Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Another Recent Dissertation: Chai on Ontology and Cosmology in Zhuangzi

Here is anther recent dissertation in Chinese philosophy, posted with permission. David has already published articles on Ji Kang and on Xuanxue, and will be presenting papers at the Eastern and Central APAs on topics ranging from “Ziqi and Yan Hui on Forgetting” to “Heidegger’s Lichtung in Light of Daoism” to “Being and the Abyss: Heidegger’s Leap into Daoist Nothingness.” 

Title: Nothingness, Being, and Dao: Ontology and Cosmology in the Zhuangzi
Author: David Chai (david.chai@utoronto.ca)
Defended: February 2012
Institution: University of Toronto, Canada (Dept. of East Asian Studies)
Supervisor: Vincent Shen

Abstract:

The following dissertation is a philosophical exploration of the cosmology of the Zhuangzi, arguing it is meontological due to the prominence afforded the Chinese word wu 無;, rendered as both nothingness and nonbeing. It puts forth the argument that the Zhuangzi’s cosmology creates a relationship whereby nonbeing and being are intertwined under the purview of Dao 道;. As a result, the text’s axiology is unique in that it states cosmological freedom is attainable via uniting with primal nothingness. Chapter one seeks to disprove the notion that nonbeing cannot be anything but a transcendental other by arguing that Dao is a negatively creative source that simultaneously gives birth to nonbeing and being, making it impossible for nonbeing to be nihilistic or seen as an absolute void. Chapter two delves into the manifestation of things and how the sage, as an epitome of the naturalness of Dao, follows the becoming and returning of things to the One, darkening himself in nothingness in order to cultivate his life. Chapter three poses the question of whether or not the ontological movement of things is temporal and how temporality can even be possible considering the meontological nature of the universe. The next two chapters focus on the arts of useful uselessness and forgetting, the two principal means by which the sage achieves harmony with the oneness of things. Chapter six concludes by arguing that freedom attained by perfecting the arts of uselessness and forgetfulness is not rooted in ethical virtue but is the pinnacle of one’s cosmological relationship with Dao and is embodied in the act of carefree wandering. Zhuangzi’s cosmology is thus rooted in the life force of nothingness and doing away with ontic distinctions so as to return to natural equanimity and stillness of spirit.

October 21st, 2012 Posted by | Daoism, Dissertation, Metaphysics | 12 comments

12 Responses to Another Recent Dissertation: Chai on Ontology and Cosmology in Zhuangzi

  1. Bill Haines says:

    Hi David,

    Can you say what you mean by “nothingness” and by “nonbeing”?

    For example, I might be inclined to say that whenever there’s something (e.g. me), it’s not true that there’s nothing; so whenever there’s me, primal nothingness does not obtain; so it is never possible for me to “unite with primal nothingness.”

    Or I might be inclined to say that whenever one thing is a green ball it is not being red or a box; so whenever there is a green ball there is nonbeing, but there isn’t nothing; so nothingness can’t be the same as nonbeing.

    I suspect that both arguments use ‘nothingness’ and ‘nonbeing’ in different senses from the senses in which you mean these terms. Can you communicate to this reader what it is that you mean by these words?

    Reply
  2. Bill Haines says:

    Hi David,

    Can you say what you mean by “nothingness” and by “nonbeing”?

    For example, I might be inclined to say that whenever there’s something (e.g. me), it’s not true that there’s nothing; so whenever there’s me, primal nothingness does not obtain; so it is never possible for me to “unite with primal nothingness.”

    Or I might be inclined to say that whenever one thing is a green ball it is not being red or a box; so whenever there is a green ball there is nonbeing, but there isn’t nothing; so nothingness can’t be the same as nonbeing.

    I suspect that both arguments use ‘nothingness’ and ‘nonbeing’ in different senses from the senses in which you mean these terms. Can you communicate to this reader what it is that you mean by these words?

    Reply
  3. Kent says:

    For the very beginners, I put together this general introduction to ontology:
    youtube.com/watch?v=XTsaZWzVJ4c
    Sincerely
    Kent

    Reply
  4. David Chai says:

    My apologies, Bill, for not responding post sooner, and thanks, Kent, for your youtube link. Bill and I have already started this discussion in the comments to my earlier post on Neo-Confucian li and qi so here I’d like to offer a very brief lead-in, taken from my dissertation:

    Traditional logic would have us believe that what ‘is’ is while that which ‘is not’ is an absolute naught. However, if the naught has ontological priority over the ‘is,’ it will undoubtedly lead to a nihilistic consumption of the ‘is’ by the ‘is not.’ Reversing the process does not deny the ‘is not’ its inherent ‘is-ness,’ which would lead to its elimination from the ‘is’ ‘is not’ equation thereby rendering said equation moot; rather, the ‘is’ is acceded its priority over the ‘is not’ for the simple fact that only the ‘is’ can make the ‘is not’ into a thing while preserving its own sense of being. Such rationality has been the standard-bearer in Western thought since the time of Parmenides and is indicative of what Nicolai Hartmann has poignantly labeled ‘old ontology’ (see ch. 1 of his New Ways of Ontology). Hartmann’s call for a new ontology arises out of the recognition that we should no longer take nonbeing as an immobile opposite to being, as did the ancient Greeks, for everything real is in a state of flux; hence we are in need of an ontology that takes into account the ‘being of becoming.’ Other recent calls for a new form of ontology come from thinkers such as David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order) and those who are beholden to include the ontology of all forms of being as part of the equation so as not to deny them their rightful presence when faced with the growing presence of human culture.

    The conundrum that belies us is how to go about conceptualizing that which we take as the source for all manifest and non-manifest beings such that its mundaneness does not elude us or fall prey to a disillusioned construing. Choosing not to radicalize the dialectic between nonbeing as the ‘what is not’ and being as the ‘what is,’ we are either forced to introduce a nihilistic supposition or simply abrogate one term in favor of the other. Western philosophy is thus responsible for the apparent dialectical dilemma insofar as its founding figures chose to nominalize the ‘what is not’ rather than view it as having normative value, and this course of action instilled in those who followed the idea that the ‘what is not’ was either an absolute nothingness—-a substitute for an existent form—-or that it embodied the estranged consciousness of otherness. Things become even more complicated when we place this question in a modern context, and yet for ancient Chinese thinkers such as Zhuangzi, the question concerning the place of nonbeing and being was readily obvious.

    Traditionally, the ancient Chinese felt no need to concoct a metaphysical interpretation of being (you 有) for their intellectual inquiries were more concerned with establishing the virtuosity of humanity while simultaneously fighting its vices. What remained to be worked out was the question of nonbeing. Unlike their Greek counterparts, Zhuangzi and other Daoist thinkers saw nonbeing as complimentary to being, not its negating foil. They even came to the realization that nonbeing was not simply an epistemological tool but an ontological element in its own right, resulting in furious debates during the 3rd and 4th Centuries CE over whether or not things were born from nonbeing or being (here I’m referring to Xuanxue). Daoism, therefore, in its endeavor to formulate an onto-cosmological system went one step further than the Greeks by introducing an additional metaphysical layer to the tripartite puzzle of nonbeing, being, and the One and that was, I argue, the notion of ontological nothingness.

    Although they are the same Chinese character (wu 無), I distinguish between wu as nonbeing and wu as nothingness by holding the former to a level of ontic absence of being while the latter applies to the original condition of the universe at large. Whereas nonbeing marks both the passing away of ontic being (i.e., its death) or symbolizes the lack of its presence, nothingness when understood in a cosmological sense is not to be comprehended as an absolute void or state of pure emptiness; rather, it is to be regarded as the meontological milieu in which the potentiality of Dao 道 is realized. Herein we can answer Hartmann’s call for a new form of ontology. By turning away from the traditional definition of ontology as one grounded in the being of man, I propose the adoption of the language of meontology instead. The advantage of doing so lies in the fact that we will no longer have to deal with a negative rendition of nothingness but can now view it in the guise of ‘negative creativity.’ Thus, meontology (the study of nonbeing) represents the creative power of nothingness on all planes of reality without disturbing the holistic inclusivenenss of Dao.

    Reply
  5. Bill Haines says:

    Thanks David.

    You begin, “Traditional logic would have us believe that what ‘is’ is while that which ‘is not’ is an absolute naught.” I think I should start by trying to understand that sentence. But I don’t understand it at all. Particulars:

    1) By “traditional logic” do you mean the sentential and predicate calculus? That’s the main thing that has been called “logic” by anglophone philosophers for the past fifty or eighty years, I think. Its practitioners studiously avoid regarding ‘exists’ as a predicate. They have long been interested in the fact that that claims of the form “there is an x” is relative to universes of discourse.

    2) I don’t know what you mean by “believe that that which ‘is not’ is an absolute naught.” Is there a traditional logic that suggests that if there are no unicorns, each unicorn is an absolute naught ? If I had to pick a view about this claim to attribute to “traditional logic,” I’d say that the consensus view is this: “The italicized claim is a meaningless string of words – unless it is taken to deny e.g. that unicorns by definition have legs, in which case the claim is false.”

    Reply
    • Bill Haines says:

      When I was a kid I learned this little puzzle. Punctuate the following to make sense of it:
      THAT THAT IS IS THAT THAT IS NOT IS NOT IS NOT THAT IT IT IS (answer at the end of the comment)

      *

      If traditional logic says or implies something that could be phrased, “What is, is; and what is not, is not” – then presumably the operative principle is the law of non-contradiction. Which means that when the logician says, “whatever is not, is not,” it doesn’t matter what conception of isnotness is operative. The point is true of any and all of them, so long as the meaning of ‘is not’ is the same in both uses in each statement made with that string of words. The string of words, and the logical principle involved, neither favor nor reject any particular understanding of ‘is not.’

      One might define the notion of a “sharply defined predicate” as follows: a predicate F is “sharply defined” if and only if Whatever isn’t fully F isn’t F at all. The familiar predicate “wooden” is not sharply defined in that sense. (The definition relies on the problematic adverbs “fully” and “at all.”)

      The idea that you attributed to “traditional logic” might be this: the idea that existence is a “sharply defined predicate.” But this is not a view that can fairly be attributed to the predicate calculus.

      *

      In a somewhat uncommon usage, the English phrases ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ mean what exists (or “obtains”) and what does not – as in the Zeppelin lyric. But in the main usage of those phrases, I think, ‘is’ is a copula, with the predicate explicit or tacit, as in ‘What is wooden and what is not’.

      *

      Answer to the puzzle:
      “That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is not that it?”
      “It is.”

      Reply
  6. Bill Haines says:

    You say next, “However, if the naught has ontological priority over the ‘is,’ it will undoubtedly lead to a nihilistic consumption of the ‘is’ by the ‘is not.”

    I don’t understand all of this.

    First, I don’t understand what you mean by ‘the naught’.

    Second, I don’t understand what you mean by ‘ontological priority’ of X to Y. Do you mean X explains or causes Y? Or do you mean that the ontologist defines X as not-Y rather than vice versa? Or something else?

    Third, I don’t understand the sentence well enough to have any idea about the motivation for the ‘However’. That is, I feel completely in the dark about what sort of prima facie tension there might be between this claim and the previous one.

    Reply
  7. Bill Haines says:

    You write,
    The conundrum that belies us is how to go about conceptualizing that which we take as the source for all manifest and non-manifest beings such that its mundaneness does not elude us or fall prey to a disillusioned construing.

    I think I do not myself face that conundrum, because I think there isn’t anything that I “take as the source for all manifest and non-manifest beings.”

    Indeed I think it is not very sensible to take anything as the source for all manifest and non-manifest beings.

    And I wonder how one can even think that one takes something as the source for all manifest and non-manifest beings, while at the same time one thinks one has not overcome significant conceptual obstacles to doing so.

    Reply
  8. David Chai says:

    That’s quite a lot to consider, Bill. I’m in New Orleans for the APA, so I’ll have to get back to you in a couple of days.

    Reply
  9. David Chai says:

    I will try to answer as best I can, Bill. What I meant by “traditional logic” was not logic in the way you are thinking but merely common sense. The “is not is an absolute naught” refers to the classical Greek argument that “not” is a denial of “is,” hence it cannot exist. I am arguing that in Daoist metaphysics there is no absolute void. The second issue you raise regards my claim that “if the naught has ontological priority over the ‘is,’ it will undoubtedly lead to a nihilistic consumption of the ‘is’ by the ‘is not’.” I say this so as to contrast my theory that Chinese philosophy ‘enlivens,’ or gives life to, the nothing. If nothingness is taken as an absolute void that precedes being then, ontologically speaking, it would nihilistically consume being. As for the third issue, “how to conceptualize that which we take as the source for all manifest and non-manifest beings,” the question is do we think of this source in terms of being or nothingness? Daoism argues that it is both, but both in the sense that this source (Dao) is a negative creativity persisting in primal nothingness.

    Reply
  10. Bill Haines says:

    I think I’m going to have to move on to other projects, David, but I appreciate the time and effort you have put into trying to clarify things for me. Thank you very much.

    Reply
  11. David Chai says:

    It was a great pleasure, Bill, and thank you for showing your interest.

    Reply

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