Just back from a two-day jaunt to New York City. We saw a Yankee game, a win for Wang Chien-ming! But more on that later.
On the train I was re-reading a book I have assigned for one of my classes, Ernest Gellner's, Nations and Nationalism. And I was struck this time by the ways in which modernity and modernization, in Gellner's telling, so fundamentally diverges from Chuang Tzu's view of the world.
Gellner argues that in the pre-modern world (date it as you will) knowledge was context-specific, embedded in the particular circumstances of a person's social position and role:
In a traditional social order, the languages of the hunt, of harvesting, of various rituals, of the council room, of the kitchen or harem, all form autonomous systems: to conjoin statements drawn from these various disparate fields, to probe for inconsistencies between them, to try to unify them all, this would be a social solecism or worse, probably blasphemy or impiety, and the entire endeavor would be unintelligible. (21)
Modernization, and especially industrialization, requires more standardized knowledge, based on the understanding that all things can be taken out of their context and analyzed in a manner to produce a single, unified language of science. He invokes Hume to make his point:
Hume's philosophy is one of the most important codifications of this vision. Its best-known part is his treatment of causation, which indeed follows from the overall vision and its central insights. What it amounts to in the end is this: in the very nature of things, nothing is inherently connected with anything else. The actual connections of this world can only be established by first separating in thought everything that can bet thought separately - so we can isolate the pure elements, so to speak - and then seeing what, as a matter of experience, happens to be actually conjoined to what. (23)
This modern, scientific, analytic approach is diametrically opposed to Chuang Tzu's understanding, which can be summed up in the line: those who divide (i.e. analyze) cannot see. Chuang Tzu rejects the notion that we can isolate things from their contexts. He holds that the "actual connections of this world" can only be apprehended by considering the whole as a whole, not as the summation of artificially isolated parts. Everything is inherently connected to everything else. That is what Way is.
Think about this:
There's nothing anywhere which is not "that," and nothing that is not "this." If you rely on "that," you cannot see. But if you rely on understanding, you can know. And so when I say "that arises out of this, and this exists because of that," I'm describing the way "that" and "this" are born of each other. Life is born of death, and death of life. In sufficiency is insufficiency, in insufficiency sufficiency. There is "no that" because of "yes this," and "yes this" because of "no that." But this is not the sage's way: the sage illuminates all in the light of heaven. Such is the sage's "yes this."
"This" is "that," and "that" is "this." "That" makes "yes this" and "no that" the same, and "this" makes "yes this" and "no that" the same. So is there a "that" and a "this"? Or is there not a "that" and a"this"? Where "that" and "this" cease to be opposites, you'll find the hinge of Tao. (22)
Again, this is just a reminder of how deeply opposed Chuang Tzu is to the intellectual foundations of modernity. And his opposition was, in its own time, extraordinarily prescient. It seems as if he were speaking then precisely to the dominant scientific world view of today. And maybe he is right.