Dreaming Out of Stereotypes, Research Time, 14/04/2015

Can you write a book about historical Chinese philosophy and not mention the single most famous (to white people) passage of Daoist thought? I guess not, because Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream shows up on page 88 of Barry Allen’s Vanishing Into Things

Am I a butterfly or am I a person? Is that the right
Zhuangzi had a dream that he was a butterfly. Then he woke up and discovered that he was a man. But it was equally possible, says Zhuangzi, that he was actually a butterfly dreaming that he was a man. At this point, we walk away, amazed at the mystical confusions into which the Chinese have sent us. That’s how all Chinese people think, or so the stereotypes of our popular culture would have us believe, in unsolvable riddles and self-contradictory puzzles to empty our minds. 

I think the first time I heard Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream was in a fairly shitty movie, where a token Magical Yellow Man tells the virtuous white male protagonist this story. Its pop culture version always sounds emptily profound, the pretentious meaninglessness that spews from the mouths of barely literate hippies who read a couple of passages from the Zhuangzi or the Daodejing in between a bong hit and not showering during a busy day of trying to grow flowers in their dreadlocks.

Barry’s treatment of the passage occurs in a discussion of Daoist skepticism, comparing it with the central works of skeptical philosophy in the tradition’s Roman Empire period, those of Sextus Empiricus. Dreams are a recurring element in skeptical philosophy, whether in Descartes’ Meditations or Linklater’s Waking Life. The usual question is if and how you can tell that you aren’t dreaming.

A question sets the conditions of your thinking. Those conditions are what you’d have to include in your response for it to be a sensible answer. Working through and investigating a question guides the kinds of priorities you will have in thought. When I ask “How can you tell that you aren’t dreaming?” we inquire about the truth of what we know, or conceived more broadly, whether the world that we now experience is the true world. We think in terms of an either/or: truth or illusion.

Zhuangzi’s question seems to fit in this kind of framework. Am I Zhuangzi who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly to dreams of being Zhuangzi? Which of these is true, or real? How am I to decide which is real? What should I look for to discover which of these is the real world, and how am I to look for it?

A profoundly insulting mistake when reading the
philosophy or literature of another culture's past is the
failure to understand that culture as a living entity, and
take it instead as a set of static contexts with a unique
and absolute essence.
Barry provides an answer that makes for solid history of philosophy here. I say this because it’s clear that he’s read the entire Zhuangzi, and is reading this more cryptic lesson of the butterfly in the context of an earlier passage that also touches on the particular meaning of what a dream is.

What I think is important in comparative philosophy* is maintaining the cultural context of the thinkers you’re writing about without treating that foreign culture like a museum piece, as if it was an unvarying set of norms and presumptions instead of a living, fluctuating, messy culture. That means being careful about when you start your comparison of a concept in one culture’s philosophical tradition to your own. The problem with most Western accounts of Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream is that they take the conception of what a dream is from the Western tradition.

* And I could be wildly off base in what I think because I haven’t really studied much comparative philosophy at all. 

This earlier passage is a story about a student of Kongzi who describe how we can become lost in our dreams. When dreams consume us, we don’t really know anything, instead flitting about interpretations of the world which themselves are dreams. Then the student describes how, after countless generations, a sage appears among the culture and leads a great awakening. 

To wake from a dream is to shift the style and focus of your life from petty concerns to profound questions and journeys. It’s an ethical transformation of life itself. One culture and history comes to an end, and another begins. 

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