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.