What is It is also Other (Or So Chuang-Tzu Tells Me…): Questioning Common Sense and Ideology (23 Oct. 2015)

What is It is also Other, what is Other is also it.  There they say ‘That’s it, that’s not’ from one point of view, here we say ‘That’s it, that’s not’ from another point of view.  Are there really It and Other?  Or really no It and Other? Where neither It nor Other finds its opposite is called the axis of the Way.  When once the axis is found at the centre of the circle there is no limit to responding with either, on the one hand no limit to what is it, on the other no limit to what is not. –– Chuang-Tzu, The Inner Chapters

At first, it might seem to you that what Chuang-Tzu means is deliberately incomprehensible, that perhaps the repetitive rhetorical questions and the deliberate unclear antecedents “It” and “Other” are meant to be nonsensical in the strictest meaning of that word––“non” “sense.”  How can what we deem “It” also be “Other” when the terms themselves indicate a separation? Unless that “it” is infinity itself, then how can it have no limits? For the few people who encounter this text in the West, what Chuang-Tzu proposes is frankly impossible, undoubtedly preposterous because it precisely defies what we “know” to be true: “It” and “Other” are separate entities––a dog is not a cat by virtue of its definition.  What can be simpler? It’s common sense!

The reason why first-time readers of The Inner Chapters are so frustrated with its zany circumlocutions is precisely because it specifically undermines the very idea of “common sense.”  The point of the passage is that what we deem a “dog” or “cat” has nothing to do with essential reality––they are merely names we give things in the world around us in order to make sense of them, something we are apparently only capable of doing through categorization (i.e., could we not have decided to call the “dog,” “cat,” or even “hamster”?).  The confusion that is engendered in the reader is deliberate because it both underscores and undermines our tendency to analyze, categorize, and thus delineate what is “It” and what is “Other”––what is a dog vs. what is a cat.  For Taoists, this “common sense” gesture is actually what defies a fundamental truth about the world for anyone willing to listen:  “It” and “Other” are merely names; in reality, “It” and “Other” belong to the same––the Way––which encompasses everything, even you and me.[1]

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Behold “The Way”

Thousands of years before Ferdinand de Saussure and his theory of “structuralism,” Chuang-Tzu theorized, in religious terms, what critical theorists now accept as fundamentally true about our “knowledge” of the world:  that, in fact, what something “is” is not fundamentally true, but merely a construct.  Saussure’s theory itself is actually far more complicated and nuanced, as are the theories of the critical theorists who came after him, but ever since I first took an introductory course in both East Asian philosophy and Critical Theory, I have always understood the basic message of both critical theory and Taoism to be the same, even if different in their ultimate conclusions:  that when it comes to assumptions about the world, especially ones that sanction our treatment of ourselves and other human beings, what I or anybody else “knows” is never anything that can be deemed undeniably true, but in fact is always a matter of perspective––perspectives that themselves are always inextricably tied to ideology.

Let me explain.

Many people have either given or received advice rooted in so-called “common sense.”  In my own middle-class, suburban American upbringing, such advice might include, for example, “Always read instructions carefully, especially when assembling your pricey bookshelf from Target with a hammer and tiny nails that apparently cannot be removed once set in place.” or “Don’t buy episodes of a TV show off Amazon if you can find it on Netflix for free…especially if that show is Girls post-2nd season and Marnie’s hot boyfriend is no longer part of the cast…” But while this kind of common sense advice is innocuous and useful (for the most part), the problem is that oftentimes “common sense” is a notion unconsciously used in order to lend a statement an air of indisputability that, in certain contexts, can sometimes lead to more troubling assumptions.

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#MillenialIdeology

Take, for example, a recent interview between Donald Trump and Michael Savage in which they condemn the “corrupt” scientists concocting “fake global warming research” and America’s lack of “real science and real medicine” as a result of “fake” climate change propaganda.  In response to Savage’s sincere offer to direct the National Institute of Health when Trump inevitably becomes president, Trump quips that we’d “get common sense” if that were to happen as opposed to what the NIH and environmentalists apparently are––nonsensical, sleazy, downright liars.

Or take, as another example, the kind of “common sense” advice proliferated by the 10 billion dollar-per-year self-help industry. In the few remaining book stores across the country, a sizeable self-help section can be found, but more common today, for this millennial at least, are the articles encountered online on a daily basis offering between 12 to 17 ways you can improve your life from healthy eating all the way to figuring out which small pet is right for you as a poor graduate student (Answer is, apparently, a guinea pig).  Articles abound on the internet with get rich quick schemes for your well-being––“6 Common Sense Tips To Immediately Improve Your Life,” for example, which claims, like many internet motivational memes, that “[y]ou can do anything with your life” so long as you dedicate yourself to your aspirations.  Moreover, the truly dedicated understand that “[i]f you want a better paid job you have to put in the effort to find another.” This indeed is common sense that we are all familiar with––“you won’t know until you try,” as the adage goes––however, underlying its assumptions is an ideological belief in an upward mobility achievable by hard work and grit alone.  All obstacles can be overcome and it is up to the individual to make it happen. It is, as another adage goes, “No one’s fault but your own.”

Such articles could be seen as fairly innocent pabulum for procrastinators everywhere, and we can probably dismiss Trump’s statement as innocuous insofar as it is merely stupid, but to dismiss either of them as simply trivial would be to rely on a “common sense” of one’s own, given that the notion of “common sense” essentially argues “that’s just the way things are”––that is to say, the attitude becomes one of “Oh well! Trump will always be Trump, and the Internet, the Internet!” The danger in dismissal, however, is that it misses an opportunity to launch a critique of the ideologies produced as “common sense” knowledge. As Louis Althusser famously theorized, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects,” (Lenin 115) by which he means that we, as “subjects,” have an identity or a “sense of self” that is formed by the workings of ideology––ideology that is always present at the very moment language appears to delineate and mark “That’s It” from “That’s Not.”  What this means is that what we deem as “common sense” is really a construct not only on the level of words––dog vs. cat–– but also at the level of ideas or beliefs.

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The lesson here is really quite simple and one that is no doubt familiar to anyone who has gotten a humanities degree, especially at the graduate level: always interrogate and investigate the assumptions undergirding what is often hailed as “common sense” or as undeniably “true.” But this is obviously not an activity that happens everywhere across all campuses nationwide.  I am always surprised every semester by how many of my students have never even heard of the word “ideology,” and some who tend to think that the explanation “because it doesn’t make sense to me” is a valid critical response.  Even more concerning is when students insist that cultural values do not need to be interrogated because “everyone has their own opinion and can think what they want to think”––a statement often praised as espousing a cosmopolitan, multiculturalist attitude, if it weren’t for the crucial fact that these comments are most common in my classroom when talking about issues of race, discrimination, and systemic oppressions, revealing sympathies in line with a cultural logic scholars in critical race studies have termed “color blindness”. There are very real consequences to our perceptions of the world––whether we think, for example, “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.” For my students or anyone to so easily insist that perceptions are harmless or relative is thus obviously worrying.

While the tendency for my students to rely on common sense explanations or relativist perceptions could be cause for consternation on my part (and theirs), in the classroom, I often find comfort in Chuang-Tzu’s saying that “on the one hand [there is] no limit to what is it, on the other no limit to what is not.”  It expresses the limitless potential and possibilities of multiple perceptions.  That’s not to say that all those perceptions are all equally valid, of course, especially when it comes to people’s lives–– a matter Chuang-Tzu doesn’t take on in that quotation above.  Yet a the end of the day, By taking apart “That’s It” and “That’s Not,” the hope is always that a “Way” will be found.  For me, however, it is not an axis that I want to arrive at with my students, but rather an arrow pointing forward.

[1] It should be noted that this Taoist position obviously relies on a common sense notion of its own––“The Way” that is also “Truth”––and it is at this point I should point out that contemporary critical theory drastically differs in its theoretical principles with “Truth” always being regarded with skepticism and by necessity, when employed, as in service of some ideological agenda.  At the same time however, I would add that the very position that all “Truth” is either relative or manipulated is a truth claim of its own and thus, as such, cannot be exonerated of its own ideological assumptions.  It sometimes seems as though those who are quickest to say all truth is relative––end stop––are the ones who believe the exact opposite.


Liana Willis is a second-year English M.A. student genuinely interested in all branches of critical theory, but in particular traditional Marxist and neo-Marxist cultural materialisms.  When not teaching, reading, consulting, or writing, she can be found somewhere nearby discreetly practicing yoga asanas and wishing she could be sleeping right now.

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One comment

  1. Zhuangzi may have found it paradoxical to use words to demonstrate the useless (or rather obstructiveness) of words. I definitely struggled with the first of the Inner Chapters.

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