Infinite Knowledge

April 18, 2020

The Taoist Zhuangzi writes, in Burton Watson’s translation of the ancient Chinese:

Your life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger. If you understand this and still strive for knowledge, you will be in danger for certain!

Taoism is notoriously cryptic, not just from the twenty-three centuries which intervene between us and the texts, but also as a result of Taoist skepticism that language can convey truth at all. Paradoxes abound in its writings, not to obfuscate, but to reveal. The truth is in the contrasts, and words are only signposts to the Tao, the Way.

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” as many translators opt to open their attempts at the Tao Te Ching — which proceeds, nevertheless and famously, to try to tell us something about the eternal Tao. Despite relative consensus on this wording of the opening, thenceforth translations diverge drastically. It’s often useful to compare translations of the Taoist texts. (Here’s a great list of English translations of the Tao.)

Zhuangzi (or Chuang-tzŭ as he was once transliterated), a good Taoist, would never pass up a good paradox, and he frequently argues against logic itself. “Like all great anti-rationalists,” writes A. C. Graham, “Chuang-tzŭ has his reasons for not listening to reason.” Here is Graham’s translation of the above:

My life flows between confines, but knowledge has no confines. If we use the confined to follow after the unconfined, there is danger that the flow will cease; and when it ceases, to exercise knowledge is purest danger.

Knowledge is infinite, and life is not. You can’t catch a river in your mouth, and if you try, you may well drown.

This apparent deficit of lifespan to knowledge takes many forms:

  • Ought I to begin the study of a subject with a textbook? With the canon?
  • Should I read what preceded this? Won’t that go on forever?1
  • If it does, what is the purpose of learning? Is it only done to scratch an itch?

I find I have to answer no to the last question, and I have been so far unable to give up the hunt, however little hope I have for its conclusion.

One response to such questions is that maybe the method matters more than the outcome. The process matters more than completion. I started a Twitter thread to collect some of the sources related to this way of thinking.2

Where to start is a red herring, because it is the search itself, from whatever starting point, that is valuable. Another way to put this is that searching for a solution leads us to seek nouns, when the answer is really an adverb; it is not what we find but how we explore.

  1. Its interruptus somehow reminds me of the winding of the clock at the start of Tristram Shandy, which sets him backward-looking.
  2. That thread and the newsletter I’ve just started are partly an experiment inspired by a Ribbonfarm post on a recent resurgence of text.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.