Episode 1 of “This Is the Way”: Daoist Detachment

Richard Kim and Justin Tiwald are pleased to present a new podcast series on Chinese Philosophy, This Is the Way. The administrators of Warp, Weft, and Way have generously agreed to host supporting materials and discussions of specific podcast episodes.  Links to support pages for all published episodes can be found here.

The first episode is titled “Daoist Detachment.” In fact, it’s really just about the distinctive sort of detachment that seems to be at the heart of some (“core”) passages of the Zhuangzi. In this episode, Richard and Justin introduce themselves and talk about the motivation for the podcast series, the idea of “philosophical double-vision” that makes Zhuangzi-style detachment possible, and some worries about this sort of detachment. Below you will find a more detailed accounting of topics, some specific passages and books or articles mentioned in the episode, and an opportunity to “weigh in” and share your views about the topic (or about the hosts’ wild claims about the text).

Your feedback is very welcome! Please leave a comment below, mail the hosts at ChinesePhilosophyPodcast@gmail.com, or follow them on X @ChinesePhilPod.

Chapter markers

0:00 Part I — Introduction
6:30 Part II — Daoist detachment
          6:31 Our particular Daoist: Zhuangzi
          8:30 The monkey-trainer passage
          10:44 Philosophical double-vision
          25:05 Double-vision and value distinctions
          30:30 Why should we adopt philosophical double-vision?
          40:38 How the two perspectives can be integrated (strategic model vs. Monopoly
                      model vs. others)
          53:28 An objection to Daoist detachment: personal relationships
          1:00:22 Another objection: meaninglessness
          1:11:05 Next week’s topic
Key passages

     The Monkey Trainer


…exhausting the spirit trying to illuminate the unity of things without knowing that they are all the same is called “three in the morning.” What do I mean by “three in the morning”? When the monkey trainer was passing out nuts he said, “You get three in the morning and four at night.” The monkeys were all angry. “All right,” he said, “you get four in the morning and three at night.” The monkeys were all pleased. With no loss in name or substance, he made use of their joy and anger because he went along with them. So the sage harmonizes people with right and wrong and rests them on Heaven’s wheel. This is called walking two roads. (Zhuangzi, ch. 2, Paul Kjellberg’s translation)

Other sources mentioned
The Zhuangzi《莊子》 (Chinese)
The Zhuangzi (English translations)
The Daodejing (Chinese, English)
Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere
Terrence Malick (director), The Tree of Life
The Xunzi, ch. 21, section 5 (Xunzi’s brief criticism of Zhuangzi)
Confucius’s dialogue with the Duke of She (on the inescapability of human concerns)
P.F. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment
The Huainanzi, ch. 19, section 9 (story about the unpredictable turns of good and bad fortune)
The Zhuangzi, ch. 18, section 4 (Zhuangzi talks to a skull about death)
The Zhuangzi, ch. 18, section 2 (Zhuangzi “mourns” the death of his spouse)
The Zhuangzi, ch. 6, section 7 (ideal mourner Mengsun Cai)
See also Justin Tiwald, “Well-Being and Daoism” for more on philosophical double-vision in the Zhuangzi

9 replies on “Episode 1 of “This Is the Way”: Daoist Detachment”

  1. I have a different take on 兩行 which I’ll share out of a shared love for the text. ( I do not think the work invites hermeneutic triumph or confidently exact interpretation,[1] but there is delight in comparing interpretations.)

    I always took 天鈞 to refer to the image of a “potter’s wheel”[2] and 兩行 to refer to the permissibility of following left- and rightward revolutions to produce a given result (i.e., a vessel)[3]. It is intended to further illustrate 因是 [4], hence the 亦. I do not agree with the translation of 亦 as “because”. I also don’t agree that the 之 in 和之 is referring to people, but rather to the 喜怒 that the sage manipulates through conditionally affirming and denying (going along with the left- and rightward revolutions of the “Potter’s Wheel”) [5].

    In short, I do not see 兩行 as referring to Human and Heavenly perspectives.

    [1] Lín Yúnmíng (1628–1697) : “When it comes to the Zhuāngzǐ, one has to use the method of observing a cowrie shell when reading it. Look upon it squarely and it appears as though it were white, look upon it sideways and it appears as though it were purple, take a sidelong glance upon it and it appears as though it were green, and in the end one finds it lacks a basic hue. Nowhere can one take what one momentarily sees in it at face value.” (《莊子 》當以觀貝之法讀之,正視之似白,側視之似紫,睨視之似緑,究竟俱非本色 。纔有所見,便以爲得其真,無有是處。 )*

    [2] Fāng Yǒng (b. 1956): “He is saying that when the sage complies with the self–so to successfully complete his affairs, it is just like clay skilfully adapted to the spinning of a potter’s wheel to successfully produce a vessel. Tiānjūn is the Heavenly Potter’s Wheel.” (謂聖人一任自然以成事,猶如泥坯純因陶均的運轉以成器。天均 : 天然的陶均。 )

    [3] Fāng Yǒng (b. 1956) connects “having it both ways” [兩行 ] with the preceding image of the potter’s wheel: “He is saying that skilfully complying with “rights” and “wrongs” is similar to the leftward and rightward revolutions of a potter’s wheel, both are invariably acceptable.” (謂純任是非,猶陶均向左向右運轉,皆無不可。) | As did Wén Yīduō (1899–1946), who elaborates further: “The movement of the potter’s wheel spins left and spins right, both are invariably acceptable. If for the sage “right” and “wrong” are both acceptable, then his never having unilateral confidence in them is for its part still a “right”.” (陶鈞之運,左旋右旋 ,皆無不可。聖人是非兩可,莫之偏任,亦猶是也。)

    [4] Fāng Yǒng (b. 1956): ““This was surely a case of conditioned approval” is likewise a case of going along with the thoughts of the flock of monkeys” (〔亦因是也〕即也順著眾狙 的意思。) **

    [5] Wén Yīduō (1899–1946) offers a dark yet not implausible account of the upshot: “He goes along with what makes them happy and avoids what makes them angry. Complying with the creature’s passions and exploiting them, this is indeed the Way of conditioned approval.” (順其所喜,避其所怒, 因任物情而利用之,此亦因是之道也。)

    * Notes are from Christoph Harbsmeier 何莫邪 and John R. Williams 黎江伯. 2023. 莊子內篇匯評詮釋 The Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi: With Copious Annotations from the Chinese Commentaries, Studien zur Geistesgeschichte und Literatur in China Vol. 27, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, adapted from pages 30 and 78n95-97.

    ** Note that Lín Yúnmíng’s (1628–1697) analysis of this notion predates A.C. Graham’s by several hundred years. Lin recognised its centrality to Chapter 2: ““因是 ” is the main subject of “A Disquisition that Levels All” [ch. 2], throughout the entire chapter he articulates this idea.” 因是两字,是 《齊物論》本旨,通篇俱發此義。 Lín defines the notion thus: ““因是” is adapting to each of them asserting themselves as “right” and not bringing into it a perspective of one’s own.” 因是,因其各自爲是,而不叅(同參)之以己見 也。 Lín even takes the 成心 as antithetical to 因是 in recognisable ways: ““成心” refers to what one’s mind has arrived at so that one holds fixed opinions in one’s breast” 成心,謂人心之所至,便有成見在胸中。 [NB: this note is adjusted from an upcoming book chapter on imaginative agency in the Zhuangzi by John R. Williams and Lucas Scripter. This approach predates Lín, but he is unique in making it the central theme of his commentary: “He drifted about like an unmoored boat, emptily and idly roving along. When they said, “Zhuāngzǐ is a magisterial servant” or “Zhuāngzǐ is a wicked man”, or when they shouted out “A” and he considered himself an A, or when they shouted out “B” and he considered himself a B, why would he have been concerned with whether they liked him or not! He was indeed only adapting to (因) them, hence I use “因” as the title (of my book [i.e., 莊子因]).” 汎若不繋之舟,虚而 遨遊[…] 若謂漆園(同莊子)功臣,漆園罪人,呼牛爲牛,呼馬爲馬,余何蘄乎而人善之 、而人不善之邪!亦因之而已矣, 遂以「因」名。(舊序 “Old Preface”). ].

    • First comment! Thanks for this, John.

      Yes, I agree with your approach to interpretations of the text. I tend to think that the Zhuangzi (like many other classical texts) allows for a range of interpretations, of which some are more plausible and some less. And it is a great joy to compare (or so it seems to me!).

      Reading the story as an illustration of 因是 has long struck me as plausible, not least because I agree with Graham about the prevalence and importance of 因是 (vs. 為是) in chapter two. It’s not clear to me that the 因是 interpretation — at least as Graham understands it — is in direct competition with the one that I put forth.

      As for taking 天鈞 as “potter’s wheel” — my instincts tell me that probably in the source text there was a character after 天 that originally had a more literal and specific meaning than the ones that most commentators give (“wheel” or “evenness”). “Potter’s wheel” satisfies those instincts, and so it seems quite defensible to me. But I certainly don’t know and am mercifully free of any rigid professional obligation to settle that issue. I do think that the heaven-vs.-human schema is both fruitful and hews closely to the ways that readers understood the text historically.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply! I look forward to following your podcast.

      Your reading is interesting and I will need to think about it some more.

      One very minor point that doesn’t warrant any further remark in this context: There is some (characteristically scanty, late, and unsatisfying) evidence that 鈞 is referring to a “potter’s wheel” beyond the possible neatness and intuitive appeal of Wén Yīduō’s (1899–1946) and Fāng Yǒng’s (b. 1956) interpretations. Notably, for instance, Lù Démíng (c. 556-627) quotes an early lost Zhuāngzǐ commentary by Cuī Zhuàn 崔撰 (fl. 290 CE) that explicitly states 鈞, 陶鈞也.

    • Thanks, John! I have wondered about the basis for “potter’s wheel,” so it’s good to hear the case for it and know about the paper that you and Harbsmeier wrote, which sounds splendid.

      And thanks for your optimistic note about the podcast series. We’ll try our best. I’m sure that you and the other true experts will find plenty to disagree with, and will wish that we had treated this or that issue with more care and nuance. Sometimes we will fall short deliberately, insofar as there are necessary trade-offs between philosophical or historical nuance and values that help us to engage a broader audience. But more often, it will just be clumsiness or the general lack of editorial control that comes with the format. When I listen to the episodes during editing, I notice many mistakes and missed opportunities, but just have to let them go.

  2. Thank you! This podcast series is a great initiative, and I liked the first two episodes a lot. Accessible, but still informative for those already a bit more knowledgeable. I hope the discussion above is an indicator for what is yet to come.

    • Delighted to hear this! Thanks. I’ll be happy if half of the episodes hit the sweet spot that you describe (accessible, but still informative to the more knowledgeable).

  3. Hi John,

    Thank you for this careful and historically informed account of what 兩行 might mean. I especially found your way of connecting it with the concept of the potter’s wheel quite insightful. What you said perhaps does draw out the worry I expressed in the episode that the monkey-trainer passage at the end of the day could just be understood as operating from the human perspective. What makes me quite sympathetic to Justin’s reading is that I do think we find many examples in the Zhuangzi of some kind of distinction between the human and heavenly perspective and so the monkey-passage trainer passage can be an application of why the practical ability to “step back” from one’s own limited point of view can be helpful. So at the least the story might be way to help prime the reader to see the value of the heavenly perspective.

  4. For me, while ultimately being detached within society is desirable, it is only attainable after detachment is practiced in isolation. Rather than being a well-practiced monk/nun who is then ready to go to the mountains for a span of time, I cultivate home within and when I have done that, THEN I am ready to take that into society. That (the latter) may not happen in this lifetime. …or it could happen tomorrow. These choices are not the realm of teachers, psychologists or scholars. Only I know the way for me.

    • Thanks for this, Cat! Yes, that’s an interesting issue. We were talking about Zhuangzi-style detachment as an end-state and not so much the means of achieving it. I do think that the end-state is better understood as detachment in society than as detachment from society. But some (or perhaps many of) the means by which we reach the end may require periods of detachment from society. Interesting.

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