Saturday, January 28, 2012

Speaking of Insufficiency I

Scott Bradley


I have just begun Fung Yu-lan's The Spirit of Chinese Philosophy and have started with the chapter on one of my favorite topics, the so-called Neo-Taoists of the Third and Fourth Centuries. This was actually a rather disparate group of thinkers ranging from the free-spirited Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove to the more heady and verbose commentators like Wang Pi (226-249) and Guo Xiang (252-312), though Fung chooses to only discuss the latter two.

What makes Fung's work particularly interesting is that, as a working philosopher himself, he brings a definite bias to his studies and thus gives things an interestingly different spin. This is the case here where he clearly sides with Wang and Guo in their negative critiques of the "Taoism" of Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi.

To understand this critique one need only realize that, despite the designation Neo-Taoists, Wang and Guo were dyed-in-the-wool Confucians on a project of adopting and adapting Taoist thought to their own synthetizing purposes.

In this regard, it is related that when Wang Pi, the great advocate of the primacy of non-being, was asked why it was that Lao Tzu and Chuang Chou (Zhuangzi) spoke much of non-being, while Confucius did not, he replied: "The Sage [Confucius] identified himself with non-being and realized it could not be made the subject of instruction, with the result that he felt bound to deal with being. Lao Tzu and Chuang Chou were not yet outside the sphere of being, with the result that they constantly spoke of their own insufficiency." In other words, they saw it, but didn't get it, and therefore always talked about.

This argument, though in many ways specious, does nonetheless provide an interesting perspective on why we talk about the things we do. We speak out of our "own insufficiency". And this immediately brings to mind the pivotal pronouncement of both Lao Tzu and Zhuangzi that "those who know, do not speak".

One commentating wag took Lao Tzu to task for saying this and then proceeding to write a thesis on the subject. It might be more helpful, however, to realize that Lao Tzu knew he was speaking out of his own insufficiency. How do we purge from our minds this idea of a Truth to which we must arrive? Why do we insist that there are those who "know"? Those who "point" might not necessarily have arrived at that to which they point. Perhaps the lesson in the pointing is that we can also see something of our insufficiency and then learn to point.

Is it just more hot air to say that the point is in the journey, not the arrival? Let us hope not, because there is infinitely more pointing than arriving being done and it is doubtful that any of us will not go to our graves with our finger directed at the heavens, pointing to our own insufficiency.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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