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Chinese Philosophy: Daoism


Philosophical Daoism (also spelled Taoism) dates from the classical period (fifth through third century BC) and conventionally refers to the contents of the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) and the Laozi (Lao Tzu or Daode Jing/Tao-Te Ching). Some extend the term to cover less philosophical transitional texts of popularized Daoism of the Han (second century BC)for example, the Liezi and the Huainanzi. Another movement, called Neo-Daoism, dates from the end of the Han (200-plus). The term "Daoism" is fundamentally misleading since no group, no leader, and no association linked those thinkers. The Han historians who coined the term centuries later viewed the philosophers as founders of their credulous religion, Huang-Lao, which flourished after classical philosophy was extinguished by Qin despotism (220 BCE). The main basis for the classification was thus: (1) their philosophical interest in the concept of dao (way or normative guide); and (2) relatively skeptical, anarchic, antisocial attitudes which contrasted with Confucianism.

Philosophical Daoism: A Quick Tour

The concept of dao (tao) was central to ancient Chinese philosophizing. It is essentially a normative, practical concepta way or guide to action. Almost all ancient Chinese thinkers philosophized about dao, about choosing, reforming, following daos as well as understanding their relation to "constant" nature (tian nature:sky), to human nature (xing nature), and to society.

Those subsequently classed as daoist thinkers are distinguished by their more metaethical interest in dao in contrast to Confucians and Mohists who mainly advocated a variety of normative daos. Daoists discussed mainly three kinds of dao : human (or social) dao ; tian natural dao ; and "Great" dao. When I instruct you to cross the road on the green light, I am delivering a bit of human dao. Natural dao (often translated heavenly dao ) is akin to what we would consider the constancies of science. Natural dao is the way things reliably (constantly) happen. The salient contrast is that Chinese thinkers do not elaborate this idea with the idea of lawuniversal, modally necessary propositions. Great Dao refers to the entire actual history of space and timewhatever has happened, is happening or will eventually happen in the universe is part of Great Dao. Dao is simply the counterpart of Ludwig Wittgenstein's "All that is the case." What amounts to determinism in Chinese thought is treating tian dao and Great Dao as identicalthe constancies in nature make only one world history possible.

Daoist philosophers typically distance themselves from various human dao (paradigmatically Confucian or Mohist dao ) by contrasting them to natural dao and/or Great Dao (the actual dao ). Ancient Chinese moralists had tended to treat tian nature:sky as the authority for their account of the correct human dao. "Primitivist" daoism, usually regarded as an earlier form associated with Yang Zhu (sometimes called "Yangism") and the Laozi advocates being natural and rejects the social (historical or conventional daos ). "Mature" Daoist analysis, typified by the inner chapters of the Zhuangzi centers on the insight that while human daos are normative, neither the natural nor the actual dao are, and that the guidance of any human dao depends on and presupposes natural dao.

Mature Daoism avers that nature does not authorize or endorse any particular social dao. This claim has two versions: pluralist and primitivist. Denying one is compatible with their being either many or none. The pluralist (relativist) reading of the claim takes it to entail that de facto rival practices are natural daos in virtue of their being actual practices. Thus, they are continuous with natural constancies. Great Dao versions suggest that all actual rival daos are part of Great Dao simply in virtue of actually being followeddaos are made by "walking" them. Pluralist Daoists end up vaguely associated with anarchism because they reject the Confucian-Mohist assumption that political authority exists to bring about a harmony of daos making everyone follow a single dao. The social world survives as well (or better) when people follow different ways of life. Focus on either tian nature:sky dao or Great Dao thus undermines the sense that it is imperative to impose any particular first-order dao on all of society.

Primitivist versions of Daoism, however, typically take the form that nature does endorse a particular normative dao, though not a human one. That a single, constant, correct way of life cannot be expressed or presented in practices, rules, narratives, maps, examples, songs or any other human or social form of communication and advocacy. Though we usually think in terms of one natural dao, there could, in principle, be multiple, equally "primitive" daos.

The ambiguity between these two versions is neatly expressed in the opening stanza of the Daode Jing : "Any dao that can dao (guide) is not constant dao." Both primitive and mature versions underwrite a shared theme of harmony with naturethe pluralist seeing the point of such harmony as permissive and tolerant and the primitivist seeing it as more intolerant, as rejecting or prohibiting any conventional dao.

Metaphysically, Daoism is naturalistic though religious versions of Daoist primitivism evoke mystical and supernaturalist themes that remind interpreters of European, Middle Eastern, and South Asian mystical supernaturalism. The various mystical analyses, following the Indo-European model, are buttressed by an intuitive epistemology. Detaching from social daos means eschewing language, words, and norms of use that underwrite public discourse (reasoning) about what to do. The essential form language norms take is learned inclinations to distinguish or discriminate what is "this" from "not this." Intuitionism advocates "recovering" the simple, primitive, pre-social dispositions by forgetting names and the attitudes that linked them to action.

Translated to the language of Indo-European rationalism, this line of reasoning treats the pluralist insight as entailing an irrationalist absolutist conclusion. It endorses the tempting illicit inference from relativism (our distinctions are "socially constructed") to dogmatic, absolutist monism (there are no distinctions in [moral] reality). Religious and other nonphilosophical interpreters view this non-sequitur as the essence of Daoism.

Historical Outline: The Range of Daoism(s)

Moralizing schools proposed rival dao (social guiding discourse) for general order. The term "Daoism" was applied to the general reflection on what it was to propose, accept, reject, a dao the epistemology, semantics and metaphysics of dao. This meta-focus on dao inclined these thinkers to a variety of metaethical positions: skeptical, relativist, and mystical. Their doubt about the goal of unifying society's dao and their philosophical "distancing" from direct advocacy of a normative dao made them seem ethically amoral and politically liberal, libertarian and even anarchistic. Zhuangzi in particular emphasized his differences with the moraliststhe Confucians and Mohists.

Religious Daoism, by contrast, is an extremely broad classification of popular and/or local religions that took many different forms at different times in China are distinguished mainly negativelyby their not identifying primarily with Confucianism or Buddhism. The earliest known example was the "Huang-Lao" sect that flourished at the beginning of China's philosophical dark age induced by Qin repression and Han Confucian orthodoxy. Religious Daoism's relation to philosophical Daoism is both controversial and obscure. Daoism acquired organizational religious trappings from its interactions with Buddhism after the latter arrived in China around the second century AD. Characterizing aspects of Daoism as "religious" prior to that time is simply to draw a distinction between relatively credulous, superstitious, popular readings and more reflective, skeptical, philosophical readings of the same texts.

It is common to trace a Daoist political "ethos" to hermits who lectured Confucius against social involvement. Another way to trace Daoism's origins runs through the shadowy figure of Yang Zhu. He seems to have drawn on something like the romantic conflict between what Yang Zhu thought of as our nature (our natural mode of development) and social-political structures. We know of him mainly through the Mencius's attack on him as an egoist. Mencius reports that Yang Zhu refused to risk a single body hair to "save the empire." The Yangist theme survives in Daoismwhere it is also known as "primitivism."

In more orthodox Chinese moralizing, Confucian and Mohist, human nature is "shaped" via our being socialized through following some dao a shared guiding discourse. Primitivists resist this social shaping and seek to "restore" natural and spontaneous patterns of action. Mencius's attack probably distorts primitivism, therefore, since it arguably rejects only social or conventional daos, not all guidance.

The picture is further blurred by subsequent history of Daoism. These interpretive tensions became part of the Chinese conception of Daoism in later periods. A philosophical "dark age" prior to the Han followed by the credulous Confucian orthodoxy that emerged as the "spirit" of the Han dynasty, effectively extinguished critical philosophical thought.

The autocratic rulers of the Qin and Han were highly superstitious and the courts tended toward the more authoritarian, dogmatic readings. Such readings sustain their claims of special or esoteric access to knowledge (for example, trance states induced by breathing exercises) that imperiously ignores any demand for deeper justification (for example, intuitionism or mysticism).

The Han eventually enshrined Confucianism as an official orthodoxy and the basis of the examinations that qualify one for political office. This inclined Confucian theorists to view their tradition as embracing and subsuming all other learning and treating Daoism as compatible with Confucianism. This task was made easier by emphasis on the more "religious" texts identified as Daoist. These Han texts borrowed stories, attitudes, and phrases from the two original daoist writings. Hence, the Liezi, the Huainanzi, and the Baopuzi were often included among the classics of Daoism.

The fall of the Han saw the emergence of a "mixed teaching"Neo-Daoism. Its most influential writers were avowed Confucians motivated by the urge to "harmonize" the two traditions. The first, Wang Bi (c. 300) probably was familiar mainly with the Han religious echoes of Daoist thinking. He interpreted the Laozi alongside a cosmological divination manual, The Book of Changes (I Ching or Yijing ). He treated dao as a term of creationist cosmology. The Book of Changes with its yin-yang account of change and its generational cosmology thus entered the list of Daoist texts.

Neo-Daoism, in turn, eventually facilitated and informed the assimilation of the newly imported Indian Buddhism which in turn inspired the development of a uniquely Chinese form of BuddhismChan (Zen). This blended outlook is one major vehicle by which Daoism survived in Chinese thinking.

One could say that Daoist philosophy, per se, was successfully extinguished by imperial suppression of thought that initiated China's philosophical dark age and the institution of the Han "official Confucian orthodoxy" which cemented it firmly in place. The result is that so many religious forms are regarded as Daoist, the term may have no meaningful value in identifying a unified philosophical trend or movement.

An "Internal" History of Philosophical Daoism

The Zhuangzi contains its own history of thought (Chapter 33) tracing the development of ideas leading up to Zhuangzi's doctrine, which we could call "mature" Daoism. The word "Daoism" however, had still not been coined and the Zhuangzi history takes itself as simply tracing a movement of thought motivated by progressive attempts to remove bias and replace narrow perspectives with more impartial ones.

This "internal" account of a "Daoist" dialectic starts from a traditional baseline and takes its first step with thinkers like the Mohists (90/33/17). They question the assumption that tradition is right and seek for a neutral standard for deciding which social dao to use in the public moral education project. They legitimized their chosen dao by appealing to a standardthe intentions of tian nature:sky. That was equivalent to a natural distinction between benefit and harm (the natural urge to benefit and aversion to harm). This standard motivates their utilitarianism, which formed such a demanding morality that they "wore out their heels" running from state to state stopping wars, opposing despots, relieving starvation and so forth.

The next phase of the urge to impartiality leads to a version of primitivismattempting to identify and remove the biases that socialization has instilled in the xin heart:mind. It is these, they argue that divide men, induce competition, fuel disagreement, and make life miserable by creating desires which can be satisfied for only a few. They targeted the obviously social desires such as status, "cultivated" tastes, honor and so on (other texts attribute related slogans to them; for example, "to be insulted is no disgrace" and "farewell to narrowness.") The natural desires, they argued, are few and more easily satisfied. They are also universal in contrast to the cultivated desires which differ depending on tradition.

The first clear focus on the meta-nature of daos is then attributed to Shen Dao, Tian Ping, and Peng Meng. Shen Dao is also famous as a contributor to legalism. They started from the shared early classical assumption that we should follow a natural dao guide. And, like Mencius, thought of language as the paradigm of what is "unnatural." So impartiality comes from avoiding all languageall judgment about what is shi-fei this-not this. They motivate this by developing a concept of "Great Dao "Great Dao is collection of all things and all events in a kind of everything concept. It is dao -like because it is a process, not an object. It is the history of all objects through all time, including the future. It "leaves nothing out."

The various competing normative dao guides imply that some possible future course of events (a way things might go) is the one we should "walk." To dao guide that dao guide is to recommend the future histories that result from the selected "walking." To learn one of those dao guides is to learn how to contribute to bringing about some future history. While there are many such possible future histories, there is only one actual historyone actual past and one actual future. He calls that actual history of the world, that actual course of events that all things will follow, Great Dao. The actual is natural so the Great Dao, the natural pattern of behaviors, events, and processes, requires no learning, no knowledge, no language or shi-fei this-not this distinctions.

This conception of the actual dao of the past and future has a deterministic flavor. Nothing we do can "miss" the Great Dao. Even a clod of earth cannot miss it (HY/92/33/50). From this conception of the world as all that is or will be, Shen Dao draws fatalistic sounding conclusions"abandon knowledge and discard self" (HY/92/33/45). Flow with the inevitable and be indifferent, make not shi-fei this-not this judgments. He rejects all moral (and other) teaching and just lives

The account is critical of Shen Dao's theory: "Shen Dao's guide does not lead to the conduct of a living man but the tendency of a dead man. It is really very strange. They made reversing what is human a constant value; didn't take the common view and couldn't avoid inconsistency. That which they called a guide was a non-guide and what they approved could not but be wrong. [They] did not know how to guide. " (HY 92/33/51-4). Laozi, traditionally regarded as the founder of Daoism slots into the "internal history" at this point. He, like Shen Dao, is attracted to the conception of impartiality that underlies a recommendation that we "abandon knowledge." However, the Laozi does not seem to appeal to a Great Dao conception to justify it. Its appeal is more to "freedom" than to "determinism." The freedom, however, is relative to society, conventions and language.

The Daode Jing contains a classic expression of the ancient Chinese contrast theory of names. Words come in opposites and are learned together. In learning them, we learn to divide things in one of a range of possible ways and become "blind" to alternate ways of doing it. Along with the socially sanctioned distinctions, we learn to desire in socially prescribed ways thus acquiring the society's dao. Behavior motivated by this system of names, divisions and desires is called wei deem:do and the Laozi advocates that we should avoid wei -ing (Wu-wei = lack deeming-actions).

Thus if we can "forget" what we learn from conventional society, we can return to natural spontaneous actionsymbolized by the newborn child. The child does move, but the motions are not motivated by any conception of how to divide the world into socially sanctioned categories or conditioned, socialized desires. We recover a natural freedom that is also a much reduced level of simpler desires that will enable people to live in peacenot necessarily together because the "natural" structure of primitive desires may only support society at the level of Neolithic villages. This idyllic return is sometimes called primitivism and the Daode Jing contains a classic depiction of this peaceful world of agrarian villages whose peaceful, contented inhabitants lack any incentive even to visit the next door villagethough they can "hear the cocks crow and the dogs bark" (Ch. 81).

This primitivism still countenances a "natural" dao a prescriptive course of action that originates from tian nature:sky and contrasts with the artificial daos of moralizing societythe Confucians and the Mohists. The moralists like Mozi would also maintain that their conception of the moral dao was the dao of tian nature. Mencius, similarly, appeals to the normative authority of tian nature to justify action according to the "innate" (Confucian) moral tendencies that grow in the xin heart-mind. Mencius is critical of Yang Zhu, a figure often treated as a proto-Daoist who, thought he seems to have no meta-theory of Dao, is reputed to espouse a version of primitivism (which some call Yangism). Implicitly that his argument also seems to appeal to the notion of tian nature:sky as an authoritywhere the command of tian nature:sky is a "simpler" dictate to care for the essentials of life and abandon the dangers of political and social involvement.

In fact, despite leaving behind the deterministic tone of Shen Dao's "Great Dao," the Laozi is caught in a similar paradox. Shen Dao's reasoning illustrates what is wrong with any dao that has blanket anti-language interpretations. His advice to "abandon knowledge" is self-refuting advice since that falls within the range of what it advocates abandoningprescriptive doctrines. It is a prescriptive paradoxif we obey it, we disobey it. So we can continue to learn daos and still be natural. The deep point is that natural daos are irrelevant to the issues being debated by the moralists. In being natural they lose their capacity to guide. The could not warrant any particular shi-fei this-not this that was relevant to judging or choosing some human action. Everything that happens must be the sameeither all shi this:right; all fei not-this:wrong, all both or all neither. The crucial implication of his approach is that an injunction like "be natural" has no normative force.

So the trend of thought first recognized as forming the pattern we have come to call Daoism is one that reacts to Confucian conventionalism by trying to find a more universal, impartial point of view. It may include movements such as primitivism that seek to remove all social-conventional influence and those that analyze how conventions shape and induce our attitudes, desires and actions, and to a general interest in natural or transcendent standards or "ways" that undermine dogmatic conventionalism. The hint of paradox in the latter positions may be recognized and embraced or accepted as inescapable. The paradox, particularly of the anti-language implications of these developments led to the mature phase of philosophical daoism.

Mature Philosophical Daoism: The Zhuangzi

Classical thinkers found names and language relevant to not only Daoism. The Analects community of Confucianism became committed to "rectifying" names to make role-based behavior guides prescriptively reliable. Gongsun Long presented himself as defending Confucian practice with his one-name-one-thing rule. Confucians may not have wanted to claim him since he derived from this his notorious commitment to the assertability of "white horse not horse." Mohism produced the most sophisticated of these theoriesan early version of semantic realism that may have derived from reflections on Mozi's three fa standards (standards) of yan language (language).

Mohists argued that name boundaries are determined by objective similarities and differences in things. So, against the name "rectifiers," they maintained that a "reality" can properly be called by several namesat times general or particular. But this position, they discovered, still left many puzzles. One was this: Which similarities count in correct naming or types? The others puzzles concern how to deal with compounding of names and strings. Mohists developed no syntactical theory of word-roles such as adjective and verb. All descriptive terms that picked out parts of reality were called "names." The way the parts combine when the words combine, however, struck them as irregular. Beyond noting and classifying some of the variation, however, Mohists did not seem to propose a systematic solution.

Zhuangzi, traditionally cited as the second daoist philosopher, engaged frequently in discussion with Hui Shi, cited as among the members of the "school of names." Hui Shi however, seems to represents a third posture within the school of namesname relativism. His implicit criticism of the realists emerges when he draws attention to terms that are implicitly comparative; for example, 'large', before, and 'high', and indexicals, for example, 'today' and 'south.' These do not apply in virtue of objective similarity. More theoretically, he averred that any two things, no matter how different, are similar in some respect, and no matter how similar, are different in some respect. So any two things can be included in the scope of a term in virtue of some similarity or could be placed included in a different range and named by different terms in virtue of some difference. Thus placement of things in a named range, even if based on similarity and difference, is not a constant or reliable dao.

Despite the relativist ground of his linguistic reasoning, Hui Shi seems to have drawn an absolutist conclusion. Since all linguistic divisions are relative, the absolute or language-independent world must be devoid of any distinctionsa mystical, unnamable, one. In effect, distinctions and differences among things are socially constructed. Since naming is based on distinctions and since language is constructed of names, Hui Shi's ending position resembles that of Shen Dao and Laozithe familiar, anti-language, Daoist, mystical, monismall is an inexpressible one. From this, Hui Shi then drew a hybrid Mohist-Daoist prescriptive conclusion, "Love all things equally, the cosmos is one body."

The Later Mohists, however, diagnosed the problem in these defeatist, negative conclusions about language and distinction-based judgment. The problem may take different forms and the Mohist diagnosis is repeated in three forms. First, distinctions are manifest in language in shi-fei this-not this indexicals. With a name in view, it does or does not apply to some indexically accessed item"this" or "not this." To have a distinction is for something to be "not-this." So, to oppose all distinctions is to oppose fei -ing. However to oppose fei -ing is to fei fei -ing. Anyone who does so confronts a pragmatic contradiction. To fei fei -ing is to fei. Similarly, to deem all language as bei not-acceptable (not-acceptable) is bei not-acceptable. And since, in the context of primitivism, such views amount to rejecting learning or education in language the third form is to teach that teaching is wrong is wrong. This explains the paradox that plagued Shen Dao and Laozi and any doctrine (for example, some interpretations of Mencius) that denigrate principles or linguistic guides in general in favor of following only "natural" daos.

Zhuangzi takes the paradox seriously and responds first by abandoning all such anti-language claims and appeals to tian nature as an authority for dao while, second, still sustaining his skeptical, relativist distance from Confucian convention. The trick is to note that all (actually existing) language is naturalas natural as such nonhuman sounds as the whistling of wind or twittering of birds. Humans, their societies, and their languages are products of nature as much as are ground squirrels and their high-pitched chirps.

The disagreeing human thinkersthe 10,000 distinctions and differences marked in languageare among the "pipes of tian nature." Thus he avoids taking an anti-language stance while still standing as an ironic "Daoist" distance from convention. From that stance he can continue to "poke fun" at the moralistsnot for pretending to express "natural" dao (they do) but insisting that others, their opponents, do not. The sense in which theirs are natural (as indeed they are) is the sense in which their opponents daos are natural too.

All the warring discourse daos are, by hypothesis, natural. How, Zhuangzi asks, can a language exist without its being acceptable (in that community) to speak it? All dao that are actually walked (that generate behavior) are (in virtue of having emerged naturally in a natural world) natural. All the daos that anyone may actually appeal to in condemning rival daos must existand hence be natural. This does not entail that all possible daos are natural, but all existing and, no doubt, many that don't exist, are natural in the sense they have or might emerge in naturefor example, without any supernatural intervention.

This allows Zhuangzi to continue Daoism's trend of detachment and ironic neutrality in the fervent debates among the moralists. He also generalizes earlier themes (noted above) of how different daos shape our attitudes, our desires, and our descriptive language. This generalization emerges with a hint of mild skepticism. The anti-language position is an error positionall doctrines of morality/reality are false. The Mohist paradox undermines that. We cannot consistently conclude that no claims in language are correct. Neither can we claim that all linguistic utterance is correct since judgments according the standards of one natural language conflict with those of another. Each treats its own use as acceptable and others an unacceptable.

Each position in debate about dao depends on presuppositionsa presupposed dao. The dao is the way of speaking that language. An argument for one dao over another, also presupposes an implicit dao a way of choosing which dao to follow in a situation. And even when we have selected which dao to follow, we may disagree about now to interpret our agreed dao. A way of interpreting this dao is still another presupposed dao. When we perform any dao, we perform an entire hierarchy of daos.

Thus, winning an argument doesn't give one assurance of being right simpliciter it presupposes some way of picking a winner. There is no completely neutral way of assigning a right and wrong. Zhuangzi's skepticism is not based on contrasting human cognitive weakness with some ideal perspective, but draws on the infinite regress of standards involved in guidance by a way, a dao. It is skepticism because it doesn't deny we might have acted rightly, only that we cannot know in ways that we could, correctly show others is correct (that is move as judged from their daos ). Skepticism in the Zhuangzi rests on the observation that we cannot be sure we are using the right standard of "knowing."

Zhuangzi expresses another aspect of the same point. Consider the standard objection to "Ideal Observer" theories of morality (eg. Right = if what some God-like judge would judge to be right). The objection goes that what the Ideal Observer should do is irrelevant to my decision about what I, an ordinary observer, should do. The Zhuangzi frequently reflects on the theme of how a perfect perspective is neither useful nor comprehensible to us. What God should do is wildly irrelevant to the real practical questions that confront us. We could neither understand nor use the answer to "What would a perfect person do?"

This leads in two ways back to the naturalism characteristic of Daoism. Not only are actual conventions natural, but there is a natural dao that both guides the selection (evolution) of conventional dao and guides the interpretation of them. Thus, the Zhuangzi argues that there is no way to disentangle the realm of tian nature:sky and the realm of ren humanno way to ground the claims of moralists or mystics to have found the single naturally correct way.

The Fate of Daoism Under the Empire

Philosophy in China suffered a dark age initiated in the third century BC by the emergence of the imperial structure under a totalitarian ideology. Authoritarian misgivings about the tendency of philosophers to cast doubt on conventional ways of making distinctions and the assumed political goal of unifying the social world under one dao motivated this political authoritarism. Paradoxically, most would say the Qin favored Daoism since the superstitious rulers sought in it the "secret of long life." This, of course, served rather to replace Daoism's philosophical reflections with credulous religious dogma and the interpretation dominant in "legalist" commentary. The Qin dynastic family and its so-called "legalist" dao of governance lasted only one generation. However, the institutional structure survived in the Han which anointed Confucianism as the unifying dao.

This totalizing position led Confucianism to an eclecticism which sought to embrace everything from royal superstitions to naturalistic cosmic forces (yin and yang) and ground them in a Confucian dao that they could use to manipulate the ruler. Confucians assured us that this moralized cosmology "incorporated Daoism" harmoniously with Confucianism, implying that Daoism entailed the superstitious yin-yong cosmology they had worked out. Several new "Daoist" texts emerged which mixed quotations from the Zhuangzi and this moralized yin-yang cosmology. These further tended to shape the accepted interpretation of Daoism to better suit the bureaucracy's purpose.

The stasis of a naturalized Confucianism and a cosmologized Daoism survived with slight variation until the modern period. The main interruption was the importation of Buddhism, which continued the stable institutional model and the tendency to eclectic blending into a single harmonious officially recognized dao. Imperial rule tended always to patronize some "approved" eclectic ideology. In such contexts, the critical and skeptical quality of thought of the classical period never re-emerged.

The fall of the Han brought with it a crisis in confidence in this cosmic Confucianism. This did little to disrupt the assumption of fundamental compatibility of Daoism and Confucianism, but did lead to greater focus on the classical Daoist philosophical texts. The result has been called Neo-Daoism, though the main thinkers identified themselves as Confucians. They inflated the cosmic interpretation of Daoism into something closer to pure metaphysics (via its explicit interest in the contrast of being and non-being). The result was a holistic "round" metaphysics with non-being at the core (basic non-being ) and "being" as the periphery (functionally oscillating fluctuations in the field of "non-being ").

The main point of controversy within Neo-Daoism was whether the non-being was really nothing or really "something." From there the philosophical level of Daoist discourse declines more than advances. Wang Bi interpreted the Laozi in tandem with a cosmological divination manual, the Yi-Jing, into what he assumed was a single system. Non-being was the basis of everything, the great-ultimate that was also the non-ultimate. Wang Bi explained the dynamic between non-being and being not as causation, but as the relation of "substance and function."

Guo Xiang interpreted the Zhuangzi giving us the received version and conforming to the outlines of Wang Bi's system except for his Parmenidean insistence that non-being simply was not. This he coupled with a radically un-Parmenidean view that being constantly changed "of itself." The Neo-Daoist systems were the originating models of the puzzling substance-function dualism that re-appeared regularly in most later philosophical systems, both Buddhist and Neo-Confucian, right up through modern times.

Neo-Daoist speculations on being and non-being helped facilitate early discussions of Buddhist philosophyparticularly the puzzle of the nature of Nirvana (and thus of the Buddha-Nature). Buddhism, however, brought with it the apparatus of monastic ecclesiastical authority that bequeathed more familiar religious structures to the existing fragments of "Daoist" superstition. The resulting religious movements are what survived the Buddhist period into modern times as what the West came to know as "Daoism."

Key Daoist Concepts

This section explores two concepts that play a central role in Daoist philosophydao guide and de virtuosity (virtuosity). Together the terms have come to mean something like "ethics." We, however, take them to be the basic concepts of a broader notion of normativity. The normativity is broader because there can be a dao (and de ) of language (correct way of use) of knowledge (ways to know) as well as to act.

dao (way, guide, road)

The main characteristic that justified Chinese historians in identifying a school to call Daoism is philosophical interest in the concept of dao. The almost universally accepted translation is a primitive of English"way." So it subsumes "manner," "course," "technique," "system," "fashion," "custom," "style," "practice," "tradition," "discipline," "road," "direction," "path," and so forth.

A way is an answer to a "how" or "what-to-do" question. We typically use talk of ways in advising someone. Ways are thus practical (prescriptive or normative) concepts. A road, as a concrete (or asphalt!) example guides us and facilitates our arrival somewhere. Ways are prescriptive structures that have physical realizations. We can refer to the physical forms as ways or daos without thereby recommending them. The Zhuangzi reminds us that thievery has a dao. We can use both dao and "way" simply to describeas when a Confucian undertakes to pursue his father's dao for three years after his death or we say, "I saw the way you did that."

There are interesting differences between dao and "way." Classical Chinese language lacks pluralization; for example, not simply has no plurals, but has no grammatical role for plurals. Most common nouns function like collective nouns, roughly analogous to plurals or mass nouns of English. So dao is more like "ways" or "way-stuff" or "the way-part or aspect of things" than it is like "a way." Like other common nouns, dao has a part-whole structure, that is additivetwo parts simply yield a larger part of the same thing. What we describe as one way would function like one part or component of what in Chinese we call dao. Multiplicity in common nouns in ancient Chinese emerges via modification. So they might discuss, for example, my-dao, Sage-King's-dao, natural-dao, past-time's-dao and so forth. This feature explains why dao might appear more metaphysical than "way" and helps appreciate familiar Daoist spatial metaphors like "humans encounter each other in dao as fish do in water" (Zhuangzi Ch. 6). Dao is a little like the watera feature of the realm in which humans live, work, and play. To be human is to be in a framework of ways to act, go, and speak. So-called Daoists are more likely to play with these metaphysical metaphors than Confucians or Mohistswho mainly point to (their favored part of) dao.

A second difference is that unlike "way," dao may be used as a verb. The best-known example is the famous first line of the Dao de Jing. Literally "dao can be dao not constant dao." For the middle dao, roughly one out of three translators uses "speak," another third use "tell" and the rest use near synonyms such as "expressed," "defined in words," or "stated." In a famous Confucian example of this use, Confucius criticizes dao -ing the people with laws rather than dao -ing them with ritual. (This verbal sense is often marked by a graphic variation dao to direct.)

"Speak" is in some ways too narrow and in others too broad as a way translating this verbal use. It is too broad because in Western tradition, speaking is conventionally linked to describing, representing, picturing, expressing, defining, or "capturing" some reality. The Chinese verbal use resembles more what a European would express by "advocate" "acknowledge" or "recommend," for example, to "guide-speak." To dao is to put guidance into language. Dao -ing is giving advice.

"Speak" is, in other ways, too narrow. One can dao in written form or even by exampleas when we dao with law or with ritual (texts or exemplars). Consider, again, the concrete translation for dao : "road" or "path." A woodsman with an ax daos when he chops bark from the trees as he enters the forest; He is dao -ing when he is "blazing" the trail. As the Zhuangzi notes, "A dao is made by walking it."

What a road shares with a pattern of blazes in a forest is that both, like maps and verbal instructions, can serve as normative guides. What they also share, is that they require reading and interpretation. In following any kind of dao, we "interpret" it. This might be hard, as when we interpret blazes in bark, or piles of stones left by boy scouts or a Hansel's string of bread crumbs or the two-days-old tracks left by a deer. Or it may be relatively easy, as when I follow the asphalt ribbon between my house and the store. These examples should illustrate the symbolic guiding nature of all "roads." To interpret a road/path/dao is to extract guidance in the form of an actual "walking," not to develop a theory or belief. This use of "interpretation" is more familiar in artistic contextsin music, dance, or drama. The interpretation of a score, line or character in a play consists in a performance of it.

The metaphysics of dao should mark this distinction between normative way types (treated as guides) and interpretive tokens (the result of practically interpreting a guide). The token is an actual history, a string of actions. The token may itself be taken as a guide (that is as an exemplary model), but in that case, it in turn requires interpretation. There are various ways to follow the example. We have to extrapolate from the exemplar's situation to our own. So the distinction between type and token ways can be relative; it is actually a distinction between normative and descriptive senses. When we treat a token as subject to evaluation relative to some normative dao -type, it is descriptive. When we treat it as a model guiding our own performance, it is normative.

This should help us understand the notion of natural daos. Roads and ways need not be human constructions. Nature's "engineers," deer or mountain goats, also make paths. Famously animals from ants to pack rats, swallows to dogs make or mark and read their own ways. Other species may read and use these as humans do when lost in the mountains. Other "ways" are pure natural possibilities of sequences that will result in attaining a goal; for example, their being a way through a forest or across a river. That way consists of their being a fallen log or several large stones in a fortuitous configurationfortuitous, that is, from the point of view of human actors. We discover these structures in nature as we "feel our way" along. We may learn to read natural signs and exact guidance from natural clues better over time.

However, the concept of a naturally constant dao threatens to follow the Great Dao into losing its normative role. The Zhuangzi recognized this danger most clearly in pointing out that all recommendations (all prescribed dao ) are natural in virtue of actually being advanced and promoted. Naturethe structure of natural constancydoes not select any of these. Any selection requires a dao interpreter and interpreters select using different standardshigher-level daos of selection and interpretation. Thus, while some daos are impossible, the appeal to nature does not adjudicate among any actual rival formulations, such as those of Confucians versus Mohists. Nature does not evaluate or prescribe its possibilities. Like the Great dao, they just are.

de (virtuosity, virtue, power)

A Daoist formula for de is "dao within." Translators most commonly use "virtue" as a translation but hurry to remind us that it is "virtue" in the ancient Greek sense of an excellence. "Power" can work as an alternative translation because it reflects the link between de and successful action or achievement for its possessor. This author prefers "virtuosity" to capture both the sensitivity to context and fit and to remind us of the aesthetic features of these normative concepts. Virtuosity is the capacity of a performer to "interpret" a score-like dao into a superb performance (in that theater, for that audience, and so forth). Thus de is the capacity to perform dao correctlysuccessfully, beautifully, and well.

Daoist reflections on de sometimes point to "natural" or prelearned capacities to learn or perform some dao with skill. Think of Wittgenstein's talk of the unexplained human ability to catch on and continue the correct grammar of a human language. This stress sometimes suggests the hardwiring or the machine language translation required to implement or interpret other programming. While many Daoist comments may be taken to refer to such "natural" skills, the concept of de itself seems to include de that is acquired in the process of learning, internalizing, practicing, and fine-tuning our performance of some dao.

Natural dao is presupposed in learning social daos in a number of ways. There is a natural way humans learn to acquire and perform normative dao and there are different ways to perform in different natural contexts. There are both natural and social-practice ways to select which dao -type to execute and multiple ways to evaluate the performance-generated dao -tokens. So, as Zhuangzi observes, we live so pervasively in such a "sea" of dao that, like fish in water, we forget that we forget dao as we swim around it.

See also Chinese Philosophy: Overview; Chinese Philosophy: Contemporary.


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Chad Hansen (2005)

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