Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and the Paradoxical Nature of Education. Journal of Chinese Philosophy 33.4 (2006): 529–42.

This article is a revised version of a paper presented at “Educations and Their Purposes: A Philosophical Dialogue Among Cultures,” Ninth East-West Philosophers’ Conference, May 29–June 11, 2005, University of Hawai’i. I'm belatedly posting it here because I want to make it more easily available to readers. I've included the original extended abstract below.

Download paper here.

Abstract: Education is paradoxical, in two respects. On the one hand, learning itself limits learning: at the same time that education opens up ways of experiencing, understanding, and acting, it also closes them off. Education shapes the cognitive and physiological capacities and dispositions through which we experience, understand, and cope with the world. But the process of developing these capacities and dispositions inevitably closes off alternative ways of dealing with things. On the other hand, education is also paradoxical in a constructive sense: an effective education will be one that ameliorates the limitations of education itself. The best education is thus one that trains us to remain perpetually incompletely educated, and thereby open to further learning.

The Daoism of the Zhuangzi, I argue, recognizes the limitations and potential dangers of education, offers a novel theoretical diagnosis, and incorporates the constructive response just sketched into its normative vision. The Zhuangist stance on education is largely compelling, I suggest, and it captures aspects of practical wisdom essential to human flourishing.

The first half of this paper examines Xunzi’s philosophy of education, which serves as an interesting foil for the Zhuangzi. Education plays a central role in Xunzi’s ethics and he clearly recognizes the limitations of education. In his theory of cognitive error, a major cause of misjudgment is bias or “blinkering” due to one-sided education or application of what one has learned. Yet ultimately Xunzi himself succumbs to just the sort of one-sidedness he decries in others, when he insists that the practices of the ancient sage kings provide unchanging, uniquely correct norms of social interaction.

The Zhuangist diagnosis of the limiting nature of education is based on two ideas. First, any process or state of completion or achievement, including education, is at the same time one of damage or injury, since the completion of any one alternative necessarily rules out the possibility of completing others. Second, the cognitive and evaluative distinctions that guide judgment and action are not fixed by the world in itself. They are instituted by the agent’s distinction-drawing activity, and they can be drawn in indefinitely many ways. These two theses entail that the agent’s education into, and thus completion or formation of, one scheme of guiding distinctions is at the same time a process of damage to other potential schemes. Hence education is a process of completion, yet also one of damage. It initiates the agent into a way of judging and acting, but at the same time limits her from employing other possible ways.

The Zhuangist response to the limitations of education is based on a metaethical thesis and a set of normative arguments. The metaethical thesis is that there exist a plurality of schemes of distinctions by which we can guide thought and action in different situations. The normative arguments call attention to the ethical and prudential grounds for valuing the capacity to shift among such schemes. Such shifts might be prudentially justified by their effectiveness in reducing frustration and satisfying the agent’s needs, or they might be ethically justified because they enable us to find ways to live in harmony with others. Completion and damage are unavoidable, but we can in effect minimize the damage by judiciously shifting among a plurality of schemes of distinctions. The ability to recognize and apply these points constitutes a distinctive Daoist form of practical wisdom.