IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING! A philosophy on life at 4 in the morning. PARADOX RIGHT? WINK WINK
Reported in various works including Eugene C. Gerhart, Quote It Completely! Knopf, , p. However, the authorship of the quote does not lie with any work original to Mencken, and was previously reported as an anonymous quote. When the water reaches the upper deck, follow the rats. Mencken quotes this in Newspaper Days, — as a maxim he learned from Al Goodman. June 8, The Baltimore Sun : p. Wikipedia has an article about: H. Wikisource has original works written by or about: H. Wikimedia Commons has media related to: H.
Wang Guowei21 points out that, according to Lu Deming, the Pu River, in which Zhuangzi was said to have fished, was in the territory of Chen. Thus, in looking for a context within which to place Zhuangzi, we would do well to invest some time and interest in the culture of Chu. I do not mean to suggest that geography determines ideology.
Neither do I believe that local culture determines ones beliefs. Such circumstances of placement can often help to unravel mysteries of the motivation of a philosophy. We now know something about the food, the clothing, the housing, the social arrangements, and about the arts and aesthetic sensibility of Chu.
Some of this knowledge of the culture of Chu provides an invaluable framework within which to place the text. Chu Guo Zhexue Shi. This difference, as he traces it, eventually becomes manifest in the two great schools of the Chinese tradition—Daoism and Confucianism. A mere glance at the artifacts of Chu from the Warring States period, reveals remarkable differ- ences in mood between the culture of the central plains and that of the south. When the most representative works of the central plains are juxtaposed with the most distinctive pieces from Chu, the aesthetic differences become quite pronounced.
The feel of the artworks of the central plains tends to be solid, grounded, imposing, awe inspiring: as is befitting their ceremonial function. The pieces of the Zhou hark back to the art and tradition of the Shang, and gain their authority and power through this association. These patterns balance the solidity of the forms with a moving energy. But when these works are placed side by side with characteristic works from Chu, they take on a comparative sense of restraint. The ceremonial pieces of the south are exuberant and extravagant. They have a relative lightness, elegance, and refinement.
Pulses of energy writhe and whirl even through the merely geometrical, and the intricate angular taotie motifs of the north become softened and flowing, like tongues of flame, wisps of smoke, swirls of water. A vivid naturalism pervades the representation of all kinds of birds and beasts: deer resting, fawns playing, birds strutting.
Scenes of fishing and hunting, or of villagers gathering fruit and crops or playing in the open air, abound as decorations on pottery, while fantastic beings, dragons and phoenixes, and the shamans who controlled them adorn silk fabrics that themselves come in a vast array of qualities, thicknesses, weaves, and styles.
There are some who are not entirely convinced that there is such a thing as the culture of Chu. Firstly, it appears to create an artificial boundary between areas that were really quite fluid in terms of their geopolitical identity. In doing so, it seems to overlook the extent to which Chinese culture has a continuity and coherence throughout the different states and through history.
And lastly, and most critically, it does not adequately account for the difference in time period between the artifacts typical of Zhou, and those from Chu. While this is possible, this explanation does not give a convincing account of why such artifacts are found only in the southern territories, and not in the central plains. It also does not adequately account for the distinctiveness of style. By associating the new styles of artifacts with other elements of Chu culture—food, clothing, religion, philosophy—an extraordinarily coherent and persuasive picture of a distinctive southern culture emerges.
If there really were no such thing as Chu culture as evidenced by these artifacts, one is at a loss to explain how this illusion arises. Thus, while the temporal difference is important, this should not be allowed to overshadow the significance of geographical location. It is true that the evidence is not decisive, but it is not as ambivalent as it might at first seem.
Moreover, the claim that there is a distinctive culture associated with Chu is not at all equivalent to the claim that the culture of Chu is distinct from those of surrounding regions.
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As we shall see in our investigation of vagueness and of boundaries, that there were no sharp boundaries between Chu and the central plains does not entail that there could be no distinctive differences. Nevertheless, while agriculture, nature and the seasons may have exerted some influence on the thinking of the central plains, in particular the philosophy of the Yijing, they seem to have been of the most fundamental significance for the thinking of the south. Index 37 environment provided the key to understanding the world and how to live in it. This orientation toward the processes of nature is exemplified in the philosophy of Laozi, the first philosophical text that can be identified with the culture of Chu.
Yin and yang are metaphors derived from images relating the movement of the sun to the faces of a mountain, the bright side, and the shady side. In some places and at some times the earth and air are baked in the sun, yang; in others, they are drenched in the shade, yin; and always there is some gentle transition toward one direction or the other. The characteristics associated with these provide powerful metaphors for the interpretation of all processes and of all things.
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The shady side of a mountain tends to be wet, green and fertile, cool, dark, and cloudy, soft, and yielding; the sunny side tends to be hot and bright, clear, and dry, hard, dusty, and firm. By association and extension, other things, qualities and pairs of qualities become associated with these two—thus weak and strong, receding and progressing, rest and movement become interpreted in terms of yin and yang.
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The Great Commentary to the Zhou Yi, or Book of Changes, was a repository of insight that rivaled, if it was not influenced by, that of the Daoists. At the same time, I must register my disagreement with his sociological explanation of yin and yang in terms of male and female roles in an agricultural society.
It seems that the more natural and plausible direction of explanation is that masculine and feminine qualities are interpreted in terms of the associated qualities of yin and yang, than that the two sides of a mountain are interpreted as male and female. Yin and yang ought not to be understood simply as properties of things, since in doing so we lose their primary sense as phases in the cyclical development of things.
In this way the highly temporalized world view of the early Daoists presents an interesting and instructive counterbalance to the predominantly substantialist ontologies that have been characteristic of much of traditional western metaphysics. This in itself however should not be allowed to obscure the fact that they are very different in kind from concepts of substance. Index 39 build things up, that of the grindstone is to wear things down. Thus he interprets this concern with nature, that is characteristic of Daoist thinking, to be indicative of a type of individualism.
Tu contrasts this with the collectivism of philosophies associated with the central plains. Zhuangzi continually warns us about the dangers of parochialism, of imposing our own particular ways of doing things on others. On the contrary, I shall argue, in chapter five, that it is the Mohists who come closest to espousing such an individualist metaphysics. The Mohists are, among other things, a military group, and this lends an unmistakable colouring to their 27 Tu Youguang, Chu Guo Zhexue Shi. They see a social group as a collection of individuals, each postured defensively against potential encroachment and subjugation from the Others.
It is thus that which is produced through human artifice. As the Confucian philosopher Xunzi will come to use it, it becomes a positive term referring to the achievements of human culture. Thus, if we emphasize this latent sense, wuwei becomes action that does not impose artificial constraints, but that senses and follows the tendencies of things, events and processes. It works with the natural changes of things as closely as possible, minimizing the effort necessary to bring about certain states of affairs. Thus, ziran suggests the multiplicity of tendencies and spontaneities to which we must be sensitive if we are to function skillfully in our worldly interactions.
Zhuangzi or the Zhuangzi? When working with a text that is named after its author the question inevitably arises as to whether one is explicating the author or the text. In the case of the Zhuangzi, the extant text is all that we have available to us of the author himself. We have no independent access to the author except through the extant text, and so we cannot treat the question as entirely clear cut.
When interpreting the text as extant text we are concerned with exploring its possibilities without regard to how the writer would have responded if confronted with our interpretation. Note that this case is not as straightforward as it may seem, since the writer is confronted with the same hermeneutic problem- atic as we when confronted with our textual representation of our interpretation! There is also the epistemological problem of what could justify our claim to know that the author would agree with our interpretation.
I remain sceptical that there can be such a thing as the interpretation with which the author would uniquely agree if confronted with it, but still accept that such an idea may function as a regulative ideal for one possible, and very valuable, type of interpretative methodology.
When we no longer have access to the living writer or to the living context of the writer, discovering the claims of the author becomes practically impossible—and entirely impractical even as a 28 Note that this is not a scepticism or relativism about meaning, but a holism, and a holism that incorporates open texture in such a manner that the whole always remains open, always grows, develops organically.
According to this understanding, since meaning is always open, there can be no final meaning—but that there can be no final meaning does not entail that there is no meaning at all. Nor does the indeterminacy of meaning entail a radical relativism. Indeed a thoroughgoing relativism of meaning is incompatible with the indeterminacy thesis! If one sees the indeterminacy as lack of final decision between alternative perspectives, then insofar as each perspective maintains a determinate resolution there will be no perspective that preserves indeterminacy.
If the indeterminacy is to be preserved then it cannot be resolved by deciding on a perspective. We are left with some form of interpreting the text within the constraints of its context, or rather, what we understand of its context. This is our situation with respect to the Zhuangzi. Thus, I shall not even consider the problem of discovering what Zhuangzi really meant. Nor, on the other hand, am I interested in simply imposing a modern interpretation on the text without respect for its own context.
Instead, I shall devote my energies to developing an interpretation of the text, the Zhuangzi, that is as responsive as I can make it to its textual, historical, and cultural background. I would hope that if Zhuangzi himself were somehow per impossibile to come across this interpretation he would find it rich, intriguing, and not entirely implausible. The Chinese approach to authorship has been very different from that of the modern west. The writer to whom a Chinese text is attributed is not necessarily a single individual who is the creator and owner of the ideas.
Guan Feng,29 Takeuchi Yoshio,30 Ye Guoqing, Zhang Hengzhou and Luo Genze,31 have all concerned themselves with the problem of classifying the chapters of the Zhuangzi according to the schools that produced them. Liu Xiaogan and A. Graham32 have, independently of one another, also taken up the same investigation.
Despite frequent differences of opinion there is, surprisingly, a great deal of agreement with regard to the classification of major portions of the text. It is generally agreed for example that the historical Zhuangzi was in all probability the author of the first seven chapters, which have come to be known as the Inner Chapters, while the rest, divided into the Outer and 29 Guan Feng, Zhuangzi Neipian Yijie he Pipan. Liu also provides a useful summary of the work of Guan Feng and Takeuchi Yoshio. Index 43 Miscellaneous Chapters , is taken to have been written by followers, and others, from the time of his death to at least the founding of the Qin empire.
The second group consists of chapters eight to ten and the first part of chapter 11, and chapters 28 to Liu considers these to be the work of a single school of Anarchists, followers of a philosophy more closely related to that of Laozi. Their thought and style is highly distinctive and immediately recognizable. Graham considers these chapters to belong to two slightly different schools: chapters eight to 11a come from the hand of an individual he calls the Primitivist, while chapters 28 to 31 he believes to be records of the followers of Yang Zhu.
Now, a difficulty with this last attribution is that chapters 28 to 31 do not make any reference to Yang Zhu at all. Graham is very well aware of this difficulty, but he claims that there is a very good reason for this. Liu is critical of Graham, taking him to be a mere follower of Guan, whom he criticizes as merely regurgitating the Communist party line. But whether Guan was following the party line or not, his research can be evaluated independently of his politics. Indeed Graham does not appear to be simply following Guan, as Liu suggests, but quoting him with approval.
The school of that time had not yet come to be associated with the name of Yang Zhu, and so for strategic reasons may well have preferred to distance themselves from his name, if not from his teachings. However, when one considers the doctrines and style of these two sub-groups, the similarities between them seem to outweigh the differences, and it seems to me that at most they ought to count as two branches of the same school.
Graham points out that chapters eight to 11a contain criticisms of Yang Zhu. But the explanation that Graham uses to explain the lack of reference to Yang Zhu in chapters 28 to 31 surely serves just as well to explain the criticism of Yang Zhu in the other chapters. We can avoid this difficulty altogether by refraining from making the attribution in the first place: then no problem arises about the lack of reference, or negative reference, to Yang Zhu in these chapters.
As for the remaining chapters, from the second part of chapter 11 to chapter 16, and chapter 33, these are ascribed by Liu to the Huang-Lao school. The beginnings of the Huang-Lao school date from the end of the pre-Qin period to the western Han. It is a very eclectic school, drawing from popular religion, and the philoso- phies of Legalism, Laozi, yinyang cosmology, and a motley array of others.
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For this reason, Graham refers to the school as the Syncretists. But the school is so eclectic that it is no more closely connected to the thought of Zhuangzi than to any of the other philosophies from which it draws. If so many of the Outer and Miscellaneous Chapters did not arise from the hand of Zhuangzi himself, must we then dismiss them? Not at all. Some chapters develop and expand on ideas that were raised in the Inner Chapters and thus provide an interpretive context for the Inner Chapters. These would include the Anarchist chapters and those of the School of Zhuangzi.
What lies too far beyond the horizon of the Inner Chapters, what takes us to a place from which it is rendered foreign, will have no claim to enter into our interpretation. What exactly does it mean for us to read and under- stand an ancient text from an ancient culture? And not just an ancient culture, but also a distant one, one whose history is far removed from the development of our own. We in the postmodern west look back from the vantage point of the twentyfirst century, shaped by the histories of our ideas, by the history of western religions, science, theology, and by the slow and steady develop- ment of philosophical concepts and methods.
When we turn to ancient China, we do not simply look back over time, we also gaze across toward a different stream of historical development, expressing itself in and through distant languages and less familiar modes of discourse. The problem was not taken for granted as an obvious concern, but was explicitly articulated and argued for by Descartes at great length.
Can we simply impose such historically conditioned presuppositions on texts written with a different historical, cultural, and textual context? When we make such attributions, what do we succeed in understanding, and what remains hidden, or covered over? How do these impositions promote our understanding? And, equally importantly, to what extent do they hinder our understanding?
Can we simply ignore their historical evolution and development, and claim that they exist in the same form in all peoples everywhere? What is gained, and what is lost, by denying the historicity and cultural specificity of these ideas? When we impute a belief with a modern western content and vocabulary to an ancient Chinese thinker such as Zhuangzi, we have to wonder how he himself could have framed such a belief. What early Chinese history of philosophical ideas would provide him with an equivalent philosophical vocabulary?
These concerns lead me to wonder whether such direct attributions of modern beliefs are appropriate at all, and this in turn leads to some deeper, more fundamental questions of methodology. What exactly is it that we are trying to do as interpreters of this text? Are we trying to reach the hidden thoughts of the author? Are we trying to reconstruct what he really must have been trying to say? And if so, is it really possible to abandon the linguistic and cultural context in which it was embedded, and restate those very same thoughts in a modern context and vocabulary?
Or, does interpretation then just become a free for all?
And if we mean an English translation, then which translation? And again, why not German, French or modern Mandarin? Quine, Word and Object. Furthermore, once we have let go of the idea that there must be a well-defined meaning underlying and expressed by the text, it becomes easier to let go of the presupposition that there can be only one correct understanding. This is especially true of a text that is as explicitly open and polysemic as the Zhuangzi.
Either there is no meaning at all, or the text can be read to say anything you want it to say. It is only with a dualistic, dichotomous, all or nothing attitude that these appear to be the only alternatives. But if we reject this dichotomous mode of thinking, then we are able to see that in the vast space between these extremes there are indeed many more moderate and sensitive ways to proceed. There are pluralist, pragmatist, and indeterminist attitudes of several varieties, all attempting to construct a middle ground, humble but livable dwelling places for the seeker of under- standing.
Unfortunately, from the perspective of a dichotomous thinker, such pluralist and indeterminist attitudes are often mistaken for either a scepticism or a radical relativism about meaning—though it is a curious fact that this misunderstanding occurs less when the ideas are presented in analytical overalls than when decked out in Derridean haute-couture. Derrida is regularly accused, despite incessant denials and arguments to the contrary, of being a sceptic, relativist, nihilist, and even charlatan, while Quine, one of his accusers, maintains his own rejection of meanings and essences with relative impunity.
But the claim that there is no single exact translation of any text is not tantamount to the sceptical claim that there is no correct understanding, nor is it equivalent to the relativistic claim that there are no incorrect understandings. The possibilities that are open at any point in time have greater or lesser plausibility, many may have equal plausibility, and many more have none whatsoever. That there are better and worse readings of the text is something that even the radical relativist acts in accord with in practice if not in theory.
But, conversely, that what makes an interpretation better or worse is how close it gets to some fixed and determinate original meaning is a claim that is highly contentious and highly dubitable, if indeed it makes any sense at all. This raises the question: what are the criteria by which we may judge one interpretation to be better or worse than another? These criteria arise from our situatedness. We are already situated within contexts of interpretation; we already interpret, and evaluate interpretations, according to these kinds of criteria.
Such criteria are for the most part not explicit, nor are they necessarily clear or well-defined, and they may be clarified and formalized in different ways that are not necessarily internally consistent, nor mutually compatible. But, no matter how we choose to explicitly articulate and formalize our intuitions, it must be admitted in the final analysis, that the plausibility of an interpretation is ultimately a matter of recognition. We learn the standards by being thrown into the game and playing as others do.
The procedures have no absolute foundations, but if we do not fall in with the practice we cannot succeed in communicating. Thus, even the most radical sceptic must still communicate as others do, if they are to succeed in expressing their disapproval of the established procedures.
And the most radical relativist will not be understood by others if they do not at first express themselves by adopting the prevalent mode of discourse, however arbitrary it may seem. Now in actual practice, recognition of the plausibility of an interpretation is primarily immediate and intuitive, with justifica- tions in terms of coherence, historical sensitivity and so on constructed, if at all, after the fact. But this does not mean that the intuition is arbitrary. Again, I need to reiterate, success and failure are not incompatible with indeter- minacy and pluralism: there may be more than one way to be successful, and a successful interpretation need not itself be well defined.
This becomes more evident the more we are engaged in interpreting the human, the social, the ethical, political, emotional, psychological—in short, the more we engage in the activity of interpreting the interpreting activity of the interpreters themselves! Note that though the judgment is intuitive this does not entail that it is merely subjective.
The judgment of an expert has been schooled by, and takes place within, a community of experts, though there is no guarantee of univocity of opinion even within the most cohesive of communities. Different schools may endorse different judgments, and differences of opinion may arise even within one and the same school. All the same, the differences are not trivial or arbitrary: differences of opinion may coexist and be equally worthy of respect, though the respect accorded any school should be a function of the extent to which its experts live up to the criteria of expertise.
At the most ideal, and perhaps unattainable level, a good interpreter of a philosophical text will have a complete array of historical, textual, linguistic data at their disposal, as well as a familiarity with a vast variety of philosophical concepts and systems, and extensive experience in interpreting different kinds of texts, under the guidance of those acknowledged to be experts in the art of reading.
This situates interpretation and its evaluation within a cultural tradition, but it does not necessarily confine it thereby, since there is always the possibility of opening oneself up to training in other traditions. Such evaluative terms reduce the temptation to think of interpretation exclusively, since they are themselves open terms that can be applied in many ways. Perhaps, then we can strive to create rich, rewarding, intriguing interpretations that are sensitive to history, culture, language, context, and we can judge readings accordingly.
Of course, it must be remembered that all interpretations and judgments thereof are always provisional, never final, but always awaiting further refinement or revision. Clearly then, although I adopt an academic stance and engage in an academic interpretation, I certainly do not mean to suggest that there is only one way of reading a text well, that we may read a text well only according to a fixed set of academic criteria.
On the contrary, there are many purposes that a reading of a text may serve.
WINDS OF DOCTRINE
One may read an ancient Chinese text for personal inspiration, or for linguistic analysis; one may read it as a religious text, as a philosophical text, as an historical text: one may read it as an existential phenomenologist, as a structuralist anthro- pologist, or as a postmodern poet: and this does not begin to exhaust the possibilities. Paradoxically, even the most deliberate misreading of a text may have some value. It is a common strategy among those trained analytically to read an ancient text whether Chinese, Indian, or Greek as though it were engaged in a dialogue with a twentieth century analytical philosopher of language or mind, while ignoring all elements of the text that do not fit this mould.
Of course, language, culture, and history are not simply given, but are themselves part of what is to be interpreted. We read them from the text, and we read the text in their light: the interpretation of each, text and context, shapes and redefines the interpretation of the other in an endless pas de deux. Now, I claim that vagueness plays a central role in Daoist philosophy, and that a rich and fruitful reading of the Laozi and the 37 The analytical approach to Plato, for example, explores him as a thinker engaged in the dialectical process of refining definitions, while ignoring the mystico-religious context without which the purpose of this dialectical process cannot be understood.
Besides, the literary and poetic complexity of these Daoist texts makes such reductionistic readings highly implausible. But this is merely a matter of stylistic convenience, and should not be taken to contravene my most basic hermeneutic stance. What then is my claim? Vagueness, and its significance for a world understood as process, is indeed a significant and productive hermeneutic possibility for these texts, perhaps even central—provided a text can have more than one center.
Even if I succeeded in identifying such an explicitly stated doctrine, I would still need to work hard at understanding its significance within its own literary, cultural, historical, and philosophical contexts. The textual fabric sustains a variety of patterns: a form taken up in one part affects the form taken in another, and there is never complete closure as to what those forms might be.
However, that the text is flexible does not mean that it cannot be overstretched. For this very reason we should be alert to the tendencies of the text, sensitive to when it is being overworked, and when it is beginning to rip or fall apart. That the wildest images may be superimposed on the palimpsest of the Zhuangzi is undeniable, but this is all the more reason for us to be alert to the ever present danger of obscuring what we had wished to bring to light.
This is especially true when dealing with a rich, poetic text that is a multivalent fusion of half-expressed suggestions. But, it is possible for the obscuration to go too far. When the texture of the interpretation begins to determine its own development regardless of the extent to which this tugs and pulls against the warp and weft of the text, this is when our interpreta- tion has begun to shroud the texture of the fabric that we are attempting to make sense of. The problem of how to interpret the Zhuangzi turns out all too often to be indistinguishable from the problem of how to translate the text.
Complicating things still further, questions about how to translate the text also turn out to depend intimately on how to interpret it. This problem is especially acute when it comes to the interpretation of the more obscure passages. The strength or plausibility of an interpretation of a particularly difficult passage will depend on the plausibility of the translation of that passage.
Thus, one cannot justify an interpretation solely by relying on a favourite translation. This adds a peculiar twist to the problem of the hermeneutic circle, but there is no reason for it to lead us into a vicious circle. It does, however, have two important consequences: the first is that our interpretation must always seek to be responsible to the original text; the second is that while our translation must remain sensitive to matters of philosophical interpretation, it cannot presuppose some fixed interpretation.
Of course, there will be some passages where this is unavoidable. This is especially the case where the text becomes particularly obscure. For this reason, one ought to avoid presenting such passages as evidence in favor of that interpretation. Certainly, I am not saying that such passages have no persuasiveness whatsoever. If, for example, the passage is not easily translatable in light of a particular interpretation, that would count as evidence against that interpretation.
But, if one is trying to present persuasive evidence to an uncommitted reader, it is advisable to steer as clear of such controversial passages as possible. We may start reading a text with some preconceptions about its content or purpose. One may deliberately choose specific and explicit presuppositions: we may choose, for example, to follow a traditional reading, or to follow a new one.
Or we may plunge in blind, constructing hypotheses as we go. At some point, we will have the beginnings of a working interpretation. The question then arises: How do we proceed from here? How do we know when to maintain, modify, develop, or change our reading? Again, there are indeed criteria by which to judge whether it is appropriate to maintain or change an interpretation: coherence with the rest of the text, coherence with historical and social circumstances, for example—though these criteria are not necessarily explicit or quantitative.
And again, even in those rare cases where the criteria are explicit, the final arbiter must be the honest intuitive judgment of one who has familiarity with the available evidence, and a wealth of experience making such judgments—the judgment of an expert. All this makes the problem of how to remain responsible to the text a pressing one. Some minimal guidance might be provided by keeping in mind an heuristic distinction between what I shall call reading out from a text, and reading into a text, between being open to the alterity of the text and sensitive to what it is struggling to offer, and forcing upon it what we ourselves find familiar and reassuring.
There is of course no hard and fast distinction, nor any hard and fast definition; the two horns of the dilemma are indeed themselves so gnarled and intertwined as to be in places indistin- guishable. Nevertheless, by constantly keeping in mind this kind of distinction, one can at least aim as an ideal toward openness and sensitivity, while being alert to where one might be reading too much into the text. In some cases, of course, it will be all but impossible to avoid reading in some apparently extraneous sense, especially where the context of significance of the passage has been lost.
Moreover, in order to understand anything at all of a text one must start from some horizon of interpretation. Further experience will either be in accordance with the interpretation or will require that the interpretation be modified. Every sense bestowal itself takes place in the context of an horizon of understanding—what one might construe crudely as a set of background presuppositions. At all events, we need to be acutely aware of how we read, of the extent to which we impose extraneous presupposi- tions, and we must above all be willing to acknowledge that these extraneous presuppositions may well turn out to be inappropriate.
When reading the Zhuangzi this has the dizzying effect of a hermeneutic roller-coaster ride: but if responsibility to the text is any part of our aim, we must be ready for a bewildered understanding. I identify below several approaches to interpreting a text: phenomenological, analytical, semeiotic, hermeneutic, struc- turalist and poststructuralist, all of which play a greater or lesser role in my reading of the Zhuangzi. Phenomenological 40 There are as many phenomenological methods are there are phenomenologists.
For my purposes, I am thinking primarily of the phenomenological methods of Husserl, Heidegger, and of phenomenological anthropologists. I consider Gadamer below as a hermeneuticist and Derrida as a poststructuralist. The purpose of the phenomenological method for Husserl and Heidegger is, at least in part, the uncovering of fundamental presuppositions. It is essentially a technique of first person reflection on the functioning of our understanding in such a manner as to reveal the limits and parameters, the necessities and possibilities, of that understanding.
A phenomenological description is one that uncovers the deepest significances of the various aspects of our experience, regardless of whether these significances have any objective validity. Indeed, the purpose of phenomenology, as Husserl conceived it, is to investigate these structures as the conditions of the very possibility of objectivity. The phenomenological anthropologist aims to describe the people of another culture as they describe themselves, and hopes to enable us to understand them as they understand themselves.
Ideally, the phenomenological anthropologist would attempt to internalize the language, to become a part of the community, rather than to pretend to be an external, impartial, pure observer. With an ancient culture then we reach an impasse, for there is no way we can immerse ourselves in the culture as a living environment.
All that remains are written documents and artifacts that survive only as signs and shadows of their former signifi- cances. We have to do our best to read from and impose on! With an archaic lifeworld we have access only to the actual variations and possibilities that remain as inscribed traces of that culture.
And of the language all that we have access to is the actual associations of words, ideas, images and contexts as preserved in the ancient documents. However, we can still aim to immerse ourselves in these texts, and in the project of deciphering their traces. That is to say, an appreciation of some of the most basic modes of understanding of that ancient culture can arise from a thorough familiarity with the actual associations that are preserved in the texts, which in turn gives one the beginnings of a sensitivity to the kinds of things that are possible and not possible in that lifeworld.
Analytical Analytical philosophy is a useful, rigorous and extremely powerful tool, characterized by the clarification of concepts, removal of vagueness, ambiguity and metaphor, and the following through of claims to their logically demonstrable consequences. See Gilbert Ryle, Collected Papers. The techniques of analytical philosophy are refinements of some of our natural thought processes: conceptual clarification and logical argumenta- tion, presupposing objective truth, and deductive validity.
Such techniques are perfect for engaging with and evaluating a text that has the same aims. Philosophical analysis is such a potent and mesmerizing tool that it can on occasion blind us to the fact that it may not always be the most appropriate tool for the job. It is inappropriate for example to treat a text that gives a rhetorical presentation of its world view as though it were arguing for the logical necessity of its claims. It is again inappropriate to argue literally against a text that makes its claims metaphorically that is, to take the metaphors literally.
It is inappropriate to diminish the significance of metaphor in a philosophical text that primarily expresses itself metaphorically, as though a metaphor is simply a rhetorical stand-in for a more literal expression. It is perhaps most importantly inappropriate to treat a text from a distinctively different philosophical context as though it had the same concerns, values and presuppositions as a twentieth century article written in an analytic mode. Husserlian varieties of the latter allow the possibility of a plurality of phenomenologies, and thus of phenomenological analyses as they would be carried out by a different culture.
Index 59 Semeiotic42 Charles Peirce was in all probability the first thinker to investigate the formal structure of interpretation, and to notice the ubiquity of this mode of understanding. Moreover, it is also possible there is more than one best fit. Abductive arguments proceed by guesswork, and hypothesizing. Successful abduction requires accumulated knowledge, extensive experience and a lively imagination. We then use our imagina- tions, informed and constrained by our extensive experience, and accumulated knowledge to construct an explanation, an interpreta- tion.
This is the mode of thinking performed by detectives in solving mysteries, doctors in making medical diagnoses, and scientists in constructing hypothetical explanations. It is also the manner in which we live as communicative beings: we listen to the words of others, we read the texts of others, but we also read the gestures, behaviors, facial expressions, and silences of others—and of ourselves—as well as the signs of the environment around us, and of our own bodies.
For a more technical discussion, see K. Fann, Peirce's Theory of Abduction. If one assimilates interpretation too closely to scientific explanation, this might give the impression that one is identifying some thing that left behind traces of its presence, the cause of those traces. The meaning of the text is an objective entity that one must discover, by inferring it from the evidence. Again, my own philosophical sympathies lie with Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Quine, and Derrida: meanings are not mysterious but objective entities the existence of which is to be inferred.
Rather, the kind of interpretation that is involved in textual abduction is one that is stripped of any presuppositions of unity and determinacy: that there can be, and must be, only one correct well-defined answer. Indeed, it is the unending processes of understanding—noesis, hermeneusis, semeiosis—that are phenom- enologically the most basic. At the same time, I also wish to avoid the opposite tendency, that of a radically relativistic view of meaning, according to which no interpretation can be taken to have any advantage over any other interpretation, so that all interpreta- tions must be considered equally applicable.
Between these two extremes lies a more pragmatic and pluralist notion that allows for a ranking of interpretations as more or less plausible, more or less supported by the evidence, and that allows several interpretations to have equal plausibility. It also allows several mutually incompatible interpretations to have equal plausibility without requiring us to choose between them.
Note that this notion also allows that some interpretations may reliably be ruled out as implausible. Such criteria are not necessarily explicit, nor need they be expressible as a set of rules: they may rather be intuitive and paradigmatic, proceeding by phronesis. Index 61 found the correct explanation, but rather the extent to which this sense among others is sustained by the text from within its context. Meaning, on such an anti-essentialist view, is a matter of degree, and thus is itself a penumbral phenomenon: meanings do not have precisely defined identity conditions—they are indetermi- nate.
Indeed, several distinct meanings, even incompatible meanings, may be coinstantiated to varying degrees. Rather than simply being present or absent, significances are sustained or sustainable by the linguistic, historical, textual and contextual evidences. Thus in interpreting, one notices the extent to which patterns of evidences and interpretations may be overlaid, the extent to which they coincide. But since one can never have a complete and decisive set of evidence—the very idea of a complete set of evidence for an interpretation, one that establishes it with finality, is incoherent—there can never be a complete overlapping of patterns.
And one ought never to claim with confidence that there is only one best fit. Indeed, there may be several mutually contra- dictory best fits. This, however, still does not rule out the possibility of a plurality of distinct, and even mutually incompati- ble, readings. In chapter four, I engage in an explicit abduction of the abduction is as follows. A trace in the ordinary way of speaking is a sign, an by. The more of stronger will be the abduction. Hermeneutic 44 The particular virtue of the hermeneutic approach, especially as advocated by traditional practitioners such as Schleiermacher, is its recognition of the role that the historical and cultural conditions of the production of the text plays in its meaning.
According to Schleiermacher, the goal of interpretation is to understand, through a methodically guided process leading to a moment of empathetic insight, the original meaning of the text as the author would have understood it. Indeed, since one is bringing to consciousness the historical conditions of which the author was but dimly aware, for being immersed within them as unspoken presuppositions, and also making explicit their implicit connections and implications, one can be said to understand the text better than its own author. Nevertheless, I concede that one may, if one wishes, adopt this presupposition as a methodological research strategy.
If one does attempt this, then in order to discover that original meaning, one must understand not only the writer and their topic, but also their situation, life, background, their hopes and fears, their religious beliefs, their cultural presuppositions, their relation to other cultures and societies of the time, and so on.
Of course, not all of this information is relevant to interpreting every passage, but as much as possible of this information must be gained if we are to understand the context within which every passage has its place. Index 63 does not share the full-blooded realist metaphysics of the tradi- tional hermeneutic. For Heidegger, under- standing is not just something we bring to particular acts of communication, but is a structure of the being of Dasein.
Such fore-structures might be thought of as prejudices that prevent objective understanding, but Gadamer, following Heidegger, insists that these fore-structures, derived from tradition, are essential to any mode of understanding. What appears to be merely historically situated prejudice turns out to be a necessary condition for the possibility of any interpretation whatsoever. These fore-structures define the horizon of our under- standing. It rejects the notion of an originally intended meaning that exists independently of the interpreter, and rejects a simplistic attitude toward universality of human culture, and demands that we always remain sensitive to the otherness of the culture being interpreted.
It is through shared fore-structures that we are able to communicate with one another, and it is through clashes of fore- structures that we are able to expand and merge our horizons. Since horizons are always in the process of development, they are themselves also historically conditioned and conditioning.
This is what makes possible a fusion of horizons. But this leads to a problem for the comparative philosopher. We cannot assume a continuous development of horizons of understanding. Our horizons and those of the text we are trying to understand do not necessarily share genealogies. When a European philosopher attempts to understand ancient Greece, or when a modern Chinese philosopher strives to understand pre-Qin thinkers, it is an ancestral culture that they are trying to understand.
It is the genealogy of the familiar in the unfamiliar, the fusion of the ancestral and the modern that makes possible a productive communication over time. But when the two philosophers exchange tasks, a radical change takes place. With the comparative project, there is no comparable fusion of past and present horizons through a single historical tradition, and for this reason the alterity of the culture and philosophy to be understood looms larger still. But much of what Gadamer says about approaching an ancestral text still applies to the project of the comparativist: It is the tyranny of hidden prejudices that makes us deaf to what speaks to us in tradition When the text proves recalcitrant, we must be ready to bring forward and modify those fore-structures, find some from the margins and peripheries of our own culture that ease the process of understanding, and allow the text its own breathing space.
Thus, rather than Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Kant, Hume and Russell, rather than looking for truth claims and valid arguments, they suggest that we turn to philosophers who were explicitly critical of the presuppositions of that tradition: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Whitehead. Perhaps, we could be more adventurous still, and wander deeper into the margins of the western philosophical 45 Gadamer, Truth and Method.
Index 65 tradition, searching for resonances in the ideas and thinking styles of Thoreau, Eckhardt, Paracelsus, or pseudo-Dionysus! Structuralist and Poststructuralist 47 Structuralist anthropology aims to uncover systems of meaning, of signification, of different cultures. One gathers information about some facet of culture, being sure to understand the relative values and significances of the artifacts. One then arranges the artifacts in orders of cultural significance. Having done this for a variety of aspects of culture, one can then place these structures of significance side by side.
A comparison of the similarities between the structures of significance will deepen our understanding of the culture under investigation. So that cross-cultural comparisons of structures of significance will yield structures that underlie all of human culture. When we have discovered these, we will have found the structures that determine human significance in general. Though meanings are defined by their place in a system, the value of each node in the system, at any point in time, remains determinate.
Even though the material embodiment of the system changes over time, it is still possible for the values of the nodes in the system to remain constant. The material production of the phonemes may even transform into one another: the phonemes [b], [v], [f], and [p], may develop over time into the phonemes [v], [f], [p], and [b] respectively.
But so long as the relations between the nodes remain the same, the abstract values of the phonemes, their role in the system, remain identical. This does not mean that it must remain constant. The system considered diachronically can change over time: the relative values between the nodes may remain the same, or they may vary.
A change in one place affects the values of nodes elsewhere. For example, a phonetic system may also develop over time in such a manner that there is no simple correspondence 47 See Saussure, Course in General Linguistics. For an excellent introduction to Structuralism, see Jean Piaget, Structuralism. In this case, it is not only the material forms that have changed, but because the relative definition of the nodes has changed, so have the nodes or values themselves.
Derrida48 overturns this focus, and attempts to draw from this inconstancy of the material a much greater philosophical significance. Now, there is a question as to how strong this argument is, though it is by no means clear to me that the argument fails.
What is important is the working out of the play of differance, both within the metaphilosophical enterprise of deconstruction and in the general application to understanding, and, most specifically for us, in the specific application to textual interpretation. Deconstruction, as post-structuralist philosophy inspired by Derrida has come to be known, is not simply a critical philosophy, nor is it simply the uncovering of hidden assumptions.
Most philosophical methodology involves criticism and the uncovering of assumptions. It aims to undermine the claims of any text to have a determinate meaning, to have a fixed and final meaning, and demonstrates the impossibility of that 48 See Derrida, Grammatology, and Limited, Inc. For one of the best and clearest introductions to Derrida, see Henry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida.
One can indeed intend to say something, and one can succeed in saying what one intends, but what one cannot do is to control and contain all possible understandings of what one says.
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Indeed, in principle one cannot know with complete closure all the ramifications, implica- tions, associations, and developments of what one has said. Deconstruction is not simply the task of opening up readings, but of showing how readings that claim to be closed could not possibly be closed. Thus, since deconstruction is the move from apparent closure to openness, it does not make much sense to talk of deconstructing a text that acknowledges its own openness.
Now, since the Zhuangzi is a text that acknowledges its own openness par excellence, a deconstructive reading of it would at best be redundant. Nevertheless, a post-structuralist understanding of meaning has great affinities with both my understanding of meaning, and with the treatment of language in the Zhuangzi, and thus provides a most appropriate background from which to approach this text.
As we have seen in the last chapter, these ideas can be summarized in the concept of equality of all individual things, and by extension of all viewpoints. It can be seen how this radical individualism rapidly develops into a radical relativism. Moreover, according to Guo Xiang, it is wrong to try to change what something spontaneously is.
Things, if left to work themselves out on their own accord, will work out in the way that is most appropriate for them. Everything is acceptable so long as it is left to its own devices. None can sensibly be taken to be better than any of the others. The perspective of the giant migrating bird described in the very first story is no better and no worse than that of the little fledglings below.