Category: Philosophy Essay
Aristotle and Zhuang Zi On Identity of Things

The discussion of essence is the topical issue in Western philosophy; however, to transcend its limits one may compare Eastern and Western position on the issue. In this paper, Aristotelian and Daoist view on identity issue will be analyzed with the purpose to find similarities and differences that constitute fundamental characteristics of essence concept. These positions cannot be combined together because they represent different modes of philosophizing: Aristotelian’s rational philosophy and Daoist mystical interpretation of essence are completely different.

The concept of essence is one of the most fundamental for Aristotle’s philosophy, especially for “Metaphysics”. According to Aristotle, identity or essence of things may be identified as whatness – somethings that constitutes the qualities of a particular thing or kind of things, making this thing different from others. There is one primary essence or one correct answer when questioning about a particular thing’s essence. In other words, the essence is attributive quality – something that is left after accidental characteristics are stripped away. When it comes to the discussion of essence within Aristotelian philosophy it is worth keeping in mind that he did not clearly distinguish the essence from the substance. Aristotle distinguished primary substances (individual substances) from secondary substances (kinds). In the Greek language, word substance comes from ousa – feminine participle of “to be”, while essence comes from Latin essential, which is an infinite form of “to be”. Thus, the essence is the core of each thing, which is stable and does not depend on environmental factors.

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Zhuang Zi provides a different perspective on identity issue and mentions this concept during the discussion of central emotions, feelings, and qualities that are met in routine life: modesty, anger, grief, candor, and delight. It is said that they are the same, replacing each other day by day, and it is extremely difficult to find something stable in them. One is not able to know what makes the above-mentioned concepts be what they are, they seem to have the True Master. This Master has no form but his identity. It is a waste of time to attempt to cognize the essence of things because they are equal, even though they belong to different types. In “Zhuang Zi” the role of Master is emphasized: “But whether I succeed in discovering his identity or not, it neither adds to nor detracts from his Truth” (Watson, n. pag., chapter 2). Hence, the most important thing is that the Master is True, he constitutes the identity, though we are not given the opportunity to learn his identity or things’ essence.

I think that the above-mentioned philosophies cannot be combined: Western Rationalist thought and Eastern religious philosophy are too different. It is wrong to mix two contrast ideas to reach an eclectic philosophy, which is unnatural or even mechanistic. Though this analysis was initially intended to compare and contrast Aristotle’s and Zhuang Zi’s positions on identity, it is necessary to underline that it transforms into perspectives of Western and Eastern thought’s mix. I would say, in Aristotle’s terms, that we come to fundamental theoretical issues because one cannot answer this question taking into account anything but these positions’ definitions. It is quite difficult for a person of the Western state of mind like me to imagine the Master, who brings identities to things that are equal but are not the same. Aristotle is giving stable ground that makes it possible to get to know the nature of things, whereas Daoist philosophy claims that nothing is stable and that the identity depends on transcendental Master, the possessor of identities. It may be concluded that Aristotle postulates the significance of the essence of things, while Daoism claims that it is irrelevant and, therefore, not worth discussing.

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