Zhuangzi—Giving Up on Wisdom

17.08.2017 |

Episode #8 of the course What is wisdom: An introduction to philosophy by Will Buckingham


In today’s lesson, we are going to be looking at a philosopher from one of the other major Chinese traditions: Daoism (sometimes written “Taoism”). The philosopher we are looking at is called Zhuangzi, who lived in the 4th Century BCE, around the same time as Epicurus. We don’t know much about Zhuangzi as an historical figure. But we do have a book, part of which is attributed to him (also called the Zhuangzi). The Zhuangzi is one of the strangest of all philosophy books: It is a riot of strange stories, jokes, paradoxes, and intriguing thoughts. So, what does it say about wisdom?


Knowing and Not-Knowing

Let’s take the question of what we know first. The Zhuangzi is suspicious of our claims to have knowledge. As 1 dialogue goes, “How could I know that what I call ‘knowing’ is not really ‘not-knowing’? How could I know that what I call ‘not-knowing’ is not really ‘knowing’?” When we claim to know something, we are always at risk of overstating the case. But the same goes for when we claim not to know something. We are both wiser and stupider than we think! Not only this, the Zhuangzi also claims that our obsession with knowing at the expense of all else is a kind of foolishness because in our quest to know, we risk exhausting ourselves and diminishing our vitality.

The fact that we are ignorant, that we don’t know, is not some accidental fault that we can eradicate. Instead, we should get used to the fact that knowing is always accompanied by not-knowing. It is not that we should give up on knowing. Rather, we should give up on our obsession with knowing, because it only wears us out, making our lives less lively. The Zhuangzi challenges us to ask what we really need to know, so we can live full, vital lives.


Doing and Not-Doing

Now we can move on to think about what we do. If the Zhuangzi doesn’t think it is particularly wise to pursue knowledge at the cost of our vitality, so it is with doing. One of the most famous concepts associated with Daoism is “wu-wei,” or “not-doing.” This doesn’t mean sitting and doing nothing. It means doing no more than you need to if you want to get by.

The Zhuangzi has a story to illustrate this. There is a cook who works in the kitchen cutting up oxen. He is so good at cutting up oxen—in a way that, the text says, “goes beyond skill”—that he makes no effort at all. He does not do more than he needs to. And when he explains all this to ruler Wen Hui, his employer, Wen Hui replies, “It is excellent! I have heard cook Ding’s words, and I have grasped how to nourish life.”


Living Wisely—Without the Effort

According to the Zhuangzi, much our obsession with wisdom and living wisely is in fact very unwise. We run around trying to know as much as we can, and do as much as we can, and in the end, we not only tire ourselves out but also cause all kinds of havoc. But what if we gave up on all this effort? What if we gave up on our obsession with knowing? What if we gave up on our obsession with doing? Might we then understand better how we could nourish our lives and the lives of others? There is a kind of wisdom to giving up on wisdom!

Tomorrow, we will move to India and explore how Buddhism answers the wisdom question.


Recommended books

An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies by Steve Coutinho

Trying Not to Try by Edward G. Slingerland (for more on the idea of “wu-wei”)


Recommended video

The Path’s 1-Minute Guides to Chinese Philosophy—4. Zhuangzi by Philosopher Michael Puett


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