We neither seek to follow all at once or each equally—as HuiShi seems to suggest. Nor do we resolve to follow none—as ShenDao suggests. We do judge that we might gain from being aware of andengaging in open exchanges—as in Zhuangzi’s dialogues. We are moreinclined to follow a path, and given our similarities, think we mightpursue it with benefit when we know some natural being like us foundand followed it. And Zhuangzi clearly does ridicule the socialmoralists (Confucians and Mohists) as well as Hui Shi for thenarrowness of their range of choices—their failure to appreciatethe richness and complexity of alternative ways of life.
Zhuangzi’s relativism expresses choice, commitment, andinterpretive performance on analogy to natural processes involved infollowing a path. Commitment is setting off along a path. We havemomentum and a trajectory. The shape of the path combines with theseand commits us to walk on or continue in a way that dependson the discernible shape of the path. Walking a path involves stayingmostly within its physical boundaries.
Our location and trajectory makes usreceptive to some and not other avenues of learning. The boy wasunable to master the way of walkingbecause of the way he had already learned to walk. The monkey keepercould accommodate the monkeys, but still disagreed with them about theimportance of the breakfast-dinner choice. That someone understandsand agrees with both of us does not make his judgment correct. Thefinal skepticism concerns whether these paths of progress ofperspectives must or will converge on a single outcome.
The epistemic modesty implicit in Zhuangzi’s skepticism targetsmainly the paternalistic, superior attitude toward other points ofview exemplified by Confucian and Mohist moralistic posture. When wehave an accommodation (you and I come to a common agreement) you and Imay both rate it as progress. However, it does not imply we have movedto a higher state of overall insight along an absolute scale—or fromany arbitrary third point of view. Exchange of points of view can bevaluable to each (perhaps in different ways) and broadeningperspective in this way can make us wiser—but always as judgedfrom our already operative 成chéngfixed dàos . We canadvise and recommend our normative perspective on others, but theirbeing able to appreciate and use it depends on their capacities,options and situation.
This decade has witnessed a sea change in interpretations. In 1983, I wrote, "The interpretation of Zhuangzi is a philosophical scandal." Today, a quick electronic literature search for titles or abstracts containing 'Zhuangzi' and either 'skeptic' or 'relativism' produce more hits that one that excludes them. I trace this development to Graham's discovery decades ago that the addressed the questions found in the Mohist and to his breakthrough reading of the as an "inner dialogue" with positions posed, considered and then subjected to doubt.
This sense of the immense complexity and the fluid nature ofnormative commitments to a dàopath underlieZhuangzi’s skepticalthemes. 明 Míngclear:discerning seemslinked to the gestalt in which we accept ourselves as embedded, alongwith others similarly situated, in nature’s endlessly complexevolution of guiding structures. How do we know either that our pastpractice was correct or that we are correctly following them in thisnew situation, here and now, based solely on our eyes and ears?
Temporally, Zhuangzi’sskepticism is buttressed by reminding us of our own past experiencesof learning, of acquiring new gestalts, of realizing that what we hadconsidered the way, was subject to reconsideration andimprovement. The skepticism does not target any specific failure in myepistemic process. It does not advise me to abandon my presentcourse. It reminds me only to remain open to the further possibilityof learning more—about what? About the world? We can do that bylearning more about other natural ways of processing and how they workin the world—other dàos.
Can we describe Zhuangzi’s míng as “havinga sense of our limited perspective?” Credulous, dogmatic andimperious absolutists do not appreciate themselves as being in one ofa variety of natural perspectives. Broad open-mindedness and mildskepticism come together in the míngclarityZhuangzi encourages in us. It has a dual nature—an epistemicallymodest perspective on ourselves that arises from improving ourepistemic status and encourages us to continue. It helps us appreciatethat we are still as naturally situated and others with whom we maydisagree and still grow. Further improvement can come from furtherexchange of perspectives.
The search for this kind of perspective on ourselves and othersseems to motivate Zhuangzi’s willingness to engage and interactwith others, seeking to understand their perspective as having anatural status and role for them as ours does for us. This is partlyillustrated by common sense examples of our judging from our owncurrent perspective that theirs “adds something” enrichingour own perspective by our own lights. Sometimes it’s dangerousto try to mix others’ perspectives with your own.
We are, as it happens, capable of understanding the perspectivesof others well enough to accommodate and cooperate with them, toborrow insights and to reach agreements. However, theZhuangzi seems skeptical that we can extrapolate from thisordinary capacity to broaden our perspective to having some absoluteor comprehensive insight—as it were from all points ofview. Nor, as we saw above, can we assume that because the twodisputants come to a resolution or agreement, it constitutes knowingfrom a cosmically or absolutely higher perspective. Hui Shi’srelativism, recall, does point to such an infinite expansion ending ina single universal point of view. Here, however, we are reminded thatwhile we experience a gestalt broadening of perspective as revealingsomething real and significant (like waking from a dream), we cannotextrapolate from that to the claim to be able to know the final resultof such gestalt leaps to broader perspectives.
Graham’s Zhuangzi then addressed this Mencian response in apassage that extends the Hume-like skepticism about any identifiable“inner self”. That should be what guides the naturally occurring emotivereactions that are necessary for a wǒI:methat chooses. It seems, he says, there must be one, but we find noevidence of it. We approve of behaviors and place our trust in itsreactions but find no sign of what is authorizing or making them.
This philosophical shift in interpretive focus is remarkable because the field remains a "polyglot" discipline. Zhuangzi interpreters may be trained in religion, literature, history, or philosophy. Established interpretations, stemming from the missionary generations of Sinologists, echo modern religious themes. An aversion to Western "linguistic" philosophy still draws many to the study of Chinese thought. They affectionately search the Chinese for a rebuke to "rigid" Western reason. In Sinological circles, people typically pronounce 'analytic' with a sneer. 'Relativist', 'skeptic' and even 'logic' fare little better in Sinological discourse. Even 'philosophical' they typically use pejoratively. Exchanging the loveable, comic-strip religious mystic for a skeptical philosopher has its costs.