Fall 2021 Colloquium Series - 5 November

November 05, 2021

Chris Fraser, University of Toronto :: A Path with No End: Skill and Dào in Mòzǐ and Zhuāngzǐ
Friday, November 5, 2021

Abstract: How does skill relate to dào, the ethically apt path and its performance? For the Mòzǐ, a key to following dào is to set forth explicit models or standards for guiding and checking performance. By applying the right standards, we develop the skill needed to follow the dào reliably, just as a carpenter uses a set square as a standard to develop the skill of producing square corners. Following dào—and thus pursuing the ethical life—is strongly analogous to the performance of skills.

The Zhuāngzǐ presents a sharply contrasting stance. Consider the famous story about a skillful butcher who carves up oxen as smoothly and elegantly as if dancing along with a symphony. Praised for his skill, the butcher responds that what he cares about is dào, which is ‘advanced beyond skill’. The ensuing discussion implies that the process of acquiring, performing, and extending skills exemplifies dào, yet there is something more to dào than skill. What is this something more? On a “Zhuangist” view, a key difference between skill and dào, I propose, is that dào has no fixed, predetermined ends. Dào is a general, open-ended process, one that is continually shifting and transforming. Unlike fixed skills, we never fully master dào, nor do we even know exactly where it will lead, as the nature of dào is such that we must regularly find creative ways of extending it as we proceed along it.

Here a problem arises. The butcher and other skill exemplars make it clear that a distinction obtains between adept and poor performance of dào. But if dào has no fixed ends, by what criteria can we distinguish more from less fitting paths and more from less adroit ways of pursuing them? A plausible answer, I propose, is that particular contexts themselves yield provisional grounds for such evaluations. These grounds can then be revised or replaced in response to developing circumstances and continuing performance of dào. The resulting approach to understanding and living the good life, I will suggest, can informatively be labeled an ethics of dào and dé (virtue), referring to the path we follow and the capacities by which we follow it.

Talk will be held at the Burnaby Campus in room WMC 3260 from 3:30 - 5:00 p.m. 

Please note that attendance is restricted to SFU students, faculty, and staff.

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