Date of Publishing:
September 30, 2015

2015 © Anderwald + Grond
Photo © Anderwald + Grond

In Conversation with François Jullien Making Ambiguity Fertile is the Present Mission of Thought

Karoline Feyertag in Conversation with François Jullien, Paris, 26th May 2015

Preliminary glossary

  • das Taumeln – dizziness (German “au” rhymes with English “now”)
  • taumeln – to lurch, stagger, reel, teeter, tumble, flounder, fall, feel dizzy
  • l’écart – distance, discrepancy, distance-deviation, "l’écart" ≠ “difference”: Jullien explains that “difference” establishes a distinction and remains on the level of description, whereas “deviation” (l’écart) proceeds from a distance and is productive (p. 231, online:
  • l’ébranlement – shock, percussion, disturbance
  • le foncier/le fond(s) – ground, “foundation-fount”, source
  • kairos/weiji – “kairos” means “the right or opportune moment” in ancient Greek; the Chinese expression “wēijī” means “crisis”, Jullien explains the character “wēi” as “danger” and “jī” as “opportunity” but the graph for “jī” by itself indicates “quick-witted(ness); resourceful(ness)” and “machine; device.” And the jī of wēijī, in fact, means “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” (see:
  • l’amorce – lure, trigger
  • la propension – propensity/inclination
  • le sas – sluice chamber or a “space in between” (where things become compossible and ambiguous)
  • la compossibilité – compossibility, meaning the possible non-separation of opposites, which otherwise would exclude each other; term that is affirmative of the existence of several mutually contradictory worlds/states (see: In the context of the interview, the term does not refer to Leibniz.
Karoline Feyertag — My first question is about your methodological approach, your philosophical development. Did you start with Sinology or with philosophy?

François Jullien — It’s simple, I started with classical studies, preparatory classes, studied at lycée Henri IV, École Normale Supérieure (ENS) and did studies of Greek language and philosophy. Later at the rue d’Ulm (ENS) I was looking for a possible standpoint “outside” of what is considered to be the European tradition. I chose China for reasons of exteriority and not at all out of interest for China itself. I chose China for the exteriority of its language and history, as a constituted outside.

So I went from the École Normale in Paris to China for some years and started to learn Chinese and a little bit of Japanese. I became an orientalist, but always had in mind a theoretical displacement, with the help of China as a theoretical tool. It was a displacement in thought and a physical displacement to China, in order to come back and to question philosophy itself about what it doesn’t question at all. I was interested in what philosophy takes as evidence and that which is, in the end, not evident at all. The starting point of my project was to work out an oblique access to our un-thought.

The un-thought or non-thought is the basis from which I think and I don’t think. Actually, I tried to show the un-thought in this opposing tension of European philosophy and Chinese thought. I’m not interested in comparing differences and similarities, but in disturbing European thought by breaking into it and fissuring it from the outside.

So I tried to deconstruct from the outside, not from the inside, conceding that deconstruction by Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida etc. stay deconstructions from the inside, notably within the great Hellenic-Hebrew interplay. My idea was to get out of this Hellenic-Hebrew frame by ‘disturbance’ (ébranlement).

Of the two notions [of “écart” and "difference"], “écart”, which was translated wrongly as “gap” into English, and "difference", I prefer “écart” because it’s in a relational tension that I try to organise European thought and the kind of “thought from the outside”. “Gap” on the contrary alludes to a divide that separates. The interest of “écart” lies in its ability to create tension and maintain the opposites in a vis-à-vis relationship. So “écart” is not easily translatable, neither into German, nor English nor Italian – but well, this is part of the problem as well as being the resources of language, that each language has a singular way to think.

Therefore, “écart” asserts a productive tension between two things or thoughts, where neither one nor the other are dropped (fallen gelassen) – as it would be when speaking about “difference” – but both remain in a sort of interactive presence. Both parts, which constitute the tension of the “écart”, scrutinise each other, look at each other – so it’s a reflection in the proper sense of the term.

Moreover, I’m not using the term “difference” because it stems from identity and from something already defined on some common, un-thought ground. I prefer to speak about distances, not distinctions. "Écart" doesn’t amount to a definition, but to disintegration, dismantling, disturbance, derangement (ébranlement) – a lively operation of thinking.

If I put the question of culture in these terms of  “écart”, fissure and disturbance, I doubt that there is something like cultural identity from which cultural differences unfold. I doubt there is a common human nature, the Human with a big H etc. I don’t think that there are cultural characteristics and a definition of a specific cultural identity in opposition to another. The peculiarity of culture seems to be its mutation – otherwise, culture is dead. Culture is at the same time homogenising and heterogenising itself. Culture tends to become dominant but at the same time is secretive, silent. There is not Culture in the first place and then afterwards, there are different cultures. Culture is plural and singular at the same time and continuously. That’s how it keeps itself in action.

So, I do not believe in the terms of identity and difference, as does comparative science, I prefer the terms of “écart” and resource and fecundity. In my sense, cultures are resources of fecundity. One can thrive through them, take advantage of Chinese coherences as well as of Greek concepts and circulate them within thought. I even think that this is today’s vocation of thought: to take advantages, to make diverse ideas circulate whilst exploring and exploiting them in order to reintroduce them to the construction sites of thought. That’s my choice of work.

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Above all, I certainly do not tend towards Culturalism which means to treat cultures as hermetic bubbles. I tend towards the complete opposite because I try to establish a dialogue between cultures on behalf of the dia, which means “écart” in Greek, and the logos, which is the intelligible.

I try to disturb Greek thought by passing through China. There is no interest in dismantling the answers but rather the questions. It’s about thinking the yet un-thought. My interest lies in the dismantling of the presupposed, but also indeed very singular and Occidental categories, as there are in Kant’s famous questions: What could I know? What should I do? What could I hope? You already have to assume that there is one singular person who could know. All this is very strongly culturally marked.

But also on the other side, treating Chinese thought as a theoretical operator puts my work into tension with Sinology, which refers to China merely as a great domain of knowledge. I take Chinese coherences, which are singular as well, and make concepts out of them; I make them operational and bring them to a more general level.

KF — So you aim at a dismantlement/disturbance on both sides?

FJ — Yes, on both sides, and this means disturbing and not doubting as this well known philosophical posture. “Ébranler” means to question the underpinnings, the basis of thought – it’s an activity which is neither critical nor suspicious in Nietzsche’s sense. “Ébranler” means to shake the foundation. The basis, which one doesn’t know – the basis, which philosophy itself ignores. It’s only through this act of agitation that philosophy realises that it has a basis or foundations. It’s these foundations which philosophy takes as evident; […] it’s the implicit choices philosophy makes, which constitute the un-thought, which are buried (enfouis) by rationality.

KF — One of those “écart” or discrepancies between Occidental and Chinese thought that you write about is the one between the Greek notion of “kairos”, the occasion, and the processes of silent transformations, which haven’t been thought by Occidental Greek thought.

FJ — First of all, my intention is not to think in black and white. What I really find interesting is how every thought when one is thinking, is not thinking this, but that, how it omits something or thinks it less than something other, leaves it to a later moment. So, I’m interested in the fact that every thought makes choices in order to advance, and leaves other possibilities in the shadow. It’s the contrast in between China and Europe that I’m interested in.

My interest in the occasion was that the Greeks tried to think the “kairos” (occasion), but couldn’t do so in the end because they tried to elaborate a “techne” of the “kairos”. They vacillated between the definition of “kairos” as “techne”, that is to say as an art of control and mastery, and as “tyche”, mere chance. Finally, Aristotle would rearrange “kairos” on the side of “tyche”. This brought up a real dramatisation of “kairos”, making it something that happens very quickly, suddenly; something that won’t come back again, a chance one has to grasp once and for all, the fortune wheel, Machiavelli and something that will decide about it all.

In contrast to this Greek “kairos”, the Chinese thought about it as something that takes time to become ripe. So, there is a Chinese thinking of maturity and not of immanence. This means that one cannot prepare the control of the process itself but – I’d like to say – the accompaniment or the suite (suivi). The suite of the emergence of the occasion through that what is part of the whole process.

There is one very interesting notion in China, which I translate by “amorce” – lure, enticement or trigger. It’s not a speculative term in French, and I’m interested in how one translates “amorcer un poisson”, to lure a fish in order to make it bite, in order to make reality bite – and then, how to translate “amorcer un tournant” (to bring something to a turning point), “amorcer un geste” (to begin/start by a gesture)… – it’s a term, which is practical and theoretical at the same time. Chinese thinking has some interesting reflections about this stage of lure, when something is to come about, to be sketched, the first rough draft or the first spark – “zian” in Chinese – that makes a possibility possible, the very beginning of an emergence, which is not yet actualised, but still largely virtual, but already sketching its outlines, and it’s on this that the strategist or the sage has directed his attentive eye. It’s the sensitivity for what is going to emerge and what begins only to get configured in a very ductile way.

There is no surprise about the “kairos” in China. There is an aptitude to be attentive to the first signs, to the cohesion, which is found at the very beginning, in the penumbra and not in the salience of the event. This is a capacity to apprehend and to detect – I insist on this term for the Chinese context: to detect the first draft. In this sense, Chinese thought dissolves the dramatic event of the occasional moment into the continuity of silent transformations.

In China, reality is understood by drafts of configuration, which either become something or dissolve themselves – which are, so to say, in continuous transformation. The Chinese thought of efficacy is constructed around this art of detection and of the lure – the lure or trigger is seen as the seed in the earth, as a minimum of effectiveness and potentiality.

KF — But this “seed” is not understood in the sense of the Greek telos?

FJ — No, there is no “telos” at all. No final cause, no “dynamis” because there is no “entelecheia”. It’s this that is actually interesting in Chinese thought, that there is no “telos”, no force that tends somewhere; there are configurations because the whole reality is understood in terms of flux – flux of energy, of respiration, of whatever one wants. All that is drafting out this fluctuation, takes up form, actualises itself, comes about, transforms itself etc.

KF — In order to perceive or to detect this process, do we need the participation of all senses?

FJ — Yes, there is an important Chinese term, which translates as “discerning”. First, on how to distinguish within the indistinguishable or infinitesimal; to distinguish doesn’t mean to know and to an even lesser extend, to represent. It’s the attention towards the fissure, the first outlines, the infinitesimal, which becomes the infinite: This is what I call the “propensity” (Neigung). It’s the aptitude to foresee what will be coming (l’a-venir). It’s embracing[1] the logic of the evolution of things, their coherence without needing any concept of “telos”. So China is thinking the process, the evolution of a process and in this sense, Chinese thought is completely contemporary, concerned with the present and not occupied with the past.


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KF — I also wanted to ask you about the notion of dizziness which is at the centre of our artistic research project and how you would translate the term into Chinese?

FJ — Yes, I’ve read your text. I’m less interested by the medical term. What seems more interesting to me is the moment when confusion comes up and how this confusion can then be productive. The philosophical question I ask is: What can be productive in such a temporary moment of confusion and what could be its outcome?There is one thing I haven’t found in your paper and which seems important to me. You have considered the moment of transition. But there is a dimension, which seems fertile in this moment of dizziness when things become confused because they loose their equilibrium and because they find themselves suspended from the clearness, which allowed thinking them – this dimension is the dimension of ambiguity.[2]

Within your artistic research project, the moment of dizziness (Taumel) puts into suspension all oppositions, which constitute reason, a suspension of the constitutive determinations of reason, and this very fact of "Taumel" allows going beyond the separation of opposites, it’s somehow metaphysical. It’s a stage where the opposites are not yet separated and it’s fertile because it’s a stage when thought can come up with new and different determinations.So, there is a moment, a “sas” in French – a moment in transition when the already constituted oppositions dissolve themselves because they come back to their fundamental ambiguity, that is their non-separated state and only afterwards, is there a realisation of different determinations. Are you following?

KF — Yes, indeed. I just don’t understand “sas”…

FJ — A “sas” is “in between two”, it’s a temporary place. For example, if you want to enter somewhere, there is a double door and in between the two doors, this is a “sas” (a sluice chamber). […] It’s a small and hermetic enclosure in between two different settings/environments. It’s something in between the two and it allows passing from the one to the other but it is at a distance to the one and the other.

Lock, 2006 © Catherine Yass

The interesting aspect of this dizziness, when it’s not a definitive vertigo but a temporary one, is that the determinations, which were valuable before dizziness (Taumel) occurred, are brought back to a fundamental non-separation of opposites – or one is conducted by dizziness (Taumel), or confusion, to go back to this non-separation (or: beyond separation) – and this makes an ambiguity reappear, which is underlying any opposition, whereby I mean the oppositions of thought. This underlying, fundamental ambiguity resets the field of oppositions, makes it fuse/melt and allows for other oppositions, other determinations to come out of it afterwards.

This is what I consider a “sas” – the moment when precedent determinations and oppositions are undone and unravel their fundamental, not yet split (tranché) into ambiguity, from which other determinations, other oppositions will result. This is the moment when the precedent determinations and oppositions, by which we have been thinking, are fusing – “con-fusing”. From this con-fusion emerges a fundamental ambiguity, the non-separation of opposites, which is fertile because it enables an outside of our current oppositions, and from this outside other determinations could result.

I distinguish ambivalence and ambiguity because ambivalence is a Freudian term, coming from Bleuler to psychoanalysis, and it signifies that within one subject there could be two opposites, like someone could love and hate the same person. This is ambivalent. But ambiguity always contains the “ambi” as double. It means something can be the one as well as the other because there is some non-separation between them. Ambiguity actuates literature in opposition to, at least, classical philosophy because philosophy has banished ambiguity as the equivocal, which is a confusion of words. In contrast, literature in its modernity has exactly considered this ambiguity as something that philosophy has omitted and, therefore, claimed to think like literature, that is thinking the ambiguity of a feeling, of a life etc. […]. Actually, ambiguity is the modern mission of thought and it’s often taken into charge by literature against the clarity of thought, which proceeds by the expulsion of equivocations, as it was the duty of classical philosophy.

KF — Yes, I’ve also made this observation within our project, that there is always this tendency to decide whether it’s this or that, black or white and not being able to think two opposites at the same time and to acknowledge this grey zone or blandness[3].

FJ —Yes, it’s the grey, the intermediary, the in-between, which is interesting – it’s ambiguity that makes us go back to the in-between of the non-separation of two opposites and that cracks our reflection and allows new possibilities. This is why China is interesting. Greek thought isn’t able to think the grey zone and classical philosophy is still into this perspective. Actually, China is very comfortable with thinking confusion/dizziness. The Tao is dizzy (confus), that is what is said by Laozi. The only determination of the Tao is: confusion/dizziness, fuzzy, vague, undetermined, bland, indefinite, indistinct.

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How could we think being? From the moment when we think being, we have to think determination because it’s the determination that brings into life the concept of being. Put in a different way, Hegel says being and non-being is the same. It’s determination that makes being become being, that actualises being effectively as being.

From the moment on, when there is a philosophy of being, there is an opposition to confusion/dizziness. The ontological thinking of being is clear and distinct. The interest, which l find in China, is that it makes us get out of the philosophy of being, towards a thinking of processes, of the flux etc. China privileges the transition, the “amorce” (lure or trigger) and this phase when it’s neither the one nor the other; this phase of confusion/dizziness, when both are possible, compossible, is when there is no separation yet between the two. This is what I consider a resource of Chinese thought: To think in the mode of the confused/dizzy and not in the mode of the distinct.


KF — I also want to ask you about the phrase “The great image has no form.” What does it mean?

FJ — What is interesting within this sentence is to ask what “great” means. It’s obviously not about big size. Great means exactly the compossible – something, which can be this and the other as well. In relation to your project on dizziness (Taumel), this seems to be the most interesting aspect to me – because in the end, dizziness, which I call ambiguity, is compossibility – the one as well as the other, not separated (cut through). In this sense, I believe that dizziness (Taumel), when it’s productive, makes us vacillate and go back to this compossibility or ambiguity, back to the fact that there is both, the one and the other, because of the non-separation of opposites. So, this expression by Laozi, “The great image has no form”, is great because it unsettles (ébranler) our European thought.

The expression in its evolving context is the following: “The great square has no angles.” What does “great” stand for? “Great” means “what is not limited to its nature of square”, it’s not a square square, it’s not included in its definition. Obviously, it’s not because of its big size that it has no angles. It’s because the square is not limited by its definition (of what a square is). Maybe it’s round. This means that, basically, the square is not comprised within the limitation of what would be its definition.

The following formula is even more interesting: “The great oeuvre avoids to come about (advenir).” At this stage of the “just before”, of the potential, the ambiguous, the non-separation – the work of art avoids to come about, to take place because if it takes place, it is only this and not as well that anymore, it becomes exclusive. The great oeuvre keeps itself at work, because it keeps itself at this stage of the “just before”, “upstream” of a definitive actualisation, which would follow its definition.

Finally, the formula “The great image has no form” – it has no form exactly because it is not limited by a form. It maintains itself within the compossible, on this ground/foundation (foncier), which can’t be chopped into opposites and, therefore, is apt to expansion. I’ve interpreted this formula in the following sense: artwork, which claims to be totally finished, is dead. All interest lies in this moment of the “just before”, when the artwork is still within the realm of non-separation and elementary ambiguity. It maintains us at this stage of the compossible, which is a kind of a virtuality not yet defined, stopped, limited.

I think this formula is very beautiful and I dedicated a book to the phrase “The great image has no form” because it does not destroy the concept of the image. It shows that any image – and image in Chinese is very complicated because it means phenomenon as well as image – so there is no idea of mimesis or imitation, the Chinese image is not belonging to the register of representation. I think this is a very fertile Chinese term: When I say image, it also means phenomenon, it’s “phenomenon-image”. We are not in the Greek register of bisection in between reality and its representation, the reproduction of reality, mimesis etc. That’s why the sentence “The great image has no form” means actually that the phenomenon is much more effective when it hasn’t let itself be determined by a particular form.

In the end, there are two stages, the effective and the determinative. The determinative is damaged and worn off. We need to go back from the determinative to the effective, something that avoids to come about, which avoids determinations in order to maintain the polyvalence and fundamental ambiguity, this fertile moment of the “just before”/the “upstream”. This is what China gives us to think about, this fertile moment before any determination. […] I mean “fertile” in the sense of something that comprises more than that which is known, something that has not yet come about.

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KF — I’ve worked on the concept of “phantasma”, from Aristotle up to Renaissance philosophy – and this was exactly the time that this concept was banned from classical philosophical discourse and, with Kant, assigned to the irrational and to the “maladies of the head”. In the beginning, the concept of “phantasma” described the suspense in between something that appears in the light and what we perceive; it would still comprise both, the sensible and the intelligible. There was a moment before this separation in between the sensible and the intelligible – as there is this image of the stone in the soul, which is not yet part of the register of reproduction.

FJ — This is the difficult point within Kant, within his Schematism of imagination. He admits that thought stops there, thinking cannot go beyond – and his Schematism has the function to mediate imagination and pure reason, exactly at the point where the sensible and the intelligible meet. But he says that one cannot actually think this merging moment. As the very intelligent philosopher Kant is, he puts his finger exactly on this difficulty but he cannot resolve the problem as he is taken by 18th century epistemology – still, he has an extreme acuity for saying what he is not able to think. What he does not think, he ranges under the term “schema/schemata”: This is the intermediary state, double-faced, at the same time sensible and intelligible, and running the fundamental operation of presenting the sensible perceptions to the Categories, which are the pure concepts of understanding.[4] What is the status of the double-face? Sensible face and intelligible face at the same time – is cognition only re-cognition? Is knowledge only possible in form of pure concepts of understanding? I do not think this is possible. Anyway, Kant thinks through the problem very well as he shows what he does not think. He uses expressions like “mystery of nature” to call his renouncement to thinking this interface by a name. Kant marks the limit of his thought, which is caught in between the relation of the sensible and the intelligible. This grey zone, the intermediary, the “sas” is called “Schematism” by Kant.

KF — This affects as well the question of Science – Science doesn’t ask the anthropological question.

FJ — Yes, this is the famous sentence of Heidegger – and I’m not Heideggerian – but: Science does not think. Science does something different and makes it very well – but they are not thinking. So, knowing is not thinking. Science is about achieving knowledge and pioneering, but its knowledge is always sectorial, and it is not thought.

KF — With regard to our project, I also pose the question of legitimacy because we try to address various trends of thought and Science. What about the legitimacy to speak about Chinese thought when I do not read Chinese at all? The same question arises when speaking about contemporary physics when I do not “speak” its “language”. And another question comes to my mind, which I would like to ask you: How could we think the relation between efficacy and efficiency and the concept of performance and performativity, which is very trendy at the moment, and do you see any relation in between them because both seem to be linked by a concept of “effect”?

FJ — There are two things – efficacy and efficiency don’t deal with performance. I would say that "efficacy" (l’efficacité) is effective (résultatif)/has an outcome and is related to a subject, who is efficient (efficace). "Efficiency" (l’efficience) is not effective (résultatif), it’s a process and has no subject – you don’t say “an efficacious man” (un homme efficient). What seems interesting in regard to performance is exactly the aspect that performance doesn’t imply a subject. Of course, there is the saying “the performance of someone” – but if you think about any art performance, it’s not only the performance of someone. There is something about performance that is not part of the subject who is performing. This is the interesting connection to the “écart”, the discrepancy or the tension, which I have tried to think of between efficacy and efficiency. Efficacy (l’efficacité) is still part of the capacity of a subject. It’s an attribute. Efficiency (l’efficience) is not an attribute because it’s more like a process itself; it triggers a process or performance. Performance means that through the action of a subject, a process gets started and this happens because of a transformation of the whole setting. This is where I connect your question to the opposition between action and transformation, which is central to Chinese thought. Action is always depending on a subject, is always local and momentary. Whereas transformation is always global, continuous etc. Within the notion of performance I’m interested in the “per-” because this means passing from one form to another, per-formation: Something becomes effective or something is put into effect without taking part in an action.

KF — Has this transformation to do with circumstances as well?

FJ — Circumstances is a term I distrust in European language because I think it’s quite false. In German “Umstand” or in Greek “peristasis” or in English and French – it always means something that is around. I have criticised this term because I think it can’t help us with thinking performance, situation, configuration etc. "Circumstance" holds itself around a subject – who is stable? Or what is stable, the circumstance around the subject? You could find the same idea in the Latin or French term “situation” that implies a situated subject. Circumstance seems to be a thoroughly European term, which is very much determined by its buried choices. It means to think around a subject, “circum”, still within the register of being. Place, time and matter – all of this is circumstantial. I believe this term impedes us from thinking what a situation or a configuration really is.

KF —Does the notion of immanence enter into this context?

FJ — Yes. Sometimes I hesitate to use this term because it’s heavy with a lot of meanings. But considering "efficiency" in relation to "efficacy", there is immanence for sure. […] – immanence, which is coming from the inside of a process, through propensity (propension/Neigung). I think that performance could dissolve the transcendence of the subject, the representation of a subject and their perspective and action. Performance is like transformation. Still, there is a need to distinguish effective from determinative because there is something effective within performance that cannot be reduced to the determinations of a subject or project.

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KF — I don’t know if we still have the time to come to the passage about the happy fish…

FJ — Oh yes, I looked it up yesterday. But just another word on “occasion” – you know, China always thinks in binomials (compounds). So the term for translating “crisis” is “wei-ji” (wēijī) – "wei" means danger and "ji" means opportunity. Danger simultaneously means opportunity. This seems interesting compared to the idea of dizziness (Taumel). Because dizziness could mean imperilment and endangerment of vitality or rationality or something similar – and how could an endangerment be an opportunity at the same time?! This is still to be found out. This seems to be interesting to think in Chinese terms. "Wei" is at the same time "ji", danger is at the same time opportunity.

About the passage of the Zhuangzi now: When I translate from the Chinese text, it reads: “Look how the minnows there are between the rocks” – the Chinese term is not rocks, it reads more like “emerging, evolving completely at ease, at will”. The Chinese image – and this is the great theme of the Zhuangzi – is the capacity to evolve. I stick to the French term "evolve" (évoluer) – evolve like a fish, which comes and goes, without direction, without “telos”. Evolving means exactly “without any destination or intent”. Evolving at ease, this doesn’t mean “freely” because it’s not about liberty but it means “in a completely available (disponible) way”. Evolving without going somewhere, without tending somewhere – this is the first word of the Zhuangzi. It means actually to evolve, emerging, evolving, without any aim, at ease, at will. This is the happiness of fishes.

The other one answers: “No, as you are not a fish, how do you know about the happiness of fishes?”. The first one, Zhuangzi, replies: “You are not I, inevitably, so how do you know? You don’t know me.” –Then, the answer at the end is interesting, when Zhuangzi replies to his interlocutor: “Let’s go back”. In Chinese this reads: “Let’s come to what is fundamental!” It’s not “back”, it’s the “stem” (souche). “Come to the ground (foncier)”, “Let’s follow the ground/the fount”. “You say, how to know the happiness of the fish, it’s because you already know that I know that you’d ask me” – and afterwards he says in your English translation “as I did know from my own feelings (perceptions/observations) on this bridge”.

I think it’s much simpler than that: “I know it, I know this on the bridge.” There is neither perception nor observation, nothing. There is only “I know, I realise” and the bridge over the river. The only verb is “to know, to realise” but there are no choices in between feelings, perceptions or observations. This is the European psychological spectrum.

The Chinese text speaks about the ground, the fundament, the stem, where there is no distinction between feelings, perceptions etc. It is on this ground that I, Zhuangzi, can know the happiness of the fish. So, this ground is beyond our particular individuations, beyond this “I’m this or that”. Here again reappears the connection to ambiguity. Let’s go back to the stem, the root – it’s in this root that I know that you know that I know that I know – isn’t it? So, there is a sort of communication on this ground of things, which cannot be grasped by particular individuations like you, me, fish. It’s not like Buddhism says that individuations are illusory. It’s more about the insight that individuations are what they are from a ground, stem, root that makes [us] communicate. It’s exactly on this ground that the singular individuations – you, me, fish – communicate. That’s why I can tell about the happiness of fish.

So this ground is just before there are particular individuations, distinctions and determinations.

KF — …and it’s from there that emerge other …

FJ — …other determinations and other individuations. This is what I call “le fond indifférencié”. There is a non-differentiated ground that enables the communication among all differences. Your theme of dizziness [Taumel] – and that’s what I find interesting – is that dizziness makes flourish again, puts us back to this non-differentiated ground of confusion, where the differences are fused/melted together and from where other differences could come out as well. It’s a kind of melting-pot where all differences melt and where reality again communicates beyond its individuations and particular demarcations. This is what China is thinking. The Tao is this. The Tao is this undivided, non-differentiated ground, from where all differences and divisions could come out.

Maybe the interest of the kind of vertigo, of dizziness as you use it, is to put us back to this ground of seeming confusions, but which is actually ground of ambiguity, non-separation and communication of opposites among each other.

KF — Yes, this dizziness is also about children spinning around to provoke vertigo, to loose orientation.

FJ — In French we say “déboussolé”, when you lose your compass. It’s exactly this loss that is not necessarily a trance but which results in a loss of orientation and in a confusion, which can exactly become the moments when this "ground" (foncier) reappears. The ground which is beyond and before any demarcations, determinations and oppositions.


"Épouser" (embracing): it’s a Chinese term (shùn = along, to obey, to go well, in the same direction, following), which means to coincide with the coherence in its mutation, to coincide with the movement of the upcoming, of what is about to evolve.

Jullien distinguishes ambiguity and equivocalness. Chinese thought respects the ambiguity of reality, whereas Greek philosophy tried to ban all equivocalness; the equivocal is located on the level of discourse and language. For Jullien, it’s the negative term in contrast to ambiguity, which is the more general term for describing two things at the same time.

François Jullien, In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics, Zone Books, 2007.

In order to test whether a concept is sensible, we sometimes “ … go back to perception only tentatively and for the moment, by calling up in imagination a perception corresponding to the concept that occupies us at the moment, a perception that can never be quite adequate to the (general) concept, but is a mere representative of it for the time being. … Kant calls a fleeting phantasm of this kind a schema.” (Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I., Appendix, "Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy", p. 449), quoted online: