- Zhuangzi and Early Chinese Philosophy: Vagueness, Transformation and Paradox
Steve Coutinho's Zhuangzi and Early Chinese Philosophy: Vagueness, Transformation and Paradox, is a comparative philosophy project masterfully carried out on two levels, the methodological and the interpretive. Coutinho provides a translation of the Zhuangzi that is both contextually rooted and philosophically rich. Whether or not one agrees with Coutinho's interpretation, there is much to be gleaned from his book. The first few chapters create a meta-philosophical structure that the rest of the book puts to use. Given the lucid movement from development to application, there is something here for both the newcomer to comparative philosophy and those well versed in Warring States Chinese philosophy. To readers in comparative philosophy, Coutinho's writing is an excellent example of exploring a topic while putting resources from different time periods and cultures to work on their own terms. Sorites paradoxes, debates about the meaning of ming 明, and Vienna Circle writings on indeterminacy all make appearances as the author develops a description of vagueness that resonates with the Zhuangzi and opens up a new interpretation of it.
The first, introductory chapter justifies both the author's methodological approach to the Zhuangzi and the other texts being referenced, as well as broadly laying out the role of terms crucial to his reading, such as "vagueness" and "clarity," in Western and Chinese Warring States philosophy. The next two chapters explore issues of textual context and translator/interpreter context. Chapter 2 describes Zhuang Zhou as a historicized author, contextualizing him through Sima Qian's biography and the literary tradition that arises from it, as well as the political and philosophical environment of the states of Song and Chu. Following this placement of the author in Chu, Coutinho then employs current studies from mainland China to provide a description of Chu culture and philosophy. Here he also provides a working vocabulary of Daoist language and imagery important in later chapters, such as the description of reflection on nature, tian 天, and its processes as the "means by which the sage [End Page 385] gained philosophical insight—a thorough and penetrating understanding, tong 通, of all change" (pp. 29–30). In chapter 3, Coutinho describes his own context, including the various frameworks that shape his approach to the intertwined process of translation and interpretation. Rather than force any single framework, he acknowledges the need to put different methodologies to use in the situations in which they work best. This chapter concludes with his own descriptions of the role that different approaches play in his interpretation, including phenomenological, analytic, semiotic, hermeneutic, structuralist, and poststructuralist.
From this point on, Coutinho moves chapter by chapter in a grand circle, starting with avoiding common interpretive mistakes about Zhuangzi and focusing on themes in the text itself, then moving through other Warring States works that ground these themes in the intellectual history of China, and finishing with his own take on the Zhuangzi, which focuses on its second chapter, the "Qiwulun." In chapter 4, Coutinho uses textual analysis to respond to the skeptical and relativist interpretations of the text; he focuses not on placing Zhuang Zhou's work in an exhaustively defined Western philosophical camp, but instead on the themes of the text itself—the permeability and shadowiness of the boundaries between things, and the value of working through vagueness rather than eliminating it. Next, with a basic interpretation of the text's theme in hand, chapter 5 introduces the Mohist project of clarity to which the Zhuangzi is responding. Throughout this chapter, Coutinho weaves primary textual analysis and comparisons with Western philosophy together into one cohesive strand, explicating the later Mohist canon through terminology comfortable to Western philosophy. However, he is careful in distinguishing the Aristotelian concepts of contraries and contradictories from what he calls the "contrasts" used in Chinese philosophy. By the end of the chapter, he has skillfully constructed an interpretation of the Mohist project without reducing it to Western philosophical terms.
In chapter 6, Coutinho returns to...