Laozi (Lao Tzu)


Laozi (Lao Tzu: dates uncertain. Speculation ranges from from 600 BC to 200 BC) is, we assume, the author of the Daode Jing (Tao Te Ching), the most beloved and widely translated Chinese philosophical text. The figure of Laozi has always been shrouded in mystery. It deepens the more we discover about the texts. Tradition regarded Laozi as Confucius' (6th Century BC) teacher and the "founder" of Daoism, the "doubt tradition" movement in modern China gave influential arguments for dating the text to the middle "Warring States" period (4th Century BC). The discovery of 1st Century BC version of the text suggested the text was in flux over a long period of time. A. C. Graham argued that the text probably became important only after Zhuangzi died (ca. 295 BC). Scholars in China, on the contrary, have reverted to the traditional dating placing Laozi before Confucius. Many scholars dismiss Laozi as mythological or use his name as shorthand for "the author(s) of the Daode Jing."

The interpretation of the text is complicated by its disputed history and, thus, is even more controversial. There are now over 100 different translations and closer to 2000 commentaries in Chinese. Traditional views are that Laozi inspired Zhuangzi and they together formed a philosophical school known as "Daoism" which inspired a later religion of the same name. Until recently, scholars mostly thought the religion was a distortion of the philosophy, but some now argue that the text emerged first from a religion worshipping the Yellow Emperor along with Laozi (known as Huang-Lao).

We obviously cannot consider all the interpretations here and our interest is more philosophical than religious. We can justify our focus whichever historical story we tell since, as Graham's analysis stressed, the Zhuangzi introduces Laozi into Chinese philosophical discourse. Whatever its dates and origin, Laozi first meant to Chinese philosophy what the school of Zhuangzi first found of interest in it. We will look for the philosophical theory that would best justify Zhuangzi's interest and explain the traditional genealogy. We leave open whether the religious reading came later than the philosophical or preceded it.

We should note that religious interpretations dominate the extant translations. They reverse our strategy here and make the interpretation of Zhuangzi conform to the theory that he was a religious disciple. According to this interpretation, Laozi and later Zhuangzi had some mystical experience-an experience of the indescribable oneness of everything. They changed the meaning of "dao" (tao) from "guiding instructions" and used it to refer to a divine being (on the model of Buddha or mystical creator-God).

Besides the empirically dubious claims about the mystical experiences and the meaning change, the religious interpretation of the text faces serious difficulties. (1) The mystical reading, "there is a dao which language cannot describe," describes that very dao and is incoherent on its face. Elaborating further on that dao, as religious readings take the texts to do, is hard to motivate. (2) If we take seriously the claim that language cannot talk about dao, it must rely on a theory of what language can do as much as it does on the concept of the object. We can study that philosophy of language with no threat of incoherence (especially since ordinarily dao refers to a linguistic object-prescriptive discourse). If we can explain the content and character of Laozi's text using its linguistic theory alone, it will undermine any remaining motivation to postulate the mystical experience and accuse Daoists of changing the meaning of they key term in their critique of Confucianism.

Let us start, then, with the historical account in The Zhuangzi. It names Shen Dao as a forerunner of Laozi. Shen Dao's slogan was "abandon knowledge; discard self." 'Knowledge' meant knowledge of some moral dao. He used the notion of a 'Great dao' to refer to the actual course of world history. You will follow it; you need no knowledge of daoguides to follow the Great Dao. "Even a clod of earth, can not miss the dao," he concluded.

The Zhuangzi account distances both Laozi and Zhuangzi from Shen Dao. The narrator says "[Shen Dao's] is a daoguide that can not daoguide" and characterizes it as a daoguide for the dead, not for the living. The point is that "what will be will be" has no implications for action. Whatever we do will accord with Great Dao, but knowing that does not help me decide what to do. Zhuangzi implicitly diagnosed a deeper paradox in Shen Dao's views. Since it is telling us to do something, Shen Dao's slogan is itself a bit of guiding knowledge. So, if we follow it, we disobey it. If we follow Shen Dao's prescription, we do what prescription itself says not to do. Laozi, however, not only tolerated this paradox, he replicated it.

We can understand Laozi, then, as accepting the paradoxical "abandon knowledge" spirit of Shen Dao, but rejecting the fatalism. Something like the Great Dao does surfaces sporadically in the Laozi, but it is not the focus of his theory. He may have tolerated the paradox on the grounds stated in his first line. "No daoguide that can daoguide is a constant daoguide." Shen Dao's is a constant dao (i.e., natural or not dependent on changeable convention) but it can not guide. Any daoguide that can is changeable.

That famous opening line is followed by a less noticed parallel-"Any name that can name is not a constant name." This signals that dao denotes linguistic items-systems of guiding discourse. Laozi is skeptical of the reliability of a discourse dao. The skepticism rests on the conventional (hence changeable) nature of language. No discourse-based instruction will guide reliably in all circumstances because the terms used do not mark distinctions reliably. The contrast of the natural and the conventional pervades the text.

How does this line of thought lead to the "abandon knowledge" conclusion? What motivates it is the goal of freedom from social control. Laozi treats (prescriptive) knowledge as based on language. Accordingly, knowledge consists of arbitrary, historically "accidental" social systems of making distinctions, guiding desires and acting. Laozi then justifies "abandon knowledge" as a way to recover our natural, authentic, spontaneous human impulses.

Chinese language theories call all characters mingnames. Adjectives and common nouns alike have a scope-they "pick out" a range of reality and exclude the rest. Words are 'names' of their "range of stuff." Learning a name for X means learning how to make a distinction between X and non-X. We cannot claim mastery of the word 'cat' if we call spiders "cat". We thus learn X and feinot X together as a single socially shared way to make a distinction. Laozi implies that in learning to apply the distinction and classify things in one way rather than another, we are being socialized into an inherited social design.

Much of this approach to language is common in ancient China. What Laozi adds is that society shapes our desires via words and distinctions. We will not count as having mastered the distinction between beautiful and ugly if we prefer the ugly. Acquiring a "sophisticated" taste molds our desires and shapes our choices and action.

Artificial desires increase strife, first because social structures expand the number of desires and second because the acquired desires are more competitive than natural ones. We would not naturally desire things, for example, simply because they are rare. Socially instilled desires motivate a thirst for status and power. Our natural desires are few and simple.

Finally, the desires lead to weiaction -a term at the center of Laozi's famous wulack weideem:act (non-action) slogan. We teach that the word weido:deem has two meanings-'to act' and 'for the sake of'. Hence, the standard elaboration of Laozi's slogan is that we should not act deliberately or purposefully. We could motivate this conclusion using Buddhist or Western psychology (i.e., desires get in the way of reason), but it is hard to explain why Laozi would recommend being careless or random in action. He has no concept of reason and treats some desires (e.g. for sex, food, leisure, etc.) as acceptable.

Weido:deem has another meaning that explains the slogan better in a Chinese context. Wei is used in the Chinese approximation of belief contexts ("X believes that T is P"). Classical Chinese splits the embedded belief sentence. The (optional) subject (T) comes before the weido:deem and the predicate (P) after. The complete form is: "X with regard to T, weido:deem [it to be] P."

If we understand weido:deem as treating things according to what we deem them to be, we get an insight into Laozi's slogan. It is a corollary of the view that we are to avoid socially instilled distinctions and desires. So ultimately, we should also avoid action based on our training in linguistic distinctions. The objection is to socialization, not rational purpose or deliberation. Laozi indicates that he senses a paradox in wulack weideem:act. He also says "lack" weido:deem and yet lack not- weido:deem. The problem is that we have just learned a guiding concept complete with a distinction, a desire, and a proposed course of action. If we are to avoid wei we must also avoid avoiding wei.

Laozi's slogan replicates Shen Dao's "abandon knowledge" paradox (i.e., "abandon knowledge" is itself a bit of [prescriptive] knowledge). The knowledge in question is still "social guidance," now analyzed as action guided by desires engendered by social distinctions and names. Laozi's motivation is naturalness, spontaneity or freedom from social conventions rather than in fatalism, but the paradox is in the conclusion, not the motivation. The paradox in wulack weido:deem follows a bigger and more interesting circle.

The analysis starts with the concepts of natural/conventional, which it treats as a pivotal distinction. Laozi teaches us a potentially controversial way to draw the distinction (i.e., anything based on 'language' is conventional). It implicitly encourages a preference or desire for being natural and, finally, based on the names, distinctions and desires, it recommends an action. Laozi says, "in pursuit of dao we daily forget." This forgetting is the weideem:act of getting rid of weideem:act. As long as we do it, we fail to do it. In urging wu-wei we have identified an action and in striving to avoid it, we are doing what it tells us not to.

Zhuangzi abandoned the paradoxical wu-wei position, but accepted the analysis showing how distinctions and desires are "socially constructed." Laozi's paradox vaguely reminds us of the Buddhist paradox of desire (you must desire to rid yourself of desires). However, Buddhist theory indicts especially the natural desires. We more plausibly interpret Laozi's stance as allowing "pre-social" desires. His position tends toward that of the Confucian nativists, e.g., Mencius. If we can "forget" the learned desires arising from language socialization, we will return to nature.

The "new born" child does have desires (e.g., for sex, food, and comfort etc.). These and their "purely natural" successors are the desires that underwrite Laozi's "primitive utopia." A suitably reduced system of desires would sustain social life at the simple agrarian village level but would not generate the "unnatural" ambition to travel and expand one's horizons of knowledge.

The social analysis of knowledge (i.e., discourse guidance) is thus accompanied a conception of innate or natural knowledge (pre-linguistic instinct). This partly gives the text its notorious ambiguity and contradictory character. One finds passages in which knowledge, clarity, and sages are ridiculed and their "accomplishments" pictured as viciously relative. Then other passages speak positively of knowledge, clarity, and sages.

One philosophical way of reading Laozi can both ameliorates the paradox and the inconsistency. It also gives a coherent role to interesting stylistic and content features of Laozi's philosophical poem. We read the bulk of the text (the political and metaphysical passages) as a heuristic and separate three systems of knowledge. The first system of knowledge consists of conventional guidance or wisdom. Conventional knowledge includes the familiar moral precepts of Confucians (traditionalists) and the systematic utilitarianism of the Mohists (moral reformers). Moralists propose schemes of guidance designed in the hope that everyone in society will learn and follow them. As Laozi noted, these moral systems are based on learning distinctions and using them in choosing actions.

Laozi challenges the assumptions behind this "positive" view partly by exhibiting a system we can call the negative Dao. We get this dao by reversing all conventional moral assumptions. Laozi's strategy shows that for key guiding terms, we can choose exactly the opposite of conventional wisdom. He draws the sayings in this "negative dao" from poems, slogans, couplets and aphorisms collected from many sources (and as our textual theory suggests, over a long period of editing). The sources include military stratagems, political cynicism, and Shen Dao's monism. We may even count Daoist primitivism itself as a heuristic example of anti-conventional advice.

This negative dao is Laozi's famous "dao of reversal." Where Confucian or conventional morality normally values renbenevolence, Laozi notes that tiannature:heaven is not benevolent. We normally value activity, dominance, the upper position, strength and upstanding rigidity. Laozi urges us to see the value of passivity, weakness, the lower position, and receptive yielding. Laozi values dullness over brilliance, ignorance over knowledge, lacking over having, etc.

These reversals link up easily with the emerging yin-yang, sexual reproduction cosmology. Laozi emphasizes the importance of the female and "draws sustenance from the mother." He treats the female as the "valley of the world." Further, yin-yang also metaphorically explains the importance of water with its connection to moisture, the lower position, passivity and overcoming through yielding.

On the metaphysical side, where we normally value youhaving:being. Laozi points to the utility of wulacking:non-being. He stresses the usefulness of the emptiness in a cup, a room and, famously, the hub of a wheel. The knowledge we gain from these "reversals" of ordinary value may be called "negative knowledge." It consists in seeing that the conventional ways of using terms to guide us can be reversed. They are not constant.

However, we cannot coherently take Laozi to allege that his negative dao is a constant dao. Confucians criticize the "scheming methods" and the disingenuous tone of some of the "negative" advice. Laozi, they charge, urges us to act submissive in order to dominate. He talks of keeping people ignorant, so they can be ruled more easily.

The criticism implies that Laozi surreptitiously clings to the conventional values, e.g., he really aims at domination. We can excuse his doing so if he is trying to make the negative dao seem plausible from our present lights. However, there is a deeper objection. Although he reverses the values, he relies on precisely the same conventional terms and distinctions. Is he still committed to a "constant" dao based on "constant" names?

The strategy is to say that the negative dao is a heuristic. It's point is to get us to see something else. Thus it defends Laozi against these charges. The moral of the reversal is not simply to replace one normative scheme with another. It calls in question the whole idea of having a scheme in the first place, hence of any replacement scheme. Laozi's position might be that the practical "content" of those conventional distinctions lies in the evaluative attitude that accompanies them. The conventional assumption is that they guide us correctly. Hence, if they can be reversed, then the scheme of names is not a "reliable" way to carve things up.

This conclusion is somewhat implausible. Names and distinctions that reflect real joints and fissures of the world can obviously guide us in different ways in different circumstances. Water is good when we are thirsty and bad when we are drowning. We can help Laozi's case a little if we assume understood Mohism well enough to be appealing to its pragmatic analysis of naming. If the justification of a distinction is only pragmatic success, and if we can show that equal success follows from reversing conventional guidance, this will either calls into question either the distinctions themselves or the strings of guiding discourse using them.

Now, to what guiding system does the heuristic point? What could the third level of knowledge be? Laozi formulates no answer. Part of the genius and appeal of Laozi's philosophical poem is to leave that up to the reader. We can say that it should not simply be an alternative, posited dao. It is more likely that Laozi intended to challenge us to make a "philosophical ascent" to higher level of ethical reflection-to "thinking about thinking." The most plausible point of the Daode Jing's analysis would be metaethical. It leads us to reflect on the process of proposing rival daos for the purpose of guidance.

Its thrust seems to be relativist or skeptical. To say that there is no constant dao is to say that any dao will be rest on some scheme of background distinctions and attitudes. All standards consist of distinctions and attitudes which are themselves subject to revision on subsequent reflection. We may decide that Laozi's point is either that there is no way or there are many ways of asking and answering ultimate normative questions.

We can also see a philosophical role for the religious or mystical reading that dominates translations. The skeptical point of Laozi's analysis of action-guiding distinctions is that there really are none. A mystical answer is practically indistinguishable from the skeptical one. "There is no ultimate criterion of rightness" and "there is an ultimate criterion that says nothing" will be functionally equivalent. Laozi's skeptical overtones emerge in his occasional celebration of "ignorance" or "dullness." There is wisdom in knowing your not knowing and knowing when to stop.



Lau, D. C. (tr.). 1963 Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (Baltimore: Penguin Books).