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H ISTORY OF P HILOSOPHY Q UARTERLY Volume 22, Number 2, April 2005 91 ZHUANGZI AND THE OBSESSION WITH BEING RIGHT David B. Wong 1. T HE I NTERPRETIVE P ROBLEM S ince Zhuangzi laments the human obsession with being right, he would be highly amused at the scholarly obsession with being right on the meaning of his text, especially on the matter of whether he ul- timately believes in a right versus a wrong. The fact is that he invites our obsession by raising the question and then refusing to answer it. 2 In chapter two, we are invited to take a stance above the debating Confu- cians and Mohists. What one shi s the other fei s (what is ‘right’ for one is ‘not right’ for the other); what one fei s the other shi s. Argument is powerless to declare a victor. Zhuangzi asks, “Are there really shi and fei , or really no shi and fei ? The rest of the text poses exquisite dilemmas for those who desire to answer. Parts of it articulate a profound skepticism about our power to know. Other parts seem to point us toward a way of life that is held superior to the Confucian and Mohist ways of life. Does the proposed engagement with a way of life imply the claim that it is a better way? If so, how do we reconcile this knowledge with the skeptical theme? The opening chapter contains themes expressing both skepticism and engagement. On the one hand, the perceptions of all creatures are shaped and limited by their size and location in relation to what they perceive in their environments. Peng fl ies so high above the ground that when it looks down, all it sees is blue, just as we do when we look up at the sky. The cicada and dove cannot comprehend the scale of the huge bird’s fl ight because their idea of the upper limit of fl ight extends only to a tree branch. Yet something beyond the relativity of perception is suggested by Zhuangzi’s poking fun at Huizi for being unable to think of a use for some huge gourds he had grown. Huizi was preoccupied with ± nding conventional uses for the shells, as water dippers for instance,
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92 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY QUARTERLY and did not see, suggests Zhuangzi, that they could be lashed together to make a perfect raft with which to go fl oating down the river. This story suggests the possibility of changing perspectives, even broadening one’s original perspectives, to take in more of what the world has to offer. The second chapter articulates skepticism most clearly and most vigorously without any apparent limitation in scope. The third, fourth and ± fth chapters, the “skill chapters,” give us characters displaying marvelous attunement with the material or the situation or the people with which they are working, such as Cook Ding’s effortless, dance-like carving of the ox, or Confucius’s advice to Yan Hui to handle a ferocious ruler as a trainer handles a tiger, or the Daoist masters who get goodness from their students by acting as a still-water mirror to them. Binding together such a diverse array of themes in one coherent
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