Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 23, 2019, from

5. Philosophical Daoism

Daoism is a complex movement in early China (see Daoist philosophy). A proto-Daoist religious sensibility seems to have been a stratum of Chinese popular culture centuries before the emergence of ‘religious Daoism’ as a formal iconoclastic movement in the second century ad. During the late Warring States period, Daoism developed a sublimated and sophisticated intellectual dimension as a response to rival traditions of thought. Because this school of political and philosophical anarchism was articulated in two primary compilations, the Daodejing (or Laozi) and the Zhuangzi, it came to be known as ‘Lao–Zhuang’ Daoism (see Daodejing and Zhuangzi).

The central message of this school is captured by the title of the Daodejing – literally, ‘the classic of dao and de’. In fact, the name ‘dao-ism’ itself is an abbreviation of the earliest designation of this tradition as ‘dao-de-ism’, reflecting the core question which pervades the Daoist texts: what is the relationship between dao and de? This can be interpreted and restated as: what constitutes excellence (de) and how does one achieve it within one’s particular place (de) in the world (dao)? Since one’s ‘place’ is both spatial and temporal, de is the excellence achieved as one treads one’s ‘pathway’ (or dao) through life (see Dao; De).

A central Lao–Zhuang complaint against rival Confucianism is ecological, denouncing the anthropocentric limits it imposes on personal realization. While early Confucianism argues that human beings are the product of harmoniously orchestrated interpersonal relationships, the Daoists insist that the relational definition of humanity be extended to encompass the world more broadly. Human beings inhere in social, cultural and natural environments, and these environments are continuous and mutually shaping. The rhythm and regularity of human community is embedded in, and hence must be responsive to, the cadence and flow of all of nature’s complex orders. To ignore the responsibility of humanity to participate fully in the harmony of our non-human surroundings leads inevitably to the distortion of our natural impulses by the imposition of often ossified conventions and institutions on the intuitive ground of human experience. Impositional conduct leads to coercion which, in the human world as our most immediate example, reduces the creative possibilities of community by denying the full participation of some of its participants.

The Daodejing expresses this notion of teasing an integrated and dynamic harmony out of available differences: ‘The myriad things shoulder yin and embrace yang and blend their energies (qi) together to constitute a harmony (he)’ (see Qi). The ‘myriad things’ denotes the natural world as a complex of unique and particular thing-events (de). This complex of things lacks the suggestion of a single-ordered unity or coherence carried by terms such as ‘cosmos’ or ‘universe’, where the inventory of things is thought to be organized according to unifying natural laws and causal relationships. To the extent that the myriad things achieve ‘order’, it is constituted by the sum of a contingent set of aesthetic harmonies construed from the perspective of each of the participants as they dispose and express themselves in the world.

The intelligible patterns created by the many different things which collaborate to constitute the world are all pathways or daos which can, in varying degrees, be traced out to map one’s own place and its context, and in this mapping, to find coherence and meaning. Dao is always reflexive in that there is no final distinction between an independent source of order and that which it orders. One’s world and its order are constituted by the collaboration of oneself with a myriad other self-causing and mutually shaping particulars. Dao is, at any given time and place, both what the world is and how it is, as entertained from that perspective. For this reason, from a human point of view, explanation does not lie in the discovery of some antecedent agency or the isolation and disclosure of relevant causes. Rather, any particular event or phenomenon can be understood by mapping out the conditions which collaborate to sponsor it. Once broadly understood, these same conditions can be manipulated therapeutically to anticipate the next moment, and to prescribe for it.

The Daodejing is primarily a political treatise. It is by bringing this anarchic and ecological sensibility to the operations of human governance that government in its relationship to community can become wuwei, free of any coercive activity and free to orchestrate the full talents of its constituent population (see Daodejing).

The Zhuangzi, focusing more on personal than political realization, is without question one of the richest and most celebrated pieces of philosophical literature in the Chinese tradition. While expressing an unrelenting scepticism about those evidential claims for certainty and objectivity which empower competing philosophical voices, this text uses a collage of anecdotes, parables, provocative images and other such rhetorical tropes and strategies to defend creativity as a fundamental value. It is through an appreciation of the role of creativity in the world that one comes to an understanding of an inclusively ‘proper’ order, where the ‘anarchic’ harmony, eschewing as it does any sense of determinative principle or archē, is ‘made mine’ by the fullest expression of all participating elements. The functional value of such an anarchic understanding of order in the world lies in overcoming any fear of personal injury or death by recognizing and relying upon the discernible regularity and continuity in the world, and by respecting the contribution that transformative change makes to the quality of life (see Zhuangzi).

Daoism, like Confucianism, becomes porous and eclectic as it enters the Han dynasty, and serves as a freewheeling counterpoint to the Confucian state ideology throughout the two millennia of Imperial China. In the Huainanzi, an early Han compendium of knowledge representative of this syncretic turn, Daoism serves as a primary ore, being alloyed with the concerns and perspectives of competing schools to produce a more malleable and practical amalgam. The coherence of the Huainanzi, however, is one true to the spirit of Lao–Zhuang in that conflicting and divided opinions are happily juxtaposed as necessary for providing the fullest summary of China’s cultural achievements. It is richness and intensity rather than some rationalized order that is the signature of Huainanzi’s version of syncretic Daoism (see Huainanzi).

There were also ‘Huang–Lao’ Daoists in late Qin and Eastern Han dynasties who combined the seemingly incompatible bureaucratic and technocratic designs associated with the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) with Daoistic sensibilities as a strategy for participating effectively in the political order. These thinkers coupled the institutional structures and institutions of centralized government with Daoist notions of sagely government to constitute a kind of instrumental Daoism. Recent archaeological discoveries are providing an increasing amount of evidence from which to bring this movement into clearer focus.

The qualitative, aesthetic concerns which pervade Daoism continued to have an important influence throughout the evolution of Chinese culture, most notably in the productive and literary arts: painting, calligraphy, poetry, ceramics and so on. The vocabulary of Daoism was also instrumental in transforming imported Mahāyāna Buddhism from an exotic religion into a source of spiritual growth with largely indigenous aspirations (see Buddhist philosophy, Chinese).

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Philosophical Daoism. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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