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Daoist philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G006-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 30, 2017, from

Article Summary

Early Daoist philosophy has had an incalculable influence on the development of Chinese philosophy and culture. Philosophical Daoism is often called ‘Lao–Zhuang’ philosophy, referring directly to the two central and most influential texts, the Daodejing (or Laozi) and the Zhuangzi, both of which were composite, probably compiled in the fourth and third centuries bc. Beyond these two texts we might include the syncretic Huainanzi (circa 140 bc) and the Liezi, reconstituted around the fourth century ad, as part of the traditional Daoist corpus.

Second in influence only to the Confucian school, the classical Daoist philosophers in many ways have been construed as both a critique on and a complement to the more conservative, regulatory precepts of their Confucian rivals. Daoism has frequently and unfortunately been characterized in terms of passivity, femininity, quietism and spirituality, a doctrine embraced by artists, recluses and religious mystics. Confucianism, by contrast, has been cast in the language of moral precepts, virtues, imperial edicts and regulative methods, a doctrine embodied in and administered by the state official. The injudicious application of this yinyang-like concept to Daoism and Confucianism tends to impoverish our appreciation of the richness and complexity of these two traditions. Used in a heavy-handed way, it obfuscates the fundamental wholeness of both the Confucian and Daoist visions of meaningful human existence by imposing an unwarranted conservatism on classical Confucianism, and an unjustified radicalism on Daoism.

There is a common ground shared by the teachings of classical Confucianism and Daoism in the advocacy of self-cultivation. In general terms, both traditions treat life as an art rather than a science. Both express a ‘this-wordly’ concern for the concrete details of immediate existence rather than exercising their minds in the service of grand abstractions and ideals. Both acknowledge the uniqueness, importance and primacy of the particular person and the person’s contribution to the world, while at the same time stressing the ecological interrelatedness and interdependence of this person with their context.

However, there are also important differences. For the Daoists, the Confucian penchant for reading the ‘constant dao’ myopically as the ‘human dao’ is to experience the world at a level that generates a dichotomy between the human and natural worlds. The argument against the Confucian seems to be that the Confucians do not take the ecological sensitivity far enough, defining self-cultivation in purely human terms. It is the focused concern for the overcoming of discreteness by a spiritual extension and integration in the human world that gives classical Confucianism its sociopolitical and practical orientation. But from the Daoist perspective, ‘overcoming discreteness’ is not simply the redefinition of the limits of one’s concerns and responsibilities within the confines of the human sphere. The Daoists reject the notion that human experience occurs in a vacuum, and that the whole process of existence can be reduced to human values and purposes.

To the extent that Daoism is prescriptive, it is so not by articulating rules to follow or asserting the existence of some underlying moral principle, but by describing the conduct of an achieved human being – the sage (shengren) or the Authentic Person (zhenren) – as a recommended object of emulation. The model for this human ideal, in turn, is the orderly, elegant and harmonious processes of nature. Throughout the philosophical Daoist corpus, there is a ‘grand’ analogy established in the shared vocabulary used to describe the conduct of the achieved human being on the one hand, and the harmony achieved in the mutual accomodations of natural phenomena on the other.

The perceived order is an achievement, not a given. Because dao is an emergent, ‘bottom-up’ order rather than something imposed, the question is: what is the optimal relationship between de and dao, between a particular and its environing conditions? The Daoist response is the self-dispositioning of particulars into relationships which allow the fullest degree of self-disclosure and development. In the Daoist literature, this kind of optimally appropriate action is often described as wuwei, ‘not acting wilfully’, ‘acting naturally’ or ‘non-assertive activity’. Wuwei, then, is the negation of that kind of ‘making’ or ‘doing’ which requires that a particular sacrifice its own integrity in acting on behalf of something ‘other’, a negation of that kind of engagement that makes something false to itself. Wuwei activity ‘characterizes’ – that is, produces the character or ethos of – an aesthetically contrived composition. There is no ideal, no closed perfectedness. Ongoing creative achievement itself provides novel possibilities for a richer creativity. Wuwei activity is thus fundamentally qualitative: an aesthetic category and, only derivatively, an ethical one. Wuwei can be evaluated on aesthetic grounds, allowing that some relationships are more productively wuwei than others. Some relationships are more successful than others in maximizing the creative possibilities of oneself in one’s environments.

This classical Daoist aesthetic, while articulated in these early texts with inimitable flavour and imagination, was, like most philosophical anarchisms, too intangible and impractical to ever be a serious contender as a formal structure for social and political order. In the early years of the Han dynasty (206bcad 220), there was an attempt in the Huainanzi to encourage the Daoist sense of ethos by tempering the lofty ideals with a functional practicality. It appropriates a syncretic political framework as a compromise for promoting a kind of practicable Daoism – an anarchism within expedient bounds. While historically the Huainanzi fell on deaf ears, it helped to set a pattern for the Daoist contribution to Chinese culture across the sweep of history. Over and over again, in the currency of anecdote and metaphor, identifiably Daoist sensibilities would be expressed through a range of theoretical structures and social grammars, from military strategies, to the dialectical progress of distinctively Chinese schools of Buddhism, to the constantly changing face of poetics and art. It can certainly be argued that the richest models of Confucianism, represented as the convergence of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism itself, were an attempt to integrate Confucian concerns with human community with the broader Daoist commitment to an ecologically sensitive humanity.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Daoist philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G006-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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