Tallis in Wonderland

Zhuangzi And That Bloody Butterfly

Raymond Tallis dreams up a flight of philosophical fancy.

The story of Zhuangzi and the butterfly must be one of the best known anecdotes in the philosophical literature. It is also, for me at any rate, one of the most annoying: the kind of philosophical whimsy that irritates rather than illuminates. But as is so often the case, it is when we are walking away from philosophical problems that we realise that they point, however unsteadily, to something we cannot entirely dismiss.

According to the Chinese philosophical classic Zhuangzi, the great Daoist thinker of that name fell asleep one day and dreamed that he was a butterfly. When he woke up, he did not know whether he really was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or whether he was a butterfly now dreaming he was a man.

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