Thought Itself

The History of Philosophy, Logic & The Mind with Eric Gerlach



Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Peng Bird & Zhuangzi

Johnathan_Livingston_SeagullMy parents had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull on the shelf when I was a small child, but like their copy of the Dao De Jing, I couldn’t make much out of it then.  Now that I have studied and taught Asian philosophy, I can see connections to many points made by the Daoist Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher.

As the book opens, Jonathan practices slow flying by himself for no reason other than for the love of flying.  He falters and falls, which is a disgrace for seagulls, who only fly for the purpose of food.  His parents ask him why he flies and neglects eating, and he tells them he just wants to know what he is capable of.  He learns many other skills alone, but when he returns to the flock, he is banished as an outcast.  Alone, he learns to dive deep in the sea and far inland for better food, to fly for hundreds of miles while asleep, to fly above the mist and fog that grounds most gulls, and to free himself from boredom, fear and anger.

Zhuangzi contemplates flock of birdsWhile many ancient Chinese philosophers suggested various ways one could structure the state, as Laozi does in the Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi is entirely concerned with liberating the individual mind in a chaotic and close-minded world, to seek freedom and happiness through simplicity and open-mindedness.

In the first passage of the Zhuangzi, the Peng bird is mocked by the dove and the cicada (a large grasshopper-like insect) for flying high and far in the sky. They have no frame of reference to understand such an act, as they are only interested in what they can find on the ground.  They die every winter and do not survive by migrating south, like the Peng bird.  Later in the text, Jo of the North Sea tells us:

Frog with ZhuangziYou can’t discuss the ocean with a well frog, limited by the space he lives in.  You can’t discuss ice with a summer insect, bound to a single season.  You can’t discuss the Way (Dao) with a cramped scholar, shackled by his doctrines.  Now you have come out beyond your banks and borders and have seen the great sea, so you realize how small you are.  From now on it will be possible to talk to you about the Way of things.

There are many other relevant passages, but it is extraordinary how similar the beginnings of both texts are.  I imagine it is not a coincidence.

Does Chuck Knoblauch Exist When He Throws To First?

mind reason and being-in-the-world dreyfus mcdowellLately, I have been studying the connections between the early work of Heidegger and the later work of Wittgenstein.  One of the most fascinating issues involved is the ordinary way that we act when we are “in the flow”, conscious of an action but not self-conscious or critically thinking.  How much must we conceptualize ourselves or our actions in order to act?  This is the issue debated between Hubert L. Dreyfus, who taught me Heidegger at Berkeley, John McDowell and others in the book Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World (2013).

chuck knoblauch throws to firstOne example featured in the debate is Chuck Knoblauch, a famed second-baseman who began to have problems throwing to first to get runners out because he was over-thinking his throws.  As Lee Braver points out, there seems to be an antagonistic relationship between conceptual thought and skillful action, such that thinking can interrupt action.

Frankenstein vintage movie posterIn his book Groundless Grounds (2012), Braver says that if we think about walking as we walk, we walk like Frankenstein.  Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher and the second patriarch of Daoism, said that if the centipede stops to figure out how he coordinates all of its legs, it would fall all over itself.  That said, how much is thought or conceptions involved when we are consciously acting but “in the flow”?

Café_de_FloreDreyfus, following Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, argues that in absorbed action, we do not have a conception of ourselves or reasons for why we are acting.  Sartre said that when he runs to catch the streetcar, there is no ego.  We could also say that when Sartre is focused entirely on catching the streetcar, he also is not thinking of reasons as to why he is catching it, such as getting to Cafe de Flore to sip espresso and chain smoke.  Merleau-Ponty, friend of Sartre, said that when we are absorbed we act in a “field of forces”, reacting to threats and opportunities without thought.

Streetcar new orleansAgainst Dreyfus and very much in accord with Kant, McDowell argues that for an act to be intentional, it must be done consciously, and this requires that it be conceptual.  McDowell would say that Sartre must conceptualize himself, the streetcar, and that his purpose is to catch it in order for his dashing towards it to be an intentional act, different from the way one’s leg jerks when we are struck in the knee by a doctor.  The question is, if Sartre sees the streetcar as an opportunity, or Knoblauch sees the runner as a threat, how much must they conceive of things in addition to perceiving them?  It is difficult, and hence the Dreyfus-McDowell debate, because our perceptions and conceptions are so intertwined in so many complex ways.

Prince of the Magicians movie posterLee Braver has offered what I think is a brilliant architectural metaphor that could reframe the debate, leading to new insights and solutions. In his later work, Wittgenstein presented philosophy and math as extensions of embodied physical action.  Heidegger wants us to see that we do philosophy like we use a hammer, as we respond intuitively and immediately to words as we do to arguments.  McDowell says that all is conceptual, which Dreyfus criticizes as upper floor abstract aristocrats all the way down.  Dreyfus says there is a basement beneath the upper floors where absorbed servants toil, but the two are disconnected.  Braver says that we can go with a third plan, that it is basement servants all the way up (as opposed to turtles all the way down).  We get rid of the class distinction between the aristocrats on the upper floor and the servants in the basement.  This gets rid of Dreyfus’ gap but reverses the direction of McDowell.

What do you think?  In what ways are action and thought interrelated or opposed to each other?

WISE UP: Zhuangzi’s That Has a This

WISE UP: Zhuangzi & the Monkey Trainer

Blog at

Up ↑