The Zhuangzi and Skepticism

Author: Julianne Chung (University of Louisville)

The Zhuangzi(Wade-Giles: Chuang-tzu) is one of two foundational Daoist texts (alongside the Laozi, orDaodejing). It is widely considered to have been composed (at least in large part) by a Chinese philosopher of the same name in the late 4th century BCE.

Chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi,the Qiwulun, can be read and taught on its own.  Like other parts of the book, this chapter articulates and appears to advocate a variety of skeptical positions but also a number of positive claims that are seemingly inconsistent with them. Commentators have sought to resolve these tensions by claiming:

  • that Zhuangzi’s skepticism is more limited than many have been inclined to think (cf. Graham 1983, Eno 1996, Fraser 2009, and Sturgeon 2015),
  • that Zhuangzi is a relativist, pluralist, or perspectivist rather than a skeptic (cf. Hansen 1983, Wong 1984, Mou 2008 and 2015a, and Connolly 2011),
  • that Zhuangzi’s skepticism is better construed as a recommendation, method, or therapy rather than a thesis (cf. Kjellberg 1996, Ivanhoe 1996, Raphals 1996, Van Norden 1996, and Wong 2005),
  • that Zhuangzi does not sincerely advocate radically skeptical positions, despite appearances to the contrary (cf. Schwitzgebel 1996),
  • and that Zhuangzi can be interpreted as both a global skeptic and fictionalist (Chung forthcoming).

The Zhuangziworks well in dialogue with discussions of both classical and contemporary skeptical arguments.  Historical figures discussed in connection with Zhuangzi include Sextus Empiricus (cf. Kjellberg 1996), Nāgārjuna (cf. Loy 1996), Nietzsche (cf. Allinson 1986, Shang 2006, and Connolly 2011), and Wittgenstein (cf. Allinson 2007 and Møllgaard 2007). The connections with Wittgenstein and Nietzsche may be especially fruitful; like many of their works, the Zhuangzicontains strong prima faciearguments, interesting categorizations, and pregnant examples, but is not written in a standard expository style and includes suggestions that may subject it to fatal self-referential paradoxes.

The Zhuangzialso arguably discusses instances of four of the most powerful types of skeptical arguments explored in recent Anglo-analytic discourse:

  • Arguments from skeptical hypotheses, which call claims to know into question by employing specific skeptical scenarios—incompatible with those claims—that supposedly cannot be ruled out.
  • Arguments from regress, which aim to demonstrate that claims to know rely on unverified assumptions that would have to be independently verified (threatening to result in an infinite regress).
  • Arguments from circularity, which aim to demonstrate that we cannot substantiate claims to know in a non-viciously circular fashion.
  • Arguments from the nature of language or concepts, which aim to demonstrate that language or concepts cannot be trusted to either ascertain or express truth.

Thus, the Zhuangzican be brought into constructive conversation with such debates in contemporary discourse. (For additional detail, see Chung 2017.)


Secondary Sources
Works Cited
Compare/contrast with


Graham, A.C. 2001. Chuang-Tzŭ: The Inner Chapters(UK ed. edition)  (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett).This abridged translation and its accompanying commentary are exceptionally philosophically rich.

Watson, B. 2003. Zhuangzi: The Basic Writings(Columbia University Press).This abridged translation is the most widely read and readable out of the four recommended here and is highly affordable.

Watson, B. 2013. The Complete Works of Zhuangzi(Columbia University Press).This translation is both more comprehensive and more expensive than abridged versions.

Ziporyn, B. 2009. Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings(Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett).This abridged translation and its associated commentary are excellent, if less widely read and cited than the Watson and Graham versions at present. The book also includes excellent notes by the translator and translations of selected traditional commentaries.

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Secondary Sources

Chung, J. “Is Zhuangzi a Fictionalist?” forthcoming (Philosophers’ Imprint) and 2017, “Taking Skepticism Seriously: How the ZhuangziCan Inform Contemporary Epistemology,” Comparative Philosophy8(2): 3-29.These papers explicitly bring the Zhuangzi(and especially the Qiwulun) into dialogue with a number of issues and debates in contemporary Anglo-analytic philosophical discourse, particularly concerning fictionalism, skepticism, and how we can learn from the arts.

Cook, S. (ed.) Hiding the World in the World: Uneven Discourses on the Zhuangzi(New York: SUNY Press), 2003. This anthology presents an exceptionally wide-ranging variety of differing perspectives on the philosophy of the Zhuangzi.

Kjellberg, P. and P .J. Ivanhoe (eds.) 1996. Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (New York: SUNY Press).This anthology includes papers that explore the connection between the Zhuangzi(and especially the Qiwulun) and a variety of historical sources, including Sextus Empiricus, Xunzi, Plato, Nāgārjuna, and Derrida, as well as a variety of issues and debates in classical to contemporary European-influenced philosophy in particular.

Mair, V. (ed.) Experimental Essays on Zhuangzi. 2010 (Three Pines). (Originally published as Experimental Essays in the Chuang-tzuin 1983, although the more recent version includes several new additions.)This anthology contains a variety of interesting and accessible papers pertinent to the ideas explored in the Qiwulun, as well as the Zhuangzimore broadly, even beyond the so-called “inner chapters”.

Wu, Kuang-Ming. 1990. The Butterfly as Companion: Meditations on the First Three Chapters of the Chuang-Tzu(New York: SUNY Press).This book, by a Chinese scholar, comprises a detailed exploration of the poetic beauty, philosophical insights, and unity of the first three chapters of the Zhuangzi, and connects them throughout to discussions that occur elsewhere in both Asian and European-influenced philosophy.

Ziporyn, B. Supplemental material and additional commentary on selected sections in the Zhuangzi by Brook Ziporyn.

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Works Cited

Allinson, R. 1986. “Having your cake and eating it, too: Evaluation and trans-evaluation in Chuang Tzu and Nietzsche,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy13(4): 429-443.

Allinson, R. 2007. “Wittgenstein, Lao Tzŭ and Chuang Tzu: The art of circumlocution,” Asian Philosophy17(1): 97-108.

Chung, J. Forthcoming. “Is Zhuangzi a Fictionalist?” Philosophers’ Imprint

Chung, J. 2017. “Taking Skepticism Seriously: How the Zhuang-ZiCan Inform Contemporary Epistemology,” Comparative Philosophy8(2): 3-29.

Connolly, T. 2011. “Perspectivism as a Way of Knowing in the Zhuangzi,Dao10(4): 487-505.

D’Ambrosio, P. and H.G. Moeller. 2017. Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi. (Columbia University Press)

Eno, R. 1996. “Cook Ding’s Dao and the Limits of Philosophy,” in P. Kjellberg and P.J. Ivanhoe (eds.) Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi. New York: SUNY Press, 127-151

Fraser, C. 2009. “Skepticism and Value in the Zhuangzi,” in International Philosophical Quarterly49(4): 439-457.

Hansen, C. 1983. “A Tao of ‘Tao’ in Chuang-Tzu,” in V. Mair (ed.), Experimental Essays on

Chuang-Tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press), 24-55.

Hansen, C. 2014. “Zhuangzi,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <;.

Ivanhoe, P .J. 1996. “Introduction,” in P . Kjellberg and P .J. Ivanhoe (eds.) Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (New York: SUNY Press), iii-xx.

Ivanhoe, P.J. 1996. “Was Zhuangzi a Relativist?” in P. Kjellberg and P.J. Ivanhoe (eds.) Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (New York: SUNY Press), 196-214.

Kjellberg, P. 1996. “Sextus Empiricus, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi,” in P. Kjellberg and P.J. Ivanhoe (eds.) Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (New York: SUNY Press), 1-25.

Loy, D. 1996. “Zhuangzi and Nāgārjuna on the Truth of No Truth,” in P. Kjellberg and P.J. Ivanhoe (eds.), Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (New York: SUNY Press), 50-67.

Møllgaard, E. 2007. An Introduction to Daoist Thought(Routledge: London)

Mou, B. 2007. “Searle, Zhuang-Zi and Transcendental Perspectivism,” in B. Mou (ed.), Searle’s Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy: Constructive Engagement(Leiden/Boston: Brill), 405-430.

Mou, B. 2015. “Quine’s Naturalized Epistemology and Zhuangzi’s Daoist Naturalism: How Their Constructive Engagement is Possible,” in B. Bruya (ed.) The Philosophical Challenge from China(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press)

Raphals, L. 1996. “Skeptical Strategies in the Zhuangziand the Theaetetus,” in P. Kjellberg and P.J. Ivanhoe (eds.), Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (New York: SUNY Press), 26-49.

Schwitzgebel, E. 1996. “Zhuangzi’s Attitude Toward Language and his Skepticism,” in P. Kjellberg and P.J. Ivanhoe (eds.), Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (New York: SUNY Press), 68-96.

Shang, G. 2006. Liberation as Affirmation: The Religiosity of Zhuangzi and Nietzsche(New York: SUNY Press)

Slingerland, E. 1998. Effortless Action: Wu-weiAs Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China(second edition) (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Sturgeon, D. 2015. “Zhuangzi, Perspectives, and Greater Knowledge,”Philosophy East and West65(3): 892-917.

Van Norden, B. 1996. “Competing Interpretations of the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi,” Philosophy East and West46(2): 247-268.

Wu, K. 1990. The Butterfly as Companion: Meditations on the First Three Chapters of the Chuang-Tzu (New York: SUNY Press)

Wong, D. 1984. Moral Relativity(Berkeley: University of California Press)

Wong, D. 2005. “Zhuangzi and the Obsession with Being Right,” History of PhilosophyQuarterly, 22(2): 91-107.

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Compare/contrast with

  • Ancient and modern to contemporary discussants of skepticism, especially Sextus Empiricus, Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.

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