The Zhuangzi (part 4) The Butterfly Dream

Posted by on July 28th, 2008

Perhaps the most famous story in the Zhuangzi is to be found at the end of Chapter 2.

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakeable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn’t know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. Basic Writings p45

This seems to me to be a remarkable forecast of Descartes deus deceptus and the postmodern revisitation of epistemic and ontic uncertainty in the ‘brain in a vat’ thought experiment.

Obviously similar themes are being approached. It is interesting to note that the uncertainty that he peddles is not total scepticism. In other words he does not say there is no Zhuang Zhou or there is no butterfly, or that there can only be one and not the other. Rather his scepticism is an exercise in the uncertainty of objectivity. Note that he is convinced of being a butterfly at one point of time and in the next instance convinced of being Zhuang Zhou, and it is only on reflection between these two states of seeming certainty of being that he is led to uncertainty. That he has being (that he is) does not change but what, how and where he is undergoes metamorphoses. The ‘transformation of things’.

It is a wonderful piece of literary symbolism that he should pick the Butterfly as his alter ego. Quite aside from its similar flightiness and anarchic lifestyle to Zhuang Zhou, the butterfly is of course a marvel of nature and a paradigm example of a creature born of transformation.

Zhuang Zhou is certain of his being a butterfly – a state of being though that exists only in the “dream”. His dream like state was one of certainty. Similarly once awake he seems certain that he is Zhuang Zhou, it is only the transition from dream-state to waking-state that causes his uncertainty.

The controversial message here is that dream is objective, and that awakening is to enter into uncertainty and ignorance. Thus in reality we are all dreaming.

But as with all of the Zhuangzi each story has a point, a message. As already noted much of the Zhuangzi expounds a relativistic, pluralistic and perspectivist approach to philosophy and life, and the dream of the butterfly is not different. Whereas Descartes was concerned to find objective truth by scrutinizing and discarding all that he could be uncertain of, the Zhuangzi is concerned to open us to the possibilities of “transformation”, metamorphoses and flux.

Chinese philosopher Kuang-Ming Wu in his famous Dream in NIetzsche and Zhuangzi makes some comparisons between the two.

Having concluded that reality is subjective and dream is objective, Nietzsche did not say that we should regard dreams as some nocturnal fantasies that we should dismiss. Instead, he advises us that we should use them as a guide in our daily activities. Simlarly with Zhuang Zhou, having concluded that there must be, ontologically, a distinction between the butterfly and himself, though epistemologically unsure, and that this is nothing more than a transformation of things, he, too, advises us that we must forever live and be content with this constant transformation. – C.W.Chan The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIII No.2

That a dream may possess sights, sounds, feelings and emotions that seem real at the time, is a famous example of how one may argue for epistemic uncertainty. But the next question most philosophers normally ask is – how do we get ourselves out of this conundrum (the ultimate solopsistic paralysis – unsure or even convinced that there is nothing other than ourselves and that all reality is illusion)? Not so though Zhuangzi, he is content that we should suffer uncertainty. It is a lesson in detachment (note how this influences Zen buddhism), if we can realize the apparent reality of dreams, can we not also appreciate the dreamlike quality of the real?

And in finally subjugating the concept of the objective and allowing in its place the chaotic flux of possibilities, we can become (like the hinge of dao that moves freely) a butterfly “flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.”

It is a challenge to reject absolutes and abstract labellings, the ideal person (as discussed in earlier posts) is one who is able to transfer themselves effortlessly and seamlessly from one situation to another without the disablement of distinguishments between real and unreal, right and wrong, etc. In this case the transformation between butterfly and man, dream and awake need not be painful. Uncertainty need not mean solopsistic paralysis, but an openness to flux, change and various different realities.

Like the flitting and floating butterfly, Zhuangzi alludes that the fully realised person follows the breeze yet arrives at the flower, its actins are spontaneous and free and it never wears itself out fighting against nature and things as they are.

In conclusion it seems novel to me that such a profound epistemic uncertainty and sceptical relativism should be proposed in such a therapeutic manner. And as often appears to be the case in Eastern Philosophy a profound philosophical widsom is expounded with the hope for practical effects (an aim that western philosophy in its ever increasing abstraction seems sometimes to neglect).

The Zhuangzi (part 3) – philosophy of language

Posted by on July 19th, 2008

The Zhuangzi offers a relativistic, perspectivist and non-essentialist analysis of language. In one analogy the author describes language as being like a fish net, an item that is only useful until the fish has been caught, but which is then obsolete and should be forgotten about until a new fish (or in this case a new meaning) is sought.

Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there any difference, or isn’t there? – Ch2. Basic Writings.

It is possible to interpret this text in a sort of proto-wittgensteinian way. An anti-essentialist (and by extension logical-positivist) exposition of language is proposed. In the manner that the late Wittgenstein proposed “meaning is use” there seems to be a similar approach to language in the Zhuangzi.

Words are “signifiers”, that is they represent something, but that which they signify is not meaningful or discoverable in and of themselves. One cannot take a word, isolate it and strip it down to its essence and essential meaning (a claim that the logical positivists made). Meaning is not constant, rather it is dependent upon and itself contributes to the general context of the “text” in which it finds itself; statement, sentence, paragraph, discourse etc. Words do not have a pancontextual meaning, but only have or gain meaning when we attribute meaning to it in particular circumstances.

There is an interesting parrallel and bridge between the Zhuangzi and the early and later Wittgenstein. Towards the end of the Tractatus Wittgenstein teasingly tells us that the book (and indeed philosophy and language) is senseless:

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Similarly having advocated that we throw away language once we have caught the meaning, Zhuangzi asks:

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him? Basic Writings p140

The Zhuangzi proceeds beyond this general contextualism to provide a more detailed analysis of language, quite remarkable considering its antiquity and the comparitively recent interest that philosophy has given to the topic.

The Zhuangzi distinguishes between three kinds of language. Watson (1968) translates these as “imputed words”, “repeated words” and “goblet words”. The first are words attributed to a great historical or legendary figure, which increases the impact that they have. The second are words which gain credibility by virtue of repetative familiarity, the analytical conclusion being that the familiar is often mistaken for the self-evident. Finally the third type “goblet words” are words whose meaning changes, Zhuangzi describes these as “words that are no-words”. It is a type of language that constantly refreshes itself thus more accurately being able to convey meaning – much like a goblet it is a vessel which may filled and emptied and thus more closely mirrors the distinctions necessary for understanding.

Zhuangzi it seems was influenced by his teacher and debating partner Hui Shi who held a similarly perspectivist philosophy of language. He focused on comparitive language – the type which is most transparently relativistic and perspectival. For example he said the word “tall” has no fixed range of reference (or therefore meaning). Tall for a Giraffe is not Tall for a Horse. Hui Shi generalised this relativistic aspect and concluded that no distinctions or differences rested on external reality, they are all merely projections of different perspectives.

Apart from the interesting superficial comparisons between the Zhuangzi and more contempory philosophies of language (Wittgenstein, Lyotard, Barthes, Derrida etc.) the ideas expressed fundamentally underpin an anarchic epistemology and existential morality, some more of which I hope to explore in subsequent posts.

The Zhuangzi (part 2) – relativism

Posted by on July 14th, 2008

Many scholars upon reading the Zhuangzi describe it as promoting philosophical relatvism. Although it is true that the work contains a relativistic element it is not totally relatvistic and on occasion gives a priveleged position to certain attitudes and behaviours. Thus to dismiss it as purely relatvistic would be a poor analsysis.

The text promotes two particular modes of experience. The first one in the field of cognitive mental states is that of “ming” or clarity. In this text it appears that “clarity” involves the ability to discern subtle distinctions without necessarily evaluating experience in terms of a preferred alternative.

In the field of behaviour the text promotes “wu wei” which translates as “effortless action”. This kind of behaviour is characterized by the minimization of conflict with that which is inevitable and unavoidable in the realm of experiences, thus reducing the “friction and drag” caused by dogmatic commitment to a single preffered outcome.

The text leads us to conclude that the “ideal person” who is variously described in the text as “genuine” (zhenren), “fully realized” (zhiren), or “spiritual” (shenren), is one who is perfectly well-adjusted. In other words such a person is balanced and is at ease in all situations, and as a consequence do not find themselves thrown off course by novelty or unexpected circumstances.

Zhuangzi uses the idiom of the hinge (what he calls the “hinge of Dao” daoshu) to illustrate this sort of cognitive/experiential flexibility.

A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted in the socket, it can respond endlessly.  – Basic Writings Ch2.

So although we are concerned not to describe the Zhuangzi as purely relativistic – on account of its priveleging certain attitudes and behaviours – it is still the case that “all truth and valuation are necessarily contextually situated”. Put simply this means that the “good” for one person may not be the same for another, and likewise the case with beauty, truth, usefulness etc.

Fascinatingly though Zhuangzi does not restrict this experiential relativism to different individuals, he also relates this idea to the same individual at different moments and places in time and space. Rather than clashing with the flux that is the world by maintaining a dogmatic adherence to a certain set of standards or attitudes, Zhuangzi proposes that it is more beneficial to the individual to adjust ones standards and attitudes in accordance with the needs of the current situation. One consequence of this attitude of least resistance (wei wu wei) is that one’s resources and overall well-being are best preserved through reducing the friction we experience with the world.

This pragmatic individualism has certain echoes with modern existentialism – and one may suggest has similar faults too (depending on ones perspective i.e. social inaction in the face of intolerable injustice for self-preservation).


This resource preservation philosophy plays an influential role in Chinese medicine and in Daoist alchemical longevity movements.

But for me the concept of the “hinge of Dao” (or as I would simply put it the hinge of being) is interesting because it is the underlying philosophical attitude that informs other areas of the Zhuangzi text and which (in subsequent posts I will explore) informs a seemingly proto-Wittgensteinian philosophy of language, an unresolved Cartesian scepticism, an ontological pluralism akin to Nietzche, and an anarchic political theory.

All quotes lifted from the source attributed at the end of the first post in this series (here).

The Zhuangzi (part 1)

Posted by on July 9th, 2008

It is an unfortunate case that often that which is termed Eastern Philosophy is largely ignored, or underrated by its Western counterpart. Why this should be the case is probably explainable with references to postmodern cultural theory, imperialistic and colonial attitudes, and the relationship between Western Philosophy and its productive cousin Western Science.

Without entering into a deconstruction of western attitudes and the general donning of sackcloth and ashes I thought it would be a nice idea to explore some Eastern Philosophy, particular those texts which hold remarkable parallels with certain “classics” of our western paradigm.

In this series of posts I am going to have a look at some of the ideas found in the “Zhuangzi.”

The Book

The Zhuangzi, which translates as Master Zhuang (after its attributed author) is considered the second foundational text of the Daoist philosophical and religous traditions. Second only to the teachings of Lao Tzu. It is roughly dated between 350 – 250 BC.

The first seven chapters of the text, called the “inner chapters” are directly attributed to Zhuang Zhou (the Master) who according to legend lived in Honan approximately 370-286 BC. The remaining chapters are sometimes attributed as fragments from the author of the inner chapters, and sometimes attributed to other authors who are considered to be representatives of the Yangzhu tradition.

The book is composed of stories, allegories, essays and fragments of probably mythological material. It refers to dozens of chinese folk stories (some of which are lost today) comments on them, reworks them and elicits different meanings from them.

It influenced a large amount of subsequent Chinese philosophical thought, particular Chan (Zen) Buddhism and late Daoism.

Zhuang Zhou

Practically nothing is known of the author, other than that which is given in the text, which owing to its literary and philosophical intent not to mention the different stages in its authorship makes its historicity less than valuable. The Chinese historian Sima Qian (who lived several hundred years later) provided an account of his rough dates of birth and death, and the information that he came from the district of Meng in the province of Honan. He was a minor official, who resigned his position in order to return to private life, and it is claimed was offered the role of Prime Minister to King Wei of Chu (339-329BC), a job he declined.

The Text

The Zhuangzi was largely subordinate to the Laozi until the end of the Han Dynasty (c. 200 AD) when a radical breakdown of political and social values resulted in a resurgent interest in Zhuangzi’s rejection of conventional values.

The present form of the text is largely the result of its most influential editor and commentator Guixiang (300 AD), who is likely to have integrated material from other sources, divided it into its present chapter configuation and assigned titles to the chapters. Some scholars consider the influence so strong that it is difficult to distinguish between Zhuangzi and Guixiang.

It spoofs and satirizes other more reputable and established philosophical traditions of its time (such as Confucianism and the Mohists). Zhuangzi’s basic attitute to philosophical disputation is that it is pointless and hairsplitting at best, solves no problems conclusively and leads merely to more conflict and disagreement!

Zhuangzi’s philosophical approach can be described as perspectival, i.e. the truth value of any claim is related to context or perspective, and must always be carefully qualified to have any validity at all.

Common Ancestors

As I will explore in later posts much of the Zhuangzi has themes and ideas found in contemporary western philosophy. Much modern scholarship lends itself to comparitive studies between Zhuangzi and Nietzsche who share a similar aphoristic style, not to mention a predisiposition to being quoted out of context (I’ll try to avoid this), and a strong subjectivism. Zhuangzi and Wittgenstein whose attitudes towards philosophy and language are closely mirrored. And Zhuangzi and Descartes who both present similar ideas about radical scepticism.

Major Ideas

  • Our experience of the world is relative to our perspective.
  • The world of our experience is constantly transforming.
  • Therefore we must be wary of our tendency to adopt fixed or dogmatic judgements, evaluations, and standards based on a narrow viewpoint, since this leads to conflict and frustration.
  • Optimal experience involves freeing ourselves from slavish commitment to convention. This enables is to see clearly (ming) and act spontaneously and unobtrusively (wuwei).
  • The ideal person is one who is perfectly well-adjusted in this way.
  • The “genuine person” precedes “genuine knowledge”
  • Language functions to convey meaning, and meaning is relative to context.
  • Philosophical disputation though sometimes stimulating is a futile enterprise as “right” and “wrong” cannot be determined through argument.
  • Death is a natural part of life, one of its infinite transformations.

Over a few posts I will explore some interesting themes such as relativism, anarchism, and scepticism.

(Background information thanks to Alan Fox and his article on Zhuangzi in “Great Thinkers of the Eastern World”, edited by Ian McGreal and published by Harper Collins 1995)