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Relativistic Skepticism in the Zhuangzi


This decade has witnessed a sea change in Zhuangzi interpretations. In 1983, I wrote, "The interpretation of Zhuangzi is a philosophical scandal."  Today, a quick electronic literature search for titles or abstracts containing 'Zhuangzi' and either 'skeptic' or 'relativism' produce more hits that one that excludes them. I trace this development to Graham's discovery decades ago that the Zhuangzi addressed the questions found in the Mohist Canons and to his breakthrough reading of the Qiwulun as an "inner dialogue" with positions posed, considered and then subjected to doubt.

Seeing the Zhuangzi as a work of philosophy reflecting a grasp of a technical ancient Chinese theory of language undercuts the traditional, dismissive interpretation classically expressed by Schwartz (1985): "We shall again begin our account of the historic Chuang-tzu with the mystical vision which he shares with the Lao-tzu.  Chuang-tzu's constant efforts to describe the indescribable in many ways simply amplify and enrich what we have already found in the Lao-tzu. . ." (Schwartz 1985:216-7).

This philosophical shift in interpretive focus is remarkable because the broad field remains a "polyglot" discipline. Zhuangzi interpreters may be trained in religion, literature, history, or philosophy. Established interpretations, stemming from the missionary generations of Sinologists, echo modern religious themes. [1] An aversion to Western "linguistic" philosophy still draws many to the study of Chinese thought. They affectionately search the Chinese dao for a rebuke to "rigid" Western reason. In Sinological circles, people typically pronounce 'analytic' with a sneer. 'Relativist', 'skeptic' and even 'logic' fare little better in Sinological discourse. Even 'philosophical' they typically use pejoratively.  Exchanging the loveable, comic-strip religious mystic for a skeptical philosopher has its costs.

Gratifying, then, as the focus on skepticism and relativism are, recent discussion still reflects a chronic nostalgia for the lost guru and exhibits a lingering discomfort with philosophy, its issues and approach. Recent writers have challenged or reformulated the characterization of Zhuangzi as a "relativist skeptic." [2] They typically pose skepticism and insight as an either-or choice.

I attempt here to defend my classifying familiar arguments and lines of thought in the Zhuangzi as relativist skepticism against recent accusations that the interpretation is philosophically incoherent.  Further I will explain how the Zhuangzi that emerges can satisfy our nostalgic urge to find "guiding wisdom" in the text. The practical implications lie in the secular social-political issues that preoccupied classical Chinese philosophers. We can placate the fond yearning for guidance (though not "spiritual transformation") from the Zhuangzi while appreciating its philosophical acuity. The Daoist text does led to political and personal wisdom as well as a careful epistemology and theory of language.

In section I, I outline a composite case against straightforward reading of the skeptical passages to which I respond in section II on methodology grounds and in section III by clarifying the conceptual background of the Zhuangzi passages. Then, in section IV, I analyze the types of monism, skepticism, and relativism implied in those passages. Finally in section V, I briefly address the political role of the relativistic skepticism in the Zhuangzi in a way that vindicates Daoism as a form of Chinese political liberalism.

I.       The Case against Skepticism

Prudent modesty, past experience, [3] as well as the argument I will attribute to the Zhuangzi all prompt me to refrain from trying to characterize the arguments of individual critics of my interpretation. I will, instead, set out a line of thought that I think captures common threads of such arguments.  With some variation in detail, I find the arguments against a relativist or skeptical view of the Zhuangzi have these components.

1.          [Full text coherence] Start with a methodological interpretive principle.  Any such characterization must coherently explain the entire text of the Zhuangzi (or at least explain more of it than a rival view).

2.          [Traditional tone] Then characterize the "overall tone" in more traditional terms, e.g. mystical, inspirational, credulous etc.

3.          [Disabling definition] Invoke a definition or formula of 'skepticism', 'relativism' or both. Usually they tie the definition to what they term as a 'strong', 'extreme', or 'radical' version that is either incoherent on its face or that makes their joint use incoherent. [4]

4.          [Therapeutic salvation] (Some versions only) Conclude that the skeptical (or relativist) passages are really only "therapeutic," that Zhuangzi was not committed to what the passages entail or they do not entail anything negative about the sage's cognitive achievements. Treat the passages instead as a recommendation of a way a person should use their mind to bring about some personal or spiritual transformation, e.g. If we refrain from judgments or commitments, we will have peace of mind or transcendent wisdom, etc.

Step 1 and 2 yield the initial motivation to "defang" the skeptical and relativist passages. Step 3 buttresses this initial motivation with a direct attack on the coherence of the alleged philosophical position and step 4 completes the argument that the passages do not indicate a skeptical or relativist Zhuangzi.

In the section II below, I will argue that step 1's full text coherence interpretive principle is specious. A Chinese philosophical text, like a German, French or English one, may contain inconsistencies and lack coherence. The theoretically justifiable role of coherence in interpretation is holistic--it constrains how we interpret the entire linguistic community, not single authors or texts. I will argue that this theoretical motivation for coherence justifies our taking the view of a representative, philosophically informed, contemporaneous reader of the text, rather than the writer, as the point of interpretive reference. Avoiding communal incoherence is the sound form of this interpretive injunction. [5]

In step 2 above, the appeal to the traditional tone begs questions since we may come see the overall tone quite differently after we have appreciated the skeptical and relativistic line of reasoning. The "tone" of the text as a whole is just as subject to interpretive justification as are the skeptical passages.  Any inconsistency should equally invite dismissing or reinterpreting the passages with an allegedly mystical tone. Anticipating this answer explains why anti-skeptics also directly attack the coherence of the philosophical positions (step 3).

For the disabling definitions in step 3 to do their work (showing skepticism and relativisism are incoherent), those critics need to justify their disabling formulations as (a) fitting in the conceptual and philosophical context of the Zhuangzi arguments and (b) consistent with competent philosophical explication of these positions. I argue in section III that the disabling definitions fail on the first count and in section IV that they fail on the second. However, they do stimulate us to address the kind of skepticism implied by the various Zhuangzi passages.

In section III , I will set out the relevant conceptual and philosophical context with which an informed philosophical reader in ancient China should have read the Zhuangzi. Politically and ethically, that context centers on disputes about dao (ways of life).  These disputes are set in a tradition preoccupied with social-political issues and whose main epistemic terms did not take the familiar, sentential, form characteristic of counterpart Western theories. That is, if there was skepticism in ancient China, they would formulate them in terms other than 'belief', 'truth', 'meaning', "propositional knowledge," or 'reason'.

In section IV , I will offer an analytical typology of three related positions in Zhuangzi interpretation: 'monism' (a metaphysical commitment), 'skepticism' (an epistemic one) and relativism (a view of the inferential "dependency" of our commitments). I will identify the particular types to which the Zhuangzi arguments are committed given the conceptual and philosophical context. We will find Zhuangzi's position considerably more subtle and plausible than the formulations offered in the disabling definitions (step 2) above.

In section V , I will briefly present the political implication I take the relativistic-skeptical passages to have. This will be brief because I do not intend to argue that the Zhuangzi presented this conclusion, but that the text's skepticism argumentatively supports Chinese liberalism. Numerous other familiar stories and passages clearly reinforce the liberal tendency. 

II.    Coherence and Interpretation

Coherence plays a role as a formal principle guiding radical translation. As Quine (1960) puts it, we select among "translation manuals" for a language based on the effect the selection has on the total system of beliefs we attribute to the speakers. The principles of interpretation (charity and humanity) tell us what virtue of the system of belief counts.  I had argued [6] for the principle of humanity and characterized it mainly in terms of coherence. I argued that 'coherent' was preferable to the principle of Charity's 'true' as the virtue of other tradition's belief system since it preserves the possibility of intelligible disagreement between us. Ancient Chinese philosophers can coherently disagree with us.

The full text coherence objection (above step 1 ) confuses the role of coherence in applying it to interpreting the philosophies of individuals. [7] This produces the implausible result that no individual can be committed to an incoherent philosophical position. That is clearly too strong a constraint on interpretation. The profound philosophical questions that have puzzled and exercised great minds over the ages and across cultures are surely matters on which we can find someone both wrong and intelligible (interpretable). If some philosopher argued that skepticism was analytically inconsistent, it would not commit him to the conclusion that Hume was not a skeptic. Obviously, the inference applies ceteris paribus to Zhuangzi.

Interpretive coherence instructively applies at a different level. The interpreter is an explanatory theorist and her theory, qua explanation, should be coherent.  An interpreter’s theory may attribute an incoherent theory to the author she interprets without herself becoming incoherent.  That invites a reformulation of the principle of humanity that de-emphasizes coherence of the text. Let us think of the principle of humanity as a principle of coherently explainable access to the belief system. [8] The interpreter's task is to attribute beliefs to which she can explain the community's access in ways that are coherent with everything we know

Consider a scientific example. One of the puzzles of Chinese thought is Daoist cosmological reference to 10,000 things (wan wu). It must have been clear to Chinese thinkers that the number of objects in the world is greater than 10,000.  Scholars mostly propose to modify the meaning of wan10,000. They theorize that it just means "myriad" or "a large number" or "all." An alternative is to modify the meaning of wuthing arguing that it does not refer to an object in the Western sense, but to a kind.

Now consider this solution.  As it turns out, modern astronomers say that the universe does consist of approximately 10,000 mega-objects. The most stable and persistent objects in the universe are galaxy clusters. They are objects in the sense that gravity has held them together from relatively soon after the big bang. Giant gas "clouds" fill these clusters, which were the first structures to emerge in the universe. Although they change, they are changing more slowly than are any of the bits that constitute them.

Presumably, we should not say that the Daoist use of wanwu [10,000 things] (especially in the famous cosmological passages) refers to galaxy clusters despite the "fit" between the two descriptions. This interpretation would make the (apparently widely shared) cosmology of the ancient community true and satisfy the principle of charity. The objection appropriate for the principle of humanity is not that the theory of galaxy clusters is incoherent, but that I cannot tell a plausible, naturalistic story about how ancient Chinese cosmologists would have access to a belief or theory of galaxy clusters. Coherence comes in, if at all, in that my story would not be coherent with everything else I know about them, their sensory apparatus, and the world. 

We do not have parallel worries about anyone's access to beliefs about medium sized mammals. The presence of the animals, normal light, and sensory capabilities is enough to justify access to beliefs about those objects. [9]   The plausible access requirement poses a challenge analogous to galaxy clusters whenever we attribute a theory-laden concept. To credit the interpreted community with that concept is to credit them with a philosophical theory in which it plays a sufficiently similar role.

Since Sellars (1956), we have learned to include items such as 'sense data', 'experience', 'truth', 'belief', 'reason', and perhaps 'morality', 'right', 'duty', 'justice', and even 'God' and 'spirit' as theoretical terms in philosophy. We can take Chinese philosophers as advocating or opposing doctrines about these theoretical objects only if we provide a plausible argument that they had a theory similar enough to underwrite the identification of these with our theoretical objects.  We can take 天 tiannature:sky  as 'God' or 'Heaven' only if we can plausibly explain how ancient Chinese thinkers would have come to a theology similar enough to ours to underwrite the identification. [10] Otherwise, we need some plausible alternative account of how ancient Chinese thinkers had epistemic access to these theoretical objects. 

The (Philosophical) community perspective

Interpretive coherence also applies holistically to a linguistic community. We interpret the community's linguistic practices as a whole in ways that make coherent sense of their discourse (including the disagreements). We theorize about the norms enshrined in the community's linguistic practices. The norms govern how they should draw inferences from grammatical contexts using those terms. [11]   We then interpret any particular sentence, chapter, or book the way (according to our theory) a representative member of that community should (as entailed by their norms). We combine the meanings of these terms and these structures to yield the inferential potential of a compositional sentence, paragraph, chapter etc. In principle, the inference from those strings should be accessible to any competent, informed reader in that original community. There are no external “scorekeepers” so “players” keep track of each other’s commitments.

Preserving coherence within a community's whole discourse should commit the interpreter to maximize truth or consistency when the community is engaged in philosophy—having philosophical disputes. However, treating as the correct interpretation one that simply maximizes either truth or coherence over the extant texts produces an obvious problem. We should infer that by making more statements by sheer volume than their opponents, one philosophical faction can make their views semantically true or consistent in that language. Coherence should rather take the form of making sense of the dispute, construing the terms and structures so disputants do not "talk past" each other. Thus, I object to the proliferation of what I call "meaning-change" hypotheses in interpretive accounts of ancient Chinese philosophy. These hypotheses make the disputes empty. [12] They make the communities speak a cluster of different languages.  Disputants seem incapable of noticing that they are not disagreeing—merely speaking Confucian or Daoist.  Community coherence allows that two discussants might disagree about the meaning, but that in such a case, one of them should be wrong. Neither faction can change the meaning of a term in their language by fiat, definition or intention.

Most linguistic communities have some degree of linguistic division of labor where the scorekeeping of “normally linguistically competent” speakers implicitly references the scorekeeping of experts—say for inferences involving ‘archaeopteryx” or “raptor.” I hold speakers responsible for the inferential commitments that paleontologist would draw, not for those that “normal” speakers draw.  What inferences are licensed are independent of what individual speakers think are licensed inferences. The norms governing inferential licenses, prohibitions and permissions are enshrined in the community’s practices not in individual intentions. [13] The norms may be controversial, subject to discussion and revision; the boundaries of “communities” may be variable and multiply overlapping. [14]

Consider our contemporary philosophical scene. We do not start with an assumption that a philosopher cannot contradict herself. Other competent philosophers may judge that she has done so and they may be correct in that judgment. If, according to the norms of usage enshrined in contemporary philosophical discourse, what she says entails something of the form "P and not-P," then she contradicts herself. We do not approach each book as a separate radical translation context. We do employ a mild principle of charity on normative (usually consequential) grounds. Our cooperative pursuit of truth is more efficient if we do not opt for the more philosophically naïve or silly interpretations when reporting and commenting on someone's argument. We rationally prefer to resolve ambiguity in favorable ways, not because our theory of meaning biases interpretation toward coherent treatment of individuals, but because the shared pursuit of truth goes forward more efficiently if we do so. However, the same goal (shared pursuit of knowledge) enjoins us to recognize, attribute and announce error where the norms of interpretation, thus constrained, clearly entail that something is incoherent.

Note the ironic situation of critics who appeal to a writer coherence principle and reject my interpretation of arguments in the Zhuangzi as skeptical and relativistic. If they accept the interpretive principle, should they not read my work in a way that makes it coherent? [15] Clearly, they need not. Now suppose that I announce (See note 3 above ) that I do not believe what they say I do. Their correct defense is that whatever I actually believe, the implications of what I said or wrote are as they alleged them to be. [16] If my critics are right about the meanings of 'skepticism' and 'relativism', then, while they may still be wrong about my beliefs, they are right about the incoherence of my claims. Should they not then apply the same principle to the interpretation of the Zhuangzi?  

Nothing in the concept of 'interpretation' makes Chinese philosophers subject to such radically different norms of assessment. Clearly, a representative reader from the ancient Chinese philosophical community could correctly take Zhuangzi or Mencius to have contradicted himself. Given the linguistic norms enshrined in Warring States practice, a sentence may validly commit Mencius to something of the form "P and not-P" whether or not he ever entertained the thought. I argue that Zhuangzi drew such an inference about Mencius. [17] Judging a writer to be committed to something incoherent is not a sign of failing to understand his writing. Such judgments are not claims about an author’s beliefs and desires.

This means that we can shift our interpretive focus from author to audience.  What does the expression of this passage commit the writer to according to the norms of linguistic use of some philosophical community? We are asking, "What role do these passages play in the philosophical disagreements, given these concepts and background arguments?" Our task is not to construct a theory of the mental states of a sage named Zhuangzi [18] but to interpret the sentences, arguments and theories written in the text using the community's shared language. We will want to know what a competent ancient Chinese philosopher reading the passage would correctly take the passage to mean, i.e., to what would it commit one who accepted it.  The writer himself may or may not accept or appreciate those commitments.

Communities, in the broad sense, can be at cross-purposes. Religious and philosophical discourse may diverge and the communities effectively cease to communicate for an extended period. Even philosophical communities may splinter and develop in relative discourse isolation, e.g. analytic and "Continental" philosophy. That philosophers should be particularly careful about norms of inference does not give philosophical communities pride of place where norms of discourse evaluation differ.

We should still reject the familiar claim that norms of discourse allow Chinese “logical errors” as long as we have evidence of careful contemporaneous Chinese thinkers who reliably conform to “valid” norms in reasoning. Even if a reasoning pattern is nearly universal, evidence that a single philosophical group recognized and diagnosed its error is enough to bar interpretive claims that the error is “correct in Chinese” inference practices. It can be true that some school trained nearly everyone in the community to be indifferent to these norms, but the sheer weight of such indifference would not change the norms.

That a community of careful, rigorous philosophy was thriving at the time of the text is enough to warrant calling a philosophical reading 'authentic'. Ancient Chinese literary, religious, historical and philosophically inclined communities may all have read Daoists texts differently. The historical possibility of other readings does not require a special justification from a philosophical reading.  I read these passages in the Zhuangzi as philosophical, in particular as informed by extensive contact with the school of names and ancient Chinese semantic theory. [19]

Regardless of authorship, we should formulate for ourselves an account of what a representative competent, thoughtful Ancient Chinese philosopher (a contemporary with sound training) should take to be the implied commitments of a passage or argument. We would be judging as a contemporaneous (not contemporary) philosopher would.  In effect, philosophical interpretation is joining those philosophers in philosophizing. [20]

The community I focus on here is the one engaged in philosophical discourse during the Warring States period. Hence, Graham's reconstruction of the Mohist Dialectical works is important (along with his claim that the Zhuangzi shows signs of familiarity with these kinds of issues).  Graham thus locates a relevant community of philosophically sophisticated inquiry. Given his friendship with Hui Shi, the link between a Zhuangzi persona and the community of linguistic theory is historically firmer than the fond and familiar religious Laozi‑as‑teacher tradition.

At the same time, we cannot rule out someone taking their representative reader of these Zhuangzi passages from some other contemporaneous audience. That is, we might construct the contemporaneous Huang-Lao reading or a contemporaneous authoritarian Confucian reading of the text. There may be reasons for interest in both--as there may be interest in the Han, Tang, Song, Japanese and other readings. We need not speculate about how good a case one could put for treating these other audiences as privileged for purposes of interpreting this text.  In principle, we may equally judge two or more to be historically authentic.  We need no further justification, however, for choosing the philosophical one--the reading guided by the careful attention to norms of inference recognized by the linguistic wing of the China's ancient philosophical community. 

Note that the combination of the philosophical community perspective and the access requirement allows us to interpret these passages as a philosopher would. It does not invite us to read them as either an ancient, enlightenment or modern Western philosopher would. [21] We can derive conclusions as a good philosopher would--i.e. using sound inference, imagination, insight, etc as long as we abide by the hypothesized norms behind ancient Chinese concepts, arguments and theories.  If interpreters a) use crudely Western formulations of skepticism or relativism (e.g., in terms of 'belief' or 'truth') or b) apply it to enlightenment or Greek rationalist theories of mind, reason, meaning, ideas and so forth then c) conclude that Zhuangzi contradicts himself in giving relativist skeptical arguments, their reasoning would give us no reason to dismiss the skeptical-relativistic passages. Any inference that the passages are incoherent must follow in ancient Chinese terms, and it should be a sound inference, not an impressionistic characterization. [22] Finally, even when correct, the conclusion may only be that the passage is incoherent with some other passages, not that the interpretation is wrong.

The Philosophical Context

I will summarize here some philosophically important differences in formulation and focus that distinguishes ancient Chinese schools of linguistic thought from those most familiar in the Western tradition. These differences are relevant to the proper formulation of Chinese skepticism, relativism and monism. My approach below on will be mainly analytical, not textual [23] . Readers interested in a more detailed account that stays closer to the text can consult my (1992). Here, I will concentrate on making theoretical distinctions to pinpoint the philosophical position I take these texts to express. With this warning, however, I will refrain from prefixing "according to the present interpretive hypothesis" repeatedly through the account. Readers please note that this analysis is controversial. I do not offer the following as observation reports, but as elements of my interpretive theory.

First, I adapt A. C. Graham's metaphor for the global character of philosophical discourse in Classical China, i.e., I understand them as "disputes about dao." I treat Dao as an essentially normative concept—a way. Ways are the subject matter of practical thought as facts are the subject matter of descriptive thought. (This is my way of reformulating the commonplace contrast between the metaphysical focus of traditional Western thought and the practical focus of Chinese thought.)

The familiar translation of dao as 'way' is satisfactory, though I sometimes use 'guide' to emphasize the "normative" essence of dao-analysis.

One advantage of 'way' in the present context, however, is the rhetorical affinity of "way of life" with important Western notions, e.g., Wittgenstein's "form of life" and Rawls' "comprehensive view" (1993) as well as his earlier "conception of a good life" (1971).   These all share important features with the Chinese conception of dao. They are wholesale guiding structures that include ways of describing and categorizing things for the purpose of action. The norms of meaning are included along with those of ethics. Making certain distinctions, having certain epistemic norms and rules of justification and so forth are components of a dao in the sense that they are part of a comprehensive view or a "form of life."

I divide the concept of dao into 'discourse' dao and 'performance' dao. The former is paradigmatically verbal and written instructions.  It embraces, however, whatever can guide us—whatever could give us knowledge of “how to” or “what to” do.  A "performance dao" is an interpretation into action—a practical interpretation.  It should be what a discourse way intends or points to.  My usage here borrows from a music model. [24] The score is the discourse dao and a performance is a "practical" interpretation.

The test of being a discourse dao is its being subject to normative practical interpretation. Norm-guided, practical interpretation takes the form of an execution or performance. The test of a performance dao, then, is that it is subject to evaluation, i.e., as a right or wrong interpretation.  One can attempt to follow a dao and get it wrong.

Many daos have both aspects. Discourse daos range from explicit instructions and algorithms to gestures, examples, paths, maps and descriptions of historical exemplars. Expressing, exhibiting, and gesturing are themselves performances--subject to evaluation.  However, they are also modes of discourse--subject to practical interpretation. Similarly, an example or model may be both performance and discourse. To follow the example, we have to extrapolate it to our situation and correctly identify the relevant similarities. We can go wrong following an example as surely as we can following an instruction book.

A path can count as discourse dao (something we may "wander off" or "stay on") or as performance dao (a "trace" of actual past "walkings"). A road is a dao, but we should not think of it as just a physical object like the grass, lakes, and trees surrounding it. A road guides is, i.e. it counts as a road (way) when regarded as something we should stay on—though we can wander off. [25]

My distinction between discourse and performance is interpretive--not a distinction made explicitly in Chinese texts. Examples of dual-aspect dao are common in the texts and even the best analyses blur correct interpretation and correct choice of discourse dao [26] "Disputing the dao" neatly captures how easy it is to slide between the two. What is interesting is that ancient Chinese thinkers formulated and focused on the interpretation question first and the model of interpretation provides the dominant form for discussing what discourse dao to choose. Choice of a dao is a performance interpretation of a "higher order" guiding dao–one for deciding which dao to follow here.

Confucius Analects 13:3 states the interpretive problem in the form of a doctrine of rectifying names. If names are not rectified, . . . language . . . social affairs . . . ritual and music . . . regulation and punishment . . . [all go wrong and] people will not know how to move hand or foot. Mohists first raised the selection problem. The traditional 禮 liritual might be the wrong guide. Mohists proposed utility (the benefit-harm distinction) as the guiding standard and used it to solve both the interpretation and selection problems.

Paradigm discourse daos consist of words. To follow a dao requires that we correctly assign the words used in it to things in the context of action. This rests on the ability to 辯 biandistinguish and all distinguishing can be viewed as using shi-feithis (right)-not this (wrong) 是 非 of objects following the norms implicit in the word—the dao of the word or the way the word is used in the relevant community. The Mohists speak of the dao of particular distinction pairs such as you-wu (being-nonbeing).  Thus, selecting a discourse dao is applying shi-feithis-not this 是 非 to daos. The Mohist ur-norm is the distinction between  利 害 li-haibenefit-harm

Mohists treat their disagreement with Confucians as showing the latter to be confused about how to distinguish between義 'moral' and不義 'immoral'. [27] This way of formulating disputes about dao made philosophy of language immediately relevant to ancient accounts of moral disputes. The disputes are about distinctions and Mohists called such disputes辯 biandistinction disputes. The normative notion of a dao comprehends aspects of the Western concept of 'meaning.' A normative dao determines the right application and use of a guiding term—the right way to 辯 biandistinguish using that term and its opposite.

Renhumanity  might be viewed as a Confucian answer to practical interpretation questions. The Mohists, however, used it as common currency to challenge the Confucian conventional dao.  They asked " . . . can we call this 仁 renhumanity and 義 yimorality?"  Thus, 仁 renhumanity  works as a kind of dao of daos, i.e. a dao or way of formulating and settling disputes about dao. However, Mozi interpreted 仁 renhumanity as universal concern and Confucius as (a notoriously undefined) something else. A standard for interpreting can itself be subject of interpretive dispute.

With this background, we can preview Zhuangzi's skeptical position. Choosing and interpreting a dao are themselves performances. They presuppose some norm, standard, distinction or dao. The Zhuangzi raises the obvious question: What is the correct standard (dao) to use in choosing and interpreting a dao and what is the correct dao of practical interpretation of that standard? This initiates the relativistic regress that informs Daoist skepticism.

Political Theory

Confucians and Mohists viewed the role of government as that of ensuring broad compliance with a shared conception of the moral life--unifying the dao of the social world. For Confucius, the ruler was like the father in inculcating and reinforcing a conception of morality by example. Notoriously, Confucius' wing rejected the rule of law and institutions. Good government essentially consisted of putting a virtuous person in the father-ruler role. The Mohists rejected the Confucian conception of morality and appealing to its traditional status as a standard. A Mohist discourse dao would have more emphasis on language. However, the Mohist conception of the moral education role of government was largely congruent with that of the Confucians.

The Mohist did offer a more complex account of that role. They started with the observation that people have different conceptions of morality (義 yimorality).  A warlike "state of nature" results from people’s sincere, moralistic attempts to promote their different conceptions of "the good." [28] The resulting disorder and the inefficiency convinces everyone of the wisdom of "selecting" as "governing [29] elder" one whom we all regard as wise. His task is to harmonize society's 義 yimorality

It is tempting to treat Mohism, qua utilitarianism, as initiating a Daoist trend toward neutrality among conceptions of the good. It does explicitly advocate non-partiality or universality concerning Confucian family ties, locality, etc. [30] Further, the Mozi bases its account of utility on objective benefit and harm, not on private or subjective pleasure or desire satisfaction. This suggests that valuing benefit over harm is something universal and natural and does not depend on, e.g., location or time. Still, Mohist political structure has the purpose of selecting and imposing a single conception of shi-feithis-not this 是 非 on the polity. [31]

The political mechanism for harmonizing 義 yimorality does start with everyone "reporting" their evaluative judgments to their superior but it then gives the superior the performative authority to declare which shi-feithis-not this 是 非 reports all should accept.  After the ruler settles on the shi-feithis-not this 是 非, the Mohist conception of government resembles that of the Confucians more than it does that of a rule of law.  The goal is a leader-guided acceptance of a single social dao—the Mohist difference is in the content of that dao. Theirs would be a universal utilitarian one where Confucians advocated a traditionalist, ‘partial-love’ dao. It has little relation to what Rawls would characterize as institutional structure of ongoing neutrality among comprehensive views (daos).

The quasi-historical account of philosophy in the "Tianxia" chapter of the Zhuangzi [32] suggests a similar analysis. [33]   Disorder follows on the loss of a common traditional ethical conception. This introduces the treatment of Mohism, the first named school discussed. This internal Zhuangzi account identifies other stages on the way to the Zhuangzi. It explicitly identifies the others as endorsing impartiality or lack of doctrinal bias in some way. Let us call them 1) the few-real-desires-group 2) the can't-miss-dao group and 3) the reversibility group.

The few-real-desires-group treats most of our desires as the product of our accepting a certain conception of the good life. Particularly, they think of insults and shame as harms only for those who accept an optional, evaluative point of view.  We could choose not to take that point of view that values status or social honor.

The can't-miss-dao group [34] , in effect, undermines the appeal to naturalness (or 天 tiannature:sky) in selecting one way of life over another. If following the natural dao is the goal, you do not need to work at it—you simply will. There is no such thing as getting nature wrong.  All "live options" for us now are equally natural—any we choose will amount to following the Great dao. A negative way of putting the point is: 天 tiannature:sky  gives us no basis for selecting among rival ways of life.

The reversibility group suggests that we can take any existing guidance scheme of concepts and get an equally compelling dao by reversing all its values. Thus, Laozi values passivity, submission, the lower position, declining, the moist, and other female values over their Confucian-Mohist counterparts. The distinctions and names that constitute our ways of life are not attached in any constant way to correct guidance. This exercise, presumably, should undermine our attachment to any particular dao.

Zhuangzi's relativistic skepticism emerges in the context of this broad social-political movement toward impartiality and it implicitly supports that trend. The Zhuangzi's skepticism lends support to ancient Chinese political advocacy of neutrality among conceptions of the good life.

The Lack of Sentential Context. 

Before elaborating on this political point, let us look at a major contrast in the structure we have been elaborating for disputing dao. When Chinese thinkers elaborate on normative dao, they focus on words, which mark distinctions. Western discussions of morality center on the role of sentences--particularly the universal normative sentence called rules, laws, principles or maxims.

Sentential concepts pervade other aspects of Western thought. Philosophers give reasons to construe thoughts, beliefs, propositions, judgments and even desires as sentential (propositional) in form. Only such "sentential" items, we learn, can be true or false. Inference, reason, and logic proceed by moving from sentence (premise) to sentence (conclusion). Valid thinking is thinking that preserves sentential-truth.

Western moral theory comes to focus on finding some universal "ought" sentence—the first premise in moral reasoning. Historical Western figures speak of moral laws, maxims, rules or principles—all of which they typically analyze as sententials. They understand normative correctness mainly in terms of sound normative inference. A central puzzle of Western ethical theory is what is the "axiom" or "first premise" of moral deduction. 

Ancient Chinese thinkers, while correctly noticing the irreducibly normative and integrated character of language, reference, knowledge, and ways of life, did not develop this insight using sentential concepts nor did they have any clear notion of sentential inference. They did not theorize about the norms of sentential inference. [35] The Chinese conception of zhiknow was, thus, non-propositional. Years ago, I analyzed it as know-how, but have come to prefer the conception of know-to as the key to understanding Chinese talk about zhiknow.  (An example is the rare idiomatic use in English when we describe someone as 'knowing to come in out of the rain') Know-how presupposes a goal and the conception of a 道 daoguide includes both the goal and how to reach it. Knowing is knowing a dao; to know is to have a comprehensive answer as to what to do. [36]

Chinese discourse about 心xinheart-mind uses a belief context (S 以 yiwith T 為 weideem:do P1) that invites term rather than sentential analysis.  The seemed not to construe such states of mind as a relation of a 心xinheart-mind and a sentential (a proposition, fact, state of affairs etc.).  Where Western accounts would have a person as believing that S is P, ancient Chinese wrote of a person as tending to treat S as P or to (say) "P" of S. [37]   It is closer to Western accounts of de re belief. They linked this pragmatic belief context to their theory of dao, shi-feithis-not this是 非and 辯 biandistinction. To 為 weideem:do an object is to assign some term in a discourse dao to it. This is the core of practical interpretation—a case of rectifying a name. What corresponds to Western propositional beliefs are dispositions to act toward (to treat) a thing in a certain way.

Chinese "knowing" relates to de re believing in a consistent way—zhiknow is a success verb. It is wei-ing something correctly. [38] It amounts to knowing to (say) P in the presence of S or knowing to treat S as P. It underlies the evaluative judgment that our practical interpretation is correct. Clearly, these sentential-term contrasts in talk about belief and knowledge will give a distinctive character to Chinese monism, skepticism and relativism. 

Monism, Skepticism and Relativism in the Zhuangzi. 

I shall treat monism as a metaphysical posture [39] , skepticism as an epistemological one [40] and relativism as a posture about standards of shi-feithis-not this 是 非 and 辯 biandistinction dispute.  We use the standards to guide how we characterize situations or things as shi-feithis-not this 是 非.

Metaphysics: Monism and Realism

The context I have outlined signals that skeptical and relativist attitudes should apply mainly to normative contexts. However, the norm analysis implicitly presupposes a real context (realities to which we assign terms from our daos).  I think we can appropriately describe the Daoist view as metaphysically realist. Our conceptions of that real world may be relative to our comprehensive views or ways of life, but the argument proceeds against a background assumption of a reality independent of our rival conceptions. I also think we can call the Daoist view monism—in one sense.

Naturalistic v. Parmenidean Monism.

The dominant Western sense of 'monism' is a denial of dualisms. Robert Brandom (1994) makes a helpful distinction between distinctions and dualisms. A distinction becomes a dualism when accounts of it entail that one cannot explain the relation of the two elements in terms of something common. Explaining the interaction between the two realms typically becomes a philosophical puzzle. Classical mind-body metaphysics is such a dualism; transcendent supernaturalism, Plato's theory of forms, Kantian noumena-phenomena, and the like are other familiar examples. Common-sense distinctions, however, such as male-female, old-young, living/non-living etc. are distinctions, not dualisms. 

Notoriously, Chinese metaphysics lacks much evidence of the Indo-European mind-body dualism and (somewhat more controversially) has little or no transcendent supernaturalism. [41] If these anti-dualist characterizations are correct, then we can describe Chinese metaphysics as 'monist' while accepting that they are committed to many ordinary distinctions. I think Daoists not only accept this conception, as naturalists, they rely more strongly on it than most other ancient schools.

Positively, a naturalistic monism envisions a continuity of nature. Like the notorious butterfly that, by flapping its wings in Beijing, causes a blizzard in New York [42] , our actions, causally ripple throughout the universe. This Chinese view of the continuity of the human social world and nature is a characteristic of Daoist reasoning that we can take as background in reading these Zhuangzi passages and of Daoist references to "oneness" and "unity". Their view has much of the flavor of modern physicalist monism—e.g., when he describes his wife's death as merely a "transformation" of the same sort that gave her birth (Ch. 18). Of course, it is not materialist or physicalist in the sense of denying a mind-body dualism.  It is naturalistic monism in virtue of neither presenting nor presupposing such a dualism.

Parmenidean monism, by contrast, is the denial not merely of dualisms but of distinctions. It commits one to a peculiarly strong version of one-ness, i.e., not merely of some underlying natural continuity. Parmenidean monism denies all qualitative and quantitative difference. Besides Parmenides, Neo-Platonism, Spinoza, and some idealist views of "the absolute" may approach this kind of Monism about absolute reality. It seems to find expression in Indian Upanishadic and Buddhist metaphysics as well. It tends to be associated with mystical epistemic doctrines and semantics since, typically, it is hard to prove or to state without paradox. The traditional religious view of the Zhuangzi (and Daoism generally) reads references to unity, oneness, etc. as Parmenidean rather than naturalistic monism and links it to the mysticism of Indo-European traditions.

I argue that classical China offers some candidates for rough [43] counterparts of this stronger kind of Monism. Something like this may be the conclusion of Zhuangzi's philosophical companion, Hui Shi. [44] The metaphysics of what I called the "can't-miss-dao" group also suggests an intermediate kind of monism. Its core is continuity-of-nature monism, but from that premise Shen Dao seems to derive a prohibition on our making any distinction between shi-feithis-not this 是 非. 

I have argued that a philosophical reader could reasonably take passages in the Zhuangzi to reject both views. Graham drew our attention to the fact that Zhuangzi seems to formulate and then reject Hui Shi's position (an attempt to derive 'all is one' from observations about concept relativism).

"Nothing in the world is bigger than the tip of an autumn hair, and Mount T'ai is small; no one lives longer than a doomed child, and P'eng-tsu died young; heaven and earth were born together with me, and the myriad things and I are one.

Now that we are one, can I still say something? Already having called us one, did in succeed in not saying something? One and the saying make two; two and one make three. Proceeding from here even an expert calculator cannot get to the end of it, much less a plain man." (Chapter 2 Graham 1981:56)

Zhuangzi's line here relates closely to arguments we find in the Mohist dialectical chapters. They pointed out that eschewing distinctions is unacceptable. "Denying denial is perverse." (Canon B79)  The Mohists also rebutted, on coherence grounds, a closely related anti-language view."  "To take language as exhaustively perverse is perverse." (Canon B71, see Graham 1978:445-6) Their acceptance of the then common analysis of language as consisting in distinctions unites these two paradoxes. Rejecting all distinctions is tantamount to rejecting language and vice-versa. Hui Shi, from the fragments available, tended to conclude from the relativity of distinctions to perspective that there were no distinctions in reality. Someone familiar with linguistic work would have good grounds for rejecting this inference. Zhuangzi's point here is that rejecting distinctions is implicit in the claim that "all is one." We cannot make it without making a distinction. "Having said, "all is one" have we managed to say anything?"  Zhuangzi saw that we cannot soundly draw an absolute conclusion about reality from relativist premises about words, distinctions and reference.

The Zhuangzi writer(s) show no signs of being relativist or pluralist about the world (i.e., committed to many metaphysically real worlds). The text, however, certainly expresses a descriptive norm-pluralism (many norms systems exist, including higher level norms for choosing/interpreting lower-level norms).  Moreover, it is skeptical (agnostic) about normative realism. He is unsure that one and only one of the existing norm systems is correct.

Skepticism about our ability to choose from the many available guiding systems and skepticism about our ways of distinguishing things are two manifestations of skepticism about daos. We get access to the reality that is relevant to acting through our daos or "comprehensive views." These "forms of life" include our norms of discrimination, of distinction, and of classification into "things" or "types" for purposes of action.

My conclusion is that the Zhuangzi shares with many writers of the period an implicitly naturalistic-monist conception of the world. However, it rejects the invitation to treat this monism as Parmenidean—as warranting a blanket denial of distinctions. However, speculation about what is ultimately real is not the central philosophical project of the period. [45] The Zhuangzi aims its skeptical attitude at conceptions of the world that inform our various, rival concepts of what counts as the good life--dao.

Skepticism: Theme, Scope and Strength. [46]

Skepticism is a complex epistemological stance. Following Goldman (1986), we can distinguish among many varieties of skepticism by focusing on its different themes, its scope and its strength. [47] We can use these distinctions with appropriate modifications in the different conceptual context of Chinese thought. To do so, we should avoid formulating them in terms of sententials or sententially linked concepts such as truth, belief, or inference. The appropriate counterparts would be distinctions or shi-feithis-not this 是 非 assignments (approximating judgments), dispositions to treat as shi-feithis-not this 是 非 (approximating thoughts) and appeal to standards (a 法 fastandardor a 道 daoguide) for treating as shi-feithis-not this 是 非 (approximating inference).  These concepts underlie ancient accounts of knowing-to, knowing how-to, and contact-knowing (acquaintance).

Gaptooth asked Wang Ni.  'Do you know what all things treat as是 shithis:right?'  'How could I know that?'  'Do you know what it is you do not know?'  'How could I know that'?  'So in that case, does no one know anything?'  ' How could I know that? Still, let me try to state it - "How do I know that what I call knowing is not non-knowing? How do I know that what I call non-knowing is not knowing?"  HY 6/2/64-66.

Theme: non-epistemic goals v. doubt about epistemic achievement.

Several recent writers deny that Zhuangzi's is direct skepticism about our epistemic achievements—whether we have knowledge. They draw parallels to ancient Greek Pyrrhonian skepticism and construe Zhuangzi's theme as non-epistemic—as a posture aiming at some envisioned good. They aver that Zhuangzi's apparent skepticism is not really a negative thesis about our epistemic achievements but a recommendation about an attitude we ought to adopt (suspension of judgment) to get peace of mind. They justify this reinterpretation as a way to avoid an inconsistency in skepticism—the skeptic cannot know that he does not know. [48] If one claimed to know that no one knew, there would be a problem, but it can hardly be a problem with skeptical doubt as a philosophical attitude. The problem arises if the skeptic asserts the doubt in the form of a skeptical conclusion "no one knows anything" and acknowledges the norm of asserting that acknowledges the familiar challenge "how do you know that" as one that binds him to withdraw the assertion if he cannot vindicate that he does know it.  The content of the assertion itself is fully consistent.

The doubt illustrated in the Gaptooth discussion entails no inconsistency and, arguably, is carefully drawn to avoid it. Its root is worry that the standards for using terms like "know" and "don't know" could be other than they are. The anti-skeptical interpreters do not soundly derive the incoherent conclusions from things in the Zhuangzi and, even if they had, their derivation would not have been accessible to a Zhuangzi (i.e. he would not have formulated it in terms of 'truth', 'belief' or 'meaning'). The "irony" of their therapeutic solutions to the bogus problem is that they are plainly incoherent since the content of the judgment is "we should not make any judgment."  Further, its incoherence is precisely the one identified and criticized by the ancient Mohists and the Zhuangzi passage (D.1 above ). Both would easily spot the "perversity" in recommending that we not make judgments.

They choose the "therapeutic" strategy to rescue the traditional view of Zhuangzi as a religious or spiritual guide from the threat to that view posed by the skeptical passages. I certainly accept the value of examining the broader significance of the skepticism in the Zhuangzi, but I doubt this could be it.  First, I do not see why the possibility of a wider theme and significance for skeptical lines of reasoning should rule out that the text also expresses skepticism in the familiar sense of straightforward doubt of our epistemic achievements. It seems to me obvious that it does. [49] Second, I conclude that a representative philosophical reader/writer should find this significance in the political implications, rather than some recipe for spiritual edification. [50]

a)      Doubts about knowing and the basis of knowing.

While accepting the value of giving the wider implications of skepticism, I will not call those implications 'skepticism'. I restrict that term, as contemporary philosophical usage does, to philosophical doubts about knowing or justifying, bearing in mind, however, that in the Chinese contexts, the 'knowing' is practical, not propositional and 'justifying' is not sentential inference but appeal to some standard for making a distinction. The doubt is about whether we do know to make the distinctions that underlie our action choices.

As I noted above, we can draw broad parallels between Chinese and Western conceptual structures for epistemic discussion. The rough counterpart of 'belief' would be de re wei-ing (i.e., deeming-for-action) attitudes. That is to say, skeptical doubt centers on the normative assumption that we have wei-ed correctly when we distinguish between things particularly as they are relevant to our action.

Chinese thinkers of the period did not distinguish questions about causation and warrant of beliefs. Most explicitly, the Mohists recognize that we appeal to standards for applying guiding distinctions in the course of dao-ing—giving guidance. The Zhuangzi often presents such considerations in terms of an ambiguous dependence. [51] One shi-feithis-not this是 非depends on a prior shi-feithis-not this是 非.  The view I defend is that the Zhuangzi passages express skepticism in the context of their awareness that our judgments always have this dependence (causal or rational) on prior shi-feithis-not this是 非 judgments. This leads to the rough counterpart of a skeptical theme focusing on relativity of justification.

Not yet to have it grown in the heart-mind and yet to have shi-feithis-not this是 非is like going to Yue today and arriving yesterday. (Ch. 2) HY 4/2/22

The Zhuangzi passages play on the view that people use many norms or standards of what would be correct wei-ing. The clearest case is Mozi's famous three-standards: [52] (1) conformity to traditional shi-feithis-not this是 非 assignments, (2) measurable, empirical standards for word use, and (3) moral and utilitarian considerations. The plurality means possible conflict and entails that we will draw on some higher standard to tell us which to use in cases of conflict. [53]

We do not know which wei-ing is correct unless we know which standard to use. However, knowing that is another 'knowing-to'. Claims to know, thus, face a regress. The requirement that we know-to apply these rather than those higher norms and standards in interpreting or selecting the lower ones suggests that we presuppose a dao when we interpret (or select) a dao. The regress of implicit daos on which our judgments depend lies behind the Zhuangzi expression of skepticism. We cannot escape dao. Humans live in dao as fish live in water. HY 18/6/72-3


The scope of a skeptical attitude refers to the areas of knowledge it calls into question. Thus, one may be a religious skeptic or a skeptic about other minds, sense data, physical objects, or ethics. [54]   One's skepticism may be narrow (e.g. my skepticism about current Ancient Chinese textual theory or our reconstructions of "the sounds of classical Chinese") or broad (e.g. skepticism of the external world). Most recognizable skepticism has some implicitly limited scope that it contrasts with some paradigm of what we can know.

Most accounts agree that the Zhuangzi skeptical passages suggest a rather broad scope. While the skepticism resembles ethical skepticism in revolving around the regress of norms, it implicitly embraces all linguistic classification—since these are subject to norms. A dao, a conception of a good life, includes in itself the good or right ways of classifying and identifying things. In China, the doubts focus on linguistic classification more than on sense experience, other minds, and physical or theoretical objects. The scope of such doubt however affects the whole scheme that underlies our "knowing what to do." The object of doubt is the comprehensive, guiding view that constitutes our "form of life." 

Stories of surprises, gestalt shifts and dreams all play a skeptical role. [55] These are familiar themes in the Zhuangzi.  Here are some examples:

[Zhuang Zhou pursued a strange magpie into a preserve.] He noticed a cicada finding such lovely shade it forgot itself. A mantis poised itself to strike, so taken with the vision of opportunity it forgot its own situation. The strange magpie on seeing its own gain forgot an authentic urge.  Zhuang zhou said "Eee! Things are inherently connected and kinds are interdependent."  As he threw down his bow to leave, a game warden caught up and accosted him. Ch. 20 HY 6/20/61-4

Have only you not heard how in fleeing the invasion of Jia, Lin Hui discarded a priceless treasure to carry his infant child to safety. Some say "is it for value? However, the child's value was lesser; was it to facilitate fleeing: but the child was more trouble.  Why then abandon the treasure and take the child? Lin Hui said, "One was beneficial, the other was natural." So beneficial things are cast aside in times of disaster and urgency. Natural affiliations are embraced in such times. The times of embracing and discarding are very different. Ch. 20 HY 53/20/38-41

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, I have a big tree named ailanthus Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!"

Chuang Tzu said, "…Now you have this big tree and you're distressed because it's useless. Why don't you plant it in Not‑Even‑Anything Village, or the field of Broad‑and‑Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life; nothing can ever harm it. If there's no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?" Ch. 1 HY 3/1/43-7 [Watson]

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, "The king of Wei gave me some seeds of a huge gourd. I planted them, and when they grew up, the fruit was big enough to hold five piculs. I tried using it for a water container, but it was so heavy I couldn't lift it I split it in half to make dippers, but they were so large and unwieldy that I couldn't dip them into anything. It's not that the gourds weren't fantastically big but I decided they were no use and so I smashed them to pieces."

Chuang Tzu said, "You certainly are dense when it comes to using big things! In Sung, there was a man who was skilled at making a salve to prevent chapped hands, and generation after generation his family made a living by bleaching silk in water. A traveler heard about the salve and offered to buy the prescription for a hundred measures of gold. The man called everyone to a family council. 'For generations we've been bleaching silk and we've never made more than a few measures of gold,' he said. 'Now, if we sell our secret, we can make a hundred measures in one morning. Let's let him have it!' The traveler got the salve and introduced it to the king of Wu who was having trouble with the state of Yueh. The king put the man in charge of his troops, and that winter they fought a naval battle with the men of Yueh and gave them a bad beating. A portion of the conquered territory was awarded to the man as a fief. The salve had the power to prevent chapped hands in either case; but one man used it to get a fief, while the other one never got beyond silk bleaching because they used it in different ways. Now you had a gourd big enough to hold five piculs. Why didn't you think of making it into a great tub so you could go floating around the rivers and lakes, instead of worrying because it was too big and unwieldy to dip into things! Obviously you still have a lot of underbrush in your head!" Ch. 1 HY 2/1/35-42 [Watson]

Last night Chuang Chou dreamed he was a butterfly; spirits soaring he was a butterfly (is it that in showing what he was he suited his own fancy?), and did not know about Chou. When all of a sudden he awoke, he was Chou with all his wits about him. He does not know whether he is Chou who dreams he is a butterfly or a butterfly who dreams he is Chou. Ch. 2 HY 7/2/94-6 [Graham]

These accounts of suddenly seeing things differently remind us that the challenge of correctly wei-ing has a "metaphysical" dimension filtering through our background categorizations. Zhuangzi the hunter in a grove feels confident (and smugly superior) as he stalks a bird that is also engaged in stalking a mantis that is about to pounce on a cicada. Little does each know he is the hunted as well as the hunter. When the "keeper" surprises Zhuangzi and chases him from the grove, he sees his confidence and sense of superiority as foolishness. He recognizes his likeness to the chain of prey he had been observing. An unappreciated feature of the context made him suddenly reclassify himself and other things differently for purposes of guiding action.

"How do I know that loving life is not a delusion? How do I know that in hating death I am not like a man who, having left home in his youth, has forgotten the way back?

"Lady Li was the daughter of the border guard of Ai. When she was first taken captive and brought to the state of Chin, she wept until her tears drenched the collar of her robe. But later, when she went to live in the palace of the ruler, shared his couch with him, and ate the delicious meats of his table, she wondered why she had ever wept. How do I know that the dead do not wonder why they ever longed for life? Ch. 2 HY 6/2/78-81 [Watson]

The Zhuangzi also targets norms of judgment that seem beyond challenge. We normally "know to do" things that keep us alive, but some ways of life (conceptions of the good life) sometimes treat accepting death as rational. Is this an objection to them?  The Zhuangzi asks, "How do I know that avoiding death is not a similar mistake?"  Without knowing that I should value life, I cannot claim to know to do any of the things in which pragmatic survival (individual or social) is a motivating standard. Zhuangzi's conversation with the skull illustrates by portraying even this judgment as one that we could not motivate from the rival point of view.

When Chuang Tzu went to Ch’u, he saw an old skull, all dry and parched. He poked it with his carriage whip and then asked, “Sir, were you greedy for life and forgetful of reason, and so came to this? Was your state overthrown and did you bow beneath the ax and so came to this? Did you do some evil deed and were you ashamed to bring disgrace upon your par­ents and family, and so came to this? Was it through the pangs of cold and hunger that you came to this? Or did your springs and autumns pile up until they brought you to this?”

When he had finished speaking, he dragged the skull over and, using it for a pillow, lay down to sleep.

In the middle of the night, the skull came to him in a dream and said, “You chatter like a rhetorician and all your words betray the entanglements of a living man. The dead know nothing of these! Would you like to hear a lecture on the dead?”

“Indeed,” said Chuang Tzu.

The skull said, “Among the dead there are no rulers above, no subjects below, and no chores of the four seasons. With nothing to do, our springs and autumns are as endless as heaven and earth. A king facing south on his throne could have no more happiness than this!”

Chuang Tzu couldn’t believe this and said, “If I got the Arbiter of Fate to give you a body again, make you some bones and flesh, return you to your parents and family and your old home and friends, you would want that, wouldn’t you?”

The skull frowned severely, wrinkling up its brow. “Why would I throw away more happiness than that of a king on a throne and take on the troubles of a human being again?” it said. Ch. 18  HY46/18/22-9 [Watson]

Other species -based doubt expands on the theme. Clearly, the extinction of humans would seem threatened species not to be such a bad thing.

Mao-ch'iang and Lady Li were beautiful in the eyes of men; but when the fish saw them they plunged deep, when the birds saw them they flew high, when the deer saw them they broke into a run. Which of these four knows what is truly beautiful in the world? In my judgment the principles of Goodwill and Duty, the paths of "That's it, that's not", are inextricably confused; how could I know how to discriminate between them?'  Ch. 2 HY 6/2/69-70 [Graham]

Dream passages illustrate the theme by showing how, in dreams, we classify others and ourselves in one way with little hesitation then on awakening, abandon that classification instantly. We cannot convince the "dream persona" that it is wrong.   Am I Zhuangzi dreaming being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming Zhuangzi? Do we know how to treat the dream context?  Some ways of life treat dreams as important identifications of one's religious status, some as prophesies, some as revelations of deep structures of desire, etc. Are we right merely to dismiss what we "knew" during the dream?

The main target of doubt in these passages is conventional wisdom, especially our shared, conventional patterns of discrimination or distinction making. A key claim is that any time we make a discrimination, we fail to see something (as Zhuangzi fails to see the gamekeeper while discriminating the bird as unwitting prey).

That the scope is broad, however, does not mean that it is total. It does not, as we noted above, signal any doubt about the real-world context in which our ways of life operate nor that the ways operate in the same world nor that we have different ones and disagree about them.

Besides reminders of how we can go wrong, the stories mainly underline the irresolvability of our disputes about different ways of life and the difficulty of appreciating alternatives.  They remind us that our confidence in our own comprehensive view is neither reliable nor unique to us. The text naturally implies that we are to learn (come to know) something from these stories. This knowing about knowing is valuable. Ignoring it would bad from many, if not all, points of view.

Broad but not total skepticism of this type can support a normative conclusion – as it does for modern liberalism. The conclusion would be that we ought not to participate in social structures designed to oppress, mutilate, or kill those who do not share our way of life. Engaging in coercive activities to impose a single way of life on people requires a level of confidence that we have identified the correct comprehensive vision to which we are not entitled.  The Zhuangzi passages remind us of that we have frequently been wrong in our classifications and action attitudes toward things.


The strength of a skeptical doubt is independent of its scope. A very broad skepticism might still be weak and a narrow skepticism might be quite strong. The stronger the demand the skeptic requires to justify a claim to knowledge, the weaker the skeptical considerations have to be to support the judgment that we do not or cannot have it.  There are various dimensions of strength. 

a)      Doubt of perfect knowledge or any knowledge?

Denying that we can be certain of something is a weak version of skepticism because 'certainty' is a strong demand. Similarly, denying that we now know X now weaker than modal versions, which deny any possibility of knowing X. The Gaptooth discussion suggests that the Zhuangzi position is weak in that it allows we might in fact know something, but do not know that we know it. [56] Thus, it does not commit us to the claim that knowledge is impossible. 

The passages under discussion do not use notions like 'certainty', but the skepticism still looks weak in a vaguely similar sense. The surprise and dream passages suggest that skepticism about how to act is comparative. We may know a way to do a thing, but not plausibly claim to know the way or the best way to do it. There are always possibilities we have not yet even contemplated. We learn from our experiences of coming to realize a better way to view and act that we typically tend to have too much confidence that our way is the way of doing something.

Consider the story of the protective hand-salve used by its inventor for bleaching silk, which was later adapted to a military use by an enterprising stranger. (Ch. 1) It worked as well or better to that purpose and brought the entrepreneur greater status and monetary rewards. The inventor did know a way to use of the salve, but he clearly did not know the correct use. A better use, one that he had never even thought of, was available.

The dream sequences make a similar point. We learn that one way of life is not correct when we "awaken" to one that seems better. Each such "awakening" is a kind of knowing--that our past confidence was misleading about our epistemic status. We know then that we did not know before what we thought we knew. The repeated experience of coming to know should make us cautious, modest about, or present state of knowledge. Even when our prior ways have seemed to work fine, they have turned out to come to seem inferior to some alternative. Typically, we had not even imagined the alternative.

The guidance-skepticism is thus weak in that it denies mainly that we can ever have perfect, ultimate, the highest or best knowledge. The demand is a strong one, so the skepticism is weak. We cannot intelligently treat or regard our way of doing things as unqualifiedly best. This is, of course, precisely the kind of dao skepticism that justifies neutrality among comprehensive views and encouraging the spread of different daos. However, in making this point, the skeptic acknowledges that we can come to realize (know) that one dao is better than another. We simply cannot conclude that with this realization we have found the way.

Again, notice that this skepticism does not arise from any analysis of our representations or of memory v. some reality.  It takes both memory and our past for granted in appealing to our common past experiences of coming to see as dubious what we had thought obvious.

One may object that the skepticism is so weak that it really has no opponents. However, the tradition defends us from accusations of triviality. We find many claims in Confucian [57] and other authoritarian (Proto-legalist) writing that "sages" are capable of transcending the ordinary limited perspectives and achieving something like total or fully rounded knowledge. In any case, the interpretative claim is not trivial since the dominant rival interpretation is that Zhuangzi himself claims access to Confucian-like perfect knowledge. Traditional interpretations take the skill stories as endorsing just such a claim. [58]

The Zhuangzi also observes that skillful performers are all limited to their skill. Inevitably, other things they cannot do as well.  Perhaps their focus in gaining the skill hinders them from getting some other valuable ability. Typically, the stories note that the skillful practitioner cannot convey his skill to his son. A musician cannot play all notes at once; a debater cannot convince everyone etc. He sums up by noting that 成chengcompletion always entails 虧kuidefect.

May men like this be said to be complete? Then so am I. Or may they not be said to be complete? Then neither am I, nor is anything else. Ch. 2 [Graham] HY 5/2/46-7

The no-completion-without-defect insight reminds us that no matter how much we perfect our skill, we will be unable to do other things. This is rooted in the linguistic point.  Anytime we learn to make and follow a distinction, there will be things we are unable to appreciate or respond to. To make a distinction is to choose not to make other possible distinctions in the context.

Hence, divisions have that which they do not divide; distinctions have that they do not distinguish. You say, "What does this mean?" Sages embrace things, ordinary people discriminate things so they can see them in relation to each other; so I say, those who distinguish have that they do not see. Ch. 2 HY 5/2/57

Normally, we regard our way of life as better than the ways of others. We might even be right about it. However, the skeptical passages warn us that our evaluation to this effect is suspect. It may be question-begging because others may not share our standards of evaluation. We might accidentally be right, but we cannot conclude that we are so merely from the strength of our conviction, nor can we merely because we appeal to higher standards. A rival dao comes complete with its own different norms of warrant.

Is man's life really as stupid as this? Or is it that I am the only stupid one, and there are others not so stupid? But if you go by the completed heart and take it as your authority, who is without such an authority? Why should it be only the man who knows how things alternate and whose heart approves its own judgments who has such an authority? Ch.2 [Graham] HY4/2/20-2

We would be unwise to ignore that the person with the rival form of life probably finds hers superior on functionally similar grounds. That is, though she does not appeal to the same norms, she does appeal to norms of warrant and they may justify and convince her in as complex and complete a way.  She may equally cite her dao's success in the actual world as judged by those norms. She too will have a skill, albeit not the same as ours. The crucial skeptical realization is that we can no more easily convince her that our way of life is better than she can us.

I referred to how dream passages illustrate the effect of conversion from one comprehensive view to another.  When we are "within" one way of life, we find it obviously correct.  When we have awakened to a different way, we equally clearly realize how we were wrong before. We become as strongly convinced of our new view [59] That we can so easily come to see things "in a new light" should lead us to realize how real the danger is that we may be misled merely by the reflective elaboration of a dao we accept.

How should the philosophically alert reader then make sense of the interspersing of these skeptical passages with talk about "perfected" people and absolutes? What they might find striking about such passages is that they often suggest that such perfection is unintelligible and irrelevant to us. [60] Unintelligible, some examples suggest, even to the highest religious sage—the Yellow emperor (HY 6/2/71-6). 

Nieh Ch'ueh said, "If you don't know what is profitable or harmful, then does the Perfect Man likewise know nothing of such things?" Wang Ni replied, "The Perfect Man is godlike. Though the great swamps blaze, they cannot burn him; though the great rivers freeze, they cannot chill him; though swift lightning splits the hills and howling gales shake the sea, they cannot frighten him. A man like this rides the clouds and mist, straddles the sun and moon, and wanders beyond the four seas. Even life and death have no effect on him, much less the rules of profit and loss!

. . .

The sage leans on the sun and moon, tucks the universe under his arm, merges himself with things, leaves the confusion and muddle as it is, and looks on slaves as exalted. Ordinary men strain and struggle; the sage is stupid and blockish. He takes part in ten thousand ages and achieves simplicity in oneness. For him, all the ten thousand things are what they are, and thus they enfold each other. Ch. 2 [Watson] HY  6/2/71-6

Typically, this kind of text makes its point by asserting a kind of reversal. Perfection may be the very opposite of what we now take it to be. Perfection from one perspective may appear as stupidity from another! The perfect musician may be one who does not play a note(?!). [61]   The judgments and behavior of a perfect man are just irrelevant, incomprehensible to us and of no use when we, ordinary people, think about what to do.

Our lives are bounded and knowledge is unbounded. To use the bounded to pursue the unbounded is dangerous—stop it and you can be deemed a knowledgeable person. Ch.3 HY 7/3/1

We can also read passages like "A man like this rides the clouds and mist," [62] as contemplating what might be possible with different daos. Some comprehensive way of life that is possible for us, might give us powers over nature and our lives that we can now barely conceive of.  That is another sense that should lead us to doubt that we now know how to live. There almost certainly are far better possible ways to organize our lives, whose superiority we could appreciate even using our present norms.

(1)   Arguments

Besides theme, scope and strength, we can classify dominant arguments for skepticism. Here I will strategically focus on the two most relevant to understanding skepticism in the Zhuangzi. One line of argument draws on the fallibility of human cognitive faculties the other on the question of the grounds or warrant. Clearly, my analysis is that the core argument for skepticism in the Zhuangzi is of the latter kind. The skepticism appears to flow mainly from the dependency analysis of knowing-to as presupposing standards and which opens up a regress of knowing-to use certain standards and how to use them.

The most common alternative in the literature on Zhuangzi's skepticism is human fallibility—particularly of the senses. Do these passages suggest that the ground of the skepticism is a view of the limitations of the human mind (Say as contrasted to the transcendent supernatural)? Aside from the implicit claim that the judgments of a perfect being are irrelevant to our deciding what to do, there is scant evidence in this texts or the tradition for any negative analysis of human cognitive psychology. [63] The main limitation we face is "our lives are bounded."  We find none of the familiar appeals to relativity or fallibility of sense perception.

The Zhuangzi does sometime makes its skeptical point in physiological terms. It refers to a 成cheng xin as a physiological tendency that respond to things with shi-feithis-not this 是 非. It "grows" in the heart just as the heart grows in the body. The point there, however, simply recapitulates the regress-of-norms argument. All shi-feithis-not this 是 非 emerging from the heart rely on having some other shi-feithis-not this 是 非 already present there. As I have argued (Hansen 1992), the discussion of the heart approximates (i.e., translates with appropriate conceptual adjustments) the Humean skeptical point "you can't get an ought from an is." The heart-mind's judgments are dependent it its having absorbed the shi-feithis-not this 是 非 presuppositions of a "way of life."

The Zhuangzi is skeptical of any claims to innate, self-warranting knowledge. This point is also most famously put in physiological terms--that the 心 xinheart-mind is a product of its conditions of growth.  It does not have innate or direct (intuitive) access to the correct answer to a know-to question. The philosophical context presents us with numerous targets for this skeptical argument. Graham identified the most obvious example of such an epistemological claim--Mencian intuitionism. Mencius implied that all human hearts are born with a naturally accurate inclination to shi-feithis-not this 是 非. [64]

Other versions of ancient Chinese claims of access to transcendent or perfect epistemic accuracy in shi-feithis-not this 是 非 judgments attribute the access to some form of breath-control or self-cultivation. Scholars have recently begun to highlight accounts drawn from the Guanzi and the Xunzi. [65] For sake of argument , let us accept the interpretive accounts. The issue is whether, as these scholars imply, such positions are sound rejections of Zhuangzi's skepticism.  I argue they are not.  The Zhuangzi's "dependency" arguments work as well against claims of perfect knowledge via innate, or cultivated, physical or religiously transcendent intuitions. We require both a norm to justify our reliance on the intuitive capacity and a norm to guide our use of it before we can vouchsafe that we have used it correctly, or followed the right intuition.

I have argued that this important skeptical theme is a crucial warning to those adopting the common interpretive posture that all Chinese thought assumes this essentially religious "guru" posture. [66] I do not deny its existence or its familiarity in China. However, I do deny that such self-aggrandizing claims to some mysterious access to knowledge would impress a philosophically competent judge. [67] Had they understood the Zhuangzi argument, they should not have acknowledged such claims--even if those claims were found elsewhere in the Zhuangzi.

Baldly alleging, as the religious writers of China do, that some esoteric method enables them to make dependency-free judgments does not answer the skeptical point made in the Zhuangzi.  It simply discredits the claimants by confirming the non-reflective, religious character of their own thought processes. The contemporary Chinese philosophically trained reader of such texts should have no reason to accept their boast. The argument does not rest on the limitations of human capacity (something that conceivably could be altered by trances, diets, breathing, etc.), it is about an open-ended regress of warrant. Ancient Chinese thinkers demonstrably had more than sufficient reason to doubt that any cultivation could give transcendental epistemic access to a perfect way to live. Until someone in that culture produced a sound counter-argument to the position stated in these passages of the Zhuangzi, the qualified, contemporary reader of these texts should have been skeptical.

Now what of 21st century readers [68] who allege that the implication of other passages or texts is something like this religious or dogmatic claim? First, that interpretive claim is itself subject to scrutiny by the same standard. I.e., should a competent skeptical philosopher who understood the arguments from the analytic wing of Chinese thought understand the passage to entail a religious claim? Of course, it could. The contemporaneous philosophical reader could understand passages he considered fatuous or naïve. He would have no reason to conclude that the passage--even right next to a skeptical passage--could change the meaning of the skeptical passages. [69] They would simply conflict. The conflict is fully intelligible because the skepticism is precisely what the philosophical context invites. It casts doubt on any faith that there could be "sages," of the kind required by authoritarian political doctrines.

This strategy of reading leaves room for goals of personal or social transformation, but not for peculiarly religious, spiritual, or transcendent goals. In emphasizing here the social-political implications, I do not mean to deny that any practical value can be derived from the relativistic skeptical insights. [70]   Common-sense implications abound.  One is tolerance, flexibility and open mindedness about other daos and their possible value in adapting our own. This underwrites the famous Zhuangzi willingness to listen respectfully to freaks, convicted criminals, seemingly insane philosophers, centipedes and skulls. The practical implication of this kind of skepticism is that we (socially or individually) should not waste daos. [71]

Pluralism (Relativism, Perspectivism)

The term 'relativism' has such a bad press among non-philosophers that some avoid it in preference to terms like pluralism, perspectivism etc.  I can confirm that the word attracts more heat than light, but am inclined to resist the common tendency to "blame the word."  I find all three terms helpful in bringing out different aspects of the position enunciated in the Zhuangzi. One advantage of 'pluralism' and 'perspectivalism' is that they more naturally draw attention away from truth to warrant or justification. 'Pluralism' emphasizes that there may be multiple warranted answers.  'Perspectivism' is a common way to fill out the relativist formula and draws our attention to how the broadly epistemic context  and our conceptual backgrounds shape and warrant different answers.

The usage of 'relativism' is even less philosophically standardized than is 'skepticism' so it is even more dangerous to take it to refer to a credo to which Zhuangzi was converted so that my characterizing Zhuangzi as a relativist can warrant attributing some fixed set of beliefs to him based on some commentator's definition of the term. These terms simply help us characterize accurately the thrust (implications) of arguments, conceptions, and reflections in the Zhuangzi.

Broadly speaking, a relativist analysis of a subject matter implies the way to fully answer certain questions about that topic uses phrases like "it depends on. . . ."  Relativist analyses loosely contrast with absolutist ones, which detach full answers from any context. Consider the most familiar example of relativism.  To answer "how fast are we traveling?" with "Thirty miles an hour" is incomplete. It should be "thirty miles an hour relative to the surface of the earth." It could also be "about a thousand miles an hour relative to the pivot of the earth's rotation" or "around 65000 miles per hours per hour relative to the sun."  In other words, the correct answer begins with "it depends." The pre-Einstein "absolute" analysis, by contrast, presupposed a matrix of absolute time and space so that exactly one, unqualified answer to that question is fully correct.

Some writers have used 'relativism' to contrast with 'realism'.  The issue turns on complicated explications of the Western concepts of 'truth' or 'meaning'. I have argued [72] that such explications are remote from ancient Chinese philosophical concerns, which we better understand as dealing with pragmatic counterparts such as "warranted assertability" and "appropriate use." Most forms of relativism presuppose a kind of realism. We take Einstein to have discovered the correct way to describe motion and take the classical notion of absolute space-time to be wrong. I have argued that relativism in the Zhuangzi takes for granted the existence of a natural reality that is independent of us.

Relativism does not imply that all views are warranted, justified or rational. [73] If we fill the above ellipsis with something like "some perspective," relativism may allow that for any view, there is a perspective from which such a view is rational. However, there need be no perspective that warrants all views and, possibly, some views are unwarranted from any perspective (e.g. logical contradictions and counter-intuitives). 

As argued above, the Zhuangzi uses relativism to support skepticism by illustrating how our confidence in our knowing the way to act is dependent of factors we have not actively considered or leaving out possibilities that have not occurred to us.  He stimulates our awareness that people with rival perspectives acquire equal confidence from their different background standards. Our confidence in the "obviousness" of our view is not a reliable guide to knowledge. The relativism thus fuels the skepticism. [74]

Distinctions like those we used to pinpoint the skepticism can help us locate what is distinctive about the Zhuangzi's relativist arguments. The caveats about the changed philosophical context all apply here as well.


Relativism, too, may have various themes.  The above contrast between truth and warrant is a component of theme as is the focus on perspective. Most important, we obviously should neither treat relativism as an explication of the nature of truth nor as claims about meaning and certainly not about the claim that whatever you believe is true. [75] In China, the perspectivist dimension of his relativism rarely deals with visual or sense data perspective, e.g. the fact that something appears oval from one angle and round from another.  The formulation in the Zhuangzi deals with indexical perspective (the way reference is indexed) value perspective that arises from being raised in or committed to one scheme of shi-feithis-not this是 非(one 道 daoguide) rather than another. The theme is the relativity of the obviousness of our action guiding distinctions.

A contemporary of Zhuangzi should not find plausible any interpretive commitment to a "guru Zhuangzi." The usual development of the guru theme in interpretation treats these relativist reflections as characterizing the situation of the mere "ordinary person." [76] The text allegedly uses a relativist analysis only to highlight what it is that guru insight somehow transcends. [77]   Conventional, relative, limited points of view trap ordinary people, but the perfected Daoist sage transcends these to take a "rounded and complete" view. Interpreters skip the step of showing how, in the face of Zhuangzi's relativist and skeptical arguments, gurus manage this epistemic feat. If it is therapeutic relativism, the therapy has been conveniently left out. This reading pictures the Zhuangzi in a boastful, authoritarian stance—and one that assumes a fundamental inequality. It is the posture of the Confucian justifying rule of man. [78]   Rather than "no one knows the single correct way to live," guru interpretations read it as saying "Only I, Zhuangzi, know."

As in the case of skepticism, we can ask, what is the broader political, ethical, or spiritual point of answering either "I doubt it" or "it depends" to a question. Ultimately, a contemporary philosopher should still locate it in the political realm—an argument for political neutrality and its associated toleration of different concepts of the good life. More directly, the relativism motivates the skepticism.  We cannot neutrally distinguish between our case and that of someone with a rival dao making an equally confident and "obvious" judgment that conflicts with ours. The skeptical outcome, in turn, motivates the liberal political stance. [79]


The relativism, like the skepticism, is broad in scope. The target of relativist analysis is the dependency of our dao and our practical interpretation of it on accidental facts of our upbringing and past. The linguistic focus of the Zhuangzi's relativism of reference derives from the indexical analysis of shi-feithis-not this是 非 which figures so centrally in the account of 道 daoguide and Zhuangzi's appeal to the relativism of acceptability (可 keassertible ). To decide what a term should "pick out" when executing a dao, we appeal to our past training and practice. The linguistic texts use可 keassertible in their presentation and analysis of doubts about reference of terms and assertability of larger strings. The Zhuangzi observes that any existing linguistic practice creates its own assertability conditions.

Daos: where can we go and they not be? Language: where can it exist and not be acceptable? (4/2/25)

The focus on linguistic practices, acceptable ways to deploy distinctions etc. nicely illustrates the Zhuangzi's characteristic analysis of ethical disputes in ancient China. Mohists and Confucians dispute about burial practices. Zhuangzi sees them as relying on different standards governing their use of "good" or "not-good." One dao's standards dictate using 'good' of such practices and the other does not. This linguistic analysis of the issue links the Zhuangzi passages to Later-Mohist linguistics and to Hui Shi's paradoxes and theses.

Hui Shi's relativist analyses of comparative terms (before/after, yesterday/today, high/low, large/small, useful/useless and so forth) may have stimulated the relativist lines of thinking in the Zhuangzi, but the Qiwulun arguments broaden that focus dramatically.  It places Hui Shi's relativism of comparison alongside the relativism of reference of indexicals—particularly 'this' (是 shithis:right) and 'that.' The indexical aspect of shi-feithis-not this 是 非 thus broadens the scope of the relativist orientation.

The relativist points plays two different roles in undermining dogmatic claims to knowing dao. One is that relativity plagues each step in the regress of choosing the norms (the discourse daos). We think there is a correct choice, but the choice appeals because of some other norm that we just happen to have. Second, given a certain norm, relativity infects its interpretation into action (its execution or performance). Where we distinguish correct and wrong ways to do it, we depend on some interpretive norm. These two are among the ways a way can be (in)constant. The denial that ways are constant in one or all of these ways is the upshot of this relativist line of thought.

A familiar instance of this kind of relativity is the relativity of historical and cultural traditions. Any learned scheme may face both kinds of inconstancy. We rely on some ground to prefer it to other historical traditions. We rely on other norms to determine what counts as correctly following the tradition.


Relativist postures can also vary along a vague strength dimension. Strong relativism would imply that the applicability of the term or the correctness of the judgment depended entirely on that to which it was relative. Pure subjectivism would be a strong kind of relativism. [80] Weak relativism would allow that the norm conditions contribute to a classification or evaluation. Clearly, the relativism in these Chinese terms is weak in this sense--judgments of large and small clearly have something to do with the world as well as our standards of comparison. Judgments about the reference of indexicals are in the same category. 

However, we can look at a different arena of "strength." How extreme is the practical attitude one adopts in the face of recognizing the relativity of shi-feithis-not this 是 非 judgments.

1.          One might treat the correct way to respond to the insight is to refuse to make any judgment. This is what I characterize as the anti-language response (perhaps represented by Hui Shi).  Since the distinctions are relative to our context of judgment, they must be radically misleading. Reality has no distinctions.

As I noted, a philosopher could and should read the Zhuangzi passages as rejecting any such argument for silence as the correct relativist posture. We should read the text in awareness of the Mohist arguments against anti-language and anti-distinctions conclusions. The story of the pipes of heaven (human speech is as natural as bird twittering) together with the sheer delight in language play evident throughout the text also suggest the response is too strong.

2.          A slightly weaker version may allow us to make a judgment, but not to defend it or claim that it (or any judgment) is right and others wrong. This seems to be the posture of Shen Dao and, again, a contemporary philosophical reader would reject this reading where it was not explicitly stated. The text seems to reject such a posture as being confused about the interrelation of "man" and 天 tiannature:sky.  By nature we make shi-feithis-not this 是 非 judgments and rejecting them, as the Later Mohists have shown, is incoherent.

3.          A second "strong" conclusion goes in the opposite Direction. It is not that our judgments are wrong, but that all of them are right--anything goes.  Every judgment or conclusion really has a ". . . from this perspective" rider attached.  There are hints of this posture in the text on some issues. All language is 可 keassertible if some actual practice licenses it.  Our conclusion that there are authentic-inauthentic or right-wrong is a trick of "small accomplishments" or "elaboration." 

A reader with background in the linguistic analysis of the period could easily find these passages making the important claim that the key term of that analysis, 可 keassertible, is strongly relativistic in this way.  However, the Gaptooth dialogue (on page 28 ) and Zhuangzi's refutation of Hui Shi's monism should warn us against careless inference from this point. It does not entail that there is a perspective from which all language is可 keassertible.  The perspective of 天  tiannature:sky  fails since nature makes no shi-feithis-not this是 非 or  可 keassertible judgment. From any actual perspective from which we make such judgments, we will find some language not acceptable.  The Zhuangzi is more careful on this point than are most commentators.

We可 keassertible from可 keassertible and deny可 keassertible from a denying 可 keassertible. Daos take shape as we "walk" them. 4/2/33

  This sound line of development first surfaces in the Mohist Canon [81] against schools who present their 道 daoguide as right because it is 天 tiannature's:sky's dao.  All the existing 道 daoguides are natural in virtue of being actual but Zhuangzi rejects the 'natural' to 'acceptable' inference. [82]   Judgments of what is 可 keassertible belong to the realm of renhuman not 天  tiannature:sky. If we understand the relation of renhuman and 天 tiannature:sky  we should see that 天 tiannature:sky  is not a normative authority.

In rejecting this strong relativist posture that all 道 daoguides are correct, we resist reading Zhuangzi's relative analysis of the dependency of knowledge on norms and context into the semantic content of the judgment itself. That is, the content of the dependent judgment does not have a dependency rider. [83] The judgment "this is an ox" is both causally and rationally dependent, but it is distinct from the judgment "this is an ox from-my-point-of-view." The relativity affects our basis for the judgment, but not its content. If the relativism had this implication, then it would amount to denying that we ever disagree. A contemporary philosophical reading would find no sound reason to infer from these Zhuangzi passages that we do not really disagree. The text presents it as a problem that our appeals to authorities and other standards cannot neutrally resolve these disagreements.

4.          A related but slightly weaker conclusion is that all 道 daoguides are equal.  The problem here is that 'equal' is an evaluative term and the judgment that two things are equal appeal to some norm. [84] What might be justified is that all are equally天 tiannature:sky .  However, a competent ancient Chinese philosopher should not make the further, familiar mistake that presupposes the Confucian view of 天  tiannature:sky  as an authority. The conclusion, apparently shared by Later Mohists and Daoists, is that 天 tiannature:sky  (contra Mozi and Mencius) is not a normative standard. Norms come from 道 daoguides. [85]

5.          I therefore construe the Zhuangzi text as drawing a still weaker conclusion. It would accept, on pain of being embroiled in an anti-language paradox, that we are permitted to make judgments and to "deem" ourselves right in doing so.  Still, we acknowledge that in our deeming, we have depended on some other norm that we acquired "accidentally" (that we acquired in happening to be raised and exposed to one of many possible paths).  We are not so confident as to make us stop listening to and discussing with others or to warrant using coercion to eliminate other daos. We accept that someone may be right (metaphysical realism), that if two conflict, not both can be right and, trivially, accept the answer we in fact accept. However, in acknowledging the relativity (dependency) of our grounds or warrant for that judgment (or in appreciating the arbitrary historical-causal source of our view), we adopt a modest epistemic posture—mild skepticism. Thus, we can continue to discuss and seek to persuade (or be persuaded) from some common basis. Alternatively, we can choose to be tolerant and agree to disagree.

Taking the relativism alongside the skepticism suggests that we do treat our shi-feithis-not this 是 非 judgments themselves as detached from dependence on our grounds or norms. We, thus, really do disagree when we offer different answers and, at most, one of us can be correct. This is what makes it worthwhile listening to others' extended views.  The relativism explains why we disagree but does not remove the disagreement. Limiting relativism in this way both motivates the skepticism (which would otherwise disappear) and furthers the implicit political goal of tolerating disagreement, sharing and respectful communication as a means of improving and enriching our respective ways of life. This is crucial to Zhuangzi's pointed and consistent parody of the Confucian bias that freaks and cripples (especially those who authorities have mutilated to punish them) lack 德  devirtuosity.

Suppose You and I have a dispute about a distinction (辯 biandistinction dispute) If you win and not I, are you really是 shithis:right and am I 非feinot-this:wrong? If I win and you not, am I really是 shithis:right and are you 非feinot-this:wrong?  Is one 是 shithis:right and one 非feinot-this:wrong? Are both是 shithis:right and both非feinot-this:wrong? If we cannot know this between us, isn't everyone similarly in this kind of darkness?   Whom could we get to correct us? If we found someone like you to rectify the situation, since he agreed with you, how could he correct us? If we found someone like me to rectify the situation, since he agreed with me, how could he correct us? If we found someone different from you and me to rectify us, since he was different from both, how could he correct us? If we found someone who agreed with you and me to rectify us, since he agreed with both of us, how could he correct us? Therefore, neither you nor I nor other humans can resolve our dispute. Could we find anything else to depend on? 7/2/85-90

We can raise a question at each reason giving norm level.  We can ask, discuss and really disagree about what the correct norm to use to settle this issue is. Indeed, we could. If we did, the content of the answer to that question would be non-relative though our judgment about it would depend on still other standards. We may now agree on those standards (and that is useful) but, as the Gaptooth passage notes, such agreement would not mean we are right.  Our judgment about our shared judgment would continue to be dependent. We depend on 道 daoguide (norms) all the way up (and down!). At any level we can encounter a real disagreement which may be difficult or impossible to resolve because it signals our coming to the issue with different 道 daoguides

What the relativism in the Zhuangzi explicitly denies is the Confucian-Mohist assumption that the appeal to norms can come to an end at 天 tiannature:sky. [86] To borrow a modern formula, no fact of the matter settles our disputes about ways of life. There may be facts of the matter about whether historically the dispute simmers down, reaches a synthesis, or just disappears as the ways of life evolve within extant populations. No such fact, however, makes the surviving one correct. Correct is an irreducibly normative matter. That judgment can only be made by appeal to some norm—and 天 tiannature:sky  is not a norm-authority. Only a dao can play that role. This, again, is the sound sense in which Daoism privileges dao over 天  tiannature:sky.

Conclusion: The political bite.

The way in which relativism and skepticism are combined then schematically follows its pattern in the West. We are skeptical about our judgments because we appreciate the relativity of the grounds on which they depend. In the Chinese case, the judgments are the 辯 biandistinction dispute  and shi-feithis-not this 是 非 assignments. The set of those judgments and the norms presupposed by them make up our rival 道 daoguides. Our experience of awakening or insight is typically accompanied by a sense of confidence relative to what we "knew" before. Given, however, the repetition of that kind of "waking" and our awareness that others (including those who disagree with us) has gone through a similar series of illuminations should give us epistemic pause--a relatively negative or modest assessment of our cognitive accomplishments. Many or most schemes of norms are the products of "emerging" from such insights as they are stored up in our 成 chengprejudicesxinheart-mind that "grows" along with the body.

Political philosophers will find the rest familiar turf. It is the context of the normative theory of justice. Liberal justice addresses how we structure society's basic institutions (the constitution) in a way that is neutral among differing conceptions of the good life, different comprehensive guiding views (religious, moral or philosophical) and ways of life.  Liberal theorists argue that societies should adopt institutional structures that maximize freedom, allow, and even encourage tolerance of different ways of life.

Much of this modern political theory rests similarly on a kind of mild skepticism. [87]   While not implying that we abandon or stop advocating our own conception of the good, it acknowledges that we have little reason to suppose that we can rationally convince those with a different comprehensive view. We are less than confident that we can prove the superiority of our way of life starting from their norms. We accept that we cannot marshal arguments that should convince all others to adopt our way of life. At the same time, we clearly recognize that their arguments have not convinced us and are not showing any capacity to do so. The skepticism does not rest on discovering anything wrong about our way of life.

The politically motivated doubt is weak in the way Zhuangzi's is. We doubt provability-to-the-other but that gives us no reason to abandon our own way of life. Nor do we have reason to live with a gnawing, occurrent doubt about how we live. We need not keep ourselves only weakly committed to it or be on the verge of giving it up. [88] We need not cease caring about or advocating it. Nor need we passively accept, based on this weak skepticism, the elimination of our way of life by others. We do not face any obvious Hitler counter-example. When we reflect correctly on relativistic skepticism, we should risk no undermining of commitment other than agreeing to abandon prejudice, intolerance and repression.

The problem with a full extrapolation of this modern theory of justice context to the Zhuangzi is that, along with 'sentences' and 'truth', it is clearly hard to find any neat counterpart of 'justice' in ancient Chinese political theory. The paradigm political theories, Confucianism, Mohism and Legalism, typically address nothing resembling constitutional structure at any deeper level than Mozi's Hobbes-like justification of the wise ruling-elder. The chief task of political theory, as the community delivered it to Zhuangzi, is how to identify the wise leader who can correctly choose to impose a single way of life on all.

Clearly, then the contextual point of the Zhuangzi's skepticism is precisely that we should not attempt to do any such thing. No such person exists and we should give up acting as if he/she does. There are no sages in the Confucian or Mohist sense. Skepticism about ways of life in the context of ancient Chinese political theory is skepticism of government--an argument for anarchy. [89] The delivered conception of government in ancient China is intrinsically hostile to liberal neutrality and intolerant of diversity of ways of life (道 daoguides). If the purpose of government is to pick and impose a dao on the whole society, then, Zhuangzi correctly concludes, government has no value—I will drag my tail in the mud. [90]


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[1] One obvious example is Allinson's treatment of Zhuangzi as engaged in "spiritual transformation" and another is the quest by Graham (1981) (who credits Lee Yearly with the idea), Nivison (1991) and Ivanhoe (1991) to identify Zhuangzi's "conversion experience."  Ivanhoe, in a helpful survey and analysis, traces the theme back to Maspero (1971).

[2] These include Raphals (1996), Chinn (1997 & 1998), Kjellberg (1994 &1996), Van Norden (1996) and Ivanhoe (1993 & 1996) Allinson (1988 & 1989) and Schwitzgebel (1996). Ivanhoe and Kjellberg  (1996) is a  helpful collection of objections to skeptical or relative interpretations.  Schwitzgebel expresses in strongest language a common theme in these articles when he says "although Zhuangzi argues for radical skepticism, he does not sincerely subscribe to it." Kjellberg and Ivanhoe propose the helpful notion of "therapeutic" skepticism (relativism) to describe the common interpretive theme that recurs throughout their edited collection.

[3] My experience stems from inner reflection on the success of my critics in characterizing my argument. Among the authors who directly address my position, the one who most egregiously distorts it, states it competently and correctly in barely 15% of the sentences devoted to describing my view.  Given the disparity in our disciplines and training, I can only worry I might do as badly.  If will leave it to the discerning reader to assess whether my analysis successfully captures the force of any particular writer's position. If it does not, I willingly plead guilty to constructing a straw man and have only the comfort that I have not accused any particular writer of being that straw man. The reader certainly is entitled to draw amusement from the difficulty we have understanding each other while we pose as interpreters of a philosopher as far removed from all of us as Zhuangzi is.

[4] Raphals argues that skepticism per se is incoherent and Kjellberg & Ivanhoe appear to endorse that in their introduction as they say [strong] skepticism "is generally acknowledged as self-refuting since . . . we cannot know even that we know nothing." (1996:xv) Among philosophers, by contrast, although skeptics are far from the majority, Stroud (1968) is widely acknowledged as having shown that past attempts to defeat the skeptic on purely analytic (logical or conceptual) grounds fail. Others (Van Norden, Chinn, and Ivanhoe) claim that any combination of relativism and skepticism is incoherent. Note that if we accept the interpretive principle and the disabling definition, we could conclude that no one in the history of world philosophy was ever a skeptic (or relativist skeptic).  Surely, we should extend that interpretive charity to Western philosophers as generously as we should to Chinese philosophers.   Van Norden and Ivanhoe give definitions of relativism that virtually entail that relativism is self-refuting. Most distinguish between a "good" or "common-sense" versions and "radical" "strong" "extreme" or "philosophical" versions--for which they give the self-refuting formulae.

[5] Given this commitment to coherence in interpretation, I will argue that step 4 presents an ironic example of the contrast between the two principles (in section   I.E.1 .). The therapeutic step clearly violates the community coherence principle.

[6] See Hansen (1978 and 1992).

[7] Some of my own interpretive prior formulations may have invited this mistake. In personal conversation repeatedly and in his (1991), Ivanhoe appeals to my 1983 for methodological support. I emphasized there the principle of humanity as a principle of choice among interpretive hypotheses.  I formulated it as a principle of preferring the more rationally coherent interpretation since coherence helps us explain a person's beliefs. But I also expanded that immediately by arguing that we explain a sentence by showing its coherence in the context of a section, the section in a book, the book in the writer's work, the writer's work a school's development and the school in a philosophical tradition. That formulation, though holistic in spirit, was unfortunate in suggesting that there was a separate book-level at which the virtue of coherence was separable from the holistic context Quine-Davidson emphasize.

[8] Grandy's (1973) formulation is that the imputed pattern of relations among beliefs, desires and the world be a similar to our own as possible. We would want the pattern of relations to include those to our sensory apparatus, childhood training, etc.  What should be "like our own" would include the tendency to believe and utter incoherent things that we learn in Sunday school and the like. Thinking of the principle of humanity as a matter of access places coherence in the right kind of context. We can explain access to certain beliefs on perception grounds and others as natural or obvious inferences from other beliefs we attribute to them. Coherence thus becomes a part of the explanation of access to beliefs. See Blackburn (1984) for an extended account of the "virtues" appropriate for the principle of humanity.

[9] Here I leave aside, of course, Quinian worries about the metaphysical shape our awareness of such animals takes. It is possible to argue that a community accesses cows as temporal slices or masses, but a theory that does not needs no elaborate justification.

[10] The plausibility of a "story" may, of course, depend on what the interpreter or her audience takes to be true about these objects, human psychology, historical facts, and so forth. If one believes that God "contacts" humans regularly in some way and would similarly have "contacted" Ancient Chinese thinkers, then a different story about the reference of the term 天 tiannature:sky  would seem plausible. The same goes for psychological terms like 'belief' and moral terms like 'justice'.  Arguments for any innate conceptual structure or religious "instinct" in humans would work . . . for those who accept them.  The first interpreters in China assumed God's existence was rationally inescapable. This solved, for them, the problem of access to the same God as long as they credited Chinese philosophers with full rationality. (Thanks to Lauren Pfister who helped me see this point in conversation about James Legge. See Pfister 1990 and 1991)

[11] I am drawing heavily on Brandom 1994 here.

[12] Hansen (1992).  It is commonplace among Sinologists to refer to words as "Confucian terms" or "Daoist terms" implying that anyone who uses it is a Confucian or "borrows" it—as if factions could own bits of Chinese language. Alternately, they speak of writers giving Confucian, Daoist or Mohist "meanings" to the terms they borrow from each other. Since interpretation is holistic, this argument does not entail that we can never postulate such a case—only that postulating it should make sense of more of their discourse than it makes nonsense of it.  My worry was that the impression of Chinese philosophy as nonsense is a product of interpreters making too much of the disputation nonsensical in this way in order to make the bulk of assertions (Confucianism) come out "true in Chinese". Meaning change hypotheses are central to this strategy because they make the objection of contemporary Chinese philosophical opponents irrelevant.

[13] I do not deny that the Zhuangzi might have been read differently by people without philosophical training in ancient China, just as it is today. If there was a sect of Huang-Lao worship, it may well have read this text as in ways that lacked philosophical insight and subtlety. That is not sufficient reason for us to adopt such norms in our interpretation though it is a historically authentic basis for making interpretive claims.

[14] Competence may include having relevant specialized knowledge. People who can read but do not know the field may not understand certain passages.  Thus, the competent reader, on the present assumptions, must be philosophically informed.  On some other assumptions, he may need religious training etc. In principle, readers with different competencies  could read the same essay differently. This would lead to interpretive relativism – there would be more than one correct, historically authentic (where the rival scorekeepers are both ancient Chinese but of different training and background) interpretation of a phrase. Notice that we are forced to this possibility by taking a community or audience view of correct interpretation, rather than an authorial intention view. Since communities can be sliced up in different ways and deference to linguistic authority may be controversial within a community, interpretive pluralism cannot be ruled out.

[15] Note that failing to interpreting me charitably is not my main complaint against certain critics. What is most disturbing is a consistent pattern of attributing their sophomoric conceptions, fallacious inferences and incoherent formulations to me—often with explicit claims like ". . .in Hansen's own terms . . ." followed by his own paraphrase involving his specious inference." (Ivanhoe 1996:197) Chinn is similarly negligent in actually putting quotes around his views while attributing them to me--sans citations, of course. (Chinn 1997:213).

[16] My defense, in turn, would be to note that competent professional philosophers should not find the positions mutually excluding. Whether or not my attribution is incoherent would then depend on which of us is right about the inferential potential of the English phrase “relativistic skeptic” in philosophical discourse. Here, again, we see the linguistic division of labor at work.

[17] See Hansen 1992:277-280.

[18] I hope the "informed-audience" focus will deter interpreters from the interpretive assertion I call psychic-identification.  "Although Zhuangzi says X, he really wants us to believe Y." That kind of "interpretation" is sometimes appropriate, e.g., to explain a verbally inept, intimate friend or family member (or politically popular president). I take it no modern interpreter is in a position to take that posture toward Zhuangzi--unless, of course, he is a reincarnation! The focus on the public meaning of the expressions found in the text still leaves leeway for judgment since interpretation remains normative. An account of meaning is an account of what accepting the text entails about what one' ought further to accept (and reject) given the norms enshrined in some ancient Chinese community's language practices.

[19] Particularly the Qiwulun. I need not deny that there is less evidence of such contact in other parts of the book. I accept the current textual theories of multiple authorship of this text. I would claim, however, that much of the rest of the book could have been read in ways consistent with the arguments in “Qiwulun” by informed philosophers. Few, if any, of them force a mystical or religious reading on us.

[20] Sinologists chuckle at us when they suspect that philosophically inclined interpreters are more interested in what Zhuangzi should have said than what he did say. Our point here is more subtle than they think--having said what he did say, we explain its meaning by theorizing about what else he should accept in virtue of having said it--what saying it commits him to. We do not make the judgment by simply imposing our judgment of what is true.

[21] Notice that there is no sound prohibition against "imposing" some Western theory or concept on Chinese thinkers simply because it is Western. The justified prohibition is against using concepts, theories or arguments without making a plausible argument that the resources for them were available to ancient Chinese thinkers.  Again,no such prohibition applies to modern concepts or theories.  Ancient Greek thought or enlightenment European thought would be a better framework for comparative work only if we successfully argued that it was presuppositionless or consisted of “natural” first philosophical thoughts.

[22] I reject, that is, objections that a theme in one passage “conflicts in tone” with something written elsewhere in a text or “seems to suggest a different attitude.”  No plausible interpretive seems to require tone consistency. 

[23] I will focus on passages that even critics of skeptical interpretations generally accept as expressing skeptical or relativistic attitudes. I will focus on the analysis of the kind of relativism or skepticism implied in such passages.

[24] I appeal her to the tendency in Confucius' analects to refer to "ritual" and "music" together as models of action guidance. The implicit emphasis on aesthetic features of action judgment and its relation to guidance is a common theme in discussions of Confucius, see, for example, Hall and Ames (1987) and Eno (1990).

[25] These different aspects of dao account for the alleged change of meaning that tradition associates with Daoism. Shen Dao seems to have envisioned the actual course of action of the entire world and called that "The Great Dao."  He then denied that it is normative—even a clod of earth cannot miss it! I have questioned the assumption that other alleged Daoists follow him in talking this way. Most seem to retain a normative use of the term.

[26] For details, see my 1992 chapter on Mozi, especially pages 115-121 and 124-128.

[27] Mozi: Against Aggressive Warfare (17) Harvard Yenching 28/17/11-12.

[28] This is an important point often missed by commentators who notice the similarities of Mozi's argument and that of Thomas Hobbes.  See Schwartz (1985) and Hansen (1992) for an expression of the different views.

[29] The composition of the character zhenggovern consists of zhengrectify and a radical meaning "to beat."  Confucius contrasts guiding by zhenggoverning with guiding by 禮 liritual in ways that suggest he views it as the more coercive way to "correct" people. 

[30] Mozi "Universal Love" (16)

[31] Mozi "Agreement with the Superior" (11) The neutrality analysis could continue in the face of this. The ruler chooses other officials for their wisdom and ability. Both appeals to wisdom and ability might be thought to be value neutral on the grounds that the selection of the ruler appears to be a unanimous judgment as to his wisdom. He carries out his task not by imposing his own shi-feithis-not this 是 非 but by initiating the program of reporting up and adjudicating down all the shi-feithis-not this 是 非 judgments. We may think of the resulting conception of the good as the joint product of combining everyone's rival conceptions according to a value-neutral, nearly ideal observer.

[32] Chapter 33, "The Social World" is found in the "miscellaneous" chapters. It has a markedly more political orientation than most of the inner chapter texts in which we find clear statements of skepticism and relativism.

[33] When the social world is in disorder, worthies and sages do not discern (appear?) and ethics is not unified. Many in the social world examine a portion of it and regard themselves well. It is like ear, eye, nose and mouth. Each has that which it can discern but they cannot interchange. So the hundred schools with their crowd of skills, each has a strength and there is a time when it is useful. Still, we should not fail to be comprehensive. (The Zhuangzi Ch. 33)

[34] See note 25 .

[35] They sometimes talked about compound terms, modification, and the effect on shuoexplanation and daodiscourse.  In my view, the closest they came to sentential inference was in the Xiao Qu (See Hansen 1983). For a contrary view, see Graham (1972).

[36] I do not address here another kind of knowledge that is plainly a subject of discussion--knowing of. The Mohists describe this as "contact knowledge."  See the excellent discussion in Birdwhistell (1984).  I also discuss it in Hansen (1983).

[37] This is what I take to be the correct analysis of the 以 . . . 為 . . . pattern in classical Chinese and the related use of one place predicates as transitive verbs—to "white" something is to treat it as "white" in attitude and action. See my more complete analysis in Hansen 1992.

[38] There is an interesting counter-example in Zhuangzi's "Happy Fish" discussion in which knowing that one knows becomes fully sentential. Visual verbs (see, observe etc.) and speaking verbs (says, quotes etc.) introduce sentential contexts so I should not claim that there are no sentential contexts in ancient Chinese.  However, the concepts of belief, desire and knowing do not normally take sentential form.

[39] I propose to detach mysticism from monism. 'Mystical' typically attaches to 'experience'.  We may speak of mystical reality as the content of a mystical experience.  Mysticism is a combination of an epistemological and a linguistic thesis.  Mystics typically allege they have found a special epistemological access to some content (typically metaphysical, religious or practical).  They treat the content as incommunicable except by that special access. Most assume the content is monist, but that is not entailed by either the epistemic or the linguistic claims.

[40] Implicitly, then, I reject mysticism while embracing monism. The Zhuangzi would not be claiming some special epistemic access to the real world. It expresses skepticism about its own monistic conception of the real world.  Its relative silence on metaphysical matters is appropriate.

[41] Noumenon-phenomenon parallels are more frequently alleged. I am skeptical of these as well and align myself with the anti-dualist analysis of Chinese thought, e.g., Ames and Hall (1987).

[42] This is a familiar illustration of chaos theory as applied to meteorology.

[43] I say only "rough" counterparts because I see little hint of the kinds of logical-semantic and grammatical considerations that inspired Parmenides and in turn Plato and his successors among Western mystics and idealists.

[44] I am thinking of the "ten theses" quoted in the Zhuangzi Ch. 33 history of philosophy. The final one is "love all thing-kinds pervasively; the cosmos is one dipody."  Hui Shi's reasoning seems to rest on the relativist analysis of terms and the illegitimate inference from the premise that our distinctions between things are relative to our perspective to a conclusion that there are no distinctions in reality. See my discussion in Hansen (1992:269-272).

[45] In a sense, Zhuangzi would not be skeptical about contact knowledge (see fn. 36 ). His skepticism applies to how we distinguish, classify and react to it but not that it is there and that we are in contact with it in the course of our thinking and acting.

[46] I owe my classifications here to Goldman (1986).  He is, of course, not responsible for my adaptation and application of them to the quite different context of Chinese thought.

[47] In this division, I follow the helpful models of Raphals, Kjellberg and Ivanhoe but with a more complex classification. My main reservation about their approach apart from the difference in treating the theme (see below), is that they tend to blur scope and strength into a single classification like  "extreme" or "radical" skepticism.

[48] The most prominent examples, I think, are Raphals (1996) who distinguishes between skeptical recommendations, skeptical doctrines and skeptical methods, and Kjellberg (1994 and 1996). They both draw on the ancient Greek form of skepticism (See note 21 ) where this explicit formulation of the problem can be found in the texts. Raphals distinctions are helpful, but, as I argue below, I cannot see any reason to think they force an exclusive choice on interpreters—even of Greek skepticism. A Pyrrhonian could be committed to suspending judgment as important for personal satisfaction and accompany that with a fully skeptical attitude of doubt about our epistemic achievements.  When they say, "things are equally indifferent, unmeasurable and inarbitrable" as Aristotle reports Timon arguing. (Eusebius, Prep. Ev. 14.18.2-5, Long & Sedley) it is not a claim about a state of mind, but the difficulty in knowing things. By contrast, the recommendation endorsed by the therapeutic interpreters is incoherent in a more objectionable way since a) it too would normally be delivered as a judgment and b) it directly conflicts with its own content (i.e., we don't need to appeal to a separate norm of assertion).  We can save the recommendation analysis if we read it as "don't make any descriptive judgments (i.e., evaluative judgments are acceptable)."  But that is an implausible content given the motivation Raphals and Kjellberg appeal to.

[49] Raphals quotes or summarizes a good sample of the skeptical passages in the Zhuangzi and concludes "Is Zhuangzi a skeptic by doctrine? The evidence seems to refute this possibility." How can we have such different evaluations of them? I suspect the answer lies not in her contrast between recommendation and thesis, but between 'method' and thesis.  She finds them evidence of "skeptical methods" but not theses. She defines a skeptical method as "a question or inquiry that leads to doubt."  Had she stopped there, any disagreement between us would be purely verbal. Doubt about our knowing some subject matter is what I call skepticism. The passages "lead to" such doubt.  They are, ergo, arguments for skepticism.  However, she continues, "Its form tends to reject or ignore a skeptical thesis, and tends to advocate, or at least suggest, a skeptical recommendation." (Raphals 1996:28)  I see no evidence for this step, and as argued above, it is not only incoherent, but also known among ancient Chinese philosophers to be so.

[50] Attributing a spiritualist or psychic tranquillity concern to the Zhuangzi must be hypothetical since, unlike the Phyrronian model, it never directly presents that as the motivation of its skeptical passages. The confidence interpreters have that they should find personal, religious or spiritual growth themes in any work from this period is hard to explain except as reading back in the traditional interpretive assumptions that Daoism is a "personal religion."  Classical Confucianism and Mohism are widely considered to have been dominated by a political and moral focus. We should neither take our familiarity with such religious themes or our association of religion with "primitive" or pre-scientific thought as evidence that Chinese thinkers must have had such unexpressed concerns.

[51] A theoretical discussion is in Ch. 2 (HY 4/2/32-5/2/38). Graham treats 因yinbecause as "criterion" which indeed captures one side of the ambiguity. The "shadow" passage also has a dependency themes and uses待 daidepend  The Zhuangzi Ch. 2 HY 7/2/92-4.

[52] Mozi “Against Fatalism”

[53] The Mozi discussions typically assume that all three standards support their conclusions.

[54] Ivanhoe (1993) may have scope in mind when he gives his account of four "forms" of skepticism.  His forms are 'sense', 'ethical', 'epistemological' and 'language'. Partly, he distinguishes his epistemological from ethical on scope grounds--descriptive statements v. normative ones. He defines ethical skepticism as "the belief that there are no moral truths" in contrast to epistemological skeptics who "do not deny that there are objective facts about the world. . . they only deny that we can have reliable knowledge of those facts." The former, obviously, is not an epistemological thesis, but a metaethical one. Ivanhoe counts it as skepticism since "she would deny that we have or can have true moral knowledge, since there is nothing for such knowledge to be about." P. 641. See also his footnote on the same page.

[55] Yearley (1996:156) discusses this feature of skepticism in the Zhuangzi using the familiar story of the lucky-unlucky horse.

[56] This is slightly different from Western versions what Goldman calls 'iterative skepticism' in that the classic Western use of this argument would be formulated in terms of a requirement that to know, one must know that she knows.  This is a strong requirement and the skepticism is, ergo, a weak version. This passage, however, does not put such a requirement on knowledge. It implicitly allows that we might know something without knowing that we know it. It is still a weak version, therefore, but for a different reason. It is technically not denying that we have knowledge. It suggest only that our having knowledge might be "accidental." The accidental element is not our coming to believe X, but our having acquired one of several conceptions of knowledge.

[57] Confucius was, notoriously, the most modest of the triumvirate of classical Confucians. Mencius and Xunzi both developed extended accounts of how perspective-transcending knowledge was available to well cultivated Confucians. It informs their shared view that ordinary people can become sages.

[58] Many accounts focus on such skill stories. There is much of value to be gained from these accounts, but they tend to preface reference to skill with some adjective that makes it seem supernatural-- 'perfect', 'miraculous', 'ineffable' 'supreme', etc.  Cook (1997) following Eno speaks about "perfect" mastery of skill. Van Norden (1996) similarly insists the story of Cook Ding is in no way skeptical and calls such skill 'miraculous' and takes its point to be that the sage can become "impervious to injury." Van Norden credits Ivanhoe (1993) who also appeals to the skill stories to reject skeptical interpretations. They illustrate what Ivanhoe calls the "profoundly enhanced power" of the Way. Yearly, after a masterfully careful discussion, infers that the implication of the skill stories is " Skillful activity, then, clearly points to the highest spiritual state." Eno's (1996) formulations are ambiguous--sometimes more constrained, e.g., "virtuoso skills" but others endorsing the common interpretation that the stories entail " the ideal of the person whose perfect skills have released him from the dualities of this and that." P. 135.  Then Eno denies that Ding is perfect and concludes, cautiously and correctly, that Zhuangzi only makes a "positive judgment" of such skill. I accept that final claim, though Zhuangzi's positive judgment is qualified (see below) and, in any case, is fully consistent with his skepticism. I deny that a competent philosopher among Zhuangzi's contemporaries would be justified in using supernaturalism to state the implications of such stories. Eno puts the point slightly differently when he opines Zhuangzi may have known that with such skill cannot make you survive a fall from a cliff!  He goes on to claim for Confucians the posture that skill can reach perfection. (1996:164)

[59] The stories seldom illustrate re-conversion to one's original position. Technically, a Zhuangzi should not claim that when we leave one perspective for another that we know in any absolute way that the old one was defective. We simply adopt a new perspective from which we judge the old one wrong.

[60] What is also striking about the narrative context of such references in the Qiwulun at least is that they all seem to be introduced by a "student" question following directly on some skeptical denial of the possibility of perfection. The question is obtuse on its face—as if following an argument that perfection is impossible, he raises his hand and asks "Yeah Prof, but what about a perfect person?" The response in the Qiwulun is Zen-like. Instead of embarrassing him by asking, "Were you listening just then?" it invites him to reflect on "how could you possibly recognize 'perfect' if you saw it?" HY 6/2/71-3

[61] Graham's translation captures the point nicely: "To recognize as complete or flawed is to have as model the Chao when they play the zither; to recognize as neither complete nor flawed is to have as a model the Chao when they don't play the zither." Ch. 2 HY5/2/43-7.

[62] HY 6/2/72 It is helpful to read such passages alongside arguments against ideal observer ethical theories. When I am wondering what to do, what relevance is the judgment of a being so unlike me as to be incomprehensible? Chapter 6 has many examples of these themes.

[63] There is more, for example, in the Xunzi "Rectifying Names" chapter where we find a sketchy and troublesome account the roles of the sense organs and the 心 xinheart-mind. Notice that even if interpreted as motivating sense skepticism (see my denial in Hansen 1992) passages such as the butterfly dream do not work like appeals to illusion, to show the fallibility of the senses.  The appeal to dreaming would have to be about the fallibility of our former judgments about when information is coming from the senses or not.

[64] This formulation is deliberately ambiguous. See my explanation in Hansen (1992).

[65] Especially the Xinshu [ch 37] and Neiye [Ch. 38] of the Guanzi and the more "absolutist" sections of the Xunzi e.g., "Dispelling Obsessions" [ch. 21].

[66] Ivanhoe (1993 & 1996) is an excellent example.  Viewing the argument in terms of "human limitation" furthers the strategy of attributing to Zhuangzi a claim that Daoists have transcended those limitations and achieved perfect knowledge. The actual dependency argument undercuts any such claim. All shi-feithis-not this 是 非 attributions depend on other normative standards.  We presuppose norms all the way down; there is no shortcut via either metaphysics (transcendence) or epistemology (intuition).

[67] Ivanhoe (1993:648) acknowledges there is skepticism in the text, proceeds to deny that Zhuangzi is a skeptic then avers "He is an epistemological skeptic, but only of a certain kind of knowledge, i.e., intellectual knowledge. He is not at all skeptical about intuitive knowledge." (Italics in original).  He associates his distinction in knowledge types (intellectual/intuitive) with the contrast between propositional knowledge and knowing-how and then, identifies the latter with linguistic skepticism. He notes that Zhuangzi is ultimately led to laugh at his position.

[68] We have our own culture wars, of course and, as I noted above, religious or romantic opponents of reason and philosophy may have different standards of interpretation and use of texts.

[69] If one's textual theory held that a single author sincerely and seriously asserted both, it would  be evidence that that author was inconsistent.  It would not force us to choose between which of the two positions was the correct one to attribute to him.

[70] I discussed the "advice" that seems to follow from the Zhuangzi analysis in my 1992:299-303.

[71] Some critics object to the extreme toleration implied by this approach. One version is what I call the "Hitler" objection. The texts from this period seem to neither contemplate nor address evils of such obvious magnitude. Still, we can easily imagine how a competent student of Zhuangzi could answer. The answer would track the argument a modern liberal could offer of the principle of neutrality toward different conceptions of the good. It need not require toleration of ways of life that cannot participate in an open dispute of daos on the basis the kind of equality that the mild skepticism requires. The judgment of what daos are worth listening to must be made from here, so must the judgment of what daos to tolerate and what to fight against. The awareness of our fallibility in such judgments should mainly raise the threshold of when we accept coercing and killing people to prevent the spread of their dao.

[72] Hansen 1985 and 1992.

[73] Ivanhoe (1996:198) deduces this conclusion from his formulation of relativism and attributes it to me. "Since there are no grounds to anyone's choice, anything goes and equally well." Chinn's is "all the conflicting daos in question are in principle equally admissible" (Chinn 1977:209--again attributed to me!),  The "everything is right" position, however, may be the implication of a familiar traditional reading of Daoism—slightly modifying Shen Dao's position. Eno illustrates this interpretation. (Eno 1996:133)

[74] We see a similar pattern in Western skepticism where skepticism of the senses is motivated by examples of the relativity of sense perception.

[75] See Van Norden's formulation (1996:247-9). Chinn (1997) has a similar formulation.  He calls Zhuangzi a perspectivist, but not a relativist, but I am unclear how much his considered interpretation diverges from mine. His entire argument is an argument against his own account of relativism, not mine despite his frequent and unjustified attribution to me. "A relativist like Zhuangzi, on the other hand, as Hansen (sic.) would have it, denies the very possibility (and even meaningfulness) of objective truth. Zhuangzi, if he is indeed a relativist, cannot think that anyone can have a true belief about the world, in the sense of a belief that 'corresponds' to something that exists independent of anyone's conceptual framework. Otherwise he cannot maintain that one shihs [what] someone else can with equal justification, fei." (p. 210-12). I, of course, deny that Zhuangzi affirmed or denied anything about truth or belief. I certainly never formulated my description of his relativism in such terms. I see no reason cited in Chinn's article for thinking a competent philosopher from Zhuangzi's period would have inferred anything about truth from Zhuangzi's familiar claims about relativity in justifying shi-feithis-not this是 非 judgments. When Chinn encounters the more detailed account of my view in Hansen (1992) he calls it a "striking reversal. . .clearly incompatible with . . .Hansen's earlier essay" (Chin 1997:213).  Of course, what it is incompatible with is his interpretation of my earlier essay.  He continues by characterizing my earlier view of relativism as a "subjective point of view" (quotes in original—but, again, they are Chinn's words, and words I consistently not only eschewed but warned against) and then Chinn formulates my earlier position with a reference to an "unknowable reality," i.e., clearly consistent with the view I take in my 1992.

[76] Ivanhoe, for example, acknowledges that the Zhuangzi contains relativist passages, but divines somehow (unexplained) that "their purpose" is therapeutic and underpins the difference between "our scheming minds" and some "intuitive, ineffable" knowledge. (Ivanhoe 1993:699)

[77] Ivanhoe (1993:645) is the only example I know who has implied that the relativism in the Zhuangzi is "spiritual therapy."  His is perhaps the origin of this now popular strategy for dealing with the Zhuangzi's skepticism.

[78] Credit to Eno for recognizing this important distinction. See note 58 above.

[79] David Wong (1984) offers a closely related argument deriving norms of equal respect more directly from the relativism implicit in Daoism. I agree with Barry (1995) that we need some skepticism to finally justify neutrality among ways of life in political matters, but I agree with Wong that the "thought experiments" in Daoism where we learn to view things from the other's point of view does help motivate treating others as equals when we disagree fundamentally in our comprehensive views.

[80] Van Norden (1996:249-50) confuses relativism and subjectivism in his formulations. He translates ethical relativism as "certain ethical facts are dependent upon my own opinions" and illustrates the analysis with this example "'Murder is wrong' is true (relative to me) just in case I believe murder is wrong."

[81] Graham (1972:244) highlights the emergence of this perspective in the Mohist Canon. He argues that it leads the Later Mohists to abandon altogether the idea of appealing to 天 tiannature:sky  in justifying their 道 daoguide.

[82] I take this to be the implication of the "pipes of heaven" passage. 3/2/3-9.

[83] This confusion is reflected in Ivanhoe's (1996:198) inference that Zhuangzi's position "provides no ethical guidance whatsoever. . . . no standards by which we might judge a given action as morally good or bad. I could still treat other people in a brutish, crudely exploitive, and self-serving manner. I could feel justified in doing so not because I believed that my actions are somehow grounded in some deeper truth about the way the world is but simply because this is the way I or my group does things."  The problem is that no group (that I know of) has the norm of justification that allows them to do cruel and vicious things simply because it is the norm of my group.  That reasoning violates the norms of moral justification of both Chinese and Western communities.  That does not mean Chinese and Western communities have the same norms, but that neither has Ivanhoe's crude relativist norm. 

[84] This mistake plagues Chinn's (1997) analysis.  "all of these ways of seeing the world are equally valid" is not a judgment that could be made from any of the rival conceptions--all would find their own more valid than their opponents.  Nor could we make it from the point of view of 天 tiannature:sky -- which makes no normative judgments. It does not follow in any way from the Zhuangzi analysis unless we confuse it with the claim that the content of our judgment includes a relativity rider.

[85] This is a revisionist reading of the commonplace contrast of Daoists and Confucians that says Daoist replace 天  tiannature:sky  with 道 daoguide. They do, but not in that they treat 道 daoguide as a word for a God-creator but that they dethrone 天  tiannature:sky  as an authority on matters of value. Only a 道 daoguide can be a source of a norm or standard.

[86] Perhaps this is the position that Ivanhoe rephrases as "some deep truth about the world."

[87] See Barry (1995). Chinn (1997, 1998) notices this implication.

[88] I have been stimulated by reading David Wong "Zhuangzi on the Dilemma of Value Pluralism" (forthcoming) concerning the problem of maintaining our moral balance when cognizant of the kind of relativism Zhuangzi points to. He powerfully and evocatively presents what he calls "the problem of commitment." In effect, I'm suggesting here that the problem is an illusion that comes from confusing Zhuangzi's relativistic skepticism from more familiar undermining of our beliefs about our way of life (i.e., by positively showing something wrong with it or positively demonstrating the superiority of something else). 

[89] Implicitly, here, I agree with Wong (1984) (See fn. 79)that the Daoist justification of anarchy is a reflection of their weakness as political philosophers. They did not envision any structural alternative to Confucian authoritarianism. It is in this sense that Daoism and so-called "Legalism" belong together. The Fa-jia were starting to work out an alternative conception of government functioning--though still not an adequate one.

[90] Arguably, Xunzi's response in his Ch. 22 (Rectifying Names) is equally forced on him.  If anarchy is intolerable, as most Confucians feel, then the ruler must outlaw philosophy—since it leads to relativism and skepticism of the purpose of government.