On Being Vague

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 11)


The idea of clear-cut "definiteness" reflects as a sharp and somewhat hostile attitude to life. In this talk, Alan Watts shows the value of the vague and gentle approach reflected in Far Eastern poetry and painting.



You know, it’s not surprising that, in this day and age, the most up-to-date and respectable form of academic philosophy taught in our universities is what is called logical analysis. A logical analyst, you know, is a kind of fellow who, the moment you say something, you hardly get a word out of your mouth before he says, “Now, just precisely what do you mean by that?” You can’t take a step of the way in unfolding a proposition or a thesis or an idea without his going minutely into the meaning of each word that you say. And as a result of this sort of technique most logical analysts have come to the conclusion that the problems that have been discussed by philosophers for several thousand years are mostly meaningless problems. Because when you look very precisely at the form of words in which they’re stated, and you analyze each word bit by bit, you come to the conclusion that it didn’t really mean anything.


But I think there’s a profound fallacy in this, because it’s based on the assumption that the meaning of words is supposed to be precise. But unfortunately, for this sort of approach to things, we are living in a world which isn’t precise, where nature on the whole is extraordinarily vague. I mean, it would be very nice for purposes of precise calculation if the Earth in its orbit around the sun went round in a neat 360 days. But it doesn’t. It goes round in 365 and some wretched fraction. Everything’s a little odd, everything’s a little off-center. For example, how are we to decide exactly when now is, you know? When is now? If I look at my watch and take a good look at the second hand to find out when exactly now is—well, that second hand, I can see it, so it must have some size. So let’s take out a magnifying glass. And then it appears that the thing that marks now looks about so wide. And then, well, let’s draw it a bit finer, and draw it a bit finer. But we never seem to be able to get to the end of analyzing it. Now, you see, is fuzzy. It’s vague.


It’s like the field of vision which you have in front of your eyes. You can see clearly in the middle, but going out to the sides things get a little bit blurred. For where exactly does the head stop and the neck begin? Is it here? Is it here? Here? We can’t really decide. The only way to be perfectly clear about where the head stops and the neck begins is to chop off the head. Then you’ve got a neat dividing line.


In other words, the whole process of analysis is a process of chopping, of cutting apart, of approaching nature with a knife. It is a dividing line with a scalpel. And although there is most definitely a place in life for precision, for clear distinctions, for the attitude of the knife, this kind of thing can be enormously overdone. And if one approaches the poet—I remember a cartoon once I saw in a newspaper. It showed Shakespeare walking on the clouds of immortality, holding his head in his hand, oh! He was being pursued by a pedestrian little man wearing a cap and gown saying, “Mr. Shakespeare, you’re using the conjunction ‘if.’” And one knows all too well a certain style of personality which likes to be precise. The sort of person who always in his opinions and attitudes seems to be using his thought as a means of tearing other people to pieces.


Isn’t it wonderful to be equipped with a rigorous philosophical method that can tear all fuzzy thinking to shreds? You know the kind of person who says, “I don’t like fuzziness. I like to be definite, clear, and meticulous!” And you always feel that person has got his knife in your life. Or sometimes you meet among scientists the sort of person who likes to talk about brute facts. Why must facts be brute? Hard and clear facts. Aren’t there also facts that are soft and vague? But, you see, that kind of attitude represents—and in a way caricatures—something that is on the whole rather characteristic of the total attitude of Western civilization to the environment.


You know, one of the first things that Oriental peoples notice about us so-called white people is our noses. After all, the bridge of a Chinese nose is rather flat. Same with [n------]. And when they see us Caucasians for the first time, what they notice about us is this nose that goes out like this and seems to be prodding into everything, and the deep-set eyes with a fixed stare. And if you look at old Japanese screens which show what we call caricatures, but what they thought were fairly good representations of the first Western people they saw. They look like tenjin, or goblins, because of their long noses. For it seems that this Western man has this prodder out in front of him which is into everything. He can’t leave anything alone.


And although, as I say, there is a place for precision, nevertheless, a fundamentally hostile cutting up attitude to life gives us dead knowledge instead of living knowledge. It kills things. You know, it’s a way of approaching everything rather on the lines of the old story about Achilles and the tortoise. You know, perhaps, the problem of Achilles and the tortoise. Achilles and the tortoise agreed to have a race, but because Achilles can run twice as fast as the tortoise, the tortoise gets a head start. Achilles begins here and the tortoise begins here. Now then, when the tortoise has gone half the distance between his starting point and Achilles’ starting point—when the tortoise goes that much and is here—Achilles, who can run twice as fast, moves from here to here. Then the tortoise goes half as far as that distance. Achilles does twice as much and he lands up here. And then the tortoise goes half as far as he went again and lands up here. Achilles does twice as much and he’s here. And so the tortoise goes half as far again, and Achilles goes twice as much and he lands up here. And notice, you see: Achilles is still behind the tortoise. And the next time the tortoise will go half as much as that, and Achilles will come up to here. And we shall go on doing this, thinking about smaller and smaller and smaller intervals. And as a result of this, Achilles will never overtake the tortoise.


Now, of course, in actual life Achilles jolly well does overtake the tortoise and goes right by him. But why this is a problem is: it is a way of thinking about the situation that is infinitely and indefinitely analytical. It doesn’t as it were, let life go on, but it stops to analyze the whole business. It breaks it down into minuter and minuter and minuter quantities so that the whole thing is delayed. The whole situation is, as it were, stopped and killed. And this will always happen whenever we get into the bind, the rut, of trying to think too precisely. And it’s for this reason that the Taoist and I think also the Confucian philosophers of China are very mistrustful of logic chopping, of being too analytical about the meaning of words.


Let’s take, for example, a word that is absolutely fundamental to Chinese thought, a word which I’ve used a great deal in this program: Tao. You know, this is in English spelled this way. Tao in Chinese: 道—we usually translate that “the way:” the way of nature, the way of things. But that’s only one of its many meanings. Indeed, the term is so difficult to define that Lao Tzu—you know, this man, the man who was the founder of Taoist philosophy—Lao Tzu started out his book by saying (and this is a phrase which already shows how many meanings the word has): “Tao which can be Tao”—but here the word means “spoken;” it has that double meaning—“The Tao which can be spoken is not the the eternal”—the regular, or you might say the real—“Tao.” Oh yes, he was inconsistent. He then went on to write a whole book about it. But really, the whole purpose of the book is to show that Tao, the fundamental nature of the world, is something you cannot get too precise about. You can’t think about it and understand it that way.


In other words, what is the fundamental basis of one’s life, as of one’s thought, always has to remain undefined. You see, if you insist—and Chinese philosophers and scholars always are very clear about this—if you insist on defining words meticulously, you always have to have other words to define your definitions. And then you have to have words to define those words, and words to define those words, and there’s no end to it. Or otherwise, you can get around this by going in a circle, which is that, you know, when you look up the dictionary and you look up “to be,” and you find the definition “to exist.” Alright, you look up “to exist,” and you find the definition “to be.” And then where are you? Either you go round in a circle, which fundamentally tells you nothing, or else you go on and on and on getting more meticulous, and you never arrive.


Once a Western psychologist asked a Chinese friend, “What do you mean by Tao?”

And the friend said, “Go and look out of the window.” And he went and looked out of the window.

“What do you see?”

He said, “I see houses and the street.”

“What else?”

“I see people moving around.”

“What else?”

“I see clouds in the sky.”

“What else?”

“And the wind is blowing.”

And the Chinese extended his hands like this and said, “That is the Tao.”


And so I remember, too, a very great Japanese artist who was teaching over here in the United States, and he was always being pressed by his students to define himself. And he used certain expressions. They’d say, “Now, exactly what do you mean?” And they were always saying this. And one day he got mad, and he said, “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you feel?”


And so it is that there are certain basic ideas like Tao which the Chinese feel must come to us. We can’t go out to get them, we can’t grab them. They must come to us in the same way as light comes to our eyes. This thing, then, is mysterious and unknown. Like the hermit sage in one of the most famous of all Chinese poems, Jiǎ Dǎo’s Seeking for the Hermit in Vain:


I asked the boy beneath the pines.

He said, “The master’s gone alone

Herb-picking, somewhere on the mount,

Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.”


The whole power of the poem is in the mysterious imprecision of the old man’s whereabouts which, somehow or other, brings the spirit of the hermit sage closer to the inquirer than an actual meeting. His absence says more than his presence. Lost somewhere on the cloud-hidden mountain, he communicates far more than if he had come down to explain himself. And this spirit would be totally missed by the literal-minded, no-nonsense sort of person who at this point would want to clear away the clouds and the mystery, go rush in and find out just exactly where the old fellow has gone, and just what herbs he is picking.


You know, it’s absolutely impossible to understand and appreciate our natural universe unless you know when to stop investigating. In our restlessness we’re always tempted to climb every hill and cross every skyline to find out what lies beyond. Yet, as you get older and wiser, it isn’t just flagging energy, but rather increasing wisdom that teaches you to look at mountains from below, or perhaps just climb them a little way. For at the top you can no longer see the mountain. And beyond, on the other side, there is perhaps just another valley like this. An old Indian aphorism says, “What is beyond is that which is also here.”


And you mustn’t mistake this for a kind of blasé boredom, tiring of adventure. It’s the startling recognition that in the place where we are now we have already arrived. This is it. What we are seeking is, if we are not totally blind, already here. For if you must follow that trail up the mountainside to its bitter end, you will discover that it leads eventually right back to the suburbs, but only an exceedingly stupid person will think that that’s where the trail really goes. For the actual truth is that the trail goes to every single place that it crosses. It leads also to where you are standing, watching. Watching it vanish into the hills, you are already in the true beyond to which it leads.


Many a time I have had intense delight in listening to some hidden waterfall in a mountain canyon; a sound all the more wonderful since I have set aside the urge to ferret the thing out, clear up the mystery, and find out just where the stream comes from and where it goes. Every stream, every road—if followed persistently and meticulously to its end—leads nowhere at all. And this is why the compulsively investigative mind is always landing up in what it believes to be the disillusion, the hard and bitter reality of the actual facts. Playing a violin is, after all, only scraping cats’ entrails with horse hair. The stars in heaven are, after all, only radioactive rocks and gas.


But this is the illusion that truth is to be found only by picking everything to pieces like a spoiled child. This is why the painters of the Far East so seldom tell all, why they avoid filling in every detail, and why they leave in their paintings great areas of emptiness and vagueness. These aren’t just unfilled backgrounds, they are integral parts of the whole composition, suggestive and pregnant voids and mists which leave something to our imagination—even though we don’t make the mistake of trying actually to fill them in with detail in the mind’s eye. We let them remain suggested.


Autumn clouds, vague and obscure.

The evening, lonely and chilled.

I felt the dampness on my garments,

But saw no spot and heard no sound of rain.


Cliffs that rise a thousand feet without a break.

Lake that stretches a hundred miles without a wave.

Sands that are white thorough all the year without a stain.

Pine tree woods, winter and summer, evergreen.

Streams that forever flow and flow without a pause.

Trees that for 20,000 years your vows have kept.

You have suddenly healed the pain of a traveler’s heart

And moved his brush to write a new song.


There was something vague before heaven and earth arose.

How calm, how void.

It stands alone, unchanging.

It acts everywhere, untiring.

It may be considered the mother of everything under heaven.

I do not know its name,

But call it by the word Tao.


The Tao is something blurred and indistinct.

How indistinct! How blurred!

Yet, within it are images.

How blurred! How indistinct!

Yet, within it are things.

How dim! How confused!

Yet, within it is creative power.


PIcking chrysanthemums along the eastern fence,

Gazing in silence of the southern hills.

The birds fly home in pairs through the soft mountain air of dusk.

In all these things there is a deep meaning.

But when we are about to express it,

We suddenly forget the words.


The song of birds, the voices of insects,

Are all means of conveying truth to the mind.

In flowers and grasses we see messages of the Tao.

The scholar, pure and clear of mind, serene and open of heart,

Should find in everything what nourishes him.

But if you want to know where the flowers come from—

Even the god of spring doesn’t know.


Things are produced around us, but no one knows the whence.

They issue forth, but no one sees the portal.

Men, one and all, value that part of knowledge which is known.

They do not know how to avail themselves of the unknown in order to reach knowledge.

Is not this misguided?


But it isn’t by pushing relentlessly and aggressively beyond those hills that we discover this unknown and persuade nature to disclose her secrets. What is beyond, that is also here. Any place where we are may be considered the center of the universe. Anywhere that we stand can be considered the destination of our journey. But we have to be receptive and open. We have, in other words, to do what Lao Tzu advised when he said, “While being a man, yet one should also preserve a certain femininity. And thereby one will become a channel for the whole universe.”


You know, that’s one of the things which I believe, in our culture of the West, is submerged. The feminine values are despised values. And we find typically, among men, a strange kind of reluctance to be anything but a man; a kind of anxiety to be 100% male. And that’s a kind of monster. A man who is 100% male, 100% tough guy, is a sort of human mollusk who has no softness and no sensitivity. And indeed, it’s a common psychological observation that people who are constantly anxious to prove their masculinity—who are scared to death of being sissy, of being weak, of being unaggressive—those are the very people who have doubts about their own masculinity; who are not really sure of it.


And so there is a tremendous necessity for us to value alongside, as it were, the aggressive masculine element (symbolized by the sword) the receptive feminine element—symbolized, perhaps, by the open flower. For, after all, our human senses are not knives. They’re not hooks. They are the soft ball of the eye, the delicate drum of the ear, the soft skin on the tips of the fingers and on the body. It is through these delicate receptive things that we basically receive our knowledge of the world. And therefore it is through a kind of weakness and softness that it is possible for knowledge to come to us.


So, putting it in another way: we have to come to terms with nature by wooing her rather than fighting her. Not just putting nature at the so-called distance of objectivity, as if she were an enemy to be shot, but something rather to be known by embrace, like a beloved wife. For, you see, what does one really want to know about it? Does one rather want to manage the whole thing? Does one want to be a kind of omnipotent god in control of it all? Or does one rather want to enjoy it? One cannot, after all, enjoy what you are all the time anxious about controlling. One of the nice things about one’s own body is that you don’t have to think about it all the time. If you had—when you woke up in the morning—to think about every detail of your circulation, you would never get to the day. As was well said: the mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.

On Being Vague

Alan Watts


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