Friday, January 4, 2013

Concrete Pluralistic Monism

Scott Bradley


Concrete pluralistic monism is a concept formulated by Wu (The Butterfly as Companion) to sum up in part the philosophy of Zhuangzi as presented in the second chapter of the Zhuangzi. Pluralism (many-ness) and monism (oneness) are, of course, logically mutually exclusive concepts, but that is the beauty of their conjunction in the concrete, that is, in life.

The pursuit of oneness typically trumps the preservation of many-ness, if not in practice, then at least in theory. Our goal is to become zero, or everything, which amounts to the same thing. This ideal may in fact be the final resolution of things, but it is not the case in the context in which the pursuit takes place. That context is life. And it is with and in life that we have to deal.

I think we can affirm that Zhuangzi did not seek to become in life what we become in death, if for no other reason than that we have no knowledge of what that might be. To do so would be idealism; a charge that can be leveled against Buddhism, for instance. In Buddhism, the present goal is Nirvana, the final state. Zhuangzi gives absolutely no thought to final states. What concerns him is living happily now. The rest will take care of itself. (Which also implies no need for salvation, merit, enlightenment, or attainment.)

But we live now in the context of our impending death and our birth out of apparent nothing. (For Zhuangzi, pre-birth and post-death are essentially the same; we arise from and return to the same matrix.) And this does inform our living. Only we do not seek to now be as pre- or post-existent, but to incorporate into our present being the reality of non-being. We "walk both roads"; we live the paradox. We are the “living dead”, which, if we can manage to rise above our fear and stereotypes of morbidity, is a most healthy and happy way to live.

Similarly, we honor the urge to oneness by allowing it to inform our living in a pluralistic world, a world of myriad distinct things, including our self-aware, individuated selves. In this apparent world of many distinct things, we understand how there is also oneness. Only this oneness is discovered, not in sameness, but in difference. All things are one in that they are all distinct and different. Thus are monism and pluralism paradoxically united in life.

All paradoxes are not created equal. Some are a reflection of life and are thus lived; others are mere obfuscation. Paradoxes arise out of life or out of logic; the latter can sometimes be helpful in bringing us to an appreciation of the former, but only the former are lived. Thus we see again how for Zhuangzi it is the primacy of life that guides us.

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

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