Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Understanding Zhuangzian Mysticism I

Scott Bradley

I began Chad Hansen's article "Guru or Skeptic? Relativistic Skepticism in the Zhuangzi" (Hiding the World in the World, Scott Cook, ed.) with some trepidation for several reasons. One is a bit of overload on this particular subject. Another is that I know his views to be very different than my own. And finally, I find his tone a bit off-putting. However, all in all the experience was not all that painful.

I will not inflict any more ruminations about this topic on you (or myself). Suffice it to say that Hansen comes down on the side of Zhuangzi the philosopher and skeptic as opposed to the mystical 'guru'. Personally, I do not see anything mutually exclusive about these two positions, and it is this that I will address in this and the following post. One gets the impression that Hansen is very much on the defensive in this article since this anthology and the one to which it is largely a response (Essays on Skepticism, Relativism and Ethics in the Zhuangzi, Kjellberg and Ivanhoe, eds.) are for the most part moderating responses to his own more radical position. Yet, despite frequent sarcastic jabs at his detractors, I really don't see how his advocacy of Zhuangzi's skepticism differs all that much from that of the others. Nor do I see why, even if it does radically differ, it makes all that much difference.

Hansen's major issue, it seems to me, is his belief that most other commentators default to a presumed mystical dimension in Zhuangzi that subsumes and negates his radical philosophical skepticism. (He also more overtly criticizes the interpretive methods of his fellows who, he believes, fail to read Zhuangzi in the context of his times, especially with respect to the philosophical debates about language. This tends to suggest that Zhuangzi could not have seriously deviated from that debate. Indeed, his debate with Huizi and leap beyond him would seem to suggest just the opposite.) I think this is largely a mis-reading of the understanding of Zhuangzian mysticism of most of those fellows and of Zhuangzi's mysticism generally.

In his introduction, Cook describes Hansen as "the arch 'antimystic' of Chinese philosophical studies". This comes out in the 'sarcastic jabs' mentioned above: "Traditionalists are loath to exchange the loveable, comic-strip religious mystic for a skeptical linguistic philosopher." "The traditional picture [is] of Zhuangzi as a mystical prophet." The contemporary reader would have found the significance of this work "in the political implications, rather than in some recipe for spiritual edification."

Anyone who has read just a few of my posts will know that I too take issue with the traditional understanding and expression of mysticism when applied to Zhuangzi. My sense is that it is this non-Zhuangzian form of mysticism to which Hansen takes exception and is consequently unable to see his way through to what his unique form of mysticism is all about. And frankly, I cannot see how one could possibly not see at least some form of an appeal to mystical experience in Zhuangzi unless guided by an overwhelming aversion to mysticism generally. How Zhuangzi's mysticism differs from traditional versions will be the subject of the next post.

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

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