Truth suffers from too much analysis

Chuang Tzu’s Theory of Truth

Posted by allzermalmer on June 13, 2011

This blog comes from an article called Chuang-Tzu’s Theory of Truth. The article appeared in the journal Philosophy East and West, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jul., 1953), pp. 137-146. The article is by Siao-Fang Sun.

The concept of truth has its problems. They are usually divided into two sorts. They are Absolute Truth and Relative Truth. Absolute Truth is usually based on a statement is identical with reality or the real. Relative Truth is usually based the property of the statements, and outside of language there is no truth. When we say, in Relative Truth, that something is true, we say that this or that statement is true. Thus, we come to a distinction of truth. Absolute Truth is based a concept of  metaphysics, while Relative Truth is based on a concept of semantics.

Chuang Tzu accepted both theories of truth. “Truth is one and many at the same time. It is one when it is considered as reality itself. It is many when it is considered as a property of our knowledge of things.” (Italics is my emphasis). Thus, Chuang Tzu held to two theses of truth:
[1.] There is the absolute truth, and this is the goal or ideal of our life.
[2.] We only have relative truth.

Relative Truth: We come to find that we have relative truth. All events in the world are relative to one another. One thing is bigger than another, and one thing is better looking than another. Distance between each other are relative to their location to each other. What we see is relative to us, and where we are. What is big to one thing is small to another. However, ignoring these relations, the thing is neither big or small. And if we leave out this relation of a thing, we find that it is not a thing at all, or at least not as we know it.

“Everything has infinite relations with other things, and it is impossible, therefore, for men to have complete knowledge of what a thing is. A man can know some aspects of the nature of what a thing is, but he can never know all the aspects of a thing…All the predicates in our language by which we describe things are by nature relative.”

We find that human knowledge is relative, and that there is also differing opinions within the human framework of knowledge. What is true for one system of thought is false under another system of thought. We not only find this within religion, politics, but also in science. There are different systems of thought in science, and some claim that theirs correlate to reality while the other side says that their does. “[F]or the truth of our knowledge depends upon the objects, the external things, as well as the subject, the knower.”

The article, as a footnote, quotes a portion of Chuang Tzu’s books. Here is the portion that is quoted from Chuang Tzu’s book.

“Now I would ask you this, If a man sleeps in a damp place, he gets lumbago and dies. But how about an eel? And living up in a tree is precarious and trying to the nerves; but how about monkeys? Of the man, the eel, and the monkey, whose habitat is the right one, absolutely? Human beings feed on flesh, deer on grass, centipedes on snake’s brains, owls and crows on mice. Of these four, whose is the right taste, absolutely? Monkey mates with monkey, the buck with the doe; eels consort with fishes, while men admire Mao Ch’iang and Li Chi (beauties of the fifth and seventh centuries B.C. respectively), at the sight of whom fishes plunge deep down in the water, birds soar high in the air, and deer hurry away. Yet who shall say which is the correct standard of beauty? In my opinion, the standard of human virtue, and of positive and negative, is so obscured that it is impossible to actually know it is as such.”

In fact, within this quote, we can see how Chuang Tzu is using some of the ten trops of the skeptic, and also the criterion argument that we find within Sextus Empiricus. Thus, we see that there is some skeptical attitude within Chuang Tzu on knowledge.

In our experiences, perhaps, we find that some people are optimist. Some people are pessimist. We find that they take a very different outlook on things, since they are different observers. They see the world through different lenses, through different eyes. They come to a different understanding on the world. “A frog in the well can never know the grandeur of heaven, because it is limited by the place where it lives.”

But now that we find that there is a controversy between different relative truths, we find that our controversy would never end. Chuang Tzu tries to show us how we could try to escape this, but never does help us escape.

“Granting that you and I argue. If you beat me, and not I you, are you necessarily right and I wrong? Or if I beat you, and not you me, am I necessarily right and you wrong? Or are we both partly right and partly wrong? Or are we both wholly right and wholly wrong? You and I cannot know this, and consequently the world will be in ignorance of the truth.

Who shall I employ as arbiter between us? If I employ some one who takes your view, he will side with you. How can such a one arbitrate between us? If I employ someone who takes my view, he will side with me. How can such a one arbitrate between us? And if I employ some one who either differs from you, or agrees with both of us, he will be equally unable to decide between us. Since then you, and I, and man, cannot decide, must we not depend on Another?”

Many different theories of knowledge, or systems of thought, have different specific frameworks that they work within. Thus, different systems have different frameworks. Thus, what fits for one framework does not work in another framework. It is like taking a fish out of water, and place it in the desert. The only way we can accommodate something from framework X into framework Y, is to modify or change framework Y. We, in short, find that there is no absolute system of truth that humans construct.

However, this does not mean that each system does not contain some truth within them. They contain a truth, but they do not contain the truth. Each system can have from one truth, to many, but not all the truth. The truth is not found in any system, since all our truths will be relative to us the knower, which is human beings. We are limited to what we can know, and how we can know it.”The truth cannot be a matter of knowledge…”.

The search for the absolute truth is what many of the systems of thought are after. They are after the way things are, and is an eternal quest of the human mind and species. However, each person gets their own relative truth, and relative knowledge, but now the absolute truth. But, this does not stop us from searching, and trying to obtain it.

Absolute Truth: Chung Tzu is famous for one story, or parable. This is the parable of the Butterfly.This is taken from Zhuangzi, book by Chuang Tzu

“One day about sunset, Zhuangzi dozed off and dreamed that he turned into a butterfly.

He flapped his wings and sure enough he was a butterfly…

What a joyful feeling as he fluttered about, he completely forgot that he was Zhuangzi.

Soon though, he realized that that proud butterfly was really Zhuangzi who dreamed he was a butterfly, or was it a butterfly who dreamed he was Zhuangzi!

Maybe Zhuangzi was the butterfly, and maybe the butterfly was Zhungzi?”

Now this shows that we have reason to believe that our knowledge is unreliable, besides it being relative, or that even our knowledge is an illusion. In modern day Western philosophy, there is the problem of being a Brain-In-A-Vat. “Not only is what we perceive and do merely dream, but even when I am conscious that I am dreaming, I do not go a step beyond the dream. Only the degree of dreaming is less when I am conscious of it than when I am not conscious of it. but the consciousness of dreaming does not change the fact that we are dreaming.”

Chuang Tzu points out to us that everything is changing, and that everything is change itself, which is related to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Yet we think that there is something underneath this change that is unchangeable, or that which we experience as changing. For without this, change becomes unthinkable. For how can something change if there is not something that is changing, which is itself unchanging? We just experience the manifestation of change itself.

Chuang Tzu is an empiricist, and takes knowledge of the world to come from the senses. Empirical knowledge is the way in which we come to have knowledge of the world. Thus, “All knowledge of the world is based upon our experience. And as we have reason to believe ourselves in a dream and as experience is most unreliable, our knowledge is unreliable.” We also find, through experience, that “everything merely happens to be” and that there is no necessity in anything that we experience. Thus, laws of nature have no universal validity. In fact, these are the very things that we try to use to explain and predict our experiences. But in fact, laws of nature are just universals, and we only experience particulars. We find that we do not experience laws of nature, but just our particular experiences which just happen. The empiricist position is the skeptical position.

But Chuang Tzu does come to one conclusion in our skepticism. We find that (1.) there is harmony in the universe, and (2.) the concept of transcendentalism.

We find there is harmony in the way things are arranged, and these events do not occur in chaos. This harmony is good enough to secure the relative certainty of our knowledge.

For the transcendental, we have this:

“[F]or Chuang Tzu it is true that everything in the world is relative and that our knowledge of a thing is also relative. But with the totality of all the relative things, the case is entirely different. While the individual things are relative, the totality of all things is not relative. The totality of all things is itself not a thing. It is, to use a familiar term in Western philosophy, a transcendental concept. It transcends all relativities. It is one and it is absolute.”

Thus, we find that there are many relative truths, but that all of these things together come to form the one thing. This one thing becomes the transcendental. There is even more to this, which is suppose to show how Chuang Tzu came to accept that there is an absolute truth.

“Since everything in the world is not only in a process of change but also is change itself, the reality of every individual thing is doubtful. From moment to moment change occurs and an individual thing appears and then disappears. Once an individual thing disappears, it disappears forever. There is never a repetition of the same individual thing. what looks like the same thing is in fact a different thing. The so-called identity of things does not exist. Therefore, from the standpoint of the individual thing, we find that the reality of a thing is questionable. Not only can we not grasp a thing with absolute certainty at all, since in every moment the thing is changing, but also we cannot grasp our own bodies, for we are changing things, too. But, looking from the standpoint of the totality of things, we find that there is the change which we cannot doubt. For the ultimate change we may imagine that there is something in it which sustains the change. We do not know what this something is, but we imagine there is something there underlying the changes, just as there is a fundamental form in accordance with which every change occurs, though every individual change has also its specific form. This something-we-do-not-know and this fundamental form are identified. They are different aspects from which we see the whole change itself. They constitute the totality of phenomena are real.”

The position of Chuang Tzu is very similar to that Immanuel Kant. The Absolute Truth would be the Noumena, and Relative Truth would be the Phenomena. In fact, the Phenomena does not show that there are other minds and that there is an external world. These things are contained within the Noumena, and are hidden from us, and even relative. The Absolute is the glue that holds all change together, and holds all the relative truths together. It is the foundation of all change, and of all relative truth. We also come to think that there are things that are true if we were not existing, but this can only be contained within the Noumena, and is not contained within the Phenomena. It is not found in experience, and our only way out is to either reject the Noumena, and thus that there are things that are true independent of humans and our point of view, or to accept it and that there are things that are true independent of the human point of view.

But since we are humans, we can only know things relative to us. But there is the sub-set of humans having different points of views within the human point of view. So what about animals, like, for example, a bat? We assume, but is beyond the phenomena of our expeirence, that bats have experience. Thus, there would be the bat experience, and the relative experience of a bat.

So take the category of human, bat, cat, dog, dolphin, amoeba, spider, and etc. Each categories experience is different from that of another categories, like the experience of the category of human is different from that of cat. Each categories experience is relative to that of another categories experience. But, each category has particulars in it. And each particular object in that category has its experiences relative to each other particular object in that category. Thus, the absolute contains each point of view of the category, and the particulars that make up the category. It is the glue that holds them all together, categories and particulars of the categories.

Now, to Chuang Tzu, the Absolute Truth is that of the Tao. We can only come to know this through intuition, but it is not something that we can be taught, like we can be taught mathematics. But we can be trained to be receptive to it, and to come to learn it on our own, through training.


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