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February 18, 2014

Sam Goldstein



Final Paper

A Philosophical Conversation:

Wittgenstein and Zhuangzi


Wittgenstein is a challenging philosopher to understand. Zhuangzi is also a challenging philosopher to understand. This will not be an attempt to construct a new philosophical argument. It will not be an attempt to enter into the pre-existing arguments in the fields of philosophy of language, a field which I am drastically under-qualified to say much of anything about. This will be modest. This philosophy paper will attempt to put Wittgenstein and Zhuangzi in conversation with each other, as they present themselves in the Philosophical Investigations and the Inner Chapters respectively. Luckily (in my mind), I don’t think anyone has attempted to do this specific comparison before. This perhaps gives me some reckless freedom to say what I want to say. This comparative reading will utilize the two texts as they are, and argue from there; in this sense it is a philosophical exercise.

In comparing these two, I hope to present a positive argument for Zhuangzi not only as a philosopher, but also as a philosopher of language. I will take Wittgenstein as an exemplary philosopher of language, and present what I construe as Zhuangzi’s argumentative techniques and philosophy of language so that the two may be compared. I will show that in some respects, the two are quite congruent, but where they are distanced from each other is in terms of what their arguments attempt to achieve. Zhuangzi was not only a philosopher but also a social critic and his linguistic arguments are intertwined with his social arguments. Wittgenstein maintained a narrower focus on the philosophy of language in his Investigations.

Wittgenstein is a famous modern Western philosopher. He presented his Investigations in the context of philosophy of language discussions taking place in European institutions like Cambridge in the 30s and 40s. These discussions included his own previous work, the Tractatus. Specifically, as Wittgenstein puts it in his own words, the purpose of the Investigations was to “publish those old thoughts and the new ones together; that the latter could be seen in the right light only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking.”(Preface vi) Essentially, Wittgenstein was writing in the context of his own previous argument. His arguments are complex. He utilizes multiple voices, sometimes speaking as the naïve questioner, and sometimes speaking as the arguer making a firm point. Here we can see how he shifts voices:

198. “But how can a rule shew me that what I have to do at this point? Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule.”—That is not what we ought to say, but rather: any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.

“Then can whatever I do be brought into accord with the rule?”—Let me ask this: what has the expression of a rule—say a sign-post—got to do with my actions? What sort of connexion is there here?—Well, perhaps this one: I have been trained to react to this sign in a particular way, and now I do so react to it.

(Wittgenstein 80)


Zhuangzi (369-286 BCE) is a famous Chinese philosopher from the later Warring States period in Chinese history. Unlike his fellow Daoist Laozi, Zhuangzi at least can be purported to have been an actual individual. Zhuangzi’s Inner Chapters are the section of the canonical work attributed to him that scholars agree is of consistent authorship and most authentically his. He lived and wrote at a time in Chinese history in which debate that one might call philosophical, but might also be called political or social, was quite active among the upper echelons of literate Chinese society. The dominant ideologies of the Confucians were being challenged left and right. Zhuangzi’s thought can thus be seen in the context of these discussions. Generally speaking, he argued against Confucians and elitist Confucian principles, taking a more transcendental, personal view of social life. He utilized personifications and spoke in different voices to make his abstract, paradoxical, and often sarcastic points. Here is an example of how he took on multiple voices:

5:12 There was an ex-con in Lu, named Toeless Shushan, whose feet had been mutilated as a punishment. He heeled his way over to Confucius, who said to him, “You were careless in your past behavior and thus have ended up in this condition. Isn’t it a little late to come to me now?”

Toeless said, “I just didn’t understand my duties and undervalued my own body, and so I now lack a foot, but I come to you with something worth more than a foot still intact. Heaven covers all things. Earth supports all things. I used to thing that you, Sir, were just like Heaven and earth—I never imagined you would instead say something like this!”

…Toeless told Lao Dan (Laozi) about it, saying, “Confucius is certainly no match for the Consummate Person, is he?…

Lao Dan said, “Why don’t you simply let him see life and death as a single string, acceptable and unacceptable as a single thread, thus releasing him from his fetters?…

Toeless said, “Heaven itself has inflicted this punishment on him—how can he be released?”

(Ziporyn 35)


Here we see Zhuangzi taking on three distinct voices, notably the voices of Confucius and Laozi. Through his personifications, Zhuangzi essentially argues with himself. This point can be made because it has been established that the author of the Inner Chapters is a consistent individual. We can clearly see his positive view of Laozi and his negative view of Confucius. I would argue that this argumentative technique is similar to that presented by Wittgenstein. Zhuangzi is using the voices of established (and dead) thinkers to argue against one kind of philosophical and social establishment and in favor of his own view, as personified by Laozi. Wittgenstein of the Investigations argues with himself, often his Tractatus self. In so doing, he supports his new view, while rejecting his old views.

One potentially devastating line of argument presents Zhuangzi not as a philosopher at all in the Western sense. After all, the Western notion of philosophy developed in an entirely independent context. Another devastating line of argument may accept the possibility of an Eastern kind of philosophy, but would portray Zhuangzi not as a philosopher, but as a social or political critic. I would reject these notions on the basis that they are overly limiting. Zhuangzi simply doesn’t fit a single conceptual mold. Zhuangzi is hard to classify, but my job here is to strengthen the argument for Zhuangzi as a philosopher of language, not mutually exclusive of the other readings or classifications that he may justifiably maintain concurrently. Let us take a look at an especially relevant passage:

2:11-14 to claim that there are any such things as “right” or “wrong” before they come to be fully formed in someone’s mind this way—that is like saying you left for Yue today and arrived there yesterday. This is to regard the nonexistent as existent…

But human speech is not just a blowing of air. Speech has something of which it speaks, something it refers to.” Yes, but what it refers to is peculiarly unfixed. So is there really anything it refers to? Or has nothing ever been referred to? You take it to be different from the chirping of baby birds. But us there really any difference between them? Or is there no difference? Is there any dispute, or is there no dispute? Anything demonstrated, or nothing demonstrated?

(Ziporyn 11)


On the flip side, we can at least say with confidence that Wittgenstein was a philosopher, and that moreover, he was a philosopher of language. But was he anything more (other than a kindergarten teacher)? It’s hard to attribute much more to him in my opinion, especially if we are just going based on the Investigations. But if I want to imagine a conversation between Zhuangzi and Wittgenstein I feel compelled to imagine whether or not Wittgenstein hoped to achieve some broader social or even spiritual goals through his arguments. I just don’t see much evidence for this. Sometimes he is a very explicit philosopher:

116. When philosophers use a word—“knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, “proposition”, “name”—and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home?—What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

(Wittgenstein 49)


Here we can see Wittgenstein both taking the position of a philosopher, and putting his argument in the context of philosophical debate. In the Zhuangzi passage, we see him directly reference spoken language and making a point about reference that is seems extremely correlative with a view on which words are arbitrary signifiers for their referents.

At the very least, it appears that both Zhuangzi and Wittgenstein had something philosophical to say. I’ll argue that Zhuangzi even maintained a succinct and identifiable philosophy of language. Here are some of the “tenets” of his philosophy of language as I perceive them:

  • Speech has something of which it speaks, something it refers to. (11)
  • Words are obscured by the ostentatious blossoms of reputation that come with them. (11)
  • Something is affirmative because someone affirms it. Something is negative because someone negates it. (13)
  • It is not only the physical body that can be blind and deaf; the faculty of understanding can also be so. (7)


Wittgenstein’s concepts of “language game” as well as “private language” are very comparable to Zhuangzi’s views. For example, we can see how Wittgenstein’s concept of rules is similar to Zhuangzi’s points:

142. if things were quite different form what they actually are—if for instance there were no characteristic expression of pain, of fear, of joy; if rule became exception and exception rule or if both became phenomena of roughly equal frequency—this would make our normal language games lose their point.

(Wittgenstein 56)


We can also see how his idea of “private language” is also comparable to Zhuangzi’s points:

269. there are certain criteria in a man’s behavior for the fact that he does not understand a word: that it means nothing to him, that he can do nothing with it. And criteria for his ‘thinking he understands’, attaching some meaning to the word, but not the right one. And, lastly, criteria for his understanding the word right. In the second case one might speak of a subjective understanding. And sounds which no one else understands but which ‘appear to understand’ might be called a “private language”.

(Wittgenstein 94)


I have presented some rudimentary evidence showing how Zhuangzi and Wittgenstein are comparable philosophers of language. However, to conclude, I want to point out the main contradiction I see between the two. Recalling one of my previously quoted Zhuangzi passages,  “to claim that there are any such things as “right” or “wrong” before they come to be fully formed in someone’s mind this way—that is like saying you left for Yue today and arrived there yesterday. This is to regard the nonexistent as existent”. This passage leads into an explicit introduction of language philosophy. But the passage itself refers to “right” and “wrong”. This shows how Zhuangzi emphasizes questions of morality. He does this consistently, and in his overall argument, he presents anecdotes and paradoxes meant to comment on and satire the social and political situation around him. Wittgenstein does not do this, obviously. To end without really ending, I want to point out that Zhuangzi is also highly concerned with existentialism, metaphysics, and mysticism. I see plenty of possible metaphysical thought within the Investigations, and I see Wittgenstein’s metaphysics and its comparison to Chinese Daoism and Buddhism as a point for future contemplation.


Works Cited:

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Third Ed. Prentice Hall, 1958.

Ziporyn, Brook (trans.). Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings. Hackett, 2009.




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