Deeper than Languages Lie Daoism’s Roots

This is a paper on Zhuang Zi’s epistemology discussed in his 齊物論 q w ln "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 Hu 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 Lng, 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 perceived value.

After humans have carved up the continuum and have thereby constituted or created 物 w 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.

Four documents:

The Abstract

The Full Paper


Lao Zi and Epistemology (Lao Zi Uses Glaring Clarity to Benight One’s Vision)