Eric Schwitzgebel on being a knife

The story of the cook  in Chapter 3 of the Zhuangzi is one of the most famous and beautiful in the whole text. The cook has practised butchering oxen so long that he moves effortlessly and without ‘perception and understanding’. This is often read as a celebration of practical skill in opposition to theoretical knowledge.

Eric Schwitzgebel, in a brilliant short provocation, points out that it probably isn’t that simple (link).

After all, Zhuangzi celebrates ‘being useless’, and that is hard to square with cultivating high levels of practical skill. It’s a good point made well.

I would add, though, that it’s always dangerous to ascribe absolute values to Zhuangzi (even if focusing only on the ‘inner’ chapters). If the ideal of effortless skill hardens into a dogma, as it is close to doing on some Western interpretations, then that is far from the spirit of the text; but if the ideal of being useless hardens into dogma, then this is still ‘wearing out your brain trying to make things into one without realizing that they are all the same’.

Now I will wear out my own brain a little. The gap between being useless and the cook’s effortless skill is less than it seems. This, though, reinforces Schwitzgebel’s point.

What is admirable in the cook’s performance is not the quality of meat produced, or amount of steaks cut an hour. It is that it is that, for the cook, ‘perception and understanding have come to a stop’. If his exercise of skill had no practical merit at all, then that might still be true. Perhaps, too, some people lay uselessly under a big tree without perception and understanding. That would also be admirable.

The cook says that he ‘loves the way’. He does not say that he aimed for effortlessness or even that he tried to be a good butcher. He just says he did it a lot for several years. Probably, he had a family to feed and needed the work. This leads close to what I think is one of Schwitzgebel’s underlying points. Promoting effortlessness as an ideal to be attained by years of focused effort is very strange indeed.


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