Misunderstanding Laozi through the Discourse of Modernity:
A Negative Dialectic?
|Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi|
Clearly, with a title like that, I ought to have a thesis ready. In fact what I have is a few thoughts, prompted by reading an online article by Chad Hansen: Laozi (Lao Tzu). Chad Hansen, author of A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (Oxford, 1992, 464 pages), is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong. My thoughts, most of them interrogatory, revolve around the question of whether and to what extent philosophy can legitimately lay claim to Laozi.
Can Laozi reasonably, fruitfully, be understood as a philosopher? At the least––given that the Dao De Jing may have multiple authors––can the work known as the Laozi be understood as philosophy? If yes to one or both of these questions, a third arises: how best to approach this ancient text as philosophy, from a perspective necessarily informed by modern philosophical discourse? Here I argue that, granted that the Laozi can be read as philosophy, any interpretation that emerges from such a reading should optimally be done using concepts internal to the text, and language homologous with the language of the Laozi.
In keeping with his central preoccupation with the significance of Daoism in ancient Chinese culture, Hansen begins with Zhuangzi (c. 4th century BCE), China’s second most important Daoist, and reads backwards in time to Laozi (c. 6th century BCE). One justification for reading Laozi through the account of his work by his disciple Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) may be that, if one accepts the theory of Angus Graham, the Laozi did not really have its considerable impact upon Chinese thought until it was introduced by Zhuangzi.
A consequence of reading Laozi through Zhuangzi, given Hansen’s interest in Zhuangzi’s skepticism and relativism, is that Laozi’s thought, seen from this perspective, is likely to yield more elements of skepticism and relativism than would otherwise be the case.
More questionable, perhaps, is Hansen’s tendency to approach Laozi from the vantage point of modern philosophy, reading backwards in time from theories resembling Julia Kristeva’s discourse on desire, or inferring modes of philosophical inquiry from schools like the Institute for Social Research, and using modern conceptual language to characterize the ideas of the Dao De Jing.
What’s Wrong with Reading Backwards from the Perspective of Modern (Western) Philosophy to the Laozi?
As noted by philosophers Roger Ames and David Hall, translations of the Dao De Jing by missionaries and Sinologists have predominated over the rare translation by a philosopher. Thus the project of understanding Laozi as a philosopher, as well as the interpretation of the Dao De Jing in modern philosophical terms, may be a needed corrective to the bias towards religion.
Is there anything fundamentally wrong with reading ancient Chinese wisdom literature as modern philosophy? That is a big question. So I’ll confine my response to one sub-problem: the language of modern philosophy.
The language of modern philosophy ––or should I say philosophical discourse––is indeed problematic as applied to the Laozi. Using modern philosophical terms, turns of phrase, and syntax to interpret ancient wisdom writing is problematic in and of itself because the modern language is at odds with the language of the text. More of that later! Equally problematic is the use of modern philosophical language, with its presumption of authority, in the context of the naming paradox.
What is the Naming Paradox?
Before exploring his own discoveries about the Laozi as philosophy, Hansen dispenses with what he calls the mystical interpretation of the Dao De Jing, which emphasizes the limitations of language: “there is a dao which language cannot describe” (Hansen, p. 3).
Hansen gives short shrift to the mystical sense of language as inadequate to reality. However he cannot dispense with line two of the Dao: “Name that can be named,/ Is not the Everlasting (ch’ang) name.” Intrinsic to the Laozi, and stated in line two, is the doubt that language can be used to express ultimate realities.
Before one has to consider the influence of religion or mysticism on the translation of the Dao’s opening lines, it makes sense to evaluate the equally compelling grammatical reasons for translating dao ke dao, not as “The Way that can be trodden,” nor abstractly, as in the Shen Dao translation Hansen quotes: “No guide that can guide is a constant guide,” (p. 4), but as “The Way that can be spoken of.” Hence the paradox of language: “The Way that can be spoken of is not The Way.”
Alan Chan explains the grammatical structure of the Dao’s opening lines as follows:
“Because dao is paired with ‘name’ (ming) in the next line––“ming ke ming”––“the name that can be named”––forming a parallel couplet construction, there is thus reason to interpret the verbal usage in the sense of something verbalized, as opposed to a pathway that is travelled on, trodden, or followed.” 
Having dealt with the mystical understanding of language, Hansen turns to Zhuangzi’s historical account of the Laozi, but here, too, the problem of language doesn’t go away. Hansen concludes his discussion of Laozi on socialization with the comment, “What Laozi adds (to the above-noted skepticism regarding language) is that society shapes our desires via words and distinctions.”
Re-framing the Naming Paradox
The naming paradox–ming ke ming–“the name that can be named”(is not The Name)–says specifically with regard to talking about the dao, that language is slippery, unreliable, ever-changing.
Here’s the thing: language, language itself, is already inadequate to the task of describing the basic apprehensions of Daoism.
Given the fallible nature of language itself, and the consequent risks of overestimating its capacity––and given the temptations of accepting the authority of language for the purposes of interpretation––how misguided would it be, to use a specific kind of language, abstract and logos-driven, to interpret the Dao.
That is not a question. Consider: if language has, of necessity, its limitations in describing the Dao, the intentionally exact, theoretically and historically connotative vocabulary of modern philosophy has even more severe limitations. In terms of its capacity to describe Daoism, and central daoist concepts like ziran (nature, spontaneity) and wuwei (nonaction), the language of modern philosophy seems drastically constricted.
Let’s take a look, for example, at Hansen’s discussion of the second “system of knowledge” which he elicits from his reading of the Dao de Jing via Zhuangzi, via modern philosophical traditions of the West.
Hansen discovers three systems of knowledge in the Laozi. Leaving aside for the moment
the suitability of inferring the presence of “systems” in a text that bears recurring motifs, not only concerning the elusive quality of words, but concerning the avoidance of conventional thinking––here is a summary of the three “systems” Hansen finds in the Laozi:
1. The first system of knowledge consists of conventional guidance or wisdom.
2. The second system is that of “reversal of dao” or “negative dao.”
3. The third level of knowledge is one of relativism/ skepticism.
(Note how the third ‘system’ subtly morphs into the third ‘level’ of knowledge.)
Let’s take a closer look at the second system of knowledge.
It would appear that the first system of knowledge exists only superficially, to be countered by the second. Otherwise put: the second system of knowledge serves as a corrective to the first: “Laozi challenges the assumptions behind this “positive” view partly by exhibiting a system we can call the negative Dao.” (Hansen, p. 10). How does this negative Dao work? Hansen explains that we arrive at this negative Dao by “reversing all conventional moral assumptions” (p. 10). The implementation of the negative dialectic is to be language-based, focused on specific words: “Laozi’s strategy shows that for key guiding terms, we can choose exactly the opposite of conventional wisdom” (p. 10).
Did you notice that “Laozi” suddenly springs to life here, in the service of this negative Dao, taking on a certain persona, acquiring a degree of intentionality that could only characterize one person, an individual agent? The phrases quoted above exhibit a Laozi of agency and deliberation: “Laozi challenges…” and “Laozi’s strategy shows…”
And, indeed, this systematic overturning of conventional mores, this strategy, could only be directed by a certain type of individual. So we might well ask ourselves: was Laozii in fact this type of strategizing, provoking, challenging individual?
Who was Laozi?
In the introductory portion of his essay, Hansen gives Laozi’s birth and death dates as ‘sometime between 600 and 200 BC’, clearly suggesting a wide range of possibilities. He tells us that, according to tradition, Laozi founded Daoism and taught Confucius (551-479 BCE). However, the ‘doubt movement’ in modern China found evidence dating the earliest manuscript of the Laozi much later: mid-4th century BCE.
Summarizing the disputed history of Laozi’s writing, Hansen concludes that a recent archeological discovery of a 1st century BCE version of the Laozi “suggested the text was in flux over a long period of time” (Hansen, p. 1). Without giving his own judgment call concerning Laozi the man, Hansen concludes his biographical notes on Laozi with the following statement:
Many scholars dismiss Laozi as mythological or use his name as shorthand for “the author(s) of the Dao De Jing.
To write a work comprising systems of knowledge, to devise and execute a strategy like the one the philosophy professor imagines in his description of the negative Dao, presupposes one Laozi: a single author, rather than a compendium of wisdom literature written by several authors.
Before even speculating on Laozi’s writing persona (A creator of systems? A strategizer? Provocative?), then, readers of the Dao De Jing must decide whether the text was written by one author, Laozi, or by many authors. In the article on Laozi, Hansen leaves the matter of authorship an open question, when in fact the plausibility of the Laozi containing writing by several contributors renders the possibility of a second system of knowledge, as here described, null and void.
Think about it. Could a compendium of wisdom literature, a collection of sutras, perhaps unified thematically, but not unified by single authorship, give rise to anything as consistent as a systematic overturning of all moral conventions adumbrated in the first system of knowledge, that is, in the points of moral guidance appearing throughout the Dao De Jing? Could a work by several authors result in anything resembling a strategy, a coordinated effort to exhibit in poems, maxims, slogans, etc. a “negative dao?”
Of course not. The Laozi directed by authorial strategy and the Laozi that was “in flux” over centuries, and of multiple authorship, comprise two separate, mutually exclusive possibilities.
Single authorship with “negative dao” capability, or multiple authorship without deliberated systems of knowledge and systematic negativity? Which shall it be?
The author of the paper pitching Laozi as an early practitioner of the negative dialectic must decide.
The Claims of Philosophy
In his article on Laozi for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, author Alan Chan develops several themes linking ideas in the Dao De Jing to concepts in the Western philosophical tradition, among others. Chan is careful to contextualize his portrait of Laozi as philosopher, making it quite clear that Laozi, thinker in philosophy, must be understood as but one facet of the author’s (authors’) persona(e).
This, in my humble opinion, is the best way to approach reading the Laozi as philosophy.
Chan rarely refers to Laozi as a philosopher. A thinker, yes: “Philosophical Daoism traces its origins to Laozi, an extraordinary thinker who flourished during the sixth century BCE, according to Chinese tradition.”
In a mordantly humorous study of misunderstandings of Confucius as a thinker, based on the perpetuation of an error in translation, Thorsten Pattberg demonstrates the pitfalls of using dogmatic language––whether religious or philosophical––when translating a classic work such as Confucius’ Analects. The historic error of mistranslating “sheng(ren)” as ‘saint(s)’ or ‘philosopher(s)’ rather than the more appropriate ‘sage(s)’ has compounded the initial error of construing Confucius as a saint or a philosopher, and has compounded misunderstandings of Confucius’ work.
Pattberg’s analysis of the misunderstandings that have resulted from mistranslation of this one very important word includes a discussion of cultural assumptions underlying the Western, especially German, philosophical tradition, which make the use of such language ill-suited to the exegesis of classical Chinese literature. [See especially Ch. 11: “Nonsensical Philosophical Reading,” and Ch. 15: “The Great Man Theory.”]
OK, suppose I wasted my breath making the above argument, and Chad Hansen has all along favored the view that the Laozi was written by a single author, the Laozi of Chinese literary tradition. What then is this Laozi’s persona? Is he indeed a builder of knowledge systems, and a strategic thinker who enforces the negative dao upon unsuspecting conventional mores?
Perhaps. And perhaps Chad Hansen could adduce many verses from the Dao De Jing that demonstrate such a persona. As it is, this particular article shares relatively few citations. Instead of quatrains and couplets from the masterwork, we must grasp the language of the Dao itself through the veil of abstract, conceptual, sometimes technical language that overlays it. In a sense, Hansen’s paper suggests a double translation, with a philosophical layer placed atop the English layer, insuring not two, but six degrees of separation between reader and text. That sentences like these take us far from the text, and away from the world of Laozi, is certain:
The famous opening line is followed by a less-noticed parallel–“Any name that can name is not a constant name.” This signals that dao denotes linguistic items-systems of guiding discourse.
And what of Laozi’s negative dialectic? Are we supposed to think of him as an early-early member of Frankfurt’s Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research), as a Theodore Adorno before Theodore Adorno, negating bourgeois social norms only to discover that negativity is a tool, a heuristic? Indeed, Laozi may still have an affinity with Adorno in relation to the third level of knowledge, wherein Adorno’s metacritique of Reason finds its corollary in Laozi’s challenge to us to ascend to a higher level of “thinking abut thinking,” (Hansen, p. 13).
Who was Yin Xi?
According to legend, when Laozi became aware of the inevitable decline of the Zhou Dynasty, he decided to leave China. Traveling to the Northwest gate on a water buffalo,
Laozi reached the mountain pass that led to the world beyond China. There, at the request of a border official known as Yin Xi, Laozi wrote down his teachings in a book that would become known as the Dao De Jing. Thereafter Laozi disappeared from China and from history.
When I first heard this story, I imagined Yin Xi as something akin to the uniformed official who stamps your passport. Later on I read a description of him as some sort of temple official, and still later I came across a drawing of Laozi and Yin Xi conversing together in scholar’s robes.
Recently I watched a program about Laozi on China CCTV. As I gathered from the English subtitles, archeologists had recently located a grave in the region of the mountain pass where Laozi departed China. The grave, actually a mound in the middle of an uncultivated field deep in wild green grass, was dated to the Han era by the linen-imprinted bricks with which it was constructed.
Of course, the Han Dynasty was a couple hundred years after Yin Xi (whose name means ‘border official’) was said to have, as it were, stamped Laozi’s passport. But no matter. The locals had known of the mound for generations, and believed it was the burial site of Yin Xi.
Somehow this story, partially understood, at best, through the medium of Chinese language television––a story marred by inconsistency and improbability––seemed to take me closer to knowledge of Laozi than where I stand now, having attempted to read the Laozi in the funhouse mirror of modern philosophy.
 Hansen, Chad. Laozi (Lao Tzu), http://www.philosophy.hku.hk/ch/
 Graham, Angus. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, Open Court, 1989.
 Chen, Ellen M., The Tao Te Ching: a New Translation with Commentary, Paragon House, 1973, p. 51)
 Chan, Alan, “Laozi,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, (ed.) URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/arcihves/fall 2012/entries/Laozi/
 Hansen, Chad, p. 6
 Chan, Alan, “Laozi,” p. 1
 Pattberg, Thorsten, Holy Confucius! Some Observations in Translating “sheng(ren)”in The Analects, 2011, 159 pages.
 Pattberg, Thorsten. Holy Confucius! Pages113-115 and 130-136.
 Hansen, Chad, “Laozi (Lao Tzu),” p. 5