Deeper than Languages Lie Daoism’s Roots
This is a paper on Zhuang Zi’s epistemology discussed in his 齊物論 qí wù
lìn "Treatise on Leveling All Things," and a shorter paper on the same
issues as a complementary discussion in the Dao De Jing.
I argue that Zhuang Zi’s intent was to show the limitations of
philosophers who discussed certain philosophical issues solely within
the context of language. One such group of thinkers were the later
Mohist authors of the 小取 xiǎo qǔ chapter who sought to promote clear
discursive thinking. Another group centered around 惠施 Huì Shī, a
philosopher who used paradoxical arguments to display the consequences
of set theory that a present-day speaker might elucidate with Venn
diagrams. The third group, centering around 公孫龍 Gōng-Sūn Lóng,
attempted to demonstrate cleverness by confounding language.
Zhuang Zi alerted people to the problem of pitting one expert against
another, and does not engage himself in approving of one logician’s use
of concepts or disapproving of another’s deployment of concepts
to defeat the first one. Instead, he casts light on what concepts are,
where they come from, and their limitations that may become
problematical through careless use.
For Zhuang Zi, concepts are the products of active creative processes
of human minds that are static but attempt to tag elements of an
ever-shifting reality. Like a 巵 zhī tippy wine vessel, they should dump
their meaning whenever they become over-filled.
The Dao De Jing gives a clear
statement on the relationship of the Universe as seen without the
conceptual overlay that creates the world and the Weltanschauung
through which we experience the Universe. As Jill Bolte Taylor has
said, "Language is the tool by which we create the world, and also the
tool by which we understand that world."
For Lao Zi, the Dao, or what we call the Universe, is a continuum of
which changes are constantly manifested. No region that we might focus
on stays constant forever, and usually changes are manifest in short
intervals of time. Because we are regions of that continuum that are
capable of mirroring the region beyond us within the region that we
occupy, we are aware of ourselves and copnceptualize ourselves as
creatures that consume resources from other regions and may suffer
predation by other regions. We conceptualize regions outside of
ourselves as if they were discrete entities. We carve out other regions
and may give them names and formal definitions by using other concepts
that we have created.
When humans mentally carve the continuum into what we treat as discrete
entities we distort and therefore inevitably falsify what is there.
Over human history we have repudiated old entity identies and have
reconceptualized, re-divided, parts of the Universe over and over
again. We get better ways of conceptualization over time. However, it
is not easy to give up central concepts or even some more peripheral
concepts because we are attached to them. For instance, giving up the
idea that humans and their world are the center of the Universe, even
the reason for there being a Universe, makes for us a great lost in
After humans have carved up the continuum and have thereby constituted
or created 物 wù creatures, they frequently attach values to them. They
usually do so according to how good these creatures are for the
individuals making and/or using the concepts. Having created a
conceptual scheme involving values, and having these values participate
in the evaluations that humans give themselves, it becomes difficult
for people to put aside relatively inappropriate conceptual schemes in
which humans (or the individuals) have great value in favor of
relatively more appropriate conceptual schemes in which humans suffer a
devaluation of some significance. When Earth ceases to be the center of
the Universe, humans lose their importance as the creatures for which
divine providence has created that Universe.
Lao Zi asserts the need to reduce desires (and other kinds of drives
and motivational emotional reactions, e.g., fear, greed, etc.) when the
conceptual system used by one's community begins to produce undesirable
results. Doing so will allow individuals to detach from old
conceptualizations (e.g., race) and view the Universe afresh. At that
point a new and more appropriate way of carving entities out of the
continuum may be found. Returning to their ordinary state of mind they
can teach these new ways of conceptualizing the Universe to others.
Lao Zi and Epistemology (Lao Zi Uses Glaring Clarity to Benight One’s Vision)