The ongoing shaping of experience entails working with the as yet inchoate and thus seemingly insignificant phases of the process. Each step requires a quantum of imagination and inspiration that does not reference the world as it is, but flies ahead of what has already been articulated to forge a new way forward. The value of this novelty and the respect due it lies in its potential to reshape our world.
Were those who have responsibility for order in the human world sufficiently deferential to this effort to maximise the available resources, the world would respond with natural plenty and the people would cooperate with fairness in the distribution of its bounty.
In order to function effectively in managing our environment, we need distinctions. These distinctions in themselves are functional and enabling, but once established, can take on a life of their own. We quickly fall into the trap of turning names into things, so that these names identify some more real “I-know-not-what” that stands independent of the new “superficial” way in which we actually experience any particular event. We misinterpret the persistence within process as some underlying foundation of our experience. Rational structures become institutionalised and, given enough time, petrified. The regimen of values they carry with them, empowering some against others, become entrenched and uncompromising. What began as a convenience takes over, constraining the very experience it was created to facilitate, and in so doing, robs life of its creative vigour.
Some commentators have balked at the analogy offered here, worried that way-making should in fact be the larger and more expansive rivers and seas, rather than their many tributaries. The point, however, is that dao as the ongoing process of experience is both in the world and is the world, is both the foci and their fields. Way-making is not the One behind the many, but is rather the somewhat determinate many that constitute the somewhat indeterminate and ever continuous process.
Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, A Philosophical translation of the Daodejing: Making This Life Significant.
Throughout the Daodejing there is a sustained suspicion of language. Chad Hansen has even characterised this text as being fundamentally “anti-language.” In describing the evolution of Daoism, Hansen suggests that “Since language is an instrument of social control, we should avoid it – and everything that goes with it.” One point that Hansen is making here is well taken: “Trained discriminations are not a constantly reliable guide to behaviour. Culturally motivated preferences based on those distinctions are, on the whole, unreliable. And they control us in insidious, unnatural ways.” But it might be a case of throwing out the baby with the befouled bathwater to extrapolate from the entirely reasonable claim about Laozi’s Daoism that “as anarchy, it rebels not only against political authority, but all social authority” and then to infer that this means “the way to remove the authority of society totally from your life is to remove language.”
While we might find a palpable irony in one of the world’s literary classics offering a critique of the language in which it is written, it is undeniably the case that a major theme of the Daodejing is that an uncritical use of language can lull us into a distorted understanding of the nature of the world in which we live. That said, language also has an important function for Daoists who rely heavily upon oral transmission to pass on their ideas to subsequent generations. Broadly speaking, in the absence of the divorce between philosophy and rhetoric that occurred in classical Greece, there is an appreciation in the classical Chinese tradition of performative and perlocutionary power of language that not only describes a word, but more importantly, commands a desired world into being. The Daodejing is not an exception to this sensibility.
What then is the Daoist reticence in the use of language? The Daodejing is not a discursive, expository Aristotelian treatise that, in a linear and sequential way, sets out to explain the way the world is. Rather, it is a deliberately collated and edited collage of largely rhymed wisdom literature that was drifting about in the early Chinese tradition. Michael LaFargue offers an alternative reading strategy for the Daodejing in suggesting that, rather than anticipating some literal, univocal interpretation for each passage, we ought to search the text empathetically for the point that it is trying to make relative to concrete life situations. After all, even though empirically the claim that “a watched pot never boils” is demonstrably false, that does not diminish the saying’s psychological insight for those people who are given to watching pots.
The philosophical problem that provokes the Daoist mistrust of language lies in the possibility that a misunderstanding of the nature of language has the potential to promote the worst misconceptions about the flux and flow of experience in which we live our lives. There is an obvious tension between the unrelenting processual nature of experience and the function of language to separate out, isolate and arrest elements within it. To the extent that it is the nature of language to arrest the process of change and discipline it into a coherent, predictable order, there is the likelihood that an uncritical application of language might persuade us that our world is of a more stable and necessary character that it really is.
The assumption, for example, that there is a literal language behind the metaphorical can introduce notions of permanence, necessity, and objectivity into our worldview that can have deleterious consequences. Corollary to such notions are dualistic categories, such as reality and appearance, right and wrong, good and evil, true and false, reason and rhetoric, that encourage a finality and thus a kind of dogmatism in our judgements about the world. Such assumptions in parsing our experience lead to the exclusionary prejudices familiar in foundational ways of thinking.
Of course, the alternative to this “myth of the given” foundationalism is not its twin: a divisive and intolerant relativism that promises a different yet equally final judgement for each discrete person or community. In the Daoist processual worldview, there are not the gaps in experience that would permit either an exclusive foundationalism or an equally exclusive relativism. The ethos of the world is not a given, but an ecological achievement that is increased or diminished by human participation and behaviour. Morality, then, is an ongoing negotiation in which some consensual and thus appropriate good can be produced by considering the needs and possible contributions of all things concerned.
Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall, A Philosophical translation of the Daodejing: Making This Life Significant.
Comparisons of logos and dao have more often than not resulted in understanding both notions as transcendental or metaphysical principles. In religious studies, such comparisons or translations of dao as logos or even as ‘God’ are commonplace, since they both seem to have to do with the word bringing order, and with a higher transcendent being or guiding principle having provided the word. Such comparisons have overflowed to comparative philosophy, thus reinforcing and perpetuating the idea that Daoism is about some transcendental metaphysical entity or principle inadequately named dao.
One may say that Heidegger was trying to think in a non-metaphysical way in reaction to the dominant metaphysical tradition of Western philosophy, but the fact that Zhuangzi was thinking in a non-metaphysical way did not arise out of a genuine need to overcome a metaphysical opponent. Both thinkers are after a way of thought that is squarely located in this world, opposed to dualism, and that has no need for metaphysical principles. Heidegger argues that Heraclitus was not a metaphysical thinker in the first place, since the particular form of metaphysics that we are discussing did not arise until Plato.
There is nothing other than continuous transformation, and humans are no exception to this transformation; neither are humans somewhere outside this process, nor is there an overarching principle behind it all. The regularity in the process is not something other than the process. The Alpha-to-Omega teleology typical of Western thinking and conducive to an invention of a ‘First Cause’ or ‘origin’ that would see logos as a metaphysical principle that can be ‘counted on’ is absent in most classical Chinese thought, but especially in Daoism, because dao as the process itself does not aim at anything, and its ‘constancy’ is nothing more than constant change.
Logos and dao are discourse, and both are impermanent structures that we need and live by. Dao is guiding discourse; it is speaking, signaling, leading. Both notions convey the idea that we are actively participating in the construal of the world and our place in it. As Heidegger says: “Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of Being”. Both the Daoists and Heidegger are extremely aware of the shortcomings of their respective societies’ current views of language, and both try to redirect us toward a different understanding of language that would take us closer to our world.
Both Heidegger’s Heraclitus and Daoists, then, suggest an attunement to what is larger than mere beings, without that larger ‘thing’ becoming a metaphysical principle, and they consequently advocate some way of thinking that accords rather than imposes. Such a form of responsiveness that Heidegger and Zhuangzi proclaim is not devoid of meaning, but is ultimately a form of responsibility: to follow the injunctions to let things be as they inherently are.
There is no real creator entity in classical Chinese thought, and metaphysical notions of ‘Being’ and ‘Nothing’ are largely absent as well. The assumed equivalents you and wu rather mean ‘present’ and ‘absent’, or ‘having’ and ‘not-having’. Most of the classical Chinese assumptions fit in more with a process-oriented worldview than with one that is based on a metaphysical and onto-theological one. As such, we would be well off to be more careful when interpreting concepts such as dao in familiar metaphysical ways. Maybe a non-metaphysical reading is more relevant to classical Chinese philosophy, and such considerations can also lead us, like Heidegger, to reassess our own most important notions, like logos, and, equally important, might give us resources to understand better the Chinese philosophical tradition, which is generally conceived as non-metaphysical.
Burik, Steven. Logos and Dao Revisited: A Non-Metaphysical Interpretation
(Philosophy East and West, Volume 68, Number 1, January 2018, pp. 23-41)
Read the whole article here
“The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can talk with him?”
Zhuangzi, Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters
When pre-experimental man conceived of the unknown as an ambivalent mother, he was not indulging in childish fantasy. He was applying what he knew to what was unfamiliar, but could not be ignored. Man’s first attempts to describe the unknown cannot be faulted because they lacked empirical validity. Man was not originally an empirical thinker. This does not mean he was self-deluded, a liar. Likewise, when the individual worships the hero, he is not necessarily hiding from reality. It may also be that he is ready and willing to face the unknown, as an individual; that he is prepared to adopt the pattern of heroic endeavour in his own life, and to further creation in that manner.
The great myths of Christianity – the great myths of the past, in general – no longer speak to the majority of westerners, who regard themselves as educated. The mythic view of history cannot be credited with reality, from the material, empirical point of view. It is nonetheless the case that all of western ethics, including those explicitly formalized in western law, are predicated upon a mythological world-view, which specifically attributes divine status to the individual. The modern individual is therefore in a unique position: he no longer believes that the principles upon which all his behaviors are predicated are valid. This might be considered a second fall, in that the destruction of the western mythological barrier has re-exposed the essential tragedy of individual existence to view.
It is not the pursuit of empirical truth, however, that has wreaked havoc upon the Christian worldview: it is confusion of empirical fact with moral truth, to the great detriment of the latter. This confusion has produced what might be described as a secondary gain, which has played an important role in maintaining the confusion. That gain is abdication of the absolute personal responsibility imposed in consequence of recognition of the divine in man. This responsibility means acceptance of the trials and tribulations associated with expression of unique individuality, as well as respect for such expression in others. Such acceptance, expression and respect requires courage in the absence of certainty, and discipline in the smallest matters.
Rejection of moral truth allows for rationalization of cowardly, destructive, degenerate self-indulgence. This is one of the most potent attractions of such rejection, and constitutes primary motivation for the lie. The lie, above all else, threatens the individual – and the interpersonal. The lie is predicated upon the presupposition that the tragedy of individuality is unbearable – that human experience itself is evil. The individual lies because he is afraid – and it is not the lies he tells another that present the clearest danger, but the lies he tells himself. The root of social and individual psychopathology, the “denial,” the “repression” – is the lie. The most dangerous lie of all is devoted towards denial of individual responsibility – towards denial of individual divinity.
The idea of the divine individual took thousands of years to fully develop, and is still constantly threatened by direct attack and insidious counter-movement. It is based upon realization that the individual is the locus of experience. All that we can know about reality we know through experience. It is therefore simplest to assume that all there is of reality is experience, in being and progressive unfolding. Furthermore, it is the subjective aspect of individuality – of experience – that is divine, not the objective. Man is an animal, from the objective viewpoint, worthy of no more consideration than the opinion and opportunities of the moment dictate. From the mythic viewpoint, however, every individual is unique – is a new set of experiences, a new universe; has been granted the ability to bring something new into being; is capable of participating in the act of creation itself. It is the expression of this capacity for creative action that makes the tragic conditions of life tolerable, bearable – remarkable, miraculous.
The paradise of childhood is absolute meaningful immersion. That immersion is a genuine manifestation of subjective interest. Interest accompanies the honest pursuit of the unknown, in a direction and at a rate subjectively determined. The unknown, in its beneficial guise, is the ground of interest, the source of what matters. Culture, in its supportive role, extends the power with which the unknown can be met, by disciplining the individual and expanding his range of ability. In childhood, the parent serves as cultural surrogate, and the child explores under the umbrella of protection provided by his parents. The parental mechanism has its limits, however, and must be superseded by the internalization of culture – by the intrapsychic incorporation of belief, security, and goal. Adoption of this secondary protective structure dramatically extends and shapes individual capability.
The dragon limits the pursuit of individual interest. The struggle with the dragon – against the forces that devour will and hope – constitutes the heroic battle, in the mythological world. Faithful adherence to the reality of personal experience ensures contact with the dragon – and it is during such contact that the great force of the individual spirit makes itself manifest, if it is allowed to. The hero voluntarily places himself in opposition to the dragon. The liar pretends that the great danger does not exist, to his peril and to that of others, or abdicates his relationship with his essential interest, and abandons all chance at further development.
Interest is meaning. Meaning is manifestation of the divine individual adaptive path. The lie is abandonment of individual interest – hence meaning, hence divinity – for safety and security; is sacrifice of the individual to appease the Great Mother and Great Father.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (John 14:6)
We use stories to regulate our emotions and govern our behavior; use stories to provide the present we inhabit with a determinate point of reference – the desired future. The optimal “desired future” is not a state, however, but a process – the (intrinsically compelling) process of mediating between order and chaos; the process of the incarnation of Logos, which is the world-creating principle. Identification with this process, rather than with any of its determinate outcomes (that is, with any “idols” or fixed frames of reference or ideologies) ensures that emotion will stay optimally regulated – and action remain possible – no matter how the “environment” shifts, and no matter when. In consequence of such identification, respect for belief comes to take second place to respect for the process by which belief is generated.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
Nature is that which has always been there. This is the thinking of Heraclitus. In his eyes, it has always been made up of the world (cosmos) as what “was, is and will be.” This is to make Nature finite, to diminish its power. Nature did not create itself, that is to say permanently structure itself into the world, but unceasingly and tirelessly builds itself and becomes finite by forming itself into a multiplicity of worlds. This means that it breaks up into innumerable worlds that are not at all eternal, but are born and perish. It is like a perpetual laboratory of endless and multiple trials because it is not only one order (cosmos) that is born of Nature, but all systems of the order are born of it at one time or another.
By his cosmology, Heraclitus is the ancestor of Plato’s followers. However, by his panta rhei, “everything flows,” he is the prime example of all the philosophies of movement, from Montaigne to Bergson, before and after. Furthermore, what is the Tao, according to Lao Tzu, but “perpetual mutability itself,” that is to say Heraclitus’s river? Yet it must be added: with certain characteristics of Anaximander’s Phusis, because the “Path” (Tao), which is infinite in that it is unqualified, undetermined, and conceptually incomprehensible, is also the source and principle of birth and growth for individual beings: differentiating themselves and becoming finite, it thus deploys a generative force, Te – a word which is generally translated as “Virtue.” Nothing prevents this “Virtue” from showing itself in innumerable worlds.