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An Analysis of Dao

Dao (Tao) is a pivotal undefined term in ancient Chinese thought. The common translation 'way.' is apt in several ways. 'Way' similarly resists definition in English. We can do little more than offer near synonyms that are neither as familiar nor as broad in application. Typically we would to use 'way' in explaining these terms: e.g., 'course', 'method', 'manner', 'mode', 'means', 'practice', 'fashion', 'technique' and so on. These partial synonyms remind us of a second way the translation is apt. We typically talk of ways as ways to act. Ways are intrinsically practical (i.e., prescriptive or normative) and answer a wide range of "what-to-do?" questions.

'Way', however, has a broader use in normal English speech:

  • "The way we were"
  • "Do you know the way to San Jose?"
  • "There is more than one way to skin a cat."
  • "Way to go!"
  • "I am the way and the light."
  • "No way!"

The first example reminds us that 'way' sometimes answers a descriptive question. "What actually was done?" We will see below how the evolving theory surrounding dao mirrors the normative and descriptive uses of 'way'. For now, let us concentrate on the more basic guiding role of 'way'. Notice that the fourth example, though referring to the past, is still normative-it is approving of the (descriptive) way you went hence normatively recommending it as a model!

A more concrete translation for dao is 'road' or 'path'. This gloss also both works and fails in different ways. It is accurate, but our own "representative" tradition tempts us to treat a road as simply another physical feature of nature. To see its relation to the normative notion of 'way', consider how a road can answer the question "How can one get to San Jose?" One answer would be a single word: "East." Another a sentence "Go to latitude X and longitude Y" or longer set of instructions: "Go to the light, turn left, then go 6 miles on the highway, then turn south for . . . . " We could "write" the answer in a more geometrical or pictographic language-a map. (Remember that a map contains symbols that we learn to interpret using the "legend.") However, I could also put you in a cab and say "Take her to San Jose"-that's one way to get there. The guidance the question called for is stored in the cab driver and we borrow it. We could do the same thing by putting him on a horse from San Jose or using a computer guided car. We use guidance that is stored in some other object.

A road is another place where we may have stored guidance information. The designers knew the way and built the road to "take you there." To do it, however, we still have to "interpret" the road. We are tempted to skip this step because it seems too "obvious" when the road is a paved highway. The road turns here, we "read" the edge and change our direction to stay on the route that will take us there. Think about other materials that may constitute a road--a string, a line of bread crumbs . . . . Before asphalt, we could easily appreciate how much more difficult it might be to "follow the road." A well-worn path was easier to "read" than a new or old and overgrown one.

Instead of an "edge" a road may b marked by blazing trees. The blaze is more obviously a conventional symbol--though one easy enough to guess without learning a local dialect! The piles of stones a scout builds to mark a path are more complex symbols. It is more obvious that we are interpreting roads such as these than paved freeways mainly because they are easier to get wrong in practice.

It is this feature of a road, we interpret it to extract its guide, that makes clear the link between a road and the normative 'way.' (Notice that I use 'interpretation' here is a broad sense where it need not consist in a theory or conscious thought, but simply a "walking." This is related to the use of 'interpretation' in music and art where the interpretation of a text or score consists in a performance of it.)

Consider other observations on the notion of ways to get somewhere. Besides merely getting us to the target, a road is usually an easier or more efficient way (a means) of going. It may not be the shortest or the simplest ("South SouthWest 17'!") but there are better ways to go than the most direct one. Perhaps it takes advantage of natural features that make the goal easier or more certain, or perhaps it's simply the way most traveled-hence trampled.

Some paths are made by nature's "engineers" such a deer and mountain sheep. Still, they are helpful guides if your are lost in the mountains. Some "ways" through the forest or wilderness are almost purely theoretical. They are the ways we have to "discover" in nature. They are not made by prior intelligence. We do not direct our minds on finding the tracks left by other intelligent creatures, but on reading the features of nature that guide successful progress. We may learn to read these better of time and get better at interpreting (extracting guidance from) the natural clues or signs.

In such situations we often make a "one right answer" assumption and when we solve our problem we say "we found the way." Of course, as the third example in my list above reminds us, there is usually more than one way to do something. We normally assume that there is one best way through the woods in the process of searching and evaluating. We try to pick the best one rather than merely settling for getting there eventually. (Of course, we can easily imagine several ways to evaluate which really is best.)

Now for some interesting differences between dao and 'way'. Chinese language lacks pluralization, i.e., not simply has no plurals, but has no grammatical role for plurals. (Otherwise it would merely be that all nouns are like "deer" and "fish" in English, with identical singular and plural forms.) Nouns refer in a collective way. They pick out parts of the "universe of discourse." So dao is more like 'ways' or 'way-stuff' or "the way-part of those things we can talk about" than it is like 'a way.' Dao has a semantic part-whole structure, like an expanse. What we think of as one way would be one part or component of dao. Ancient Chinese referred to the multiple parts of dao by simple modification, e.g., my-dao, Sage-King's-dao, natural-dao, past-time's-dao and so forth. This feature explains spatial metaphors like "humans are in dao like fish are in water." Dao is a little like the water-expanse constituting the multiple streams leading to a goal.)We can see another way this grammatical feature invites "metaphysical" uses below.

Another difference is that while both dao and 'way' are pivotal terms in their respective languages, Westerners hardly notice the word 'way.' It seems barely visible-like a bit of grammatical filler. Western philosophers analyze a cluster of common words, e.g., 'good', 'right', 'being' (to be), 'know', 'believe', 'true', 'beautiful', 'change', 'subject', 'mind', 'meaning', 'refer', 'object', 'property', and so forth. One looks in vain, however, to find a philosopher showering her analytic attention on 'way.' (The closest might be in late medieval philosophy's discussion of modes and modern pragmatic philosophy's of practices.)

Dao, by contrast, was the center of Chinese philosophical discussion. This invites the tendency to identify dao with being-since the latter was similarly the core concern of classical Western thought. The two concepts, however, share little beyond their early importance. Dao remains essentially a concept of guidance, a prescriptive or normative term. It pair with devirtuosity to form the Chinese term for 'ethics' "dao-de."

Unlike 'way', dao may be used verbally. The best known example is the famous first line of the 道 德 經 Daode Jing. One out of three translators uses 'speak', another third use 'tell' and the rest use near synonyms like 'expressed', "defined in words", or 'stated'. Thus, despite accepting the orthodoxy that dao transcends language translators almost unanimously render verbal uses as linguistic acts. I agree with their line of translation (I express some mild reservations below). I'm more skeptical of the anti-language orthodoxy, the view that dao contrasts with language.

Throughout classical texts, 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 'doctrine' 'truth' 'principle' 'law' and of course, 'morality' or 'ethics' 'reason', 'religion', 'philosophy' 'orthodoxy', 'thank' 'apologize' 'tell' 'explain' 'inform' and so on.

I have some mild reservations about 'speak' as a translation. It is in some ways too narrow and in others too broad. It is too broad because our philosophical culture traditionally emphasized representing or describing as the role of language. It would be better (but uglier) to add a modifier, 'guide-speak', to reflect the essentially normative or prescriptive role of daoing. To dao is to put guidance into language. 'Speak' is too narrow in the sense that a dao might be written, signed or modeled as well as orally pronounced. 'Discourse', or 'guiding-discourse' has several conceptual advantages as a translation:

  1. It reflects the social, reciprocal character of dao in contrast to the abstract representing role Western though usually gives to language.
  2. It shares the collective or mass-like structure of dao. It does not imply a decomposition into sentences or rules. The only essential sub-part of dao in Daoist thought is the mingword:name.
  3. It applies equally to oral and written language.
  4. Its root ('course') reminds us of the important normative feature shared by guiding discourse and roads or paths.

Of course this translation pushes the limits of the English 'discourse' for we now include within it all guidance that is subject to interpretation in action. We can be right or wrong about how we follow any guide. Further, it may consist of anything we take to be symbolic whether or not intended by symbolizers. We read "symbols" in nature like red skies in the morning. We also read clues in nature in practice to adjust all our activities. Thus we can understand how social discourse would be a paradigm of dao is and yet understand Daoist claims that dao is everywhere and in everything--that we swim in dao. Our practical guidance in context requires interpretation of our surroundings-in effect treating them as symbols and treating ourselves as "reading" the signs rightly or wrongly (shi-fei).

Another way brute nature slips into the concept of dao is that dao, like 'way' can sometimes be used to describe how one actually acts whether to endorse or criticize it. (We may also talk about some group's discourse guidance without endorsing it.) We talk about the way you acted. We might refer to a performance intending it as a guide-treating it as a symbol we should extrapolate to our current situation. In this use, we open the possibility that we may interpret the past performance correctly or not in emulating it. Young Frankenstein's response to "walk this way" plays on the omnipresent possibility of misinterpreting such models of performance.

Let us distinguish this actual-course-of-action by calling it performance dao. The idea that there is a possibility of going wrong suggests that every discourse dao may be interpreted in action in various ways. Every discourse dao implies many possible performance daos which we distinguish as correct and incorrect. A performance dao is metaphysical in the sense that it is part of the world--what is he case. We can think of a performance dao (as Hall and Ames do) as a process or as a sequence of events. The process model is better because events have the same implicit sentential structure as facts. We may merely think of them as histories or as "segments of history."

The implicit distinction discourse dao and right/wrong performance daos emerges initially in the Confucian doctrine of rectifying names. What an explicit instruction tells us to do depends on our correctly applying its terms to the objects in the world. (It depends on other things such as grammar as well, of course, but ancient Chinese linguists did not discuss grammar.) For instance, to apply the instruction, 'do not kill an innocent person' to the issue of abortion, we need to decide if 'person' applies to a fetus. Some Confucians appealed to a moral intuition to tell them the right way to rectify names, hence the right way to follow dao. Daoists viewed moral intuitions as learned as we practice our different moral daos. Our moral upbringing instills moral intuitions in us. Hence, these are question begging when used as a standard to settle our moral disputes. (See Shi-fei)

Combining neutral reference to performance dao with the collective or mass property of dao yields the familiar metaphysical dao--"all that is the case." Each discourse dao implicitly points to and prescribes a particular future history to its audience. Since dao's are social, they amount to urging a particular social course of history. Further, since the things humans do change and alter the natual world, a dao implicitly entails prescribing a particular global history-a future historical path the world ought to follow. The sum of all performance dao(s) is the history of the world.

There are many such prescribed (hence possible) future world-historical paths-one for Confucianism, one for Mohism, one for Legalism, one for Christianity, one for Islam, one for Buddhism, one for liberal Western values, and so on. Each of them in effect prescribes a course history ought to take. However, in the past, despite the plethora of possible prescribed histories, things actually happened in exactly one way. Similarly, despite all the prescriptions of the moralists, there is exactly one way that things will go on in the future. Let us call this linking of the single past and future the actual performance dao. Used in this way, the actual performance dao is the course of world history from the beginning to the end of time.

This interesting use of dao is most clearly marked in a little known thinker named Shen Dao. He called it the "Great dao" and concluded that, since everything we do is part of that Great Dao, we do not need to know anything to follow it. We simply float along like a leaf. This argument is pivotal in the development of Daoism but just how is controversial. Most Confucian interpretations assume that Laozi and Zhuangzi simply accepted Shen Dao's passive view and that Daoism amounts to a kind of fatalistic worship of the Great Dao. However, the Zhuangzi chapter (See "In The Social World") in which we learn of Shen Dao's doctrine appears to be quite critical of him. It calls his a dao that fails to dao and a dao for the dead rather than the living.

Shen Dao's concept, however, is important to later Daoism in this way. It furthers Zhuangzi's project of undermining the Confucian-Mohist appeal to 天 tiannature:sky as the ultimate moral authority. If we take following nature as a dao, then Shen Dao is correct because surely in following the Great dao we are following 天 tiannature:sky dao. The actual is the natural. Zhuangzi's conclusion, on this reading, is that 天 tiannature:sky can not work as a source of moral guidance. Daos (in the ordinary normative sense) are what ultimately guide us and our problem is deciding which dao to use and how to interpret that dao. The difficulty of both these projects then underwrites Zhuangzi's famous relativism and skepticism about ethics.

Great dao insights seem to crop up in the Laozi as well. What that text implies about them is less clear. Sometimes Laozi seems to be agreeing with Shen Dao in arguing against discourse dao's. However, since the text presents a discourse dao, interpreters should explore lines of interpretation that can make it a coherent step between Shen Dao and Zhuangzi. One way to do that is to see Laozi as accepting Shen Dao's anti-knowledge (anti-learning, anti-language) attitudes but not the "Great Dao" line of reasoning. Laozi's reason for abandoning knowledge is one based on an insight into pragmatics--that language imposes social attitudes, desires and motivations for action on us. They thus obscure our "natural" instincts. Then the "nativistic" strain and the general sense that conventions "constrain our natural spontaneity" leads to Laozi's anti-language and anti-knowledge attitude. The paradoxical element of Shen Dao's own nativism contaminates this development, but what Zhuangzi takes from it is Laozi's innovative insight into language and its effect on our attitudes, desires, intuitions, etc. This, at least, is a plausible way for students of Zhuangzi to read the Laozi as an intermediate step between Shen Dao and Zhuangzi.