Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Lots and Lots of Dào

There’s a way of reading Dàoist philosophy according to which there is one great dào, and the Dàoist aim is to achieve some kind of relation to that one dào, presumably some kind of union.

As I understand it, this sort of reading implies that once you’ve achieved union with the dào, this will carry you through life no matter what it brings you. And this, I think, sits poorly with much of what we read in Dàoist texts. Verse 1 of the Dàodéjīng in particular is suspicious of the very idea of a single, constant dào; and the Zhuāngzǐ often seems to value a recognition of what is particular to the various situations we face.

So I suggest (I’m largely following Chad Hansen on this) that it would be better to think of dào as differing in different situations, and in ways that are largely unpredictable. Dào is thus not a single thing that one could relate to, or achieve union with, as a whole; no union we could achieve with dào now would carry us through the unpredictably various situations we are liable to face in the future.

(One could put my suggestion by saying that there are different dàos in different situations, but I prefer to follow the classical Chinese, in which “dào” is normally a mass noun.)

This implies that the Dàoist aim cannot be to achieve once and for all a union with the one great dào, it must instead be to maintain an openness to the different dào in different situations—just as, for example, the monkey keeper in Book 2 of the Zhuāngzǐ is open to the dào of his monkeys (in particular, to their preference for having their bigger meal in the morning). This is how I understand the value frequently placed in Dàoist texts on flexibility; I take it to be at the heart of the ideas of míng 明 (illumination) and of the pivot of dào in Zhuāngzǐ 2.

Should this openness itself be conceived of as a dào? This may be an issue over which Dàoists disagreed. The butcher in Zhuāngzǐ 3 loves dào because it takes him beyond skill—that is, beyond any dào he has previously mastered, so he can deal with the situation before him. But the swimmer in Zhuāngzǐ 19 denies that he has his own dào, saying he swims instead according to the dào of the water.

If we take openness to the different dào in different situations to be a dào, then it is a short step to thinking about this as the same as the dào according to which phenomena arise in nature. Perhaps it is in this sense that the texts sometimes tell us that dào is prior to heaven and earth.


March 14, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism


  1. And this will be my last guest-post here, at least for the time being, so I’d like to thank Manyul again for the invitation. And everyone else as well—I’ve been enjoying the threads a great deal, and certainly have been given a lot to think about.

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 14, 2008 | Reply

  2. Hi Dan,

    You say, “the Dàoist aim cannot be to achieve…union with the one great dào, it must instead be to maintain an openness to the different dào in different situations.”

    Might this be a false contrast? That is, the two aims may be one. Understanding of the Great Dao might amount to, or be manifested in, flexibility and opennness in particular situations. This would be because the Great Dao is a sum of all sorts of different patterns of transformation and change. This flexibility and openness could be thought of as a dào, as you say, but it would be one you couldn’t “make explicit” as a “constant” dào.

    My thinking on this issue is influenced by section 5.2 of the Lushi Chunqiu, which, in a passage echoing Daodejing 25, calls “Dao” the “supreme unity” (太一). This passage I think expresses the idea of a unitary, Great Dao (as, I think, DDJ 25 and some Zhuangzi passages do). But this Great Dao comprises endless different changes, so to follow it would be to flexibly respond to different changing situations.

    Thank you, too, for a week’s worth of stimulating threads.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | March 14, 2008 | Reply

  3. Chris, you could take the (mereological) sum of all the dao, and end up with one dao. But in dealing with that one big dao, you’re always dealing with the unpredicably various dao in different situations, and it’s only by being open to the situation-specific dao that you can be said to follow the Great Dao. (I’m pretty sure we agree about this.) So there’s a contrast, but it’s in what the Daoist is doing: achieving union with the whole thing, or being open to the various situation-specific dao.

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 14, 2008 | Reply

  4. Dan,

    You’re welcome. You’ve set the blog bar pretty high! (official thanks to follow on a post some time over the weekend…)

    Now let me pester you a bit about dao. I’ve always been a bit confused about the “numerical” status of mass-noun “stuff.” You say:

    “…it would be better to think of dào as differing in different situations, and in ways that are largely unpredictable. Dào is thus not a single thing that one could relate to, or achieve union with, as a whole; no union we could achieve with dào now would carry us through the unpredictably various situations we are liable to face in the future.”

    But how are we to reconcile what you are saying with the mass-noun status of ‘dao’? Because, as you also say:

    “One could put my suggestion by saying that there are different dàos in different situations, but I prefer to follow the classical Chinese, in which ‘dào’ is normally a mass noun.”

    But doesn’t the latter indicate that you think dao *is* a single thing. That is, there aren’t different daos in different situations; there is only the (single?) dao that guides differently in different situations. By way of analogy, there aren’t different “waters,” there is just water that exists differently in different volumes, pressures, temperatures, etc. So, why would it be wrong, under the mass-noun interpretation, to regard dao as a single something, just not an inflexible or “constant” something?

    I think the gist of my comments is that the thing with which you actually want to contrast your reading of daoist philosophy, is not the idea of a unitary or single dao, but an inflexible or constant one. Am I right?

    (Let me add that I think I’m making a point similar to Chris’s.)

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 14, 2008 | Reply

  5. Manyul, the instant you stick a number on it, it’s not a mass noun. And there’s no guarantee that if you sum up all the instances, the result will count as one; all the water taken together is not one water, for example. (Maybe a clearer example: all the pizza taken together is not one pizza.)

    (Come to think of it, it’s probably significant that some if not all Daoists thought that if you take the sum of all dao, what you get still can count as one dao. This isn’t what you get with most mass nouns, or most count nouns, for that matter.)

    I actually do resist the idea that what the Daoists are after is a single but changing dao. The monkey keeper catches on to the dao of the monkeys, the butcher catches on to the dao of chopping this particular ox, the swimmer catches on to the dao of the water. In each case, the Daoist catches on to dao that is particular to the particular situation; it is not the same dao in the three cases. (These might be three parts, so to speak, of the one Great Dao, but they are different parts; catching on to one of them does not catch you on to any of the others, and you can’t catch on to any of them simply by achieving union with the whole.)

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 14, 2008 | Reply

  6. Dan,

    That strikes me as posing a dilemma for Hansenites (Hansenistas?): If you can just talk about different daos very much as if they are numerically distinct (even parts are numerically distnct), then what’s the philosophical significance of treating ‘dao’ as a mass noun? On the other hand, if you can’t treat different daos as numerically distinct, then it does seem like there is some overarching, single dao. (corrollary: And since mass nouns don’t admit of number, then ‘dao’ isn’t a mass noun.)

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 15, 2008 | Reply

  7. Manyul, I defended my views about classical Chinese mass nouns in Early China 25, so I’ll be fairly brief here.

    First, the distinction between mass and count nouns should be drawn between noun occurrences, not noun types. So the fact that a noun can occur with numbers does not make it a count noun; it is a count noun only when it actually occurs with numbers or other expressions that force it to function as a count noun (some quantifiers and some adjectives do this, for example). So your statement that “since mass nouns don’t admit of number” is wrong.

    The main reason for drawing the distinction between noun occurrences rather than noun types is that many nouns clearly can function as both count nouns and mass nouns, so if we draw the distinction between types, we must conclude that many nouns are ambiguous. In fact, almost all nouns in both classical Chinese and English that can function as mass nouns can also function as count nouns, so this would mean a lot of ambiguity. A better solution is to say that many nouns are associated with principles of individuation, and these principles of individuation get triggered when the nouns are used as count nouns, but not when they are used as mass nouns.

    (Harbsmeier’s argument that there is a clear distinction between mass and count nouns in classical Chinese goes wrong at the beginning, because he draws his distinctions between noun types rather than noun occurrences; but this is not the only point at which his argument goes wrong.)

    Second, you seem to be thinking of Chad Hansen’s suggestion that mass nouns are singular terms, or are at least sufficiently similar to singular terms that classical Chinese philosophers might have conflated them with singular terms. (A singular term, for anyone who doesn’t know the expression, is a term that purports to refer to a single entity; proper names are often taken to be singular terms.) But Chad is just wrong about this. Semantically speaking, mass nouns are nothing like singular terms; if they were, we’d have to conclude that any two encounters with water are encounters with the same water.

    Third, I’m not sure that the fact that most classical Chinese nouns function most often as mass nouns has any deep philosophical consequences. (On this, see especially Chris Fraser’s paper in PEW 57.4.)

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 15, 2008 | Reply

  8. Dan,

    Thanks; that clarifies a lot. I didn’t know how much of Chad’s mass-noun hypothesis you were bringing into the discussion. I’m generally sympathetic to the “many daos” reading of the the Zhuangzi; I’m less sure of the Daodejing. Did you mean to be giving the same reading of the latter?

    For the sake of discussion, in any case, let me try to give a (relatively) sympathetic defense of the “one Dao” interpretation. I take it when people give the “union with the Dao” reading, they are–or at least should be–thinking of a particular dao, the Great Dao 大道, which they (i.e. the intepreters) then give titular privilege by calling it *the* Dao. They cite Daodejing chapters 18, 25, 34, 53, etc.

    They then perhaps also take the instances in which ‘dao’ clearly seems to refer to *a* way as a different, generic use of the term, citing context or perhaps some kind of “meaning-change hypothesis.” But really the main point is that the Daodejing, and perhaps the Zhuangzi, are concerned, though maybe not exclusively, with some kind of union with a particularly special dao (which is “the Dao” or “the Great Dao”). That dao is special because it is something like a universal “root” dao that is the origin, in some mysterious way, of any actual or possible dao. Once union with the root dao is attained, then you have the very special ability to tackle *any* situation with aplomb–i.e. you have mastery of all daos.

    It may be that this reading expresses some kind of retroactive imposition of later ideas, perhaps of principle (li 理) mastery. But I’m not sure it is far-fetched as a reading of the Daodejing–it might be more far-fetched as a reading of the Zhuangzi. What do you think?

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 15, 2008 | Reply

  9. For ease of discussion (in case some of you don’t have your worn copy of the text lying near you), here are those Daodejing chapters, or at least parts of them, with the (Legge) translations from Donald Sturgeon’s site included (I like cutting and pasting–thank you, Donald!):

    When the Great Dao (Way or Method) ceased to be observed, benevolence and righteousness came into vogue. (Then) appeared wisdom and shrewdness, and there ensued great hypocrisy. When harmony no longer prevailed throughout the six kinships, filial sons found their manifestation; when the states and clans fell into disorder, loyal ministers appeared.

    There was something undefined and complete, coming into existence before Heaven and Earth. How still it was and formless, standing alone, and undergoing no change, reaching everywhere and in no danger (of being exhausted)! It may be regarded as the Mother of all things. I do not know its name, and I give it the designation of the Dao (the Way or Course). Making an effort (further) to give it a name I call it The Great.

    All-pervading is the Great Dao! It may be found on the left hand and on the right. All things depend on it for their production, which it gives to them, not one refusing obedience to it. When its work is accomplished, it does not claim the name of having done it. It clothes all things as with a garment, and makes no assumption of being their lord; – it may be named in the smallest things. All things return (to their root and disappear), and do not know that it is it which presides over their doing so; – it may be named in the greatest things. Hence the sage is able (in the same way) to accomplish his great achievements. It is through his not making himself great that he can accomplish them.

    If I were suddenly to become known, and (put into a position to) conduct (a government) according to the Great Dao, what I should be most afraid of would be a boastful display. The great Dao (or way) is very level and easy; but people love the by-ways. Their court(-yards and buildings) shall be well kept, but their fields shall be ill-cultivated, and their granaries very empty. They shall wear elegant and ornamented robes, carry a sharp sword at their girdle, pamper themselves in eating and drinking, and have a superabundance of property and wealth; – such (princes) may be called robbers and boasters. This is contrary to the Dao surely!

    Comment by Manyul Im | March 15, 2008 | Reply

  10. Manyul, in 18, 34, and 53, it looks like the Great Dao is how everything goes if it goes somehow spontaneously. But how does it do that? In nonhuman nature, that’s just how things work, but we need to get ourselves into a rather special psychological state before we can do the same. The question is how to conceptualise that state, and in particular whether we should conceive of it as union with the Great Dao taken whole. (My alternative is to conceive of it as a kind of empty-heartedness that allows us to respond to without storing up the different dao in different situations.) These passages don’t say anything about that, so I’m not sure they speak to the one-or-many-dao issue that I meant to raise (which I guess is more a same-or-different-dao issue).

    Still, as you suggest I’m a lot more sure about the Zhuangzi here (or at least certain parts of the Zhuangzi).

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 15, 2008 | Reply

  11. Oh, and I should have said that dao is doing something different in 25; I take dao here to be the spontaneous arising of phenomena, which (as I suggested in the initial post) we might understand on analogy with our ability to go beyond skills we have already acquired to adjust spontaneously to a current situation (just as the butcher adjusts to the hard parts).

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 15, 2008 | Reply

  12. Dan: On how to conceptualize the psychological state, I think we’ll find different texts saying different things. The Shen Dao 慎到 position in Zhuangzi 33 probably amounts to direct union with Great Dao. Some parts of the Zhuangzi advocate union with Tian, a similar idea. The dialogue that opens Qiu Shui 秋水 (Zhuangzi book 17) has one speaker explaining that what’s valuable about “knowing Dao” is that it allows you to master li 理 (patterns). (Given the preceding discussion, “Dao” here appears to refer to “Great Dao.”) Here, grasp of Dao guides you in responding to particular situations; but the text emphasizes that the way to follow Dao is by adapting flexibly, not by proceeding in only one way (無一而行). And, as you say, the Zhuangzi skill stories usually don’t suggest that skill flows simply from connecting to the Great Dao (a common misreading of the story of Cook Ding the butcher).

    So I think both sorts of views you mention are expressed in one place or another.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | March 15, 2008 | Reply

  13. Chris, you’re right of course that Daoists could and likely did disagree about this; I should have allowed for that in the post. Still, I’m not sure about Shen Dao, and seem to read the opening of Zhuangzi 17 differently from you.

    Let’s take Zhuangzi 17 first. The dialogue that opens it does talk about big knowledge, but to a large extent that big knowledge seems to consist in a recognition of the need for what we might call small knowledge, that is, knowledge of particularities, as well as a recognition that no perspective is absolutely all-encompassing. I don’t take it to imply that having big knowledge is sufficient to give you small knowledge in particular situations, so I don’t think the message is simply that we should achieve union with great dao.

    And maybe the same is true of Shen Dao, as described in Zhuangzi 33. Again, there are certain things one can know fairly generally, such as that one shouldn’t impose oneself on things, but it’s not clear, at least to me, that this is all that’s supposed to be involved in being without knowledge, or a clod.

    What references to tian are you thinking of? Sometimes in the ZhuangzI, tian is taken to be a locus of unpredictable transformation (this is how I take references to tian in Zhuangzi 2, for example), and when it is, I don’t think the idea can be that we should achive union with tian taken whole.

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 15, 2008 | Reply

  14. Hi Dan: I wasn’t clear enough about my take on Zhuangzi 17. I meant to cite this as an example of the second, particularistic sort of responsiveness to things, or perhaps as an intermediate view between the two you identified. I was thinking specifically of the question “What’s valuable in Dao?” (何貴於道邪) and the answer that knowing Dao leads to mastery of patterns (理) and thus mastery of particularistic discretion (權). Given the use of Dao in the preceding discussion (the two paragraphs that each begin “以道觀之…”), I think “Dao 道” here refers to the Great Dao. But the whole discussion is about how no general guide to action can be justified, and situational discretion or practical wisdom is crucial. Knowing the Great Dao is supposed to help you develop this discretion, but there’s no suggestion that you get it automatically just by plugging into Dao and letting it drive you along.

    References to Tian: I think there are a variety of views in ZZ on our relation to Tian. What I had in mind in my early remark was the line about merging with the power of Tian in Book 15 (虛無恬惔,乃合天德). This text seems to sketch an ideal whereby we just let everything go, become completely empty, and let the world push us along, living a life “like floating” (其生若浮).

    Comment by Chris Fraser | March 16, 2008 | Reply

  15. Chris, oops, sorry about that misreading; dumb of me.

    The passage from Book 15 looks to me like it’s treating “合天德” as a consequence of emptying yourself out; what’s most basic is the empty psychological state. That’s how I take the floating metaphor (and how I take the riding 乘 metaphors elsewhere)—you’ve emptied yourself out, so you let the world carry you along (not quite your words, but close enough), which is to say you act according to the dao in the situations you face, not according to any dao you bring along with you.

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 16, 2008 | Reply

  16. Dan, I agree with your reading of 15. But I thought that this passage would illustrate the psychological contrast you had in mind. The skill stories and 17 indicate that the agent should be empty and responsive to the particular situation; 15 just has this one big emptying-out, which carries you along from then on, in any and all situations.

    If instead, you’re looking for a passage treating the great, whole dao as the object of knowledge or of psychological identification/union, they can probably be found. Some candidates are DDJ 16 (by knowing constancy, one becomes whole and achieves some kind of union with Tian and Dao); DDJ 48 (in undertaking to follow Dao, one loses everything until reaching the state of wu-wei); DDJ 53 (which Manyul cited); DDJ 62 (the ancients valued “this dao,” referring to the Dao that’s the mysterious source of things). Or perhaps the Zhuangzi 2 passage about the un-daoed Dao being the heavenly storehouse, which never fills and never runs dry, or the ZZ 6 passage (perhaps of Han dynasty origin) with the long list of worthies who got the great Dao and did this and that with it.

    I guess we’re talking about the extent to which we find the Star Wars Theory of Dao in the texts (“the Force” = the Dao). I agree that the more interesting and sophisticated discussions are those, such as Cook Ding, that don’t imply anything like the Star Wars Theory. But I think something resembling the Star Wars Theory is in there, in some passages.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | March 16, 2008 | Reply

  17. Chris, I like this. I especially like the phrase “one big emptying-out” to characterise one type of Daoist zaniness. Maybe I was conflating a couple of different distinctions? And maybe the interesting one is between all-at-once views and much more situational views, not between one-big-dao views and heart-like-a-mirror views. Interesting.

    Comment by Dan Robins | March 16, 2008 | Reply

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