Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Back on the Bridge: Winning by Losing

Scott Bradley


As I said in the previous post, the debate by Zhuangzi and Huizi about the possibility of knowing the happiness of fish concerns two ways of knowing. Both are presented and each 'wins' the debate from the perspective of his own way. When Zhuangzi declares the activity of fish to be their happiness, Huizi takes him to task for proclaiming what he cannot possibly know. Logically speaking, he's right. Zhuangzi, for his part, responds on the same level and declares that Huizi is not he and therefore cannot know what he does or does not know. This is also true. But its truthfulness, Huizi correctly points out, demonstrates the truthfulness of his statement that Zhuangzi, not being a fish, cannot know what is their happiness. Thus, from the point of view of reason, Huizi has won the argument.

Did the author of this story (Chapter 17) intend that we should understand that Huizi, approaching the problem of knowing on his own terms, must win? I think so. What argument cannot be won on its own terms? This argument was won through a kind of reason ("pure reason") completely divorced from the full range of human experience as rooted in and inextricably a part of an environmental context. Most arguments are 'won' in terms of emotional need, we achieve the outcome we desire and need, reason be damned. We might judge between them, declare one superior to the other, but is there really any difference? When we can understand how they are the same, we begin to understand what it is to be free of all arguments.

But Zhuangzi suddenly shifts the debate to a different level, one of pre-cognitive, participatory knowing. Previously, I have thought of this as 'cheating', as we so often do when facing defeat, but what he might be seen as having done is to have willingly suffered defeat for the purpose of demonstrating that, because an argument is 'won' does not make it true to our experience. So, he suggests they return to the beginning of the debate, this time looking at it in his terms. When Huizi asks 'how he knows' (literally, "from whence he knows"), he already knows that he does know because he himself also knows; he knows it by strolling here on the bridge from which he has seen the fish. They both know the happiness of fish because the happiness of fish is their happiness, and their happiness is the happiness of fish. The happiness of being is being.

My happiness is cosmic happiness; cosmic happiness is my happiness. My self-affirmation is cosmic affirmation; cosmic affirmation is my affirmation. My self-forgiveness is universal forgiveness; universal forgiveness is my forgiveness.

Was Huizi ‘convinced’? The historical record, such as it is, says not. In the final words of the final chapter of the Zhuangzi we are told that he ended his days famed as a great debater, but that he was still like someone “trying to stifle an echo by shouting, or pitting the body in a race against its shadow. How sad!” (Mair) He had to be something other than everything. Yes, sad; but he and Zhuangzi now rest equally together unborn again in the great transforming.

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

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