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The Penumbra Unbound: The Neo-Taoist Philosophy of Guo Xiang (Suny Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture) Paperback – March 17, 2003
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From the Back Cover
"The Penumbra Unbound is the first English language book-length study of the Neo-Taoist thinker Guo Xiang (d. 312 c.e.), commentator on the classic Taoist text, the Zhuangzi. The author explores Guo's philosophy of freedom and spontaneity, explains its coherence and importance, and shows its influence on later Chinese philosophy, particularly Chan Buddhism. The implications of his thought on freedom versus determinism are also considered in comparison to several positions advanced in the history of Western philosophy, notably those of Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer, Fichte, and Hegel. Guo's thought reinterprets the classical pronouncements about the Tao so that it in no way signifies any kind of metaphysical absolute underlying appearances, but rather means literally "nothing." This absence of anything beyond appearances is the first premise in Guo's development of a theory of radical freedom, one in which all phenomenal things are "self-so," creating and transforming themselves without depending on any justification beyond their own temporary being." --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Brook Ziporyn is Assistant Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Northwestern University.
Top customer reviews
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Unlike earlier Taoist authors, Guo was firmly a part of a strict, hierarchical, Confucian society. That gives much of his writing an odd cast. Earlier Taoists seemed quite egalitarian, rating the high or low according to their wisdom in The Way. Guo, among other things, reinforces the status quo by saying it is The Way for some to have much and others to have little - it would be improper to take from the former or to give to the latter. Social rank seems like a force of nature, on a par with gravity.
Guo said lots more, too, but I found it hard to get Guo's words from this book. This is overwhelmingly a philosophical commentary on the text of Guo, not a presentation of that text. As a result, Guo's own words are taken selectively, with little concern for their original order or context. That selectivity supported the modern commmentator's theses well. It will disappoint readers who, like me, mostly want a translation of the original text. The commentary seems well done, but just isn't what I was after.
I'm reviewing this as an amateur enthusiast of Asian classics, not as a serious sinologist or philosopher. I expect other reviewers, with other purposes and expectations, to rate this book very differently.
The first three introductory chapters are themselves worth the price of the book. Ziporyn has a way of bringing fresh insight into the heart of the Daoist project; one never finds the common (and superficial) hackneyed repetition of the “principles” of Daoist philosophy.
Why Guo Xiang’s philosophy does not more immediately interest sinologists today completely escapes me. That it was essentially rejected by subsequent Ruists and Daoists, only testifies to its positively radical character. I wonder if the same might be said of Ziporyn’s work as well, at least in that it is not more widely discussed.
Ziporyn makes clear that Guo often misrepresented parts of the Zhuangzi, but since he took his edition as representing a single voice this was unavoidable, and can often be helpful in demonstrating how those voices themselves diverged from the spirit of Zhuangzi’s philosophy. In any case, whether we completely agree with his interpretation of Zhuangzi or not, much of its more radical elements seem to be a profoundly practical, yet mystical, “next step” in harmony with Zhuangzi.
One does wish for a complete translation of Guo’s commentary for one’s own study and to compare with Ziporyn’s spin, but it is not for us to tell a scholar what work he or she must do.
I would recommend this study as essential to anyone with a desire to better understand Zhuangzi or classical Chinese philosophy generally. It is not an easy read, but this is because Ziporyn always takes us to the edge of what the mind can fathom.
Scott at engagingwithzhuangzi.com
It is however not an easy book to read. The editorial description gives the impression that Ziporyn's study is comparative, but all the Western philosophers listed are largely found in an appendix. Rarely does Ziproyn include them in his text. The mind travels great lengths in Chinese territory with few footfalls to Western references on which to rest, so if you are not accustomed to reading Chinese philosophy, this book could prove to be a bit taxing. Not that Ziporyn's writing is unclear, but the steady stream of Chinese terms and concepts does require additional attentiveness to Chinese thinking and a bridle to Western habits of cognition. If your reading in Taoism is limited to a few choice chapters from the "Daode jing" and the "Butterfly Story" from "Zhuangzi," you may want to spend more time reading in this area before buying Ziporyn's book.
Like other Neo-Taoists, Guo sought to discipline Taoist mysticism with Confucian pragmatics. Guo was clearly enamoured by the "Zhuangzi" and its mystical perspective, but for Guo the exemplar for the sage was Confucius, not Zhuangzi, and consequently a tailoring and reworking of the material became the venue for creating a new Taoist philosophical outlook. This required a lot of effort on Guo's part. How do you wed Confucian social and political concerns with Taoist individualism and quest for "Gaurding the One?" Zhuangzi's famous response to the King of Chu's emmissaries when asked to serve at court has to change from "Get out of here" to "Sure, and I am bringing the mud and turtle with me." ("Zhuangzi," Chapter 17)
Brook Ziporyn does a fine job explaining it all. Guo's cornerstone concept of "lone-transformation" is carefully explored and examined, with its complexities related to metaphysics and harmonizing with others and other things. Ziporyn discusses Guo's shunning of causality and teleology and the espousal of "self-soing" and "vanishing into things" that binds diversity into a unity entirely given to the spontaneous determinancy of every individual thing. He also explores the problems of moral relativism and value judgements created by Guo's demanding individualism. Guo's disdain for intentional volition and what he calls "traces," the traps of cognition that prevent "vanishing into things," is given thorough analysis, and Guo's development of an epistemology of "Darkness," which not only negates the traces, but supplant's Wang-bi's "Non-Being" with a new definition of Tao is examined in detail.
Guo's project of making Zhuangzi sympathetic to Confucius required him to make many twists and turns in developing his philosophy. He is forced to redefine and explain away some of Zhuangzi's less flattering comments on Confucius. Coming to his philosophy can be a daunting task and set the head spinning, but I think Ziporyn does a good job as can be done in following the trail of his thought. The rough road of the Tao has traces, but in revealing them, Ziporyn has made them less seen.