My dissertation examines the Zhuangzi, a motley assemblage of dense and outlandish writings from the 4th to 2nd centuries BCE. Before it went on to play a foundational role in East Asian philosophical, religious, and artistic traditions, the Zhuangzi came together through a complex process of composition, editing, and rearrangement that even our best scholarship can hardly reconstruct. In retrospect, the Zhuangzi represents something we call “Daoism”—but its composers, editors, and rearrangers would not have recognized any concept corresponding to that word. While they might have scratched their heads at being called “Daoists”, they would certainly acknowledge a fascination with dao: Zhuangist writings about dao are some of the most dense and outlandish ever composed about ethics, cosmology, and the living facts of our basic existence.
“Dao” at its most everyday refers simply to roads; by extension dao are means, manners, and methods. Before the Zhuangzi started taking shape, philosophers elevated “dao” as their chief term of art: for moralists, technocrats, and advice givers of every stripe, dao is the way forward that they wish to urge upon their listeners. Nearly everything that Zhuangist writers have to say about morality, technique, and advice subverts this common practice. For them, “the way forward”, whatever it turns out to be, is something rival thinkers have hardly even thought about, much less spoken of with insight. Most of my dissertation dissects, microscopizes, and reworks what they go on to say—Zhuangist dao emerging as ways unsought and unheard-of that underpin all of our capacities to do, to speak, and to think.
Philosophers commonly ask whether Zhuangist thought amounts to a species of skepticism, relativism, or even nihilism about values and other normative standards. The text does indeed preserve some strikingly aggressive and sophisticated attacks on claims to knowledge, absolute reference points, and the very identity of the things we engage—but the ultimate point of these attacks is open to interpretation. I think that participating in the community of Marty Center Junior Fellows will prove vitally important to my ongoing efforts at answering such questions, both for myself and for a broader curious public. By the end of the coming year, I hope not only to have finished writing my dissertation but also to have polished up and broadened out the conversations I’m able to have about it.