The Romanian Journal

of Chinese Studies

Volume 1 Number 1 March 2001

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Florentina Viºan (University of Bucharest)

Zhuangzi's Point of View about Language

1. When one studies the philosophy of language in ancient China, Zhuangzi is normally allotted too little space and a rather superficial treatment. For instance, there is hardly a systematic analysis of his answers to the problems related to language, which were already part of the intellectual practice at the time. In fact, it has been shown that language theories hold the key to the understanding of Chinese philosophy and that the debate on the relationship between name and reality is the cornerstone of the most important philosophical studies during the Warring States period. Contemporary sinologists focus their research on the problem of naming and the way it was solved by Confucians, Mohists and Nominalists. At a general level of evaluation, it has been noticed that language theories in classical China start from an interpretation of the role of language as prescriptive - facilitating social contacts and the observation of rules. The approach is not focused on philosophical concepts that are specific to these kinds of studies in Western contexts, such as the concept of truth and propositional meaning. In other words, it is the social not the individual status of language that draws the attention of Chinese philosophers.

Aided by the Confucians' interest in regulating the use of names (zheng ming, "correct names"), the debate on the relationship between name (ming) and reality (shi) or thing (wu) poses a fundamental question: can names convey the essence of reality? Differing options - supporting either the acceptance of the idea that names are completely transponent or an attitude against language - question the ability of names to fragment reality and fix intensions, thus questioning the analysis of conceptual structure and the development of referential semantics. Names name the individual thing, indicating (zhi) and identifying (ju) differences between things. Depending on their adequacy, names can acquire or lose their referent (the order of reality). The adequacy of names zheng ming means observing conventions.

As the Daoists opposed the idea of difference and fixed patterns, they initiated a criticism of language and the devaluation to which it is subjected by its very tendency to fragment and classify the ontic continuum. In view of this ontological outlook on language, the relativism and skepticism of Zhuangzi come to the forefront, even his encouragement of translinguistics and the gnoseology of silence.

It is true that, when Zhuangzi speaks about language, his main theme is the inability of language to express not only the hidden reality, the negative presence - in accordance with the pair proposed by Laozi, wu ming, the unnamable, and ming, the nameable -, but also the reality of the phenomenal world which is characterized by unity and fluid dynamism. Names are artificial and discriminating and they corrupt this reality in its spontaneous, natural dimension, ziran. Language (yan) is a discourse of difference and endangers "the equality of things," whereas the writings (shu) of the ancients are but obscure norms that cannot preserve experience or contribute to authentic knowledge.

Zhuangzi's criticism specifically aims at the terms of the formal Confucian ritualism, credited with a perfect ability of identifying itself with the reality of social hierarchies and validated by the exemplary experience of the ancient rulers, as preserved in the canonical books. The Zhuangzi contains a series of passages illustrating the relativity of language, which takes sides and does not "let you love things equally." These passages demolish the claim that names identify and fix the essence of things. There are also brilliant demonstrations of the unwarranted character of all those arguments that rely on the pair shi fei, arguments that belong to those disputators who use this very method to trace "similarities" and "differences" in things when "naming" takes place. Our aim is to point to the special contribution made by Zhuangzi to the theory of language in classical China. In order to do this we shall employ certain well-known and often quoted passages, supported by a targeted reading.

2. In Zhuangzi's opinion, language is capable of serving reality to a certain extent; it is not, however, a norm-imposing instrument that can facilitate social and political control. A discourse that uses those names prescribed by the norm helps people understand themselves and express the "coarse side of things" (wu zhi cu) - even if this is only on the common level of "small knowledge" (xiao zhi) that does not aim high. Language can also be useful for the philosopher in a first phase, before he manages to capture the meaning (yi) that he wants to express; but then language loses its usefulness and may be discarded. This way of viewing language as an instrument requires special skill, unprecedented "ingenuity" and a certain ability of capturing "the elusive meaning," as the most important dimension of speech is its very capacity to evade, to be dynamic:

What I value most (in speech, words) is the meaning to express.
But meaning has something elusive in it,
And this something that stays beyond the captured meaning
Cannot be expressed through words (Tian Dao - The Way of Heaven).

"The net" and "the snare" are instruments meant to capture the body of what is impossible to capture (bu ke yan). They are metaphors for a kind of language that "closes in" on things, and they are also ways of converting, a locus where common, every-day language (shi), transcends into private language, unfettered by the usage that would condemn it to only close in on things. They manage to release a different body, the inner one, which becomes part of meaning and can aim to attain the ultimate essence:

A net catches fish, but once the fish are caught, one forgets about the net. A snare catches rabbits, but once the rabbits are caught, one forgets about the snare. The words catch ideas (or meanings), but once the meanings are caught, one forgets about the words. I wish I met the one who forgot words [the one who captured the meaning, who grasped the image of things] and talked to him (Wai Wu - External Things).

This quotation, that is considered to illustrate the necessity to "forget about words" (wang yan), provides clues about Zhuangzi's original answer to why language is: because of the meaning one has to express, yi. Capturing this meaning takes place in succession, in a series of ascending steps, just as is the case with authentic knowledge. It is a transcending from the yan, "speech," to the yi, "meaning," as parts of the process of "forgetting" - a process of giving up your own self and continuously leaving oneself behind.

One cannot fail to notice the importance attached by Zhuangzi to the meaning that has to be expressed, that meaning which becomes and builds itself through language, aiming, by its very openness, at what we might call insight. The insistence with which Zhuangzi concentrates on discourse - even if he concentrates on the very recurrent theme of its weakness - does not become negativism (silence is after all a sort of closing off, of forgetting). The need to "forget words" is followed closely by a need to communicate with a superior partner, one that can recharge language and transcend his own limits. Even the well-known Daoist adage: "He who knows does not speak, he who speaks does not know." can be reinterpreted in light of the first acceptation of yan, "speech, discourse," i.e. common, every-day language, and not in the second sense of yan, i.e. an emancipated, insightful language. The passage that proposes that one should "forget speech" or "words" can be read in favor of this superior discourse model, that urges one to transcend oneself and gives substance to its ontological alternative: its indeterminacy and evanescence.

3. Zhuangzi's skepticism is more noticeable in those passages where he seems unconvinced by the possibility that fixed norms can help one trace the similarities and differences necessary for naming. In this case he criticizes the Nominalist disputators who, by choosing from the alternatives, are supporters of incomplete, limited knowledge and forfeit the experience of "encompassing" the individual thing, of preserving its integrity and unity. Turning down a standard for the evaluation of the thing that is being named is the thesis supported by the Nominalist Hui Shi, Zhuangzi's friend. In agreement with Hui Shi, Zhuangzi remarks upon the spatial-temporal relativity of names. This circumstantial conditioning of naming is, in Zhuangzi's opinion, the foundation of a complex attitude towards language that lays emphasis on the individual side of language. Language, dependent on the speaking subject (wu), that is marked by context, by the respective speech situation (shi), does not ensure the constancy and the grasping of the whole (chang), but this shortcoming becomes an advantage - language displays this very subjectivity in its ambition of restoring to reality the dynamism and complexity of which it is deprived by denotative naming.

The subject needs only to free himself from the trap of adhering to only one point of view and to open himself to alternatives, to the multitude of perspectives. This symbolic gesture is performed by Zhuangzi at the level of writing, by adopting a reversible language, and at the level of the telescopic text in which one area casts light on another.

In order to better explain Zhuangzi's position towards language we should remember his most important premise. Zhuangzi's Daoism is characterized by the stress that he lays on the ontological interdependency of entities. This dynamics, stating that what exists exists (as you) and that what does not exist exists as well (as wu), is a refinement of the ontological pattern proposed by Laozi; in the Laozi, this pattern specified the fact that there is no breach between wu and you and that wu has a superior status in the pairs that are engaged in a symbolic exchange. As Zhuangzi restates that any thing is what it is of itself, he adds that any thing is what it is also because of its simultaneously existing side. This solidarity based on correspondence becomes the scaffolding of an integrating image: the thing is in a relationship of solidarity with itself as you, as concrete individuality that can be circumscribed, detached, fixed. Likewise, the thing is in a relationship of solidarity with itself as wu, belonging in an ever-reshaping whole. The knowing subject can become aware of his own identity and his relationship with the whole in two ways, according to the two levels of knowledge: as difference and isolation - by naming (ming) - and as unity - by another kind of yan, the restoring language, not the entropy-governed one: not the one that retains the meaning, but the one that enhances the meaning through indeterminacy, that does not pin it down.

Zhuangzi refuses to let himself be manipulated by language and thus is interested in its individual use. His fascination with the experience of things, the strongest among Chinese philosophers, leads him to make a critical analysis of the conceptual structure initiated by the Mohists and the Nominalists. He denounces the false claim that names are adequate by remarking that the assigning of a name means that the name is no longer in direct relation with the thing and that the thing is not the authentic thing but a construct fixed by convention. The adequacy of the name presupposes the observation of conventions, not of reality. Zhuangzi criticizes common convention, and commends the personal subjective basis of naming. Naming must be related to particular things, which cannot touch the general because they hint at the multiplicity of reality. Naming and discourse - as a repertoire of names - are subjective and relative because they take place from an individual point of view. It is not adequacy understood as "correctly" correlating the name with the respective object, but adequacy understood as correspondence (ying) by deviation (qi), whereby the name does not cut the thing off its network of relations and does not displace it, but leaves its reference open.

This type of adequacy - of "encompassing things" - is the exact opposite of Confucian correctness; it refers to an experience that does not endanger the ontological status of the thing and restates the experience of the naming subject that manipulates language. The order reinforced by this kind of language is not the hierarchical systematic order of Confucians, but is an order through correspondence, which leaves its univocal dimension suspended.

Saved from the univocal trap, this language explores its alternatives. The interdependency of things becomes linguistic practice and a reversible language. Fan, the Dao's movement, shows to language the right way in which experience and life can be reconstructed; hence, the uninterrupted shaping of language that is reversed, oscillates, and fluctuates - being the only one able to convey the meaning in continual semiosis.

4. Zhuangzi's view on language is in tight connection with the type of logic that he promotes. It is not the deductive, associative logic that is related to binary symmetry, but the intuitive logic, the logic of the heart. The wu and you planes, two levels of reality open to knowing, reciprocally presuppose each other. The wu level, the level of conception and intuition, is not a level of transcendence but of opening concrete reality towards the obliteration of one's limits. This explains the ontological dimension of the notion of reality, as well as the fact that nature participates to the being of the world. The lack of any breach, the total consonance, are assured by the isomorphism of the physical and cognitive-affective sides.

The logic related to such an interpretation is a logic of reversibility, not of dualism. The fen logic of dissociation and its technical discourse (shi/fei) is the logic of a subject that is alienated in the loneliness of one single point of view, deprived of the freedom of choice. To refute this logic, Zhuangzi uses the device of exaggeration: he applies this very logic and follows its aberrant meanders. We are faced with a dilatation of doubt that makes any choice sound relative.

Zhuangzi's proposal consists of an integrating logic: its consequences in naming are the following:

wu, the thing, is placed in a net of solidarity relations;
wu, the knowing subject (the namer), goes through a flux of change;
yi, the meaning to be expressed, is a field of connotation.

The subject has to be free, able to adopt as many points of view as possible, so that zhi, "reference," will not make direct univocal connection with the thing.

If reality is in constant change, no unique reference is possible, nor is there a universally valid judgment on it. The language expressing such reality must permanently recharge itself, it must always play a range of alternatives. The shi-fei logic of choice will lead to a discourse that is falsely adequate to the world. This is so because judging realities depends on perspective (guan), and this, in turn, depends on the knowing subject and his situation. One cannot speak about a certain name for a thing as being "it": there is nothing objective or constant (chang) to indicate (zhi) that name as being the name. It is the very correspondence between name and reality that gives rise to contradictions. Each name is the mark of a distinction and it echoes its opposite. Consequently language is a system of arbitrary oppositions that are inevitably subjective.

The ontological freedom of things is not respected when they are appraised in order to acquire a name. The Sage, however, does not judge a thing, he integrates it in his heart, xin, like in a mirror, by encompassing it through connections: tong yu da tong (Da zong shi - The Great Master). Changing one's point of view is similar to changing the way one looks at the object; what derives from this is not the fact that the object is caught in reality, but that zhi ("reference") is a sum of possibilities. We witness how language, as an oriented choice, manipulates the fragmentation of reality. The classifications and categories imposed by language are undermined in the Zhuangzi by their slipping into precariousness and by the breaking of any hierarchy.

Of all the philosophers interested in language, Zhuangzi is the one that makes obvious the relativism of conceptual structure: there are different ways of tracing "similarities and differences" when constructing reference by analyzing the properties of things. Similarities and differences cannot consequently provide a constant basis for naming and discourse. The claim that one can grasp the ultimate truth is false, the fluctuation of circumstances in which the subject performs evaluation does not ensure the validity of one evaluation only. Ultimately the dependency on perspective is a dependency on the life situation. It is only the subject - that can lose himself in his "subjecthood'" (sang wo), totally detaching himself from himself and in strict solidarity with the things - that will finally be able to find the truth of things and adopt the perspective of the Dao.

The mirror-like heart of the Sage, unequipped with the shi-fei prescriptions, is not a "trap," it manages to know by not knowing (wu zhi). On this superior level we find the ones that have the Dao without knowing it. Correlating the process of knowledge with the hierarchy of language users, one can speak of the following stages of wisdom:

- on the first level, there are those that only use words that belong to the common, every-day language and do not know that there is something that cannot be expressed; this is the level of language knowledge in its "coarse" hypostasis: keyi yanlun zhe, wu zhi cu ye (Qiu shui - Autumn floods).
- next come those that use private poetic language and know that there are things that cannot be expressed but only conceivable; this is the level of knowledge via miao yan: keyi yanzhi zhe, wu zhi jing ye (Qiu shui - Autumn floods).
- finally, those that do not express themselves by words but only by acting, those that are "on the River Hao", in the flux of experience. These are those who do not speak, do not transmit the art of the Dao in words, but by acting (like Wheelwright Bian): yan zhi suo bu neng lun, yi zhi suo bu neng cha zhi zhe, bu qi jing cu yan (Qiu shui - Autumn floods).

The third category is illustrated by Zhuangzi himself in the famous dialogue with his friend Hui Shi:

Zhuangzi and Hui Shi were wandering on the bridge over the River Hao. "Look at the small fish swimming freely in the river", said Zhuangzi. "It is obvious that the fish are happy." "But you are not a fish, so how can you tell that the fish are happy?" "And you are not me so how can you know that I don't know that the fish are happy?" "Assuredly, since I am not you, I cannot tell what you know. However, you must admit that you are not a fish so you cannot know whether they are happy." "Let's start again. When you asked me how I knew that the fish were happy, you asked me the question knowing that I knew the answer from up above the Hao" (Qiu Shui - Autumn Flows).

The passage from the first stage to the second is made by an operation of "decorporalization" of language, similar to zuo wang, the technique of forgetting as a way of tuning oneself to the way of existence of the Dao (leaving the body and knowing by means of difference). Wang yan, the technique of forgetting words so that one could fit in the discourse of the Dao, means leaving the body of language with its fragmentary structure and adopting its symbolic body.

What can be expressed through words is the coarse side of things,
What can be expressed through ideas is the essence of things,
What cannot be expressed through words and cannot be reached through ideas either
Has to do neither with the coarse side of things nor with their essence (Qiu Shui- Autumn Flows).

The ultimate art with language is when names and discourse create a world of experience. Zhuangzi reaches this superior stage by saturating the body of language, by excessive accumulation of alternatives.

5. The special coherence of Zhuangzi's works, which can in fact be called the coherence of reversibility, can be reinterpreted from the perspective of the "point of view" (guan). There have been noticed a series of "contradictions" in Zhuangzi's book at the level of content. We can safely say that Zhuangzi constructs his ideas in the same way he does with language, that is he avoids closing and limitation, he adopts the strategy of open dynamics. In fact he does not "contradict" himself, he flexibly adopts another point of view.

Here is the example of the contradiction existing between Heaven and man: in the same chapter (Da zong shi - The Great Master), Zhuangzi first states that the two are one and the same, they are not opposites, they are not in the "five forces" (wu xing) kind of relationship: tian yu ren bu xiang sheng ye, "Heaven and man do not defeat each other." Then follows the statement that they are measured by different criteria: tian zhi xiaoren, ren zhi junzi; ren zhi junzi, tian zhi xiaoren, "The ordinary man in Heaven is the noble one on Earth, while the noble man on Earth is the ordinary one in Heaven."

We should notice that there is only one point of view present in the first statement, having only one point of reference, whereas the second statement contains two points of view with one point of reference. This is due to the fact that man is in solidarity with Heaven, but they are different from the point of view of establishing a criterion of evaluation: Heaven's viewpoint does not coincide with man's.

There are also two alternatives for the answer to the question regarding the knowing of the Dao, just as the reality of the Dao exhibits two levels of knowledge: the Dao can be known as wei, "manifest," and therefore it can be transmitted and received by "the fasting of the heart-mind" (xin zhai) the Dao cannot be known as wu wei, "not manifest," which, according to the rule of correspondence, requires an abolition of the act of knowledge. One can know the Dao by the reversibility of positive knowledge and resorbtion in the indistinct. But is this knowledge acquired from the same point of view?

The reversibility of language is naturally a reversibility of meanings. If the logic of reversibility is applied both to the form and to the content, these are then placed in a relationship of reciprocity, they become meaning-form, a "total sign," as Zhuangzi would have it. He allows the existence of an open side for the "implicative." Its nurturing avoids homogeneity, gives free rein to "the free excursion." It is not a system of ideas that is being built in the book, but an "organism" that prompts the reader to plunge in his own coherence and thus manages to reinstate the reader's relationship of experience with things. Reading Zhuangzi's book takes us "on the River Hao," experiencing the "happiness of the fish."


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