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The Status of Lao-Zhuang Daoism

A little over 2,000 years ago, some man had enough power to condemn quasi-slave labor to build him a coffin the size of a Hong Kong mansion. He made choices that determined what was placed there to rot alongside his corpse. I don't know on what basis the choices were made-his own taste, superstition, tradition, trust of his appointed authorities, what benefited his class, pleased his lovers, or appealed to his aesthetic sense. But his choice then, now shapes our conception of Daoism.

The story of Laozi has been in flux for some time before scholars robbed the MWT tomb. The story transmitted to modern times was of a Laozi the founder of Daoism and author of its central work-The Daode Jing. He lived before and taught Confucius-then traveled to India via "the pass" where, under duress, he committed the unspeakable to words. He went on to instruct the Buddha in the same doctrine--except for adding celibacy!

When I was a graduate student this story was being widely debunked and was subjected to serious scholarly abuse. The story then in vogue was of a text that accidentally fell together (or was brought into unity by an editor. "Laozi" became a kind of shorthand for referring via that definite description. The theoretical editor came sometime before Zhuangzi-roughly about the time of Mencius.

The first story carried with it a comparatively unskeptical acceptance of the Wangbi or He Shang Gong traditional texts. It (or some quite similar version) was approximately what Laozi left with the keeper of the pass. The second story ushered in an embryonic form of deconstruction. Translators imagined themselves taking over where the unnamed editor left off. We'll cut and paste to get the best version. We called it "textual reconstruction."

We were changing our textual story, but didn't much change our view of what Daoism was. That was relatively fixed. "Daoism" referred to the theory of Laozi and Zhuangzi. But Laozi was the defining figure. Zhuangzi, we assumed, followed Laozi religiously. Laozi founded and defined; Zhuangzi expounds, illustrates and enriches the insight with humor, imagination and literary genius. Connoisseurs could rattle off a brief list of differences in emphasis, but we treated them as "members of the same church" in probably a stronger sense than we did Confucius and Mencius-not to mention Mencius and Xunzi!.

Creel distinguished between religious and philosophical Daoism, but they were linked by an essentially religious motif-worship of The Dao. We could agree on a fairly uncontroversial core doctrine in each area of philosophy.

  • In ethics Daoism says "follow the Dao." The advice gets more controversial when we try to fill in the details, but most agreed that it means something like "be natural." The rest of the content is identified negatively-don't think or reason as the Greeks and Westerner's do and don't follow conventions or rules like the Confucians and Mohists do.
  • In logic Daoism says "P and not P! Who cares?" Then depending of how much Buddhism you mixed in, it might also say "Neither P nor not P" and go on to the four-to-n-fold negation. Its acceptance of this initial logical absurdity then justifies the patently stupid answers it gives to all the other philosophical questions.
  • In Metaphysics, Daoism says "Only the Dao exists. It has no parts or divisions and nothing inside or outside it. It both is everything and created everything and transcends both time and space."
  • Its epistemology is intuitionist. Stripped of rationalism, empiricism and conventionalist prejudice, we directly grasp in a mystically unified insight both what is and what ought to be. We understand being and how to act in the same mystical intuition-we apprehend dao.
  • Daoism's theory of language is that language distorts the Dao. It can't be said, named, described, defined, or even referred to in language. Why? Here the stories get vague. They vary from WangBi's explanation, "because it can't be seen" to a more Buddhist argument that naming implies permanence and Dao is constantly changing (although it never changes) so . . . .well-never mind!
  • Its political philosophy was some blend of anarchism, individualism, Laissez Faire economics and government, and incipient libertarianism.

Now a third story has emerged in the wake of the discovery of the Mawang Dui Laozi text. It threatens to unseat the second as rudely as the latter had replaced the traditional story. Again details vary in different tellings. One goes that the Laozi is really a Huang-Lao document. The Huang-Lao religion meshed with Legalist political theory to become the ideology of the Qin and early Han. Laoist thought represented a trend manifested also by chapters (Nei Ye and Xin Shu) in the Guanzi identified by Graham as the "discovery of subjectivity." Graham and LaFargue both note the similarity to Mencius.

Textually, telling this story is associated with a shift in authority to the Mawang Dui text. The Wangbi and other later versions are the result of textual corruption between the burial and the post-Han revival of interest in Daoism. What about the relation to Zhuangzi? Well, it is an artifact of that Wei-Zin period neo-Daoism. Lao-Zhuang philosophy is an anachronism. Graham said "Zhuangzi never knew he was a Daoist" and the new story says-he wasn't-not if by Daoism we mean what Sima Qian meant by Daoism: Huang-Lao philosophy.

The list of doctrines still doesn't change much in the Huang-Lao version of the story and Laozi is still the original sage. It is Zhuangzi who has become an appendix-a wheel that turns nothing. He just stands there waiting for the emergence of neo-Daoism to give him a fictional and anachronistic role in the history of Daoism.

Much of this new story, as I've indicated, develops out of Graham's ideas. Graham, a great Zhuangzi admirer, did give him a role. Graham made Zhuangzi (or his school) responsible for associating the evolving text with the name "Laozi." But he didn't rule on the text's actual ideological progeny and the emerging story threatens to make Zhuangzi less relevant to Daoism than Hanfei-zi-who wrote the first commentary.

I've been calling textual accounts "stories." I don't mean to suggest they are fictions, but they are not full-fledged theories either. Textual evolution is like biological evolution in that it concerns straightforward (as opposed to moral or meaning) facts. But no axioms or laws work as Mendelian genetics does in evolution, to make our stories scientific.

I discovered in a recent visit that the debate about the relative dating of Daoism and Confucianism still rages in China. My Chinese colleague disparaged my confidence that the first story was wrong as stemming from the undue influence of Qian Mu. He recommended I read a rebuttal Hu Shih had written decades ago. I looked at it. I largely agreed with Hu's reasoning. It mirrored doubts I had had about textual hypotheses stemming from my graduate school days. The arguments ranged from being ad hoc, committing ad homonym and post hoc fallacies to being baldly circular. Further, Liu's argument supporting the traditional story was impressive. The consensus on rejecting the first story began to look more sociological than logical. Once most "scholars" caved in, then it became "true" whether proved or not.

Cognitive scientists have discovered the phenomenon of belief persistence. Essentially, it is a feature of our natural epistemology that even when we accept that the reasons for our belief are removed, we do not abandon the belief. I felt like a walking confirmation. I had been trained on story two and realized (even confirmed from memory) that I had no sound reasons for my confidence. But I did not stop believing it! I rationalized that although story two had not been proven, neither had story one.

Despite my history with the second story, however, I find myself agreeing with Graham that it is "pleasing to imagine" that Zhuangzi might have been responsible with linking the name of Lao Tan to the text. Graham is clear that his treating the text after Zhuangzi is a "convenience" with "no positive proof." I share both Graham's pleasure at the new story and his epistemological modesty. I don't see any way to confidently assign comparative plausibility to the third story, but I like it-I enjoy contemplating it although I don't quite believe it. My reasons have to do with a sense of philosophical maturity and dating. Whether the text is older or not, the philosophical position of the Laozi seems to be less mature.

I also note that the story, like the second one did thirty years ago, may shortly become dominant in Western scholarship. So it is worth asking what should be the effect on the interpretation of that text-and of the Zhuangzi. I shall argue that the orphaning of Zhuangzi is not required by the new story-on the contrary, it should elevate Zhuangzi in the pantheon of Lao-Zhuang philosophy to the status of founder and fundamentally change our conception of Daoism-Lao-Zhuang Daoism at any rate. Later I will argue for retaining Lao-Zhuang as the correct identification of Daoism.

One feature of recent textual theory (with unnoticed roots in the second story) is the idea that texts were "maintained" by a textual community. Community maintenance probably ranged from composition to revision and updating to respond to issues as they arose in the intellectual world. In some cases, we suppose there may have been an authorial "core" but even then we suppose the "composition" to have taken place in collaboration with students and accretion to have continued after the master's demise. The standard case is the Analects where we have long accepted that the students composed the work a substantial time after Confucius' death.

Defection and conversion among textual communities was a form of intellectual cross-fertilization. Schisms were a typical form of theory development. We have contemporary comment and textual reminders of the splits among Confucians and Mohists and the maintenance of separate texts "edited" ideologically.

Of course, this version of the third story fits well enough with the second story. The anonymous and multiple authors are the various communities of "Laoists." Notoriously, we now have a cluster of different versions of the Laozi text but textual arguments tend to refer to "the text" or "the state of the text" at various times around and after 250 BC. If we think of Laoism as a "leaderless" community (the functional equivalent here of thinking of the text as anonymous) then there is more, rather than less, reason to suspect various early versions. A charismatic intellectual leader (Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Xunzi) is more likely to forestall schisms at least until his death.

Our earlier stories papered over our knowledge that Daoism and Legalism, in particular, were not categories or schools in the minds of the classical thinkers themselves. Those "schools" were carved out of "intellectual kapok" by later historians trying to recover and understand a lost philosophical tradition. The new discovery also underlines another thing we "knew" but papered over: both Laozi and Shen Dao "inspired" two wings of this anachronistic divide-specifically both Hanfei-zi and Zhuangzi .

How should this new story affect our interpretation and understanding of Lao-Zhuang philosophy? It does give us reason to think that that Laoism may be appropriated by Huang-Lao systems (Mencius and Guanzi) from a comparatively early date-perhaps even before Zhuangzi. It does not, however, give us any other reason to deny a similar link to Zhuangzi! The inner-chapter mentions of the Lao Tan still stand as the first philosophical reference to the ideas of Laozi and the Zhuangzi Tianxia account of intellectual lineage listing Shen Dao and Laozi as leading to Zhuangzi is still the earliest "history of thought." The only way to undermine that lineage is to assume that there is only one authentic line of influence of the text.

Nonetheless, the new more complicated textual story does make a radical difference in our interpretive stance. First, this story of the text reinforces both trendy and philosophically warranted moves to "decenter the subject" in interpretation. The meaning of a text is function of the language of the community. This suggests that rather than one interpretation (the intentionality of the author) we now relativize interpretations to various audience communities and essentially, therefore, have to tolerate many "correct" interpretations. We may give reasons for preferring one community-say the one we think earliest, the one most influential over the history of the text, the one most consonant with Einsteinian physics, etc.

We can guide our account of the first communally witnessed reading by the position of Lao Tan in the Zhuangzi. That is the relevant and earliest quasi-commentary.

Go back, now, to my content description of Daoism. It corresponds roughly to the content Sima Qian identified as Huang-Lao. But I would argue that this new story means, paradoxically, that the traditional tail should now wag the dog. Zhuangzi's position is prior to Laozi's in history and interpretive importance in Lao-Zhuang philosophy. It includes Laozi only because he can be seen as a step toward Zhuangzi, not because Zhuangzi follows and elaborates on Laozi. So we should study Zhuangzi's reasoning free of the dogma that he presupposes Laozi's theory. When we see what Zhuangzi is saying, then we can give the appropriate sense in which Laozi could be seen as a step toward that view. Then we will see the "meaning" of Laozi within Lao-Zhuang philosophy (which may be radically different the "meaning" within Huang-Lao religion).

We now face the classic choice between two views of meaning: 1) that the proper use of a name is governed by a definition/description and 2) the view that names are rigid designators and their sense is a matter of what is true about the referents. Notice that the description in the mind of the coiner is irrelevant to the second view. He coins the word by reference and succeeding generations conform in the referring practice. That is consistent with our discovering that the coiner was wrong about the objects he identified by the name. (Whales are mammals despite the beliefs of the our Old English ancestors.) If we think the name "Daoist" has a sense (given by the above list) then the Lao-Zhuang tradition is not Daoism. Daoism is Huang-Lao, Mencius, and the metaphysics/epistemology of Legalism from Guanzi to Hanfei-zi as well as that of Han Confucianism, Neo-Daoism, Buddhism, and the Neo-Confucians. If Daoism refers to Lao-Zhuang and is whatever theory their writing expresses. The list (and Sima Qian's summary of beliefs) is simply been wrong about the theoretical content of Daoism!

I like the name "Daoist" and will continue to use and claim it-though as a Daoist, I can't worry too much if I am given the name or not. The correct interpretive theory for reading the Laozi in the Zhuangzi school, however, differs radically from the conventional theory of Daoism. I'm not denying that Daoism has an essence. I'm simply insisting that its essence is fixed by what is true of the Lao-Zhuang tradition, not by our beliefs however widely shared about definitions and doctrines.

The revolutionary insight into Zhuangzi then is that we can approach him without imposing assumptions on what he is trying to do. The revolutionary insight about Laozi is that we consciously view him through Zhuangzi. The correct Daoist reading of Laozi depends on getting Zhuangzi right.