Negation in Ancient Chinese Philosophy: 莊子 Chuang Tzu, 齊物論 ch'i wu lun, "On levelling things"
Domenico Pacitti (1991)
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6. If the Vedic hymn offers a conception of language as a subtle but nonetheless fitting instrument for metaphysical enquiry and the elucidation of thought, the authentic sections of the Chuang Tzu, written some seven hundred years later in ancient China, paint a very different picture. For here the author, Chuang Tzu, expresses the most extreme distrust of the linguistic medium in his advocacy of the transcendence of all dualist, and hence rationalist, thinking. But in its unrelenting demonstration and defence of the first principle of Taoism, namely the relativity of all attributes and the resulting harmony with the fundamental laws of the universe, the great Chinese classic is no less sublime.
Again sublimity involves the negative, in this case the total rejection of any affirmative-negative classification as a key to the rejection of all classification.
The Lao Tzu had taught nonbeing (焦 wu) as:
and being (有 yu) as:
But if both nonbeing and being have the same origin, what can be said of the antecedent state? No ontological sense can be made of the question within the context of the Taoist definitions of nonbeing.
The following difficult passage from the 齊物論 ch'i wu lun chapter has been variously rendered. I give the original Chinese text, followed by my modern WG and pinyin transcriptions (see note 3 below for the Archaic Chinese transcription) and translation.
Unless the word 言 yen in (A) and (C) is taken to mean "sayings", or even "statements" in the same sense, the translator will find himself attributing the spirit of the cosmological discourse in (D) and (E) to the author, and this, of course, will not do. We saw the Vedic text as representing different versions or codifications of elements of archaic cosmogonic tradition, so that on chronological, geographical-migratory and stylistic grounds the author is surely not to be interpreted as advancing the original version. Furthermore, the rhapsodic beat of (D) and (E) in respect of the rest of the piece warrants their detachment. Only the elliptical conditional construction, still common in the modern tongue, will yield the right sense here. And if the Huai-nan Tzu, a century later, develops more fully the seven-stage sequence of the beginning of creation, or "great beginning" (t'ai ch'u), then this, it seems to me, cannot in any useful sense be said to derive from this section of the 齊物論 ch'i wu lun chapter, as Wing-tsit Chan, for example, misleadingly suggests.
The purpose of the whole piece is, then, the debunking of all rational discourse in its seeking to make distinctions, as the chapter heading indicates: "making things and discourses equal", or "smoothing away differences and distinctions", or "discourse on levelling things".
Thus, no absolute sense can be attached to the notion of sameness as opposed to difference, for (B) shows that two or more things may be the same under one set of criteria and different under another set. Paradoxically, then, everything is both the same and different.
Similarly, in (C) and (D) beginning and being presuppose non-beginning and nonbeing. But what sense, if any, can be attached to the notion of the being of nonbeing? Is it the case that there is what is not or that there is not what is not? Both lead to contradiction and incoherence.
Likewise, (G) reinforces the incoherence in terms of the loss of word-object isomorphism or reference. Referential inscrutability and lack of differentiation at the ontological level lead to the loss of truth through language. That the reader is expected to perceive such truth through language is the final paradox, but one which the Taoists were prepared to embrace.
But the external attack on truth through language is accompanied by a more subtle, internal one. For the logic and style of argumentation of the school of Logicians (名家 ming chia) are utilised in what amounts to a systematic demolition of logic and language from the inside, as it were.
But on closer inspection this deconstruction depends for its effect on a deliberate semantic ambivalence arising out of a mixture of specialist and ordinary terminology. In this way,
/1/ 其 與 是 類 乎 ch'i yü* shih lei hu
(where the asterisk indicates tonal uncertainty) may be rendered either,
/1A/ which are truly like
/1B/ which share in the being category.
While /1A/ is representative of ordinary language, /1B/ reflects the terminology of one of the Logician school's two most famous exponents, Kung-sun Lung (the other being Chuang's master, Hui Shih).
In the same way,
/2/ 類 與 不 類 lei yü* pu lei
/2A/ like and unlike
in common usage, and
/2B/ classes participate in non-classes
/2C/ being classes participate in nonbeing classes,
where /2B/ and /2C/ again reflect the specialist usage. The specialist line concerns the relations holding between names (名 ming) on the one hand, and things (物 wu), actualities (實 shih) and universals (指 chih) on the other, while the more obvious level is that of common sense. Specialist interpretations of /1/ and /2/ undoubtedly refer to the Kung-sun Lung-tzu.
Consequently, the two key words in the text are in this respect 與 yü* and 類 lei.
The Tz'u-yüan (1983) lists the former in the third tone as a term pertaining to comparison, capacity or company; in the second tone as a modal particle; and in the fourth tone as the verb to share or to participate. Hence interpretation /1A/ would be second tone, and /1B/ fourth tone. In the Archaic Chinese of the day they were even tone and falling tone respectively, and therefore open to ambiguity at the written level although not at the spoken level. Furthermore, the "Platonic" readings featured in /2B/ and /2C/ are legitimated even more by the fact that 與 yü in the fourth tone with the clear and unambiguous meaning of to share is employed by Chuang in the preceding Chapter 1, 逍遥遊 hsiao yao yu:
There are eight entries in the Tz'u-yüan for 與 lei, the first four of which are relevant and all of which are in the fourth tone: (1) variety, type, species; (2) resembling, alike; (3) virtuous, perfect, whole; (4) model.
Although it is surely not unreasonable to see Greek influence here, Waley (1934) tends rather to exclude this on the grounds that "the formative period of Chinese Quietism (the fourth century BC) was one when outside influences on thought were general."
The puzzle posed in (F) and (G) of the Chinese text above could be argued away in terms of the confused state of the Chinese language in the fourth century BC. Indeed the task of the Logicians had been to establish a one-to-one correspondence between words and their objects, not for purely philosophical reasons, but for more typically political ones, with some, however, carrying their task too far. Thus the particle 也 yeh might be viewed as having been forced to bear the weight of expressing identity, class-membership and predication. To these may be added the absence of the singular/plural and tense markers. Waley, for example, follows this line. I disagree.
Consider the case of Ancient Greek, where scholars seek to discover Plato's intention of an existential as opposed to a copulative sense of the verb einai in a given context, when in point of fact Plato may have had no such distinction in mind.
Fewer distinctions of this nature may well lead to strength rather than weakness in a language's suitability to philosophy and abstract thought.
In this connection Kahn (1966) points out that in most languages the conjugation of the Indo European *es- has been completed by adding forms from a different verbal root, e.g. Latin: fui, futurum – esse; English: be – was; German: war – gewesen:
"As a result, the verb 'to be' in these languages has lost (or at any rate greatly weakened) the aspectual value which characterises the I.E. stem *es-, whereas the Greek verb einai has faithfully preserved, or even strengthened, its durative character."
In fact, Latin retains its durative force only in *es- (whence its use as imperfect in eram < *es-ā-m), while the eventive force is clear in fui, deriving as it does from *bhū-, to become, whose aorists efu (= Sanskrit abhūt) etc. correspond to fui.
In English, as in other Germanic languages, the situation is more confused, with *es- (is, am) being coupled with *or- (are) and *wes-, to dwell (was, were) in addition to *bhū- (be etc.). But Anglosaxon had sind, sindon in the plural, again deriving from *es-.
In Ancient Greek am was also pefuka (I am by nature), kathesteka (I find myself, I am situated in a particular place or mode), tugchano wn (I happen to be) and finally huparcho; Latin fui was egenomen and the aorist infinitive of eimi was genesthai. In the perfect, gegona functioned as copulative link.
I think Kahn forgets that word meaning need not coincide with intended meaning.
7. It will perhaps be helpful to pause for a moment in order to render more explicit the relevance of our two texts in connection wit our analysis of the nature of the nature of the negative.
The Vedic hymn marks one of the very first recorded attempts to formulate and present the nonbeing problem and may reasonably be regarded as an invitation to clarify matters or as a challenge to solve the riddle.
The Taoist text, on the other hand, dismisses the problem altogether as representing the prime example of the dangers of attempting to make distinctions in a world which is one and hence undifferentiated.
The former reflects the conception of language as an intricate but essentially transparent instrument ideally suited for the elucidation and expression of thought, whereas the latter conceives of language as a confused and confusing, essentially opaque screen which serves only to introduce and perpetrate a pernicious dualism, severely threatening the highest values of spontaneity, intuition and freedom.
Chuang's previous training in dialectic and logic is here turned against their illusory nature so that language is used to dismantle language, rather in the manner that the modern deconstructionist attempts to dismantle a line of enquiry from within the very system. Thus the two key words in the text, 與 yü* and 類 lei, can each be read in at least two different ways. Again, in the different readings the written characters will remain the same respectively, and in the case of 類 lei, the pronunciation likewise, but 與 yü* will alter in pronunciation according to meaning.
What the two authors have in common, however, is the same underlying assumption that our knowledge of the world is closely linked to the world itself, and that the latter precedes the former. That is to say, ontolology preceded epistemology.
In the first writer language provides the fitting means of investigation; in the second it is rejected as a hindrance.
In the first case an isomorphism between thought and reality is preserved through the medium of language, whereas in the second case it is preserved in spite of language.
But for both writers, as for the ancients generally, if something was, then it might be thought; and conversely, if something was a genuine thought, then it was able to be a thought of something.
It is not therefore surprising that the problem of nonbeing should have aroused such interest and controversy in ancient times.
Historically speaking, the Vedic text may be reasonably dated 1200-1000 B.C., and the Chinese one mid-fourth century B.C. The Ancient Greek texts we shall be looking at next may be dated not later than mid-fifth century B.C. in the case of Parmenides, and somewhat earlier than mid-fourth century B.C. in the case of Plato. The chronological order is therefore India, Greece, China. For the purposes of the present exposition, the order India, China, Greece will be followed, bearing in mind the relevant chronological data as well as the various cultural and social differences.
 Nonbeing is not nothing, since nonbeing is the nonbeing of something, and hence is itself something and not nothing. For nothing would be the nonbeing of everything, i.e. of both nonbeing and being together and is consequently not a coherent possibility. Ch'en Ku-ying (1970) writes: "We can see that Nonbeing contains an infinite, unmanifested vitality, and encompasses Being within it. Nonbeing and Being are not antithetical and are certainly not contradictory, but are rather complementary and mutually continuous." The relevant chapters of the Lao Tzu here are 1, 2, 11 & 40, so that in (1) nonbeing names the beginning of Heaven and Earth: 無,名天地之始; in (2) being and nonbeing are said to give birth to each other: 故有無相生; in (11) the usefulness in a wheel, vessel or house is said to lie in nonbeing, or space: just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognise the usefulness of what is not: 故有之以為利; 無之以為用; and lastly, in (40) being is said to be the product of nonbeing: 有生於無. Ch'en (op.cit.), I think, rightly follows Szu-ma Kuang and Wang An-shih in his interpretation of Lao Tzu 1,3 to mean 'nonbeing names ...' as opposed to Yen Tsun and Wang Pi's 'the nameless is ...'. But when Ch'en proceeds to group 1 with 40, and 2 with 11, insisting that the terms 'nonbeing' should be sharply differentiated, it seems to me that he breaks the harmony of the original. Perhaps Ch'en is worried by the fact that whereas in (1) & (40) nonbeing has definite precedence over being, in (2) & (11) the relationship seems to be more even. But there seems to me to be no contradiction inherent in the supposed interaction of nonbeing with being at (2) in respect of the more obvious precedence of nonbeing at (1). Thus I reject any capitalisation or inverted commas in translation on the basis of Ch'en's unwarranted assumptions of difference of meaning. What I think the precedence of the negative comes down to here is an implicit conception of a fundamentally animistic origin of the universe. For the nonbeing of something necessarily requires the human element, i.e. someone to carry out the attributing of nonbeing to whatever it is that it is being attributed of. Even at the cosmological level, at the apparently ontological level, this intentionality of nonbeing betrays its intensional as opposed to extensional status. I employ the term 'intentionality' in the manner defined by Searle (1983, p.1), i.e. to mean "that property of many mental states and events by which they are directed at or about or of objects and states of affairs in the world." The term and concept, incidentally, he gets from Brentano although it goes back to the medieval Scholastics. More obviously, the negative in classical Taoism (as in Shankara and in mysticism generally) serves to communicate magnitude of meaning. The question of correct interpretation in the Tao Te Ching is complicated not only by textual corruptions and obscurities – see Kao Heng (1943) – but by failure to contextualise adequately, i.e. failure to understand the question to which what the writer has written provides the answer: in this sense all that we read is precisely half the story. In this connection see Waley (1934, especially pp.43-83). If we add to this the almost certain textual incorporation of already existent sayings, proverbs and aphorisms with their properties of refractory interpretation, it is easy to appreciate Duyvendak's (1948) complaint of the text's plunderings by amateurs in search of preconceived meanings. Needham (1956, pp.33-164), basing himself of Fung Yu-lan's comment that that Taoism was "the only system of mysticism which the world has ever seen which was not profoundly anti-scientific", has done much in his monumental work – perhaps too much – to stress the scientific aspect of Taoism. On the metaphysical aspect see Fung Yu-lan (1947 & 1952), and also Huang Fang-kang (1941) who, however, overstresses the Parmenidean comparison. For indispensable light on the political import see Balazs (1949). Maspero (1971) is invaluable for the religious angle which, however, he tends to overstress. The Fu Yi revision of the Wang Pi text should be mentioned, as also the important discovery in December 1973 in a Han tomb at Ma Wang Tui of the chia-pen & yi-pen manuscript copies, which can be read in Lau (1982). Still the best of the Tao Te Ching translations after over half a century – an endless stream continues to pour out – is that of Waley (1934); cf. its reviews by Erkes (1935) and Wu Ching-hsiung (1939 & 1940). It seems to me that the truth man searches for turns out to be identical with the spirit of his own soul which first moved him in his search.
 The Chinese editions of the Chuang Tzu which I have found to be the most useful (as well as legible and accessible) are: Ch'en Ku-ying (1983), Wang Hsiao-yü (1982), Hu Yüan-chün (1969), Wang Fu-chih (1963) and Kuo Ch'ing-fan (1954), together with the commentaries of Kuo Hsiang, Ch'eng Hsüan-ying, Lu Te-ming, et al. Translations of the text which I have considered are: Legge (1891), Giles (1926), Waley (1939), Hughes (1954), Chan (1963), Watson (1968) and Graham (1981); see also my own translations of seven short extracts in Pacitti (1986a). On the authenticity of the text see Graham (1979). Fung Yu-lan (1947, p.78) writes: "The Taoists' method of seeking the highest kind of knowledge and the highest sphere, was that of discarding knowledge. The fruit of discarding knowledge is no knowledge, but this kind of no-knowledge comes from having passed through a stage of knowledge. It is not the no-knowledge of original ignorance. To make the distinction clear, we shall call this 'post-gained knowledge'. The man with the no-knowledge of ignorance lives in the unselfconsciously natural sphere, the man with the post-gained no-knowledge lives in the transcendent sphere." Chuang had been trained as a logician so that his rejection of logic, reasoning and language was precisely through logic, reasoning and language themselves. Freedom, which is what the Chuang Tzu is fundamentally concerned with, is always freedom from something, so that the very concept of freedom is seen to be itself a form of negation. Just as there could be no negation without the thing that is being negated, so there could be no freedom without the concept of the thing we are being freed from. The Taoism of Chuang depends on the very structure of language with its built-in distinctions in order the better to appreciate that all is in reality one. Return to the undifferentiated one or 'uncarved block' is also a return to sincerity: for 樸 p'o, an uncarved wood block, the primeval 'uncarved block of wood', also means 'sincerity'. Similarly, 素 su, 'undyed silk', also means 'simplicity'. But is not undyed silk still silk? For all its Taoist preachings, the Chuang Tzu here still reminds me of the Confucian opposition: "The great man is he who retains the heart of a child" (Mencius, IVB:12). Likewise, naive sincerity is to be distinguished from that sincerity which is best defined and understood in terms of those things – habits, social conventions, hypocrisies, vanities, establishment conceptions of culture, learning, educated behaviour and so on – that it rejects. Taoist spontaneity, 自然 tzu-jan always requires the utmost lucidity of vision, mirroring the image in the pool without distortion. In this, as Graham (1981, p.14) points out, it is to be distinguished from the Romantic vision of spontaneity: "[I]n spite of the Taoist refusal to pose alternatives, the imperative 'Mirror clearly' does distinguish a wrong kind of spontaneity, the surrender to passions which distort awareness, from the right kind, responsiveness in the impersonal calm when vision is most lucid. This is precisely the point of divergence in our own tradition of Romanticism, which values passion by its intensity however much it distorts reality."
 My transcription of the passage into Archaic Chinese is based on Chou Fa-kao's (1982) pronouncing dictionary of Chinese characters, which incorporates reconstructions from Tung Tung-ho's Archaic phonological tables and from Karlgren (1940). I use superscript P, Q, R, S to indicate the four Archaic tones 'pingsheng', 'qusheng', 'rusheng', & 'shangshang' respectively, and I have employed a hooked 'e' to represent Chou's midvowel schwa.
It is important to see that alternative tone readings in (A) & (B) reveal ambivalence at the written, although not at the spoken level. It is my contention that such ambivalence is rhetorically contrived: despite the Classical – and the Modern – language's apparent vagueness on account of the absence of inflections in determining parts of speech, Chinese is very rarely ambiguous. Word order and common or idiomatic expression normally ensure against this. Chuang makes the written language say one thing, and the spoken another. This is essential to the technique of 'levelling out' the distinctions which language purports to make. Two relevant papers on distinctions between Archaic Chinese phonological classes are Malmqvist (1962) and Karlgren (1962). I have also made use of Karlgren (1976). For a description of the Modern phonology and tonal system see Pacitti (1986b).
 There are many similar cases, especially in this chapter, of '1+1', '2+2' & '4+4' complementarities. This fundamental aspect of the art of Chuang has been seriously neglected by all the translators mentioned in note 2 except Graham (op.cit.) who is sensitive to what he calls the "rhapsodic prose" of the work, often setting such passages apart typographically within the text. But Graham at the same time appears to attribute these rhapsodic parentheses to sages or other authorities so that, consistently with this, he renders them in inverted commas. yet they are obviously highly artistic formulatons or reformulations which have the sole aim of levelling out or planing down, as it were, the distinctions that are necessarily implicit in the language we use. In his trance at the beginning of the chapter, Tzu-ch'i hears the pipes of heaven as opposed to the pipes of earth and the pipes of men. For though the notes blown through various hollows may sound different, it is the same breath, the breath of heaven, which is always the source. Just as Tolstoy (1.4) urges us to look at the sun and not at our feet in order to discern the true way to go, so Chuang urges us to look beyond the dissenting opinions of the philosophers and beyond language to the "voice of heaven". The hypnotic bisyllabic drum beat of 似鼻 似口 似耳 似柝 似圈 似臼 szu-pi, szu-k'ou, szu-erh, szu-to, szu-ch'üan, szu-chiu, which likens the smaller natural hollows to larger ones maintains greater stress on the second syllable with respect to the first of each pair, but then passes through a levelling process in the form of two trisyllabic links which each contain what, from the point of view of rhetoric and rhythm, are the two key characters: 似洼者 似汚者 szu-wa-che, szu-wu-che. The subsequent variety of sounds produced by the wind have in this way already been planed down at the linguistic level. Change of stress to the first syllable of each pair and tendency towards convergence at the phonetic level in the case of the last two pairs further emphasise transformation and evening out respectively: 激者 謞者 叱者 吸者 叫者 譹者 宎者 咬者 chi-che, hsiao-che, ch'i-che, hsi-che, chiao-che, hao-che, yao-che, yao-che. Ten sentences later the classical Taoist pronouncements on the nature of true knowledge and true words as opposed to their respective superficial contraries are parodied and evened out in that whereas the written level spells out the distinctions, the phonetic level simultaneously undoes them: 大知閑閑 小知閒閒 大言炎炎 小言詹詹 ta chih hsien-hsien, hsiao chih hsien-hsien, ta yen yen-yen, hsiao yen chan-chan. Similarly, if the distinction between life and death itself cannot be clearly stated, then that is not only because of the paradoxes attaching to being and becoming – if everything is what it is then how can anything become anything else? – but also because its difficulty of actual phonetic statement is something of a tongue-twister with compulsory 2+3 and 3+2 grouping in the five-syllable pair serving to underline this:
The modern 'red dragon purple dragon, red pink dragon purple dragon' (hung feng-huang tzu feng-huang, hung fen feng-huang tzu feng-huang) tongue-twister comes to mind. Again, consider the sequence:
which Graham (op.cit., p.57) translates: "The greatest discrimination is unspoken,| The greatest goodwill is cruel, | The greatest honesty does not make itself awkward,| The greatest courage does not spoil for a fight." Compare Watson (1968, p.44) who has: "Great Discriminations are not spoken; Great Benevolence is not benevolent; Great Modesty is not humble; Great Daring does not attack." Where Graham is right to set the passage apart, Watson fails to do so; furthermore Watson's capitalisations seem to me to be at best superfluous and at worst misleading (cf. my note 1 on the erroneous use of capitals in 'Being'/'Nonbeing'). But Graham, I think, is wrong to break the negative sequence in the second sentence. Although Watson is nearer the mark, neither captures the fact that at the phonetic – as opposed to the written – level of the Archaic original there is also a poignant debunking of the Confucian 'great man': for in the Archaic idiom (and for that matter in the modern one too) the sentence also reads: "The great man is not a man." That nothing final, nothing that is not subject to Chuang's all-pervading relativism can be said – even through the negative – is expressed in the highly charged 物无非彼 物无非是 wu wu fei pi, wu wu fei shih, which has more to do with saying than being. Literally, "Things are not not-other; things are not not-so", the sense is that if things cannot truly be said to be either different or the same, nor can they truly be said not to be in a certain way in respect of difference or sameness. Hence anything which is said clearly will incorporate implicit (or, of course, explicit) distinctions which will necessarily distort reality insofar as reality is one, man being part of nature, following the course of nature while in no sense considering himself separate from nature. That is the symbolic meaning of Tzu-ch'i's trance at the beginning of the chapter. We have seen words employed to wash away words, in that the distinctions made at the written level are regularly thinned out at the phonetic level. The result is that the author is thereby seen to show rather than to say, leaving space for the reader (or listener) to interpret, and defending himself from the paradox of having himself made distinctions through language in the very act of demonstrating that no such distinctions can legitimately be made. The four-syllable verse which Chuang parodies recalls both the Confucian Book of Odes and the Lao Tzu, two apparently antithetical works which prove unexpectedly similar here in terms of their employment of the symmetrical possibilities afforded by such a system. Freedom in Chuang is also freedom from such closed doctrinal systems with their balanced binary structures suggestive of staticity but also of sublimity. Insofar as the inadequacies of language can only be illustrated through language itself, the principle of negation will be seen to consist in a higher-order judgement over the thing itself that is being negated. See Karlgren (1976) for lexical clarifications in this and the other chapters, and Hansen (1972, pp.113-140) for an interesting exposition of Chuang's ideas based on a close analysis of Chapter 17.
Note: This text is an extract from Domenico Pacitti, The Nature of the Negative: Towards an Understanding of Negation and Negativity. Giardini, Pisa, 1991 (pp.48-55).
In the same series of philosophical readings from the published work of Domenico Pacitti