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The Spatiality of Cognition in the Zhuangzi

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In this paper I explore the conception of cognition and action found in the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi. More specifically, I focus on the role of explicit and implicit spatial imagery in the context of this complex problem. Spatial imagery suggests that cognition is understood as fundamentally bimodal in the text: (1) the default modality, which is informed by an entrenched distinction pattern, is cast in terms of fullness and bulk; and (2) the auxiliary modality, which is free from this kind of constraint, is imagined in terms of emptiness and lack of bulk, as an axis or point. The latter is the preferred mode of engagement with the environment, according to the Zhuangzi. Spatial imagery brings out the crucial characteristics of this cognitive modality: its radical openness and infinite fecundity in the context of distinction–drawing and action. It also connects with other metaphorical schemata at work in the text, including organic imagery. Interestingly, the notion of emptiness and the figure of an axis do not mark an experience of undifferentiated oneness but the state of heightened sensitivity to the makeup of one’s environment. Such sensitivity allows the agent to entertain the situation at hand without bias and to move around (relatively) conflict–free.

Affiliations: 1: Institute of Philosophy, University of Warsaw, Krakowskie Przedmieście 3, 00-047 Warsaw,


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