Zhuangzi: Philosophical Disputation as Transformative

Part of the Argumentation Library book series (ARGA, volume 2)


Disputation has the potential for transformation. Often what people say who engage in it is unclear, and becomes clearer only in the course of a series of dialectical exchanges. Most people who engage in argument or debate are too attached to what they take to be their positions to appreciate the value of opening up their views or ideas to challenge or criticism. However, properly understood, disputation, even disputation about disputation, can be transformative.


Public Official Filial Piety Conceptual Thinking Dialectical Process Foundational Theory 
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  1. 1.
    See Jochim (1998) for a strong case against the temptation to attribute to Zhuangzi a doctrine of no-self.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Graham (1981) points out that “to refuse to distinguish alternatives,” which he sees Zhuangzi as doing, “is to refuse to affirm even `Everything is One’ against `Things are many’.” As confirmation of this reading, Graham cites the fact that Zhuangzi “never does say that everything is one…, always speaking subjectively of the sage treating as one” (p. 56 ). Since I am skeptical about whether Zhuangzi is taking such a general position on predication, I prefer to read his talk of oneness as an expression of mysticism and not metaphysics, a point I return to later in the paper.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Kjellberg (1996) generalizes Zhuangzi’s remarks so that they apply to any conflict.Google Scholar
  4. Zhuangzi is arguing that an) argument can be settled only by reference to some judge or criterion. But the choice of a judge or criterion depends in turn on one’s initial standpoint, which is precisely the issue waiting to be resolved. Not only can the parties not reach an amicable solution, they cannot even be sure of being right themselves (p. 9).Google Scholar
  5. Since some conflicts can be settled by mediation, it seems wrong to interpret Zhuangzi so generally. Moreover, Kjellberg’s reading, when it is applied to philosophical disputation, makes it seem as though a settlement of a philosophical dispute is something both sides may find desirable or that it is the kind of thing where a settlement is even possible.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Hansen (1992) refers to this as a “nonquestion begging argument for universal concern as against Confucian traditional morality.” He thinks that Mozi’s argument is flawed because the man would be better advised to entrust the care of his loved ones to a relative, who would at least take better care of them than the relative would take care of strangers. However, if the choice of people to be entrusted is between two of his siblings or two neighbors or two strangers, the man should entrust his family’s care to the person who is most likely to “moderate the special affection for his own family” (p. 112). What Hansen fails to consider is the possibility that the children entrusted to this man would become members of his family.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Hall and Ames (1987) also suggest that favoritism may be one of the “failings of Confucianism”: As would be expected, the Chinese culture has traditionally been plagued with abuses that arise because of the fine line that keeps social order beginning at home separate from nepotism, personal loyalties from special privilege, deference to excellence from elitism, appropriate respect from graft (p. 309).Google Scholar
  8. To the list of possible abuses that can result from the blurring of the “fine line” to which they refer, Hall and Ames include “nepotism” and “special privilige” (favoritism), to which we have been referring, and add “elitism” and “graft.”Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Graham (1989) suggests that chien ai should be translated as ‘universal concern’, rather than ‘universal love’. He says that chien implies the more impersonal ‘for all’, rather than ‘for each’, and that ai is an “unemotional will to benefit people” (p. 41). This universal concern seems to be a lot like professionalism, although there is no reason for supposing that Mohists think that a public servant who is doing his job properly will be doing it unemotionally, e.g., without any evident concern or interest, except, perhaps, for Graham’s characterization of the Mohists as “dour” (ibid). Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    Ivanhoe (1996) makes a similar point when he complains that in the Zhuangzi “people seem to manifest a disturbing indifference to the suffering even of friends” (p. 213). As support, he cites the passage where Master Li, who is visiting his dying friend Master Lai, as Lai’s wife and children as they gather round him and cry, says “Shoo! Get Back! Don’t disturb the process of change!” (Watson 1968, p. 85). However, the point of this story is not to minimize the grief of Lai’s family but to emphasize the kind of attitude towards death that the Zhuangzi is inviting us to take.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    Kupperman (1996) thinks that the Cook Ding story, as well as the stories about other supremely skillful people, may be read as telling us that (self-)transformation involves becoming more spontaneous. However, it is hard to see how it could apply to the transformation I have been saying thatGoogle Scholar
  12. Zhuangzi thinks is required in philosophy. Maybe there are philosophers who never revise their essays or rehearse what they are going to say in a discussion, but it is not obvious that philosophizing is better when it is effortless or that effortless is more non-attached.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    Hansen (1992) is not alone in thinking that moral disputes turn on the application of a concept or word. He believes that, for example, the abortion controversy turns on whether or not the fetus is a person, the determination of which depends on which program or guiding discourse (dao) happens to be disposing the person to shi or fei that the fetus is a person.Google Scholar
  14. However, this belief seems misguided, a point that was developed in the seventh essay of this collection. The word ‘person’ is not normally used to talk about children, except, of course, in the context of the abortion context, where the status of the fetus as a person is supposed to be the basis for a determination of its rights. Moreover, the idea that the controversy turns on what Hansen calls the ‘rectification of names’, i.e., on whether ‘person’ applies to the fetus, only serves to reinforce the rigidity of each side in the controversy, rather than opening both to the possibility of transformation. As I read him, Zhuangzi would want to help each side to acknowledge and address the concerns of the other about, e.g., sexual mores, doing God’s will, democratic pluralism, the resources available to mothers and children, and what it means to be a woman and mother, and by acknowledging these concerns, create the conditions for a possible resolution of the conflict.Google Scholar
  15. 10.
    The point being made here is anticipated in Nielsen (1982), who thinks that a negative answer should be given to the question, “do the English sentences we actually employ-setting aside for the moment those we might construct for purposes of parsing, exercises, illustrating a theory, etc.-have any existence on their own apart from the functions they serve?” (p. 67). The point also is made in the previous essay in this collection (p. 182).Google Scholar
  16. My thanks to Henry Alexander who has read carefully and critically many of the drafts of this paper, and whose advice has proven to be invaluable. Thanks, too, to the distinguished sinologist, Henry Rosemont, Jr., who encouraged me to continue with the project, and to John Schroeder and Steve Shankman, whose comments on earlier drafts of this paper were helpful.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OregonEugeneUSA

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