Zhuangzi on ‘happy fish’ and the limits of human knowledge

British Journal for the History of Philosophy 28 (2):216-230 (2020)
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The “happy fish” passage concluding the “Autumn Floods” chapter of the Classical Chinese text known as the Zhuangzi has traditionally been seen to advance a form of relativism which precludes objectivity. My aim in this paper is to question this view with close reference to the passage itself. I further argue that the central concern of the two philosophical personae in the passage – Zhuangzi and Huizi – is not with the epistemic standards of human judgements (the established view since Hansen, “The Relatively Happy Fish”), but with the more basic problem of species-specific perspectives. On my reading, Zhuangzi’s emphatic positionality in the passage – on the dam, accompanied by his friend Huizi – plausibly suggests a circumspect reflection on the limitedness of human knowledge. It is significant that Zhuangzi’s knowledge of fish happiness is avowedly from a certain place, and not absolute. But there is still a sense in which this view is objective: namely, insofar as it adequately accounts for an inherently human perspective on the world. I call this modest form of relativism ‘Species Relativism’, which, crucially, leaves room for objectivity, even though a fully objective (i.e. absolute) view of the world is not accessible to humans.



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Lea Cantor
Cambridge University

References found in this work

What is it like to be a bat?Thomas Nagel - 1974 - Philosophical Review 83 (October):435-50.
On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.Donald Davidson - 1973 - Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 47:5-20.
The View from Nowhere.Thomas Nagel - 1986 - Behaviorism 15 (1):73-82.
What is it Like to be a Bat?Thomas Nagel - 2003 - In John Heil (ed.), Philosophy of Mind: A Guide and Anthology. Oxford University Press.
Mortal Questions.Thomas Nagel - 1983 - Religious Studies 19 (1):96-99.

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