Lacertosa on Sense Perception in the Zhuangzi 莊子

Massimiliano Lacertosa’s article “Sense Perception in the Zhuangzi 莊子” has been published in Philosophy Compass; see here. The abstract is below.

In this essay I explore the controversial issue of sense perception in the Zhuangzi 莊子. Although scholars have not explicitly addressed this aspect of the Chinese text, a common assumption is that the Zhuangzi proposes a mysticism that undermines sense perception in favour of a transcendent self. After an overview of this interpretation, and after analysing some key passages of the text that deal with heart fasting (xinzhai 心齋), sitting and forgetting (zuowang 坐忘) and skill mastery, I demonstrate that some interpreters of the Zhuangzi read the text as if it has a metaphysical bent, recommending that sense perception be transcended as a prerequisite to perfection. In contrast, my thesis is that the text does not propose a withdrawal from the senses and from the world, but rather warns about the danger of abiding to doctrinal knowledge, which has the consequence of a person losing their responsive awareness. Indeed, in the Zhuangzi, sense perception is not an impediment on the way to a supersensible reality, but an integral part of one’s own being in the world. Through my analysis, I object to the idea that the Zhuangzi proposes a mystical union with something not immediately available, which moreover needs to be achieved by transcending the lived world that is encountered through sense perception. My view is that such a move not only postulates union with a transcendent entity, it also forces a dualism between a person’s capacities. This is problematic because the Zhuangzi does not point to another world–in a two worlds theory–where one must ideally attain the condition of a transcendent self. On the contrary, in rejecting a univocal ethos, the text suggests one should keep responding to changing circumstances without turning one’s perceptual awareness into entrenched habits. Thus, the Zhuangzi shows how sense perception should be seen, not as a “problem” but as an ethical possibility through which the univocity of doctrinal knowledge can be undermined.


One thought on “Lacertosa on Sense Perception in the Zhuangzi 莊子

  1. Excellent. A much needed clarification. Shame this is not open access. Many people who should know about this, e.g. in the world of therapies based on Chinese medicine, i.e. Chinese philosophical thought, i.e. the psychology behind their “tradition” and their therapeutic approach, are not members of a large academic institution, not acquainted with this kind of research and unlikely to wish to spend money the value of which the have no way of recognising. I am desperately trying to get my Shiatsu and Qigong students to engage with the broader background of the theory they have to learn and learn to apply and also live. Movement, gesture, image, metaphor and touch are so essential in body-mind healing. Using terminology and concepts without deeper, self-reflective understanding of their true meaning is very misleading. Further more, the failure to recognise the difference factors like time, location and paradigm make to the interpretation of text and terminology hinders the development of an authentic therapeutic approach. Instead dogma takes hold, openess and creativity are stifled and the subtle messages of patients are not listened to.

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