Episode 12: Chuang Tzu’s Taoism: What Is Wisdom?

Discussing the "Chuang Tzu," Chapters 2, 3, 6, 18, and 19.

It's the second-most-famous Taoist text and the most humorous, with anecdotes about people singing at funerals and jumping out of moving coaches while drunk. What could it possibly mean to "make all things equal?" and how is the Taoist sage different from our other favorite paragons of virtue (hint: magical powers)?

Featuring special guest panelist Erik Douglas, another U. Texas philosophy grad school dropout calling in from England and knowing more about Eastern philosophy than we do.

Buy the book or read it online.

The end song requires explanation: I had a "New Age" period where I investigated Eastern philosophy, tried to be cheerful all the time, and was generally insufferable. This song, "Pass Time Incorporeal," is an artifact of that time, with lyrics from early fall 1989; the recording is from 1993. It finally slipped out on a 1996 album of similar goofiness rejected from my "real" albums called "Black Jelly Beans & Smokes."

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  1. Kimberly says

    Interesting discussion, gentlemen, but I’m really surprised that no one even went to dictionary.com to get the correct pronunciation of Chuang tzu and Lao tzu and the others. It even says it for you if you ask nicely.

  2. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    I believe there’s some latitude in how these things are anglicized, just as the spelling can be Chuang Tzu or Chuang Tse.

    It has, however, been a long time since I was around an academic discussion of these guys, so you are likely right, though Chwang Tzoo is much more fun to say than Chuahng Dzuh. Blech.

  3. Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

    I blame Eric because we brought him on as the ‘expert’…;-)

    That being said, the guys have butchered some German phrases already and I’m sure I’m responsible for doing the same to Greek. So we are equal opportunity linguistic heathens.

    Truth is, you are the first of our listeners/commenters to call this out, so while it does not appear to be a big concern for our audience to this point, we will address it in the future. Thanks for the feedback.

    BTW, what is the deal with transliteration anyway? If they don’t want you to pronounce it like “Chuang”, why is it spelled that way?

    • John Brady says

      I think it’s like the classic Monty Python: “Yeah, it’s spelt ‘Yacht’ but its pronounced ‘Flooblagleeerglabeleble’.” The Wade-Giles romanization of chinese leave a bit to be desired. It may be the effect of Cantonese on the original annotators representing an original British focus on Hong Kong. It would be better if the the wade giles approximated modern pinyin in someway (Chuang Tzu : Zhuang Zi (Jew-ung zer). It seems to be a system designed to not freak out English speakers, at the expense of accuracy, e.g ‘x’ is pinyin is rendered as ‘hs’ in wade giles. As an English speaker trying to mash that h and s together will probably give you the closest thing you can to that actual phone, but is still firmly within the english phonetic structure. The fact that we as english speakers feel that it’s all a bit fluid at the end of the day is a little abysmal, it shows a massive distance (and coming from this a lack a respect) of the Chinese canon in general (think about how you would have to cringingly stop someone who firmly believed Socrates was pronounced in the Bill and Ted manner: So-Crate-s.) Though, truthfully, if the person was Chinese clearly speaking English as a second language then there wouldn’t be some much cringing.

      While i’m on the topic there is an interesting scholarly point regarding misunderstood Chinese and Nietzsche. Nietzsche has a passage (sorry, i forget which text) where he draws attention to the fact that the chinese have a saying Hsiao-Hsin (xiao xin) that is so ubiquitous that even mothers say it to their children many times a day. He says it means “Make your heart small” and gets some leverage on a point from this. What’s interesting is that Xiao Xin literally means “Small Heart” so Nietzsche’s translation is logical. However, what’s bizarre is that xiaoxin in Chinese just means “Careful” or “Be Careful”, which anyone who can translate xiao and xin as small and heart should know. Most chinese words are compounds of two words which each have their own meaning in isolation (e.g Important: Zhongyao: Lit. Heavy Want, Movie: Dianying: lit. Electric Shadow). So, what’s interesting is Nietzsche has accessed a text or anecdote where this word has been given, but not translated, but then translated as two words and interpreted. But, the original text (Nietzsche’s reference) has stated that mothers constantly say this to their children (which is true, all over the world, Be careful!) but has not translated the term, or the observer has completely misinterpreted the situation, which is unlikely. It really drives me crazy that it is impossible to discover what is the chain of causality and anecdote starting here in China and stretching to Nietzsche’s desk for this bizarre accurate-yet-inaccurate translation to have taken place.

  4. Profile photo of Wes Alwan says

    How dare you correct me, Kimberly. You’ve noticed the attention to detail that led me away from scholarship. But as I’ve told you before, I will anglicize with extreme prejudice.


    While the pronunciation of the title is not such an easy matter as its meaning, I would console my poor reader who is afraid to attempt it by saying that speakers of Sinitic languages themselves have pronounced (and still do pronounce) the two sinographs used to write it in widely varying ways. For example, a Cantonese would read them, more or less, as tshuhng tzyy and a resident of the Chinese capital 2,600 years ago would have pronounced them roughly as tsyang tsyehg or tsryangh tsyehgh. Therefore, it does not really matter that much how each of us says the title of the book in his or her own idiolect. For those who are fastidious, however, the “correct” pronunciation in Modern Standard Mandarin may be approximated as follows…. (More: http://www.sino-platonic.org/abstracts/spp048_chuangtzu.html)

    It lost me at “fastidious.”

  5. David Emerson says

    Good Fellows (as opposed to Goodfellas),

    The “orgy of name-dropping” aside, I really enjoyed the playful back-and-forth of east and west. Eric was an excellent addition to the mix. Thanks again.


  6. matth says

    I really enjoyed this one, probably my favorite so far as i have been making my way from start to finish (skipping around a bit). The mystical religious philosophy blend really appeals to me from the east and i hope in the spirit of this you guys might do something on theism eventually. One for the Abrahamic faiths with Aquinas or Avicenna and something from Hinduism as well. But if not still great stuff, thank.

  7. Rich from NYC says

    well I’m just a former business student who fell in love with Philosophy after 1 class (all I could take) and kept having great discussion with my former teacher, a Jesuit priest. My favorite podcast and my favorite episode thus far. Let’s take into consideration the interpretations of the texts are rather “iffy”, as is the case when translating ancient Chinese language to English- so much is lost. But a great discussion and helped me grasp some concepts in taoism, which I enjoy reading. (oh and Pooh is a great metaphor). Great job bringing Erick aboard for this one to lend some different insight. God bless and keep up the great work guys. makes my long train commute so short and I usually walk away with a sense of peace in contemplation.

  8. Rich from NYC says

    and yes, MORE on Eastern Philosophy. MORE!!! it’s rather open and fun to discuss and rattles the brain’s “western” way of thinking at times.


    I just discovered your podcast and am hooked, even though I don’t understand what the hell you guys are talking about some of the time. Your energy and humor and love(or dislike) for the material keeps me coming back. Anyway, I haven’t read Chuang Tzu(or however its spelled) but have read bits and pieces of other Taoist writings (including the Tao of Pooh) and I think that the East vs. West mentality keeps people from taking the material seriously and dismissing it as a sort of “do what you want or better yet don’t do anything” way of thinking. I’ve always read “inaction” as not trying to control situations or circumstances that are outside of your control, which is a main theme in much Eastern thought, being like water or the tree that sways in the wind or whatever metaphor fits. And the story of the butcher is a good example of doing your job well…so well that you’re not “conscious” of it. Even if you’re working at McDonalds or behind a desk doing data entry (like me), just do that. Don’t carry water when you should be chopping wood. It’s simple, but not easy.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Welcome,Eric. As a veteran of several temp data entry jobs, I salute you. However, that’s exactly the kind of activity that I do not like to focus on, but instead distract my mind by, say, listening to podcasts.

  10. Nate says

    Hey Guys. I started listening to your podcasts a couple of months ago, I’m listening to the ‘casts in chronological order and I love all of them. This one I especially liked, but I had a question about “The Tao of Politics” because it sounds like something I’d like to track down but it has such a modern political pundit bullshit book title that I’m having a hard time finding it anywhere. At least finding the right one. Can anyone recommend an ISBN number or a particular translation or translator so I could refine my search? and as a follow up question, is The Huainanzi at all related?


    p.s. unrelated, except I mentioned Bullshit. Is Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” too short to do a podcast on?

    p.p.s. You guys are awesome. I can’t wait until I’m caught up and feel up to doing more on the site.

  11. David Buchanan says

    I like Nate’s suggestion. Frankfurt’s little book “On Bullshit” is a really great candidate. There are substantial issues at stake but it’s super quick and easy and you guys could probably have a lot of fun with it. He points out the value of “bull-sessions” and he distinguishes liars from bullshitters in some interesting ways. (Plus you’d get to legitimately use the word “bullshit” as much as you like.) It’s not epistemology but he does discuss “the truth” in some fairly serious ways, as if it were worthy of respect.

  12. Nate Acacia says

    Thanks Wes. Erik Douglas mentions it a couple of times during the ‘cast. He says it was a hundred or so years later than Chuang Tzu.

  13. Zachary David says

    Hey guys,
    I found your podcast the other day while looking for sam harris on the is-ought problem. I’ve been tearing through a lot of the episodes while at the office.

    I’m surprised you weren’t able to find much in the Tao Te Ching itself. The first time I read it in middle school I discovered a good trick: read it backwards. Then it goes from more concrete prescriptions to the more abstract axioms.

    There’s a wonderfully described system of governance described in verses 57 – 62 (this translation: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html). I can imagine some good discussion over that somewhat hybrid laissez-faire system while maintaining social welfare.

    The tao te ching probably has a lot more philosophical topics than the chuang tsu, especially with regard to a person’s moral duties to self and others, how power should be exercised. At least the tao te ching has more easily quotable sections and I think they could be lined up for comparison with other philosophies.

    • Terry Marshall says

      Hi David. If you want to think Taoist you don’t try first of all. Forcing yourself is a no-no. Secondly you were trying to determine or separate the “hard from the white”. According to Taoist principles everything works. Its all under one umbrella of Tao, whatever that is but you are a result of it too.
      You are “poking at a small frying fish” to paraphrase Lao-tse. Don’t try flipping that sucker over or it will fall apart on you. Rather than reading Chuang-tse, read yourself or allow it to absorb you. I know I’m still absorbing after thirty years of being a sponge, but its all in there and it works out on its own. Effortlessness, that’s the key. You don’t put a key into a lock and then force it to turn, you have to wiggle and jiggle it to open doors.

  14. Craig says

    When listening to this one, I heard a lot of trying to determine if Chuang Tzu was a skeptic or a relativist and really finding that he was not either one. Perhaps the missing piece here was the underlying metaphysics of Non-Dualism, which is uniquely non-Western and kind of the starting point for these writings.

    At the heart of it is the action without the “I” which is doing the action, and it ties together the wu wei and those other concepts.

    And while I’m at it making requests (and thinking all mystical-like), do you think you could take on the moral philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita? There are many parallels to Kant in the idea of having a moral duty, and some cool discourse on the relationship between the rational mind and physical desire.

  15. Terry Marshall says

    Maybe I’m fortunate enough to have not known anything about western philosophy before I stumbled into Taoism like the drunk falling out of the carriage.I absorbed it very readily because I wasn’t trying to. Chuang-tse’s book kept picking itself up and turning the pages in my mind. It all fell into place and keeps reading itself over and over whenever I look into the mirror mind or reflect.
    You guys didn’t mention water once in your discussion and that made me very thirsty. Taoists love water. It seeks its own level and can transform itself through different stages of existence. Its big secret is it goes below where people dislike to go – beneath everything else. But it still nourishes all and asks for nothing in return.
    Also there was no mention of yin yang when even when you guys got down to throwing the bamboo sticks in the I Ching. The yin yang principle is key to letting Taoism, especially how it reverts back and forth complimenting and fighting each other in it endless marriage.
    I find nothing difficult with Taoist philosophy especially when you apply it to essential living and it all works out together as one.
    The guy on the show who was talking about being lazy is on his Way to thinking in Tao. He’s lazy and he knows it (loved that part). Taoists joke about how hard work pays off in the future but they know laziness pays off right away. It makes sense if you realize we never get to live in the future because it keeps changing into now.
    But the guys didn’t want to take off their cowboy boots before they started discussing Taoism and the Confusionists (western philosophers) were made out to be the authority with which to evaluate Taoism. Its the old Taoist attribute thing I guess – comparing a horse with a horse instead of a raspy voice.
    But as a Taoist thinker, I really enjoyed their spirit.
    So seeing how I’m clear as a whistle in Tao, I’ll be tuning in as I tune out, which means I’ll have to relax the old noggin when I listen to them discuss the Confusionists in western philosophy, which I’m most certain they are much better dressed for.
    I’ve been recently reading western philosophy and it seems to be books about books about books. But regardless, I like the American “neopragmatist” Richard Rorty’s writings. He said western philosophy was really North Atlantic European philosophy today. I liked that comment. So maybe you guys could do a show on his work and help me along the Way.
    Thanks for the pod, it was a whale of a show.

  16. Joe says

    I really liked your discussion on Chuang Tzu’s writings. I think the idea of “wu wei,” or “effortless action” is connected to the psychological concept of flow ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) ), combined with, as Yoda would say, “Do or do not. There is no try.” When you refer to what you’re doing as trying, you provide yourself with an escape route if you fail (i.e., “I tried” rather than “I didn’t do it.”) and you show a lack of confidence.

    I think the basic idea is to not do anything except the thing you actually want to do, and then do it, immersing yourself fully in the act itself without focusing on the outcome. A bowler practices the same movement over and over again in order to be able to replicate that movement, but if, when the time comes, that bowler focuses not on the perfect form but instead on “Oh, man, I hope I get a strike!” then his or her body will tense up and his or her score will almost certainly drop. Rather than making it easier, “trying harder” by putting that additional pressure on yourself will make you less effective.

    So then by being in touch with your own inner nature and place in the universe, you can achieve a state of flow not only in individual actions, but also in the process of decision-making itself. I guess it’s a bit like Zen Buddhism, minus the Buddhism.

    So the hostility to Confucianism and such comes less from the idea that it’s somehow bad to be courteous to your elders and more from hostility to the idea that strict ritualistic living somehow actually imbues courtesy rather than being a pale imitation. Obviously if there’s a strictly enforced rule that says I have to be nice to you, then to call my kindness genuine is kind of like saying money given to a mugger is an act of charity. A joke at best and horrifyingly cynical at worst.

    At least, that’s my interpretation of the whole thing. I’m not a philosophy major (and never have been), so I could be way off.

    I would like to hear back, though. I’m curious what you think.

  17. Blanche Nonken says

    Just to note: I have been a meatcutter/butcher, and now live on a farm where I still do much the same as needed.

    The parable of the butcher is not only a pretty story but is actually a good description of how things go with experience. Learning how to use the tools of the trade over time means fewer and fewer resharpenings, gentler use of the steel, and eventually it looks effortless. The gentlest touch of the blade can accomplish more in experienced hands than the wildest cleaver-hacking of the trainee.

    The butcher who trained me while not a student of any kind of philosophical teaching knew the parable and quoted it often to curious customers.

    I love the podcasts. Thank you for sharing your studies and humor with the world.

  18. JanneM says

    For me it took several years to get some grasps about the idea of the way of being which Chuangze writes about and as such I think these texts belong to different category than regular western philosophy: it requires enormous amounts of will/wish to understand. The way to get something requires certain twist or reconstruction of thought, which is paraller to lacanian psychoanalytic method: after some point you notice you think differently. This is what those “what is the one hand clapping” refer to. To push to the limits of current knowledge/way of understanding/way of being and break it in order to get to something different. I don’t think it is a pleasant way, as ego is doing it’s best to keep it simple and familiar, so various amounts of uncomfortableness and headaches are inevitable.

    Also, I’d like to point out that some or rather many parts of the text should be concerned as metaphorical expressions of the feeling of being. So that when there’s talk about organs and whole body, this can refer to the rare experience of experiencing body as whole (and not fragmented). Before starting to pay great attention to the experience of self-consciousness and way of feeling oneself, I don’t think these things will open up to anyone than those who are ‘naturally’ that way. If one has only X amount of regular ways of being, it has to be taken as goal to increase that amount so the experience of Taoist (or Zen, or whatever) way of being could be glimpsed and further become familized with it.

    Aaaand, the use of no-skill, ie. not-doing, seems to refer to the way of doing without trying, which can be experienced in unlimited contexts. For example in martial arts one can apply a technique, but in some other situation he can do the same thing but without applying techique. The difference is that in first case one is trying to do X to Y, when as in the second case he just does – and perhaps afterwards, when the ‘moment’ has passed’ (and he has become ‘back to the ego’/regular way of being) he can be like wtf just happened, how did I do that, it was just like it came through me or from me without trying.

    There are – not coincidentally – similarities between lacanian “subjectifying the cause”, introducing new order to the chain of signifiers, and the daoist way. For western mind the lacanian explanation (and undergoing psychoanalysis) might be more accessible.

  19. says

    The Zhuang-zi episode is hilarious though none of you guys know enough to discuss Daoism seriously.

    Nonetheless i would love to hear another episode on chinese philosophy.

    Perhaps the debate between Mencius and Gao-zi?

  20. Gian Zlupko says

    After listening to this episode I’m wondering if works by Alan Watts have ever come up as possible further discourse on topics similar to these. Reading two of his texts, “The Book” and “Wisdom of Insecurity”, I was provided a foray into taoist, buddhist and zen teachings. While most of what Alan’s set out to do was interpreting eastern mysticism for the west, there seems to be a good deal of existential and phenomenological philosophy that he relates to Western society—almost a blending of East-West?

    I may be mistaken about this but I’m wondering if the discussion would be fruitful..? After reading Heidegger years later, I couldn’t help but make the connections between his work and that of Watts (which makes sense I guess…people often talk about Heidegger’s phenomenology and it’s ostensible similarities to buddhism). I’m wondering how much of what Watts talks about in these texts is Eastern mysticism/taoism that has coincidental parallels between continental existentialism and phenomenology and conversely, how much of Watts’ philosophy is steeped in continental practice.


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