Of Fish, Butterflies and Birds: Relativism and Nonrelative Valuation in the Zhuangzi

Asian Philosophy 25 (3):238-252 (2015)
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I argue that the main theme of the Zhuangzi is that of spiritual transformation. If there is no such theme in the Zhuangzi, it becomes an obscure text with relativistic viewpoints contradicting statements and stories designed to lead the reader to a state of spiritual transformation. I propose to reveal the coherence of the deep structure of the text by clearly dividing relativistic statements designed to break down fixed viewpoints from statements, anecdotes, paradoxes and metaphors designed to lead the reader to a state of spiritual transformation. Without such an analysis, its profound stories such as the butterfly dream and the Great Sage dream will blatantly contradict each other and leave us bereft of the wisdom they presage. Unlike the great works of poetic and philosophic wisdom such as the Dao de Jing and the Symposium, the Zhuangzi will be reduced to a virtually unintelligible, lengthy, disjointed literary ditty, a potpourri of paradoxical puzzles, puns and parables, obscure philosophical conundrums, monstrous interlocutors and historical personages used as mouthpieces authoritatively arguing on behalf of viewpoints humorously opposite to what they historically held.


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Robert E. Allinson
Soka University