Saturday, October 23, 2021


Here I start a series of fourteen pieces on dilemmas. They are mostly longer than previous items in this blog; u to some 2000 words. For each dilemma, I discuss arguments for one side of the dilemma, then for the other side, then for my own position, and I end with questions for discussion. The pieces are suitable for discussion in a class of students. When the series is finished, I will collect the items in a book that I will post on my website, from where it can be downloaded. 

524. Unity and diversity

A proponent of unity will argue that unity is needed, in equality under the law and institutions, customs, morality and language. Institutions are defined as rules that enable and constrain individual conduct. Measures against Covid entail constraint in movement and contact, to avoid an overextension of health care, and work only if different people conform. In fact, people differ in their opnions to what extent the measures are indeed needed, effective, and morally justified.

A nationalist craves unity of culture. The term culture has five meanings. First, it is something man-made, in contrast with nature. Second, it has the anthropological meaning of customs and habits, of religious belief, political conviction, dress, food, sports, dance etc. Third, it has the meaning of heritage, of architecture, art, folklore, myths, legal system, infrastructure, science, political system, constituting civilisation. Fourth, it has the meaning of transgressing boundaries, discovery, as with a discoverer, adventurer, scientist, artist or innovator. Fifth, it lies in a sense of belonging, of being embraced in unity.

The nationalist wants to impose a shared, homogeneous national culture, but at the same time wants to distinguish, even separate, it from that of other nations, It goes back, in particular, to the German philosopher Herder.

In protests, festivals and sports events, mobs can be lured into a unity, glued by shared emotions. A cause of that is that on the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, emotions are mostly equal among people. On the lowest level, the base of the pyramid, are physiological needs of air, food, fight, and sex, in which people are similar, on the next level up there are needs of safety, shelter and defense, then needs of social recognition and respect, and then, at the top of the pyramid, much more individualised intellectual and spiritual needs of self-realisation. The lower needs are the most deeply embedded, resulting from early needs of survival, in human evolution, and those are more equal between people than the higher needs, which are accompanied by differences in personality. With the more common and deeper emotions on the lower levels, the mob can explode in collective frenzy, ferocity and violence.

For examples of pernicious variety, in discord, see the polarisation under president Trump, even while he is no longer president, and in the emerging discord concerning the need and legitimacy of freedom-restricting measures against Covid-19.


The proponent of diversity, by contrast, argues that diversity is needed for freedom, and to prevent exclusion, on the basis of democracy. Dahl (1984) disdcussed polyarchy, rule by the many, in opposition to monarchy or oligarchy, and plurality as opposed to monism.

Another argument for diversity is that it is needed for renewal. Evolution is based, among other things, on variety. The other two priciples of evolution are selection by a selection environment, in survival of the fittest, and transmission of characteritics of the survivors to the next generation. In biology, generation of variety takes the form of the random mutation or copying errors of genes, and the cross-over of chromosomers, in sexual reproduction. In the economy, diversity is needed for rivalry and for variety in the ‘novel combinations’ of innovation. Rivalry generates the incentive of competition that produces efficiency, and yields experiments in different directions, improving the chance that something viable will come up. Unity can yield uniformity in a system, and that is likely to succumb to a shift of environment, such as climate change, thus making the system vulnerable. With variety, it is more likely that part of the system fits the new conditions. People want variety for individual expression, authenticity.

There is a variety of personality traits. Psychologists largely concur in using the ‘Big Five’ personality traits, although with different shades of meaning (Digman, 1990: 421-7):

Extraversion: action-oriented, daring, exploratory, risk-taking, entrepreneurial, thymos

Neuroticism: feeling vulnerable, suspicious, depressive, pessimistic.

Conscientiousness: will to achieve, dependability, task interest, conformity, superego strength, prudence, work, constraint and self-control.

Agreeability: friendliness, conformity, compliance, likeability, love, sociability, socialisation, resonance, the opposite of paranoia, hostility, indifference, self-centeredness, spitefulness and jealousy.

Openness: inquiring intellect, intelligence, culture, independency. Among scholars, variation and ambiguity of interpretation are greatest concerning this category of openness/intelligence (Digman, 1990: 433).

The notion of ‘thymos’ goes back to ancient Greece. Thymos is the drive of the human being to manifest itself in action. Plato gave a metaphor of reason as a charioteer holding in check two wild horses of desire and thymos, not in order to stop them, but to keep them from bolting and to direct them.

The big five personality traits have been used, for example, in studies of how people experience Covid-19 and act in response to it and the rules imposed against it. (Blagov, 2020; Hengartner et al., 2016). For example, when lacking conscientiousness and agreeability, extraversion may attend only to personal freedom, violating the regulations imposed against Covid.

Nettle (2006) asked the question how there can be such variety of personality. Would selection in evolution not have selected out the trait with greatest adaptive value? His answer was that the traits have costs and benefits, depending on the environment, such as climate, geography of the habitat, geology, scarcity, and those have varied much in evolution, favouring now this trait, then that. Neuroticism, for example, seems deleterious, but can be adaptive in a dangerous, threatening environment, to avoid threat, hide, and take precautions. Nettle gave several examples in animal life. One was that of a certain kind of bird, which in dry climates needed a strong beak of a certain shape, to crack hard nuts, while in a rainy climate, the nuts were softer, and such a beak would not be adaptive. More widely, when there is abundance of food, there are more competitors, according to Nettle, and strength and agression pay, but when food is scarce there are fewer competitors, and strength is wasted, and agression yields an unnecessary risk.

People never have identical ideas. Ideas always carry personal associations, accumulated along a path of life. One assimilates one’s ideas in present frames of mind, and when that does not fit, one accommodates that frame. I will later tell how that process works This yields cognitive distance between people (Nooteboom, 2000).


It is clear that we need some combination of unity and diversity, on the ground that arguments on both sides of the dilemma apply. Laws and regulations must be general, but there needs to be the possibility of deviations in the case of calamities.

            However, organisations need to limit internal variety of ideas, cognitive distance, to some extent, in organisational focus (Nooteboom 2009), to orient knowledge and competence needed to achieve a shared purpose, to attract fitting employees, and to offer ways of getting along and resolving conflicts. This is done on the basis of organisational culture, with shared ethics, symbols, role models, procedures and rituals. This limitation of variety for the sake of unity is needed to avoid ongoing negotiation and misunderstandings that obstruct the realisation of purpose. How far this goes, in the reduction of cognitive distance, depends on the purpose of the organisation. Firms oriented at efficiency need a comparatively narrow focus, and firm oriented at exploration and innovation need a comparatively wide one, to allow for the diversity needed for innovation. Diversity can be a problem, but also an opportunity. However, one can compensate for the myopia of a narrow internal focus by collaborating with outside others with a different focus. One can then seek partners at sufficient cognitive distance to provide novelty but not so large as to prevent mutual understanding.

According to the wisdom of the crowds (Surowiecki, 2004), one can benefit from variety of expectations, estimates, ideas. A condition is that the members of the crowd give their contribution independently. Meetings can have perverse effects, of sliding into group think (Solomon, 2006), when someone with authority or charisma drags others along in his/her opinion, or when there is pressure towards consensus. In information cascades people can successively ‘contaminate’ others to follow their lead, as in beauty contests, elections, valuation of stocks, and conspiracy theories. In all these cases, variety collapses in perverse unity. A puzzle in utilising diversity of inputs is how to select for relevance. An input may be too far off, but a divergent input can be the most interesting. An answer to this puzzle is to select according to subject, not content.

How diverse can rules and regulations be, in tailoring them to personal taste, needs or conditions? There is a tendency to erect Christmas trees of regulation on the occasion of newly discovered inequities, often with the result of regulations that are too complicated and expensive to apply. Up to what point are claims to special needs to be honoured? Take the compensations for loss of economic revenue due to measures against Covid -19. Choices were made but then some businesses were left out of the boat.

There has been an accumulation of controls to close all possible loopholes for improper practice, which now stifles the performance of many public services, such as health care, schooling, building, transport, care for the elderly, energy provison, etc. At the same time, this control is disabled by the loss of compentence for it that arose in hiving of public services in privatisation and decentralisation. The complexity of control has increased, while the competence for it has declined.

The explosion of control is fuelled by an inability to resist ever more differentiated claims, special pleading, crowbarred into rigid procedures, with distrust, suspicion of fraud. An issue that arose recently in the Netherlands, was that someone on welfare received gifts of shopping for foods from her mother and now has to repay it, as a penalty. There is little room for empathy for deviatons from procedures, which are often due to mistakes or errors of understanding or interpretation by citizens, who are then immediately seen as culprits. Civil servants executing the regulations should be given more room for, an eye for mistakes and hardship, allowing for some deviation from the rule. However, that requires more information on living conditions, invading privacy, is expensive, and yields inequality, and room for nepotism and corruption.


For mathematical adepts, I offer the notion of Entropy, which yields a conceptual instrument for looking at unity and diversity, order and chaos. It derives from a law of thermodynamics that a system not fed by its environment decays, in loss of order and distinction from its environment, its identity. A pot of boiling water cools down when taken from the fire. Its temperature gets equal to that of its environment. Organisms need to interact with their environment, taking in nourishment and excreting waste, in order to keep their distinctive structure and functioning, and live. Life is a struggle against increasing disorder, entropy, striving for its opposite, negentropy.

            The mathematical formula for entropy E of a system of n elements i of incidence, probability or ‘weight’ pi is E= −

pi logpi. E is a measure of a lack of organisation, in the sense of many elements having little distinction,.the same weight. For a system of two units of equal pi=½, E = 1, called a bit. For a system of four elements of equal pi 1/4, E = 2 or two bits. For a system with eight elements of equal pi , E = 3 or three bits. For a system with n states of equal pi, E = logn. A computational advantage of the log function is that log1/ n = −logn. E increases with the number of elements n and their ‘evenness’, i.e. equality of pi, The effect of the number of elements is illustrated above, with E increasing as n goes from two to eight. The decrease of E with the ‘unevenness’ of pi is as follows: For the case with three elements, with equal pi = 1/ 3, E =1.58, and with p1 = 2/ 4, p2 = 1/ 4, p3 = 1/ 4, E = 1.5.


-          Do you lean towards unity or diversity

-          Do you see ways to combine them that are not discussed above

-          Have you witnessed group think

-          Which personality traits of the Big Five do you have

-          What other personality traits do you see


 Dahl,R. ‘(1984), ‘Polyarchy, pluralism and scale, Scandinavian Political Studies, 7/4: 225-40.

Blagov, P.S. (2020), ‘Adaptive and dark personality in the Covid-19 pandemic: Predicting health behavior endorsement and the appeal of pubic-health messages.’, Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, an advance publication

Digman, J.M. (1990), ‘Personality structure: emergence of the Five-Factor model’, Annual Review of Psychology, 41 417-40.

Hengartner, M.P., W. Kawohl, H Haker, W. Rössler and V. Ajdacic-Gross (2016), ‘Big fivepersonalitytraits may inform public health policy and preventive medicine: Evidence from acrosssectional and prespective longitudinal epidemiological study in a Swiss commmunity’, JournalofPsychosomatic Research, 84.44-51. 

 Nettle, D. (2006), ‘The evolution of personality variation in humans and other animals’, American Psychologist, 11/6: 622-31

 Nooteboom.(2000), Learning and innovation in organisations and economies, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

---------------(2009), A cognitive theory of the firm; Learning, governance and dynamic capabilities, Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar.

 Solomon, M. (2006), ‘Group think versus the wisdom of the crowds:The social epistemology of deliberation and dissent’,The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 44: 28-40.

 Surowiecki, J.(2004), The wisdom of crowds, 

Friday, October 1, 2021

 523. Taoist spontaneity, children and rational reflection

Taoism strives for relase from etablished ideas and customs, to keep open to a spontaneous following of a path of going along with the universe as an ongoing process of transformation.Tao holds up infants as a paradigm of spontaneity, opennessto chage, surprise and immersion in the here and now.

(Cline 2015: 182) narrated the experiment with a famous violinist busking at a sidewalk in New York who was ignored except by children who stopped and listened, and were dragged along by their parents. Children are compared to a block of unhewn wood, prior tot he destructive interference of socialisation, and we need to find our way back home to what we knew originally. In their innocence they are safe to wild animals. The outcast, marginalised in society, most escape the harm of socialisation. Children are harmed by the ambition, anxiety, overprotectiveness and competition of their parents, losing their playfullness and ingenuity. Chinese cultural meaning is dominated by Confuciuanism, the dream if aid, propsperous and powerful China, to which children must contribute.

Taoism aims to ‘sit in oblivion’, in a loss of self and consciuos mentation, remaining empty, letting thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky, flowing through life in free and easy wandering, fluid and clear like water.

However, as an adult, can one go back to that stage of innocence and openness of an infant? Kohn (2015) asked: how can we forget? In short term memory we forget, but in long term memory, ideas, emotions, habits, reflexes and feelings get etched into neural pathways, in different levels of the brain. We have autonomous systems regulating organs. In the mid-brain, in thalamus, hippocampus and amygdala we have unconscious behavioural responses to threat, impacting on bloodpressue, blood flow and hormones. We have emotions by which we are triggered. On the highest level of the brain we have the cerebral cortex, guiding our movements and the locus of rational evaluation. Such unconscious routines are a blessing, in freeing our conscious thought. We cannot consciously undo those routines. Kohn (2015) proposes that what we can do is to inhibit their operation, to some extent, by diverting attention from the stress and obsessions that emotions may cause.In psychotherapy this is known as ‘mindfulness’.

Old people who suffer from dementia do fall into forgetfullness, with neural pathways becoming undone or clogged. They do acquire features of infantility. They enjoy hearing tunes from their youth. Could that be achieved by some pharmacology? Would that be enjoyable or only disconcerting?. Or is it the rational inhibition of stress that we should exercise?

The overruling of child-like spontaneity and ease was needed to survive in evolution. But in education one can try to preserve some of it.

Kohn, L. 2015, ‘Forget or not forget? The neurophysiology of Zuowang’, in: New visions of the Zhuangzi, (L Kohn, ed.), Three Pines Press.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

 522. Tao, virtue, and politics

 Politics includes, or should include, ethics. What is Taoist ethics, and how does it affect politics?

 Tao rejects universal, rigid rules, moral or otherwise. Specifically, it rejects benevolence and righteousness. However, it has moral values of modesty, temperance, frugality, spontaneity, alacrity, openness to others, recognition and acceptance of diversity between people. Those values are enacted in following the way of Tao, immersing oneself in the ongoing transformation process of nature. Tao is akin to the ethics of eudaimonia, the good life, of life as a whole, in the development of character, as with Aristotle.

 Ho (1995) explained that while Buddhism strives to eliminate the self, as a source of suffering, denying its ontological reality, and seeks escape in Nirwana or emptiness, and Hinduism seeks to transcend the self in Atman, a manifestation of Brahman, the single whole of reality, which is unchanging, Tao does not deny or surrender the self, but seeks to become the true self, free of social and mental strictures, the individual as different from others, in ongoing transformation, and relishing it.

 Politically, in contrast with Confucianism, Tao is against political direction, hierarchy and authority. Tao is liberal, anarchic, opposed to collectivism. One wonders how this sits with the authoritarian rule that emerged in communism, and remains since the opening, to a degree, of capitalist market liberalism. Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese dream’ is Confucian, with the unabashed, patriotic display of military, economic and political power. What role does Taoism play in the present thinking of citizens and of the communist party? One can see how communism and central direction is consistent with Confucian thought, which was dominant during the Han dynasty, 200 before to 200 years after Christ. But there has been a revival of Taoism since. What remains, except the materialist, consumerist celebration of exercise and mindfulness, the Tao of Pooh, that Tao has produced in the West? I have tried but so far failed to find a source with a more positive report of remnants of Taoism in China. Perhaps the reader can give me one.

 Research has shown that in China there is a high level of trust in the political system, due to the increase of prosperity it has brought, in contrast with the ‘dissatisfied citizen’ phenomenon in most developed capitalist countries that have brought continuing prosperity, although with the rise of prosperity that is emerging in China also (Wang, 2005). Ho (1995) said that: ‘Taoism and Buddhism have degenerated into materialism and superstition, hopelessly out of touch with their philosophical roots’

The scientific revolution occurred in the West, not China, which lagged behind in those centuries, while it was more advanced than the West before that time, until the fourteenth century. There is a literature to try and explain this. Some ascribe the falling back relative to the West to the Confucian centralised bureaucracy and the associated inflexible teaching and examination system for civil servants. Woo (1993) ascribed it to epistemological factors. For one thing, Chinese thought was holistic, lacking the power of analytical thought. That is true, but thinking of systemic coherence, with the system having emergent properties that the parts don’t have, has its value. Second, Woo claimed, the Chinese.lacked the respect for facts, the experimental method and the flourishing and application of mathematics. But artisanship flourished in China, and that cannot be without a pragmatic regard for facts, for what works and what does not. Both Confucianism and Taoism are pragmatic. An economic explanation was that China got stuck in a relatively low equilibrium of excess population, lack of capital and lack of labour-saving innovation that in the West generated a demand for machinery. A legal explanation was that China had not developed laws of property, including intellectual property, commercial laws, insurance and limited liability companies. Businessmen had to fall back on kinship relations and personal relations with officials and local interest groups (Woo, 1993: 136). There was no primogeniture, so that accumulated profits were dissipated rather than re-invested.

Perhaps these forces together smothered any positive Taoist impulse of liberalism, individualism, anti-authoritarianism, and dynamism. Tao was not strong enough to block communism. But perhaps Taoism was oriented too much at the individual good life rather than action in the world and entrepreneurialism. The call to surrender to the flow of the natural self, as if that is always for the best, and only discard the obstacles of cultural and intellectual preconceptions, is not exactly a call to action. And it is not clear how feasible that is.

Ho, D.Y.F. 1995, ‘Selfhood and identity in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Hiduism: Contrast with the West’, Journal of the Theory of Social Behavior , 25/2, 0021-8308.

Wang, Z. 2005, ‘Before the emergence of critical citizens: Economic development and political trust in China’, International Review of Sociology, 15/1, 147-63.

Woo, H.K.H. 1993, The making of a new Chinese mind: intellectuality and the future of China, Hong Kong: China Foundation.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

521. Monsters as metaphors

In the preceding item in this blog I mentioned that the literature of Tao, in particular the Zhuangzi, one of the central texts of Daoism, uses metaphors and stories to liberate us from the shackles of established ideas and values. This is connected with the Daoist notion of ‘wu-wei’. This is presented as a plea for inaction, but does not mean doing literally nothing but getting freed from the shackles of established, pre-conceived goals, methods and values It is also called ‘wandering’, having no prior fixed goal or path. ‘The path emerges from the walk’. It is a form of spontaneity. Rather than giving abstract argumentation, the Zhuangzi uses illustrative narratives and parables of craftsmen, animals, trees, mountains, lakes, sages, rulers.

Allinson (2015) proposes that in the Zhuangzi they are systematically built up from. a range of ‘monsters’, freaks that serve to shock us out of taken-for-granted values. A monster as biological violation of the rule of nature stands for a violation of social rules (Allinson, 2015: 100). Being so different, they have no fear, and can get away with saying things that ordinary people cannot. Their shock creates a ‘suspension of conscious evaluation’ that captures us in ordinary thought. Another function of the monster is to indicate that if the subnormal can achieve the deviation, anyone can (Allinson, 2015: 101). Use is also made of narratives of sages, but these can be shrugged off as too good to be true. The monster is an image and thereby subliminal more than discursive (p 112), sneaking past analytical thought.

The monsters, Allinson shows, are built up in degrees of freakishness, starting with the case of a mere cripple, who is otherwise normal, and performs the function of, say, a military commander. This is followed by a more repulsive hunchback, and in the end a madman, without bodily deformation, a mental monster, who shouts the most outrageous provocations. One of his pronouncements is: ‘happiness is light as a feather, but no-one knows how to bear it.’Another trope is that of someone who is ugly and yet attractive to women, yielding the opposite of beauty as a force of attraction.

Language, built up from established meanings, is imperfect, constrained and constraining, as discussed in the preceding item in this blog. A monster who personifies the imperfection of language is ‘No-lips’. He has a tongue to speak with, and wishes to communicate, but cannot form appropriate words.

The Zuangzi also uses humour to unhinge established values. To illustrate how we should accept adversity in alacrity, it tells the following. Someone falls ill and gets terribly deformed. When asked if he cares, he says that if the creator of things would transform his left arm into a rooster, he would crow the daybreak, and if he would transform his right arm into a crossbow, he would use it to shoot an owl and roast it for dinner.

Allinson, R.E. 2015, ‘How metaphor functions in the Zhuangzi: the case of an unlikely messenger’,in: polarity’in: in: New visions of the Zhuangzi, (L Kohn, ed.), Three Pines Press.


Saturday, September 18, 2021

 520. Dichotomies, polarities and language.

 Taoism opposes dichotomies , such as true versus untrue, between which you have to choose, and sees them as polarities, where you can choosee a position in between. Not black or white but shades of grey. This is part of a wider stance of getting away from rules (wu-wei) and preconceived ideas, to ‘think out of the box’. Fox (2015: 65) uses an example of traffic lights. They used to be red or green depending only on duration. Now they depend also on the time of day, the length of queues and the weather However, rules are never complete, and depend on circumstances. When a car in the line breaks down. the ordering fails. The point is that one should always keep an open mind. to a different ordering.

 This is also needed in communication, to understand, with the aid of metaphor, the different perspective of someone else, whose values and ideas will always differ.Zuangzi talks of ‘goblet words’ that empty themselves in order to refill themselves (Fox, 2015: 66). Metaphor is seeing something in terms of something else, i.e. the other’s perspective.

 Taoism is skeptical, at best ambivalent, concerning language. Porat (2015) traces this to the simple fact that language creates our view of reality, and does so by cutting it up, dividing it, with words putting things into boxes, categories, while reality is an indivisible whole , and thus cannot be put into words, is indescribable.

 Here, I want to connect this issue with existing ideas concerning language from Western philosophy of language. There one finds the hermeneutic circle , which professes a circular to-and-fro between a paradigmatic axis and a syntagmatic axis. Hermeneutics means interpretation of a text, called after the Greek god Hermes, who was the god of commerce, travel and communication. The paradigmatic axis is composed of the generalised concepts, of a cat, for example, and the syntagmatic axis of particular uses of the concept in specific contexts, in sentences, this particular blue-grey striped cat on the mat. A dominant view is that meaning can always be reduced to a general concept, the paradigm. The general concept may be seen as having a variety of possible particular meanings, in things it may refer to. I associate the notion ‘cat’ with my particular tabby, with blue-gray stripes. Particular things may be odd, exceptional in some way, but remain seen to belong to the concept, and may in their peculiarity shift the concept, in being included in the general notion, or may constitute a new notion. This sounds like the idea, in Taoism, of a ‘goblet word’ (Fox 2015).One misconceives the world if adhering to the paradigmatic axis with its fixed categories, neglecting the fluidity, transformation, on the syntagmatic axis. The goblet is continuously emptied and refilled

 The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called the generalised inter-subjective order of language langue and the individual subjective meaning parole (Saussure, 1979). In the hermeneutic circle, general, public meanings or langue lie along the paradigmatic axis, and particular, situation-specific meanings or parole along the syntagmatic axis. A general concept, taken from the hermeneutic axis is inserted in a sentence, the syntagmatic axis, in a specific action context, and becomes a particular. Langue becomes parole. In interpretation, the langue of a text is interpreted in terms of the parole of the reader or speaker. A cloud of potential reference condenses into a rain of particular ones. In the sentence the concept can adopt new associations, which when adopted by others turns into an expansion or shift of the general meaning, and is adopted in the public meaning along the paradigmatic axis. Reading and interpretation can become creative. This is a model of how one can go from order (langue) to disorder (parole) and back again, in an ongoing development. Openness to this process is the ‘fluidity’ that Taoism aims at. General concepts change in the long run. Order regulates disorder, but is shifted in its practice.

 Thus, I do not reject generalised, intersubjective meaning, as Taoism seems to do, but propose it as the freezing of a Taoist process of a variety of different individual, context-specific meanings that shifts public meaning. It is still wu-wei in rejecting existing meanings and ideas as fixed, but adds the role of shared meaning in communication.

 Fox, A.2015, ‘Zhuangzi’s weiwuwei epistemology seeing through dichotomy to polarity’in: in: New visions of the Zhuangzi, (L Kohn, ed.), Three Pines Press.

 De Saussure, F. 1979, Cours de linguistique générale, Paris: Payot.

 Porat, R. 2015, ‘Layers of ineffability in the Zhuagzi: Why language shoud not be trusted’in:. New visions of the Zhuangzi, (L Kohn, ed.), Three Pines Press.


Monday, September 6, 2021

519. Taoist correlationism.

 A key feature of Taoism is correlationism, or dialectics, improving the understanding of something by correlating it to a contrasting thing. The classic example is the contrast and complementarity of Yin, the principle of harmony, care, submission, and Yang, the principle of action, war, conquest.

 I must admit that while I understand what is written about Tao, when I turn to Tao itself, for example the writings of Zhuangzi, I balk at the profuse use of image and metaphor. It reads more like poetry than philosophy. I must also admit, however, that in a different way I had problems of not understanding the work of the likes of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas, and there also, I had to resort to the secondary literature. I could not understand Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit without resorting to Andreas Luckner’s rendering of it

 A metaphor tells something in terms of something else. This can trigger the transformation of thought, understanding something you did not understand before, catapult you into a different frame of mind. In earlier work, also in this blog, I proposed the notion of ‘cognitive distance’. People develop thought on the basis of innate potential, in interaction with others, along their particular path of life. It requires interaction but remains individual. The interaction needs to ‘cross cognitive distance’, and this is facilitated by ‘absorptive capacity’, assimilating thought at a cognitive distance, and by helping the other to assimilate by means of rhetorical ability, with the use of metaphor.

 The relational ontology of Tao requires metaphor. But metaphor only triggers a shift of thought, which needs further formation, and in my perception, this was often left hanging in the air, in Zhuangzi. But perhaps that says more about me than about Zhuangzi, in my striving for achievement, result, a conclusion, a closure, which I would not want to let go. To me, the meaning of life cannot be to yield to emptiness and do nothing. I do acknowledge that life is ‘imperfection on the move’, formulated by Zuangzi (2009: 72) as follows:

 My life certainly has its boundaries, while my consciousness by contrast is not limited by boundaries. Pursuing something boundless with something that is bounded, is wihout fail tiring. Knowing that , and yet acting from your consciousness, implies that you are going to slave to the end of your life.That to me is fine.

 Correlation to me is interdisciplinarity, connecting insights from economics, sociology, psychology, political sciencc, anthropology, physics and philosophy, East and West.

 According to Yong (2010), the stories and metaphors in Zhuangzi, about craftsmen, politicians, sages, animals, mountains, in everyday language, serve to illustrate and exemplify the central tenet that a moral agent must have the natural disposition to recognise and respect the equal values of diverse ways of life, natural dispositions of others. Monkeys live in trees, eels in moist surroundings, and people in dry places. The Zhuangzi does not claim that this ability to see and value different natural dispositions is an innate disposition, but that it can be developed to become second nature, as sages do. From this, Yong (2005), proposed a ‘Copper Rule’ to replace the famous ‘Golden Rule’, as follows: ‘Do unto others as they would have us do unto them’ (not what I would like done unto me)

 Zhuang-Zi 2007, translated into Dutch and clarified by K. Schipper, Amsterdam: Augustus.

 Yong Huang 2010, ‘Respecting different ways of life: A Daoist ethics of virtue in Zhuangzi, The Journal of Asian Studies, 69/4, 2010-60.

 Yong Huang 2005, ‘A copper rule versus the golden rule : A Daoist –Confucian proposal for global ethics’, Academia, University of Hawai Press 

Saturday, September 4, 2021

 518. Western and Chinese thought

 The notions of fixed substance, an autonomous subject, truth as correspondence of ideas or expressions with reality, in a static ontology of things, have been central in Western thought, since the classical Greeks, e.g with the philosophy of Plato, which has reverberated in the West. In Chinese  Taoist thought, by contrast, central concepts were combination of opposites and contrasts, in dialectics, processes of transformation, not knowledge but life in harmony with nature, in a relational ontology (Clarke, 2000). Changes in philosophy that I liked in the work of Martin Buber and Martin Heidegger, such as the ‘being in the world, in ‘Dasein’ of Heidegger and the ‘in between’ of people, prior to their identity, of Buber  turned out to be features of Taoism, which is reflected in the fact that both Buber and Heidegger studied Taoism. I learned that without knowing it, I had been a Taoist philosopher, in philosophies of learning, transformation, discovery, and language. Daoism is similar, in its dynamics, to the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. A central source of Daoism is the work of Zhuang-Zi, a contemporary of Aristotle. For a long time, Confucianism was the dominant philosophy in China, but there have always been connections between the three views of Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism, and currently there is a revival of Daoism (Clarke, 2000). Daoism was averse to the universal rules, strict rituals and bureaucratic hierarchy of Confucianism, and professed a kind of anarchism, in ‘wu-wei’, which seems similar to what Heidegger called ‘releasement’ (Clarke, 2000). That was not the free for all for self-interested individuals, as in Western libertarianism, but lack of restraint in relations between individuals.

 Daoism did not claim to achieve any ultimate, absolute truth. I adopt truth in the sense proposed by Dewey of ‘warranted assertibility’. For an argument, one should adduce logic, and facts , and it should contribute to solutions to practical problems. It is a pragmatic notion, as in Taoism. I still value logic, to clean up arguments, but I am against logicism, defined as the claim that language can capture reality (here, the ‘logo’ refers to its original meaning of ‘word’, and does not refer to ‘logic’) .Meanings depend on context, on perspective, and shift. For life, I have adopted the slogan ‘imperfection on the move’, and I think that is a good characterisation of Daoism.

 Admittedly, facts are problematic since they may be coloured by the theoretical perspective at hand, but often theoretical disputes allow for shared facts. However, when people agree on facts, those are still enclosed in their categorisation, with tacit ‘background assumptions’, and the perspective remains myopic. I propose that truth claims must indicate the shadows, indicate where the myopia, the boundaries, may lie. Art, and humour, may show up boundaries, try to cross them, presenting things in a new light. Such boundary-crossing humour plays a large role in Daoism.

 In Western philosophy, the idea that language can distort, and that meaning is perspectival and can shift is found in the philosophy of Nietzsche, the hermeneutics of Gadamer and the deconstructionism of Derrida.

 Clarke, J.J. 2000, The Tao of the West, London: Routledge.