- Die Kunst des Lebens und andere Künste: Skurrile Skizzen zu einem euro-daoistischen Ethos ohne Moral
East-West philosophical encounters pose a tantalizing problem: virtually endless comparisons and attempts to find resonating (or contrasting) features seem to prevent us from ever getting to the heart of the matter and say what we want to say. It can be hard enough, as a matter of fact, to have to deal with only one of the traditions in question, as it requires that we work through a long list of commentaries and interpretations before we can even hope to find anything resembling a solution to the problem(s) giving rise to our explorations. In this way, the history of philosophy has become philosophy itself, as Günter Wohlfart writes in his challenging book, Die Kunst des Lebens und andere Künste (The art of living and other arts), echoing a complaint made by Albert Camus.1 The widespread philosophical tendency to bypass the complex historical and hermeneutical web of dialogues and return to simplicity, zu den Sachen selbst (Edmund Husserl), to that which "really matters," is an understandable temptation. The tendency is recurrent in the history of Western philosophy, reaching a higher level of urgency at the turn of the twentieth century and beyond. In China, however, ancient Daoist philosophy already presents itself as such an endeavor to rid itself of the baggage of tradition, history, and established systems in its quest for optimal ways of living—and dying. The Daoist sage is one who finds stability and tranquility in the continuous turbulence of an ever-changing existence. But one does not become a sage out of the blue. Sagehood demands a long and continuous process of learning, self-cultivation, perspicacity, et cetera. It may very well consist in simplicity and plainness, but unfolding and cultivating these qualities is not necessarily simple and plain. It requires complex "undoings" of the acquired views and tendencies with which modern life has imbued us.
Sagehood is therefore a paradoxical combination of acquisition and forgetting—or this seems to be one among the many flavors contained in Günter Wohlfart's philosophical soup of spicy Zhuangzian tales as well as Daoist- and Zen-inspired [End Page 391] irony, puns, and oblique observations in combination with Western insights, or, as he puts it himself, "somewhat bland Germanic thought-ingredients" (p. 12).
This book, a "tractatus poetico-philosophicus," as the author calls it, could be read as a commentary on the ancient Daoist masters, in particular on Zhuangzi. But it is a commentary à la chinois in that Wohlfart attempts, in a most trenchant manner, to apply their philosophical insights to contemporary issues and perspectives, offering poignant and often witty criticism of seminal Western-based views and values. At the same time, however, he rejects the unproductive partisan view according to which anything coming from the East will be presented as superior to the West. In fact, not only does he mix his reflections on the ancient Daoist thinkers with selected insights from Western thinkers such as Hegel, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, among others; he also condemns severely any kind of esoteric Orientalism—in a style and manner much reminiscent of Nietzsche: "nothing is more repulsive than those para-religious gurus rolling around in the post-Christian meaning-vacuum, sprawling on the east-west couch, intoxicating their credulous disciples with enticing eso-cocktails, whereby they completely discredit an engagement with Asian thought" (pp. 38–39). While he compares, in the opening sentence, his exploration with an "aimless morning stroll," it is obvious that at least one of his objectives consists precisely in demystifying ancient Chinese philosophy by presenting it as an applicable and sensible (but not "rational"!) philosophy of life.
Wohlfart's subtitle could be translated "Ludicrous Sketches of a Euro-Daoist Ethos Without Morality." Thus, the central theme has to do with ethics and morality, but, as indicated, it revolves around the idea of (localized) ethos as being prior to universal ethics and morality. He problematizes...