College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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Plato, Zhuangzi, ancient Greek philosophy, Asian philosophy, therapy


Plato and Zhuangzi are two philosophers who appear diametrically opposed given their traditional appropriations into a western and eastern philosophical canon. While the former is consistently allied with a history of philosophical rationalism, the Zhuangzi is often read as a text that symbolizes the great mystical and anti-rationalist traditions of classical China. This is, however, a deficient presentation, one that is simply unable to account for the richness and vitality of both individual philosophers as well as the cultures of ‘east’ and ‘west’ they are thought to represent. Indeed, both Plato and Zhuangzi converge in their thinking of an index of central philosophical problems and challenges. One such challenge that grounds both philosophical projects is that of articulating a program of philosophical therapy. Underlying Plato’s frequent references to the “philosopher-physician,” we find a complex lexicon that ties a medical vernacular to the larger objectives of philosophy. And, in a parallel context, the Zhuangzi offers its philosophical musings by drawing on a well-instituted tradition of self-cultivation that itself emerges from the intersections of medical and philosophical texts. My dissertation takes its cue from these respective intellectual frameworks in ancient Greece and classical China and examines the problem of philosophical therapy using a comparative model. I explicitly articulate a set of axes along which this ‘problem’ of therapy unfolds – most notably, those of method and ontology – and organize the comparison accordingly. While the project thus draws out in sharper relief the ostensible connotations of therapy and self-cultivation associated with the art of philosophy, it yields the startling conclusion that, in both the Platonic and Daoist models, this art confronts a limit beyond which it begins to display a set of symptoms reflective of disease. It is at this point, in other words, that the philosopher must account for the risks that are entailed in living a philosophical life and seek to either justify this choice or bring it into suspension. In Plato, we find a nuanced justification of philosophy and the willingness to take on its pathological risks via a language of eros. The Zhuangzi exhibits a lesser appetite for risk, and calls for the timely suspension of the philosophical method once it has effected a corrective in a given dialectical context.

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