Original post date: May 13, 2010
Continuing with the discussion from Zhuangzi, Chapter 6...
Before moving on to Zhuangzi’s deconstruction of this statement, I will here offer a highly interpretive paraphrase of it:
To understand the givens of one’s existence and how to harmonize oneself to them is the greatest understanding that one can have. Understanding Nature as expressed in oneself, one lives spontaneously and naturally. Understanding the limits of human understanding, one is able to transcend those limits and nurture that part of oneself that is beyond understanding. This enables one to fully realize life’s potential, and this is the greatest understanding.”
However, there is a problem here. For our understanding can be in the right only by virtue of a relation of dependence on something, and what it depends on is always peculiarly unfixed. So how could I know whether what I call the Heavenly is not really the Human? How could I know what I call the Human in not really the Heavenly? Let us say instead, then, that there can be “Genuine Knowledge” only when there is such a thing as a “Genuine Human Being”.
Leave it to Zhuangzi to dash our hopes of ever actually knowing something! But this ultimate uncertainty is at the heart of his philosophy and he would only have us join him in basking in The Radiance of Drift and Doubt where all Reality can only be understood as a Shadowy Splendor. For this is the complete casting aside of the fetters of the understanding consciousness and the fixed identity it engenders, so that we might roam in the vast wilds of open nowhere.
The problem with human understanding, Zhuangzi tells us, is that its foundations are shaky. Or, to use a metaphor dear to Kierkegaard’s heart, it is sewing without a knot at the end of the thread.[xl] Peculiarly unfixed is an expression already introduced in Chapter 2 where, according to Dr. Ziporyn, there is a similar deconstruction of a tentative statement: “But human speech is not just a blowing of air. Speech has something of which it speaks, something it refers to.” (The tentative statement) Yes, but what it refers to is peculiarly unfixed. So, is there anything it refers to? . . . You take it to be different from the chirping of baby birds. But is there really any difference between them?
The tentative statement is an anticipated objection to what Zhuangzi has already explained, namely, that all our opinions are relative to our particular (peculiar) perspectives and our relative definition of words. What is unfixed is perspective, for everyone has a different perspective and even that changes over time. The mind comes to be what it is by taking possession of whatever it selects out of the process of alteration — but does that mean it has to truly understand that process (to do so)? No, the fool takes something up from it too. Not seeing the whole picture, how can we claim to correctly understand a minuscule part of it?
In other words, we choose a mental representation of reality based upon our own limited perspective and thus can only have a partial, and thus false, view of things. Dependence on something is a formula used by Zhuangzi to specify what limits us and to be free of dependence is the liberation which enables far and unfettered wandering. In the case at point, to depend on my understanding of the nature of the relationship between Nature and Humanity as positive and objectively true, would be to depend on what I cannot cognitively know and thus to fetter myself.
You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.