The Zhuangzi: Personal Freedom and/or Incongruity of Names?

Philosophy East and West 73 (2):458-466 (2023)
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Abstract

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:The Zhuangzi:Personal Freedom and/or Incongruity of Names?Paul J. D'Ambrosio (bio)Tao Jiang's Origins of Moral-Political Philosophy in Early China: Contestation of Humaneness, Justice, and Personal Freedom (hereafter Origins) has sparked much scholarly debate. Already numerous presentations, various types of discussions, and reviews have appeared based on Origins. The present review focuses specifically on the Zhuangzi chapter. The entire project actually began, Jiang writes, fifteen years ago as a book on the Zhuangzi. Through his research Jiang realized he needed to learn more about the objects of philosophical ridicule and critique in the Zhuangzi. Origins is the result of this decade-and-a-half study.Origins provides a somewhat novel framework for reading Warring States period philosophy. Summarizing the basic structure of his project Jiang writes: "I make the case that the philosophical dialectics between the partialist humaneness and imperialist justice formed the fundamental dynamics underlying the mainstream moral-political project during the classic period, with the musing on personal freedom as the outlier" (p. 35). As Karyn Lai puts it, Origins revolves around a "predictable set of inherited pre-Qin texts associated with key figures, traditionally called the "Masters" (zi 子) text" (Lai 2022, p. 181). Some models inherited by the "masters," such as yinyang 陰陽 thinking or ming 名 (names) and shi 實 (actualities), are nearly absent in Origins and would cast new light on the project as well [End Page 458] as the tradition. In this review I will first outline Jiang's reading of the Zhuangzi before considering how a richer appreciation of the Chinese tradition, especially its own methodological tools, frameworks, and concepts, could bolster the exciting contributions Origins stands to make. We will start with Jiang's big picture view of the Zhuangzi.In Origins the Zhuangzi is taken to be a completely unique text. It does not engage in the moral and political discourse the other "masters" texts are subsumed by, and instead of supporting either partialist humaneness or impartialist justice it "muses" on personal freedom. Jiang defines: "Personal freedom is understood as the appreciation and cultivation of personal space wherein one can be left alone and enjoy the company of like-minded friends without being entangled in the sociopolitical world" (p. 36). There are two significant points to note about Jiang's understanding of freedom. First, it is almost a word-for-character definition of how the "Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove" have been described by many. Research on these philosophical works could significantly enrich Jiang's reading, albeit from a different angle. Second, Guo Xiang's 郭象 (d. 312) emphasis on, and philosophical explorations of, du 獨 (an interconnected type of "lone") would further fill out how freedom and relationality—which are both attributed to the Zhuangzi by Jiang—are connected.In addition to a "fierce advocacy for personal freedom" Jiang classifies the Zhuangzi as a "singular outlier" for ridiculing the "misguided character of [the contestations between humaneness and justice] and warn[ing] against their potential for inhumanity and injustice" (p. 49). Indeed, the Zhuangzi does demonstrate that these discussions can elicit "the very opposite of what was intended by the participants of the mainstream discourse" (p. 49). Its criticisms are even more penetrating when we appreciate its deeper point about "names being the guests of actualities" (Zhuangzi 1:4). From this perspective the Zhuangzi is not against systems of humaneness or justice as such. It rather points out that humaneness does not have a single referent, nor could that referent be reliably distinguished. The name "humane" does not guarantee humane action, or really anything in particular. The same is true for "justice." We will return to these points below.Jiang's chapter on the Zhuangzi begins by defending moral and political readings of the text. It is an outlier from the perspective of the "humanity-justice" framework, but this only means that the moral-political discourse Zhuangists were engaged in was different. The result was that already by the early Han and by the time of Sima Qian 司馬遷 (d. 86 b.c.e.) "Zhuangzi's teachings were … of little use to contemporary political discourse" (p. 288). Jiang should be delighted to know that the Wei-Jin period, which had inestimable...

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