Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Making Free with Words

Scott Bradley


The friendship between Zhuangzi and Huizi, variously described as a "logician", "dialectician", and "sophist", is an intriguing and not altogether expected one. In the realm of ideas, they might be said to have been diametrically opposed; yet still they were friends. How could this be?

The most obvious answer is that friendship was of greater value to them than ideas. Yet this misses the mark in that it suggests some kind of deliberation that comes down on the side of friendship. Without getting too warm and fuzzy, I would suggest that their love for each other obviated any need for such a deliberation.

Nevertheless, love too has its prerequisites, and would not have been possible without these two philo-sophers — lovers of 'wisdom' — being able to somehow mediate their very real differences of opinion. And this was consequent, I believe, to their mutual understanding of the relative character of their own perspectives.

So much of Zhuangzi's critique of reason is adopted from Huizi that it has been suggested (Graham) that he had once been his disciple. But whereas Huizi stopped with a deconstruction of language, having demonstrated its circular and "unfixed" character, Zhuangzi pressed on and used it as an opportunity to explore other more intuitive ways of harmonizing with reality. Yet Huizi's declaration of the absurdity of rationalism and the consequent relativity of every point of view apparently sufficed to at least render him capable of not taking words too seriously, and thus not an impediment to friendship.

Every account we have of Huizi tends to be negative, not least that which appears in the final chapter of the Zhuangzi where he alone of every philosopher discussed is completely dismissed as having no philosophical or personal merit. Only Zhuangzi, accidently happening by his grave, mourns his passing, and laments, "There is no longer anyone who I can really talk to." (Zhuangzi, 24; Ziporyn)

Elsewhere, Zhuangzi creates the famous metaphor of the fish trap being forgotten when the fish are caught and applies it to words: "Words are for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words that I might have a few words with him?" (26; Ziporyn) Huizi was apparently that man.

We tend to think of the suffix “-zi” (“-tzu”) as designating a sage, yet it is much too universally applied for this to be the case; in any event, Huizi seems to have earned his. Zhuangzi is sometimes scathing in his criticism of Huizi, yet Huizi remained his friend nonetheless. This reveals a sagacity far removed from our typical vision of an enlightened master. But then “sage” is just another four-letter word, and where ‘truth’ has ceased to be an issue, so has a rigid definition of what constitutes a life well-lived

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

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