What the Daoist Mode Has to Offer
This article is excerpt from Jerusha Hull McCormack and John G Blair, THINKING THROUGH CHINA (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), chapter 7.
The philosophical Daoists, then, would make us into far humbler humans. Western ways of knowing the world readily presume we can permanently or easily draw boundaries between “this” and “that.” The Chinese worldview sees no such possibility. Chinese mental categories do not work like black and white. Opposites cannot be said to exclude each other, precisely because, in the world of yin and yang, each one both entails and enables the other. Thus, according to the Daodejing:
When the people of the world know the beautiful as beauty;
There arises the recognition of the ugly.
When they know the good as good,
There arises the recognition of the evil. [DDJ 2]
These lines, in Wang Keping’s translation, exemplify the Daodejing’s conviction that concepts are not stable entities; each pair is brought forth and made manifest through mutually enabling what might seem its opposite. In this world, in other words, contradictions are not to be regarded as obstructing goals, for the very way the world proceeds is by means of opposition, as one term transmutes into the other.
The classical Daoist line of thinking does not stop there. Given these assumptions, it is not plausible to think/act following the Western habit of gathering clear information, setting goals, and proceeding towards one’s destination as if it were an unchanging and unambiguous target. Instead, in Daoist practice, the wise practice wuwei: staying alert to the larger propensity of things as they evolve, acting minimally, following one’s instinct as to how best to intervene (if at all) in the changing situation to hand. Things will be changing anyway, so pursuing goals of necessity tends to give way to coping.
Finally, as must become evident from the Chinese reasoning sketched above, one cannot control – or seek to possess – whether by knowing or actually holding on to stuff – as a means of control. The ultimate impossibility of control does not discourage today’s rulers of China from trying; but everyone knows that their mastery is fragile and temporary. In this fleeting world, one cannot hold onto anything. For, just as one is about to make one’s entrance, the scene may shift; and suddenly one may need to know the lines for a whole different part in a different drama. Consequently, to hold clear and unchanging views, in the sense of set principles, is to fail to engage with this world as it is.
As a guide to Chinese modalities of thinking – and the way they can overturn conventional habits of Western thought – the sayings of the Daodejing offer an invaluable resource. While it is not difficult for Westerners to identify features of their own worldview that they think the Chinese could profit from adopting – such as less reliance on luck, more on planning, less authoritarian leadership, more personal liberties – it may be harder for someone from the West to discern what they might have to gain by glancing at the world through Chinese eyes. Yet what China has to teach are valuable correctives to many of our own habits of mind: if we can suspend judgment long enough to consider them.
© Rowman & Littlefield