Chuang Tzu (Chuang Chou, ca, 360 BC), along with Lao Tzu, is a defining figure in Chinese Taoism. Chuang Tzu probably authored only parts of the first 7 chapters of the present text, the so-called Inner Chapters. The others were written either by followers of thinkers of related but different theoretical orientations. They often expand on themes in the "inner" chapters.
The relation between the two founding figures of Taoism is a growing puzzle. Tradition treats Chuang Tzu as following Lao Tzu. We know of Chuang Tzu's life only what we can surmise from the text, which hardly confirms that traditional story. On the contrary, along with recent archeological discoveries, the text makes it as plausible that Chuang Tzu was the original Daoist. Graham speculates that Chuang Tzu may have been responsible for Lao Tzu's being regarded as a Taoist by using him as a fictional figure in his dialogues. Chuang Tzu used Lao Tzu's voice because he could "talk down" to Confucius. The message Chuang Tzu placed in Lao Tzu's mouth shared enough with the popular but anonymous text that people subsequently came to identify it as The Lao Tzu.
This article will treat the Chuang Tzu without assuming he "followed" or inherited Taosim from Lao Tzu. This is only partly because of the textual issues complicating the traditional story. Using that story also complicates the interpretive task in requiring settling all the interpretive questions surrounding Lao Tzu's text. These are at least as stubborn as those in the Chuang Tzu. This article will simply treat Chuang Tzu as a philosophical discussant dealing with the central philosophical issues in his context. He shares both terminology and background assumptions with the other major philosophical figures. In particular, we will not presuppose that Taoists change the meaning of tao from its usual ethical sense to a, distinctively Taoist, metaphysical sense. Any metaphysical properties of a tao will, I assume, be those plausible to attribute to a guide to behavior.
[[Chuang Tzu's] familiarity with and confident handling of the technical language of ancient Chinese semantics make it probable that he had the ancient Chinese equivalent of analytic philosophical training. It is, thus, no accident that even philosophers skeptical of the general philosophical quality of Chinese thought hold him in the highest regard. The more likely candidate as Chuang Tzu's mentor (or philosophical colleague and friend) may be the monistically inclined dialectician Hui Shih (370-319 BC). Chuang Tzu mourns Hui Shih's death as depriving him of the person on whom he sharpened his wits. Chuang Tzu's key strategy for combating the ancient Chinese version of realism seems to come from Hui Shih. This article will therefore start with Hui Shih's theses (which are not included in THE LATER MOHISTS). In any case, our only source of information about them is The Chuang Tzu. Hui Shih's theory, furthermore, is crucial to understanding Chuang Tzu's philosophical position especially in relation to the Later Mohists.
Chuang Tzu, despite his obvious affection, is ultimately critical of Hui Shih's monism and his optimism that debate and analysis would resolve philosophical issues. Traditional accounts have reckoned this as the mystic Chuang Tzu's haughty disdain for logic. However, Hui Shih's doctrines deal with philosophy of language more than with logic. So if we resist reading Chuang Tzu as following Lao Tzu, a strikingly different view of their dynamic emerges. Hui Shih (probably the more politically active) emerges as an erudite, enthusiastic, loquacious but somewhat confused, rather mystical, semantic dilettante. Chuang Tzu, in contrast, appears as a language theorist par excellence. Chuang Tzu reports enjoying debating with Hui Shih precisely because he was one of few with enough learning to be worth refuting. Still, he was ultimately a soft target for a dialectician of Chuang Tzu's caliber. Hui Shih's Teaching
The "Empire" chapter of the Chuang Tzu contains an account of Hui Shih's doctrines. It comprises part of the first "history of Philosophy" in China--tracing the progression of different tao (doctrines) leading up to Chuang Tzu. We can understand Hui Shih's motivation best by viewing these passages against the background of the realist theory of language given by the LATER MOHISTS. These realists motivated their doctrine using the idea that real-world similarities and differences provide the basis for the conventional "carving" or "picking out" that divides thing kinds. They used a mereological version of a rudimentary natural kinds theory to explain how words and language work in guiding action in real situations.
Hui Shih, we theorize, tried to undermine the Mohist semantic/metaphysical proposal by looking at comparative terms. They also mark distinctions in things, but it is less plausible that the distinctions are in the world. Where we draw the distinction depends on the context of the comparison. Whether this ant is large or small depends on varies when we are implicitly comparing it with other ants or with animals. Hui Shih focuses on such distinctions as large/small, thick/thin, high/low, south/north, and today/yesterday. Their common feature is that from different points of view we can assign either member of the term-pair to the same object. His typical paradox makes sense as a comment about how we might redescribe familiar paradigms from a distant perspective.
Heaven is as low as the earth; Mountains are level with marshes.
The sun from one perspective is in the middle from another declining.
Natural kinds are from one perspective living and from one dying.
I go to Yue today and arrive yesterday.
The ten-thousand thing-kinds are ultimately alike and ultimately different. This is called the great similarity-difference.
As the Chuang Tzu develops this insight, it amounts to the claim that we can find a difference between any two things no matter how alike they are and we can find a similarity between any two things no matter how different. So even if there are objective similarities and differences, they do not justify any particular way of distinguishing between thing kinds. For every category and name we use, we could have had conventions that as consistently and with equal 'world-guidedness' divide stuff up differently.
The list of Hui Shih's sayings, however, begins and ends with claims about ultimate reality. He presupposes an ultimate perspective and an "everything" concept. Since distinctions are not in things, reality must be "one." His formulation invites the view (usually attributed to Taoists) that reality is a single, indivisible totality.
The ultimately great, which has nothing outside it, call it the Great One!
The ultimately small, which has nothing inside it, call it the Small One!
Universally love the ten-thousand thing-kinds; the cosmos is one t'i (substantive part).
The concluding statement echoes the Mohists' ethical doctrine of universal love and employs their technical term t'i. The Chuang Tzu account does not give us Hui Shih's reasoning, so we cannot be sure of his reasoning and intended implications of these formulae. However, it is tempting to read the conclusion as the familiar fallacy of inferring absolute claims from relative premises. Most interpreters follow Hui Shih in supposing that it is rational to conclude that all distinctions distort reality. However, if all distinctions are relative to some perspective, then, we have no basis to conclude anything about absolute reality. We have no rational access to a perspective from which it has no distinctions.
Since interpreters commonly treat all Taoists as taking this view, we should start out by noting that the Chuang Tzu presentation of Hui Shih's views concludes: "He had many perspectives and his library would fill five carts, but his doctrine was self-contradictory and his language did not hit the target: the intent to make sense of things." Chuang Tzu, we may presume, understood the Later Mohist proof of the incoherence of denying all distinctions. Consider also Graham's speculation about Gongsun Long's "Pointing and Things" (see LATER MOHISM) and the argument that we can't point to an ultimate one. Whether or not Gongsun Long rejected the inference to an "everything" concept, Chuang Tzu clearly did. Chuang Tzu almost paraphrases Hui Shih in his rebuttal:
'The cosmos and I were born together, the ten-thousand things and I are one.' Now, having already constructed a 'one' is it possible to say something about it? Having already called it a 'one' can we fail to say something about it? 'One' and saying it make two. Two and one make three and going from here, even a skilled calculator can't keep up with us, let alone an ordinary man. Chuang Tzu: Skeptical Perspectivalism.
Chuang Tzu had a unique philosophical style that contributes to the tendency to treat him as an irrationalist. He wrote philosophical fantasy rather than direct argument. Western readers interpret this style as signaling a romantic rejecting reason and analysis. The dichotomy, however, is hard to motivate in the Chinese philosophical context. We find no counterpart of the human faculty of reason (or its logical correlate) still less of the contrast of reason and emotion. Chuang Tzu's highlighted the term, ch'ing which Buddhist's eventually co-opted to translate 'passion' or 'emotion'. However, it makes most sense in the Chuang Tzu it as 'reality', or 'the facts'.
A more plausible hypothesis is that he presents his positions in fantasy dialogues to illustrate and conform to his perspectivalism. He puts positions up for consideration as if endorsing them, then reflectively abandons them. He does this either in the form of a fanciful conversation carried on among fantastic creatures (rebellious thieves, distorted freaks, or converted Confucians) or as an internal monologue. In his fantasy dialogues, Chuang Tzu seems to challenge us to guess which voice is really his. Even his monologues typically end a double rhetorical question in place of a conclusion."Then is there really any X? Or is there no X?"
One key to Chuang Tzu's use of Hui Shih's relativism is his application to the concept of "use." Everything is useful from some position or other and there are some positions from which even the most useful thing is useless. Chuang Tzu illustrates this theme with his famous parables of the huge "useless" tree that, consequently, never got chopped down and the huge gourd that was useless to eat, but might make a good boat. Thus pragmatic arguments (like those of MO TZU) will always be relative to some controversial values. This observation does not justify our abandoning pragmatic arguments (which as we will see below, Chuang Tzu still uses). It only prompts us to be sensitive to how controversial our assumptions about "success" might be.
Chuang Tzu develops perspectivalism in a more consistent direction than did Hui Shih. Possibly because of his knowledge of the Mohist refutation, he does not fall into the trap of rejecting language (as arguably Lao Tzu did). Being natural does not require abandoning language. Human language, from the empty greetings and small talk to the disputes of philosophers, is as natural a 'noise' is are bird songs. Disputing philosophers are 'pipes of nature'. Chuang Tzu's use of this metaphor signals that nothing he is going to say entails that disputation should stop any more than it does that brooks should stop babbling.
Then he considers an objection to his opening metaphor:
He develops this critique (perhaps initiated by Hui Shih's relativism) with his own analysis of the indexicality of all distinctions. His argument relies heavily on the core terms of Chinese philosophical analysis, shih (is this: right) and fei (not this: wrong). (For details, especially in why reflections about shih-fei extend to language in general see SHI-FEI.) He starts by highlighting the indexical content of shih by contrasting it with pi (that). Chuang Tzu asks if anything is inherently 'this' or 'that'? Is there anything that cannot be 'this' or 'that'? These key terms in language illustrate the claim that it does not have any rigid, naming relation to an external reality. Language traces our changing position relative to reality.
This perspectival pluralism differs from Western subjectivity in that Chuang Tzu does not highlight the perspectives of individual consciousness or internal representations--subjectivity. Arguably Chinese thinkers did not generate anything comparable to Western folk psychology. (See PHILOSOPHY OF MIND.) In fact, Chuang Tzu seems as fascinated with the shifting perspectives of even the same person at different times and in different moods as he is in the difference of perspective between different individuals. His main theoretical focus, however, is on the kinds of perspective arising from using language differently, i.e., being influenced by a different moral discourse.
Chuang Tzu does reflect briefly on the perspective of "self." Recalling Laozi's emphasis on contrasts, he sees it as arising as a contrast or distinction with "other." He suggests the deeper source of the distinction is our inability to identify the source of "pleasure, anger, sadness, joy, forethought, regret, change, and immobility". They "alternate day and night" and not knowing where they come from we give up and merely accept that they come. Without them there would be no "self" and without "self," no "choosing of one thing over another." He notes the inevitability of our assumption that there is some "true ruler" harmonizing and organizing the self, then adds, skeptically, that we never find any sign of it. Intuitionism
Confucians, particularly idealistic Confucians (See MENCIUS) do identify a "natural ruler'--the moral heart. Chuang Tzu wonders how the heart can be any more natural than the other "hundred joints, nine openings and six viscera." Does there need to be a ruler? Can't each rule itself? Or take turns. The identification of one organ as supreme seems to conflict with the implicit intention to offer a natural basis for morality. (Mencius deals with this problem in connection with the distinction between nature and fate--see MENCIUS.)
Chuang Tzu implies that all of the organs of the body grow together in encountering and adapting to life. As it does it is ch'eng (completed)--a term that Chuang Tzu uses somewhat ironically as suggesting that any completion leaves in its wake some defect. Translators frequently render it as "biased." That works well for understanding this criticism of idealistic Confucianism, for Mencius seems indeed to suggest that the heart does acquire a shih-fei direction from its upbringing. The translation, however, abandons the implicit irony--ch'eng is 'success', 'accomplishment' something we all aim for. Chuang Tzu's use suggests that our natural and common goal is not possible without some kind of skewing and loss.
Thus all hearts equally achieve ch'eng. They grow up just as the rest of the body does. For the heart, this amounts to acquiring a pattern of tendencies to shih-fei judgment. (See MENCIUS) Every person's heart acquires some pattern or other. So if it is this heart, the one that grows with the body, that is the authority, then we all equally have one. Confucian innatists make a question-begging assumption about which pattern of ch'eng (completion) is really right. They advocate a program of cultivation so the hsin (heart-mind) will give the correct shih-fei judgments. Without it, they imply, the heart's natural potential will be lost.
The sage's heart-mind is the ultimate Mencian standard for rightness of judgment. He is one who has allegedly fully cultivated his natural moral potential. Chuang Tzu wonders, from what perspective can we distinguish sage's heart-mind from a fool's? Both have a heart-mind and make shih-fei judgments. If we use A's judgments as a guide, A will look like a sage and B the fool and vice versa. There appears to be no way to identify the proper way to cultivate common to all existing heart-minds. The intuitionists beg another question in favor of their acquired perspective when they advocate cultivation. The appeal to the judgment of a "natural ruler" would leave everyone acting however they do act.
Chuang Tzu's analysis of the ch'eng hsin (completed heart-mind) echoes Lao Tzu's analysis of knowledge as unconsciously acquired in the very process of learning language. Attitudes that seem natural and spontaneous may simply reflect early upbringing and experiential attitudes that have become "second nature." No innate or spontaneous dispositions survive without ch'eng influences. Chuang Tzu says that for there to be a shih-fei in the heart without its being put there in the process of ch'eng is "like going to yeh today and arriving yesterday!" Skepticism v. Dogmatic Monism
The linguistic nature of perspectives comes more to the fore when Chuang Tzu responds to the Later Mohists. He notes that the Mohists' term of analysis, ke (assertable), is obviously relative to conventional, linguistic perspective. Different and changing conventions of usage and principles still constitute conventions and generate a language and a perspective. Single schools of thought may split and disputing factions may combine again. Any language that actually is spoken is assertable. Any moral language for which there is a rival is (from its point of view) not assertable.
Chuang Tzu hints that the confidence we get in the appearance of right and wrong in our language is a function of how fully we can elaborate and embellish--how effectively we can continue on with our way of speaking. We argue for a point of view mainly by spelling it out in greater detail. The seemingly endless disputes between Mohists and Confucians arise from their respectively elaborated ways of assigning 'is this' and 'not this'. As we saw, each can build elaborate hierarchies of standards that seem to guide their different choices and considers the errors of their opponents to be "obvious."
Chuang Tzu, wary of Hui Shih's error, generally avoided contrasting our limited perspectives to any cosmic or total one. He contrasted them mainly with each other. His 'perspective' on the relativity of language Chuang Tzu calls ming (clarity). It is tempting and common to suppose ming is some absolute standpoint. Chuang Tzu extrapolates in imagination what would happen if we reversed our course back to the 'axis' from which all guiding discourse begins. From that 'axis,' he says, no limit can be drawn on what could be treated as 'is this' or 'is not this'. All shih-fei patterns are possible, none actual.
From that axis, therefore, we make no judgments. It is not a relevant alternative to the disputing perspectives. If we succumb to the interpretive temptation, we fall back into the anti-language abyss. The absolute viewpoint cannot advocate or forbid any dao. From the perspective of ming, it is not even a point of view. Any practical guide is an actual path of judgment making that takes one from that axis down one particular (indefinitely elaborately) way of making distinctions. Even if thing-kinds are made 'so' by our classifications, we can't conclude they are 'not-this'.
Chuang Tzu emphasizes the infinite possibility of these standpoints. Occasionally, however, he presents it as almost a tragic inevitability. Once we have started on a tao, we seem doomed to elaborate and develop it in a kind of race to death. Youth is the state of being comparatively open to almost any possibility and as we grow and gain knowledge, we close-off the possibilities in a rush toward old-age and death. The inflexibility of intellectual commitment to a conceptual perspective that is so rigid that any thing we encounter already has a classification. Nothing can free us from the headlong rush to complete our initial commitments to shih 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."
Lacking any theoretical limit on possible perspectives, guiding systems of naming, we lack any limit on schemes of practical knowledge. No matter how much we advance and promote a practical guide, a way of dealing with things, there are things we will be deficient at. To have any developed viewpoint is to leave something out. This, however, is not a reason to avoid language and a perspective; it is the simple result of the limitless knowledge and limited lives.
So-called 'sages' project their point of view and prejudices on nature, which they then treat as an authority. 'Those who have arrived' allegedly know to deem everything as one. Chuang Tzu does not recommend we emulate that attitude. Instead of trying to transcend and abandon our usual or conventional ways of speaking, Chuang Tzu recommends that we learn to treat them as pragmatically useful. They enable us to communicate and get things done. That is all it is sensible to ask of them.
Beyond what is implied in the fact that our language is useful (from the standards of our perspective), we don't know the way things are in themselves. We signal our lack of that pure metaphysical knowledge by calling reality 'tao'. Treating metaphysical ultimate as 'one' differs from saying nothing about it only in attitudinal ways. In the end, neither skepticism nor monistic mysticism says anything about ultimate reality. They are characterized by the different attitudes one takes in saying (essentially) nothing.
Chuang Tzu's balance between skepticism and monism surfaces in a number of places. In one he traces the "devolution" of the knowledge of old from knowing "nothing exists" to knowing "one" to knowing things but no distinctions or boundaries and finally to knowing shih-fei. In another notoriously obscure passage, Chuang Tzu is skeptical about skepticism. However, he does not appeal to our familiar sentential grounds. (He does not ask how he knows that he doesn't know. He does ask how he can know what he does not know.) His question centers on distinction grounds. (He wonders if he knows how to distinguish between knowing and ignorance).
Chuang Tzu's philosophical writings highlight his different approach to skepticism by their treatment of dreams. He does not use dreaming to motivate skepticism. He takes it as already motivated on semantic grounds. (Is there any real relation between our words and things?) Dreaming then becomes a further illustration of a skepticism rooted in worries about whether there is a right way to distinguish with or "pick out" using a word. The dreaming-waking distinction is one we use to organize "what happens" (in the broadest sense). We have learned to use that distinction to bring greater unity or coherence to our experience.
In a dream we can still make the distinction between dreaming and waking. Ultimately we can wonder about other ways (the pragmatic advantages) of making that distinction. Chuang Tzu fulfills his heart's desire in dreaming the butterfly. He doesn't know how to distinguish Chuang Tzu's dreaming a butterfly from a butterfly's dreaming Chuang Tzu. (Translations convert the distinction-point into a propositional one.) Interpretive Issues
Because Chuang Tzu puts his positions in fantasy and parable, interpretations of his point are inherently subject to dispute. (Perhaps Chuang Tzu intended this outcome.) We can either attribute to him what actually follows from perspectival pluralism or attribute some familiar but invalid conclusion. Some interpreters read it as monism (entailing dogmatic skepticism--everyone is wrong), others as classic relativism (everyone is right!). Neither of these, however, follow from perspectivalism. For each, one may cite passages where the position is forumulated, but it is always left unclear whether the passages express Chuang Tzu's considered point of view or is merely one on which he is critically reflecting.
Some of Chuang Tzu's most memorable images and parables illustrate the interpretive impasse. Chuang Tzu tells us of an encounter between a Giant Sea Turtle and a frog in a well. It is natural to suggest the Sea Turtle represents some ultimate truth not accessible to the frog (as does the Chinese parable based on the story). However, in Chuang Tzu's account, the sea turtle cannot even get one flipper into the frog's well. He is as incapable of appreciating the frog's perspective as the frog is his. Similar analysis applies to the Great Bird and the small chicadee, the great fish etc. Chuang Tzu is the least likely thinker to take "great" and "small" as signs of absolute value.
The dogmatic monistic reading relies on the epistemology of mysticism. Chuang Tzu must have some unexplained route to meta-knowledge that everyone else lacks. The burden of this interpretation is showing that Chuang Tzu's arguments do not undermine the conception of knowledge proposed by the interpreter. The above refutation of Mencius seems to apply mutatis mutandis to any view of a special transcendent insight or intuition. It is not clear how he could be astute enough to see the fallacy in Mencius' view and naive enought to turn around and adopt what is effectively the same view except for its talk of a natural organ.
The relativistic interpretation is plausible to the extent that Chuang Tzu clearly views all existing points of view as natural points of view. Saying they are natural (smoothing them on the whetstone of nature) is neither to approve nor to judge them equal. Nature's standpoint is the one from which Chuang Tzu removes the traditional authority. Other schools (with the exception of the LATER MOHISTS) thought identifying a tao (guide) as t'ian (natural or heavenly) was the goal. For Chuang Tzu, the goal is too easily reached to be of any prescriptive help. All we can say is "it is"--equally true of all perspectives we encounter--including those of other animals.
Chuang Tzu implies that judgments about perspectives--particularly judgments about value--presuppose some perspective--a tao. He substitutes the authority of tao for the authority of t'ien. Any evaluative judgment that different tao are equal must be a result of a) taking some perspective for granted or b) concluding that we should not make any judgment. Getting an absolute conclusion from Chuang Tzu's perspectivalism encourages the reading according to which tao has become The Tao.
What is the alternative? Chuang Tzu thinks we must stand on a point and his standpoint is his perspective on perspectives--ming (discrimination). It is not The viewpoint but Chuang Tzu is implicitly promoting it. That perspective, however, countenances all kinds of judgments about a number of other perspectives--approving some more than others. The problem with (b) is that, given Chuang Tzu's view of the relation of language and judgment, it amounts to saying that we should stop speaking--which we concluded above, we should avoid attributing to Chuang Tzu.
The safest solution is to assume he does make judgments from his perspective on perspectives. He does not, in doing so, presume it is an absolute, total or cosmic perspective. It is, as he admits, "of a type with the others" still he can only make judgments from the perspective and gives no reason to stop making judgments in adopting it. Saying it is a perspective is not a condemnation. It requires only the realization that there are other perspectives.
We do not need to presuppose some absolute or total view to recognize that our views are partial. Nor need it imply that the perspectives are mistaken about something. Chuang Tzu's emphasis is epistemological not metaphysical. His frequent suggestions that there could be a fantastically adept and successful tao (e.g., that one might reach the point of being able to endure fire, cold, lightning and wind, to harnass natural powers, to travel immense distances) require two things. One is that there is some actual world with real properties which some tao reflect and other do not. The other is that we use our present standards of success (desires, fantasies, goals, delights etc.) to evaluate the practical success of alternative perspectives. Practical Implications
Chuang Tzu's perspectivalism is offered in a philosophical context in which it is expected that a philosophy will have some practical point. No practical moral seems to follow from absolute skepticism, monism nor from relativism. In any case, we seem to have to take Chuang Tzu to be reflectively aware that any advice that he offers is advice from a perspective--the ming perspective on perspectives. What advice does follow from that insight into the nature of knowledge.
We have already hinted at a couple of the practical points--both of which have to be carefully circumscribed for coherence. First, Chuang Tzu mildly recommends a kind of perspective flexibility. The recommendation is like the recommendation to be young. To be young is to be open to new ways to think and conceptualize things. The more committed you get to a scheme, as we saw, the "older" you become intellectually until you are dead from the very act of learning.
This first practical line is paradoxical on several grounds. First, 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 have to be able now to envision that the alternative way of thinking will help us achieve things that we presently value better than our present scheme does. Not any other point of view will be a candidate for this kind of openness. So this would not be an abstract argument for any kind of openness. Thus Chuang Tzu is not, as some have argued, required to be tolerant of Nazism, say. Remember that Chuang Tzu's ming is still rooted in our present point of view--it is not some cosmic kind of tolerance that says anything goes. Judgment is not only still possible, it is still inescapable.
Second, the motivation for being open to a point of view is because of the potential of acquiring it (thus closing off the possibilities of its rivals). The naivete of youth is valuable only because it represents the possibility of mature sophistication. If we were to take the invitation to openness as an abstract good, then his perspectivalism would give us no reason to value it.
The second practical point is a negative one. We suppose that one of the reactions to the difficulties of defending moral conventions where these are controversial (say in advocating moral reform in the sense that one advocates that the culture or society alter its moral attitudes) is to reject all conventions. As we have noted, the LATER MOHISTS showed that this posture as applied to language is incoherent. And Chuang Tzu seems to say only that we don't have to--not that we should or shouldn't. However, he does add that the usual is useful and thus interchangeable and that is all we can ask of it. So the second bit of "advice" is simply not to waste conventions that are useful. Clearly, again, this must be useful from one's present point of view, values and standards.
The third possible item of practical advice forms a long and controversial section in which Chuang Tzu draws a more favorable portrait of specialization. His example is consistent with Aristotle's observation that human life offers no more fulfilling activity than the exercise of some acquired skill. 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 one might in contemplation or in a trance. The accuracy of our own actions sometimes mystify us. We do not understand how we did it--we certainly cannot explain it to others. Here is Chuang Tzu's account:
Cook Ting was slicing up an oxen for Lord Wenhui. At every push of his hand, every angle of his shoulder, every step with his feet, every bend of his kneezip! zoop! he slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were dancing to Mulberry Grove or keeping time as in Qingshou music.
Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is a tao which advances my skill. When first I began cutting up oxen, I could see nothing that was not ox. After three years, I never saw a whole ox. And nownow I go at it by spirit and do not look with my eyes. Controlling knowledge has stopped and my spirit wills the performance. I depend on the natural makeup, cut through the creases, guide through fissures. I depend on things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less bone."
"A good cook changes his knife once a year because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month because he hacks. I have had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I've cut up thousands of oxen with it. Yet the blade is as good as if it had just come from the grindstone. . . . "
"Despite that, I regularly come to the end of what I am used to. I see its being hard to carry on. I become alert; my gaze comes to rest. I slow down my performance and move the blade with delicacy. Then zhrup! it cuts through and falls to the ground. I stand with the knife erect, look all around, deem it wonderfully fulfilling, strop the knife and put it away."
Traditional interpreters stress the mystical flavor, the reference to tao. One way to read the claim that tao advances skill is as the claim that it surpasses skill. This traditional commitment to a mystical, monistic tao requires that accomplishment not be related in ordinary ways to practice and skill. It must come from some sudden and inexplicable insight, mystical experience or attitude. This interpretation coincides with a familiar Zen view. The absolutist monistic interpretation should resist the suggestion that Ting knows his tao and still can improve. How can you have some of a tao that has no parts? When you have it you suspend entirely all thought and sensation.
Cook Ting's story clashes slightly with this religious or mystical view of Chuang Tzu's advice. His description implies that Ting has a hold on a particular way of doing one thing. Ting's way is developing. He continues to progress in pursuing his skill by tracing his tao to points beyond his previous training. When he comes to a hard part, he has to pay attention, make distinctions, try them out and then move on. This supports the view that developing skill eventually goes beyond what we can explain with concepts, distinctions, or language. The focus required for a superb performance may not be compatible with a deliberating self-consciousness.
The Butcher does not say that he began at that level of skill. He does not report any sudden conversion where some mystical insight flowed into him. He does not say that he could just get in tune with the absolute Tao and become a master butcher automatically. And he does not hint that by being a master butcher, he is in command of all the skills of life. He could not use his level of awareness at will to become a master jet pilot or a seamstress. His is not an account of some absolute, single, prior tao but of the effect of mastering some particular tao. We all recognize the sense of responsive awareness which seems to suspend self-other consciousness.
It is natural to express this ideal of skill mastery in the language which suggests mystical awareness. It does normally involve suspension of self consciousness, ratiocination and seems like surrender to an external force. That language should not confuse us, however. Chuang Tzu's ming illumination should help us see that the full experience is compatible with having his perspective on perspectives.
Cook Ting can be aware that others may have different ways to dissect an ox. He simply cannot exercise his skill while he is trying to choose among them. We lose nothing in appreciating the multiple possibilities of ways to do things. In realizing a tao of some activity in us, we make it real in us. It is neither a mere, inert, cognition of some external force nor a surrender to a structure already innate in us.
Note, further, that Cook Ting's activity is cutting--dividing something into parts. When he is mastering his guiding tao, he perceives a world in which the ox is already cut up. He comes to see the holes and fissures and spaces as inherent in nature. That seems a perfect metaphor for our coming to see the world as divided into the natural kinds that correspond to our mastery of terms. When we master a tao we must be able to execute it in a real situation. It requires finding the distinctions (concepts) used in instruction as mapping on nature. We don't have time, anymore, to read the map, we begin to see ourselves as reading the world. Mastering any tao thus yields this sense of harmony with the world. It is as if the world, not the instructions, guides us.
This feature of tao mastery explains the temptation to read Taoist use as having become metaphysical. Guidance may, in the first instance, be broadly linguistic--telling, pointing, modeling. The choice of a butcher for this parable seems significant too. Butchering is seldom held as a noble profession. Even the "Ting" may be significant--it may not be the cook's name but a sign of relatively low rank--something like an also-ran. Other popular examples of the theme include the cicada catcher and wheelwright. Chuang Tzu probably intends to signal that this level of expertise is available within any activity. Common interpretations, however, suggest that some activities are ruled out.
The examples above, together with Chuang Tzu's obvious delight in parable, fantasy, and poetry invite the common hypothesis that, in the West, he would be a romantic--suspicious of direct, reasoned, logical discourse in favor of the more "emotional" arts. At least, one should eschew "intellectual" activities. That he is critical of Hui Shih, the alleged logician, supports this reading. The problem is that Chuang Tzu's parallels his comments about Hui Shih with similar comments about a lute player. Furthermore, the criticism does not seem to be the activity, but the search for absolute know-how. Chuang Tzu's "criticism" is that in being good at X, these paradigms of skill are miserably inept at Y. This is another example of ch'eng (completion) which Chuang Tzu argues is always accompanied by hui (defect).
We may achieve this absorption in performance by achieving skill at any tao--dancing, skating, playing music, butchering, chopping logic, lovemaking, skiing, using language, programming computers, throwing pottery, or cooking. At the highest levels of skill, we reach a point where we seem to transcend our own self consciousness. What once felt like a skill developing inside us, begins to feel like control from the natural structure of things. Our normal ability to respond to complex feedback bypasses conscious processing. In our skilled actions, we have internalized a heightened sensitivity to the context.
These reflections lead us to a problem with "achieve tao mastery" as a prescription. I shall argue that the problems are both textual and theoretical. On other places, (as we noted above) Chuang Tzu is more equivocal about the value of mastery. Any mastery, Chuang Tzu notes, must leave something out. Most particularly, to master any skill is to ignore others. Chuang Tzu remarks that masters are frequently not good teachers. They fail to transmit their mastery to their sons or disciples.
Chuang Tzu directs our attention to this problem with the glorification of total skill dedication and mastery. We trade any accomplishment at one skill for ineptitude at some other thing. The absent minded professor is our own favorite parody. If the renowned practitioners have reached completion, he says, then so has everyone. If they have not, then no one can. From the hinge of ways perspective, we no more value the world's top chess player than the world's finest jack of all trades. We need not read Chuang Tzu as advocating specialization per se.
Thus the three parts in Chuang Tzu's dao pull in separate directions and we must treat each as tentative and conditional. The flexibilty advice seems hard to follow if we also accept convention and work for single-minded mastery. That, in the end, may the message of perspectivalism. We have limits, but we might as well get on with it.