Happy fish and philosophical skepticism

by Dave Maier

Tao Most Westerners think of Taoism, if at all, as a form of Eastern mysticism, popular with hippies and new-agers. So interpreted, Taoism is a form of skepticism: our beliefs about the world are falsified by the ineffable wholeness beyond our conceptual grasp, as represented by the famous yin-yang symbol. This interpretation is not completely wrong, but anyone looking past that ubiquitous icon into the texts themselves will find that most of what lies there is hard to fit into that simple mold.

Zhuangzi in particular is a puzzle. The text which bears his name, which he may or may not have had a lot to do with, is a compendium of practical advice, obscure parables, evocative imagery, rigorous philosophical argument, and flat-out weirdness. In this post I'd like to look closely – risking, as usual, spoiling the joke with heavy-handed overanalysis – at the relatively famous story of the happy fish.

Zhuangzi (Z) and Huishi (H), a frequent interlocutor, are walking above the Hao river.

Z: Look how the fish are swimming: those are some happy fish!

H: You are not a fish. How [or whence] do you know fish’s happiness?

Z: You are not me. How do you know that I don’t know?

H: I’m not you, so I don’t know about you. You’re not a fish, so you don’t know about fish: Q.E.D.

Z: Let’s go back to where we started. When you said “whence do you know fish’s happiness?”, you already knew I know it before asking the question. I know it from up above the Hao river.

Ha! (Wait, what?) A lot of the book is like that: it sounds like there was a good zinger there, but who or what got zung?

Read more »