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The Daodejing (or Tao Te Ching) from around 500 BCE, attributed considerably after its production to Laozi (or Lao Tzu according to an older but still prevalent style of transliteration; it just means "old master") is the fundamental text of Daoism (Taoism), but what they hell does it mean? Well, it depends on which of its hundreds of translators you ask. We selected the "philosophical translation" by Roger Ames and David Hall (2003). However, it's good to have other opinions ready to hand: The ones Mark and Dylan read in school were by D.C. Lau and Robert Hendricks respectively. We also brought on a guest PEL listener who studied Chinese philosophy, Theodore Brooks, whose favorite translation is by Philip Ivanhoe.
"Dao" in ancient Chinese means "way," as in a path to follow to get somewhere. It also has a less common meaning of speech, so the spoken way to be would refer to a doctrine about how to best live your life. Like Confucius' Analects and Sunzi's Art of War, this was written explicitly as a guide (at least in part) for political leaders, so we start by considering the book's political philosophy, which is definitely against coercion and war (as the worst kind of coercion). It's also against the creation of a lot of explicit ideals and rules that are meant to inspire people, but which actually end up leaving them discouraged and envious when they can't live up to the ideals and don't receive the honors tied to them. They may also be straight-jacketed by ill-advised attempts to reform their natural patterns of growth and ways of interacting with each other and the world. Instead, the text recommends "wuwei," which can be translated as non-coercive action, or alternately as doing nothing.
We wrap up this first half of the conversation by starting to interpret the notorious first chapter of the book. Look at 175+ translations of this. Literally, the first line reads, "The Dao that Daos is not the eternal (or maybe unchanging or true) Dao." This relies on the two meanings of Dao as both path (or often it's just untranslated; maybe it's referring not just of a way of doing things but some kind of undefined mystical thing a la God), and speech. So if you think you can talk about the Dao, then that Dao that you're discussing is in some sense not the real Dao. Philosophy at its deepest level is inevitably beyond speech.
We just saw this same sentiment expressed in an arguably very mundane sense with Wittgenstein: It could be that you can't talk about the Dao because the Dao is made up of non-verbal habits. So you can't really talk about the essence of being a great chef or mechanic, because these crafts involve a know-how that you can only grasp through activity, though you can certainly get verbal lessons as part of your training. However, the massive appeal of this text as spiritual philosophy would be pretty deflated if everyone just read this as a manual for keeping your cool, and even in that first chapter, we get the metaphysical/mystical idea that the Dao is the "mother of all things," so some readers take this book as a work of mysticism, where we're using these ambiguous verses as a roundabout way of grasping deep truths about the universe.
Chapters we cover in this part of the discussion include:
- 17, which includes wuwei and also the Chinese term ziran as spontaneity or literally "self-soing," as in being yourself without someone else coercing you whether physically or through imposing their ideas of morality on you.
- 18, which states that when Confucian values are widespread, then the state actually suffers, and also talks about how opposites always imply each other. This metaphysical/conceptual path undermines any ethical program of rooting out the bad, because the good will always give rise to its opposite.
- 19, which continues this logic: If you get rid of the Confucian efforts, you get people acting naturally (ziran), which is better overall.
- 3, which is more of the same, but adds the point that the leader should fill the people's bellies over imposing (Confucian) philosophy on them, and introduces more "wu" terms: wuzhi, which is no-knowledge, which maybe means having knowledge without feeling the need to fit it into a system, which again resonates with Wittgenstein), and wuyu, which is no-desire, or desire that does not seek to possess and control its object.
- We actually conclude with the beginning of our discussion of chapter 1, which also includes another wu form: wuming, which means not named. Not only is the Dao not something we can speak about, but there's something problematic about naming, such that a name that can be named is not the real (constant, eternal) name. This is a general point about how language posits a world of static things that can be named, but like Heraclitus, Laozi embraces a metaphysics that makes events central, not things. So naming something is like (to use Heraclitus' metaphor) pointing at a part of a river and naming it, but then when you turn back later, that part has actually changed. Names are fine for practical use (remembering the place where the river is typically most easily crossed), but don't actually follow the way the world is actually carved. Maybe it isn't really carved at all, and the single, eternal Dao is all there ultimately is (this interpretation would make Laozi more like Parmenides).
It's illustrative to compare Daoism to Stoicism and Epicureanism, as they both recommend keeping your desires in check and adapting to nature. When Buddhism reached China, it was highly influenced by the local Daoism to become Chan (and then in Japan, Zen) Buddhism, which we'll cover in the future. Our previous discussion on Daoism was from way back in our episode 12 in 2009.
Ligma Tsu says
Oh God I’m interproooting!
The worst philosophical book ever written largely because it is so austere and “open to so many interpretations!” that it is essentially meaningless. The whole reason people read it is to iNtErPrEt those cryptic remarks in whatever way they wish.
This book is essentially a collection of quotes that sound like they came from a boomer woman’s Facebook feed.
Plus there’s a whole community (mostly ‘spiritual”, New Age types and antivaxxers/flatearthers) who use those “infinitely interpretable” passages to argue for their ridiculous ideas and then tell you that you just don’t understand the Dao because it is not explainable, or that they don’t need ideas spoonfed to them, just interpret bro!
I recall in an earlier episode you said you weren’t going to cover this book because it lacked philosophical content but here we are. Guess you ran out of podcast topics
Mark Linsenmayer says
Thanks for this; I’ll see if I can bring this up for the next Nightcap.
I think the situation is not so bad as you describe, but this is why we read the Ames translation, which includes a lot of commentary that is unquestionably philosophical (like our approach to Heraclitus).
If you want just ONE dip into Daoism, I still believe that Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) is the way to go, but any real attempt to get a handle on ancient Chinese philosophy has to tackle this book sooner or later, as it’s taken as foundational despite its interpretive challenges.
Whether or not the content of the book adds significantly to our understanding of ethics or political philosophy (or metaphysics or philosophy of language), I think hermeneutics in action is a worthy thing for philosophy to study, and we had enough fun with this that we devoted ep. 312 to it as well. I will admit that my conception of what counts as philosophical has widened since 2009 when we tackled Zhuangzi, as has my tolerance for the potential redundancy of covering “second-stringers” like Malebranche, Fichte, Cassirer, et al. It certainly seems strange to think about one of the most widely read authors in history as a second stringer, but if we’re willing to give time at this point to those guys, why not to Laozi? Certainly a lot of unquestionably real philosophers have read and been philosophically influenced by this book (which would also justify us reading more of the Bible, which I suggested in a recent Nightcap).
Note that we’ve also had episodes about things like Ayn Rand and New Atheism, i.e. popular fads that are taken for philosophy but which really produce a lot of nonsense, so if one wants to take our episodes here in that spirit of warning, that’s OK with me.
Ronald Cogen says
The Dao De Jing is without doubt a difficult and enigmatic text, at the scholarly level as well as on a more popular level. But, to call it something akin to a “boomer woman’s Facebook feed” does no justice to its intent, nor does it do justice to the PEL group, wo sincerely and intelligently attempt to deal with this difficulty. The episodes on the text were balanced, choosing excerpts which reflect the difficulty of dealing with the content on both a philosophical as well as a socio-political level.
There is a tremendous tension in the supposed “essentially meaningless” and “cryptic”” passages that challenge general philosophical assumptions. Many of the most profound philosophical phrases seem, at first glance, to be meaningless. Maybe that is what accounts for the their appeal on so many levels.
In the last analysis, the challenge to “meaning” vs. “meaningless” is basically one of the foremost designs of the text. Maybe one should try to be less antagonistic to things that are “”infinitely interpretable”.
All in all, for me it was very worthwhile to listen to the PEL with their guest on this score.