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The Dao of the Daodejing

In the Daodejing, the term dao is singled out, scrutinized, and given a new meaning, one that plays on the traditional meaning while ultimately reversing it. The present Daodejing text begins with the well-known paradox usually translated as something like, "The Way that can be spoken of is not the Eternal Way." But in the context of early Chinese thought, and given the basic meaning of the term dao (see Introduction, pp. xiii–xvii), its original sense is probably something closer to, "Guiding courses can be taken as guides, but they are then no longer sustainable as guides." That is, they do not successfully guide one to the attainment of real value once it is made explicit that they are specifically formulated for the purpose of attaining that value. When a course of practice, a means for attaining virtuosity, a guide for behavior, is made explicit as a guide, it ceases to effectively guide. The point is that the esteeming of and commitment to a particular value perspective, regarding certain things as valuable and tailoring one's activities to the purpose of attaining them, is precisely what undermines the attainment of the desired value.

This claim rests on a wholesale critique of two things: 1) knowledge and 2) valuation, which are seen as inextricably related. For any valued thing is, on this view, actually part of a larger whole, and depends also on the rejected and undesired parts of that whole for its existence. This applies both to concrete things, like material possessions, and to abstract things, like virtues. To value them is to undermine their value.  If one commits to a given value exclusively, striving to eliminate the conflicting antivalue, one is destroying the roots of the value in question. The justification for this view is both epistemological and metaphysical. The Daodejing relates valuation to inherently evaluative social and linguistic practices that have a determining effect on what human consciousness focuses its attention upon. Once we have words contrasting the fragrance of the flower, for example, with the stench of the fertilizer, we look for the flower and ignore the fertilizer. Failing to see the interdependence of the two, we commit ourselves to the "good"—we try to attain the fragrance without the stench, the flower without the dirt, severing the relationship, thereby killing the flower. All daos are attempts to attain value by focusing on some one set of explicit values and behaving accordingly, but this sabotages the attainment of that value. The only real Dao, then, is a non-dao, the absence of all daos.

In the Daodejing and subsequent Daoist texts, "Dao"—the Course—now comes to be used in the precise opposite of its original sense: it is a marker that points to the spontaneous, nonevaluative side of things, the neglected and negatively valued, from which the valued and the evaluative emerge. Given the premise that whatever we look at is being carved out of a larger whole which is neglected by this act of attention, and that this seeing implies also a valuation and an incipient desire and action, we can give a very simple definition of the Dao: The Dao is simply whatever we are not looking at, whatever we're not interested in, whatever we place no value on. From this simple definition, it derives all its traditional attributes:

  1. It is the unseen and unseeable source and destination of all concrete things (e.g., of whatever we are looking at, interested in, valuing), from which and toward which they flow.
  2. It is also the course of all things, in the sense of embodying their tendency to "return," in a bell-shaped pattern, to that unseen source. The source is by definition unseen, but it is made evident through its function as a center of gravity toward which things return.  Hence it is manifested as the "course of things."
  3. It is also the stuff of which all things consist. This is because the valued object is conceived on the model of a vessel carved out from some unhewn raw material. The unseen and unattended to, the "unhewn raw material" (pu 樸) of the valued object, has a crucial double meaning. It is both:

          a) The detritus that is left over and discarded after the object has
               been carved out; and also
          b) The whole of that unvalued, uncarved stuff itself, prior to the cutting.

"Unhewn" thus means both "the whole as it is before any hewing has occurred, which will later comprise the material for both the desired object and the worthless leftover" and also "the worthless part that has not been hewn into a particular valued object, contrasted to that object after the carving of the object (value) has been completed." The Dao is thus the  "unhewn" in these two senses simultaneously: 1) "not-yet-valued-or-disvalued" and 2) "disvalued." The disvalued is, as it were, the only place in which we can find a direct manifestation of the necessarily unmanifest not-yet-valued-or-disvalued, the state prior to the evaluative split or cut. Hence, labeling the Dao as worthless or disvalued, deploying the term dao in its ironic sense, is the only way within the system of knowables and language to refer to what is by definition left out of that system. The term "Dao," then, by directing attention to the neglected disvalued side of any value pair, simultaneously discloses the relation between the two sides and their common grounding in the unnamable not-yet-evaluated source of both. In addition, dao in this context retains its prescriptive implication, now in a somewhat unresolved paradoxical sense: it is the course to be followed in handling things.

The Daodejing as we have it now, when read as a whole, seems to recommend a freedom from the knowledge of explicit values and the desires that go with such knowledge, as a means by which, paradoxically, to attain those values spontaneously, in their true, nonpurposive, natural forms, maintaining the relation of both sides of the value contrast by exalting the not-yet-evaluated/disvalued side of each apparent value dichotomy. Involved in this point of view is a kind of primitivist protest against civilization, especially preaching against civilized norms of value and morality, a trend echoed and intensified in Chapters 8–10, as noted on page 60. and elsewhere of the present Zhuangzi, which quote the Daodejing extensively.

Strictly speaking, dao here has come to mean precisely the opposite of what it had previously meant: the term is, initially, used ironically. It is analogous to walking into an extremely messy room and saying not "Wow, what a messy room," but rather, "I love the way you've decorated the place." "Decorated" here means just the opposite of its literal meaning: it means that the place has not been decorated, arranged, or organized at all. The Daoist use of dao is similar: it means that there is no dao in the original sense—e.g., of an organized set of explicitly prescribed practices, involving preferences and choices, leading to some predetermined goal. But the further irony is that it is precisely this lack of arrangement that arranges things, that provides the matrix from which any specific arrangement really attains its being and value.

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