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zhuangzi on discourse

Today”s slice of classical Chinese philosophy comes from Zhuangzi:

既使我與若辯矣,若勝我,我不若勝,若果是也?我果非也邪?我勝若,若不吾勝,我果是也?而果非也邪?其或是也,其或非也邪?其俱是也,其俱非也邪?我與若不能相知也,則人固受其黮闇。吾誰使正之?使同乎若者正之,既與若同矣,惡能正之!使同乎我者正之,既同乎我矣,惡能正之!使異乎我與若者正之,既異乎我與若矣,惡能正之!使同乎我與若者正之,既同乎我與若矣,惡能正之!然則我與若與人俱不能相知也,而待彼也邪?何化聲之相待,若其不相待。和之以天倪,因之以曼衍,所以窮年也。謂和之以天倪?曰:是不是,然不然。是若果是也,則是之異乎不是也亦無辯;然若果然也,則然之異乎不然也亦無辯。忘年忘義,振於無竟,故寓諸無竟。」

Translation by Burton Watson:

“Suppose you and I have had an argument. If you have beaten me instead of my beating you, then are you necessarily right and am I necessarily wrong? If I have beaten you instead of your beating me, then am I necessarily right and are you necessarily wrong? Is one of us right and the other wrong? Are both of us right or are both of us wrong? If you and I don”t know the answer, then other people are bound to be even more in the dark. Whom shall we get to decide what is right? Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide? But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly? Shall we get someone who agrees with me? But if he already agrees with me, how can he decide? Shall we get someone who disagrees with both of us? But if he already disagrees with both of us, how can he decide? Shall we get someone who agrees with both of us? But if he already agrees with both of us, how can he decide? Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can decide for each other. Shall we wait for still another person?

“But waiting for one shifting voice [to pass judgment on] another is the same as waiting for none of them. Harmonize them all with the Heavenly Equality, leave them to their endless changes, and so live out your years. What do I mean by harmonizing them with the Heavenly Equality? Right is not right; so is not so. If right were really right, it would differ so clearly from not right that there would be no need for argument. If so were really so, it would differ so clearly from not so that there would be no need for argument. Forget the years; forget distinctions. Leap into the boundless and make it your home!”1

In quite a few ways, this passage has had a large influence on how I participate in teh Discourse2. In a lot of ways, this is why I don”t really bother spending much time actively ‘debating” with other people. In part bc usually to participate in a debate, you”re position will already be entrenched to some degree. And as we debate, you”ll bring in sources to support your arguments and I”ll do the same.

But what”s the point? I mean. We all obviously pick and choose our sources based on what will support and confirm our argument: thus, bringing ‘someone who agrees” with me to try and settle the matter. And, as happens a lot, perhaps I have greater knowledge or access to resources and I”m able to ‘win” the debate. But does winning the debate actually mean that I”m right? And you wrong? No. It literally just means that I won a debate.

This is also why it is such a common derailing tactic to ‘debate” people and essentially win by attrition. A lot of ppl do not have unending spoons to engage in a long, complex debate with another person. So often (and I”ve done this myself) you”ll quit the field and forfeit the debate. And the other person will claim victory and insist that they are ‘right”.

From an epistemic point of view, the notion that ‘right”, if it is right, would be such that it is self-evidently right, thus no need for debate. In my own practise, this is basically why I refuse to engage in discussions about matters of fact. What would be the point?

But this is often what another subset of derails are all about. People will seize on the factual parts of your argument and attempt to get you involved in a discussion over matters of fact. Which is pointless and futile. Like arguing over whether or not a white horse is a horse.

This is pretty much what most of the anons over the past few days were doing. Seizing upon one of the few facts in the post and trying to make the ‘debate” all about that. Also demanding proof for things that are simply true, no need to prove them. Observe:

  1. All non-Black people are anti-Black
  2. x is a non-Black person
  3. Therefore, x is anti-Black3

Its literally a classic syllogism. Now, given that the anons yesterday admitted that both premises are true, then why were they asking for ‘receipts”?

This is also why I don”t argue when people say that I occupy some oppressor role or another. Observe:

  1. All non-lesbians are lesbophobic
  2. I am not a lesbian
  3. Therefore, I am lesbophobic

It”s simply a fact. Why would I bother discussing it? The only way for this to ever not be true is to render one of the premises as false. Since I”m not about to pursue political lesbianism, this basically means premise one. Dismantle lesbophobia and anti-Blackness and the premise will no longer be true, which will then also invalidate the syllogism.

Well… conceivably, I could attempt to argue that anti-Blackness doesn”t exist. And to be sure, this is the approach that many people take. Because its the easiest way. Deny that it is true or real, and you get out of the much harder work of actually creating a world where this is not true.

In any case, this is also why you rarely see me going around and claiming that I”m ‘right” and others are wrong. Yes. I have conviction. I do believe that the things I espouse are right. Does this make them true? No. No matter how strong my conviction, it cannot make a falsehood into a truth.

The reality is, is that I don”t know. I really don”t. The problem with trying to break free of the current systems of oppression is that no one has done it so far. Yes, I have my feelings and intuitions about how to get there. But I can”t say with any certainty that these are right, much less true. I just don”t know (and neither does anyone else, fyi).


  1. I thought about doing my own translation, but Watson"s is decent enough. One of the more interesting things, though, about the latter part of the passage is that, as is usual for Zhuangzi, he is using shi 是 and fei 非 to construct his dichotomy between 'right" and 'wrong". However, when we get to this phrase, "If so were really so, it would differ so clearly from not so that there would be no need for argument” he actually uses shi 是 and bu shi 不是, and this is the only time that this particular construction is used in the entire passage. At some point, maybe I"ll do some deep thinking into what this possibly means. In any case, it really stood out to me. 
  2. I"d also be interested in revisiting some of my earlier research on bian 辯 and thinking about what happens if we translate this as 'discourse" instead of the usual translations.... 
  3. I am also non-Black so this syllogism applies to me as well.