Sunday, October 14, 2012

The First Transmetaphysician

Scott Bradley


I have finally broken down and bought some new books; in recent years I have only bought books found in used book stores, a somewhat haphazard way to proceed in one’s education. My first purchase is Liberation as Affirmation: The religiosity of Zhuangzi and Nietzsche by Ge Ling Shang. With a title like that (despite the unfortunate "religiosity"), how could I have held out for so long?!

Ge's basic thesis is that both these philosophers, despite the substantial differences between them, saw the affirmation of life as a path to spiritual liberation. In the case of Zhuangzi, he begins his argument by contrasting Zhuangzi's eschewal of all metaphysics with Laozi's incipient metaphysics. I won't go into the details of his argument. Suffice it to say that Laozi, though he tells us that "the Dao that can be daoed [spoken] is not the Constant Dao", in effect makes Dao the Origin of things, and thus itself a something, despite calling it nothing (wu). For this reason he has been called "the first Chinese metaphysician".

Zhuangzi, on the other hand, completely deconstructs this metaphysics and transcends the Being/Non-being (you/wu) dualism, declaring them mere mental constructs and reaffirming Laozi's apparently original insight that Dao is indeed utterly un-dao-able. He introduces wuwu, (“no-nothingness”). Thus, Ge dubs Zhuangzi "the first transmetaphysician".

Does any of this matter? In a very real sense it does not matter at all; transcendence in general is not dependent on any particular interpretation of reality — we need not get it 'right' to get it. But in the case of Zhuangzi's philosophy of spiritual liberation it matters very much indeed.

Consider, if you will, this analogy: Zhuangzi wishes to launch his heart into the total freedom of undifferentiated vastness. ("The vast wilds of open nowhere.") His launch pad is not-knowing. His fuel is non-attachment to anything fixed (a kind of antigravity drive). And now, just as the rocket of his heart prepares to launch, that last structural umbilical cord, the ultimate question of what reality is (or is not), falls away; he stands alone and metaphysically naked. And thus his lift-off and escape velocity is achieved; and he "wanders in the palace of not even anything", or more to the point, "not even nothing".

But there is another, more philosophical reason why this transcendence of Being/Non-being duality matters. "If wu [Non-being] was conceived as the real Being of beings, the whole world of becoming would be denied as a real world," writes Ge. In other words, if we wish to affirm life, it is not helpful to declare it unreal, illusory, maya. It may all be a dream, but then awakening to the dream is awakening within the dream, and that, Zhuangzi would tell us, is an occasion for still more, happier dreaming. Dream on. Affirm life, together with all things.

If all this seems too complicated, just remember: It’s not wu or you, but wuwu (or, if you prefer, haha).

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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