Zhuangzi and the Becoming of Nothingness

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David Chai
SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , January
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David Chai’s Zhuangzi and the Becoming of Nothingness is the publication and revision of his well-informed 2012 dissertation, in which he demonstrates considerable awareness of the continental philosophical tradition and the foundational texts of Daoism. That work, in conjunction with JeeLoo Liu and Doulgas L. Berger’s recent anthology Nothingness in Asian Philosophy (Routledge, 2014), has represent increased interest in the connections between the Western philosophical tradition and Asian traditions regarding the concept of nothingness as a guide in dark places. Previous installments tended to serve up unbalanced approaches, usually with greater competence in the Western concepts, but not the Daoist, or vice-versa. Chai’s apparent grasp of both traditions promises Zhuangzi and the Becoming of Nothingness to be both an adroit comparative analysis and bridge, which has been long overdue.

Chai has devoted this book to a forceful interpretation of the placement of the term wu (nothing/ness) in its relation to Dao, and the implications of this relation within a set of classical (Western) philosophical categories: being, oneness, time, subjectivity, action, and freedom. His interpretation argues that, in short, the location of nothingness to Dao is such that it conditions Dao’s unfolding, but not merely as an entrance that disappears after inception. Rather, nothingness remains a lasting and perpetual force after inception, which the Daoist sage must centrally maintain. Chai’s reading rejects previous attempts to include wu within Dao, to associate wu as Dao, or to privilege qi as the central force of Dao.

To support his reading, Chai emphasizes a specific interpretation of the lengthy and rich history of commentaries on the text of the Zhuangzi, which include various interpretations on this issue. Commentaries span centuries of textual reception and where necessary, Chai gives occasional attention to the contexts in which they arise. The commentaries are conditioned and conditioning, as are the interpretive work itself, and Chai seems fully accepting of this unavoidable complexity, if only to assert his own interpretation with equal weight. As such, the text is an internally systematic explication on wu’s relation to Dao, rather than an exploration of historical and contemporary challenges to this position. Taken strictly in this light, this book is an overwhelming success for those familiar with the Western philosophical frame of his systematic interpretation. Therein lies the problem, however. The problematic nature of this work is that Chai’s hermeneutic approach is entirely grounded in categories of Western philosophical thinking, which are then reworked according to the insights of the Dao, an intermingling of continental and Daoist conceptual horizons that, at once, are informed while also informing.

Chai’s perpetual use of distinctively Western philosophical terminology without a single citation or explication on its origins, meaning, or implications to assist the reader becomes a frustrating signpost that points to nowhere. He offers not an ounce of assistance for grappling with the potential force of his secondary argument regarding connections to the Western philosophical tradition, even though it manifests continually in absentia. From the outset, Chai grounds the discussion of nothingness in continental terminology: ontic, ontological, onto-epistemological, onto-cosmological, onto-phenomenological, transcendentalist, deconstructionist, nihilistic, and meontolgical. A reader with a passing familiarity in Western philosophy of the 20th century will be struck by missing citations, while those unfamiliar will be lost in unclarified terminology. Continental philosophy is polluted with perennial publications regarding the meaning and difference between “ontic” and “ontological,” especially as they occur in Martin Heidegger’s work, but Chai does not offer a single clarification.

Another example of this appears throughout the second chapter, where the author  reveals his interpretation of the persistence of nothingness in the Dao as “trace.” He writes, “things can only provide a fleeting glimpse of the Thing, a glimpse that amounts to little more than a trace” (31). The Heideggerian-[Jacques] Lacanian-[Jacques] Derridian overtones here will shock the reader who does not find a single reference or mention to any of these thinkers, even though both “trace” and “Thing” are used in technical senses that specifically reference their work.

To be clear, Chai has not accidentally stumbled upon a toolkit of concepts which seem like Western philosophical predecessors. The proper attribution to the originators of these concepts all appeared in the dissertation from which the chapters where adapted. In this iteration, however, Chai has merely scrubbed the book clean of all references which might support the comparative task. He removes references to various conceptual anchors that were present in the original, including Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Alain Badiou, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Ricoeur, and Jean-Luc Nancy. This de-historicizing of concepts decenters as it haunts the text, in true Derridian fashion. What is missing really says it all.

Comparative philosophy does not just grapple with issues of Western scholarly dominance, but largely bases its identity in deconstructing exactly that. As such, comparative texts must often spend excessive amounts of time extricating a text like Zhuangzi from unnecessarily Western conceptual frames. Moreover, this extrication is often to the detriment of a fully fleshed presentation of the primary concepts. Since much comparative work intends to unseat dominant Western conceptualizations in order to explore neglected possibilities for thinking, spending too much time in explanation for Western audiences becomes understandably frustrating. Yet, it cannot justifiably be dispensed wholesale in cases where the Western philosophical concepts are the interpretive frame. To do so does not rescue the comparative project from the threat of Western dominance so much as reinforce it. This is even more the case when the author attempts to argue for a forceful interpretation regarding not one, but two territories: the meaning of polysemic Western terminology and the meaning of the Zhuangzi

For these reasons, I would recommend Chai’s Zhuangzi and the Becoming of Nothingness strictly to Daoist scholars intimately familiar with the Western continental philosophical tradition or to continental philosophers with an interest in the intersections with Zhuangzian philosophy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin Rock Lipscomb is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Holy Names University, Oakland.

Date of Review: 
November 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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



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