Saturday, September 21, 2013

Still More on the Happiness of Fish I

Scott Bradley

I've written a number of posts reflecting on the debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi regarding whether the former is able to know the happiness of fish. Strolling on the bridge over the River Hao, Zhuangzi looks down to see some fish and casually comments: "The minnows swim about so freely, following the openings wherever they take them. Such is the happiness of fish." (17; Ziporyn)

Not surprisingly, Huizi, whose skeptical arguments Zhuangzi uses to make his own points, immediately challenges this assertion. How could Zhuangzi, who is not a fish, possibly know the happiness of fish? Thus, the story is essentially about how we can definitively know anything. We might have expected Zhuangzi to agree with Huizi in this, but he has never in fact been a thorough-going skeptic and is more than willing to allow knowing its provisional place. "When the understanding consciousness comes to rest in what it does not know it has reached its utmost." (2:36) There's a whole lot of knowing between what it can know and what it cannot. The point is not to ascribe it powers it does not have. It is the limitation of knowing in scope, efficacy, and ultimate groundedness that becomes for Zhuangzi its fulfillment, since it is at that frontier that we are invited to re-integrate into the process of life, this incredible experience of being without rhyme or reason. A problem only arises when we take reason as the final word on our experience, the consequence of which is either self-deception or some form of despair.

Zhuangzi's final answer to Huizi's argument is that in asking him how (from whence) he knows the happiness of fish, Huizi is in effect admitting that he too knows the happiness of fish but is unwilling to let knowing just be a matter of common sense since he still insists on "making his mind his only teacher". From whence do I know? answers Zhuangzi, from up here on the bridge overlooking the River Hao.

In the end, Zhuangzi is not really interested in philosophizing for its own sake, as is Huizi, but simply as a means of returning the mind to a renewed awareness of its proper place and to thereby allow a fuller affirmation of the life experience.

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

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