Meditation XVII, Chuang Tzŭ (4th Century BC) – The Book of Chuang Tzŭ

Chuang Tzŭ dreaming of a butterfly

~ When two people meet, they unconsciously affect one another in ways the mind cannot even begin to comprehend. The meeting may be brief and uneventful with nothing fruitful happening as a result of it. But the die is cast and the wheels of time have turned. The present as we know it is now the past and the future is always just beyond reach. Looking backwards, we see the roads we travelled and everything is fated. Looking forward, we see nothing but mist and mazes.  Nothing happens out of mere coincidence and randomness. No effect is without a cause just as no cause is without an effect. For every action there is a reaction and we find that events of the past are necessary and certain. Our meeting today is inevitable.


Ancient Chinese philosophy is very different from the philosophies of the Ancient Greeks. Due to the political upheaval and the social instability that were predominant in the ending days of the Chou dynasty (mid-eleventh century to 249 BC) before the unification of China by the Ch’in (221-206 BC), Chinese philosophical thought carries very practical characteristics. In contrast to seeking answers over epistemological questions like those seen from the works of Plato and Aristotle, Chinese philosophy is mainly concerned with maintaining political and social order. This includes studying the use of language to assess doctrines and the nature of human beings in order to provide a remedy for political and social problems.

Chuang Tzŭ was a leading Chinese Taoist thinker that is often described of developing a kind or philosophy that includes scepticism and relativism. He maintained that there are no neutral grounds to arbitrate opposing judgements made from different perspectives. The realization of this would lead to one minimizing the importance of social institutions and conventions since the distinctions between what is right and wrong is unclear. As a result, emotional involvements towards such things would lessen and place one in an ideal position to react spontaneously to situations with no preconceived goal or preconceptions of what is right and wrong.

In the Book of Chuang Tzŭ, the Chinese thinker rejects the Confucian insistence on obeying conventional morality and instead holds that man should live life in harmony with the tao (Way) which is regarded as the ‘source’ or ‘sustainer’ of the world. Chuang Tzŭ also proceeds to deny that our everyday judgements amount to knowledge of reality. This view is rather in line with other sceptics like Sextus Empiricus and Michel de Montaigne. However, Chuang Tzŭ like Pyrrho is also hesitant on the ways of denial himself, “then does nothing know anything?” – “How could I know that?”

Chuang Tzŭ was not only famous for being a sceptic. He also questions the role of language in human understanding and hints the presence of linguistic relativism. For Chuang Tzŭ, languages are merely simple instruments that enable human beings to communicate more effectively. There may be, he maintains, differences between what we say and the independent reality that we live in.


The great tao (Way) is not to be named,

the great disagreement is unspoken,

great benevolence is not benevolent,

great modesty is not humble,

great courage is not violent

the Tao that is clear is not the Tao,

speech which enables argument is not worthy,

benevolence which is ever present does not achieve its goal,

modesty if flouted, fails,

courage that is violent is pointless.

~ The Book of Chuang Tzŭ


Of his most famous example of the inability of human beings to gain knowledge is his ‘Butterfly Dream’.


Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzŭ, dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzŭ. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang Tzŭ again. But I cannot tell, had I been Chuang Tzŭ dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Chuang Tzŭ?

~ The Book of Chuang Tzŭ


With stories like the ‘Butterfly Dream’, Chuang Tzŭ contributed the long tradition of Chinese scepticism. In the next Meditation we will examine the sceptic philosophies of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus.

~Ee Suen Zheng

“I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”

~ Chuang Tzŭ

One Response to “Meditation XVII, Chuang Tzŭ (4th Century BC) – The Book of Chuang Tzŭ”
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  1. […] put forth problems like, ‘How do I know I am really awake?’, or ‘Could all reality be a dream?’ Although some of these questions were present in his philosophical framework, Descartes main […]

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