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The metaphors in the Zhuangzi have a strong appeal to scholars both
in China and the West. In this article, I do not intend to discuss the
general features of Zhuangzis metaphors
nor the all metaphors in
the Zhuangzi. Instead, I shall specically argue that Zhuangzi
metaphorically puts forth three meta-questions or fundamental ques-
tions in epistemology: 1) as an epistemic subject, do I know I myself?
2) Among epistemic subjects, do I know others? 3) What can I know
about the world? I shall demonstrate, by reanalyzing some of
Zhuangzis metaphors, that the discovery of these three meta-
questions is Zhuangzis valuable contribution to epistemology.
I. Do I Know I Myself: Self-Identification of
an Epistemic Subject
Do I know I myself? This is an initial question that we should clarify
before dealing with any other epistemological issue. Zhuangzi puts
this question in his metaphor of the buttery:
Once Chuang Chou [Zhuang Zhou] dreamt he was a buttery, a but-
tery itting and uttering around, happy with himself and doing as
he pleased. He didnt know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke
up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he
didnt know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a but-
tery, or a buttery dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chung
Chou and a buttery, there must be some distinction! This is called
the Transformation of Things.
What is the meaning of this story as a metaphor? Between the lines
many scholars read that this story tells us about the relationships
between soul and body, existence and non-existence, being and non-
being, life and death, certainty and uncertainty, continuity and dis-
DERONG CHEN, Ph.D. in Chinese Philosophy, University of Toronto; Ph.D. in Western
Philosophy, Wuhan University; associate professor, Sichuan University. Specialties:
modern Western philosophy, Chinese philosophy, and comparative philosophy. E-mail:
Journal of Chinese Philosophy 32:3 (September 2005) 493507
2005 Journal of Chinese Philosophy
continuity, freedom of the will and spiritual freedom.
From the per-
spective of epistemology, most scholars have found skepticism in this
story. For instance, Feng Youlan characterizes Zhuangzis epistemol-
ogy as relativism and skepticism, and thinks that Zhuangzi nally
turns to mysticism.
Chad Hansen and Russell B. Goodman compare
Zhuangzi with Descartes. Hansen nds that Zhuangzis position is,
in certain formal ways, similar to that of the Cartesian skeptic of the
senses. Hansen notes, Descartes was trapped in a circle of repre-
sentations from which he could never escape, but Zhuangzi main-
tains that we are trapped by our perspective shaped by linguistic
commitments, which we can transcend only by refusing to make judg-
ments at all.
Goodman notes that the difference between Zhuangzi
and Descartes skepticism rests in their goals, not in their forms.
Kjellberg thinks Zhuangzi suspects the human ability to know the
He thinks, Zhuangzi is skeptical only with respect to intellect;
he suspects our ability to gure out what is best or to know the truth
in this sense.
Lisa Rophals compares Zhuangzis story of the but-
tery to the discussion about dreams between Socrates and his disci-
ple Theaetetus. She assumes that both Zhuangzi and Socrates use the
example of dreams to doubt our ability to know.
Conversely, Hans-George Moller, in his analysis of Zhuangzis
metaphorical story of the buttery, notes that there are two essential
messages to be found: what human beings are and what truth is. In
fact, the question What are human beings? is one about identica-
tion of human beings as epistemic subjects. But, Moller does not
discuss the signicance of this story from this angle. He denies that
Zhuangzi doubts his own existence, and also denies the philosophical
conclusion that the story illustrates the relativity of distinctions in the
world. He says, I rather take it to illustrate the opposite moral: it
teaches the importance, the necessity, or the sense of distinctions in
the world.
In a new study of the Zhuangzi, Youru Wang develops
important standpoints. He asserts that Zhuangzi dismantles the iden-
tity of the self as a thinking subject, rejecting any absolute distinc-
tion between subject and object. He recognizes the relativity of the
distinction between I as a thinking subject and other subjects.
point of view has touched upon the issue of the self-identication of
epistemic subjects, but we need further investigation along this simu-
lating line of thinking.
Instead of delving into a discussion about Zhuangzis skepticism,
we could argue that Zhuangzi in this story puts forth a meta-question
of epistemology: as an epistemic subject, do I know I myself?
As we know very well, in the history of Western philosophy,
Descartes (15961650) explored the issue of self-identication of an
epistemic subject by doubting the existence of everything, and nally
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found that I am thinking, therefore I exist (Cogito ergo sum).
Seen from the perspective of epistemology, the conrmation of I
exist establishes an epistemic subject. If we specically ask, Do I
know who am I? we nd that Descartes did not touch upon this
topic. However, this is an even more fundamental question, a meta-
question in epistemology. Like Descartes, Zhuangzi begins with
doubt. He doubts his ability to know himself as an epistemic subject.
But, he does not stop; he tries to solve this suspicion by afrming the
distinction between the buttery and Zhuang Zhou. Moreover,
Zhuangzi stresses the transformation of things.
Metaphorically, Zhuang Zhou in the story refers to an epistemic
subject when he wonders if he has become a buttery. When he
wonders if the buttery becomes Zhuang Zhou the buttery is
potentially transformed as an epistemic subject, and Zhuang Zhou
becomes an epistemic object. Zhuang Zhou is an epistemic subject as
well as an object in the dream. In this sense, Zhuangzis transfor-
mation of things hints at the transformation of an epistemic subject
into an epistemic object and vice versa. This is a starting point from
which Zhuangzi asks whether he knows he is Zhuang Zhou or the
buttery. Exploring this question is just exploring the topic of the self-
identication of an epistemic subject. According to Zhuangzi, there
is no absolute subject or object, and the subject and object change,
one into the other. Both Zhuang Zhou and the buttery play roles of
epistemic subject and object in turn.
When we analyze this story from the particular perspective of an
epistemic subject in detail, we may nd that the following three
aspects are involved. First, who am I? Second, do I know who I am?
Third, how do an epistemic subject and epistemic object transform
into each other?
First, who am I? In his story, Zhuangzi says that he does not know
if he is Zhuang Zhou who has dreamt he is a buttery, or a buttery
dreaming he is Zhuang Zhou. Here, Zhuangzi raises a question about
the self-identication of an epistemic subject. In the process of
knowing, the epistemic subject is the agent of the activity of knowing.
Before starting to know, the epistemic subject identies himself by
clarifying who he is. No matter how we interpret the term I, we need
to establish I as an independent epistemic subject. The best way is
to identify I by thinking of who I am.
Second, when I identify I myself, I necessarily face another ques-
tion: do I know who am I? At this moment in reality I am Zhuang
Zhou, but at a previous moment in the dream I was a buttery. How
does this I know whether I am Zhuang Zhou or a buttery?
Zhuangzi does not give a negative or a positive answer to this ques-
tion, but leaves it open. This is an important piece of evidence that
three meta-questions in epistemology
leads many scholars to regard Zhuangzis position as skepticism in
epistemology and methodology. However, this is only his starting
point, not his destination. Chung-Ying Chung has noted that
Zhuangzi uses skepticism as an instrument to reach a higher and
deeper knowledge.
This is an approach through which Zhuang
Zhou, as an epistemic subject, identies himself. By doing so,
Zhuangzi indirectly answers the question of how a subject identies
himself. On the one hand, before starting to know all things in the
world the epistemic subject could take himself as an epistemic object
to know. This is a process by which an epistemic subject identies
himself. On the other hand, the epistemic subject could instead take
all other things as epistemic objects to know.
Third, when an epistemic subject takes himself as an epistemic
object he has to face the transformation between himself as an epis-
temic subject and as an epistemic object. The buttery in the dream
plays the role of the rst epistemic object when Zhuang Zhou knows
he is dreaming, and Zhuang Zhou plays the role of the second epis-
temic object when he wonders whether he is a buttery or Zhuang
Zhou himself. This is thinkers thinking of the thinker himself before
thinking of other things. It is also the process of the interaction
between an epistemic subject and an epistemic object. Since an epis-
temic subject can transform himself into an epistemic object, then an
epistemic subject is only a relative subject. Thus, we human beings are
epistemic subjects as well as epistemic objects. With this identica-
tion, there are two other aspects to be self-identied: rst, the subject
discovers he is himself and is an epistemic subject; second, the dis-
tinction between epistemic subject and epistemic object is relative.
This relativity is a reection of Zhuangzis relativist methodology in
his epistemology.
But, we should not let the conclusion of relativism
close the door of thinking. The most important information in this
story is the task and the approach used by epistemic subjects to
conduct self-identify.
II. Do I Know Others: The Individuality of
an Epistemic Subject
Following the question Do I know myself? another question logi-
cally comes up: Do I know others? This is another meta-question
in epistemology, which leads to further consideration of the individ-
uality of epistemic subjects. However, in the history of philosophy,
most epistemologists have not recognized the signicance of this
question. They are used to considering all human beings as a collec-
tive epistemic subject. Thus, Descartess I is a big I referring to the
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whole human race as an epistemic subject, not simply Descartes
himself. The epistemic subject in Kants epistemology refers to human
beings, and the twelve categories of understanding belong to all
human beings, not to any one individual. The absolute spirit as an
epistemic subject in Hegels philosophy is an objectication of the
human spirit; it does not refer to any individual epistemic subject. All
of these phenomena take the collectivity of the whole of humankind
as a single epistemic subject. Individuality and differences among
epistemic subjects have been ignored. I would argue that Zhuangzi
puts forth the question Do I know others? in the story of the sh
enjoyment. This question leads directly to the exploration of the
individuality of epistemic subjects.
Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao River
when Zhuangzi said, See how the minnows come out and dart
around where they please! Thats what sh really enjoy! Huizi said,
Youre not a shhow do you know what sh enjoy? Zhuangzi
said, Youre not I, so how do you know I dont know what sh
enjoy? Huizi said, Im not you, so I certainly dont know what you
know. On the other hand, youre certainly not a shso that still
proves you dont know what sh enjoy! Zhuangzi said, Lets go
back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know
what sh enjoyso you already knew I knew it when you asked the
There are many different explanations of this story from logicians,
literary critics, and philosophers. One of the current studies of this
metaphor is by Anne Birrell. She suggests that Zhuangzi uses this
metaphor to explain difcult ideas of relative perspective, subjectiv-
ity, and objective reality.
What Birrell reads from this story is the
concept of relativity. Nobel Prize winning physicist Hideki Yukawa
interprets this story from the perspective of scientic method and
logic, and asserts that Zhuangzis point is close to common sense and
It seems to Russell Goodman that Zhuangzi expresses his
idea of anti-skepticism in this story, but that he is not free from skep-
Thus, Goodman takes this story as an evidence of Zhuangzis
We suggest that the question Do I know others? is the essential
idea expressed in the story of the sh enjoyment. This story success-
fully draws a picture of the individuality and privacy of an epistemic
subject in the practical process of knowing. Zhuang Zhou and Huizi
are two different individual epistemic subjects. The question Youre
not a sh, how do you know I do not know . . .? clearly distinguishes
between one epistemic subject and another. Knowing, in this case, is
an individual and internal spiritual activity. Even today, we do not
have proof to demonstrate that if A knows how does B know and
three meta-questions in epistemology
whether B knows in the process of knowing, or vice versa. Although
contemporary psychologists and neurobiologists are able to monitor
what is happening in a human beings brain when a person is observ-
ing or thinking, this kind of experiment still cannot show the contents
of observation and thinking.
Contemporary epistemologist scholars also announce that knowing
is a still unknown process. As David Hammer and Andrew Elby point
out, It is not clear, however, with respect either to epistemological
beliefs or to conceptual understanding, how best to model what takes
place in an individuals mind.
Why is it that experimental science
still cannot answer Zhuangzis question? We believe that the activity
of thinking and the process of thinking are not observable, and that
the observable is the physical or biological process of the activity of
thinking, but it is not the process of thinking. In this regard,
Zhuangzis question is a typical philosophical question, or typical fun-
damental question of epistemology.
The discussion in contemporary epistemology on the relationship
between individuality and collectivism can help us to understand the
signicance of Zhuangzis question in the metaphor of the sh enjoy-
ment. Contemporary internalism pays attention to individuality. As
Goodman states,
The fundamental claim of internalism . . . is that epistemological
issues arise and must be dealt with from within the individual
persons rst-person cognitive perspective, appealing only to things
that are accessible to that individual from that standpoint. The basic
rationale is that what justies a persons beliefs must be something
that is available or accessible to him or her, that something to which
I have no access cannot give me a reason for thinking that one of my
beliefs is true (though it might conceivably provide such a reason for
another person viewing me from the outside).
In this claim of internalism, both the individuality of the epistemic
subject and the individuality of the justication of beliefs are stressed.
As an individual epistemic subject, one has ones personal perspec-
tive and standpoint; ones beliefs are built on ones personal knowl-
edge of certain objects. Accordingly, any justication must rely on
what one has experienced or recognized. In comparing the proposi-
tion that I have no access cannot give me a reason for thinking that
one of my beliefs is true with the question that You are not me so
How do you know I do not know . . .? we may nd that both indi-
cate a similar idea, but from two opposite directions: The individual-
ity of the epistemic subject and the individuality of the epistemic
result consisting of beliefs. Further, contemporary epistemologists
have investigated other details regarding the individuality of the epis-
temic subject and the result. For instance, George Towner discusses
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how an individuals knowledge emerges into group knowledge from
the angle of socialization in his book Process of Knowledge.
ing individual knowledge, he says, Knowledge is rst acquired by
but later on individual knowledge is socialized by social
Here, Towner tries to explain the transformation of
knowledge from individual to collective knowledge via social organ-
izations. Although we do not have reason to conclude that Zhuangzis
recognition of the individuality of the epistemic subject has reached
the level of contemporary epistemology, we do have reason to assume
that what the internalism concerns and explores is the question
raised in the story of the sh enjoyment. The internalism provides us
with a new version to value the signicance of Zhuangzis question
today. But, the signicance of this question has been ignored for a
long time.
In the stories of the little birds and the big bird Peng, Zhuangzi
uses metaphors to portray two different epistemic subjects under the
name of little birds and the big bird Peng and further explores the
question Do I know others? The Peng is so big that its back looks
like Mount Tai and it can y ninety thousand li high. The little birds
are so small that they can only y between the weeds and brambles
and never get more than ten or twelve yards high. The little birds can
never see the vista of the whole world that the big bird can see, so
they never understand the big bird.
The world in the little birds eyes
is no more than the space between the sapwood tree and the ground.
In Pengs eyes, however, the world is a huge limitless space. After the
narration of the metaphorical story, Zhuangzi asks, What do these
two creatures understand? Little understanding cannot come up to
great understanding; the short-lived cannot come up to the long-
Comparing the metaphor of the sh enjoyment with the
metaphor of birds, we nd that Zhuangzi raises the question Do I
know others? in the former, but negatively answers the question in
the latter.
In order to examine the general signicance of Zhuangzis
metaphorical story, we should not limit our understanding to the
debate between Daoist Zhuangzi and other philosophers of other
schools. The differences between the little and the big birds
metaphorically indicate the differences between different epistemic
subjects. In fact, the differences among different epistemic subjects
are subjective reasons for different opinions, beliefs, and visions of the
world. Human beings as epistemic subjects are individual as well as
collective. One might ask whether Zhuangzi really deals with the dif-
ferences between different epistemic subjects by telling the story of
the little birds and the big bird. Are we drawing a forced analogy?
Zhuangzis following discourse can help us to clarify this question.
three meta-questions in epistemology
After comparing the little birds and the big bird Peng, Zhuangzi
Therefore a man who has wisdom enough to ll one ofce effectively,
good conduct enough to impress one community, virtue enough to
please one ruler, or talent enough to be called into service in one
state, has the same kind of self-pride as these little creatures.
Zhuangzi here talks about human beings directly and makes an
analogy between human beings vistas as epistemic subjects with that
of the vista of the little birds. Zhuangzi mentions the birds, but refers
to man. He seems to describe the limitations of the viewpoint of
the little birds, but metaphorically indicates the variety of a human
beings epistemic ability. The essence of the difference between the
little and the big is the difference in epistemic abilities among
various epistemic subjects.
One might argue that for human beings as epistemic subjects there
is no such difference among individuals as the difference seen
between the little and the big birds. Thus, how it is possible that one
cannot understand another? Indeed, biologically, individuals are
similar to each other, and there are no such differences such as those
between the little and big mentioned above. However, what
Zhuangzi stresses is the individuality of epistemic subjects in under-
standing. In Autumn Floods Zhuangzi points out,
You cant discuss the ocean with a well froghes limited by the
space he lives in. You cant discuss ice with a summer insecthes
bound to a single season. You cant discuss the Way [Dao] with a
cramped scholarhe is shackled by his doctrines.
Obviously, the metaphorical references of Zhuangzis little,big,
well frog, and summer insect are the epistemic subjects limited to
a narrow circle of opinions. The limitation of the cramped scholar
is similar to the limitation that Bacon describes in the Idols of the
Cave (idola specus). According to Zhuangzi, the cramped scholar is
shackled by his doctrines; according to Bacon, people who have pre-
disposition of the Idols of the Cave form their opinions based on
idiosyncrasies of education and the authority of those whom he
respects and admires.
Both Zhuangzi and Bacon metaphorically
indicate the obstruction that epistemic subjects are bounded up in
their narrow and limited visual elds.
In general, it seems to Zhuangzi that human beings as epistemic
subjects are individual. Following Zhuangzis line of thinking to view
studies of epistemology in the past, we nd that regarding all human
beings as a single epistemic subject and ignoring their individualities
amounts to oversimplied epistemology.
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Identifying the differences among various epistemic subjects has
become one of the most important issues in contemporary episte-
mology: differences in age, gender, and even ethnicity have been
taken into consideration and analyzed. For instance, Patricia M. King
and Karen Strohm Kitchener have conducted research into the dif-
ferences between people of different ages, genders, and ethnicities in
models of reecting judgment.
Blythe McVicker Clinchy focuses on
womens way of knowing.
Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, in her article
Epistemological Reection: The Evolution of Epistemological
Assumptions from Age 18 to 30, examines the differences in episte-
mological assumptions at different ages.
All of this research, in a
wide sense, is concerned with the individuality of epistemic subjects.
III. What Can I Know About the World: The Identity of
Epistemic Results
Zhuangzi warns that it is dangerous for human beings not to rec-
ognize the limitations of their knowledge. The exploration of the lim-
itation of human knowledge is essentially the question: What can I
know about the world? According to the temporal limitation of
human beings as epistemic subjects, Zhuangzi indicates,
Your life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is
limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger. If you
understand this and still strive for knowledge, you will be in danger
for certain!
Just as the summer insects cannot imagine the view of the snow-
white world in winter, in Zhuangzis eyes, human beings cannot reach
a complete and thorough knowledge of the world. There is a bound-
ary between the limited lives of human beings and the unlimited
objects of knowledge. Although Zhuangzi just offers a warning, from
this we nd that he emphasizes a question: What can I really know
about the world? In considering Zhuangzis warning, we nd that he
suspects this possibility.
Consistently, Zhuagnzi begins with suspect and then explores the
possibility of knowing this world. In reviewing Zhuangzis other
metaphors, we nd that he suspects, but does not deny the possibility
of acquiring knowledge about things in the world. This includes
acquiring the highest knowledgedao.
Zhuangzi puts the following words into the mouth of Confucius:
Dont listen with ears, listen with your mind. No, dont listen with
your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with ears, the
three meta-questions in epistemology
mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty and waits on all
things. The Way [Dao] gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the
fasting of the mind.
Zhuangzis claim that we not rely on just our senses and minds does
not mean that we should give up the knowledge from our ears and
minds. He asks us to not stop at the level of knowledge acquired by
the senses. You must keep going through the ears and the mind to the
spirit, because the spirit waits on all things. In this discourse, the mind
is a link between the senses (eyes and ears) and the spirit. What is the
mind? What is its function? Zhuangzi answers us in another
metaphor. He explains, The perfect man uses his mind like a
mirrorgoing after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not
storing. Therefore he can win out over things and not hurt himself.
In short, only the spiritcan obtain the nature or essence of all things,
it even reaches at the dao. Zhuangzi notes the interaction of the mind
with the senses and the spirit, and thus outlines three steps in the epis-
temic process: sensesmindspirit.
These three steps correspond to the three steps of the epistemic
process described in the metaphorical story of Cook Ting. Cook Ting
was an expert in butchering oxen. One day when he butchered an ox
for Lord Wen-Hui, he slithered the knife along with a zing, and all
was in perfect rhythm,
as though he were performing a beautiful
dance or keeping time to wonderful music. Lord Wen-Hui was sur-
prised at his skill, and remarked to him,
Ah, this is marvelous! Imagine skill reaching such heights!
Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, what I care about is
the Way [Dao], which goes beyond skill. When I rst began cutting
up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer
saw the whole ox. And nownow I go at it by spirit and dont look
with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and
spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup,
strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings,
and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament
or tendon, much less a main joint.
From the perspective of epistemology, this story describes a com-
plete epistemic process, consisting of three steps. First, Cook Ting rec-
ognizes the phenomenon of the ox; at this stage the ox was the ox as
a whole in his eyes. He did not know much about the biological struc-
ture of the ox, which means that his knowledge about the ox was just
at the sensational stage of knowledge of the object. Second, after
three years, Cook Ting went beyond the phenomenon of the ox and
attained insight into the inner structure of the ox by practicing
slaughtering it over and over again. This indicates that Cook Tings
knowledge was approaching an understanding of the object through
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empirical knowledge. Third, Cook Ting acquired dao of butchering
the ox by spirit. When he acquired dao, it became the guidance of
his action.
In this story, Zhuangzi not only hints that all things in the world,
including dao, are recognizable, but also describes the process of the
knowing of all things and dao. The knowledge of dao is the highest
form of knowledge, and dao exists in all things. He says,
But you must not expect to nd the Way in any particular place
there is no thing that escapes its presence! Such is the Perfect Way,
and so too are the truly great words. Complete, universal, all-
inclusive,they are different words with the same meaning. All
point to a single reality.
That is to say, dao is general. On the one hand, everything shares
the dao, so dao exists in the activities of butchering an ox, a horse, or
the butchering of other animals. This is the dividedness of dao. On
the other hand, when we say that all things and activities share dao
we are stressing the sameness of dao. The sameness of things is
another expression of the identity of all things. The dividedness and
sameness of dao have their metaphysical grounds: the world is one in
For this reason, whether you point to a little stalk or a great pillar, a
leper or the beautiful Xishi [Hsi-shih], things ribald and shady or
things grotesque and strange, the Way makes them all into one. Their
dividedness is their completeness; their completeness is their impair-
ment. No thing is either complete or impaired, but all are made into
one again. Only the man of far-reaching vision knows how to make
them into one.
Zhuangzi here discusses the relationship between the dividedness
and the one. As it seems to Zhuangzi, all of the differences are phe-
nomena. Whatever the phenomena are, and however big they are, and
however many differences they have, essentially they are one. Indeed,
it is easy for people to see differences in things, but it is hard to
reach at the knowledge of their sameness. Why are they one? How
does dao make them into one? We can understand these questions
from two aspects: one is the relationship between dao and all things
(the myriad things), and, the other, the relationship between dao and
the one.
Dao is one. A state in which this and that no longer nd their
opposites is called the hinge of the Way [Dao].
The hinge of dao is
one in which opposites no longer exist. In this regard, the one is
another name of the dao. In the same chapter, Zhuangzi stresses that
many things seem to us to be quite different, but in fact they are one.
Zhuangzi explains:
three meta-questions in epistemology
There is nothing in the world bigger than the tip of an autumn hair,
and Mount Tai is tiny. No one has lived longer than a dead child,
and Peng-tzu [Peng Zu] died young. Heaven and earth were born
at the same time I was, and the ten thousand things are one with me.
According to common sense, the tip of an autumn hair is very small,
Mount Tai is very large, the dead child of course was short-lived, and
legendary Peng Zu was a long-lived person. As to the heaven and
earth, they are actually the signs of forever. How could I as bio-
logical living beings, be born at the same time as heaven and earth?
How could I as individual persons become one with all things? The
literal meanings of all these descriptions correspond neither to real
facts, nor to common sense. The basic approach for understanding a
metaphor is to go beyond its literal meaning: all the things are equal
and all the things are one in essence, not in real space and time.
Further, how could it be that all things are one? According to
Zhuangzi, it depends on how we discover sameness through the dif-
ferences among all things. Zhuangzi points out,
If you look at them from the point of view of their differences, then
there is liver and gall, Chu [Chu] and Yueh [Yue]. But if you look
at them from the point of view of the sameness, then the ten thou-
sand things are all one.
The liver,gall,Chu (Kingdom Chu), and Yue (Kingdom Yue)
metaphorically mean all of the different things in the world. We can
discover the differences between liver and gall and Chu and Yue
using our senses. We can also recognize the sameness among differ-
ent things using our understanding and reason. However, the one, as
the sameness of all different things, is general as well as objective.
When we look at all things in the world from their dividedness, we
know they are different and are individual. But, if we look at their
sameness we nd they are one. If we look at them from both their
differences and their sameness, we recognize that all things exist indi-
vidually and appear different from one another. Meanwhile they are
one because they possess the common essence dao. The knowledge
of the dividedness of all things is the knowledge of phenomena of all
things. The knowledge of the sameness of all things is the knowledge
of the nature or the essence of all things. Namely, the latter is the
knowledge of dao or of one. Zhuangzis theory of the identity of epis-
temic results is built on the metaphysical principle that all things are
What can I know about the world? The analysis above shows that
Zhuangzi takes alternative attitudes. Considering the limitations of
epistemic subjects and the un-limitedness of epistemic objects,
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Zhuangzi carries a discreet attitude, even a skeptical one. He starts
from suspecting, further explores the possibility of knowing particu-
lar things in the world. He gives a positive answer to this question at
a non-metaphysical level. When he notes that there is a huge gap
between the limitations of epistemic subjects and the un-limitedness
of epistemic objects, he recognizes the dangers of subjective assertion
in epistemology. When he afrms the possibility of knowing dao
through recognizing the myriad things in the world, he crosses the
boundary between the knowable and the unknowable things in the
world. Zhuangzi believes that not only can we recognize the divid-
edness of the myriad things, but we can also reach at the knowledge
of the identity of the myriad things in the world.
Concluding Remarks
The analyses above show that Zhuangzi conducts an exploration of
the self-identication of epistemic subjects in his discussion of the rst
question Do I know myself? He stresses the individuality of epis-
temic subjects in his discussion of the second question Do I know
others? and afrms the possibility to know the world by discussing
the third question What can I know about the world? The key to
understanding Zhuangzis answers to the three meta-questions is his
idea of the identity of the world: we cannot only recognize the di-
videdness of things, but also recognize dao through the recognition of
the sameness. According to this line of thinking, when we coherently
consider Zhuangzis metaphors we nd that the following are logical
conclusions to the three meta-questions: Do I know I myself? Accord-
ing to the dividedness of things, I do not know who I am; according
to the sameness or the identity of things, I know who I am and I am
identied with myself. Do I know others? According to the divided-
ness, I do not know others, just as I do not know the shs enjoyment;
according to the identity of things, there is no difference between
others and me. What can I know about the world? Little under-
standing is limited to the understanding of dividedness, while great
understanding goes beyond the dividedness of things and reaches at
the knowledge of the identity of all things. Thus I know both the
dividedness and the identity of the world. This logical conclusion
drawn from Zhuangzis metaphors indicates a basic direction for us
to explore the three meta-questions in epistemology. Although we
have made some progress in different respects, as I mentioned above,
there is a long way to go for a deep understanding and thorough clar-
ication of these questions. Thus, in the twenty-rst century, when we
three meta-questions in epistemology
rethink Zhuangzis contribution to epistemology, we nd that the
above-mentioned three meta-questions still have important signi-
cance. If this article can stimulate a rethinking of these three meta-
questions, its purpose will have been attained.
Toronto, Canada
* For improving this work, I am greatly in debt to Professor Chung-ying Chengs invalu-
able and numerous advices. Professor Jesse Flemings signicant editorial work is to
be deeply thanked. I am also grateful to Dr. Linyu Gu for her prompt and kind
1. Most of Zhuangzis metaphors are complete stories, which is different from
metaphors in Western philosophy. For instance, Wittgensteins metaphors of lan-
guage game, color-words, logical space, logical scaffolding, the tool box of
language, etc., all are metaphorical sentences and discourses. See Ludwig Wittgen-
stein, Philosophical Investigation, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe 2nd ed. (Basil Blackwell
Ltd, 1958), 25e, 226e.
2. Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Chung-Tzu, trans. Burton Watson (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1968), 49. For A. Giless translation of this story, see Hans-
George Moller, Zhuangzis Dream of the ButteryA Daoist Interpretation,
Philosophy East and West 49, no. 4 (Oct. 1999): 439. In this paper, I use Burton
Watsons translation.
3. For instance, Professor Kunsheng Liu thinks that the signicance of the story of the
buttery lies in the realm of spiritual freedom. See Kunsheng Liu, An Initial Com-
ments on the Essential Meaning of Zhuangzis Discussion On All Thing Equal,
Monthly Review of Philosophy and Culture 29, no. 8 (2002): 722.
4. Youlan Feng, An Initial Draft of the New Edition of the History of Chinese Philoso-
phy, Complete Works of Feng Youlan (Zhengzhou: Henan Peoples Press, 2000), 7:350.
5. Chad Hansen, Language and Logic in Ancient China (Ann Arbor: The University of
Michigan Press, 1983), 121.
6. See Russell B. Goodman, Skepticism and Realism in the Chuang Tsu, Philosophy
East and West 35, no. 3, (July 1985): 232.
7. Paul Kjellberg, Skepticism, Truth, and the Good Life: A Comparison of Zhuangzi
and Sextus Empirics, Philosophy East and West 44, no. 1 (January 1994): 111.
8. Ibid., 123.
9. Lisa Rophals, Skeptical Strategies in the Zhuangzi and the Theaetetus, Philosophy
East and West 44, no. 3 (July 1994): 501.
10. See Hans-George Moller, Zhuangzis Dream of the ButteryA Daoist Interpre-
tation, Philosophy East and West 49, no. 4 (October 1999): 439440.
11. Youru Wang, The Philosophy of Change and Deconstruction of Self in Zhuang Zi,
Journal of Chinese Philosophy 27, no. 3 (September 2000): 353.
12. Chung-ying Cheng, Nature and Function of Skepticism in Chinese Philosophy,
Philosophy East and West 27, no. 2 (April 1977): 143.
13. According to Zhuangzis relativist approach, all things are equals. This includes all
things, heaven and earth, birth and death, big and little, long and short, subject and
object, and so forth. In other words, there is no so-called birth and death, big or little,
long or short, subject or object. The differences are just relative.
14. Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Chung Tzu, 188189.
15. Anne Birrell, Chinese Myths (London: British Museum Press, 2000), 52.
16. Hideki Yukawa, Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu, ed. Victor H. Mair (Honolulu:
University of Hawaii Press, 1983), 60.
derong chen
17. Russell B. Goodman, Skepticism and Realism in the Chuang Tsu, Philosophy East
and West, 35, no. 3 (July 1985): 233234.
18. Hammer and Elby, On the Form of a Personal Epistemology, In Personal Episte-
mology: The Psychology of Beliefs about Knowledge and Knowing, ed. Barbara K.
Hofer (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 2002), 170.
19. Ibid., 222.
20. George Towner, Processes of Knowledge (New York: University Press of America,
Inc., 2001), 216219.
21. Ibid., 265.
22. George Towner, Processes of Knowledge (New York: University Press of America,
Inc., 2001), 265.
23. Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Chung Tzu, 31.
24. Ibid., 30.
25. Ibid., 31.
26. Ibid., 175176.
27. Francis Bacon, The New Organon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000),
28. Patricia M. King and Karen Strohm Kitchener, The Reective Judgment Model:
Twenty Years of Research on Epistemic Cognition, in Personal Epistemology:
The Psychology of Beliefs about Knowledge and Knowing, ed. Barbara K. Hofer
(Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 2002), 4354.
29. Blythe McVicker Clinchy focuses on womens way of knowing. See Blythe McVicker
Clinchy, Revisiting Womens Ways of Knowing, in Personal Epistemology: The Psy-
chology of Beliefs about Knowledge and Knowing, ed. Barbara K. Hofer (Mahwah,
NJ: Erlbaum Associates, 2002), 6387.
30. Magolda, Marcia B. Baxter, Epistemological Reection: The Evolution of Episte-
mological Assumptions from Age 18 to 30, In Personal Epistemology: The Psychol-
ogy of Beliefs about Knowledge and Knowing, ed. Barbara K. Hofer (Mahwah, NJ:
Erlbaum Associates, 2002), 89102.
31. Ibid., 50.
32. Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chung Tzu, 5758.
33. Ibid., 97.
34. Ibid., 50.
35. Ibid.
36. Ibid., 51.
37. Ibid., 241.
38. Ibid., 4041.
39. Ibid., 40.
40. Ibid., 43.
41. Ibid., 69.
Chinese Glossary
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three meta-questions in epistemology