Monday, December 15, 2008

Interlude: Hui Shi along the River Hao

Interlude: Hui Shi along the River Hao

Hui Shi (born 4th century BCE) was a Chinese logician who often appeared in Daoist texts as a sort of Devil’s advocate to the philosophical musings of Zhuangzi. In these two anecdotes, playfully accented by the Collective, a logician’s impulse to both explain and question is well-illustrated. Whenever our lady in gray enters the fray, assume that it is the indulgence of Peregrinus and not part of the original stories.

The sun was high over the courtyard of the King of Liang, and the monarch turned to a visiting client.

“You are acquainted with the thinker, Hui Shi? He once noted that the sun at noon is actually the sun setting. Likewise, in a comment a bit more grim, he said that the thing that has been born is the thing currently dying.”

The client sighed. “Yes, I know the man. Hui Shi is overly fond of analogies. In fact, if you don’t permit Hui Shi to use analogies, he will find himself unable to speak.”

Hearing this, the king decided to test Hui Shi. When he saw Hui Shi the next day, he called him to his side.

“I want you to explain your logic to me, but I want you to speak directly – do not use analogies.”

To this Hui Shi replied, “Suppose there is a man who asks what a dan is. Could we simply say ‘A dan is a dan?’ Would this convey the idea to one who has never encountered this item before?”

“No,” the king replied, “It would not.”

“Well, alright,” Hui Shi continued, “What if we responded ‘A dan is like a bow, but with a string made of bamboo.’ Would that help him picture and understand this new word?”

“Yes,” the king said, “Now that’s something he would understand.”

“Explanations, therefore,” Hui Shi concluded, “involve using what a person already knows to help him understand what he doesn’t. If you say ‘no analogies,’ you cripple the process.”

A gray-robed courtesan overhearing the process respectfully bowed and entered the conversation.

“Dear dialectician,” she purred, “What if the person who does not know your dan likewise does not know a bow?”

“If I was intent to explain a dan via a bow, I would first explain a bow. I could use a stick, or a bending bough of a tree.”

“And if he does not know of such things?”

“Dear lady,” the logician smiled, “I see where your path leads, if you wish to take it further and further back. If such a man exists for whom analogies hold no value, he would be unable to reason. The King asked me to explain logic, and thus reason entered the conversation, with analogy marching in its train.”

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Later that week, the Daoist Zhuangzi was walking with Hui Shi on a bridge over the Hao River. Hui Shi’s dying sun was overhead, and the two had a clear and captivating sight of minnows along the banks.

“Look at the minnows swimming freely!” the Daoist exclaimed, “This is happiness to fish.”

“You are not a fish.” Hui Shi pointed out. “How do you know what makes them happy?”

“You are not me,” Zhuangzi replied, “So how do you know that I don’t know the happiness of fish?”

“You are right,” Hui Shi said, “That I do not know all about you, because I am not you. However, if this is your argument, doesn’t this imply that because you are not a fish, your understanding of their happiness is likewise incomplete?”

“Interesting,” the Daoist replied, “But let’s get back to the first question. When you asked how I knew the fish were happy, you asked me as if assuming I knew it. I knew it from looking above the Hao.”

The Lady in Gray happened to be walking along the bridge, and overhead their talk.

“Dear philosopher,” she said, “Your disciples will likely end the dialogue here as they write their annals. But your answer is incomplete, and can no more address your friend’s question than the minnows here in the Hao can explain their happiness. After all, the logician never argued that the fish were unhappy; he simply noted that your conclusion had no evidence.

“And perhaps,” she continued, “The true question should not be the happiness of fish, but the happiness of man.”

The three turned to watch the minnows in the sparkling water, under the afternoon sun.

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