The butcher Ding cuts up an ox with the grace of a ritual performer and in the process shows us how to take care of life—or so suggests Book 3 of the Zhuangzi. A fair number of scholars have taken this to be the text’s intended solution to the worries of Book 2. We may not be able to tell right from wrong in some ultimate sense, but we can achieve a kind of local certainty by taking care of life in the course of skilled activity.
But as with sagely gestures elsewhere in the Zhuangzi, there are reasons to hesitate. Foremost among them is the fact that in Book 2 itself we find comments about three skilled masters that seem to take up essentially the same worries that the butcher’s skilled activity supposedly solves.
The passage I am thinking about concerns three masters, Zhao the lute-player, the Kuang the conductor, and Hui the paradox-monger. The theme is completion and loss (or injury): somehow the masters’ skills give them a sort of completion that is also a loss.
Initially, completion and loss characterise the particular occasions on which they exercise their skills. Zhao plays his lute, and the tune that he plays becomes complete. But there is also loss, because in taking up that one tune he leaves all the others unplayed.
But of course there is a similar completion and loss in the mastery of a particular skill: Zhao has mastered the lute, but will never gain the same proficiency with paradoxes or oxen. Mastering a skill can take years of devotion, and there are limits to how many skills one can devote oneself to. Settling on one can then mean giving up on others.
The text suggests that this can constitute a loss because it closes one off not only from the other skills one might have mastered but also from other people. They want other people to understand their skill, but this proves impossible. Because of this, Hui engaged in pointless philosophising and Zhao was unable to teach his son to play the lute.
Is the butcher Ding closed off in the same way? Or is he somehow different from these three masters?
The references to Hui might suggest that there is a difference in the nature of the activities involved: Hui is logic-chopping while Ding is doing something practical; Hui is trying for knowledge-that, whereas Ding is exercising knowledge-how. But Hui is treated in exactly the same way as the two musicians, whose problem surely is not that they’ve mastered the wrong kind of activity. And at the heart of any Zhuangist suspicions of the sort of philosophy that Hui is supposed to have practised are suspicions of our ability to draw distinctions correctly—an ability that Ding depends on as much as does any philosopher (imagine the consequences if he lost his ability to distinguish ox from non-ox).
Here’s a thought. Book 2 tells us that the three masters differ from each other and from the rest of us only because of what they loved (hao 好). Presumably what they loved was their skill. But Ding also tells us what he loves, and it is is not his skill but is rather dao, which, he tells us, goes beyond skill. This seems to be what enables him to cut through an especially tricky joint: he must figure out how to do something he has not previously learned how to do, and that requires him to go beyond his existing skill. And perhaps this is a way in which he escapes, at least to an extent, the worries of Book 2: he is not limited by and to his existing skill in the way that the three masters are.
A line earlier in Book 2 may suggest a similar view. The Chinese is “自彼則不 見，自知則知之.” In an over-literal pseudo-translation it might read, “If from that/other then one does not see it, if from knowledge then one knows it.” I take it the point is that we can in a way understand how things are from perspectives we do not share, and thus that we have a way of going beyond our own perspectives, in knowledge if not in vision. (Maybe the anecdote of the monkey-keeper supplies an example: by understanding his monkeys’ preferences and not just his own, the monkey-keeper is able to reach an accommodation with them.)
Even if this is right, I don’t think it gives Ding the kind of certainty that you might expect to characterise sagehood. He’s not trapped, but he also couldn’t deal with just anything, and he remains vulnerable to Zhuangist worries about being useful. Still, I wonder what people make of this idea that the issue is not skill as such, but an ability to go beyond the skills we already have and the perspectives they define.