The Philosophy of Zhuangzi

Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu or Chuang Chou] (c.360 bce) may have written up to seven chapters (The “Inner Chapters”) of The Zhuangzi collection. His technical mastery of ancient Chinese linguistic theory in some of these suggests that Zhuangzi studied and thought deeply about semantics. Thinkers of related but distinct theoretical orientations probably wrote the remaining “Outer Chapters.” Some of the latter expand on but others contradict themes in the Inner Chapters. They typically draw on literary skills and religion more than linguistic philosophy.


The relation between Laozi [Lao Tzu] and Zhuangzi within Taoism is a growing puzzle. The only verifiable intellectual influence on Zhuangzi was Hui Shi (370–319 bce), a language theorist. Zhuangzi had a longstanding friendship with the monist dialectician, and he mourned Hui Shi’s death as depriving him of the person “on whom he sharpened his wits.”

We can view Hui Shi’s linguistic theory best against the background of the Mohists’ linguistic realism. The realists said real-world similarities and differences ground the “picking out” that divides the world into thing-kinds. Hui Shi tried to undermine the Mohist’s semantic proposal by drawing attention to comparatives. Comparatives also mark distinctions, but it is less plausible that the distinctions are in-the-world. Where we draw a comparative contrast is relative to our purpose and point of view. Whether an ant is large or small varies as we compare it with other ants or other animals. Some of Hui Shi’s reported teachings include:

  •  Heaven is as low as the earth; mountains are level with marshes.
  • The sun is both in the middle and descending.
  • Natural kinds are both living and dying.
  • I go to Yüeh today and arrive yesterday

For the purpose of understanding Zhuangzi, Hui Shi’s key saying strikes at the use of similarity to ground realism:

The ten-thousand thing-kinds are ultimately alike and ultimately different. Call this the great similarity-difference.

Zhuangzi develops this insight. If we can find a difference between any two things no matter how alike they are, then the basis for distinguishing and grouping is not simple similarity. Similarity, that is, does not justify any particular way of dividing reality into “kinds.” For each name in our language, we could have evolved conventions that divide the world’s stuff up differently.

Hui Shi’s relativist sayings, however, conclude with an absolute claim about reality. He tries to refer to “everything” and make a judgment about it from the “cosmic” perspective. He formulates the view typically attributed to Taoists.

Universally love the ten-thousand thing-kinds; the cosmos is one ti. [Ti was a technical term referring to the basic parts of any compounded object.]

The Zhuangzi presentation of Hui Shi’s views concludes: “He had many perspectives and his library would fill five carts but his doctrine was selfcontradictory. His language did not hit his target – the intent to make sense of things.” This suggests that Zhuangzi saw Hui Shi as caught in a paradox. Mohist theory had exposed the incoherence of any blanket anti-language (anti-distinction) stance. The Mohists argued both that “‘All language is perverse’ is perverse” and that rejecting distinctions requires making a distinction. Thus, either denying all distinctions or treating language as distorting reality is incoherent. Zhuangzi probably noticed that Hui Shi’s “Everything is one” was an attempt to reject distinctions and thus language.

Zhuangzi himself states the position in his characteristic poetic style: “The cosmos and I were born together; the ten-thousand things and I are one.” Then he wonders aloud: “Having already a ‘one,’ is it possible to say something about it? Having already called it a ‘one’ can we fail to say anything about it? ‘One’ and saying it make two. Two and one make three and, going from here, even a skilled calculator cannot keep up with us – let alone an ordinary person.”

Skeptical Perspectivalism

Zhuangzi’s unique philosophical style contributes to his image as an irrationalist. He wrote philosophical fantasy rather than direct argument. Interpreters understandably treat him as a Western romantic, rejecting reason for emotion. Arguably, however, Zhuangzi presents his positions in fantasy dialogues in order to illustrate and practice a pluralist perspective. He puts positions up for discussion, reflects on and then abandons them. He stages these discussions sometimes as imagined conversations among fantasy figures (rebellious thieves, distorted freaks, or converted Confucians), other times as internal monologue. In the fantasy dialogues, Zhuangzi seems to challenge us to identify his voice. Even his monologues typically end with a double rhetorical question in place of a conclusion. “Then is there really any X or is there no X?”

Another key to Zhuangzi’s adaptation of Hui Shi’s relativism is his treatment of “useful.” Everything is useful from some position or other, and there are positions from which even the most useful thing is useless. Things may be useful precisely in being useless. Zhuangzi illustrates this latter theme with his famous parables of the huge “useless” tree that, consequently, no one ever chopped down. Pragmatic concerns are always relative to some presumed value.

Zhuangzi develops his perspectivalism without rejecting language. Confucian innatists appealed to a preference for nature over convention to support their anti-language attitudes. Zhuangzi notes that being natural does not require abandoning words. Human speech, from empty greetings and small talk to the disputes of philosophers, is as natural a “noise” as are bird songs. He uses the “pipes of nature” as a metaphor for philosophical disputes. If brooks can go on babbling, philosophers can go on disputating and making distinctions.

Then he considers an objection to his wind metaphor: “Language is not blowing breath; language users have [that (by?) which] they ‘language.’ What language ‘languages,’ however, is never fixed.” He highlights the indexicality of language to defend this skepticism. His argument deftly exploits a dual use of a core term of Chinese semantic analysis, shi – which translators treat sometimes as “this” and other times as “right.” First, he fixes the indexical aspect of shi in our minds by contrasting it with bi [that]. “Is anything really a ‘this’ or a ‘that’?” Then he shifts to the contrast of shi and fei. Fei negates category terms as in “X fei (is not a) horse” and, like shi, is used alone – to mean “wrong.” So shi and fei together stand for right and wrong use of names of things. Relative to any name, some object will be either shi or fei (either this is a horse or it is not a horse). This analysis leads to the doctrine that historical, inherited purposes and background knowledge govern naming. The use of shi–fei is indexed to our acquired perspective. History and human purpose condition how we divide up and name things in the world. Language marks our perspectives on reality as much as the real joints and fissures in nature.

Zhuangzi focuses on the social perspective, though he sometimes notes differences in perspective within the same person at different times. His main target is the way conflicting attitudes come from using different moral language. He uses the moral debate between Confucians and Mohists as the key example. Utilitarian Mohists say Confucian traditionalism is immoral because it leads to bad consequences. Confucians say utilitarianism is immoral because it leads to doing what is wrong. Each criticism presupposes precisely the moral point that is in dispute.

Zhuangzi reflects in places on the perspective of “self,” although he is not a subjectivist. Recalling Laozi’s emphasis on contrasts, he sees the concept of “self” as based on a contrast with “other.” He suggests the deep motive for the “self–other” distinction is that we assume that things like pleasure, anger, sadness, joy, forethought, and regret are held together and governed by something. He observes that these “alternate day and night” and we should give up trying to find a “ruler” of them and merely accept that they are there. Without these “reality inputs” there would be no “self” (i.e. the self is not something separate from them) and without “self,” there would be no “choosing of one thing over another.” (That is, if there were no such reactions to things, there would not be such a thing as choice and hence no concept of something separate and outside oneself.) He notes the inevitability of our assumption that some “ruler” harmonizes and organizes these feelings into a self, then adds, skeptically, that we never find any sign of it.


Innatist Confucians do presuppose a “natural ruler” – the moral heartmind. How, Zhuangzi muses, can it be any more natural than the other “hundred joints, nine openings and six viscera”? Does there need to be a ruler? Cannot each natural organ rule itself or take turns? Identifying one organ as supreme conflicts with the Confucians’ intention to take “being natural” as a moral standard.

Zhuangzi observes that all of the organs of the body grow together in encountering and adapting to life. As these do, they are cheng [ch’eng] (completed) – a term Zhuangzi uses ironically. Any completion, he argues, leaves some defect in its wake. Growth is possible only with some skewing and bias.

Thus, all hearts equally achieve cheng. As each grows along with the body, it acquires a pattern of language use – a way of making shi–fei judgments about the relation of objects and words. Every person’s heart naturally acquires some disposition to these assignments. If this acquired heart (the one that grows with the body) is the authority, then Confucian sages have no superior authority over it – hence no superior authority to criticize a fool’s attitudes. Confucian innatists assume one pattern of chen (completion) is right and they project their historically acquired norm on nature. They assume we need to cultivate the xin [hsin] (heartmind) so it will give the correct shi–fei judgments.

Zhuangzi asks these Confucians how they propose to distinguish a sage’s heart-mind from a fool’s. The appeal to nature gives us no reason to identify any existing way of cultivating the heart-mind as “right” or “proper.” The innatist’s attempt to get norms from reality begs the question against rival moral perspectives. Appealing to the sage’s insight into nature requires us to distinguish a sage from a fool. Using an acquired insight to make that distinction begs the question against rival moral attitudes, which are equally naturally acquired. Confucian sages are Mohist fools and vice versa!

Zhuangzi’s analysis of the cheng xin (completed heart-mind) reflects a view found in the Laozi. We unconsciously absorb knowledge and moral attitudes in the very process of learning language. Attitudes that seem natural and spontaneous reflect what has become second nature. No innate or spontaneous dispositions survive without being cheng. Zhuangzi says that for there to be a shi–fei in the heart without its being put there in the process of cheng is “like going to Yüeh today and arriving yesterday!”

We can only rank perspectives by assuming some controversial dao [tao] (moral discourse). Moral direction comes from our dao, not from tian [t’ien] (nature:heaven). Appeals to nature give us no guidance when we confront rival ethical views. Even a judgment that different daos are equal in value must (1) be a result of taking some standard for granted or (2) be a misleading way to say “make no judgment.” The problem with (2) is that once again it amounts to saying that we should stop speaking or discriminating.

What is the alternative? We naturally (inevitably) do judge and we presuppose some standpoint when we do. Zhuangzi’s standpoint is a pluralistic perspective on perspectives. He advocates ming (discrimination) but never defines it. Ming allows judgments about other viewpoints but it recommends openness and flexibility. Understanding others better may help us improve our own viewpoint by our existing lights.

Zhuangzi’s perspective is, as he admits, “of a type with the others.” We do not need to presuppose that it is an absolute or total view in order to conclude that rival views are partial. His view requires us to appreciate that other outlooks may offer something ours does not. Having limitations need not entail that a perspective is wrong or worthless.

Zhuangzi’s focus is more epistemological than metaphysical. He suggests occasionally that there might be a fantastically adept and successful dao (e.g. that one might reach the point of being able to endure fire, cold, lightning, and wind). This fantasy presupposes there is an actual world with real features which some daos interact with better than others do (given the standards of success we use in appreciating the fantasies).

Skepticism versus dogmatic monism

The linguistic nature of Zhuangzi’s analysis is even more pronounced when he responds to the Mohists. He notes that their term of analysis, ke [assertable], is relative to a language. Different and changing usage patterns constitute rival conventions. Each convention generates a language and a viewpoint. Single schools of thought may split, and disputing factions may combine again. Any language people actually speak is assertable. Any moral discourse for which there is a rival is (from that rival standpoint) not assertable.

Zhuangzi hints that the confidence we have in the appearance of right and wrong in our language is a function of how fully we can elaborate and embellish it. How well can we continue on with our way of speaking? To argue for a point of view is to spin it out in detail. The ability to expand and develop a point of view encourages the illusion that it is complete. The seemingly endless disputes between Mohists and Confucians arise from their highly elaborated systems for assigning “is this” and “not this.” As we saw, each can build hierarchies of standards that guide their different choices. They come to consider the errors of rivals to be “obvious.”

Zhuangzi introduces ming (discrimination) again in discussing the relativity of language. In the same section he imagines an “absolute” viewpoint – the axis of daos. We extrapolate back up our historical path to the “axis” from which all began. At the “axis,” he says, no limit can be drawn on what we could treat as “is this” or “is not this”; all shi–fei patterns are possible, none actual.

From that axis, however, we make no judgment. It is not a relevant alternative to the disputing perspectives. The absolute viewpoint neither advocates nor forbids any dao. Any practical guide is a possible path from the axis to a particular way of making distinctions.

Zhuangzi emphasizes the possibility of innumerable competing standpoints. Occasionally, however, he emphasizes the almost tragic inevitability involved once we take one possible path. Once we have started down a dao, we seem doomed to elaborate and develop it in a kind of “rush to death.” Youth is the state of being comparatively open to many possible systems of shi–fei. As we grow and gain “knowledge,” we close off possibilities and flexibility. Zhuangzi exploits the analogy of youth and flexibility. Nothing can free us from the headlong rush to complete our initial commitments to shi and fei as if they were oaths or treaties. We rush through life clinging to the alternative we judge as winning. “Is life really as stupid as this? Or is it that I am the only stupid one and there are others not so stupid?”

Those who call themselves “sages” project their point of view and prejudices on tian (nature:heaven) and then treat it as an authority. “Those who have arrived” allegedly know to treat everything as one – they reject the multiplicity of viewpoints as biased. Zhuangzi does not recommend that attitude. Instead of trying to transcend and abandon our usual or conventional ways of speaking, we should treat them as useful. They enable us to communicate and get things done. That is all one can sensibly ask of them.

Beyond what is implied in the fact that our language is useful, we do not know the way things are in themselves. We signal that lack of ultimate metaphysical knowledge when we call reality “dao.” Treating it as an irreducible “one” (mysticism) differs only in attitude from saying nothing about it (skepticism). In the end, neither can say anything. Skeptics and mystics merely use a different emotional tone when saying their “nothing.”

In a notoriously obscure passage, one of his characters is even skeptical about skepticism. However, he does not base this on the familiar Western concept of belief, i.e. he does not ask how he knows that he does not know. Zhuangzi’s skepticism centers on the distinctions underlying words. He wonders if we know if we have distinguished correctly between “knowing” and “ignorance.”

Zhuangzi’s treatment of dreams also highlights his particular form of skepticism. He does not use dreaming to motivate sense skepticism. His doubts arise mainly from semantics. (Is there any real relation between our words and things?) Dreaming further illustrates a skeptical view that is rooted in worries about whether there is a right way to use a word to distinguish or “pick out” parts of reality. The “dreaming–waking” distinction is one we use to organize “what happens” (in the broadest sense). We have learned a way of using that distinction to bring unity or coherence to our experience.

In a dream, however, we can still make the distinction between dreaming and waking. Ultimately we can wonder if other ways of making the distinction might work as well. For instance, Zhuangzi dreams in a particularly rich way of being a butterfly. On suddenly being Zhuangzi again, he wonders how to distinguish his having dreamed a butterfly and awakening, from his having just been a butterfly who is now dreaming of being Zhuangzi.

Practical Implications

What follows from Zhuangzi’s skepticism and relativism? We should take Zhuangzi to be reflectively aware that any advice he offers comes from one perspective – his ming approach to discourse. Any advice will be tenuous and hedged. First, Zhuangzi “mildly” recommends the kind of perspective flexibility we noted above. He “recommends” it in the sense one can “recommend” that one be young. To be young-at-heart-mind is to be open to new ways of thinking and conceptualizing. The more committed you get to a scheme, as we saw, the “older” you become intellectually, until you are “dead” from learning.

This practical line is paradoxical. Any reason we may have for being flexible in adopting or tolerant to other points of view has to be a reason that motivates us from our present point of view. We must be able to envision how the alternative way of thinking will help us more with goals we now have than our present scheme does. Since we judge from our present scheme, we need not be open or tolerant of any other point of view. Zhuangzi cannot argue for absolute tolerance. The limit on this openness depends on our existing moral stance. From a ming standpoint, judgment is not only still possible, it is inescapable.

Further, the motivation for being open to other schemes of knowledge presupposes the potential value of acquiring them. The openness of youth is valuable only because it offers a greater range of possibilities of knowledge. If we were to treat openness as a principled anti-knowledge stance, then perspectivalism would give us no reason to value it.

The second bit of advice is negative. We need not reject conventions. To do so is wasteful and conventions can be useful since they allow coordination and communication. Again we must judge their usefulness from our present standpoint.

The third bit of advice is most famous. In the parable of “Butcher Ding,” Zhuangzi draws a favorable portrait of developing a dao to the point of its being second nature. Highly honed skills invite paradoxical, almost mystical, description. In performance we seem to experience a unity of actor and action. Such practice is a way of losing oneself as much as one might in contemplation or a trance. We can mystify ourselves by the fluid accuracy of our own actions. We do not understand how we do it – we certainly cannot explain it to others.

It is natural to express this ideal of skill mastery in language that suggests mystical awareness. Such skill normally conflicts with excessive selfconsciousness and ratiocination. Internally it feels like we “flow with” some external force. Such language should not confuse us, however. The experience is compatible with Zhuangzi’s perspective on perspectives. Examining the details of Butcher Ding’s explanation of his skill illustrates why.

Note, first, that Butcher Ding’s activity is cutting – dividing something into parts. While he is mastering his guiding dao, he perceives the ox already cut up. He comes to see the places he should cut as already existing spaces and fissures in the ox. The ox thus seems a perfect metaphor for our coming to see the world as divided into the “natural kinds.” We internalize a language that serves some purpose. When we master a guiding dao, we seek to execute it in a real situation. Doing so requires finding distinctions in nature to match the concepts in the instructions. While acting, we do not have time to read the map; we see ourselves as reading the world.

Mastering any dao yields this sense of harmony with things. It is as if the world, not the instructions, guided us. At the highest levels of skill, we reach a point where we seem to transcend our own selfconsciousness. Our normal ability to respond to complex feedback bypasses conscious processing. In our skilled actions, we have internalized a heightened sensitivity to the context.

The choice of a butcher for this parable also illustrates something about Zhuangzi’s perspective. Asian cultures seldom hold butchering up as a noble profession. (Even the name “Ding” may be significant – it may not be his name but a sign of relatively low rank – something like fourthplace.) Zhuangzi’s other examples of the theme of skill include the cicada catcher and wheelwright. Zhuangzi thus signals that this level of expertise is available within all activities.

Popular, romantic interpretations suggest this transcendent focus is available only for arts and physical activities. They read the point as an anti-intellectual one and insist that Zhuangzi’s criticism of Hui Shi stems from the latter’s rationalism. However, Zhuangzi follows his critical comments about Hui Shi with parallel observations about a zither player. What he criticizes is the aspiration to “total know-how,” not any specific activity. Zhuangzi’s “criticism” is that an exemplar of skill X is typically miserably inept at Y. These “criticisms” simply illustrate his view that defect always accompanies cheng (completion).

Zhuangzi’s ambivalence about cheng poses a problem with the prescription to “achieve dao mastery.” Any attainment leaves something out. To acquire and exercise any skill is to ignore others. We trade accomplishment at one skill for ineptitude at some other. If the renowned practitioners have reached completion, he says, then so has everyone. If they have not, no one can.

Thus, the three parts in Zhuangzi’s dao pull in separate directions. We must treat each as tentative and conditional. The flexibility advice seems hard to follow if we also accept convention and work for singleminded mastery. That, in the end, may be the message of Zhuangzi’s perspectivalism. We have limits . . . but we might as well get on with life.

Zhuangzi: Basic Writings, ed. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).
Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, ed. Angus Graham (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981).
Zhuangzi: Mystic, Moralist and Social Reformer, ed. Herbert A. Giles (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981).

Further reading
Graham, Angus: “Chuang-tzu’s Essay on Seeing Things as Equal,” History of Religions, 9 (1969), 137–59.
Hansen, Chad: A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Mair, Victor (ed.): Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983).


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Philosophy

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