I've been thinking more about the possibilities of inter-cultural commensurability since my last post on the topic. A thought has come to me that I want to posit and explore here:
The entire topic of commensurability/incommensurability is, essentially, a Western problematique. It is generally not an issue in pre-Qin Chinese thought and is premised on a kind of oppositional thinking that is largely alien to classical Chinese thinking. If this is true - and I look forward to comments and critiqes from readers - a certain irony would follow, at least for those who want to argue that "Chinese culture" and "Western culture" are basically incommensurable, insofar as the very assertion, by using a Western concept, would undermine the claim. But let's dig into the argument...
The first, best place to start is Zhuangzi. I tend to read chapter one as a discourse on incommensurability - but one that ultimately sets up a further claim of a kind of commensurability within incommensurability (a classic Daoist reversal thing...). At the opening of the chapter, the author draws a mental picture of fantastic creatures - a giant fish, an immense bird - beyond our comprehension. And then a few passages later has a brief exchange of words between two more mundane creatures (Graham translation):
A cicada and a turtle-dove laughed at it, saying, 'We keep flying till we're bursting, stop when we get to an elm or sandalwood, and sometimes are dragged back to the ground before we're there. What's all this about being ninety thousand miles up when he travels south'?
The cicada and the turtle-dove can simply not comprehend the vast and mysterious super-creatures. The latter are outside the knowledge of the former. And, to make this point plain, the author has a quail make the same kind of statement a bit further along, and then states (Hinton translation):
Such is the dispute between large and small.
It is not just that the small cannot understand the big, but that we cannot use the experience of the small to come to know the experience of the big. A kind of incommensurability. And this, as we will see in a moment, presumably runs in the other direction well: we cannot use the experience big to come to know the experience of the small.
Each thing has its own unique position in, and movement through, the totality of all things (which we will call dao - way). That, at least, is how I have tended to read this passage from chapter two (Watson translation):
Things all must have that which is so; things all must have that which is acceptable. There is nothing that is not so, nothing that is not acceptable. For this reason, whether you point to a little stalk or a great pillar, a leper or the beautiful Xishi, things ribald and shady or things grotesque and strange, the Way makes them all into one.
All things in Way have their own unique presence and reality and sufficiency in Way. We cannot use the quality of one thing as a standard to measure other things. This could be taken as a radical incommensurability, operating not at the level of culture, but at the level of each individual thing in Way. Gotta love that Zhuangzi: always tossing out some truly radical ideas...
But....but...notice that last line above. "The Way makes them all into one." There is a commonality to all things. They are the same in their radical uniqueness. And also in their coincidence in Way. What is important for understanding is not hierarchical standards of certain qualities (i.e. "more" or "less" beautiful) but, rather, the synchronicity of of things in Way. Indeed, it is the presence of each thing in and of itself, and all together, that defines any particular moment of Way. Each thing has an equal importance in that definitional work. No one thing can simply define the others.
And that is a kind of commensurability, to the extent that it suggests that, while we cannot use the quality or experience of one thing to judge another, we must be open to including each and everything in any understanding of our Way-context. I am defined by all of the things around me right now: the computer screen in front of me; the tree outside my window; the student center off to the west; etc. I can't really know my moment in Way without opening my perception to all of these other things. They are, or should be, constitutive of my understanding. They all relate to me in the moment.
Or maybe not. I am fairly confident in arguing that Zhuagzi puts forward a notion of radical incommensurability that operates at the level of each indiviudal thing in and of itself, and is not, obviously, limited in any meaningful way by something called "culture." I think, but am somewhat less confident, that this could suggest a kind of commensurability within incommensurability. But I will wait for comments and critiques before I try to make more of that contention....
Long story short: there is no reason to believe that "culture" is a meaningful concept for Zhuangzi. He is arguing on an intra-cultural level, denying, in a sense, that the behavior and activities of individuals can meaningfully add up into a consistent and replicable "culture." "Culture" is, at once, too big - in that it suggests meaningful coincident relationships well beyond the lived experience of ziran: 自然 - the natural occurence of things; and too small, in that if fails to capture the fullness and complexity of Way.
As to the too-bigness of "culture," we can think abou this line from Zhuangzi chapter 6, one of those great moments where Confucius is counselling Yan Hui to move in a most un-Confucian direction. When Yan Hui tells him that has given up on the Confucian virues and is now just sitting and forgetting, Confucius "says" (Graham translation):
If you go along with it [i.e. just sitting and forgetting], you have no preferences; if you let yourself transform, you have no norms. Has it really turned out that you are the better of us? Oblige me by accepting me as your disciple.
It's that line: "if you let yourself transform, you have no norms" (化則無常也) that suggests a renunciation of "culture," which we might understand as a consistent articulation and reproduction of norms. Zhuangzi does not want such things, such humanly-created concepts of "culture," to obstruct us from opening ourselves to, and following, Way.
As to the "too-littleness" of culture, we can think about these lines, from chapter 2 (Watson translation):
The Way has never known boundaries; speech has no constancy. But because of [the recognition of a] "this," there came to be boundaries. Let me tell you what the boundaries are. There is left, there is right, there are theories, there are debates, there are divisions, there are discriminations, there are emulations, and there are contentions. These are called the Eight Virtues. As to what is beyond the Six Realms [i.e. the cosmos], the sage admits its existence but does not theorize. As to what is within the Six Realms, he theorizes but does not debate. In the case of the Spring and Autumn [Classic], the record of the former kings of the past age, the sage debates but does not discriminate. So [I say,] those who divide fail to divide; those who discriminate fail to discriminate. What does this mean, you ask? The sage embraces all things. Ordinary men discriminate among them and parade their discriminations before others. So I say, those who discriminate fail to see.
夫道未始有封，言未始有常，為是而有畛也。請言其畛：有左，有右，有倫，有義，有分，有辯，有競，有爭，此之謂八德。六合之外，聖人存而不論；六合之內， 聖人論而不議。春秋經世，先王之志，聖人議而不辯。故分也者，有不分也；辯也者，有不辯也。曰：何也？聖人懷之，眾人辯之以相示也。故曰：辯也者，有不見 也
For our purposes the message here is: those who divide the world into "cultures," and put forth discriminations and debates based on those divisions, fail to see. They fail to see the fullness of Way. And there is no reason here to believe that the possibilities and constraints of human understanding advanced in Zhuangzi should be limited only to people in one "culture" and not others.
Bottom line: an assertion that "cultures" are a meaningful category of incommensurability makes no sense from a Zhuangzi-ian point of view.
I could go on but will stop there for now. Perhaps later this week I will continue with some ideas about how Confucianism, in its early guises, would also, though from rather different perspective, press against the idea of inter-cultural incommensurability.