Zhuangzi and possibility of communication

Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) is one of the most enigmatic thinkers of ancient China. Traditionally, Zhuangzi is supposed to be a follower of Laozi, and both are assumed to be mythicists, who preached us to be united to one and only one mythical Dao (the way).

Here, I will propose an alternative reading. I will argue that, Zhuangzi’s writing does not express an obscure mythicism. Rather, it contains rich arguments which directly connect to modern philosophers’ concern. To illustrate this, I will choose ‘Joy of Fish’, a famous dialogue with Hui Shi and analyze it.

Joy of Fish

Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Chuang Tzu said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”
Hui Tzu said, “You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?”
Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”
Hui Tzu said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish ‑ so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”
Chuang Tzu said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy ‑ so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”
— Zhuangzi, 17, tr. Watson 1968:188–9

(I refer Chinese text directly for interpretation, but for convenience of an English-speaking reader, a quote of an English translation is used here. )

The topic of the dialogue, if there is any, is elusive. The dialogue appears end with a word-play, taking the question ’how do you know…’ by Hui-Shi literally. This looks like a playful, worse, dishonest attitude of Zhuangzi.

My alternative reading is that, Zhuangzi argues against ‘the theory of private meaning’. By ’the theory of private meaning’ I mean the idea that the meaning (of words, expressions) can only be authentically known by its utterer. Thus, (according to this theory) an internal monologue within the consciousness is only authentically meaningful communication.

Against this theory, Zhuangzi defends very possibility of communication not confined by private-self. Three methods of argumentation are used here.

  • Transcendental argument (sort of)
  • Positing an opposite extreme
  • Metaphoric argument

I will explain each method one by one.

Transcendental argument (sort of)

A transcendental argument in western philosophy is an argument which is based on very possibility of experience. Thus, a supporter of a transcendental argument argues that, if one accepts an argument based on experience, surely one accepts a transcendental argument based on very possibility of experience.

Similarly, Zhuangzi often uses an argument based on very possibilities of arguments, language and meaning. Zhuangzi rarely uses this kind of arguments to establish positive assertions, however. Rather, he solely uses this type of arguments against an interlocutor’s claim, by showing the interlocutor’s claim self-destructs.

In our case, Zhuangzi argues that, the theory of private meaning self-destructs, because it assumes that a supporter of this theory can meaningfully assesses authenticity of understanding of an utterance by others. Hui Shi, by arguing that Zhuangzi cannot understand joy of fish, assumes that he can asses authenticity of Zhuangzi’s knowledge and utterance on joy of fish. If meaning is truly private, such assessment itself is impossible.

The way of the argument looks like Reductio ad absurdum, but there is a notable difference. Reductio ad absurdum is the way of argument to show that the claim leads the conclusion which is not true. While in our case, the theory of private meaning leads the conclusion which destroys very possibility of claiming such theory. If the authentic meaning can only be known by an utterer, it is impossible to authentically communicate ideas, let alone discuss the nature of meaning.

Positing an opposite extreme

Another strategy to refute an interlocutor’s claim, which is frequently used by Zhuangzi, is to put forward a claim which asserts an opposite extreme of the interlocutor’s position.

In the dialogue of Hui Shi, Zhuangzi claimed that he can understand joy of fish. How seriously he claimed it is not clear. I suggest that it is a part of strategy to broaden the scope of the argument, by contrasting it to a cliché which we tend to repeat at a philosophical argument.

A supporter of the theory of private meaning, has difficulty to refute such claim. Because the theory of private meaning forbids Hui Shi to know what Zhuangzi knows, Hui Shi cannot refute Zhuangzi ’s claim.

Metaphoric argument

Finally, metaphoric arguments abound in Zhuangzi. Water, for example, is used to indicate Dao, the way. Here, I resist the traditional reading which assumes Dao as a mythical entity. I would interpret Dao, as anything which can guide the action, like convention or natural law.

In this dialogue, by using water as a metaphor of Dao, Zhuangzi seems to propose that Dao makes communication possible. Here, Dao can be interpreted as a convention, which is also assumed to make communication possible in modern philosophy. However, reading Zhuangzi as a whole, I feel that Dao in Zhuangzi has much wider meaning. It can mean an environment, natural law or even the Universe itself.

In this light, we may translate the statement “You asked me how I know what fish enjoy ‑ so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. (子曰『汝安知魚樂』云者,既已知吾知之而問我)” to a slightly different way, namely, “When you asked me how I know what fish enjoy, you already knew I knew it when you asked the question”. Hui Shi already knew joy of fish when he raised a question, because he shares a context, circumstance, environment, and ultimately the Universe with fish and Zhuangzi.

Remarks on related works

I want to mention two works, one by Chad Hansen (The Relatively Happy Fish, Asian Philosophy, 2003), and one by Norman Y. Teng (The Relatively Happy Fish Revisited, Asian Philosophy, 2006). I share the same motivation, making Zhuangzi a consistent, rational thinker, with Chad Hansen. However, Chad Hansen framed the dialogue around epistemology of an inner state (joy, happiness, etc.) while I framed the dialogue around a theory of communication and meaning. Also I do not relate the dialogue to relativist perspectivism. Teng developed a reading of dialogue in line with logic presented in Mo-tzu. Teng argued that Hui Shi questioned the possibility of inter-species communication, rather than claimed the theory of private meaning. However, a point Zhuangzi made in the dialogue is that there is a parallel between denying inter-species communication and the theory of private meaning. Both assume a kind of intrinsic ’sameness’, one’s identity, shared culture or specie, makes communication possible. On the contrary, Zhuangzi suggested that what makes communication is possible, is a shared context or environment, which lies outside of the self.