Saturday, February 9, 2013

Beyond Zhuangzi?

Scott Bradley

It has been opined that the 17th chapter of the Zhuangzi, "Autumn Floods", is the best presentation of philosophical Daoism extant. It is certainly one of the clearest presentations; but does that make it the best? Though nothing is for sure, I agree with Graham that this chapter, along with several others, might correctly be considered "School of Zhuangzi", which is to say they are a deliberate elaboration of the thought of Zhuangzi. But are they an improvement on that thought?

To suggest that one can improve on Zhuangzi is to say that one can improve on ambiguity. But where ambiguity is the message, how can we say that its clarification is an improvement? We hunger for clarity, for that provides "principles", and these are something we can depend on. A great deal of what I write here is my attempt to discover similar clarifications, ideas 'to live by'. This is why it is so important to constantly return to "critical zero", to wipe the slate clean of everything 'understood'.

I am reminded of Zhuangzi's fanciful history of the devolution of philosophy. In the beginning, the ancients did not know if anything existed at all. "How could this be improved upon?" asks he. From there it was all down hill until, if we did not know everything, at least we thought we could. So we ended up with Hegel’s great System which explained everything, and Spinoza's (god bless him) geometry of reality which proved it to be a wonderful place where all is well.

Would it be possible to say that Zhuangzi cannot be improved upon without implying there are not infinite other possible perspectives which likewise cannot be improved upon? I believe it is and there are. This is the freedom of Zhuangzi's ambiguity. Let myriad flowers bloom; not one of them can be improved upon.

Within the context of Zhuangzi's philosophy of ambiguity, therefore, should we wish to explore it as a catalyst to our own response to being in the world, we need to be wary of clarification. If it is 'answers' we seek, then we would do better to look elsewhere.

None of this is to say that the author of “Autumn Floods” does not provide significant insight into the implications of philosophical Daoism. He does; both (positively) by way of further illustrating how the limits of reason return us to life, and (negatively) in going beyond Zhuangzi in the development of his own less ambiguous philosophy. He can’t be improved upon!

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

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