Here is the story, translated by Victor Mair:

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the bridge over the Hao River. Zhuangzi said, “The minnows swim about so freely, following the openings wherever they take them. Such is the happiness of fish.”

Huizi said, “You are not a fish, so whence do you know the happiness of fish?”

Zhuangzi said, “You are not I, so whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?”

"I'm not you", said Master Hui, "so I certainly do not know what you do. But you're certainly not a fish, so it is irrefutable that you do not know what the joy of fishes is."

"Let's go back to where we started," said Master Chuang. "When you said, 'How do you know what the joy of fishes is?' you asked me because you already knew that I knew. I know it by strolling over the Hao."

Here is an explanation of this:

When ZZ tells him 'fishes are happy' he lets Hui know that ZZ can operate with with such a concept as 'another's state of mind'. It does not matter if the fishes are actually happy or not. The key issue is can a person even construe of it. That's why in mid-dialogue, the fishes are dropped and conversation turns to whether one person can construe of another person's mind. ZZ is of opinion that when the state of mind is communicated verbally ('fishes are happy'), it lets Hui know what ZZ's state of mind is. That's why when he asks he 'already knows'.

This seems to me that Zz is a naïve realist, who believes "the senses provide us with direct awareness of objects as they really are". If he sees fish moves, then fish really moves. If he sees fish is happy, then fish is really happy.

Is this correct?

  • A small caveat about your final statement. I have no formal education in philosophy so maybe I'm misunderstanding a definition, but it seems that one cannot actually see that a fish is happy, and thus naive realism makes no claims as to whether ZZ can actually know something about the happiness of fish May 27, 2019 at 3:14
  • My freshman psych professor was a hipppie-dippy 60's type. Someone asked him how the rats felt about their experience of rat-running experiments. He memorably replied: "I will never know if my rat is happy."
    – user4894
    Dec 30, 2021 at 22:19

2 Answers 2


The story may have various meanings or layers of meaning but it cannot be construed as an endorsement of naive realism. Zhuangzi's other writings make very clear his rejection of this idea.

On the surface he seems to be saying that we cannot know what other people do and do not know. Other meanings can be discerned. For instance, the claim that he knows the state of mind of the fish might be read as a statement of the ubiquity and commonality of mind. But naive realism requires the rejection of Zhuangzi's philosophy so cannot be a correct interpretation.

After all, if naive realism is true then he cannot know the state of mind of the fish.

  • so what could be his philosophy if not naïve realism? What is the school of thinking that advocate the "ubiquity and commonality of mind"?
    – Ooker
    May 26, 2019 at 13:06
  • 1
    @Ooker - His philosophy is non-dualism, which translates into metaphysics as a neutral metaphysical position. This is the philosophy and world-view of Lao Tsu, the Buddha. Rumi, Wei Wu Wei, Plotinus,etc. a.k.a. the Perennial philosophy. .
    – user20253
    May 27, 2019 at 11:45

I always read "The Happiness of Fish" with Schopenhauer in the back of my mind. Obviously the “happiness” experienced by a human or a fish must mean something radically different. But what we do have in common is the will to exist (persist) and the level in which we succeed in doing this. I don’t think Zhuangzi is claiming that he knows exactly what it is like to be a fish (or what its emotional state is) but he recognizes that the fish is an expression of the same striving to exist that he experiences in himself on a purely existential level. The fact that Huizi poses these questions to Zhuangzi is proof that he also recognizes his own innerlight being present in Zhuangzi through the same process of inference.

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