On the Usefulness of Uselessness

Pragmatism has been at the heart of modern society in which the seemingly useless things are simply out of place. But actually, there is no such thing as absolute uselessness, Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zhou (庄周ca. 369-286 BC), better known as Chuang-Tze (庄子), argues in the parable of the useless tree. The story goes: a wandering carpenter, called Stone, saw on his travels a gigantic old oak tree standing in a field near an earth-altar. The carpenter said to his apprentice, who was admiring the oak: “This is a useless tree. If you wanted to make a ship, it would soon rot; if you wanted to make tools, they would break. You cannot do anything useful with this tree, and that is why it has become so old.”

We live in a world of ever increasing speed. People want results and they want them now. In fact, they wanted them an hour ago. Our society, therefore, tends to be governed by short term pragmatism and efficiency. Anything requiring too much time, money or effort will quickly be deemed ‘useless’. As a result, our educational systems, industry and society at large have all become standardised to a high degree. They provide a constant stream of model employees to the factories producing commodities for the masses. However, something valuable is lost in that process. Something we may not be able to afford in the long term. And something that might be regained if we take this lesson from Chuang-Tze to heart:

Copyright: Xinhua

That same evening, when the carpenter went to sleep, the old oak tree appeared to him in his dream and said: “Why do you compare me to your cultivated trees? Even before they can ripen their fruit, people attack and violate them. Their branches are broken, their twigs are torn. Their own gifts bring harm to them, and they cannot live out their natural span. That is what happens everywhere, and that is why I have long since tried to become completely useless.”

What Chuang-Tze illustrates with the parable of the useless tree is not that the tree is actually without use; rather, the usefulness of the tree is lost on the carpenter because of his limited perspective. He looks at the tree as a carpenter typically would: raw material that must be turned into a ship or a tool. For the old oak tree however, it is a different story altogether. Being turned into a ship is not necessarily such a great thing from its perspective; instead, it chooses to preserve itself by becoming ‘useless’ in the eyes of the carpenter.

This principle of relativity is a recurring theme in the philosophy of Chuang-Tze. And it does not only apply to usefulness. The same goes for aesthetics (what is beautiful or ugly), ethics (what is good or bad) and even knowledge (what is true or false). Most essentially, Chuang-Tze argues that all of these perspectives are equally valid: one is not necessarily better than the other.

Copyright: Ding Xiyuan (丁喜媛)

In the case of usefulness, Chuang-Tze’s sceptical view has been applied by modern scholars as well. By the well-known educational scientist Ken Robinson for instance, who presents it as an argument against uniform education. By putting all our students into the same educational straitjacket, special talents will easily get lost because these individual talents may not be perceived as useful. The students are instead forced to study more ‘practical’ skills, which may not be quite suitable for them.

Their own gifts thus not only bring harm to themselves, but possibly also to the society at large. As some of these unique talents are wasted this way, it might prove essential in the long run. For instance, when facing the great (ecological) challenges of our time: overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources, the reduction of natural habitats and biodiversity, and deforestation. These challenges will require innovative solutions, requiring in turn special skills and talents. Man can no longer afford to rely on the system which created these problems in the first place to also provide these solutions. Nor can people rely on mere serendipitous discoveries to alter our existing paradigms. Instead, the realisation of personal potential and the development of the individual’s special skills and talents––useful or useless––should be at the heart of the education system, if not at the heart of society in general.

The carpenter woke up and meditated upon his dream, and later, when his apprentice asked him why just this one tree served to protect the earth-altar, he answered: “The tree grew here on purpose because anywhere else people would have ill-treated it. If it were not the tree of the earth-altar, it might have been chopped down.”

Current educational systems are not designed to develop any of the seemingly ‘useless’ skills that may be required to providing solutions to the great challenges of our times. In order to protect the ‘earth-altars’ of our own life-world, some wise lessons could be taken from an ancient Taoist Master.

Like the apprentice in the parable, may we admire people and things for what they are and not merely for their apparent usefulness. Like the carpenter, may we learn not to judge these ‘useless’ people and things too quickly, but realise that our own perspective is always limited to some degree. And finally, like the oak tree, may we as a society grow old and ‘useless’ and live out our natural life span.