Sunday, October 27, 2013

Skepticism At a Crossroads

Scott Bradley

Chad Hansen does an excellent job of bringing us to an understanding of the skepticism of Zhuangzi vis-a-vis our inability to know anything about the ultimate foundations of apparent reality. In order to do this he has had to wipe away the cobwebs of traditional readings of Zhuangzi that continue to muddle the interpretive efforts of modern-day translators and commentators and come to the text on its own terms. Nearly all default to the idea that Zhuangzi was trying to introduce us to a metaphysical Dao, the One, and Hansen makes an excellent case for the exact opposite. Zhuangzi's skepticism regarding the ability of language to provide us with "fixed" assertions about the way things 'really are' is not, Hansen tells us, a therapeutic ploy to get us to take the leap of belief through spiritual intuition (prajna, enlightenment) into union with an ineffable Dao. His skepticism was complete and uncompromising.

But what was his aim? Why did he engage in this philosophic exercise about language as found in the Qiwulun chapter (2) of the Zhuangzi? Was it, as Hansen seems to assume, simply to extend and perhaps correct the conclusions of the School of Names (that consideration that extends across a wide swath of debate among Confucians, Mohists, 'logicians', and 'sophists' regarding the nature and reliability of language), or did he have something else in mind? It seems clear to me, even within that very chapter, that Zhuangzi had something else entirely different in mind. In the context of the entire Inner Chapters, it is inconceivable (to me) that we could come to any other conclusion.

Zhuangzi brings us to this place of realizing our utter not-knowing to suggest an alternative way of engaging with our being in the world. He suggests that we engage life on its own terms, not in terms of our ability to 'understand' it. He recommends a trustful leap into the very happening of life, a following along with things as they unfold, a thankful acceptance of things as they are, however they are.

He does not subsequently abandon his skepticism for some kind of intuitivism that fills in the blanks for us in some novel, 'spiritual' way. Never does he depart in any way from his not-knowing; to do so would be to abandon honesty. The "Illumination of the Obvious" (yiming) is the practice of genuinely, authentically, (phenomenologically), letting life be what it is. Authentic living is living life the way it is.

Hansen actually says this well: “Mysticism amounts to no more than an admission of our ignorance of what is so of things.” Only it seems that for him, mysticism can only be an abandonment of our ignorance instead of, as it is for Zhuangzi, its complete acceptance.

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

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