Genuine Pretending

On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi

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Hans-Georg Moeller, Paul J. D’Ambrosio
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , October
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Players of poker engage in an intriguing practice: they veil their genuine selves in an aura of stoic authority. Despite this, the potential for any player to spontaneously become a “wild card” remains very real, though hard to detect. Indeed, we can say that everyone’s life is a wild card of sorts in that we constantly adjust the masks we wear to fit the roles and expectations thrown our way. There is thus a pinch of drollness in how we view ourselves and those around us. Nowhere in the corpus of Chinese thought is satirical humor more apparent than in the ancient Daoist text, the Zhuangzi.

According to Moeller and D’Ambrosio, the Zhuangzi “infuses itself with irony and performatively engages in a mode of genuine pretending: it de-essentializes itself and becomes skillful play. The text, then, operates and enacts genuine pretending” (185). Unlike previous interpretations of the Zhuangzi, Moeller and D’Ambrosio put forth this new, humor-based reading not to override extant approaches but to complement them. They go to great lengths to demonstrate how their methodology stands alongside traditional approaches. To this end, they do not cover all possible instances of what they call “genuine pretending,” but rather highlight some of the key stories in the Zhuangzi so as to show that their “wild card” reading is hermeneutically justified. Such being the case, what exactly is implied by the oxymoron “genuine pretending”? The answer lies in chapter 1 in which Moeller and D’Ambrosio state: “the genuine pretender represents not a quest for self-creation but a quest for self-dissolution” (33). The “genuine pretender” thus “hopes to maintain health and sanity, to survive in difficult times, and, as much as possible, to become a smooth operator cultivating excellence and experiencing pleasure while rambling through life” (34). This assessment of Zhuangzi’s philosophy is largely accurate except for the smooth operator part; Daoists ramble through life, this is true, but they would not see themselves as cultivators of excellence nor as limiting their experiences to pleasure alone.

Chapter 2 is largely concerned with the theme of sincerity as it is employed in the teachings of Confucius, a figure often ridiculed by Zhuangzi for being ignorant of Dao and too self-serving to see his own failings. The remaining two chapters of the book are without doubt its meat-and-bones, so to speak. It is here that Moeller and D’Ambrosio are at their best, and it is here where the reader is presented with examples of Zhuangzi’s wit and skillful parody. What we learn in chapter 3 is that “the first and foremost reaction of the Zhuangzi to an ethics of sincerity is not to promote insincerity instead, or to aim at transforming it into a truer ethics of authenticity; rather, it is to counter, disarm, and subvert the ethics of sincerity through humor” (59). Of the stories examined in chapter 4, Moeller and D’Ambrosio argue that they humorously “discourage readers from all too easily adopting a mode of mere adoration and its accompanying desire for emulation. They create resistance against becoming an all-too-Daoist Daoist. As paradoxical models of skillfulness through disowning skills, the models, too, need to be disowned and emptied out” (162). The conclusion to be had from this is that “genuine pretending is recommended as an antidote to the potentially unhealthy effects of a total commitment to social roles and the feelings of entitlement or non-entitlement—or the hubris and depression—that may come with it” (183).

Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s delightful work will be of interest to anyone interested in learning more about Daoist thought, and the Zhuangzi in particular. A light-hearted work that is expertly researched, Genuine Pretending allows us to saunter amongst its pages as easily as its authors hop and skip through the Zhuangzi. While not a thorough analysis—the authors don’t purport it to be such—Genuine Pretending succeeds in expanding the methodological approaches to reading this most difficult text. A laudable effort indeed!

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Chai is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Date of Review: 
January 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hans-Georg Moeller is professor of philosophy at the University of Macau. His books include The Philosophy of the Daodejing (2006); The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality (2009); and The Radical Luhmann (2011), all from Columbia University Press.

Paul J. D’Ambrosio is assistant professor of Chinese philosophy at East China Normal University, where he serves as dean of the Center for Intercultural Research, Teaching, and Translation. He is the coeditor (with Michael Sandel) of Encountering China: Michael Sandel and Chinese Philosophy (2017).


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