The intuitive butcher

“Because intuition in Bergson is “integral experience” (The Creative Mind, p. 200), it is made up of an indefinite series of acts, which correspond to the degrees of duration. This series of acts is why Bergson calls intuition a method. The first act is a kind of leap, and the idea of a leap is opposed to the idea of a re-constitution after analysis. One should make the effort to reverse the habitual mode of intelligence and set oneself up immediately in the duration. But then, second, one should make the effort to dilate one’s duration into a continuous heterogeneity. Third, one should make the effort to differentiate (as with the color orange) the extremes of this heterogeneity. With the second and third steps, one can see a similarity to Plato’s idea of dialectic understood as collection and division. The method resembles that of the good butcher who knows how to cut at the articulations or the good tailor who knows how to sew pieces of cloth together into clothes that fit. On the basis of the division into extremes or into a duality, one can then confront our everyday “mixtures” of the two extremes. Within the mixture, one makes a division or “cut” into differences in kind: into matter and spirit, for instance. Then one shows how the duality is actually a monism, how the two extremes are “sewn” together, through memory, in the continuous heterogeneity of duration. Indeed, for Bergson, intuition is memory; it is not perception.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


–Cook Ting was carving an ox for Lord Wen-hui. As his hand slapped, shoulder lunged, foot stamped, knee crooked, with a hiss! with a thud! the brandished blade as it sliced never missed the rhythm, now in time with the Mulberry Forest dance, now with an orchestra playing the Ching-shou.

“Oh, excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “That skill should attain such heights!”

“What your servant cares about is the Way, I have left skill behind me. When I first began to carve oxen, I saw nothing but oxen wherever I looked. Three years more and I never saw an ox as a whole. Nowadays I am in touch with the daemonic in me, and do not look with the eye. With the senses I know where to stop, the daemonic I desire to run its course. I rely on Heaven’s structuring, cleave along the main seams, let myself be guided by the main cavities, go by what is inherently so. A ligament or tendon I never touch, not to mention solid bone. A good cook changes his chopper once a year, because he hacks. A common cook changes it once a month, because he smashes. Now I have had this chopper for nineteen years, and have taken apart several thousand oxen, but the edge is as though it were fresh from the grindstone. At that joint there is an interval, and the chopper’s edge has no thickness; if you insert what has no thickness where there is an interval, then, what more could you ask, of course there is ample room to move the edge about. That’s why after nineteen years the edge of my chopper is as though it were fresh from the grindstone.

“However, whenever I come to something intricate, I see where it will be hard to handle and cautiously prepare myself, my gaze settles on it, action slows down for it, you scarcely see the flick of the chopper — and at one stroke the tangle has been unravelled, as a clod crumbles to the ground. I stand chopper in hand, look proudly round at everyone, dawdle to enjoy the triumph until I’m quite satisfied, then clean the chopper and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Listening to the words of Cook Ting, I have learned from them how to nurture life.” (Chuang Tzu, tr. by A.C. Graham)


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