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Zhuangzi as Philosopher

All page references are to Zhuangzi: Essential Writings, With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (Hackett, 2009)
Brook Ziporyn

*Please note that the footnotes are located at the bottom of this page.


Perspective, Transformation, and Independence

Zhuangzi's style is decidedly unlike that of any previous Chinese thinker, using fables, jokes, puns, unanswered questions, imaginary dialogues, and riddles to address the human problem of alternate daos and the demand to know these daos, to judge them, and to commit to one of them [1].  His work begins with the striking story of an inconceivably vast fish,  named Kun, whose name paradoxically suggests also a fish egg and an elder brother (hence, "Big Brother Roe") who transforms into an equally enormous bird named Peng, ("Peer Phoenix") (see page 3, notes 1 and 2). Peng, we are told, must fly very high up in the air to gather enough wind beneath him to support his enormous wings. This makes him seem both uselessly grandiose and incomprehensibly bizarre to the smaller birds watching him from the earth, and we are treated to their ridicule of his outlandish extravagance.

This story may be taken as Zhuangzi's dramatic entrance, his self-introduction to the reader. For Peng is the first of Zhuangzi's many masks, serving as a cutting but good-natured rejoinder to his friend Huizi's taunts about the uselessness of Zhuangzi's big talk, presented in the final two dialogues of the first chapter [2].  The story introduces us to three intertwined themes that are at the heart of Zhuangzi's project:

  1. transformation,
  2. dependence, and
  3. the limitations of perspectival knowledge.

Peng's position is incomprehensible to the little birds, as Zhuangzi's is to Huizi. These birds can only thrive in their constricted particular environment, which alone gives them a function, an identity, a value. Their identity is thus dependent on this particular environment. However, merely flying high in the vastness of the air is no escape from this problem of being dependent. The text goes on to remark that even if one breaks free of such a narrow realm, as did the mythical philosopher Liezi, who could walk on the wind, one is still dependent on something for one's usefulness and identity, for one's happiness—in this case, the wind. Liezi's dependence on the wind (see pages 5–6) is still rooted in a commitment to a fixed perspective and identity; similarly, the text suggests, a scholar or other person of high social rank relies on the esteem of a particular ruler or community as the guarantor of his value and status. If Peng were merely Peng and nothing more; if he had a fixed identity and thus a fixed definition of what suits him, he would be no better off. But this bird is actually a transformation of the enormous fish, Kun, which represents the most antithetical perspective imaginable. And this, for Zhuangzi, is the heart of the matter: the way perspectives transform into other perspectives.

Zhuangzi then introduces the possibility of genuine independence and freedom, which he describes as a way of "chariot[ing] upon what is true both to Heaven and to earth, riding atop the back-and-forth of the six atmospheric breaths, so that your wandering could nowhere be brought to a halt" (see pages 5–6). This passage suggests that one can become completely independent of things not by separating oneself from things, renouncing one's involvement with and responsiveness to them, but rather, ironically, through complete involvement with them—in a sense, through complete dependence on (all of) them. Rather than being dependent on this or that, and far from being dependent on no thing at all, one is dependent on any thing at all, because one's identity—and with it one's conditions of dependence—is able to transform unobstructedly. Whatever happens to come one's way, one is able to "ride upon it," to make it the chariot upon which one goes wandering through new vistas. The identity of Peng, the highest, largest, and most visible in the sky, is free and unfettered only because he is able to transform from the smallest, lowest, and most hidden: Kun, a fish egg that is also a vast fish, in the depths of the sea. It is this transformation of perspective and identity that Zhuangzi indicates when he asserts that "the Consummate Person has no fixed identity" (page 6). But how is this possible?

This will be the theme with which Chapter 2, "Equalizing Assessment of Things," begins. The arguments made in this chapter on these issues—identity-transformation, dependence and perspective—represent the core of the Zhuangzi's philosophy. The remainder of the Inner Chapters contains applications of the considerations sketched out in Chapter 2 to different situations and contexts.

The chapter begins with the story of Ziqi of the Southern Wall merging his breath with the wind and declaring, "I have lost me" (page 9). That is, he no longer has a single fixed perspective with which he identifies. He illustrates this with the story of tones emerging from the hollows in the woods during a windstorm. Each tone is different; the wind is blowing forth a wide variety of divergent sounds, all of which are equally "the sound of the wind." Each hollow "takes what it needs" of the wind and produces its own tone on the basis of its own unique shape and position, and each of these is a sounding of the wind. The tale ends with the question, "Who is the blower?" That is, which among all these varied sounds is the wind itself, the wind's "own" sound? Which sound more adequately represents "the sound of wind" than any other? The implicit answer is that the sound of wind is not discoverable anywhere but in these individual tones, none of which is a privileged representation of the sound of wind. The blower, the source of the sounds, cannot be specified as any particular tone. Indeed, it is perhaps this question itself—the "who?"—that most adequately evokes the wonder of the unfixable multifariousness of the wind's sonic identity.

What do the wind and the tones represent? Zhuangzi proceeds to tell us: "Joy and anger, sorrow and happiness, plans and regrets, transformations and stagnations, unguarded abandonment and deliberate posturing—music flowing out of hollows, mushrooms of billowing steam!" (page 10) As a first approach, then, these varied tones are images of the shifting and transformation of different human moods, which are arranged here, significantly, in contrasting dyads: joy versus anger, plans versus regrets, and so forth. These conditions of our consciousness, these moods, these colorings of our experience, come and go, swinging from one side to the other. These are our perspectives on the world. When we are joyful, we see a world of joy; when angry, a world of anger. Where do these perspectives come from? What is their basis? What controls them? Which is our "real" mood, our real identity? Who is the blower? Above all, what does the ceaseless transformation of perspectives depend on? In this question we have a compressed reprise of the three themes introduced in Chapter 1: transformation, dependence and perspective.
The wind, on this reading, would represent "the Course," the Dao. But what is that? Zhuangzi is suggesting that it cannot be expressed in any one particular manner, as any specifiable identity. The way is no specific way. It is unknowable, unspecifiable, just as the tone of the wind is no particular tone. Zhuangzi tells us that "knowing consciousness cannot find the source" of these moods and perspectives, the sole true determinant of their identity. We cannot know the sound of the wind as such, the sound that is the source of all the other sounds, that makes them so. Nor can we know the Course as such, the entity that is the source of all entities, that determines their becoming. But we are then told that there always seems to be a "genuine ruler" or "controller"—the Course, the Wind—serving as the controlling source of all these shifting phenomena. It's just that we can never find any one specific characteristic to identify it with. It is neither there nor not there, like "the sound of the wind" in each particular tone. It always seems to be present, but cannot be grasped as definitively here or there (pages 10–11).

But why is it that the source of the varying perspectives, a fixed single real identity, can never be discovered? This brings us to the crux of Zhuangzi's argument. Zhuangzi claims that the way we see things, the way we consciously know, is itself determined by our perspective, our mood. But the question about the origin of this way of seeing things is posed as part of that way of seeing things. The question about where moods and perspectives come from is posed from within some particular perspective; a perspective is attempting to see and verify its own becoming. However, Mood X cannot witness its own transition from not being there to being there, for by definition it cannot be there to view what preceded its own emergence. Whatever it sees and knows is ipso facto a part of the world that exists after its emergence—the world of anger, the world of joy—not the preexisting cause or source of that emergence. Knowledge of the source of X would require an ability to stand outside of X. It might try to get around this problem by drawing conclusions about its preexistent source based on inferences rather than direct witnessing. But this conclusion and the premises of the inferential procedures that produce it do not really stand outside of X; they are themselves manifestations or aspects of X's own experience, internal to it. Since all assertions about the origin of a perspective are internal to that perspective, there is no perspective-independent way of verifying their reliability, or of adjudicating between conflicting accounts.

From Moods to Linguistic Truth Claims

Zhuangzi's argument proceeds from this consideration of an individual's moods succeeding one another in time to the more technical problem of conflicting truth claims. He has an imaginary objector—perhaps we should hear Huizi again here—saying, in effect, "Okay, that may be true for things like shifting moods, but when we make philosophical arguments, there is a fixed standard: words are not wind; words refer to something, and this gives them a consistent reliability, a standard by which to be judged" (page 11). Zhuangzi, in response, brings us back to the question of dependence. What words depend on for their meaning, what they putatively refer to, is actually no more fixed than the shifting moods, the sounds of holes in a windstorm, or indeed, "the chirping of baby birds" (page 11–12). For the fixing of a scheme of reference, by which alone words are given meanings, is also wholly dependent on a perspective.

More technically, Zhuangzi develops this point by means of a consideration of two central terms which figured prominently in the specialized vocabulary of the logicians and debaters of his day: shi and fei. Shi 是 means both "this" and "correct." Graham has ingeniously covered both senses of the term by rendering it into the somewhat cumbersome English phrase, "That's it!" which implies both correctly identifying something as what someone intended to refer to, and the affirmation of correctness. The term has two different antonyms. One is bi 彼, meaning "other, that." This is contrasted to the term in the sense of "this." The other antonym is fei 非, meaning "wrong," both in the sense of untrue (of an assertion) and in the sense of morally objectionable (of an action). Graham renders it as "that's not [it]!" These terms are, as Graham and Chad Hansen have persuasively argued, what linguists call "indexicals." Indexicals are words whose referent depends on what one is pointing to when one utters them. When I am pointing to a chair, the word "this" refers to the chair. When I am pointing to the table, however, "this" refers to the table. Zhuangzi argues that our notion of "right" is in exactly the same boat: it is "this," my own perspective, that is defined as the standard of "right," and what that is will depend on who I am, and what my perspectival mood is at any moment. But these are always changing and transforming. What words refer to is dependent on the assigning of a meaning to the primal division between "this" and "that." If we cannot agree on what "this" means, we cannot agree on what "right" means. But we can never agree on what "this" means, since it is dependent on perspective. Since all other designations are dependent on the consistent meaning of "this," Zhuangzi holds that all the meanings we assign to words are equally relative to perspective. Not meaning the same thing by "this," we also cannot really mean the same thing by "finger" or "horse" (page 12), much less by words like "right" and "wrong."


The Mutual Implication of Perspectives

Thus far Zhuangzi seems to be a simple perspectival relativist: all assertions are relative to some perspective. But there is more.  One perspective can never have the same vantage point as another, and in viewing from a single angle, one may be convinced there are no other ways of seeing. But at the same time, paradoxically, the existence of other perspectives is always necessarily implied just by having a perspective at all. To have a perspective is for there to be other, alternate perspectives as well. Zhuangzi tells us that shi and fei posit each other (page 12). As soon as you say "this," you are implicitly contrasting it to something else, to a "that." But the "that" is also a "this" if you happen to be standing in "that's" perspective.

A metaphor can perhaps make this clearer. Imagine two booths arranged back to back. In each booth stands a human figure. At any given time you can see into only one of the booths. Further assume that you can only hear one of these persons at a time; you hear the words only of whichever figure you are looking at. The other one is too far away, speaking in the wrong direction, and you do not hear him, no matter how loudly he may shout. When you see one of these fellows, he says, "Look, don't be fooled, there's another guy in the other booth, but he's an imposter. I'm the real McCoy; he's just an imitation, an android, not a real human being. If you don't believe me, check for yourself: you'll see how he fails to match up to the standard of what the real me looks like." In order to follow through on this claim of authenticity, you must now go around to the other side and look into the other booth. There you meet with the same situation: this figure says, "That guy on the other side is an imposter; just memorize what I look like here, and go over and check, and you'll see how obviously he diverges from the standard." Around and around you go, never coming to an end. Whatever is presenting itself at the time is both asserting itself as the standard of right—"this," realness, authenticity, value—but as part of this very claim asking you to compare it to the "other." As soon as you do that, as soon as the other is what is present and manifest, the other is ipso facto the "this," and thus the one in the position to assert himself as the standard of rightness.

Thus is it with Zhuangzi's circle of rights and wrongs: they are internal to perspectives, but these perspectives imply and posit one another. In this sense the differing perspective are both external and internal to one another; they are by definition mutually exclusive, but they imply one another precisely in their tacit contrast to one another, which alone is what establishes them as what they are.

It is this point that allows Zhuangzi to avoid the tendency to self-enclosed solipsism that sometimes goes with relativism. After all, if what I find true is true only for me, and what you find true is true only for you, there is no shared basis in terms of which we could communicate. Each of us remains trapped forever in our own sealed perspective. But Zhuangzi instead speaks of the "Course-Axis," i.e., "the Course as Axis," or "the Axis of Courses," [3] (referenced in this text and the main text, as "Course-Axis") which is a means of interaction and "responding" that relates different perspectives to one another, "opening them up" into one another. Zhuangzi tells us of a perspective from which one can no longer say definitively whether any given "this" and "that"—"right" and "wrong"—are contrasted opposites or not (page 12). This is because "this" always both defines itself by its intrinsic contrast to "that" and necessarily entails—and in that sense, includes—"that."

Is there then no contrast between "this" and "that"? That is impossible, because their very identity depends on the contrast. Then is there a contrast between "this" and "that"? That is also impossible, because each implies the other: "this" is really "this plus that" and "that" is also really "this plus that." To be contrasted, we need two different things contrasted to each other. But now the same thing—"this plus that"—is found on both sides of the contrast. It is like a magnet that always has both a positive and a negative pole, no matter where you slice it: when you slice off the negative pole, a new negative pole is created in whatever portion of the magnet is left. So everywhere you may go, there is this inescapable division, contrast, opposition between "this" and "that." But precisely because it is everywhere, there is no contrast—in this respect—between one place and another, no "this" versus "that." The contrast between "this" and "that" is everywhere and nowhere. This is the "oneness" of all things, which is also not a definitive oneness: there is no difference between its oneness and its non-oneness (see page 14 on "laboring to make things one," and so on). We can see things in terms of this oneness, or not, as we choose, but in either case we flip-flop back and forth within this loop of oneness and non-oneness—and that is the real "oneness" (page 42). Because of the fact that the establishment of any perspective necessarily establishes other, opposite perspectives, merely staying fully within any single perspective actually brings with it the power to open outward into interaction with other perspectives, and to accommodate other viewpoints and other types of "rights" and "wrongs." It is this "not knowing" which is which, or even whether or not there is a contrast between the two (p. 17) this "how could I know?" (page 17), this being "devoid of any manifest sign" (page 10), this "what identity?" (p. 10) that Zhuangzi means by "Non-knowing," the Course-Axis. This "axis" is the Course, the Course which is not a Course, the ironically non-guiding guide.

Indeed, Zhuangzi tells us that this Course-Axis has an endless supply of responses to endless perspectives (p. 12). Rather than being sealed into one unchanging perspective, it is the flow of transformation and interaction of perspectives. This is illustrated in the story of the monkey trainer (page 14) who offers his monkeys three chestnuts in the morning and four in the evening. The monkeys are outraged: they want four in the morning and three in the evening. The monkeys have their own perspective on right and wrong. Wisely, the monkey keeper neither insists on his arrangement nor tries to convince the monkeys to adopt it, nor indeed to recognize that the number of chestnuts is the same either way. Instead, he accomodates the monkeys. He goes "by the rightness of their present this." He has, as it were, two perspectives at once. He has his own perspective, at the "center of the circle," the Course-Axis. And at any given time he is also temporarily adopting some other perspective, such as he might have encountered at that time—in this case, three in the morning as opposed to four in the morning. This is called "Walking Two Roads" (page 14).

This approach perhaps also enables Zhuangzi to avoid some of the contradictions of standard relativism. Relativists who notice the dependence of all assertions on perspective are generally caught in a paradox pointed out already by Plato: they must assert that they can know one thing absolutely, namely, that all is relative. Since they end up asserting some universally valid knowledge independent of perspective—i.e., that all knowledge is perspective-dependent—they are contradicting themselves, and thus relativism stands refuted. Zhuangzi however is not asserting that he knows this (p. 17, pp. 39–40). He is merely asserting that this is how things appear to him from his own present perspective. Where this perspective comes from and how it could be justified are, by his own admission, unknown and unknowable.

These points can best be clarified by recourse to another metaphor. Imagine that you find yourself in a card game, where cards are continually being dealt to you from a nonobvious source. You do not know how you got there, where the cards come from, or what the object of the game is—for example, whether you should be trying to collect high cards or low cards. You have no guidelines whatsoever. Every so often, in addition to the ordinary numbered cards, you get what might be called an "instruction card." This is a card on which is printed some assertion about the goal of the game. One such card might say, "Collect high cards, discard low cards: whoever has the most high cards wins." But then another instruction card might show up in your hand saying, "Collect low cards, discard high cards; whoever has the most low cards wins." Perhaps a card will say, "There is no object to the game." Another might say, "All goals are relative, so all cards are of equal value." You might act in accordance with one of these cards, but it is still just another card, and can be contradicted by another. If you are committed to the "collect high cards" card, you might discard, ignore, or reject the "collect low cards" card when it arrives, since you already "know" the object of the game. But these two instruction cards are invested with equal validity; they are both just cards that appeared in your hand from an unknown source. Your commitment to follow the instructions of the first one is based on nothing more than its accidental temporal priority.

This is a metaphor for human life as Zhuangzi sees it. The cards are perspectives. They appear from an unknown source, and sometimes carry a value and an imperative. But they are constantly being contradicted. This contradiction and transformation of perspectives is what Zhuangzi calls "the Illumination of the Obvious" [4] (pages 12, 15). It is simply the observation of the obvious—that there are different perspectives and evaluations—which is what functions as Zhuangzi's own perspective, the Course-Axis. It is also what he means when he says that "all things are one." He means that there is no way to know whether they are one or not, that neither their oppositeness nor their oneness can be found (pages 12–17) and thus that all can be seen, from a certain perspective, as one (page 33). That is the perspective that sees all claims as perspective-based, as the "obvious" transformation of one into another as rooted in their shi/fei structure, as illustrated in the example of the back-to-back booths, without any way to justify or ground themselves. Now this is just one more perspective, like all perspectives. It is not privileged information about ultimate reality, about the real nature and object of the game, the real source of the cards, as if an instruction booklet had suddenly been found and agreed upon by all. Nor indeed is it an instruction card that says "All things are one, so all cards are of equal value." Nor is it even a card that says, "Embrace the obvious, which is that new cards keep coming, and all of them are merely cards." A card reading thus would lend itself to gainsay, as would any other card, since it is replaceable at any time by another instruction card.

Instead, what has appeared in Zhuangzi's hand is a wild card. That is, it is indeed just one more card, one more perspective appearing out of nowhere, but it has some peculiar properties, for it has no fixed shi/fei of its own; and for that very reason it enhances the value of whatever shi/fei is currently operative. If you are convinced, on the basis of a previously accepted instruction card, that the object of the game is to collect high cards, you can use the wild card to count as a high card. If you think the point is to collect low cards, it can be used as a low card. But even if you change your mind, if you receive a new instruction card and decide to reorder your hand accordingly, the wild card will still be useful, will still enhance your hand's value according to the new perspective. This is the Course-Axis: at any time it can pivot over to become a contributor to the opposite value, the opposite course. The content of this card is simply to indicate the obviousness of the transformation of perspectives, their mutual entailment, the way that having a perspective always opens you up to other perspectives, and the indeterminability of what is so that goes with it. It is not some intuitive or transcendental "illumination" or "enlightenment" that sees through the surface, but rather simple awareness of the surface itself: rather than resolving the conflict between perspectives, it notes this conflict itself. That is what is "obvious"—that people standing in different places see things differently. What alone is indisputable is that "people sometimes disagree," for this proposition cannot be contradicted without thereby being further demonstrated (if I say "I disagree with the proposition that people sometimes disagree," I have demonstrated that people sometimes disagree). This is what allows this one accidental perspective to function and maintain itself as a wild card.

Using the Wild Card

We can thus trace the development of the notion of dao through three phases:

  1. The daos of the Confucians and Mohists are courses that, when deliberately practiced, lead to the production of valued states of Virtuosity, valued human attitudes, and valued arrangements of human society and material resources. To produce a desired value, one embraces a set of values and behaves accordingly.
  2. The ironic Dao of the Daodejing and early "Daoism" is a non-dao, a non-deliberate course of all things that is the real basis of the emergence of all natural processes and the valued states that come with them: life, human virtues, human social harmony. All of these valued things come from not deliberately following any one identifiable prescribed course of action, from not embracing any values. Deliberate commitment to a set of values ironically obstructs the actual emergence of the valued things. To produce a desired value, one renounces all deliberate values and allows the spontaneous preevaluative process at the basis of all action, virtues and things: "nonaction."
  3. For Zhuangzi, the Course is the non-deliberate, unknowable emergence of not just valued things, but of all the various courses or ways of knowing and valuing. What it produces is not just natural processes generating valued things, but value-standpoints themselves: it produces daos. As such it is neither a particular dao nor the exclusion of all daos, neither the embracing of a particular standpoint of deliberate endeavor nor the exclusion of all deliberate endeavor. It is the Course-Axis. The values desired at any given moment are a function of the emergence of a particular perspective from this unknowable source, and that value is accomplished by going along with the perspective so produced while maintaining access to the pivot connecting to all other perspectives from within this one, the wild card.

It is this idea of the wild card that Zhuangzi then goes on to apply in various ways in the subsequent Inner Chapters. It is the unknowable and purposeless process of making values, of valuing and revaluing. The Dao is the ceaseless generation of new perspectives. It is the purposeless production of purposes. Zhuangzi speaks of the Dao, of Heaven, of the Great Clump, of the Yin and Yang, of Fate—he throws one name after another onto what he has shown can have no single name: the process of producing names, values, perspectives. For Zhuangzi, we may say, a being is simply a perspective, and the constant becoming of perspective after perspective, each constitutively unable to know anything outside itself, reveals nothing more or less than the obvious unknownness of what is ultimately so, or right, or source, or purpose. This is the "Illumination of the Obvious" that serves as the Wild Card, by means of which one may now "ride upon" all the transformations in perfect independence and freedom, wherever they may take one.

Zhuangzi sometimes uses "The Heavenly" to describe this unknowable production of ever-new perspectives: for "Heaven" (or, the "Skylike")—the actual openness of the sky as it "rotates" through the seasons, bringing forth the crops of the earth without taking any deliberate action or issuing any commands—is defined as what is produced by no known agent and for no single known purpose. This image of the "Skylike" in all things is useful as a contrast to "the Human," a term that reflects what is done deliberately, for a particular purpose, which is always rooted in an instrumental consciousness that claims to know definitively what is so and what is good: in a word, "Human" means purposive activity (i.e., activity guided by a single purpose which is known beforehand). But since the source of this spontaneous arising of perspectives is unknowable—or knowable only from a perspective—it cannot properly be identified as "Heaven." "Heaven" is merely a name given from one perspective, and Zhuangzi pointedly asks, "How do I know that what I call the Heavenly is not really the Human, and vice versa?" ( page 39) Once again, it is this unknowing, this "how do I know?" that is the real point: the Illumination of the Obvious, which Zhuangzi also calls "the Radiance of Drift and Doubt." This is Zhuangzi's own Course, his Dao.

In Chapter 3, Zhuangzi applies this Course to the practical problem of "nourishing life." The question here is how to move skillfully through the practical problems that confront us without harming this spontaneous life process in us, this process of generating perspectives. Another emblematic story takes us into this territory: the cook carving up the ox (pages 22–23) The living being is here likened to a knife: something that aggressively takes a position and thereby divides the world (e.g., into shi and fei, right and wrong). The world stands before it as a dense and impenetrable carcass that must be hacked through, wearing down the blade.  Picking up the themes of "no fixed identity" (Chapter 1) and its explications in Chapter 2, Zhuangzi here tell us that "the very edge of the blade has no thickness." ; it occupies no space, has no fixed position of its own. Similarly, the carcass through which it must wend its way has gaps or channels already present in it: every apparently self-assertive "this" "opens into" (tong 通) another, contrary perspective (pp. 12–13). The story presents a vivid metaphor for the art of "following along" with the affirmations intrinsic to each situation as it arises (what Zhuangzi called "going by the rightness of the present this" in Chapter 2, p. 12), which is likened to a blade passing unharmed through the implicit spaces in the body of an ox, thereby artfully untangling the carcass. It is useless to take the knowing consciousness, the understanding, as one's guide: one is "unable to see all there [is] to see in an ox" (page 22) and yet is constructed to issue definitive judgments about what is right and wrong as if it had this comprehensive knowledge. There is always more for it to see, something it has not yet taken into account, other perspectives which it cannot encompass: it is in this sense that it "has no shaping contours," no limits to its vistas. Life, however, always has some temporary specific limits and contours: the knife is in a particular aperture, guided along by its contour, at any given time: it is always presented with some present perspective. The "This" in each case is what gives it specific contours, specific perspectival guidelines of value, like the card that the Wild Card matches, doubles, and enhances.

In Chapter 4, the same idea is applied to handling life in the political world. A deliberate plan, conceived in advance, cannot improve either tyrants or political situations. Rather, "the fasting of the mind" is a way to "hear with the vital energy"  (pages 26–27) (equivalent to the perspectival, contoured life-process of Chapter 3) which "is empty and waits for things," providing the wild card responsiveness that both affirms the present "This" and allows it to transform into other perspectives. This approach is, for Zhuangzi, the only viable way to change the world.

Chapter 5 attributes an uncanny effectiveness to this empty inner state (the fasting of the mind, the wild card with no fixed content of its own). A person's physical beauty, social status, and moral virtuosity were thought, in Zhuangzi's time, to have a powerful effect on others, to inspire them, unify them, attract them, transform them. Yet here Zhuangzi tells us of convicted criminals and physically repulsive people—those lacking in both moral and bodily beauty—who nonetheless seem to have just the same effect on others. Such people have no specific attainments—Virtuosities attained through practicing a particular dao—but instead embody the unspecifiable axis of all such Virtuosities, which takes no particular form. These are people who have taken the perspective that "all things are one" (page 33)—not in the sense of "labor[ing] your spirit trying to make all things one" (page 14), but in the way all perspectives appear as simultaneously mutually exclusive and mutually implicative, which opens them up into transformation and interconnection with one another, all equally connectable and capable of enhancement by this wild card. To be physically whole is right; to be deformed is also right. To be a foot is right; to be a clump of earth is also right. Power and good reputation are right; lowliness and disgrace are also right. All things are one in this sense: they are all "right." Ironically, this very lack of a fixed distinction between the good and the bad provides those who embrace it with precisely the powers usually attributed to the "good" in that the inner emptiness (lack of fixed content or position) of these figures transforms everyone around them, providing them with an uncanny kind of charisma. The lack of a fixed good and bad accomplishes the good—any good. In terms of our metaphor, the wild card accomplishes the goals posited by any instruction card (i,e, any concept of what is good).

Chapter 6 is in some ways the climax of the Inner Chapters, applying the wild card perspective to the ultimate problems: the transformative power of nonknowing as a kind of utmost knowledge, the Genuine Man who embodies this nonknowing, and the ensuing rightness for him of both life and death. Chapter 7 presents the wild-card nonknowing as a sovereign response to two kinds of claims to authority: the political and the religious. Questions about how to rule the world are answered repeatedly with recourse to the nonknowing state of mind—with no fixed position and no programmatic ideals of its own—and the Zheng shaman's claims to knowledge of fate are foiled by Huzi's unknowability, his lack of fixed identity, which leads to a summation of Zhuangzi's views on knowledge and identity in the closing story of the death of primal Chaos.

At the beginning of Chapter 6, Zhuangzi seems to offer a summing up of his perspective on knowing:

     "To understand what is done by Heaven, and also what is to be done by
      Man, that is the utmost."
     "To understand what is done by the Heavenly": just in being the Heavenly,
      as the way all beings are born, what it does is bring them into being.
     "To understand what is to be done by the Human": that would be to use
      what your understanding understands to nurture what your
      understanding does not understand. You could then live out all your
      natural years without being cut down halfway. And that would indeed
      be the richest sort of knowledge. (page 39)

"The Heavenly" here is the name for the spontaneous life process, the continual generating of new things and perspectives. It is what deliberate knowing cannot accomplish, and cannot grasp a determinate source for. The role of knowing, then, is merely to recognize its own limits—so as to continually "nourish" this uncontrolled and unknown process of generating perspectives on what is true and good—rather than try to determine or create what is really true or what is really good and be the master commanding the direction of life. Knowing rests in, and stops at, what it does not know, and this enables the generation of perspectives and responses to continue unimpeded, resulting ultimately in: the wild card, the Obvious, the Radiance of Drift and Doubt.

However, in the next lines Zhuangzi identifies a problem with this position:

     However, there is a problem here. For our understanding can be in the
     right only by virtue of a relation of dependence on something, and what
     it depends on is always peculiarly unfixed. So how could I know
     whether what I call the Heavenly is not really the Human? How could I
     know whether what I call the Human is not really the Heavenly? Let us
     say instead, then, that there can be "Genuine Knowledge" only when
     there is such a thing as a "Genuine Human Being." (pages 39–40)

This is a meta-level application of perspectival "drift and doubt" to Zhuangzi's own position, making it clear that the reason Zhuangzi advocates this perspective is not because it somehow magically escapes the general problem of relativity to a perspective that he develops so intricately in Chapter 2. "Genuine Knowledge" is merely a term to describe the state of mind of a particular type of human, the "Genuine Human Being." It has no justification, no way to establish itself independently of that perspective. Zhuangzi then goes on in Chapter 6 to describe what, from his own perspective, he names "the Genuine Human Being." The arising of this perspective from a source, its "grounding," and its relationship to its source, is as unknowable as that of any other perspective.

Zhuangzi's Alternative to Both Objective Truth and Subjective Solipsism

Zhuangzi clearly sings the praises of this point of view, this "Genuine Knowledge"; if not because it is objectively true, why does he do so? —Because this one perspective, this one way of seeing, which is as unjustifiable and groundless as any other, happens to be one that fulfills most of the very criteria that justified (or absolute) knowledge would set for itself. What are these criteria?

  1. Absolute knowledge should remain in force no matter what perspective is operative; it should be impervious to refutation, able to incorporate any evidence. It should be able to maintain itself and remain true no matter how the perspective on it may shift.
  2. Absolute knowledge should have some practical advantages for dealing with the world. Knowing how the world is should make us able to handle it more effectively, whatever our goals might be.

Does Zhuangzi's Genuine Knowledge fulfill the first criterion? Yes. "Going by the rightness of the current 'this'" will remain effective no matter what "this" is operative or dominant at any given time. Each "this" is workable within the context of this Genuine Knowledge perspective without overturning it, and without having to neglect or distort that perspective's data. The monkeys' perspectives neither overturn nor are overturned by the monkey keeper's perspective that sees the oneness in both of the alternatives exercising the monkeys. His perspective remains in force even while allowing theirs to come into and out of operation; it is a mirrorlike perspective, "responding but not storing" (應而不藏) (p. 54). It can thus operate in, or rather as, any other perspective it might encounter, "Walking Two Roads."

Does Zhuangzi's Genuine Knowledge fulfill the second criterion? Yes. This is the point illustrated in Chapters 3 through 7 of the text: applications to practical skill, nourishing life, politics, physical disabilities, death, and predictive knowledge. The state of mind embodying this viewpoint adopts the value perspective implicit in any "this," any situation that might be encountered, and maximizes the attainment of value therein, as defined by whatever that perspective considers good. Note that the adoption of this state of mind implies no first-order value commitment of its own, for none is justifiable outside of its relation to some perspective. It does however entail a second-order value-commitment that "considers right" whatever is considered right by the first-order perspective that may arise at any moment. But this second-order commitment is explicitly as arbitrary and unjustifiable as any other. It is simply being what it is, "being this," and it is thereby being like all things that arbitrarily affirm as right what they consider right. But what the second-order commitment considers right is simply "maximizing rightness by considering right whatever any perspective considers to be right." The concrete content of what such a person values at any time is provided by the first-order perspective it is encountering, and its "success" in any case is evaluated in terms of that perspective. So, if technical skill is valued as good, this perspective will enable technical skill. If political efficacy is valued, it will enable political efficacy. And so on.

There seems to be one exception, however. What would the holder of the wild card do if he drew an instruction card that read, "Discard all wild cards"? That is, what if the Good were defined as "To eliminate all relativism and cling firmly to an absolute commitment"? Could he embrace this value, and use the wild card to better realize it? Would he obey this instruction, and discard the wild card? If so, our story is over. The wild card would then fail to preserve itself, and indeed it would perish almost immediately, since every instruction card implicitly makes this kind of demand in some sense.

On the other hand, he might just discard the instruction card. In that case, he has failed to enhance the value of every shi/fei. This would be merely his preference, still a dogmatic position like any other. But holding a dogmatic opinion may not be inconsistent of him, since he claims that all positions are dogmatic and unjustifiable, and are necessarily both right and wrong. Thus he will have no objection to being in some sense, from some perspective, wrong, and simply throwing away whatever  he doesn't like, though it is always in some sense unjust and unjustifiable to do so. He also can have no objection to being wrong because the very position that is being called "wrong," the one he embraces, stipulates that it is impossible not to be wrong (from some point of view).

A third alternative: he might hold onto both the anti-wildcard instruction card and the wild card, outwardly advocating the discarding of all wild cards, but maintaining his wild card secretly. This may seem to be a kind of systematic hypocrisy, but it is also viewed in much Chinese thought as a virtue, under the name of "timeliness." We do find many praises of both timeliness and the ability to "hide" in our text.  Indeed, part of the danger of revealing and broadcasting the wild card is that it can then become the target of stricture and attack.

All of these are possible responses. But we might consider this instance precisely the place where our metaphor of the wild card begins to break down, as all metaphors do somewhere. For if the wild card is really "wild" through and through, our gambler should be able to say, "This is not a wild card." He can then deny that the "Discard all wild-card" card applies to what he is holding. For a "wild-card" is still a fixed and specific identity, something known to be thus and so, and thus can be the target of an attack or prohibition. But the Genuine Knowledge of the Consummate Person has no specific content. Zhuangzi would perhaps remark, "How can I know that what I call a wild card is really a wild card? How can I know that what I call an anti-wild-card card is really so?" (Cf. page 17, pages 39–40). When the anti-wild card appears, he would say that the wild card is right now not "a wild card," but merely a further instantiation of the anti-wild card. The Zhuangzian relativist, when confronted by an absolutist, would be happy to declare that he, the Zhuangzian, is perhaps really an even more fanatical absolutist than the absolutist. The Course has no name, so any name is the name of the Course. My allegiance to the wild card, he may say, might in fact be a form of allegiance to Confucianism [5],  or to Mohism—or indeed to Allah, or to Christ, or to blind matter, or to evolution, or to the law of the excluded middle, or what have you. He may add: "How can either of us really know what I believe or don't believe?" The only observable difference between the wild card functioning in this way and the anti-wild card is that the wild card will still be there, functioning as something else, when the anti-wild card has been overturned by a subsequent instruction card. Something of this issue informs the many paradoxical forms of rhetoric we find in the later sections of the Zhuangzi and its commentaries, as well as many of the metaphysic and epistemological developments in later Chinese thought.

So Zhuangzi's Genuine Knowledge does most of the things objective knowledge is supposed to do, and provides a rationale for dismissing the rest as irrelevant [6].  It remains constantly in force and aids practical effectiveness not as a rulebook does, but as a wild card does—a wild card that is never discarded because it is found valuable no matter what set of rules might apply at any given time and how they might change. And this is why the Zhuangzi of the Inner Chapters can appear to be at times a mystic, at times a skeptic, or a metaphysical monist, or a spirit-body dualist, or an intuitionist, or a theist, a deist, an agnostic, a relativist, a fatalist, a philosopher of language, a nihilist, an existentialist, as well as a poet uncommitted to any particular philosophical position. This perspective allows but also modifies—recontextualizes—each position. Hence Zhuangzi can be a relativist—but one who privileges and prefers one particular position (the wild card). Zhuangzi can be a monist—but one who is also a pluralistic relativist, and a mind-body dualist (for the oneness he asserts is the oneness of the shi/fei perspective, hence one that always includes a split or division into plurality within itself). Zhuangzi can be a theist—but one who is also a naturalist and a materialist (on a whim altering his name for the agent responsible for all things, when he feels like it replacing "Creator of Things" with "The Great Mass" or even "The Yin and Yang"—the latter being not even a single unified agent). Zhuangzi can be a fatalist—but one who also reserves for himself the power to be the sole determinant of what means what at any given moment. And so on.

Each of these is a position like that of the monkeys, to which he is responding with his wild card, affirming each, contributing to whatever that perspective might consider valuable but at the same time facilitating its unobstructed transformation into any other perspective. We may view the rest of the Zhuangzi text, and the extended dialogue formed by the voices of all its commentators over the ages, as further applications of the power of the Zhuangzian wild card to an ever broader range of divergent perspectives and situations.   In all of these cases to which it is applied, the wild card goes by the rightness of whatever perspective is present as "this," but sustains itself as the axis of "Heaven the Potter's Wheel," (page 14) which enhances, develops, and breathes life into each of these viewpoints with its responsiveness, fully following along with each alternate arbitrary perspective and thereby further maintaining its own arbitrary perspective, and opening each of them up for interconnection with one another. Such is Zhuangzi's "Course which is not a course," always and everywhere "Walking Two Roads."


1.  See Introduction, pp. xiii–xvii, for a discussion of the term dao in early Chinese philosophy.

2.  The rhetorical framing of this chapter suggests the hypothesis that the Inner Chapters were perhaps written by Zhuang Zhou as a response to his arch-foil and arch-friend, the logician Huizi (Hui Shi), perhaps intended for the latter's eyes in particular, almost as a private joke. We are told, after all, that Zhuangzi considered Huizi the only one who really understood his words, the one for whom alone Zhuangzi spoke or wrote (see page 104). Chapter 1 begins with a vast fish that transforms into a vast bird and is then ridiculed for his high-flying by smaller birds gazing up at him from the ground. It ends with two dialogues between Zhuangzi and Huizi that closely parallel the structure of the relationship between Peng and the little birds.

Another story of a confrontation between Zhuangzi and Huizi (see page 76) supports the view that the large-and-small-bird trope symbolizes Zhuangzi's view of their relationship. There, Zhuangzi, after hearing that Huizi believes him to be after his official position, tells the story of a tiny creature who screeches at a vast one uncomprehendingly. The rhetorical trope there ("In the southern region there is a bird, and its name is. . . ." and so on) closely parallels the opening tale of Peng and the little birds, with Huizi compared to the small bird and Zhuangzi himself to the big one.

3.  See note 12 on page 12.

4.  以明 Yiming. This translation is very controversial, but key to understanding Zhuangzi's argument in Chapter 2. Sometimes the term is simply rendered "Illumination," or "Clarity." But the content of this clarity must be gleaned from the context of the argument, which proceeds to describe the plainly manifest perspectival situation described here.

See for example page 16, where Zhuangzi claims the Confucian virtues can be attained by denying their Confucian forms. Cf. also the discussion on filial piety in Chapter 14, page 66.

6.  A third criterion for absolute knowledge (one that may be especially pronounced in, say, modern scientific method) might be suggested, one that states: absolute knowledge should be able to predict what will happen in the future accurately. Can Zhuangzi's perspective do this? The answer is no. But his emphasis on transformation and perspective suggests a skepticism about the possibility of this type of knowledge from any perspective whatsoever: none can survive the transformation (that is to say, the transformation not of phenomena, but of perspectives on phenomena.) The confirmation of data in the future presupposes that the perspective on it has not changed.

From another perspective, which arises in the future or from another present viewpoint, where the defining terms are otherwise determined, the confirmation will not be valid. This is perhaps the thrust of the story of Liezi and the shaman which stands as the climactic point in the Inner Chapters (pages 51–53). The shaman could successfully predict the future, but Huzi's display of transforming identities and perspectives undermines the meaning and effectiveness of this kind of knowledge. There is a related criterion for Genuine Knowledge, which has become more central in the modern world than in previous times: the ability to create effective technology. Can Zhuangzi's Genuine Knowledge do this? Again, no. But here again an implicit critique of such a criterion can perhaps be derived from the text. Technology is a means to an end. Ends are goals, and according to Zhuangzi, the goals or values are themselves dependent on perspectives. The transformation of perspectives into other perspectives is, for Zhuangzi, just what is "obvious," and indeed implicit in there even being a perspective: a "this" implicitly posits a contrasting "that," which is itself another "this" from which the first "this" is seen as a "that." The presence of any one perspective already brings with it alternate perspectives. There has never been and can never be only a single perspective, or a single set of values, in the world. But the establishment of technologies to facilitate the easier attainment of a particular set of goals and values will tend to fix those values and their perspectives in place; they will be an obstruction to the free flow of perspectival transformation that Zhuangzi prizes as the true meta-goal that allows for the rightness of any and every perspective to operate. The technologies will serve to attain the values posited by some perspectives and not others, and hence will be inferior to Zhuangzi's Genuine Knowledge, which will facilitate the attainment of the values of any perspective, and allow for the free transformation from one to another.

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