Thursday, November 21, 2013

Intraworldly Mysticism I

Scott Bradley


In his contributing article, "The Perfected Person in the Radical Chuang-tzu", to the anthology Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu (Victor Mair, ed.) Lee Yearley suggests two distinct, though related, philosophies attributable to "Chuang-tzu". His basic premise is that "the radical Chuang-tzu" is the original voice and so radical that a reworking by his disciples naturally evolved into a "conventional Chuang-tzu". "Reworkings of radical visions are common in religion," he tells us.

In this I largely agree, though I do not see Zhuangzi as founding a religion. Nor do I find it particularly helpful to speak of two Zhuangzis Yearley does so, I think, to avoid the complications of assigning authorship to the various parts of the Zhuangzi, but since he principally refers to the 17th Chapter as representative of the "conventional" reworking of Zhuangzi's philosophy, it should be easy enough to designate it as a such.

In any case, the differences between the original Zhuangzian vision and that of a later disciple, the author of the 17th Chapter, are well worth exploring for many reasons, not the least of which is as a warning that we are likely to make similar 'adjustments' to a vision we find too radical. Since Zhuangzi is essentially cutting against the grain of our “natural inclinations”, it should come as no surprise that we tend to revert to those same inclinations when interpreting him.

I have often made mention of the more intellectual character of the 17th Chapter where the author lays out a refined argument for perspectival skepticism in the context of a world in continual flux, and his subsequent advocacy for the adoption of a detached point of view. Yearley compares this to the Stoic view where reason leads us to accept with equanimity what cannot be avoided. On the surface, this might appear most Zhuangzian, but something is missing, something essential. Yearley calls this something "intraworldly mysticism".

Ultimately, Zhuangzi's vision entails a mystical movement, a transformative experience (or experiences). His arguments showing us the limits and life-alienating character of an excessive reliance on the "understanding consciousness", on reason, are intended to suggest we take a leap beyond reason. The author of the 17th Chapter appears to have intellectualized that leap; he continues to "take his mind as his teacher". Like the Stoics, he seems to advocate the application of reasoned principles to life rather than taking a leap into life.

We will explore more about what is meant by intraworldly mysticism in posts to follow, but here, lest some be put off by talk of a "leap beyond reason", it needs to be said that it does not imply irrationality, nor is it a flight from life, but precisely the opposite.

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

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