Zhuangzi, perspectives, and greater knowledge

This paper appeared in Philosophy East and West 65:3 (July 2015), accepted April 2012.

Zhuangzi, perspectives, and greater knowledge


Although the text of the Zhuangzi appears to present prima facie skeptical arguments, there has been much debate as to the nature of its skeptical stance, and even whether or not its stance is substantively skeptical at all. In this paper I attempt to engage with both the skeptical aspects of the text and its positive agenda, by firstly accepting that the Zhuangzi takes a substantive skeptical stance, but also arguing that in doing so the text provides a positive account of how to improve our epistemic position – an account which might be a motivating factor of the Zhuangist ethical stance. My argument will focus on Zhuangist attitudes to different types of knowledge, specifically what the text refers to as “lesser knowledge (小知 xiao zhi)” and “greater knowledge (大知 da zhi)”, and the relationship between the two. I will attempt to show that, far from promoting “epistemological nihilism” as has been claimed by some, the Zhuangist stance is actually that of a “positive skeptic” who can offer wide-ranging practical advice on how to improve our own epistemic situation, while at the same time warning us of the ultimate limits of what we can come to know.

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