Zhuangzi glossary


Two Lectures in Honor of Hideki Yukawa

Paul Kjellberg

November 2018

Creativity and Compassion in Zhuangzi:

Two Lectures in Honor of Hideki Yukawa


These lectures were written in honor of Hideki Yukawa, Zhuangzi scholar and Nobel Prize winner in Physics, for Seeking for a New Conception of Science: The Future of Scientific Culture in East Asia, an international conference at Chubu University, in Japan, October 5-6, 2018. They develop connections between contemporary science and ancient Daoism explored by Yukawa in his 1961 essay “Chuangtse” and 1966 essay “The Happy Fish.” The first lecture connects these essays to another of Yukawa’s interests: the nature of creativity in science. The second lecture builds on that to address the possible relationship that both Daoism and science may have to compassion.






As a college student, I read a book called Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu, edited by Victor Mair, about the 3rd century BC Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi.[1] It contained a 1966 paper called “The Happy Fish,” by a theoretical physicist named Hideki Yukawa. It was an interesting paper, but I didn’t know at the time who Hideki Yukawa was and thought it was odd that a book on an ancient philosopher should contain a paper by a modern scientist. Decades later, as professor of Chinese philosophy, I again thought it was odd when I received an email inviting me to present a paper at a conference entitled “Seeking for a New Conceptions of Science” in Chubu, Japan (October 5-6, 2018). Upon further investigation, I discovered that these two anomalies were related: that Professor Yukawa was Japan’s first Nobel laureate for his prediction of the meson; that he had a lifelong interest in Daoism and wrote about it in many of his papers; and that therefore a scholar of Zhuangzi was invited to this conference in his memory.

With this understanding, I re-read Professor Yukawa’s essay and decided to explore some of his ideas further. My initial idea was to write a paper on compassion in Zhuangzi based on the namesake of Professor Yukawa’s article, “The Happy Fish.” Along the way I realized that I needed to include an introductory section on skill and creativity which, fortunately, were also interests of Professor Yukawa’s. As often happens, this introductory section grew into a paper of its own. And since skill and creativity were probably of more interest to an audience of scientists than compassion, that is what I presented at the conference. But since the first paper was intended as a preface to the second, I present them together here.


Lecture 1: Daoism and Scientific Creativity


The book known as Zhuangzi is a collection of philosophical stories and poems. Some of them we are confident were written by Zhuangzi himself, who was friends with a man named Huizi, who we know from external sources served in the court of King Hui of Liang at the end of the fourth century BC. That rough date is the only solid bit of biographical data we have outside of what we can glean from stories in the book. The book as a whole, though, is unapologetically fictional, even fantastical, with fish turning into birds and willow trees sprouting from people’s elbows; so the apparently autobiographical anecdotes within it cannot be trusted as historical sources. Some of the stories, as I said, appear to have been written by Zhuangzi himself. Others were likely contributed by later admirers, though they are similar enough to the original in spirit that it is convenient simply to refer to Zhuangzi as the author of the whole text.


Part 1: Yukawa and Zhuangzi


In his paper from the Experimental Essays, which is also included in his 1973 collection, Creativity and Intuition: a physicist looks at East and West, Professor Yukawa, discusses a story from Zhuangzi to demonstrate the relevance of this ancient Chinese philosopher to modern science. The story runs as follows:[2]



(normal-course-for-rulers-and-kings [7])[3]

The Emperor of the South was called Fast and the Emperor of the North, Swift. The Emperor of the Center was known as Chaos. One time, the emperors of the South and the North visited Chaos’s territories, where they met with him. Chaos made them heartily welcome. Fast and Swift conferred together as to how they could show their gratitude. They said, "All men have seven aperturesthe eyes, the ears, the mouth, and the nosewhereby they see, hear, eat and breathe. Yet this Chaos, unlike other men, is quite smooth with no apertures at all. He must find it very awkward. As a sign of our gratitude, therefore, let us try making some holes for him." So each day, they made one fresh hole; and on the seventh day Chaos died. (Mair 1983:57)



Fast and Swift are guests at the home of Chaos, who oddly has no external orifices. So, to thank him for his hospitality, they drill him some, inadvertently killing him.


Professor Yukawa read this parable in terms of particle physics. Or rather, as he will explain momentarily, it was thinking about particle physics that reminded him of this parable. As a scientist, he said,


[o]ne wants to get at the most basic form of matter, but it is awkward if there prove to be more than thirty different forms of it; it is more likely that the most basic thing of all has no fixed form and corresponds to none of the particles we know at present. It may be something that has the possibility of infinite differentiation into all kinds of particles but has not done so yet in fact. Expressed in familiar terminology, it is probably a kind of “chaos.” It was while I was thinking on these lines that I recalled the fable of Chuangtse. (Mair 1983:57)


The most basic form of matter, he reasoned, is likely a kind of chaos containing within itself the possibilities of all the other forms. This inquiry into basic particles leads in turn to an inquiry into the nature of space since, as Professor Yukawa puts it inSpace-time and Elementary Particles” (1963), “(t)he nature of elementary particles cannot be considered apart from the structure of space itself” (Yukawa 1973:181). So space is the chaos which contains the possibility of various types of particles.


It was thinking of space in this way, as “a kind of chaos,” that reminded Professor Yukawa of the story from Zhuangzi (Mair 1983:57). He reads the two guests, Fast and Swift, as analogous to particles. They are opposite, emperors of the south and north, respectively, but the home of Chaos is where they converge:


So long as they were rushing about freely nothing happened - until, advancing from south and north, they came together on the territory of Hun-t'un [渾沌], or chaos, when an event like the collision of elementary particles occurred. Looked at this way, . . .  the chaos of Hun-t'un can be seen as the time and space in which the elementary particles are enfolded. (Mair 1983:57)


Thus, on Professor Yukawa’s reading of the story, chaos does not represent the location of the particles’ one-time collision; rather, it is an allegorical representation of the time and space within which they exist all along, understood in such a way as to make their convergence possible.


Professor Yukawa does not attribute to Zhuangzi a theory about the most basic form of matter. Indeed, he thought it likely that Zhuangzi was thinking about the very large rather than the very small: the nature of the cosmos rather than of particles (Mair 1983:58). Still, Zhuangzi suggested an approach to the problem that Professor Yukawa found promising: conceptualizing the structure of space itself as what we would think of as a kind of chaos. At least, he concludes, “(s)uch an interpretation seems possible to me”(Mair 1983:57). And this possibility is sufficient to confirm his thesis that, while ancient philosophy may not contain answers to modern scientific questions, it can still suggest ways of thinking that modern scientists might find helpful. He says: “(T)here is no reason why Greek thought should remain the only source for the development of scientific thought” (Mair 1983:58). Traditional Asian culture may also have contributions to make. He goes on, “There are many things in Chuang-tse, I feel, that stimulate the reader’s mind and make it work better” (Mair 1983:58).


With my remaining time, I want to elaborate on the potential contribution of Daoist thought to scientific inquiry by connecting it to another of Professor Yukawa’s interests: the nature of creativity in science. In his 1963 paper, “The Conception and Experience of Creativity,” he writes,


Ever since I reached the age of fifty or so, I have been considering the question of how not only I myself but younger research workers also can best display creativity, and have been trying to examine this question of creativity from a rather more objective viewpoint. . . . [T]he question of creativity, I feel, can ultimately be reduced to the question of where creativity lies hidden, and of the means whereby it can be brought out into the open. (Yukawa 123, 126)


In “The Oriental Approach” (1948), Professor Yukawa distinguished between different aspects of science. Much of scientific work consists in the confirmation or rejection of given theories and the elimination of inconsistencies. He describes this mode as primarily logical and distinguishes it from the creative mode that generates the theories to be tested (Yukawa 57). The distinction is analogous, I believe, to what Kuhn describes as normal and revolutionary science (Kuhn 1970).


Put slightly differently, progress in science requires two things: the consideration of what is possible and the determination of what is actual. Professor Yukawa elaborates on the role of the first of these twoconsideration of possibilityin scientific progress. The scientist is confronted by incompatible elements. So long as it is merely a question of rejecting the wrong theory and embracing the right one, there is not necessarily any great need for creativity. But often it is not that simple. Often there are conflicting facts or theories both of which must be preserved for one reason or another, in which case creativity is required. He writes:


In this kind of case, nothing can be done by logic alone. The only course is to perceive the whole intuitively and see through to what is correct. What is important here, in other words, is not so much to weed out the contradictions as to discover a harmony in the whole . . . Science usually tends to be thought of as the direct opposite of imagination, but only by those who know only one aspect of science [the logical mode of confirming or rejecting theories]. As I have just said, the act of creating something new does not proceed only from things already given. The scientist himself seeks to add to them, in some form or other, something new. In short, by supplementing what he already has with his imagination, he produces an integrated whole. (Yukawa 1973:57)


Confronted by incompatible parts, the scientist, must imagine a whole in which the parts are consistent. Without this imaginative step, progress would be impossible. And this is what we see in Professor Yukawa’s reading of Zhuangzi’s story about chaos: The story doesn’t prove or disprove any given fact. It doesn’t enfold a hidden theory. But it suggests a possible way of thinking about the wholeas a kind of chaoswhich makes room for theories that can be tested. Creativity involves the exploration of different ways of seeing the whole.


Part 2: Zhuangzi and skill


Fortunately, this is not all that Zhuangzi has to say on this subject. Specifically, he has a program for creativity outlined in what are sometimes called the “skill stories,” one example of which is the following:



(full-understanding-of-life [7])

A celebrated carpenter carved trees into bell stands. When they were done, viewers gasped as though what they saw was the work of ghosts or spirits. The Marquis of Lu saw and asked, “What formula do you use?” The carpenter replied, “I am just a craftsman. How could I have a formula? But there is one thing. When I am going to make a bell stand, I never bother wasting my energies. I always fast to still my mind. After fasting three days, I’ve stopped bothering about salary or reputation. After five days, I stop bothering with approval or rejection, skill or clumsiness. After seven, I suddenly forget I have four limbs and a body. Once I’ve gotten to this point, there is no royal court. My abilities focus, and external things fade away. After that I go into the mountain forests to survey the nature of the material. When I arrive at a perfect trunk, I can see a bell stand in it and I lay my hand to it. Otherwise, not. This is just joining nature with nature. That is the reason why people wonder if my bell stands are the work of spirits.



To begin with, by “fasting” Zhuangzi refers not simply to traditional abstention from meat and wine but an intellectual fasting, in which the carpenter “forgets” his presuppositions; that is to say, going without beliefs instead of going without food. In this account, our carpenter passes through a series of stages progressing from outer to inner, forgetting first the salary and reputation he will earn from other people, then his own judgments of approval and disapproval, skill and clumsiness, and finally his own body.


Zhuangzi calls this process “fasting of the mind” and describes it in another fictional story of Confucius and his favorite disciple, Yen Hui:


仲尼曰:「齋. . . .」顏回曰:「回之家貧,唯不飲酒、不茹葷者數月矣。若此,則可以為齋乎?」曰:「是祭祀之齋,非心齋也。」回曰:「敢問心齋。」仲尼曰:「若一志,无聽之以耳而聽之以心,无聽之以心而聽之以。聽止於耳,心止於符。也者,虛而待者也。唯道集虛。虛者,心齋也。」顏回曰:「回之未始得使,實自回也;得使之也,未始有回也。可謂虛乎?」夫子曰:「盡矣。

(man-in-the-world-associated-with [1])

Confucius said, “You must fast! . . .

            Yen Hui said, “My family is poor. Indeed, I have not drunk any wine or tasted any strong food for several months. Can this be considered fasting?”

            Confucius said, “That is the fasting one does before a sacrifice, not the fasting of the mind.”

            “May I ask about fasting of the mind?”

            Simplify your plans. Do not listen with you ear but listen with your mind. Do not listen with your mind but listen with your energies. Listening stops with the ear. The mind stops with symbols. Energies are empty and wait on external things. Only the Way gathers in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.

            Hui said, “Before hearing this instruction, I was sure I was Hui. But after hearing it, it is as though that person never existed. Is this what you mean by emptiness?

            The Master said, “You’re done.



The term qi is difficult to translate but fortunately has become familiar even to Western audiences. I translate it as “energies” here and in the previous passage, though arguably “gut” would work as well to emphasize the contrast with mind. In any case, this passage describes a progressive surrender, first of words (“do not listen with your ear”), then of concepts (“do not listen with your mind”). The conclusion is to “listen with your energies,” or as we might say in English, “listen with your gut.” Our carpenter went through a similar process of forgetting in preparation for the creation of his bell stands. Though the descriptions of the sequences are different, both culminate in a paradoxical forgetting of the self: the carpenter forgets he has four limbs and a body, and Yen Hui is no longer sure who he is. We will return to this in a moment.


There is debate among commentators about what this “forgetting” entails. Some argue that what had been taken as knowledge is eradicated, so that one returns, so to speak, to the state of a child (e.g., Eno 1991). Others argue that beliefs are bracketed or suspended, the way you “forget” grammar as you become fluent in a language (e.g., Cua 1991), or what the jazz musician Charlie Parker meant when he told his band to “Learn the changes and then forget them.” But there is agreement that the result of this process, as illustrated with our carpenter carving bell stands and in other similar stories,[5] is a skillful adaptability and responsiveness to unfamiliar and unpredictable situations. The question then is: How does this result occur? How does forgetting lead to skill?


The simple, obvious explanation is that preconceptions often blind us to contrary evidence or to subtleties and ambiguities unique to the situation. Because we think we know what we are looking at already, we fail to observe closely. By “forgetting,” or putting aside preconceptions we are able to view the problem with fresh eyes, so to speak. Zhuangzi suggests a more sophisticated explanation with his use of the term tian. The word translated here as “nature” or “natural,” , literally means “sky.” It is regularly contrasted to ren, “human..[6] The distinction is roughly equivalent to ours between “natural” and “artificial.” “Natural” is generally explained as the way things are on their own ( “self-so), without the result of human intervention, like a block of lumber before it has been carved. Things are natural in their raw, unprocessed state. We render them artificial by processing them.


But there is another dimension to the contrast between and in Daoist thought. “Natural” and “artificial” can describe ways that things are; but they can also describe ways of looking at them. We can process things in either of two ways, either physically by imposing a form on them or intellectually by imposing definitions on them. Nature” in this second sense refers to the way things are in their uninterpreted, inarticulate state, as opposed to the ways they are after we understand them. “Forgetting” our interpretive categories is our way of rediscovering this natural, uninterpreted state. In this second sense of the distinction between and , we render things artificial not by processing them but by understandings them.


Zhuangzi doesn’t present it this way here, but it is convenient for us to think of forgetting as taking place on two levels, descriptive and normative. As philosophers use these terms, descriptive judgments describe the way things are, normative judgments describe the way they should be. The carpenter forgets his preconceptions about what wood does look like and also his preconceptions about what a bell-stand should look like. By forgetting his preconceptions about the wood, the carpenter is able to appreciate the unique qualities of each piece, as we just said. By forgetting his preconceptions about bell-stands, he frees his aesthetic responses to lead him in new, creative directions. By forgetting his preconceptions about what carpenters are supposed to do, he is able to go beyond his training.


The apogee of forgetting, the place where internal and external, normative and descriptive assumptions converge is in the self. Whether we realize it or not, the judgments we make about the world around us are all premised one way or another on our perceptions of our own identity. What we think of as large or small, long or short, for instance, is relative to our own size. But it goes deeper than that, as Zhuangzi illustrates in one poetic passage:



(adjustment-of-controversies [12])


How do I know that loving life is not a mistake? How do I know that hating death is not like a lost child forgetting its way home? Lady Li was the daughter of the border guard of Ai. When the duke of Jin got her, her tears soaked the bosom of her robe. But when she reached the royal palace, slept in the king’s bed, and ate the meats of his table, she regretted her tears. How do I know that the dead don’t regret that they ever longed for life?


Lady Li was a member of the non-Chinese Rong people living to the north and west of China, hence a “barbarian.” She was traded in a hostage-swap to Duke Xian of Jin (r. 676651 B.C.). At first, still looking at it from the point of view of a country girl, the story seemed to her like a tragedy. Later, redefining herself as a queen, it was the best thing that ever happened to her. The significance of the events depends on how she understands her own identity.


To Lady Li, the story has a happy ending. Zhuangzi’s readers, however, would have known that once she became the Duke’s concubine, she estranged him from his first wife and legitimate heirs, put her own son on the throne, and wreaked havoc in the kingdom, initiating the period of violence known as 戰國, the Warring States. For them, the story is a catastrophe and she is a monster. For us, the story is a puzzle because she is someone most of us have never heard of. Thus, not only for her in the story, but also for us reading it, the significance of the events for us depends on our understanding of who we are.


That is all well and good so long as we know who we are. But if we forget who we are, then all these other judgments lose their footing. We saw the woodcarver forget he had four limbs and a body and Yen Hui feel as though the person he thought he was had never existed. In one of his few explicitly autobiographical tales,[7] Zhuangzi tells his famous story of dreaming he was a butterfly then waking up not to know whether he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.



(adjustment-of-controversies [14])


One night, I dreamed of being a butterfly. Whee! A butterfly, showing off and doing as I pleased. I had forgotten about Zhuangzi. Suddenly I awokeUgh!Zhuangzi again. I could not tell whether it was Zhuangzi who had dreamt the butterfly or the butterfly dreaming Zhuangzi. There must be some difference between them! This is called “things change.


In this moment of uncertainty about his own existence, what is real and what is a dream, Zhuangzi is by necessity uncertain about everything else. It is tempting to read the anecdote literally, as asking how we know we are not dreaming at this very moment. But it is even more powerful read metaphorically, as we saw with the story of Lady Li. Who am I really? A scholar? A parent? An American? A member of the human race? Or just an individual trying to get by? Which of these is my real identity, which the dream?


Once again, this idea of complete forgetting centered on the forgetting of the self is illustrated in another comedic anecdote with Confucius and his student, Yan Hui:



(great-and-most-honoured-master [9])

Yan Hui said, “I’m improving.”

Confucius said, “How so?”

I’ve forgotten benevolence and righteousness.” “

Good, but there’s more.”

Yan Hui saw him again the next day and said, “I’m improving.”

How so?”

I’ve forgotten rites and music.”

Good, but there’s more.”

Yan Hui saw him again the next day and said, “I’m improving.”

How so?”

I sit and forget.”

Confucius was startled and said, “What do you mean by sit and forget’?”

Yan Hui said, “I cast off my limbs, dismiss hearing and sight, leave my form, abandon knowledge, and unify them in the great comprehension. That’s what I mean by sit and forget’.”

Confucius said, “If you’ve unified them then you have no preferences. If you change then you have no constancy. You really are worthy, after all! I would like to be your follower!”



To be honest, I don’t really understand why Confucius says “If you’ve unified them then you have no preferences. If you change then you have no constancy.” The last lines are a joking reference to 論語Analect 6.11: 子曰:「賢哉回也!一簞食,一瓢飲,在陋巷。人不堪其憂,回也不改其樂。賢哉回也! “The Master said, ‘What a worthy person Yan Hui was! Living in a narrow alley, surviving on rice and water—other people could not have born such hardships, and yet it never spoiled his joy. What a worthy person Yan Hui was!’” In any case, the important thing for us to get from this passage is that “Sitting and forgetting,” is the Daoist practice of forgetting everything, culminating in the forgetting of the self (which includes everything else).


Forgetting in this sense need not render the mind a complete blank. The human mind is spontaneously active, receiving, organizing, and theorizing about data. Forgetting old theories need not result in an empty mind but can simply open up the mind to respond to new data in new ways. Returning to our carpenter and his bell stands, then, Zhuangzi has him describe what he does as “joining nature with nature.” In his case, this means connecting his own inspiration with the unique features of the wood to create a bell stand that looks like it was made by ghosts or spirits. This is why he denies that he has any formula because his whole role in the process is to step back, not to get involved, and to let nature take its course. And “this is why people think it is the work of spirits,” because it is not the work of “man.


Stories like the one about the carpenter carving bell stands illustrate the value of forgetting. Stories like Lady Li and the butterfly dream are designed to bring forgetting about by prompting us to question our identities. Zhuangzi employs a variety of strategies to induce forgetting. He disorients his reader by shifting perspectives literally and figuratively, as we have seen in the story of Lady Li. He uses skeptical arguments like the familiar reductio ad absurdam to call into question the criterion for truth claims: 嘗試言之。庸詎知吾所謂知之非不知邪?庸詎知吾所謂不知之非知邪? “Suppose I tried saying something. How could I know, when I say I know something, that I don’t not know it? How could I know, when I say I don’t know something, that I don’t know it?” (adjustment-of-controversies [11]). He plays with language to confuse us about what words mean. For example, having defined “natural,” as the way things are in their undefined state, he wonders whether nature as he has defined it is natural, since that is what it means, or artificial, since he just defined it that way (great-and-most-honoured-master [1]). Woven through it all, is a fabric of onomatopoeia and puns that leaves readers never certain that they fully understand what is going on.


The Zhuangzi is a very confusing book to read but it is confusing for a reason. Confusion leads to forgetting and forgetting prepares for skill. By causing us to forget what we think we know about the world, ultimately including our most deeply held beliefs about ourselves and our own identities, Zhuangzi prepares us to live more skillfully and effectively.


Part 3: Creativity in science


All this leads to the question of how this Daoist account of skill applies to creativity in science. Clearly the creation of new theories may require the “forgetting” or bracketing of old ones. Often, it is precisely the experience of being imprisoned inside old theories that impedes progress. It may be a consciously held theory or an unreflective assumption, such as the idea that light is corpuscular. Sometimes it may be a more general way of seeing things. Einstein’s theory of relativity, for instance, required people to surrender their normal ideas about space and time. Progress in cases like these requires forgetting not just our theories but even our forms of perception. In the same way that what we perceive is conditioned by our senses, what we understand is conditioned by our minds, by our standards of evidence and proof and even by the ways that we think. Like Yan Hui in the passage above, the scientist has to question not just his body and senses but his knowledge, as well. The most challenging examples of progress may require the complete sitting and forgetting of the self that Zhuangzi describes.


[T]he question of creativity,” Professor Yukawa said, “can ultimately be reduced to the question of where creativity lies hidden, and of the means whereby it can be brought out into the open” (Yukawa 1973:126). Zhuangzi has given us an answer to this question. Creativity is hidden by what we know, or think we know. And it can be brought into the open by not knowing, that is, by sitting and forgetting.


So how do we as scientists sit and forget? I noted earlier a dispute among commentators over whether forgetting involves the elimination or merely the suspension of knowledge. If forgetting requires the elimination of knowledge, this suggests that knowledge and ignorance are exclusive: you can’t have them both at the same time. If forgetting merely requires the suspension of knowledge, however, this allows for the possibility that knowledge and ignorance are compatible: one can know and be ignorant simultaneously. I believe contemporary science provides an excellent illustration of the compatibilityindeed, the necessary symbiosisof knowledge and ignorance. As the physicist John Archibald Wheeler said, “We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance” (Wheeler 1992). Zhuangzi uses an interestingly similar image:



(xu-wu-gui [14])


The foot stands on a bit of earth. But though you stand on that bit, it is by relying on the earth you don’t stand on that you can get around. Similarly, what people know is small, but it is by relying on what we don’t know that we are able to know the meaning of nature.



People speculate about the possibility of a “theory of everything” that will leave nothing left to be known, but even the success of such a theory will be conditioned on how you define “everything.” It depends on what you think needs to be known. In practice it seems that each new advance in knowledge only opens up new frontiers of ignorance. We are aware now of our not knowing things that people centuries ago had no idea of.


Knowledge and ignorance meet not only on the peripheries, the perimeter of our island, so to speak, but on the interior, as well. Scientific knowledge is shot through with hypotheses and suppositions. We are dependent on technologies and paradigms. Our awareness of the conditional nature of scientific knowledge gives us a good example of the overlap of knowledge and ignorance. Thus, scientific knowledge does not preclude Daoist forgetting; quite the contrary, an honest assessment of our knowledge is simultaneously an acknowledgment of all the things we don’t know about it. Reflecting on our ignorance, our assumptions, the conditional nature of knowledge, is one method of forgetting in science.


Let me suggest another. I said earlier that the ultimate form of forgetting, which includes all the others, is self-forgetting. It includes others because our other beliefs about the world are all indexed one way or another to our conceptions of ourselves and how we fit into it. A prime example of this is Zhuangzi forgetting whether he is a man who dreamt a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man. Now I would like to suggest that science offers one of the greatest engines for self-forgetting that we have, one that was relatively unknown in Zhuangzi’s time. There is nothing like looking through a telescope or a microscope to make the world look unfamiliar and strange. For reasons that are hard to explain, laypersons have always felt that scientific questions have important implications for our individual lives. What is the point of doing anything if the universe is perpetually expanding? Who are we if, on a molecular level, we are mostly empty space? What do we look like if things aren’t really structured in space and time? What does it mean to be a human being if we are all cosmic strings?


Scientific truths are often inconsistent with ordinary conceptions of ourselves and our world. Juxtaposing them therefore causes people to question who and what they are. I trust professional scientists regard these questions as amateurish and quickly move past them to the serious business of science. It probably makes sense to segregate the theoretical insights of your profession from the practical concerns of your daily lives since they don’t seem to get along. But if what I have said today is true, there may be a place for amateurish questions like these. Science reveals both our knowledge and our ignorance of the world. At the same time, it also gives us an opportunity to question ourselves—who and what we are. By questioning our own identities, these amateurish questions may pave the way for creativity.


Professor Yukawa was concerned with the role of creativity in the answering of purely scientific questions, like the nature of elementary particles. But be was also concerned with larger questions: In “The Role of the Modern Scientist” (1962), he writes, “As a scientist, a Japanese, a member of the human race, what ought I to dowhat can I do? How can I reconcile my moral duty with the study of theoretical physics?” (Yukawa 1973:192). In “On Learning and Life” (1968), he says that

(Scientific) theories have become so terribly abstract, so abstract that one begins to have doubts about their significance. If one is concerned exclusively with such things, then for what purpose is one engaged in theoretical physics, in fundamental physics? When one turns back to one’s own views on life and endeavors to relate physics to some sense of purpose, one begins to have the gravest doubts.” (Yukawa 1973:47).

These moral questions are different from scientific ones but require a similar kind of creativity to solve. Here the incompatible elements are his role as a scientist, an abstract knower pursuing knowledge for its own sake, on the one hand, and his status as a human being, with all the limitations, vulnerabilities, and responsibilities that entails, on the other.


Referring back to an earlier quotation from “The Oriental Approach,” Professor Yukawa writes, “In this kind of case, nothing can be done by logic alone.” We are confronted with two incompatible elements, neither of which we are prepared to eliminate. He goes on, “[T]he act of creating something new does not proceed only from things already given. The scientist himself seeks to add to them, in some form or other, something new.” It is not simply a question of remembering that we are also human beings because science continually challenges our understanding of what a human being is. Quantum mechanics, for example, changed our understanding not just of what it is possible to know, but of what it means to know. Each new discovery brings new powers, new abilities, and hence new choices on how we will use them. So it is not simply a question of remembering that we are human beings but discovering creatively what it means to be a human being under these new conditions. What it means to be a human being is constantly changing. Science changes it.


In the quotation above Professor Yukawa expressed concern that scientific theories seem so abstract and distant from human life (Yukawa 1973:47). But maybe that need not be a bad thing. Maybe we need to “forget” our human worldour assumptions about what is true, what is important, and who we arein order to envision a whole in which these two seemingly incompatible partsscience and humanitymake better sense. The distance of science from human life may turn out to be a virtue. Science gives us a vantage point from which to question our ordinary assumptions about human life and to forget what we thought we were, a necessary first step in a creative understanding of what it means for us to be human in this constantly changing world.


It is worth remembering, however, that it is only a first step. Creativity as Professor Yukawa described it requires envisioning a whole in which the discordant parts make sense. Preconceptions about the world and about ourselves frequently pose obstacles to that process. Forgetting those preconceptions is required in order to allow the spontaneously active mind to skillfully form a new vision of the whole. To the extent that the mind is spontaneously active, this part of the process is not necessarily something we do on purpose. It happens but it is not necessarily something we do. That is why original theories, like the carpenter’s bell stands, look like the work of ghosts and spirits, not of man. We can’t make it happen. All we can do is to prepare for it, invoke it. In the same way that we call down the ghosts and spirits with alters and incense, we call down creativity by sitting and forgetting, asking amateurish questions. And once we have finished our preparations, all we can do is sit and wait; the rest is in the hands of the gods.


To conclude, then, let me say that I hope I have provided some support for Professor Yukawa’s theses that traditional Asian thought can be of value to the modern scientist—“(T)here is no reason why Greek thought should remain the only source for the development of scientific thought”—and that “(t)here are many things in Chuangtse [in particular] that stimulate the reader’s mind and make it work better” (Mair 1983:58). Most importantly, I hope that I have given a Daoist account of creativity that explains the role that can be played in creativity by sitting and forgetting what we think we know and asking amateurish questions about the meaning of life and the nature of human existence, the kind of questions science so powerfully invokes.




Cua, Antonio (1977). "Forgetting Morality: Reflections on a Theme in Chuang Tzu," Journal of Chinese Philosophy 4: 305-328.

Eno, Robert (1991). “Creating Nature: Juist and Taoist Approaches," in Smith 1991:3-28.

Kuhn, Thomas (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 4th edition.

Mair, Victor H. (1983).  Experimental Essays on Chuang-tzu. University of Hawaii Press.

Smith, Kidder (ed.), (1991). Chuang Tzu: Rationality: Interpretation, Brunswick: Breckinridge Public Affairs Center.

Wheeler, John Archibald (1992). Scientific American, Vol. 267.

Yukawa, Hideki (1973). Creativity and Intuition: a physicist looks at East and West. Kodansha International, Ltd..

Zhuangzi, Chinese Text Project 中國哲學書電子化計劃. <https://ctext.org/zhuangzi>;




The Happy Fish Returns:

Daoism, Science, and Compassion




In their separate ways, both science and Daoism are sometimes accused of lacking compassion, but I wonder if this assessment is necessarily correct of either one of them. Of course, both science and Daoism can be used compassionately, in an instrumental sense. But that still leaves open the possibility that they themselves are indifferent or neutral. In the case of Daoism, however, I wonder if we can go further and say it contains a source of compassion, as well. In this second paper, I will explain what I mean by saying that Daoism contains a source of compassion and then see if something similar cannot also be said of science.


Part 1: The lack of compassion in science and Daoism


People sometimes distinguish between “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” but I will use these terms in their generic, overlapping senses as rough synonyms. Over the course of this paper, I will talk about things like connection, communication, and friendship. I use the word “compassion” not in contrast to these things but to indicate what they all have in common. “Compassion” as I understand it for the purposes of this discussion can include everything from awareness that other minds exist, which some philosophers find in need of explanation, to a feeling of connection to other people or things, to a religious or mystical sense of oneness with the universe. What grounds these feelings is something I hope to pin down over the course of this paper.


Let me begin by explaining some of the ways in which science and Daoism in turn are accused of lacking compassion. With science, this argument can be made on a number of levels. The purpose of science is to determine the truth, not to tell people what they want to hear. And often times the truth can be painful. People in the nineteenth century did not want to hear that the universe was cooling, just as people in the 21st do not want to hear that the planet is warming. But good science follows the facts, not popular opinion. This objectivity is part of science’s strength and is one thing people might mean if they say science is not compassionate.


Similarly, while we hope that the discoveries of science can be implemented in ways that make people happy, we have to admit that scientific truths themselves are indifferent to human concerns. As Plato said, the best doctor is also the best poisoner (Republic 333e, Plato 583). The theories of particle physics are equally at home in bombs and power plants. The theory doesn’t care. Science can be used for good or ill; which way it goes is a function of politics and policy, not of the science itself. This instrumentality is another thing people might mean if they say science lacks compassion.


Finally, scientific advancement all by itself does not normally make us better people, either individually or as a society. We know too well that a society can be very technologically advanced and still be cold and brutal. Similarly, a person could be an excellent scientist (or philosopher, for that matter) and still be what we would call “a jerk.” This is not meant as a criticism, simply an observation that we normally think of science and compassion as two separate things.


The relationship between Daoism and compassion can similarly be looked at on different levels. To begin with, Daoism regularly adopts a cosmic perspective that has little room for human values, for instance, in a passage from Laozi that Hideki Yukawa quotes in his 1948 essay, “The Oriental Approach”: 地不仁,以萬為芻狗;聖人不仁,以百姓為芻狗Heaven and earth are not kind but treat all things as straw dogs. Sages, too, are not kind but treat the people as straw dogs” (Laozi, Daodejing, ch. 5, quoted in Yukawa 1973:59.) (Straw dogs were ritual items, honored during the ceremony then cast aside, suggesting that the value of people and things is situational and there is no place for sentiment.) Similarly, Zhuangzi compares the human condition to that of a frog who spends his whole life in a caved-in well (Zhuangzi, floods-of-autumn [10]. Daoism seems unsympathetic to human concerns because its function is precisely to transcend them.


Another way in which Daoism might seem to be at odds with compassion is its skepticism about human connection, most fundamentally in the form of language. As Zhuangzi puts it:



(Zhuangzi, Adjustment-of-controversies [4].)

Speaking words is not the same thing as whistling. Speaking says something. But if what it says is not fixed, then does it really say anything? Or does it say nothing? We think it is different from the chirping of birds. But is there really any difference or isn’t there?


He plays with the different meanings people impute to words, particularly words like “right” and “wrong,” raising the specter that we are never communicating at all, just talking past each other, blowing breath. His own language is so ornate, so full of puns and onomatopoeia, that you are never sure you know exactly what he is talking about. On the plus side, this has kept commentators busy for centuries. On the minus side, the suggestion that language has no inherent meaning but is merely a Rorschach test, in which different people see what they want to in the inkblot, undermines the possibility of communication. If we are ultimately alone, what role is there for compassion?


A third challenge to Daoism’s compassion has to do with the notion of skill, which we talked about in the previous paper. “Skill,” as we saw there, results from a process of “forgetting.” By forgetting one’s preconceptions about things, one is better able to respond to the way they actually are. By clearing the mind, one makes room for creative thinking. “Sitting and forgetting” everything, even oneself, results in skillful living, which can therefore be understood as the purpose of Daoist philosophy. However, there is a problem. If skill is premised on the suspension or “forgetting” of conventional wisdom and values, then what reason is there to think that a skillful person will live in accordance with those values? Could there be, for example, a skillful assassin (Ivanhoe 639–54.)? Like science, skill would seem to be indifferent to whether it is used for good or ill.  


This question of the skillful assassin is puzzling. On the one hand, the text seems logically open to this possibility. Indeed, the absence of an explicit commitment to compassion is one of the things that distinguishes Daoism from the philosophical schools around it. The Confucians say to treat others as you would like to be treated (Confucius, Wei-ling-gong [24]),[8] but not the Daoists. Buddhism arrived from India several centuries after Zhuangzi and Chinese Buddhist schools, such as Chan or Zen, were children of Chinese Daoism as much as Indian Buddhism. But the principle of ahimsa, non-violence, and the precept against killing came from the Indian side of the family, not the Chinese. There is nothing obvious in the Daoist texts that rules out the possibility of cruelty.


On the other hand, even though there is no explicit commitment to compassion in the text, no such figure as a skillful assassin appears. There are some debatable counterexamples,[9] but the text as a whole seems to express an openness and even tenderness to all manners of life. That is to say, though it leaves the door open to cruelty, The Zhuangzi appears to be a uniquely compassionate text. The question then is, Why? Was Zhuangzi such a nice person that he could not imagine his ideas being used any other way? That seems implausible. I have come to suspect that his thoughts on compassion run deeper, such that they do not require explicit commitments or may even preclude them. If so, if Zhuangzi managed to find some wormhole between objectivity and compassion, perhaps this may have some implication for science. If my first paper made sense, that Daoist ideas about creativity were applicable to science, then maybe these thoughts on compassion will be, too. This is the question I would like to examine today: the connection between Daoism and compassion and its implications, if any, for science.


Part 2: Daoism and compassion


I would like to begin by reviewing the anecdote Professor Yukawa discusses in his 1966 paper, “The Happy Fish,” which runs as follows:



(Zhuangzi, Floods-of-autumn [13])

One day, Chuangtse was strolling beside the river with Huitse. Huitse, a man of erudition, was fond of arguing. They were just crossing a bridge when Chuangtse said, “The fish have come up to the surface and are swimming about at their leisure. That is how fish enjoy themselves.” Immediately Huitse countered this with: “You are not a fish. How can you tell what a fish enjoys?” “You are not me,” said Chuangtse. “How do you know that I can't tell what a fish enjoys?” “I am not you,” said Huitse triumphantly. “So of course I cannot tell about you. In the same way, you are not a fish. So you cannot tell a fish's feelings. Well-is my logic not unanswerable?” “Wait, let us go back to the root of the argument,” said Chuangtse. “When you asked me how I knew what a fish enjoyed, you admitted that you knew already whether I knew or not. [By the same token] I knew, on the bridge, that the fish were enjoying themselves.” (Yukawa 70)



The last line is tricky to translate. The phrase in Chinese translated as “How do you know,” 安知, literally means “Where do you know?” Zhuangzi answers the question how he knows the fish are happy by explaining where he knows the fish are happy: from up on the bridge. But this is a joke, not an answer to Huizi’s question.


Professor Yukawa observes that Zhuangzi’s logic does not prove that he does understand the fish, only that Huizi cannot prove he does not. He takes the two perspectives as illustrative of two approaches to science, one of which accepts nothing that has not been proven true, the other of which rejects nothing which has not been proven false. He says,

The logic of Huitse’s manner of arguing seems to be far better throughout than Chuangtse’s, and the refusal to accept anything that is neither well-defined nor verifiable such as the fish’s enjoyment is, of course, closer to the traditional scientific attitude. Nevertheless, although I am a scientist myself, I find myself more in sympathy with what Chuangtse wanted to imply. (Yukawa 70)

Professor Yukawa makes clear that these two approaches to science do not represent exclusive alternatives but rather extremes on a continuum, neither of which is practical in its pure form. The experimental method requires us to entertain as possibilities hypotheses that have not yet been proven; at the same time, it does not permit us to entertain them all at once but only one at a time. Science as we know it takes place in the grey zone between these extremes.


In this particular case, the topic at hand is interesting and important for the rest of our discussion today: that Zhuangzi appreciates the happiness of the fish. This is an example of what I mean by “compassion.” As I said a moment ago, compassion can run the gamut from the simple awareness that others exist to a sense of religious or mystical oneness with the universe. At different points in the text Zhuangzi asserts all these things, admits they cannot be proven, but takes their un-provability as evidence for their possibility. For example:



(Adjustment-of-controversies [9])

Nothing in the world is bigger than the tip of an autumn hair but Mount Tai is small. No one lives longer than a dead child and grandpa Peng died young. Heaven and earth are my twins, and the ten thousand things and I are one. But if we’re already one, how can I say it? But since I’ve just said we’re one, how can I not say it? The unity and my saying it make two. The two and their unity make three. Starting from here, even a clever mathematician couldn’t get it, much less an ordinary person! . . . Don’t do it! Just go along with things!


Animal hairs in autumn, before the growth of the winter coat, were thought to be particularly fine. Mount Tai was a particularly big mountain. (In fact, the name means “Big Mountain.”) The sufferings of a dying child seem to go on forever even if they only last a few minutes, and the oldest person’s life seems over too soon. Because things cannot be differentiated, he concludes that all is one, an extreme expression of compassion.


But, though the unity of things is possible, it cannot be proven. In fact, the unity of things, if it is true, renders proof impossible, since “The unity and my saying it make two. The two and their unity make three,” and so on, in a logic reminiscent of Von Neumann’s definition of ordinal numbers. But it also renders proof unnecessary. He says elsewhere, 如求得其情與不得,無益損乎其真。“Whether I discover the fact or not, what difference does that make to the truth?” (Zhuangzi, Adjustment-of-controversies [3]). He tells a funny story to illustrate this point:



(Zhuangzi, Adjustment-of-controversies [6])

Exhausting the spirit trying to clarify the unity of things without knowing that they are all the same is called “three in the morning.” What do I mean by “three in the morning”? When the monkey trainer was passing out nuts he said, “You get three in the morning and four at night.” The monkeys were all angry. “All right,” he said, “you get four in the morning and three at night.” The monkeys were all pleased. . . 


Four in the morning and three at night, or three in the morning and four at night: it makes no difference since it comes out the same either way. Similarly, if everything is the same, saying they are the same and not saying it would make no difference, since they are both the same ex hypothesi.


The unity of all things here is more dramatic than Zhuangzi’s sense of connection with the fish but his logic is similar. In both cases, Zhuangzi demonstrates that you can’t disprove the thesis in question and then concludes, not only that you cannot do more than this, but that you shouldn’t try—"Don’t do it! Just go along with things!”—as though a demonstration of the possibility is all that is wanted. This is an approach that Professor Yukawa admits is not encouraged by Huizi’s logic or by the traditional scientific attitude. “Nevertheless,” he says, “although I am a scientist myself, I find myself more in sympathy with what Chuangtse wanted to imply” (Yukawa 70).


In what remains of my time, I would like to explore the grounds for Professor Yukawa’s sympathy for Zhuangzi’s position. As we saw in the first paper, the value of Zhuangzi’s stories for Professor Yukawa did not lie in any hidden theories but in different ways to think about problems. They suggested different approaches. We said before that science requires both a consideration of what is possible and the determination of what is actual. It is natural (to me, at least) to think of the first as a prerequisite to the second: our real goal is to determine what is actual and to do that we have to start by considering what is possible. The surprising thing about Zhuangzi’s approach here, with which Professor Yukawa found himself in sympathy, is the suggestion that, at least in the case of compassion, demonstrating the possibility is enough. It is a different approach to the nature and purpose of proof. Unlike the rest of science, in which the goal is the determination of the actual, in the case of compassion, the demonstration of its possibility may be all that is possible and even all that is necessary. Why?


Let us look again at the story of the fish. We noted earlier that Zhuangzi does not succeed in proving that he knows how the fish feel, only that Huizi doesn’t know that he doesn’t. By itself this position is problematic since Zhuangzi’s assertion of the possibility of compassion (his knowledge of the fish) is premised on the rejection of the same possibility (Huizi’s knowledge of him). He seems to want to have it both ways. If we had to decide based on this exchange alone whether Zhuangzi actually knows the fish, the argument seems like a stalemate at best.


Fortunately, the story is not just about Zhuangzi and the fish. It is also about Zhuangzi and Huizi and their friendship. To begin with, they are having a conversation. “‘Wait,’ said Chuangtse. ‘Let us go back to the root of the argument. When you asked me how I knew what a fish enjoyed, you admitted that you knew already whether I knew or not.’” “Knew” might be too strong a translation for here. If “know” requires that he be correct in his belief, Zhuangzi would be assuming what he needs to prove: Huizi does not ask him whether he knows but how he knows, which presumes that he does. But this is at best a verbal trick, perhaps clever but not convincing. The argument is stronger if we interpret less stringently, to say that Huizi was aware that Zhuangzi thought he knew how the fish felt, or else he would not have asked his question. The fact that we try to communicate with each other at all, despite our misunderstandings, suggests that we are not each locked away irrevocably in our own minds. They would not be having this conversation if they did not take for granted the possibility of understanding each other, whether or not they can prove it actually.


Furthermore, Zhuangzi and Huizi are not just talking, they are friends. In this and numerous similar anecdotes,[10] they are shown talking, disagreeing, and agreeing to disagree. They are two very different people, an odd couple, like the two kinds of scientists Professor Yukawa described. They do not understand and cannot make sense of each other. They mystify each other. And yet, they are friends in spite of it. In fact, they seem to be friends because of it. We usually think that having something in common is necessary as a ground for compassion, which is what makes Zhuangzi’s relationship to the fish difficult. His relationship with his friend Huizi, however, suggests the opposite: that compassion can be grounded on mutual unintelligibility. What makes the story charming is the fact that misunderstanding each other, which usually occasions a rift, in this case does the opposite. If Zhuangzi and Huizi can be friends despite their inability to understand each other, why not Zhuangzi and the fish?


We might take Zhuangzi and Huizi’s relationship as an analogy for that between Zhuangzi and the fish. In “The Oriental Approach” (1948), Professor Yukawa says,

Analogy is the most concrete of the ways of applying relationships formed within a certain sphere to another and different sphere. This is one field in which the Chinese have excelled since ancient times. The oldest form in which it appears is the parable. In a large number of cases, the arguments of the thinkers of old depend upon analogy or parable. A similar tendency was also to be found, of course, in ancient Greece, yet the development of a more abstract type of logic at an early stage is apparent in the system of formal logic perfected by Aristotle. (Yukawa 59)

It is interesting to reflect on the difference between analogic and logical reasoning. Analogy, it seems fair to say, suggests a conclusion, while logic compels it. If so, then it makes sense that analogy should be the method of Zhuangzi’s stories, the value of which for Professor Yukawa lies in their ability to suggest possibilities rather than demonstration of actualities. This in turn raises the question we asked earlier about the nature and goal of proof. If the goal of proof is determination of actuality, then formal logic is an appropriate method and it is not clear that analogy has any role. But when the goal of proof is the establishment of possibility, analogy may be the tool of choice.


If Zhuangzi and Huizi can be friends despite their inability to understand each other, why not Zhuangzi and the fish? This is a bigger question than it might at first appear. It applies not just to Zhuangzi, Huizi, and the fish, but to all creatures, and not just to all creatures but, by extension to the world as a whole. Even if it turns out to be true that all our interactions with the world are tinged with different degrees of misunderstanding and ignorance, this need not necessarily result in isolation but may lay the groundwork for some kind of deeper connection. That is, not knowledge but a certain kind of ignorance could be the ground of compassion that we are looking for. Once again, the questions is: How exactly would this work?


To understand better what we are looking at in the relationship between Zhuangzi and Huizi, let us return for a moment to the story of Chaos from my previous paper in order to rule out a few possibilities. As you will recall, the two friends, Fast and Swift, meet at the house of their host, Chaos, who doesn’t have any eyes, ears, nose, or mouth. They feel bad for him. So, to repay his kindness, they drill him one hole each day and, on the seventh day, Chaos dies.


According to one commentarial tradition, Chaos represents the unknowable nature of reality. Before it is interpreted by the senses, it remains what it is: undefined, like Schrodinger’s cat. By trying to know the unknown, define the undefined, Fast and Swift destroy its essential characteristic, as though they were trying to learn about darkness by shining a light on it. It is interesting to note that the well-meaning guests don’t just drive their host away, which was a narrative possibility; if the author had preferred, he could simply have had Chaos flee. Instead, they kill him. The suggestion on this interpretation is that reality is not just obscured by our efforts to know it but actually destroyed. The moral of the story then is not that we should try to know carefully but that we shouldn’t try to know at all.


I believe such an extreme reading is inconsistent with other stories in the text, for instance, the story of the bell stand carver. If reality were inaccessible in principle, and if any effort to connect with it destroyed it, then it would not be possible to carve beautiful bell stands. But the carpenter’s success carving bell stands suggests that it is possible to connect with reality.


Let us assume, then, that the moral of the story of Fast, Swift, and Chaos is not that we shouldn’t try to know reality at all, but rather than we should try to know it carefully. And this is, in fact, the way Professor Yukawa reads it in his 1963 paper, “Space-time and Elementary Particles”:

Returning once again to the ideas of Chuangtse, “chaos” in his writings is very much akin to the world of the elementary particle. He says that to attempt unskillfully to impose some kind of physiognomy upon this case would be to destroy it (Yukawa 180).

His use here of the word “unskillfully” is telling. His point is not that one should to attempt to know the particle at all but that one should attempt to do so skillfully. By extension to Zhuangzi, Huizi, and human beings, the point would not be that it is impossible for us to know each other; we just have to do so carefully. What this means we shall see in a moment.


On a less extreme reading of the story, Fast and Swift kill their friend because they make a mistake: they assume that Chaos would be better off if he were like them, with seven holes. That is, they take their preconceived knowledge for granted, in this case, of what a person should be like, and fail to appreciate that their host does not conform to it. They see what they expect to see. If skill is characterized by the ability to “forget” preconceptions in order to respond to the way things actually are rather than the way we are predisposed to think of them as being, then this is a classic example of clumsiness. Fast and Swift make the same point as the carpenter in our first paper, just in reverse: that it is necessary to forget preconceptions in order to proceed skillfully.


Applying this reading to our story, Zhuangzi and Huizi are friends not because they understand each other, but because they are aware of their ignorance of each other. This self-conscious ignorance keeps them from making foolish mistakes, like serving meat to your vegetarian friend because you like it or drilling seven holes in Chaos. But there must be more to it than this. If all that were involved were awareness of one’s ignorance, then Zhuangzi could be as good a friend with a complete stranger, so long as he is aware of not knowing him, as he is with his longtime companion. But Zhuangzi and Huizi are not complete strangers. They know each other well even though they make no sense to each other. So while awareness of ignorance is an ingredient to their friendship, I think there is something more involved than just that.


Let me suggest what this something more is: attention. With a person, at least, when you are aware of not knowing them, you pay attention to them. This attention keeps you from making the kind of foolish mistakes just cited. But even if your presuppositions about a person are entirely correct, there is still a difference between a conversation in which you pay attention to them and one in which you assume you already know everything they are going to say. Awareness of ignorance does not compel attention. I can know I am ignorant of people walking on the street without paying attention to them. But awareness of ignorance does invite attention. When I don’t know what you are going to say, I listen in order to find out. By the same token, the assumption that I do already know makes paying attention hard.


Attention is a very interesting thing. It doesn’t weigh anything—at least, no one has weighed it yet—but it is real and makes a difference. Romantic relationships live and die on it, for instance. Or consider the case of a young child. Even if all their other needs are met, a child deprived of attention will fail to thrive as surely as a plant without light; in extreme cases it can lead to stunted growth and even death. By contrast, with a child in particular, often attention is all you can provide, and quite often it is enough. So attention is something, whether or not we can measure it.


Attention as I use the term here occupies an interesting middle ground between knowledge and ignorance. On the one hand, you pay attention because you don’t know. On the other hand, you only pay attention because you know you don’t know. Attention marks the frontier between the knowledge and ignorance, the point of friction between the two, so to speak.


So, to return to our story, Zhuangzi and Huizi make no sense to each other. In addition to that, they are aware of making no sense to each other. This mutual self-conscious ignorance not only keeps them from making the clumsy mistakes people make when they think they already know, but more importantly it makes them present to each other in a way that knowledge does not. It means they pay attention. There are a couple of things to note here. The first is the compatibility of knowledge and ignorance, that knowing and not knowing are not necessarily exclusive. For explanatory purposes, it is convenient to present knowledge and ignorance as opposites. In practice, however, they frequently overlap. The better you understand something or someone, the more you know how much there is about them that you don’t know. A moment ago, it was asked, if Zhuangzi’s and Huizi’s friendship were simply based on their awareness of their ignorance of each other, how that would be different from two strangers. The compatibility of knowledge and ignorance explains that: their friendship consists in the attention they pay to each other, which premised on their ignorance of each other, deepened by the fact that they know each other so well. This sounds paradoxical but I think what it means is obvious to all of us from ordinary life.


The second thing to note is an important psychological fact here, that I will call the “reciprocity of strangeness.” It is less obvious in the relation between Zhuangzi and the fish than between Zhuangzi and Huizi. That is to say, recognizing someone else as strange to you creates invites the acknowledgment that you are strange to them, which in turn creates the possibility of you also becomign strange to yourself. The awareness that other perspectives different from your own exist creates the possibility of entering into those perspectives and regarding oneself as different, or at least acknowledging that you look different from those perspectives even if you don’t imaginatively enter into them. Recognizing another as strange creates the possibility of becoming strange to oneself.


The story of Fast and Swift and Chaos illustrates that you can be aware that others are different while continuing to take your own assumptions for granted. So the reciprocity of strangeness is not a logical conclusion. Rather it works by analogy: if they look this strange to you, imagine how strange you look to them. The strangeness of another creates the option of regarding yourself as strange but doesn’t force it. It opens the door.


When one walks through that door, something interesting occurs. The strangeness is reciprocal. That is, you recognize that you are strange to them in the same way that they are strange to you. The strangeness thus becomes something you share. In the case of two self-conscious beings like Zhuangzi and Huizi, this reciprocal relation would serve to reinforce their friendship.


If what I have said is correct, then at this point I am ready to define what I have been looking for as “the ground of compassion.” Compassion can be anything from Zhuangzi’s appreciation of the fish to his friendship with Huizi to his sense of oneness with the universe. The ground for all these things was attention, based on awareness of what we don’t know, deepened by what we do know. Zhuangzi and Huizi wondered at each other. Zhuangzi also wondered at the fish. Realistically, he didn’t know the fish were happy. Perhaps the pool had gone stagnant and what he took for playful capering was the fish gasping for oxygen. But it was the knowledge that he didn’t know that made Zhuangzi attend to them. By contrast, while Zhuangzi attended to the fish, one has the impression that Huizi is ignoring them altogether, absorbed as he is in his own argument. So, again, the awareness of ignorance lays the groundwork for attention but does not compel it.


If, indeed, attention as we have described it here, as the frontier of knowledge and ignorance, is the ground of compassion, this in turn answers the question we asked earlier about proof: whether, in the case of compassion, it is enough to demonstrate possibility without determining actuality. The element of the unknown is crucial for attention. One never pays as much attention to what one thinks one knows as to what knows one does not. Thus, not only is possibility enough to attract attention, further proof even if it were available would be counterproductive. Further proof would diminish rather than encourage attention. Professor Yukawa said, “The logic of Huitse’s manner of argument seems . . . closer to the traditional scientific attitude. Nevertheless, although I am a scientist myself, I find myself more in sympathy with what Chuangtse wanted to imply” (Yukawa 70). If, indeed, the objective is to stimulate attention, then it makes sense that Zhuangzi’s method of establishing possibility would be more effective than Huizi’s of proving actuality.


In response then to the question of whether there can be a skillful assassin, I believe the answer has to be, “Possibly.” Skill, as we saw in the last paper, requires what we described in this paper as “attention.” I see no reason in theory why attention to something could not be combined with the destruction of it and hence why skill could not be combined with cruelty. Yet to the extent that attention is an interesting and fulfilling sensation, it stands to reason that people would not normally be inclined to destroy things that interest and fulfill them.


My hunch is that if someone were to combine skill with a cruel or destructive purpose, they would do so as a result of some pre-existing agenda. The more that they became strange to themselves in the process, suspending their preconceptions not just about the world around them but about their own role and purposes, the less likely it seems to me that they would be an assassin. But that is just speculation.


Part 3: Science and compassion


This leaves us with our final question, the answer to which may be obvious at this point but which I will review anyway: What does any of this have to do with science? Well, while Daoism does not compel compassion, that is, while it does not forge or prove a connection between people or things, it lays the groundwork for it by encouraging attention, which it does by cultivating awareness of ignorance. At first, this Daoist project may seem alien to science since it is based on ignorance and science is a form of knowing. Indeed, the English word “science” comes from the Latin verb “to know.” However, we argued in the previous paper that knowledge and ignorance are not only compatible, they are inseparable. We may fantasize about knowing everything and eradicating ignorance but for the time being ignorance is knowledge’s shadow.


Discovery of our ignorance, even ignorance-in-knowing, paves the way for attention. We talked about the importance of attention in the human realm. It is an open question whether this kind of attentiveness is important outside the human realm. I don’t imagine that gravity would whither without the attention of scientists the way children would without the attention of their parents. But the value of attention goes both ways. Gravity may not care if scientists pay attention to it and wonder at it, but the scientists are unlikely to theorize effectively, that is to say skillfully, if they do not. So, science and Daoism have in common that the they both find benefits in shedding light on the limitations of human knowledge.


Another point of connection is what I called the reciprocity of strangeness: recognizing another as strange creates the possibility of becoming strange to oneself. At first this might not seem to apply to non-human animals. The recognition that Huizi makes no sense to him allows Zhuangzi to enter into Huizi’s perspective and see that he in turn makes no sense to his friend. But the same perspective-swapping hardly seems possible with the fish who are probably not even aware that Zhuangzi exists. Or to the extent that they are aware of him, it is only as a looming shadow; they have no comprehension, for instance, of the conversation which obviously forms such a large part of Zhuangzi’s life.


And yet, the reflection that a fish would not perceive us the way we perceive ourselves draws attention to the dependence of our perceptions on the unique features of our cognitive apparatus. The impenetrability to us of a bat’s sonar or a bug’s compound eye illuminates the degree to which the world we see is the world as it appears to us. This applies not just the constitution of our bodily senses but of the cultures that allow us to think and talk the way we do. Indeed, we need not stop with animals. The fact that a stone has no experience of time because it has no mind highlights what a curious thing a mind is and justifies us in wondering about all the things that we see reflected in it. Thus, even if wondering not just at the objects of our inquiries (gravity, stars, what-have-you) but at the subjects of our inquiries (ourselves) does not create a bond of friendship between us, it does set the stage for a creative rethinking of the relationships between ourselves and the objects of our attention.


Attention does not compel compassion any more than forgetting compels creativity. It sets the stage, opens the door. It creates the possibility, but something more needs to be added, as with creativity. There is always the need for some inspiration. Here again, it seems appropriate to recalibrate what we are looking for. A next step needs to be taken but what takes the next step is something currently beyond ourselves, at least beyond the selves that we know. It comes from we-know-not-where, like a spirit whose presence we can invoke with dances and incense but not compel. Determining that reality may be beyond us at our present point, but demonstrating its possibility is a necessary step to getting us there. So my suggestion today is that we think of science not just as an engine of knowledge but equally as an engine of ignorance, opening up realms for our attention. If the knowledge is valuable for using the world, simple attention may be valuable for connecting with it. As a foundation for compassion, for a feeling of connection to rather than alienation from the universe, perhaps what we don’t know can be as great a resource to us as what we do.




Confucius (2018). Chinese Text Project 中國哲學書電子化計劃. <https://ctext.org/analects>;. Cited by chapter with section in brackets.

Ivanhoe, Philip John (1993). “Zhuangzi on Skepticism, Skill, and the Ineffable Dao.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 61. 639–54.

Laozi. Chinese Text Project 中國哲學書電子化計劃. <https://ctext.org/dao-de-jing>. Cited by chapter.

Plato (1982). The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Hamilton and Cairns, ed.s. Princeton University Press.

Yukawa, Hideki (1973). Creativity and Intuition: a physicist looks at East and West. Kodansha International, Ltd..

Zhuangzi. Chinese Text Project 中國哲學書電子化計劃. <https://ctext.org/zhuangzi>;. Cited by chapter with section in brackets.


[1] “Chuang-tzu”, “Zhuangzi,” and “Chuangtse” are all different English spellings of  莊子, the philosopher and the book that goes by his name. Quotations in this paper preserve the original spellings. Similarly, “Laozi,” “Lao Tzu,” and “Laotse” are spellings of 老子, author of the (Daodejing or Tao Te Ching). Together, Laozi and Zhuangzi are considered to be founders of 道家, the Daoist school of thought.

[2] Translation of this story follows Yukawa in Mair 1983, lightly edited for simplicity.  Other translations are my own.

[3] References to Zhuangzi are to The Chinese Text Project at ctext.orguangzi, listed here by the chapter name with the section in brackets, so the location of this passage is https://ctext.org/zhuangzi/normal-course-for-rulers-and-kings, section 7.

[4] This is an odd sentence. Literally, means “shape” or “form”; means “body” or even “corpse”; means “arrive” and by extension “to complete” or “perfect”; and is a final particle, functioning like a period or exclamation point. Most commentators render it as I have here but it is troubling because in Zhuangzi usually refers to a human body. Why would he use it here to refer to a tree? One possibility is that qū, “trunk,” is pronounced very similarly to jù, “bell stand,” in modern Mandarin. Could they have been a pun in ancient Chinese? If so, perhaps this translation is still correct but the reason for the selection of this word was to suggest that he sees both himself and a bell stand in the trunk, allowing him to “join nature with nature.”


[5] For instance, the butcher (nourishing-the-lord-of-life [2]), the wheelwright (tian-dao [10]), and the swimmer (full-understanding-of-life [10]).

[6] For instance, nourishing-the-lord-of-life [3] and great-and-most-honoured-master [1].

[7] The use of his personal name, 莊周 Zhuang Zhou, instead of the formal title 莊子 Master Zhuang, suggests that this anecdote was by Zhuangzi himself, not an admirer. This story also illustrates his technique of blurring the lines between words and sounds with words like “whee” and “ugh.”

[8] Strictly speaking, Confucius says not to treat others as you would not like to be treated, which amounts to the same thing.

[9] For instance, the traveler (Zhuangzi, Enjoyment-in-untroubled-ease [6]), the cook (Zhuangzi, Nourishing-the-lord-of-life [6]), and Robber Zhi (Zhuangzi, Robber-zhi).

[10] Huizi compares Zhuangzi to useless gourds and a gnarled tree (Zhuangzi, Enjoyment-in-untroubled-ease [6 and 7]). Zhuangzi visits Huizi during his tenure as prime minister in the Liang (Zhuangzi, Floods-of-autumn [12]). They discuss Confucius (Zhuangzi, Metaphorical-language [2]). Finally, Zhuangzi expresses his loss at Huizi’s grave (Zhuangzi, Xu-wu-gui [6]).