body, he did so on the basis of the application of his form of reasoning. And this, Zhuangzi described as to labor your spirit ‑-­ trying to make all things one, without realizing that it is all the same . . . . (Italics mine).

If all is one it is so because it is, not because one proves it to be. If one knows this oneness, he does so organically, not rationally.] Camus meets Kierkegaard, existentialists both, but for one the apparent absurdity of humanity is a door to alienation and despair, while for the other, to union with the Source. Zhuangzi’s response to the unknowability of the world is to use it to discover unity with it: Let yourself be jostled and shaken by the boundlessness — for that is how to be lodged securely in the boundlessness! For him, not-knowing is a way of knowing, not a rejection of all knowing. Indeed, what is especially intriguing in this passage is Zhuangzi’s defense of knowing, for we have become so used to his attacks upon it.

In fact, we are frequently told by commentators that he rejected knowledge altogether. But this is far from the truth; what concerned him (for I would not say that he ‘rejected’ anything) was that the wonderful gift of a deliberating mind should overpower and dominate the entire expression of the human experience. And this, of course, is at the heart of this debate; Huizi would bring all experience under the dominion of logic, whereas Zhuangzi would open his heart to the full range of the human experience. In the final chapter of the Zhuangzi, its author describes him thusly: He opened himself broadly to the vastness of the root of things, abandoning himself to it even unto the very depths. And such an opening of oneself requires insuring that the understanding consciousness comes to rest in what it does not know. It is thus that he comes to know the happiness of fish.

What, then, is Zhuangzi’s knowing by not-knowing? It is what Guo Xiang calls "knowing spontaneously: But the world does not understand that knowing knows spontaneously, and thus they try to deliberately operate some ‘knowing’ to know it." We know because we know, not because we have come to a logical conclusion after careful deliberation. How do I know that I can know? How does Huizi know that his logic allows him to know? He knows because he knows—spontaneously. But he does not know this; he believes his logic proves itself by its own proofs. Huizi would operate ‘knowing’ to know the happiness of fish, but could not thereby know it. Zhuangzi, on the other hand, knows their happiness because like them, he is rooted in the source of his doing. He has experienced this knowing.

The word intuitive naturally comes to mind in this context, and I would like to ignore it, hoping to avoid the many questions and objections that the idea of intuitive knowledge provokes. (And thereby avoid exposing my inability to answer them). But admittedly, that is a disingenuous dodge. So, I will briefly address those that come to mind as best I can...

Let it be understood, firstly, that to attack this concept of spontaneous knowing in this way is nothing other than to play the part of Huizi and thus to attempt to deliberately know it. Zhuangzi made no attempt to defend his knowing on Huizi’s terms. Yes, he counters, “You are not I, so whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?”, but his question is really rhetorical, for it would show Huizi that, within the structure of his way of knowing, he cannot know even what he claims to know. If Zhuangzi cannot know the happiness of fish because he is not a fish, then, applying the same reasoning, Huizi cannot know whether Zhuangzi knows it or not. But, as we shall see, there is a sense in which Huizi knows that Zhuangzi knows the happiness of fish. He just cannot ‘prove’ it, and thus feels obliged to reject it. Indeed, Huizi also knows the happiness of fish, but rejects such ‘knowing’ out of hand, since this is a kind of knowing outside the box of the logic to which he has confined himself. If spontaneous knowing required proof of its validity it would not be spontaneous knowing. I know. C’est comme ca.

Huizi’s retort to Zhuangzi’s point that, by his own logic, Huizi cannot know what Zhuangzi knows, is one of agreement (it being his point, after all). "But," he goes on to say, "by the same token, since you are certainly not a fish, my point about your inability to know the happiness of fish stands intact." If the first premise is correct, then this conclusion would certainly seem to logically follow. But, as suggested above, Zhuangzi’s application of Huizi’s logic was purely rhetorical, and was intended to show its inconsistency. If Zhuangzi cannot know the happiness of fish because he is not a fish, then Huizi could not know what Zhuangzi knows or does not know. Between ‘I cannot know you’ and therefore ‘you cannot know fish’ is this glaring contradiction. But Huizi insists on carrying on with this principle of logic, despite this inconsistency (that he cannot know what Zhuangzi knows). Why? Because for Huizi, the understanding consciousness dominates and determines his knowing of reality. The principle reigns supreme. Reason is assumed to have some independent and transcendent existence.

Zhuangzi, on the other hand, realizes that reason has no other foundation than its rootedness in the up-welling of human experience, that is, that it spontaneously arises, and thus has no business contravening his spontaneous ‘knowing’ of the happiness of fish. Zhuangzi, it should also be remembered, would be as likely to declare, while strolling along the bridge on the Hao, that he did not really know if he, Huizi, the bridge or the fish were really there at all. Perhaps it all is but a dream or a dream within a dream.

But none of this would matter, for it is not in knowing—any kind of knowing—that his own special happiness rests, but in the simple experience of following along with the flow of whatever experience arises, as it arises. And thus, he would have no need or serious inclination to defend his knowledge of the happiness of fish, for his own happiness, like theirs, depends on nothing other than being what he is. He ‘knows’ the happiness of fish just as any dreamer ‘knows’ the content of his dream, and this works equally well for the dreaming or ostensibly awake. And in either case, whether dreaming or awake, it does not matter, for it is the experience which has arisen.

Zhuangzi’s views on perspective are, of course, also very much in evidence here. It is probably not coincidental that the passage uses the idiom an chih, ‘whence do you know . . . ?’ to ask ‘how do you know . . . ?’ as Graham points out. This is equivalent to asking, ‘From what perspective do you know . . . ?’ For this reason, both Ziporyn and Graham both italicize ‘whence’, for this is all part of Zhuangzi’s work and playfulness.

Zhuangzi’s perspectival relativism is, indeed, very much in play here. His basic premise is that, since every thing has its own rights and wrongs which oppose the rights and wrongs of other things, there are, in fact, no ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ manifest here at all. This being the case, he is not in a position to judge the rightness or wrongness of another’s perspective. And thus, from this ‘higher’ perspective (accepting every point of view as being legitimate for that individual), he is able to harmoniously go along with each thing’s point of view. This is Walking Two Roads. Let us just go by the rightness of whatever is before us as the present “this”.

“This” is the subjective perspective of the other. This ‘higher’ perspective is, of course, but another perspective, albeit a more helpful one, and thus the sage does not designate it as the final ‘right’ perspective. Thus , the Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage’s only map. He makes no definition of what is right but instead entrusts it to the everyday function of each thing. This is what I call the Illumination of the Obvious.

Zhuangzi knows the happiness of fish by observing their everyday function, their doing what fish do. He is not telling fish what their happiness is; he is affirming them in their choice of what makes them happy. And this is why he, though not a fish, can know the happiness of fish.

Is Zhuangzi’s final retort merely a semantic sleight of hand, a cheap trick, or does it truly sum up his position and expose an inherent duplicity in Huizi’s position? I now believe the latter. Let’s go back to the starting point . You said, ‘Whence do you know the happiness of fish?’ Since your question was premised on your knowing that I know it I must have known it from here, up above the Hao River. When Huizi asked how Zhuangzi could know the happiness of fish, he likewise knew the happiness of fish—but he could not ‘prove’ it. For this reason he rejected his and Zhuangzi’s knowing of it. It is very much as if Huizi asked himself “How do I know that I am strolling here looking down on fish?” His real question is “How do I know I know . . . ?” And the answer is, “You do not know how you know, but you know just the same — your knowing arises spontaneously.”

From whence, from what perspective, does Zhuangzi know the happiness of fish? I must have known it from here, up above the Hao River, says he. Always playful, Zhuangzi sums it all up by bringing Huizi back from the netherworld of disembodied logic to this very spot where they both stand and bask in the Illumination of the Obvious. And thus, they stroll on, engaging in the happiness of philosophers, doing what philosophers do.

Note: To download and/or print this document replete with footnotes, go here.


  1. So you've started the epic task of the Chuang Tzu??

    You will have blisters on your typing finger in no time :D

  2. This is even better than I imagined. Scott writes and analyzes; all I have to do is format. ;-)

  3. thus is the contradictory nature of tao. we both know the happiness of fish, yet do not. we are to be conscious of the world unlike the frog in the previous post, yet blissfully unaware like the minnows. :) it's not without its challenges!

  4. I was looking for White Horses but found these minnows instead. Your first few paragraphs made me laugh.

    perhaps if the minnow were Babel fish both Zhuangzi and Huizi could have quickly concluded the conundrum.

  5. But where can I get the T-shirt?

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