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Innate Divisions and the Natural Hermeneutics of Plato and Zhuangzi
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    1   The Dao and the Form: Innate Divisions and the Natural Hermeneutics of Plato and Zhuangzi Mingjun Lu Independent Scholar mingjun.lu@mail.utoronto.ca Hans-Georg Gadamer defines hermeneutics as both a practical art “involved in such things as preaching, interpreting other languages, explaining and explicating texts” and an art of understanding “particularly required any time the meaning of something is not clear and unambiguous.”1 For Gadamer, Western hermeneutics has undergone a paradigmatic shift “from epistemology to ontology” with Martin Heidegger’s “hermeneutics of facticity,” a thesis that replaces the Cartesian “epistemic cogito” with Dasein—“the contingent and underivable ‘facticity’ of existence”—as “the ontological yardstick of phenomenological questioning.”2 But what if this “facticity”-based hermeneutics did not begin with Heidegger but with Plato (c.424-348BC) in classical antiquity, especially given that the primacy of cogito was asserted by René Descartes only in the seventeenth century?3 The natural hermeneutics proposed in Plato’s the Phaedrus, I argue, proves one of the pre-cogito interpretive methodologies. There has been a growing trend to identify a distinctive hermeneutics in Plato’s the Ion, the Republic, and the Protagoras, but few have touched on the hermeneutical principle represented in the Phaedrus.4 In fact, in this Socratic dialogue Plato explicitly spells out a facticity-based hermeneutics that prizes     2   compliance with organic patterns in literary texts.5 I would call the methodological approach based on observance of innate divisions natural hermeneutics, an approach vividly captured in Socrates’ butchering metaphor in the Phaedrus. Here Socrates analogizes a well-composed text to a living animal, suggesting that a writer or reader should carve up this organic body just as a “butcher” dissects a cow by following its “natural joints.” If he cuts across the grain, Socrates states, he would splinter the original texture of the text. (265e-266a) In comparing the dramatic plot to an animal in the Poetics, Aristotle takes Plato’s organic metaphor to a new level. But while for Aristotle “organic unity is a virtue that is specific poetic composition,”6 Plato’s organic image signifies a guiding principle for critical interpretation as well, since it concerns not only Lysias’ written speech but also the critique of that speech by Socrates and Phaedrus. The natural hermeneutics embodied by Plato’s butchering and organic metaphors, I will show, bears directly on his dialectical method that is premised upon the unity and divisibility of the Form. Plato’s natural hermeneutics finds a revealing parallel in the tianli 天理 “natural lines” or tianni 天倪 “innate divisions” methodology put forward by the Chinese Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (370-287BC).7 Scholarship on the Chinese hermeneutical tradition tends to focus on the Confucian-Mencian philosophy, dismissing the Taoist interpretative position on the grounds of Zhuangzi’s distrust of language.8 In truth, it is precisely this skepticism towards discursive language that has compelled Zhuangzi to contemplate a mode of hermeneutics centered on natural patterns. Both Plato and Zhuangzi, I propose, conceive of a natural hermeneutics that emphasizes the primacy of innate divisions. Most tellingly, Zhuangzi also resorts to the butchering image to expound his hermeneutical     3   principle. Chapter 3 of the Zhuangzi, yangsheng zhu 养生主 “Life-Nurturing Principles,” tells the well-known story of Cook Ding who is dissecting a cow for Lord Wen Hui. When asked how he came by such a wondrous skill, the Cook replies that his secret consists in following the tianli or natural lines in the body of the cow. This insight, the Lord quickly perceives, is also pertinent to the nurturing of life, because “by observing the veins in the spinal cord and the natural spaces between the bones in the human frame, one could build up his body, preserve his health, and prolong his life.”9 In Chapter 27 yuyan 寓言 “Allegorical Language,” Zhuangzi calls these natural lines or spaces tianni 天倪 “innate divisions,” a concept that indicates tianjun 天均 “the equal share of heavenly distribution” in all forms of beings.10 Though living in two historically unrelated contexts, Plato and Zhuangzi bear meaningful comparison through the concept of natural hermeneutics. It is no mere coincidence that both thinkers adopt the same metaphor of butchering to propound an interpretive strategy anchored in...


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