Greek argumentation: "Let's go back to the beginning"

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The first time I read Zhuang Zi's (ca. 4th c. BC) debate with Hui Zi (370-310) about "The happiness of fish", when I got near the end I had an epiphany.  I felt like I was reading a debate between two Greek philosophers.  Here it is:

Zhuāng Zi yǔ Huì Zi yóu yú Háo liáng zhī shàng. Zhuāng Zi yuē: "Shūyú chū yóu cóngróng, shì yú lè yě." Huì Zi yuē: "Zǐ fēi yú, ān zhī yú zhī lè?" Zhuāng Zi yuē: "Zǐ fēi wǒ, ān zhī wǒ bù zhī yú zhī lè?" Huì Zi yuē: "Wǒ fēi zǐ, gù bù zhī zǐ yǐ; zǐ gù fēi yú yě, zǐ zhī bù zhī yú zhī lè quán yǐ." Zhuāng Zi yuē: "Qǐng xún qí běn. Zǐ yuē 'Rǔ ān zhī yú lè' yún zhě, jì yǐ zhī wú zhī zhī ér wèn wǒ, wǒ zhī zhī Háo shàng yě."

莊子與惠子遊於濠梁之上。莊子曰:「儵魚出遊從容,是魚樂也。」惠子曰:「子非魚,安知魚之樂?」莊子曰:「子非我,安知我不知魚之樂?」惠子曰:「我非子,固不知子矣;子固非魚也,子之不知魚之樂全矣。」莊子曰:「請循其本。子曰『汝安知魚樂』云者,既已知吾知之而問我,我知之濠上也。」  (source: 17.13)

Master Chuang and Master Hui were strolling across the bridge over the Hao River. "The minnows have come out and are swimming so leisurely," said Master Chuang. "This is the joy of fishes."

"You're not a fish," said Master Hui. "How do you know what the joy of fishes is?"

"You're not me," said Master Chuang, "so how do you know that I don't know what the joy of fishes is?"

"I'm not you," said Master Hui, "so I certainly do not know what you do. But you're certainly not a fish, so it is irrefutable that you do not know what the joy of fishes is."

"Let's go back to where we started," said Master Chuang. "When you said, 'How* do you know what the joy of fishes is?' you asked me because you already knew that I knew. I know it by strolling over the Hao."

(from Victor H. Mair, tr. Wandering on the Way, p. 165)

[*VHM:  Zhuang Zi plays a linguistic trick on Hui Zi here, by relying on the fact that ān 安, among many other (at least 9 [see Wiktionary]) verbal meanings, as an interrogative can mean both "how?" and "where?".  Think hard about how that is both possible and reasonable.]

The part of this dialog that struck me so powerfully, like a thunderbolt out of the sky, was this: 

Zhuāng Zi yuē: "Qǐng xún qí běn."


"Let's go back to where we started," said Master Chuang.

I had a visceral feeling that this kind of suggestion was characteristic of Socrates and Plato, so I reached out to Christopher Raymond, a specialist in ancient Greek philosophy to confirm whether my memory was correct.  He responded:

Plato often has Socrates (and other leading characters, like the Eleatic Visitor) say things such as, “Alright, let’s go back to the question we started with” – often using the phrase ἐξ ἀρχῆς (“from the beginning”) and often after an attempt to define a concept has failed or the conversation has digressed for some reason. Some examples are Euthyphro 11b and 15c; Theaetetus 151d, 164c, and 187b; Charmides 163d and 167b. It’s hard to say how distinctive of Socrates or Plato it really is, since the phrase ἐξ ἀρχῆς, at least, shows up a lot in court speeches and other contemporaneous texts (“Let me tell you what happened from the beginning”) and it could have been common in dialectical debates. The problem is that Plato dominates the evidence base. It might be distinctive of Plato’s Socrates, though, to insist on keeping the central question in view and not want to get distracted by long digressive speeches.

I wonder if this type of stock expression and concentration on the main topic of a debate is characteristic of other philosophical traditions.


Selected readings

  • "Where? –> Not at all!" (9/12/10) — a different take on "The joy of fishes"
  • Victor H. Mair, tr., Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998; first ed. New York:  Bantam, 1994); also available as Zhuangzi Bilingual Edition, translated by Victor H. Mair (English) and Minci Li (Modern Chinese) (Columbus:  The Ohio State University Foreign Language Publications, production of the National East Asian Languages Resource Center, OSU, 2019) — this is actually a trilingual edition, since the 736 pages volume also includes the original Classical Chinese version

[Thanks to Bryan Van Norden]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 25, 2022 @ 8:54 pm

    From Lucas Christopoulos:

    There are ancient “dialogues” in older writings, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh (1800 BC), but used as a system of philosophy to induce an epiphany starts with Socrates and his “Maieutics” (μαιευτική); “inserting a (thought) seed” in someone to “give birth” to a truth by self-reflection and understanding. It is a system of thought carried by the following schools of philosophy after Plato.

    Between Socrates (470-399 BC) and Zhuangzi (4th century BC) there is about a hundred years…Could it be any mutual comprehensive system? The Milindapanha (Questions of Menander), about which I will have more to say later on, is also written with the same aim.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    October 25, 2022 @ 9:21 pm

    Certainly the answering-a-question-with-a-question style is nothing if not "Socratic"! But I think these philosophers are equals rather than master and student?

  3. Fishy said,

    October 26, 2022 @ 4:10 pm

    Interestingly enough, there is a blog composed by a professor of philosophy and the title of the blog is ‘’魚之樂‘’. Perhaps Prof. Mair would like to seek the comment of that professor:

  4. Noel Hunt said,

    October 26, 2022 @ 11:02 pm

    Since 1959, ABC Radio National Australia has each year hosted the 'Boyer Lectures' to which people of note are invited to give a series of talks. In 1996, it was the renowned sinologist, Pierre Ryckmans, who delivered a series entitled 'The View from the Bridge—Aspects of Culture'. In the first lecture he quotes this very passage from Zhuang Zi, and gives an insightful analysis of it, and thereby addressing the question of the interpretation of 安,ān, 'where?', 'how?', that is discussed in one of the posts that Professor Mair refers to (Where? –> Not at all!).

  5. David Marjanović said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 4:10 pm

    But I think these philosophers are equals rather than master and student?

    They're not only both titled 子, they both – I'm fascinated to learn – address each other as 子:

    I wonder if it means anything that they both refer to themselves as 我 (which is a mere pronoun today, but apparently wasn't always, given that the Old Chinese word was different: it's read nowadays, it's cognate with the /ŋa/ of numerous other Sino-Tibetan languages, and I think the character consists of a 5 on top of a mouth).

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 6:32 pm

    wú 吾~wǒ 我 apparently represent "variants" :D of some kind at this stage… Pulleyblank (1995) regards the latter, less distributionally restricted form as "emphatic"/"contrastive" and thinks French me~moi might be instructive… the "sandhi" vs. "citation"~emphatic forms of the personal pronouns in Min languages could also provide a general parallel. Note both items appear in the passage above, so the answer is in some sense there before us. it is stuff like this which could possibly speak to the origins of tone but is really hard to build intuition for given the form in which "classical" really persists, viz. sort of an archaizing register of Mandarin or Mandarin-lexified classical syntactic template.

    re: language of Chinese logic also XXX全也 which is poorly translated as "irrefutable" here; rather means the argument XXX is "unharmed"/"intact" i.e. "stands".

  7. Jenny Chu said,

    October 28, 2022 @ 10:19 pm

    @David – you're right; I was making assumptions based on the 子, and didn't even think to look at the first person! Rookie mistake :)

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