Decoding the “Zhuangzi”: A Debate on Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio’s “Genuine Pretending”

David E. Cooper reviews "Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi," and authors Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D'Ambrosio respond.

Decoding the “Zhuangzi”: A Debate on Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio’s “Genuine Pretending”


THESE ARE GOOD TIMES for Daoism. In China, since the death of Mao, there has been a vigorous revival of an organized religious Daoism whose esoteric creeds and disciplines go back to the second century CE. Affiliated Daoist associations have sprung up in the West, and the religion continues to attract large numbers in Taiwan. Equally encouraging is the current lively interest, Chinese and Western alike, in the classic texts of Daoist philosophy, above all the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, compiled in the fourth and third centuries BCE. This interest is not purely historical or textual. From Martin Buber and Martin Heidegger to the present day, philosophers find in these works insights into themes that loom large in modern metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Lay readers have been attracted to the two works by their apparent promotion of a godless, yet spiritual way of life marked, not least, by a harmonious and respectful relationship with the natural environment.

While the marvelously terse Daodejing is one of the most heavily translated of all books, it is in the Zhuangzi — originally attributed to the shadowy figure of Zhuang Zhou (c.369–286 BCE) — that recent philosophical interest is more pronounced. This is despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges it presents to readers, its dense passages of speculation interspersed with parables, jokes, and episodes whose points are often obscure. The book is, moreover, the work of many hands besides Zhuang Zhou’s, and there are tensions, if not contradictions, between its various emphases. There is, for example, a “primitivist” or “back to nature” streak in some chapters that is missing from others.

The latest attempt to discover a unifying thread in the Zhuangzi is Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi, a collaboration between the distinguished translator and interpreter of the Daodejing Hans-Georg Moeller and his former PhD student Paul J. D’Ambrosio. The book has been well received, and several reviewers have commented on the novelty of its reading of the Chinese classic. If my remarks are more critical than these other reviewers’, they are not intended to question that this is a book with which serious students of Daoist philosophy will need to grapple.

“Grapple,” perhaps, is not the right word, for the book is written in a clear, buoyant style. Its tone is genial, and the authors adopt a hospitable attitude toward other commentaries, stressing that this “multidimensional” text permits a variety of interpretations. The book’s structure may make some readers impatient, for it is not until a third of the way through that the authors properly dive into the Zhuangzi, having devoted the first 70 pages to discussions of sincerity and authenticity, Confucian ethics and theories of humor. Once the text is addressed, Moeller and D’Ambrosio provide detailed interpretations, first of the humorous or incongruous stories and characters that pepper the Zhuangzi, and then of the relatively straight passages that, in their view, advocate the strategy for life they label “genuine pretending.” A final chapter urges that this strategy is one that we moderns, too, should, with certain provisos, find attractive.

The authors’ central claim is that a unifying theme and main message of the Zhuangzi is the promotion of genuine pretending as a way of coping with life in a troubled, anxious world. Briefly characterized, genuine pretense is an “existential sort of play” in which people take on roles — as parents, civil servants, butchers, or whatever — without hypocrisy, but also without “identifying” with these roles. The notion is soon defined by way of contrast with both “sincerity” and “authenticity.” Unlike the sincere Confucian, the genuine pretender does not bring emotional commitment to roles, but is not attempting instead to be authentically true to an “essential self”: if anything, it is “self-dissolution” that is sought. It is through eschewing the pursuits of sincerity and authenticity that the genuine pretender or “smooth operator” aspires to “health, sanity, and efficacy” in a complicated world that, we all know, is very hard to negotiate. Moeller and D’Ambrosio applaud, therefore, those who have read the text as primarily “therapeutic” or “medicinal” in ambition, and this explains why they have very little to say about the epistemological and metaphysical matters — such as relativism about truth and goodness, or the nature of the dao (the Way) — on which most studies of the text tend to focus.

The marginalization of these matters will be seen by some as part of an “inspired fresh take” that a leading writer on Daoism, Chen Guying, admires in his foreword to the book. Unusual, certainly, is the detailed attention given to the Zhuangzi’s supposedly humorous episodes and cast of freaks, clowns, and other comic characters. These stories and figures have, according to the authors, a dual purpose — to “subvert” the “impossible ethical demands” of a Confucian “regime of sincerity,” and to indicate the important place of humor and “playful pleasure” in the life of genuine pretenders.

There is, of course, nothing original in regarding the Zhuangzi as, in part, a criticism of Confucian moral ideals. Rigid over-identification with roles and obsessive commitment to the performance of rites are obvious enough targets of the text. For Moeller and D’Ambrosio, the originality of their book resides partly in the prominence it gives to this anti-Confucian thread and, crucially, in their rejection of the attribution to the Zhuangzi of an ideal of authenticity that substitutes for Confucian sincerity. In the “alternative view” presented in Genuine Pretending, the Chinese text does not promote authenticity, whether in the form “being true to oneself” or the “creation” of a unique and “essential” self. Instead, it urges the playful and skillful enactment of “social personae” — the strategy, that is, of genuine pretending.

The book, then, is original in its approach to and interpretation of the Zhuangzi. But how compelling are these? Let’s start with the emphasis on the text’s alleged humor. I am not the first reviewer to find generally unpersuasive the authors’ invitations to replace familiar interpretations of various stories by ones that treat them as ironic or parodic. Take, for example, the Chapter Seven story of the emperor-without-a-face, Chaos, who dies when two other emperors try to give him one by drilling holes for eyes, nostrils, and so on. The authors’ claim that this is “a parody” of inept Confucian and Daoist sages strikes me as strained in comparison with an older, more orthodox view of it as warning against interference with what is simple, original, and possessed of “heavenly genuineness.” Again, it seems forced to treat an earlier story in Chapter Seven as an ironic parody of the Daoist sage Liezi that represents him as a laughingstock for his attempt to learn from a teacher and a shaman. The text, after all, seems rather unambiguously to portray him, after his experience with these men, as having genuinely learned the limits of knowledge and as a model of a simple life led in peace with his wife, pigs, and nature. Here as elsewhere, the authors’ determination to identify ironic or sardonic humor throughout the text will strike many readers as overzealous.

Of greater concern, perhaps, is Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s keenness to interpret the Zhuangzi’s important “knack (or skill) stories” — about butchers, swimmers, bell-stand makers, and others — as portraying instances of genuine pretending, of “drastic noncommitment” to the practices described in the stories. True, the men in these stories are indifferent to personal reward and success, but “noncommitment” is a strange term to apply to, say, the bell-stand maker who prepares himself for days before carefully trawling through the forest for a tree with the appropriate “inborn heavenly nature” on which to work. Peculiarly, the authors support their interpretation by appealing in the main to a story that is not a genuine knack story at all — that of the drunkard who falls from a cart but, with his body relaxed, is unhurt. The text makes clear that the drunkard is not even conscious of riding in a cart, let alone of falling from it, so the tale can hardly be one of a person exercising a skill in the manner, say, of parachute jumpers who roll as they hit the ground. The authors claim that they are not disagreeing with a traditional interpretation that treats the figures in the knack stories as exemplifying the Daoist virtues of spontaneity, “effortless action,” and a refusal to impose oneself on things. But this makes it the more puzzling why they should want to articulate a further interpretation that seems hardly consonant with the traditional one.

Controversial readings of parts of the text do not, by themselves, impugn the claim that the primary purpose of the Zhuangzi is to endorse the strategy of genuine pretending. Whether the claim is convincing will depend, in large part, on whether Moeller and D’Ambrosio are right to reject the familiar view that the text endorses, as a replacement for Confucian “sincerity,” an ideal of authenticity — one with which genuine pretending is defined by way of contrast.

Following Lionel Trilling, the authors understand authenticity primarily as allegiance to one’s true self — an “inner” or “essential” self with which the authentic person’s actions and feelings conform. Doubtless, some such ideal has been popular since the Romantic era, but it has little to do with — and, indeed, is explicitly rejected — by the most influential 20th-century philosophers to have written on authenticity, most notably Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. For the latter, identification with an essential self, far from being a mark of authenticity, is a form of “bad faith,” since it is an implicit denial of the total freedom a person enjoys to shape his or her life. For Heidegger, to understand a person is not a matter of “grubbing about in one’s soul,” but of appreciating how the person engages with the world. The authentic person is one who takes on board the “issue” that engagement with the world and the conduct of one’s life as a whole present, not allowing the stance adopted on this issue to be dictated by other people, convention, public opinion — or, indeed, by a false belief in “a true self.”

For neither philosopher can sense be made of a self that exists independently of the world: we are, after all, “beings in the world,” our beliefs, moods, and emotions inseparable from our modes of engagement in the world. But, for Sartre and Heidegger — as, indeed, for earlier thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche — it is possible to conduct this engagement in a way that honors what is distinctive about the human way of being in the world. Whether this is our radical freedom, our sense of being God’s creatures, our capacity to construct “a table of values,” or our recognition of our existence as an “issue,” the idea is that an authentic life is one that honors or shows fidelity to what is uniquely human.

Recognition of this idea of authenticity poses important questions for Moeller and D’Ambrosio. Granted that the Zhuangzi is emphatic in its rejection of an essential, fixed self to be true to or “create,” would they have concluded that it eschews an ideal of authenticity if, like Sartre and Heidegger, they had been less prone to think about authenticity in terms of selfhood? Or, relatedly, might not the cultivation of authenticity, in the sense intended by those philosophers, be after all a central aim of the Zhuangzi?

Some commentators have certainly thought that it is. Moeller and D’Ambrosio quote, for example, Katrin Froese, who writes that just as Heideggerian authenticity consists in an appropriate relation to “Being,” so Daoist authenticity “necessitates [an] attunement to the Dao,” of which human beings are uniquely capable. Judgments like hers are not surprising given the number of references in the text to people’s ability to live “in the Way” or to defy it, and to the imperative of “emulating what ties all things together,” the dao. The “complete” human being, the text tells us, helps to “nourish” things and to “bring the world into harmony” — to be an agent, as it were, of the dao.

The entry on dao in the index to Genuine Pretending refers to only four occurrences of the concept in the book — compared to roughly 70 referred to in the index to Brook Ziporyn’s translation of the Zhuangzi. This is an indicator of the authors’ lack of interest in the metaphysical and religious dimensions of the text. This is explained, in part, by Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s tendency, when touching on such themes, to refer only to the cosmology elaborated in the later daojiao tradition of organized Daoist religious sects. Such a cosmology, they explain, invokes a fantastic, fanciful, and otherworldly realm, populated by “immortals” and other “spiritualized beings” — a realm remote from the mundane one in which the rest of us must actually conduct our lives.

The restriction of attention to daojiao speculations is peculiar given that the Zhuangzi and other early Daoist texts emphasize that the dao is nothing “other-worldly.” It is not “separated from us […] [but] fills the entire world,” according to one such text, and in the Zhuangzi itself we read that “what makes beings beings [i.e. the dao] is not separated from them by any border.” The dao is referred to in these texts as the ineffable source of things that — without “contending” and imposing — holds sway over them, “nourishes” them, and brings them together into a unified whole. There is plenty of scope for argument over what, quite, this means, and over the question of how a human life might authentically register a sense of the dao. But the question is not an impossible one, and there is some consensus on the kind of non-contending, spontaneous, and pliable life that is “in the Way.”

Is a person who lives such a life a genuine pretender? Between the genuine pretender and the authentic person whose life manifests what is distinctively human, there are affinities. Like the genuine pretender, the authentic person — for the thinkers I mentioned earlier, as well as for Zhuangzi — is without a sense of an “essential” self, a fixed, unchanging subject of experience. Both figures emphasize the fragility, contingency, and mutability of people’s character, feelings, and values, and both are critical of those who obsessively or fanatically over-identify with their roles or stations in life. Pretenders keep their distance from their roles, just as authentic men and women remain “available,” as Gabriel Marcel would put it, ready to respond to calls to exercise their humanity.

In contrast with the strategy of genuine pretending, however, the idea of authenticity as fidelity to one’s humanity does not exclude, as genuine pretending does, “internalizing,” “committing to,” “identifying with,” and “personally investing” in one’s role as, say, a teacher or a mother — not, at least, as these terms are used in everyday speech. And that, one might think, is just as well, for it is not clear that sense can be made of genuinely engaging in roles or practices in the absence of those attitudes. Implicit even in playful practices, like chess or cricket, there are — as Alasdair MacIntyre has taught us — standards and values that genuine practitioners internalize and respect. If they don’t, they are “mere” pretenders. Again, our practices typically engage our emotions. Now Moeller and D’Ambrosio don’t advocate playing one’s roles without feeling, but it is hard to see how there can be anything genuine in one’s practice if emotional attachment to it is nothing one “identifies with,” so that it can be switched off — just like that.

There need not, surely, be anything fanatical, rigid, and obsessive in a person’s commitment and emotional attachment to, say, his or her job. What makes Bill Stoner, in John Williams’s celebrated novel, a “hero” according to the author, is a love of his job as a university teacher that gives him “a particular kind of identity” — a love free from concern for personal success and from unrealistic expectations. Too often Moeller and D’Ambrosio present us with a choice between, on the one hand, obsessive over-commitment to, and inflexible over-identification with roles, and, on the other, the ironic and playful attitude toward them of the pretender.

Figures like Stoner suggest there are alternative options, including a quiet and unfanatical but conscientious love of one’s work, informed perhaps by a sense that this is work that is consonant with one’s humanity. (Williams talks of Stoner’s sense of teaching as a tradition integral to civilized human achievement.) I see no reason to deny that such figures are to be found in the Zhuangzi. They include, but are not restricted to, those described in the “knack stories,” like the bell-stand maker whose commitment to his work does not contradict, but is inspired by a sense of the dao. These figures are no more genuine pretenders than Stoner is. To be sure, the Zhuangzi does not want to “reinforce a regime of authenticity,” if by this is meant the demand “that everyone be special, interesting, and innovative.” But, as we’ve seen, there are sober alternatives to recoiling from the prospect of such a regime into the playful, “cool” — but perhaps rather chilly — embrace of that “smooth operator,” the ironist and pretender. 

Genuine Pretending is the work of two authors who know the Zhuangzi very well indeed, and their ambition to identify a unifying thread in the work deserves — despite my reservations about the success of this ambition — the serious attention of all other admirers of that attractive, profound, and enigmatic text.


Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio’s Response to David Cooper’s Review:

Sometimes in the morning when he shaved, he looked at his image in the glass and felt no identity with the face that stared back at him in surprise, the eyes clear in a grotesque mask; it was as if he wore, for an obscure reason, an outrageous disguise, as if he could, if he wished, strip away the bushy white eyebrows …

— John Williams, Stoner


In his equally kind and critical engagement with our take on the Daoist philosophy of the Zhuangzi — an engagement the spirit of which we could not appreciate more — David E. Cooper takes issue with two of the main points we made. He rejects the validity of “genuine pretending,” the primary philosophical idea we tried to develop, and he maintains, contrary to what we believe, that the Zhuangzi should best be read as an early Chinese philosophy of authenticity. Cooper himself is a philosopher of authenticity who has made use of contemporary continental and East Asian resources to shape his thought. Thus, what is actually at stake here is not merely a scholarly argument about an ancient Chinese text, but rather a debate about a philosophy of authenticity.

In order to illustrate his ideal of an authentic life, Cooper points to John Williams’s beautiful novel Stoner, and regards the thus named protagonist as a role model or “hero” (Cooper’s quotation marks) of authenticity, representing “a quiet and unfanatical, but conscientious love of one’s work, informed perhaps by a sense that this is work that is consonant with one’s humanity.” This, for us, is a decidedly idealizing and de-complexifying reading of the character, so much so that one can almost imagine a romanticized Hollywood version of the book where Stoner becomes a Robin-Williams-impersonated stereotype of the “inspiring teacher,” a borderline kitsch bourgeoisie educator at an elite liberal arts school.

In fact, Stoner suffers already as a teenager from an emotionally and intellectually distant relationship with his parents, poor and uneducated rural farmers to whom he can hardly talk. He marries the daughter of a banker, and very soon becomes incapable of loving her, succumbing to a life of emotional abuse by her, which finally culminates in her successful attempt to estrange their only daughter from him. He has a passionate love affair with a student, only to abandon her (or rather to allow her to abandon him) because of their inability to deal with the ensuing social scandal. His academic career is early on stifled by a hateful and scheming department chair, so that Stoner eventually gives up the idea of ever publishing anything after his graduation thesis, a copy of which he still grasps on his death bed. As he dies the thesis falls to the ground and it becomes clear to the reader that Stoner’s life was a whole bundle of roads not taken.

As impressively illustrated in the epigraph above, throughout his life Stoner is fundamentally at odds with his social persona: as he ages his own face in the mirror appears to him as a “grotesque mask,” an “outrageous disguise” with which he feels “no identity.” This is an excellent image of the existential condition of genuine pretending, a condition that Stoner exemplifies and that we believe everyone shares in. Human existence entails a basic incongruity between our mental and emotional inner experiences, the body we are born with and must somehow accept as ours, on the one hand, and the contingent social factors (economic, cultural, political, gender roles, et cetera) that we find ourselves in and have to negotiate, on the other. We can find “genuineness” — an identification with the face we see in the mirror — only through pretending that we really are this person, this body, and this role. In order to write this response to Professor Cooper’s kind review, Georg and Paul have to genuinely pretend that they are Professor Moeller and Professor D’Ambrosio, just as David had to genuinely pretend to be Professor Cooper to write his review in the first place.

One of the errors in Genuine Pretending is that we gave the impression — probably not only to Cooper, but also to others — that there is a choice between genuine pretending and identity formation practices such as (role-based) sincerity or (individuality-emphasizing) authenticity. We should have made it clearer that there is no such choice. As a social being, everyone is a genuine pretender all the time. Identity technologies such as sincerity or authenticity allow people to genuinely pretend that they are not genuine pretenders — but, on the contrary, sincere or authentic — so that they can identify better with the face in the mirror in the morning, and then go out of the bathroom and do such things as writing a book or a book review. Genuine pretending is the incongruent condition of social existence that can be described in philosophy or literature. We think it has been described in the Zhuangzi as well as in Stoner.

Sincerity and authenticity are identity technologies that give rise to cultural “master narratives” and social regimes of cultivation and discipline. We think that, for instance, Confucian role ethics supports a regime of sincerity and that the Zhuangzi understood Confucianism in this way. By realizing that there is genuine pretending at the heart of all identity technologies and regimes — contrary to what the master narratives tell us about them — we can develop a critical distance to them and thus, potentially, deal with them better, hopefully finding a level of individual and social ease in their midst. This is, we think, the medicinal or therapeutic aspect of the philosophy of the Zhuangzi.

Cooper defines authenticity in terms of acknowledging “the total freedom a person enjoys to shape his or her life”: the freedom of not allowing one’s

engagement with the world and the conduct of one’s life […] to be dictated by other people, convention, public opinion — or, indeed, by a false belief in “a true self,” […] [and as] radical freedom, our sense of being God’s creatures, our capacity to construct “a table of values.”

These are very good definitions of authenticity. However, we do not find the idea itself very appealing. Cooper’s definitions are representative of a “master narrative” of authenticity which, as Lionel Trilling and many others have outlined, (partly) replaced an earlier sincerity narrative in Western modernity. The narrative is rather bourgeois and closely tied to liberal and individualistic sociopolitical and economic ideals. There are, as Cooper rightly points out, many variations of it, some “vulgar,” and some, including Cooper’s own, expressed in the elaborated code of contemporary continental philosophy.

On all levels, vulgar and elaborate, authenticity is inherently paradoxical. The very notion of a “radical freedom” from “other people, convention, public opinion” is itself an idea proliferated by and learned from other people, convention, and public opinion. And one’s authenticity needs to be presented to and recognized by others for validation, making its authentication rather inauthentic. Moreover, the “total freedom a person enjoys to shape his or her life” or the autonomous capacity “to construct a table of values” seem to us like lofty ideals that have little to do with the social, psychological, or, indeed, biological reality we actually inhabit. This is not to deny at all that the authenticity narrative has been extremely powerful. We readily acknowledge, with Charles Taylor, the “age of authenticity” (though we think it is already waning). Truly, conceptions of authenticity have had an immeasurable influence on nearly every aspect of many, if not most, societies the world over. Most explicitly, they have shaped the identity of many modern Western individuals, including the authors of this text. Moreover, it was crucial for the formulation of a modern national identity in politics, of brand identity in the economy, and also for claiming artistic identity, or for conceiving of ourselves as “authentic” academics.

If, as Cooper states, authenticity entails the idea of a person’s “total freedom […] to shape his or her life,” it should be glaringly obvious that the Zhuangzi (as well as the life of William Stoner) has very little, or rather nothing, to do with authenticity. In the society where the Zhuangzi was composed basically no one enjoyed such total freedom, and the idea would have sounded entirely alien. The philosophy of the Zhuangzi instead reflects on how to cope effectively with the unavoidable contingencies and limitations of life, such as the fact of being subject to the bodily “transformation of things” and to incongruent ascriptions of social esteem or disesteem.

Cooper is right to point out that we “had very little to say about the epistemological and metaphysical matters — such as relativism about truth and goodness, or the nature of the dao (the Way)” in the Zhuangzi. This was, of course, intentional. We think that these matters have been far too often isolated from their context in recent decades, specifically by authenticity-based interpretations. Our intention was to reconstruct the sociopolitical orientation of the text. A major problem of the contemporary authenticity readings of the Zhuangzi is that they abstract certain epistemological or metaphysical aspects. In this way, they neglect the historical framework of the text, becoming insensitive to its literary intricacies, and, perhaps most importantly, obscure its political and existential critiques. We thought it useful to point out that the Zhuangzi can not only serve as a religious or spiritual inspiration for reflections on “the Dao,” but that its way (dao) is deeply embedded in a specific place and time, as all daos are.

For us, it was crucial to show how the Zhuangzi, while being a sociopolitical critique, simultaneously reflects deeply on the incongruity of individual life and society, and of the dao, for that matter — a point which, unfortunately, Cooper does not directly address. He does, however, find our insistence on the humorous nature of many passages “overzealous.” Humor operates with incongruity, it makes it emotionally present, and — by way of relief and relaxation — provides a venue to cope with it. It is a good medicine and promotes personal and social ease and well-being. At the same time, in the form of satire and parody, it makes visible those incongruities that society tends to cover up. It can show that what is sincere is at the same time also insincere — or, today, that what is authentic is at the same time also inauthentic. It can show that that which is normally presented as valuable is also not valuable, and vice versa.

To disregard humor in the Zhuangzi is to miss its focus on incongruity. Humor is arguably the most powerful literary device in this text. It serves primarily to subvert the role model story pattern employed by so many other philosophical and political ideologies at the time. A huge problem we have with the authenticity reading of the Zhuangzi is hermeneutic: it reads the allegories in the Zhuangzi non-humorously and non-incongruently, as if they were just another kind of role model story requiring the emulation not of sincerity models but of authenticity models instead. In fact, Cooper applies an emulation hermeneutics even to his reading of Stoner, so that its protagonist, too, becomes a “hero.” For us, the Zhuangzi is precisely not about heroism. It does not intend to replace sincerity heroes with authenticity heroes; its protagonists are often incongruent role models, subverting an educational regime of sincerity that requires readers to internalize identity idols.

It is of particular importance to recognize that many skill stories in Zhuangzi, too, can be read not as role model stories, but as allegories about social incongruity that employ humorous and satirical elements. Many of the protagonists of the skill stories, including iconic “Cook Ding,” who is actually a gory slaughterer, are servants of feudal rulers, and are depicted in the service of their regimes. Unlike modern Western artists, the Chinese artisans of the Zhuangzi do not follow a vocation or pursue authenticity in their craft — they are born into a hereditary profession without the freedom to choose. A restoration of the concrete sociopolitical context, especially of the skill stories, might be an aim for future Zhuangzi research. Only by reconstructing the concrete sociopolitical and philosophical significance that the text had at its time can we make it, along with Daoist philosophy in general, regain a powerful sociopolitical and philosophical significance for us today.

Ultimately, the point of genuine pretending is not to get it right — “it” being, for instance, a philosophical argument, the interpretation of a text, or one’s identity by being “really” sincere or authentic. The point is instead — as for instance in the allegory of the Happy Fish in the Zhuangzi — to achieve a certain degree of ease and significance despite all incongruity, and particularly so in human interaction and argumentation. If an unresolvable argument about the “happiness” of fish can be experienced by all interlocutors as nevertheless a worthwhile endeavor (though neither side agrees with the other), then, we hope, the same can be true of an argument about the authenticity of humans.


Cooper’s response to Moeller and D’Ambrosio’s response:

I appreciate Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul D’Ambrosio’s giving time and care to respond to my review of their stimulating book, and I happily endorse their judgment that continuing the argument between us is “a worthwhile endeavor.” They rightly remark that this argument is as much about “a philosophy of authenticity” as about the message of the Zhuangzi. I’ll get to authenticity via a brief comment on Stoner.

Moeller and D’Ambrosio think that my description of Stoner turns him into a “borderline kitsch” figure. But this description — including the reference to Stoner as a “hero” who “loved” a job that he saw as belonging in a great human tradition — was largely taken from an interview the book’s author gave. True, a novelist is not a sovereign authority on his or her creations, but do Moeller and D’Ambrosio really want to deny that Stoner loved participating in an essentially humane profession? If not, I wonder what their calling him — or indeed anyone else — a genuine pretender amounts to.

At moments — for example when they cheerfully remark that the three of us only pretend to be professors — the point seems to be the one Sartre makes about a café waiter when illustrating mauvaise foi. Whereas a knife is simply a knife, the waiter is not simply a waiter, and is in bad faith to suppose so. People are able to stand back from, reflect on, and take a stance toward their job. But if everyone who relates to their job in this way is only “pretending” to be a waiter, a professor, or whatever, the term is a strangely jaundiced one to have chosen.

Elsewhere, though — and in a significant amendment to their book — Moeller and D’Ambrosio suggest that genuine pretending is part of the human condition, something we necessarily do all the time. This is because genuine pretending is now described as coping with the “incongruous condition” we all face when “negotiating” between our personal feelings, the bodies we occupy, the demands of work, social and sexual expectations, and much else.

This very real condition is perceptively described by Moeller and D’Ambrosio, and I agree too that it is one identified in the Zhuangzi. Again, though, I’d question the aptness of the term “pretending” for characterizing the arduous work of negotiation. More interestingly, I don’t see that genuine pretending is any longer incompatible with the possibility of authenticity: indeed, it implies it.

Pace Moeller and D’Ambrosio, I didn’t define authenticity as “the total freedom a person enjoys to shape his or her life.” That was my gloss on Sartre’s version of authenticity, one very different from, say, Heidegger’s or Kierkegaard’s. I understand these versions as conflicting specifications of a more general idea of authenticity: that of living in a way consonant with — or appropriate to — what it is to be human. It is an idea, I maintain, that is very much there in the Zhuangzi, though not, I readily agree, in its Sartrean, “total freedom” form. To be human, according to the Daoist classics, is to be a creature unique in its capacity to experience a sense of the dao, and to live either in harmony with or in violation of it — a capacity that includes a special responsibility to “nurture” all other beings. For the author(s) of that work, then, wise and skillful negotiation of the human condition requires an authentic relationship to the Way.

For Moeller and D’Ambrosio, in their amended account of genuine pretending, this is a negotiation that we cannot avoid, though rather few people recognize this. Most pretend not to be pretenders. But between this account and my conception of authenticity there is no conflict. On the contrary, the life of someone who fully appreciates this essential dimension of the human condition will, in my sense, be an authentic one. Where we disagree with respect to the Zhuangzi is over the role of the dao in understanding and coping with this condition. Whether or not this argument is “unresolvable,” it is surely one that — to repeat my agreement with Moeller and D’Ambrosio — deserves further pursuit.


David E. Cooper is professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Durham University.

Hans-Georg Moeller is professor of Philosophy at the University of Macau.

Paul J. D’Ambrosio is associate professor of Chinese philosophy at East China Normal University (ECNU) in Shanghai, China, fellow of the Institute of Modern Chinese Thought and Culture, Dean of the Center for Intercultural Research, and the program coordinator ECNU’s English-language MA and PhD programs.

LARB Contributors

David E. Cooper is professor of philosophy emeritus at Durham University, England. He has been a visiting professor in several countries, including the United States, Canada, South Africa, Malta, and Sri Lanka. He has also been the chair or president of several learned societies, including the Mind Association, the Aristotelian Society, and the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. Some of his most recent books are Senses of Mystery: Engaging with Nature and the Meaning of Life (2017) and Animals and Misanthropy (2018). Cooper is also the author of several novels and short stories. He lives with his wife in Northumberland, England.

Hans-Georg Moeller is professor of Philosophy at the University of Macau. His research focuses on Social and Political Thought and on Chinese and Comparative Philosophy. He is author of Genuine Pretending: On the Philosophy of the Zhuangzi (with Paul D’Ambrosio), The Radical Luhmann, The Philosophy of the Daodejing, and The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality, all published by Columbia University Press, and contributes to the YouTube podcast The Issue is Not the Issue with Dan Sarafinas.

Paul J. D’Ambrosio is a professor of Chinese philosophy at East China Normal University in Shanghai, China, where he also serves as dean of the Intercultural Center. He mainly writes on Daoism, medieval Chinese thought, contemporary profile-based identity formation, and the relationship between humans and AI/algorithms.


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