Constrained, Unconstrained and Surprised in a Global Context
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 13 Jun 2022
Encountering Black Swans with Insights of the Frog-in-the-Well and Turtle of Chinese Fable
13 Jun 2022 – The following reflection has been evoked by the commentary of Tao Jiang on the historical contrast between the Confucian perspective in China and that of Zhuangzi (Beyond Dust and Grime, Aeon, 3 June 2022). As helpfully presented, Zhuangzi thought Confucians were like frogs trapped in a well, unable to perceive the limitlessness of the sea — as articulated in the Fable of the Frog in the Well.
Zhuangzi (also rendered as Chuang Tzu) was an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC during the Warring States period, a period corresponding to the summit of Chinese philosophy, the Hundred Schools of Thought. He is credited with writing — in part or in whole — a work known by his name, the Zhuangzi, which is one of the foundational texts of Taoism.
Tao Jiang remarks that if the Allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic has shaped Western understandings of the nature of knowledge, truth, reality, ethics and politics, the Fable of the Frog in the Well has played a similar role in Chinese approaches to these subjects:
Whereas illusion/reality is the primary setup in the cave, it is limitedness/limitlessness in the well. Limitedness or smallness versus limitlessness or capaciousness is a foundational paradigm and metaphor in Chinese philosophical reasoning.
The commentary, and the issues raised, can now be understood as of particular relevance in the current period of global crisis and divisiveness — characterized in their own way by one “Hundred Schools of Thought”. As originally described, the perspective of the trapped frog bears comparison with the manner in which many are now effectively and variously trapped within constraining categories. These they are not empowered to question — have little motivation to do so — and are discouraged from doing so by the mainstream narrative.
This constraint is usefully contrasted by the commentary on the perspective of a turtle — seen as able to roam a limitless sea of possibilities. This can be recognized in the inspiration and aspiration of many at this time with regard to the possibility and potential of seeing the world otherwise — and living a life of limitless possibilities. This could be understood as being the essence of freedom.
Curiously it could be said that a frog is now used otherwise in a metaphorical description of many as being like frogs in warming water — progressively heated by authoritarianism. It is recognized that through their continuing adaptation to the rising temperature they will never reach a tipping point at which they leap out in order to survive — before being boiled alive.
However the original fable is to be considered to be of relevance to governance in the current global civilization, it is especially intriguing to explore how the contrasting perspectives engage with surprise — namely catastrophical crisis — as represented by the “black swan” of Black Swan Theory of the policy sciences. To this end, the exploration which follows draws on a variety of perspectives through which the contrasting perspectives might be reconciled, most notably through their potential complementarity, as with the wave-particle indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. The possibility of any such reconciliation is however necessarily characterized by a degree of paradox.
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