Psychological Emptiness in Zhuangzi

Psychological Emptiness in the Zhuangzi. Asian Philosophy 18.2 (2008): 123–47

I’m belatedly posting a preprint of this paper, which was initially written for a conference on “Emptiness in Buddhism and Daoism” held at the University of Hong Kong in October 2007. I subsequently presented revised versions of the paper at conferences at the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica, Taipei, and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, both in December 2007. The preprint linked below indicates the pagination of the published version.

Note (2013): A follow-up paper to this one is forthcoming, entitled “Heart-Fasting, Forgetting, and Using the Heart Like a Mirror: Applied Emptiness in the Zhuangzi.


Three views of psychological emptiness, or xū, can be found in the Zhuāngzǐ. The instrumental view values primarily as a means of efficacious action. The moderate view assigns it intrinsic value as an element of one Zhuangist vision of the good life. The radical view also takes it to be an element of the ideal life, but in this case the form of life advocated is that of the Daoist sage, who transcends mundane human concerns to merge with nature or the Dào. The instrumental and moderate views articulate a relatively commonsensical position, on which the agent continues to pursue at least some characteristically human projects. On the radical view, by contrast, the agent ceases to exercise agency and lives a life hardly recognizable as human. The three views thus signal a tension in Zhuangist ethics, and the unattractiveness of the radical view poses a potential obstacle to the application of Daoist ideas in contemporary ethical discourse. The paper argues that there are principled grounds within Zhuangist thought for detaching the instrumental and moderate views from the radical view and rejecting the latter.

A preprint (indicating the journal pagination) is here.