One day, Zhuangzi and a friend were walking by the river.
“Look at the fish swimming about,” said Zhuangzi, “they are enjoying themselves.”
“You’re not a fish!” replied his friend, “ there's no way that you could truly know that they’re enjoying themselves.”
“You are not me.” replied Zhuangzi, “so how could you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?”
"I am not you, to be sure, replied his friend. So, of course, I don't know about you. But you are not a fish, so the case is complete…..you do not know that the fish are happy.
Zhuangzi smiled….."Let's go back to the beginning. You said, How do you know the fish are happy? But you already knew that I know it is asking me this. I know it right here above this river.”
This parable comes to us from the book of Zhuangzi, one of the two foundational texts of Taoism that contains stories that exemplify the carefree nature of the ideal Taoist sage. While the exact point or lesson isn’t always clear, it’s thought that the tale is a discussion about the nature of knowledge. Everyone we meet in the world may have a different view of life, having other subjective knowledge and experience....however, if knowledge comes through experience and learning..is there such a thing as real or objective understanding?
The point seems to be that "knowing" a thing is simply a state of mind. It isn’t possible to determine if that knowledge has any objective validity by looking at it outside of ourselves….as all understanding is ultimately experiential. Zhuangzi often beautifully concludes the tale by saying, "I know the joy of fishes in the river through my joy, as I go walking along the same river.” After all, even modern science today merely collects atoms trying to understand themselves through direct experience.
As some scholars of Taoist texts have pointed out, this tale is an excellent example of Zhuangzi’s wisdom and written mastery as he is said to use reason to make an anti-rationalist point….
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