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Reviewed by:
  • Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi
  • Bryan W. Van Norden (bio)
Scott Cook , editor. Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. x, 317 pp. Hardcover $75.50, ISBN 0-7914-5865-2. Paperback $25.95, ISBN 0-7914-5866-0.

Consider the following passages from the Zhuangzi:

A way is made by walking it. A thing is so by calling it. How is it so? In so-ing it, it is so. How is it not so? In not-so-ing it, it is not so.1

Gaptooth asked Royal Relativity, "Do you know what all things agree upon as right?"

Royal Relativity said, "How could I know that?"

"Do you know that you don't know it?"

"How could I know that?"

"Doesn't anyone know anything?"

"How could I know that?"2

I rely on the Heavenly patterns [tian li], strike in the big gaps, am guided by the large fissures, and follow what is inherently so [gu ran].3

I sit and forget. . . . I cast off my limbs, dismiss hearing and sight, leave my form, abandon knowledge, and unify them in the great comprehension.4

The first passage suggests relativism. The second suggests skepticism. The third suggests objectivism. The fourth suggests mysticism. The problem is that it is not at all clear how to reconcile these various passages. One of the themes of Scott Cook's Hiding the World in the World is the challenge of explaining why Zhuangzi seems to say such different things in different parts of his text.

Broadly speaking, relativism is the view that claims are true or false only in relation to some perspective. For relativists, "truth" works implicitly like "left." You can only be "left" in relation to a particular perspective. The window is to the lecturer's left, but it is to the right of her audience, for example. Relativism is not the claim that people believe different things about ethics or about reality in general. That is trivially true, and no one denies it. (Sometimes the term "sociological relativism" is used for the banal observation that people believe different things.) Rather, relativism states that there is no objective fact about ethics (ethical relativism) or about reality in general (cognitive relativism). [End Page 1]

There are, thus, two kinds of relativism. Ethical relativism states that evaluative claims (claims about good and bad, right and wrong, etc.) are true or false only in relation to some perspective. Ethical relativism does not take a stance on whether nonethical claims are only relatively true. But cognitive relativism states that all claims (not just evaluative ones) are true or false only in relation to a perspective. So, for example, according to an ethical relativist, "Hitler ought not have ordered the murder of millions of innocent people" is only true relative to my (and I assume my readers') perspective, but false relative to the perspective of Josef Mengele. According to the cognitive relativist, "The Earth is flat" is false relative to the current scientific view, but true relative to members of the Flat Earth Society. (And, yes, there is such a thing.)

There are lots of smart philosophers who defend ethical relativism (like Gilbert Harman), and also lots of equally smart ones who disagree with ethical relativism (like Martha Nussbaum).5 But it is difficult to find well-respected philosophers who espouse cognitive relativism. Most philosophers think that Plato presented what is essentially a knock-down argument against cognitive relativism some 2,400 years ago. What if we apply cognitive relativism to itself, Plato asked. Cognitive relativism says that there is no objective truth. But, in stating this, it looks as though cognitive relativism has stated an objective truth. The way the world really is, cognitive relativism tells us, is that there is no way the world really is. But this is as incoherent as saying that your shield will deflect any spear while your spear can pierce any shield.

Skepticism, broadly speaking, is the view that knowledge is impossible. But there are a variety of different kinds of skepticism, depending upon what kind of knowledge...


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