Important Taoist Concepts
There are some important concepts that have played a role in the doctrines of Taoism:
Dao and de : The Ethical Concepts
Wei & wu-wei (Deeming Action & Non-deeming Action)
Pusimplicity (Pre-linguistic Purity)
Dao and de: The Ethical Concepts
Dao (Way, Guide, Road)
Daoism has a reputation of being impenetrable mainly because of its central concept, dao. Yet surprisingly, the almost universal translation in English uses one of the smallest, simplest, most familiar and least consciously noticed terms of the language — 'way.' This common translation, 'way,' is apt in several ways. Dao (Tao) is a pivotal concept of ancient Chinese thought. 'Way' is similarly primitive (it resists analytic definition). We can only offer synonyms: e.g., 'course', 'method', 'manner', 'mode', 'style', 'means', 'practice', 'fashion', 'technique' and so on. We discover the circularity when we try to analyze one of the synonyms without recourse to the term 'way' with which we began.
The partial synonyms, however, remind us of a second way in which 'way' is an apt translation of dao. A way is the answer to a “how” or “what-to-do” question. We typically use talk of ways in advising someone. Ways are deeply practical (i.e., prescriptive or normative).
Dao is also used concretely to refer to a road or path in Chinese, e.g., Queen's Road. Again, 'way' fits this metaphorical role — as in highway and Broadway. In figurative English use they are interchangeable — the road/way to salvation. Roads guide us and facilitate our arrival at a desired destination. They are, as it were, physically real guiding or prescriptive structures.
Though practical, describing something as a dao or a way need not be to recommend it. The Zhuangzi reminds us that thievery has a dao . We can use both dao and 'way' mainly to describe — as when a Confucian undertakes to pursue his father's dao for three years after his death or we say “I saw the way you did that.”
There are interesting differences between dao and 'way'. Chinese nouns lack pluralization, so dao functions grammatically like a singular or mass term and semantically like a plural. The first tempts translators to render all occurrences as “the way.” One is better advised to treat dao as a collective noun — as the part-whole sum of ways. What we think of as one way would be one part of dao.
We partition dao by modification. So we can talk about, e.g., my-dao, Sage-King's-dao, natural-dao, past-time's-dao and so forth. This feature explains why dao appears more metaphysical than 'way' and invites the familiar Daoist spatial metaphors like “humans interact in dao as fish do in water” (Zhuangzi Ch. 6). Dao is a little like the water — an expanse constituting the realm in which humans live, work and play. To be human is to be in a realm of ways to guide us. Daoists are more likely to play with these metaphysical metaphors than are Confucians or Mohists — who mainly point to (their favored part of) dao.
Another difference is that while both dao and 'way' are almost ineliminable terms in their respective languages, We have hardly noticed the word 'way' in philosophy. It's barely visible in the history of Western philosophy — more like a bit of grammatical filler. Western philosophers have endlessly analyzed and dissected a cluster of terms thought to be central to our thinking, e.g., 'good', 'right', 'being' (to be), 'know', 'believe', 'true', 'beautiful', 'reason', 'change', 'subject', 'mind', 'meaning', 'refer', 'object', 'property', and so forth. Some trends have focused on sub-types and partial counterparts like 'methods' 'modes' 'practices' 'manners' 'plans' and in some sense even 'forms'. Yet one looks in vain to find a Western philosopher showering her analytic attention on the more general concept of 'way'.
Dao, by contrast, was the center of Chinese philosophical discussion. It occupies the position at the center of thought that in Western philosophy is filled by terms like 'being' or 'truth'. The centrality tempts interpreters to identify dao with the central concepts of the Western philosophical agenda, but that is to lose the important difference between the two traditions. Metaphysics and epistemology dominated early Western philosophy while ethics, politics and philosophy of education/psychology dominated Chinese thought. Although it's insightful to say humans live in dao as fish do in water, the insight is lost if we simply treat dao as being or some pantheistic spiritual realm. Dao remains essentially a concept of guidance, a prescriptive or normative term. In the late Classical period, dao paired with devirtuosity to form the Chinese term for 'ethics' “dao-de.” Dao is the pivot of Chinese philosophy — but it still translates as 'way', not 'being'.
A third difference is that unlike 'way', dao may be used as a verb. The best known example is the famous first line of the Daode Jing. Literally “dao can be dao not constant dao.” For the dao in the middle of the three daos in the passage, roughly one out of three translators uses 'speak', another third use 'tell' and the rest use near synonyms such as 'expressed', “defined in words”, or 'stated'. In a famous Confucian example of this use, Confucius criticizes dao-ing the people with laws rather than dao-ing them with ritual. (This verbal sense is now often marked by a graphic variation daoto direct).
Throughout classical texts, we find that daos are spoken, heard, forgotten, transmitted, learned, studied, understood and misunderstood, distorted, mastered, and performed with pleasure. Different countries and historical periods have different dao. Footprints of the linguistic component of the concept of dao are scattered through all kinds of modern Chinese compound words. 'Preach' is jiang-dao — speak a dao. To know is to know a dao. The character dao is part of compounds translated as 'doctrine' 'truth' 'principle' 'law' and of course, 'morality' or 'ethics' 'reason', 'religion', 'philosophy' 'orthodoxy', 'thank' 'apologize' 'tell' 'explain' 'inform' and so on.
Is 'speak' the right way to translate these verbal uses of dao? It is in some ways too narrow and in others too broad. We can write, gesture, point, and exemplify as well as speak daos. On the other hand, not all speaking (writing etc.) is dao-ing — particularly not if we think of language as describing, representing, picturing, expressing, defining, or “capturing” some reality. The Chinese verbal use, is more accurately translated normatively as “to guide”, “to recommend, advocate, acknowledge, endorse”, etc. The activity of dao-ing is primarily normative: giving guidance. To dao is to put guidance into language — including body language (e.g. pointing as meaning something in our “form of life.”)
Consider, again, the concrete translation for dao: 'road' or 'path'. A woodsman with an ax daos when he chops bark from the trees as he enters the forest; He is dao-ing when “blazing” the trail. We grasp this concept best if we resist treating roads as simple natural objects — they are, like the woodman's blazes, akin to texts that we “read” for guidance as we proceed that way. Roads or paths are embodied in a physical reality, but are not simply the reality. They are objectively real normative structures that guide or invite us to “pass this way”.
One feature that dao and speech share is the need for interpretation. But with dao the interpretation takes the form of xingwalk:conduct, not that of a theory or a belief. In this respect, the relevant notion of interpretation is aesthetic. It is the kind of interpretation done when a conductor interprets a score, an actor a character in a play, a soldier his orders in the course of battle. A complete metaphysics of dao requires a distinction between normative way types and interpretive, real-time tokens . Daoist theory does introduces the tokens most dramatically with Shen Dao who focuses on what he calls Great Dao — the actual history of the world past, present and future. That image draws our attention to a purely descriptive way — a way that is not a (normative) way (not a guide).
To talk, however, about a way of interpreting a way, is to remind ourselves of Zhuangzi's point. That we can never free normative ways from ways of choosing and interpreting them. In selecting it from the alternative “invitations” open to us, and then in interpreting in our actual “walking” we always rely on some higher-order dao to justify our choice and execution of it. We are in a sea of dao.
Besides the Great Dao (the actual history of the universe), we can speak of tiannature:sky daos, which are also descriptive. Daos that advise us to accept or live by our nature, in effect, choose among equally natural daos. Since we have natural ways to reform or compensate for our natures. Any dao we can choose or interpret is natural in the sense that it has for us at the time some physical realization — soundwaves or pixils on a computer screen. All daos available for choice or recommendation are natural. If determinism is true, the Great Dao is the only tiannature:sky dao and every available dao for normative choice is a proper part of Great Dao.
De (Virtuosity, Virtue, Power)
A Daoist formula for de is “dao within.” It may be the result of innate skill or of careful cultivation and training. Translators most commonly use “virtue” as a translation but hurry to remind us that it is 'virtue' in the ancient Greek sense of an excellence. 'Power' is an alternative translation that reflects the link between de and successful action or achievement for its possessor. Given our use of an aesthetic conception of interpretation of dao, we may think of one's de as her 'virtuosity.' Virtuosity exhibits itself in a performer by making his “interpretation” of the thing performed (a ceremony, chant or ritual) work in the context. Thus de links dao with correct performance. This elegantly blends in the perceived overtones of “power” in the form of the performer's ability to respond to clues in the context that make the performance “work.” The “powerful” performance achieves the dao's goal in real time.
The character mingnames really includes all words. Grammatically, Chinese common nouns share more features with proper names and one-place predicates (transitive verbs and adjectives) than do familiar Indo-European nouns. Chinese common nouns lack case and gender markings and Chinese grammar requires no grammatical noun-verb agreement. Like mass nouns, Chinese common nouns do not undergo pluralization and can stand alone as noun phrases. For related reasons, Chinese analysis postulated no substance-attribute structure to adjective-noun relations. So the translation 'name' is not inept nor is the ancient Chinese theory assumption that all words name the part of reality which the word “picks out” — roughly “naming” what we think of as its denotation or scope. Thus 'white' is a name and 'horse' is a name. Each names a region or part of the world.
The most familiar statement of a widely shared implicit theory of names in ancient China is expressed beautifully in the Daode Jing . Call it the “contrast theory” of names. It treats all words (norms or values) as “coming with” a complement, converse or opposite. To learn and understand a word is to know what is and what is not picked out by it. In the Daode Jing, the theory lends itself to a linguistic idealist interpretation. Names literally “create” things. This line of interpretation informs the “chaos” interpretation of Daoist metaphysics in which reality is an undifferentiated stuff which humans divide into “things” by the use of mingnames.
An interesting near homonym is mingcommand-fate which was routinely used as a verbal form of mingnames. The familiar practice is to translate it as either 'command' (reminding us of the Chinese view that the role of language and names is guiding and coordinating behavior) or as 'fate.' Another meaning-related near homonym is mingdiscerning:clear.
Chang (Constant, Eternal)
There is less controversy about the meaning of changconstant, but its uses and importance in Chinese thought are not well understood. We can better appreciate the uses of changconstant in ancient Chinese by analogy with causal and reliability theories in epistemology and semantics. Hu Shih speculated that in this use, changconstant resembled a pragmatic conception of 'true.' He pointed to a related use in the Mozi which advocates that we should changconstant language that promotes [good?] behavior. This quasi-imperative use underlies its role in Daoist relativistic and skeptical analysis. The Daode Jing has the most famous example of its use in the parallel opening coulet where it modifies both dao and mingnames.
Mohist use of the concept is instructive. Tiannature:sky is a paradigm of constancy. The Mohists alluded to its regularity and universality to contrast with the temporary and local authority of social conventions and guidance by authority. They cast their disagreement with Confucians in terms of who offered a constant dao. This seems to bridge three measures of constancy.
A constant dao should apply equally to people of all cultures, times, and levels of social development.
Wei & Wu-wei (Deeming Action & Non-deeming Action)
Laozi's famous slogan has puzzled interpreters for centuries and has given rise to numerous analyses. The first character is not the main problem. Wu is simply “does not exist.” In this phrase, however, interpreters treat it as a negative prescription: “avoid wei.” The harder problem is to understand wei.
In modern Mandarin, the character has two different tones. The fourth tone reading is usually translated as “for the sake of.” In the second tone reading, the character would normally be translated as 'to act'. Textbook interpretations say wei means 'purpose' as well as 'action,' so the slogan means “non-purposive action.” The second tone reading, however, has another important use. Some grammar textbooks call it the putative sense — “to deem, regard or interpret.” Wei functions in this sense in Literary Chinese belief ascriptions which focus on the predicate. So a belief that S is P takes the de re form [believer] takes S to be (wei) P. Wei also figures in a related way in knowledge contexts with nominal predicates — “know to deem as (wei) [noun].”
Ancient Chinese has several meaning-related homonyms, including weiis-only, weito be called, and weiartificial. The latter adds a 'human' radical to weido:deem. Typical translations of this character include 'artificial' or 'false'. The cluster of concepts correspond to the pivotal Daoist contrast between tian (nature) and ren (the human). Wei is something done by human conceptualizing rather than something “natural.” If we include this content in our explanation of Laozi's use of wei, we can explain its role more fully than does the theory on acts while lacking 'purpose' or deliberation. Little in the Laozi (or earlier Chinese thought) suggests any development of a distinction between voluntary, deliberate, or purposive action and its opposite. To act without wei is to remove the social, conceptual character from our behavior and act on “natural” instinct or intuition. This makes the concept cohere nicely with Laozi's analysis of names and knowledge as forms of social control.
As we noted, the “inner chapters” of the Zhuangzi rarely mentions the slogan. However, its use in the “outer chapters” invites us to construct a possible Zhuangzi version of the slogan. One tempting view associates wu-wei with the “inner chapter” discussions of skillful behavior that develops into a kind of satisfying and tranquil state of harmony with action that we might describe as “second nature.” In effect one acts while in an aesthetic or performative trance. The most famous expression of this ideal comes in the paean to the butcher who carved oxen with the grace of a dancer. Such behavior requires a focus and absorption that is incompatible with ordinary self-consciousness, purpose and rehearsal of instructions. Besides this loss of a sense of the ego, the experience is credited with creating a unity between the actor and the external world, and with a sense of heightened awareness and tranquillity that comes with the masterful practice of an acquired skill. We experience mastery as “becoming one with the activity.” In some sense, our weiing has become [second?] natural!
The wu-wei ideal also informs the Neo-Daoist slogan “Sage within; king without.” It suggests (following Zhuangzi) that Daoist wu-wei may be consistent with being a good Confucian. Being a scholar-official is as much a skill as being a butcher and one may practice it with the same attitude of inner emptiness. As long as one takes the “right” attitude, one may pursue any activity consistent with Daoism. Neo-Daoists conform to Confucian roles without regarding or interpreting them as ultimately right — or as anything else.
With the importation of Indo-European Buddhism from India, wu-wei started to be interpreted via the Western conceptual apparatus contrasting desire or purpose and reason. This shaped the modern Chinese interpretation and probably undermined the ideal. It became the target of attack among “modern” Chinese who regarded Daoist “non-striving” or “purposelessness” as the source of Chinese passivity. The activist 19th century reformer, Kang You-wei (Kang have-wei) took the denial of the slogan as his scholarly name.
Pusimplicity (Pre-linguistic Purity)
The Daoist “primitivist” ideal as expressed mainly in the Laozi. It metaphorically represents the result of forgetting mingnames and desires (See Wu-wei). Translations include simplicity, “raw” wood, and D. C. Lau's more elaborage “uncarved block.” The detailed translation more sensitively expresses Laozi's point in using the metaphor in the context of a view of names as “cutting” things into types and Laozi's distinctive theory that such socially constructed distinctions (institutions) control us by controlling our desires. When societies adopt names or terms, it does so in order to instill and regulate desires for one of the pair created by the name-induced distinction. Thus Daoist forgetting requires forgetting names and distinctions, but in doing so, frees itself from the socially induced, unnatural desires that cause strife and unhappiness in society (e.g. status, rare objects, fame, authority). Hence: “The Nameless uncarved block thus amounts to freedom from desire.”