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What [the] Fish [do we] Know

By Billy | March 13, 2011

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Zhuangzi said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please!  That’s what fish really enjoy!”

Huizi said, “You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?”

Zhuangzi said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

Huizi said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know.  On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”

Zhuangzi said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please.  You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question.  I know it by standing here beside the Hao.”

(From The Zhuangzi: Section 17, Autumn Floods.  Translated by Burton Watson)

The wit in this passage is three-fold.

Firstly, it is simple and sharp focused all on the punch line.  I know what fish like, despite however much thinking and reasoning you can do, because I observe it.  I don’t even really care if I’m right, because I am right as far as I care.  It’s fish we’re talking about — knowing what makes them happy doesn’t really matter at all in the grand scheme of things.  I’m not better or worse for believing one way or the other about their happiness.  That seems to be a common Taoist slap-in-the-face/tip-over-your-tea-cup lesson.

For the second layer, we have to tease apart the story going backwards.  Huizi fell into a linguistical trap when he asked, “how do you know…?” The question implies that Zhuangzi, definitely and factually does know.  It’s a little campy, even, but is magnified by Zhuangzi’s next point.

The third piece is something Huizi was unaware of at the start of the dialog: he knew that Zhuangzi knew.  In fact, he knew Zhuangzi knew about fish to the exact same extend that he, himself, knew about Zhuangzi’s knowledge.  This is surprising because Huizi thought he knew the exact opposite about Zhuangzi; he thought he knew Zhuangzi didn’t know anything about fish happiness.   Because Zhuangzi chose to know about what makes fish happy, Huizi made a leap and chose to know Zhuangzi’s inner workings.

This last piece is determined by Huizi’s interpretation of the discussion.  Zhuangzi asks, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?” and in doing so is admitting (by his own linguistics-based argument) that Huizi correctly asserts that Zhuangzi doesn’t know what fish enjoy.  When Huizi asks, “how do you know…?,” and when Zhuangzi asks, “how do you know…?,” they are both asserting the other does, in fact, actually know.  (Huizi asserts that Zhuangzi doesn’t know what fish enjoy, Zhuangzi asserts that Huizi knows that he [Zhuangzi] doesn’t know what fish enjoy)

The correctness of who-knows-what is not finished being determined yet!

Huizi yields to Zhuangzi after a few clever words are exchanged, and in doing so, Huizi no longer knows that Zhuangzi doesn’t know what fish enjoy.  When Huizi stops believing that he ‘knows Zhuangzi doesn’t know what fish enjoy,’ he no longer knows Zhuangzi doesn’t know what fish enjoy.  He’s allowed for Zhuangzi to know, and now there are no conflicting knowns, and Zhuangzi can contentedly and uninterruptedly enjoy the fish truly enjoying their time in the Hao.

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