By Philip J. Bossert

Journal of Chinese Philosophy
V. 3 (1976)
pp. 269-280

Copyright 1976 by D. Reidel Publishing Company



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In a recent article in this journal [1], Dr Chung-ying Cheng discussed the seemingly paradoxical use of language in Zen dialogues and suggested a means for understanding this paradoxical quality. The "principle of ontic non-commitment" and the method of "ontological reduction" which he described as an approach to resolving the paradoxical qualities of Zen language appear to me to be quite similar to the phenomenological technique of epoche and the method of phenomenological reduction which the German philosopher Edmund Husserl developed early in this century to deal with certain paradoxes of subjectivity and objectivity. [2]

    I believe that a discussion of this issue of language and paradox might provide a fruitful point of comparative philosophical dialogue between Zen Buddhism and phenomenological philosophy. [3] Hence, using Dr Cheng's article as a basis, I would like to point out various similarities between his suggested principle of ontic non-commitment and method of ontological reduction and Husserl's principle of epoche and method of phenomenological reduction. After mentioning how these methods are used to treat seemingly paradoxical situations, I will conclude with a few remarks on the notions of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Phenomenology.



Dr Cheng points out that the paradoxes of Zen dialogue are due to an attempt to understand an utterance in terms of its surface semantic structure and the common-sensical ontological structure which normally provides the referential framework for this semantic structure. However, instead of the semantic structure of an utterance ('Listen to the dog.') referring to some past or present ontological event (the experience or concept of a barking dog), the Zen koan ('Listen to the sound of one hand clapping.') appears to refer to an ontological absurdity (neither the con-



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cept nor the experience of a clapping sound can be meaningfully associated as originating from a single hand). The semantic structure of the utterance does not seem to 'point to' anything and is thus an apparently meaningless use of language

This means that the language of the Zen paradoxes contradicts the background reference presuppositions of surface-level terms in ordinary usage and by doing so points to the singular absence of reference or that of reference framework for the language of the paradoxes. [4]

    But the insight that the Zen dialogue seeks to offer is not at the common sense level of ordinary linguistic usage. And it is precisely the first step toward enlightenment to realize that the paradox is valid only as long as one remains at the common sense level of understanding. The Zen koan uses language not to refer but as a tool or a

dialectical process for revealing a very deep ontological structure by means of or in virtue of the incongruity of the surface semantic structure of the paradoxes in reference to a standard framework of reference. [5]

To get at this deep ontological structure, the surface level of understanding must be sundered and it is precisely the paradoxicality of the language of the koan which accomplishes this [6]. But this is only the negative side of the paradox, i.e., its destruction of the common-sensical understanding of the world. If the listener does not retreat from the apparent absurdity of the paradoxical statement but instead grapples with it, the positive side of the paradox may have the constructive effect of producing in the person an insight into this deeper level of understanding. [7] A paradox is something which is 'contrary to common belief', that is, something which does not have a place in the ontology of everyday life. The destruction of this 'common ontology' as a basis for understanding leaves one open for understanding at a different level. The insight into this deeper level of understanding is a result of a shift in attitude toward the language of the utterance, a shift which separates the semantic structure from its ordinary ontological framework of reference.

    This shift resolves the paradox. It does not solve it or dissolve it by explaining away the incongruity involved but resolves it by clarifying the paradoxicality of the paradox. At the level of common sense understanding and ordinary linguistic usage, the paradox still remains. The individual who has mastered the koan, however, now understands from his



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new vantage point just why the language of the koan is paradoxical. This is just the nature of Zen Enlightenment. Just as the awareness that the world is illusion (maya) does not change anything about the world but rather changes the yogi's attitude toward and expectations concerning the world, so too does the 'Enlightenment' of Zen Buddhism come not from overcoming the paradox itself but from grasping the nature of the paradoxicality.

    Although this 'ontological leap' or shift may come to the contemplator of the koan as a flash of insight, Dr Cheng suggests that one can work at it methodically by employing the principle of ontic non-commitment:

The process and method of resolving the paradoxicality of a Zen puzzle or paradox in terms of forbidding any ontological commitment to any semantic structure of language may be called the principle of ontic non-commitment. The request that this principle embodies is twofold: (1) For a given semantically incongruous sentence or conjunction of sentences all ontological references must be suspended; (2) An ontological structure of no reference should be recognized for all semantical structures of language. [8]

The employment of this principle to achieve the necessary deep level ontological insight is called 'ontological reduction'.

Ontological reduction or ontological abnegation refers to the case where the semantic structure of a paradox is negated of its ontological reference and thus gives rise to the ontological insight into a reality to which no ontological commitment can be or should be made. [9]

    Leaving to section five of this paper the discussion of the results of this reduction, I now turn to a discussion of Husserl's method of phenomenological reduction and its similarities to the above methods.



In his 1913 treatise entitled Ideen [10], Husserl argues that while the common sense description and understanding of the world is sufficient for carrying out the normal affairs of everyday life, this understanding and the descriptions of reality it produces are not adequate to the demands of science and philosophy. The pragmatic concerns of praxis enable one to live in the world but a critical awareness of experience and its realities such as science and philosophy demand requires a deeper level of understanding which throws experience and the affairs of the world into a different light.



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The language of ordinary affairs and the descriptions of 'mundane reality' do not strike us as paradoxical in most circumstances, but many of the beliefs and conceptions which characterize everyday life become absurd if they are pushed to their logical and consistent conclusions. On the other hand, the utterances of modern-day scientists and philosophers appear to be completely absurd if taken at the level of common sense understanding.

    Thus the clarification and explanation of the world of common sense requires a use of language and thinking which is often foreign to ordinary language and thought. And the understanding of the descriptions and explanations of science and philosophy require a shift to a different level of ontological reference.

    Both science and philosophy require this shift but the requirements are not the same, for science seeks knowledge and truth, while philosophy seeks understanding and enlightenment. [11] Thus, according to Husserl, science seeks to explain (erklaren) our experiences of things and events in the world and thus undertakes a shift from the natural attitude of everyday life to the explanatory or 'naturalistic' attitude of positive science. Philosophy, on the other hand, seeks to clarify (aufklaren) our experience of the world -- both in its everyday sense and in its various scientific senses -- and thus demands a shift from either the natural attitude of praxis or the naturalistic attitude of positive science to an epistemologically critical, phenomenological or transcendental attitude. [12]

    This shift requires the recognition that the world of praxis as well as the worlds of the various sciences (i.e., the physical world, the biological world, the psychical world) are various types of hypotheses that are often uncritically accepted as true or, in most cases, anonymously present in the natural and naturalistic attitudes. The shift, for example, from a world in which tables are real to a world in which atoms or numbers are real is a very drastic change of experiential foundations and should be made critically rather than matter-of-factly. [13]

    Another way of describing the difference between the demands of science and philosophy is to say that whereas the sciences require a shift to a different ontology or ontological frame of reference (i.e., a different set of ontic commitments: from those of the everyday world to those of the physical or psychical worlds), an epistemologically critical philosophy requires a shift from the level of ontological commitment (any and all



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such commitments) to a level of ontological neutrality or, to use Dr Cheng's terms, to a level of ontic-non-commitment.

    Now this shift can and does take place spontaneously when one is in such states as poetic awareness (when "things fall apart" and "the center cannot hold" to use W. B. Yeats' words) and in the various stages of insanity and madness (when the "world comes englued and crashes down upon us" to use R. D. Laing's metaphor). [14] Husserl offers a method for achieving this shift deliberately and rationally as a basis for doing philosophical investigations. The technique he uses is not wholly new, for the ancient Greek sceptics used the method of epoche or 'suspension of belief' for some of their deliberations over 2000 years ago. Husserl uses the technique of epoche as a tool or device to become aware of the world as a 'doxic construct', i.e., as a system of beliefs. This involves a suspension of belief in the reality of the world which neither affirms not denies its existence but rather treats the belief in the existence of the world as an as yet unverified hypothesis. The phenomenological epoche requires that one remain neutral toward the phenomena which comprise our experience of the world, neither affirming and committing oneself to the reality of such experiences as we do in the natural attitude of praxis nor denying or attempting to negate the existence of the world as the Cartesian methodology demands.

    The epoche results in a suspension of belief and judgment which leaves the philosopher in a position of ontological suspension or an attitude that Husserl refers to as 'transcendental consciousness'. The use of the epoche to achieve this attitude or standpoint, Husserl calls 'phenomenological reduction'. The phenomenological reduction is a shift from a natural attitude or a naturalistic attitude to the phenomenological or transcendental attitude accomplished by means of an epoche or suspension of the natural belief (or as Husserl calls it, the 'natural thesis') in the existence of the world as a framework of ontological reference. In the case of the sciences, it is a suspension of the naturalistic theses (hypotheses) that, for example, a 'physical reality' or a 'psychical reality' exists. [15] Everything is transformed into phenomena, the reality of which is neither affirmed nor denied in terms of ontic or ontological categories; it is just a phenomenon and has reality or existence only as such.

    The negative aspect of the phenomenological reduction is, as in the case of the Zen koan, a suspension of the ordinary, surface level under-



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standing of experience that is accomplished in the natural attitude. But the use of the epoche to achieve a phenomenological reduction also has a positive side, for the shift in attitude that results from this reduction places the philosopher in a standpoint from which the pre-predicative, pre-ego-centered flow of experience (transcendental consciousness) is primary, and from which the world with all its persons, events and things (as well as the sciences of those persons, events and things) as understood as a passively constituted association of experience, a web of belief, or a fabric of reality. However, as in the case of the enlightenment of Zen meditation and the awareness of the world as maya, this phenomenological reduction does nothing to the worlds of praxis and the sciences themselves but rather transforms the attitudes and expectations of the phenomenological philosopher towards his experience of these worlds and their respective claims to validity.

It is not that the real sensory world is 'recast' or denied, but that an absurd interpretation of it, which indeed contradicts its own intuitively clarified meaning, is set aside. (This attitude) springs from making the world absolute in the philosophical sense, which is wholly foreign to the way in which we naturally look out upon it. [16]

    The point is not to secure objectivity, but to understand it. [17]

    Thus, the language of philosophical descriptions carried out in this epistemologically critical attitude often sounds very paradoxical, precisely because they are contrary to common belief and common assumption. But, as in the case of the Zen koan, this paradoxicality only exists at the level of common sense understanding and ordinary language usage. A shift to the transcendental attitude via the phenomenological reduction does not get rid of the paradox but shows the source of the paradoxicality to lie in the basic presuppositions of the natural and naturalistic attitudes. Thus, the paradoxes that are inherent in the natural and naturalistic attitudes toward experience and the world (but which often lie anonymous until some sort of extreme or boundary situation arises such as a social or scientific revolution [18] are resolved at a deeper level of understanding which focuses upon epistemological rather than ontological concerns.



Both the ontological reduction suggested by Dr Cheng and the phenomenological reduction suggested by Husserl can be used to resolve



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apparent paradoxes of ordinary language usage. Neither method, however, is restricted to solely this use, since both can be employed for philosophical examinations of experience which are not instigated by paradoxical encounters. The teaching methods of Zen Buddhism deliberately employ the method of koan and, hence, the paradoxes are not so much encountered as created. Phenomenological philosophy, on the other hand, is primarily a method for 'founding' or making 'philosophically absolute' both our everyday experience of the world and the scientific theories of the world. Husserl was originally a mathematician and a positivist (a colleague of Mach and Avenarius) who became aware of and distressed at the unclarified foundations of science and the very 'un-positive' taint this gave to the knowledge of the sciences. In this respect, his efforts to justify the foundations of science are very similar to those of Kant. Most of the paradoxes Husserl encountered arose in the course of his studies of logic and the scientific concepts of time and space and number, and his phenomenological method was developed to resolve these difficulties.

    Dr Cheng has discussed the resolution by means of ontological reduction of several of the Zen paradoxes he mentions in his article and I shall not repeat his accounts here. Likewise, I do not wish to discuss at length any of Husserl's resolutions of paradoxes by means of the phenomenological method. I want simply to point out several of the problems that he encountered and the sources the interested reader can turn to in order to find Husserl's accounts of these paradoxes and their bases.

    As a positivist, Husserl joined early in his career with such people as Frege to fight the current trend of psychologism in logic. As a result of his investigations of the 1890's and early 1900's, Husserl published several works which dealt with the seeming contradiction of a particular, finite human mind using a culturally determined symbol system (language) to express and formulate universal truths of logic. The investigations of his early work, Logische Untersuchungen (1901), show the first fruits of his attempt to resolve this paradox and the analyses of his later, more mature work, Formale und transzendentale Logik (1929), show the results of a successful application of the phenomenological method of reduction to this problem. [19]

    Another theme which runs throughout the corpus of Husserl's work is that of time-consciousness. Husserl claimed that almost every concept of



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time put forth in our ordinary experience and in our scientific theories leads to paradoxes if pushed to its logical conclusions. His attempts to reconcile objective or cosmic time with subjective or internal time and to resolve the contradictions in both the attempt to separate and the attempt to combine the two conceptions of time have been collected in a volume entitled, Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, edited by Martin Heidegger. [20] Some of Husserl's later efforts in this area have only recently been uncovered and are now being prepared for publication in Louvain.

    The two themes which Husserl treats most often with his method are those of subjectivity and intersubjectivity and that of intentional objectivity. The German philosopher, Iso Kern, has recently published a three-volume study of the former problem which brings together almost all of Husserl's reflections on this topic and the multitude of paradoxes it involves. A treatment of these topics in English can be found in the translations of two of Husserl's later works, Cartesian Meditations and the Crisis [21]. The main issue at hand is that concerning the problem of man being both an object in the world and a subject for the world. The problem of intentional objectivity is tied to this problem of intersubjectivity but has a much broader scope as far as the method of phenomenology is concerned. Since all meaning or sense is intentionally constituted in Husserl's view, intentional objectivity is considered the central theme of his philosophy and is taken up in almost every chapter of every work. In this case, I would again direct the interested reader to two of Husserl's later works in translation. Formal and Transcendental Logic and the Crisis, for a treatment of this subject matter and the paradoxes involved with it. [22]

    In almost all of these cases, Husserl's accounts of the problems involved with the common sense understanding and the scientific conception of the issue at hand have been criticized as being themselves very paradoxical. I have argued elsewhere [23] that these criticisms are almost always based upon a 'mundane' understanding of Husserl's language and not upon the 'transcendental' or epistemologically clarified understanding of his analyses and descriptions that is required. The number of people using the phenomenological method to study the paradoxes of language and logic is still very small but has born considerable fruit and is attracting more attention as of recent. [24]



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By way of conclusion, I will mention several points of agreement and difference that exist concerning the notion of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Phenomenology. Although both the ontological reduction accomplished by means of the principle of ontic non-commitment (in practice by means of the koan) and the phenomenological reduction accomplished by means of the epoche result, if successful, in a new level of understanding and insight, the nature of experience as seen at this new level is somewhat different in Zen Buddhism and Phenomenology. Dr Cheng points out that because Zen Buddhism is basically Taoistic, the ultimate truth understood in the state of Enlightenment is the truth of non-reference and voidness. [25] Husserl, on the other hand, is an arch-rationalist and sees the truth revealed by his method as a form of absolute knowledge. [26]

    Whereas the result of achieving Enlightenment in Zen meditation can reduce one to silence:

                    He who knows does not speak.
                    He who speaks does not know.

    or as Wittgenstein puts it at the conclusion of his Tractatus:

                    What one cannot speak about,
                    One must pass over in silence. [27]

the result of achieving understanding based upon a transcendentally clarified analysis of experience opens up a whole new realm of investigation which is ripe for analysis and description:

The biologist using his microscope sees very much more than the porter; he has learned a type of seeing that the latter has not learned. He cannot really demonstrate this seeing to anyone, and whoever has a priori arguments that rule out a certain type of seeing will never be able to be convinced, even by a microscope. ... I see phenomenological differences -- especially differences of intentionality -- as well as I see the differences between this white and that red as pure color data. If someone absolutely cannot see differences of the latter sort, then one would say he is blind; if one does not see differences of the other sort, then I cannot help saying once more, he is blind. [28]

    The insight of Zen is that no conceptual system can ever be completely successful in grasping the full richness of experience and, hence, that



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experience is ultimately ineffable. Husserl could not accept this viewpoint even though the insights he gained from his phenomenological analyses forced him to begin over and over again at ever deeper levels of explication. Though he once despaired of the endless cycles of 'going back' to the beginning and claimed that the "dream of philosophy as a rigorous science was over", he nonetheless continued his work up to his death, always feeling he had just found the right place to begin.

    Subsequent phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty are less convinced than Husserl that the phenomenological reduction can ever be completely carried out to the end. Both men agree that each application of the reduction reveals a new ground for investigation but that analysis of this new domain makes it quickly clear that a new reduction must be initiated from this new starting point in order to get at the yet deeper level of presuppositions that make this newest level of understanding possible. Merleau-Ponty sees phenomenology as a necessarily incomplete method which will always be in process but never arrived, while Heidegger seems to come very close to the Zen position at times in his work when he claims that ultimately man must wait quietly and 'let Being be' rather than trying to force Being into clarification via one method or another.

    Both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty believe that phenomenology provides fruitful analyses and descriptions of experience that are helpful in illuminating our human condition, but both are also sceptical of Husserl's goal of reaching a standpoint that will provide a completely presuppositonless explication of experience. Experience may not be completely explicable, but neither is it totally ineffable. Thus, a true understanding that the world is maya also carries with it the recognition that this illusion is 'the only dance there is' and must be dealt with. One must neither renounce the world as maya nor succumb to its charms; one must rather use this understanding that the world is maya (and hence not ultimate) to modify one's expectations and interpretations of experience. This is the nature of Enlightenment. Similarly, the understanding that no conceptual system can ever do full justice to the explication of experience should not reduce one to silence and inaction but rather resolve one to an acceptance of the human condition of being always on the road to understanding and forever in pursuit of truth. It is in this latter sense of 'learned ignorance', as the medieval scholastics called it, that one may be



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said to have arrived at a state of enlightenment in the transcendental-phenomenological sense.




1. 'On Zen (Ch'an) Language and Zen Paradoxes', Journal of Chinese Philosophy 1 (1973), 77-102.

2. Cf. loc. cit., p. 102, fn. 15.

3. I am indebted in this respect to Dr Cheng himself, who brought my attention to this comparative issue regarding phenomenology and Zen language.

4. Cheng, loc. cit., p. 91.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., p. 92.

7. Ibid.: "... the mind is forced by the conceptual conflict it experiences to make an ontological jump, that is, to gain an ontological insight: namely to forego all ontological commitments to all possible semantic categories, in the light of which the question of the ontological commitment for this semantic structure will not arise."

8. Ibid., p. 93.

9. Ibid., pp. 93-94.

10. Ideen zu einer reinen Phanomenologie und phanomenologischen Philosophie, Edmund Husserl, (Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tubingen, 1913); an English translation, though poor in many respects, is available under the title, Ideas, from Macmillan Co.

11 This is a point of agreement among both analytic philosophers (such as Quine, Nelson Goodman, Moritz Schlick) and phenomenological and existential philosophers (such as Heidegger, Sartre, Ricoeur) in the Western Tradition's recent philosophical trends.

12. Cf. Bossert, 'The Explication of "The World" in Constructionalism and Phenomenology', in Man and World VI (1973), 239-42.

13. Ibid., p. 242.

14. Cf. 'The Second Coming', in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, (Macmillan Co., New York, 1972), p. 184; and The Politics of Experience, R. D. Laing, (Ballantine, New York, 1967).

15. Cf. Bossert, 'The Sense of Epoche and Reduction in Husserl's Philosophy', in the Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology V (1974).

16. Ideas, p. 153.

17. Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, trans. by David Carr, (Northwestern Univ. Press, Chicago, 1970), p. 189.

18. Husserl takes up this theme over and over again in the Crisis (cf. esp. pp. 23-60, 103-114); Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions offers similar analyses with respect to scientific presuppositions, while Peter Berger's The Social Construction of Reality provides an excellent treatment of this theme from the standpoint of sociology.

19. Logische Untersuchungen, (Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tubingen, 1968); Formale und Transzendentale Logik (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1974).

20. The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, Edmund Husserl, trans. By J. S. Churchhill, (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1964).



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21. Cf. Husserliana XIII, XIV, XV, edited by Iso Kern, (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1974); Cartesian Meditations, trans. by Dorion Cairns, (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1970); and the Crisis (n. 17).

22. Cf. Crisis (cited in n. 17) and Formal and Transcendental Logic (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1969), trans. by Dorion Cairns.

23. Cf. Bossert, "The Sense of Epoche and Reduction in Husserl's Philosophy', op. cit., pp. 252-54.

24. Cf. Roman Jakobsons phanomenologischer Strukturalismus, Elmar Holenstein, (Surkamp, Frankfurt, 1975); and Husserlian Meditations, Robert Sokolowski, (Northwestern Univ. Press, Chicago, 1974) as two examples of this trend.

25. Cf. Cheng, loc. cit., p. 81.

26. Cf. Crisis, pp. 152-56.

27. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York, 1961), p. 151.

28. Introduction to the Logical Investigations, Edmund Husserl, trans. by Bossert & Peters, (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1975), pp. 56-57.