Zhuangzi [Chuang Tzu or Chuang Chou] (c.360 bce) may have written up to seven chapters (The “Inner Chapters”) of The Zhuangzi collection. His technical mastery of ancient Chinese linguistic theory in some of these suggests that Zhuangzi studied and thought deeply about semantics. Thinkers of related but distinct theoretical orientations probably wrote the remaining “Outer Chapters.” Some of the latter expand on but others contradict themes in the Inner Chapters. They typically draw on literary skills and religion more than linguistic philosophy.
The relation between Laozi [Lao Tzu] and Zhuangzi within Taoism is a growing puzzle. The only verifiable intellectual influence on Zhuangzi was Hui Shi (370–319 bce), a language theorist. Zhuangzi had a longstanding friendship with the monist dialectician, and he mourned Hui Shi’s death as depriving him of the person “on whom he sharpened his wits.”
We can view Hui Shi’s linguistic theory best against the background of the Mohists’ linguistic realism. The realists said real-world similarities and differences ground the “picking out” that divides the world into thing-kinds. Hui Shi tried to undermine the Mohist’s semantic proposal by drawing attention to comparatives. Comparatives also mark distinctions, but it is less plausible that the distinctions are in-the-world. Where we draw a comparative contrast is relative to our purpose and point of view. Whether an ant is large or small varies as we compare it with other ants or other animals.
How far back?
2020 | Present