Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ziporyn on Xunzi IV

Scott Bradley

[I]t is only the sage who does not seek to understand Heaven.
(Xunzi; 62/17/7ff)
Ziporyn introduces this quote from Xunzi with the observation that "what cannot be spoken of, he passes over in silence." Thus, Xunzi acknowledges the fundamental observation of Daoism that "the dao that can be spoken is not the constant Dao", but rather than allowing this to determine the parameters and character of his knowing, he formulates an epistemology outside the context of the fundamentally unknowable. He understands that all our ideas about how the world works are "peculiarly unfixed", as Zhuangzi tells us, but proceeds as if it does not matter. This would not in itself be a form of dishonesty if his "understanding stopped at what it does not know", but he instead goes on to tell us in sweeping terms how the world actually does work: "The exemplary person forms a triad with heaven and earth . . ." (28/9/63ff)

There is a very real sense in which the human experience requires us to 'act as if' things make ultimate 'sense'. We use words to convey ideas as if they are more than "the twittering of baby birds". "Walking two roads" enables us to do so without "bad faith", without self-deceit — we understand both the necessity of assuming the validity of words and their ultimately unfixed character at the same time. Similarly, science tells us how the world works while also keeping in mind that today's paradigm will likely be overturned by tomorrow's (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; Kuhn). Without acknowledging that it does not ultimately know simultaneous to telling us that it does, science could not advance. The curious thing, however, is that Newtonian physics 'works' despite being overturned by Einsteinian physics, just as our ad hoc ‘spiritual’ formulas often work even when ‘erroneous’. Faith, hope, and even prayer can ‘work’, even when embedded in pure fantasy.

It is especially curious how this statement by Xunzi is in many ways entirely consistent with the position of philosophical Daoism. Yet, since his project was in many ways to co-opt the Daoist view when he could not out-rightly refute it, it is perhaps not so surprising that he would at least give it a nod.

"[I]t is only the sage who does not seek to understand Heaven." This implies that everyone else does. There is a great chuckle here in that we typically think of the sage, the religious, the 'metaphysician' (as some advertise themselves) as doing precisely this very thing. How Zhuangzian might have been Xunzi's sage had he remained consistent with this insight! Instead, he opted out of a paradigm consciously embedded in Mystery.

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