Conceptions of Knowledge, Lecture ten

Conceptions of Knowledge, Lecture ten

Hansen's Dao de Jing as a critique of Dao(s)

The Dao de Jing deems to pose a threat to Hansen's hypothesis of early Chinese philsophy. Contemporary reading of the Dao de Jing label the book as a heavy metaphysical and mystical work, not a theory of guidance. Hansen challenges this view and instead reads the Dao de Jing as a critique of the Dao(s) of other schools.
According to Hansen, we ought to read texts in such a way that they make most reasonable sense in the time in which they were written. We should not be threatened by abstract terms or mystic ideas of ancient texts, and should not therefore label then as unreasonable. According to Hansen, interpretations that do label a text as unreasonable are not proper interpretations.

In its own (historical) context, the Dao de Jing is a text in opposition to the lineages of Confucius and Mencius. The Dao de Jing argues against ethical maxims and the inability to derive guidance from tradition. Both these lineages argue about- and use- Dao, these uses of the term Dao are criticized in the Dao de Jing.
Hansen believes in a theory similar to one presented in the Zhuanzhi whcih states that the Dao de Jing is a continuation of the theories of Shen Dao. The theory of Shen Dao is that Dao is the total sum of all Dao(s) by the moral philosophers. This “root Dao” or “great Dao” has no preference for any particular Dao. Therefore, according to Shen Dao, we should not prefer one particular Dao either. This form of proto-Daoism runs into the problem that not following a particular tradition of guidance is in itself guidance. This paradox is addressed in the Dao de Jing.

Laozi (the mythical author of the Dao de Jing) claims that we learn morals through learning names. The learning of these names is the learning of opposites. With these opposites, we learn the goals of the society we live in, we prefer a certain state from its opposite. These preferences are the Dao(s) of the society and should be addressed with 無為 (wúwéi). After all, these Dao(s) are not constant, and will therefore not always lead to happiness.

The first chapter of the Dao de Jing is generally seen as the most metaphysical chapter in the book. Hansen gives an alternative reading of this chapter to show that its nature is linguistic, not metaphysical.

  1. 道可道非常道 (Dào kě dào fēicháng dào)
  2. 名可名非常名 (Míng kě míng fēicháng míng)

These first two lines of the first chapter of the Dao de Jing are very similar in Chinese. However, the standard reading of them is very different.

  1. The Dao that can be Told is not the constant Dao
  2. Names that can be Names are not constant names

Hansen points out that this difference is strange. First, there is no clear grammatical reason as to why the first 道 should be translated as “The Dao”. Second, the first 名 in the second sentence is generally accepted to be plural, yet this is not the case for 道. For these reasons, Hansen gives an alternative translation.

  1. Ways that can be told are not constant ways.

Hansen also reads lines 3 and 4 differently

  1. 無名天地之始 (Wúmíng tiāndì zhī shǐ)
  2. 有名萬物之母 (Yǒumíng wànwù zhī mǔ)

These lines are usually read as

  1. Lacking names is the beginning of the universe.
  2. Having names is the mother of the ten thousand things.

Hansen transforms both these lines so that 名 can be read as a verb.

  1. Lacking gives name to the beginning of the universe.
  2. Having gives name to the mother of the ten thousand things.

This is because later in the Dao de Jing, it becomes clear that the basic distinction between nothing and something is incoherent.

Also lines 5 and 6 are read differently by Hansen.

  1. 故常無欲以觀其妙 (Gùcháng wúyù, yǐ guān qí miào)
  2. 故常無欲以觀其妙 (Cháng yǒuyù yǐ guān qí jiǎo)

These lines are often read as

  1. Thus, constantly lack desires to see mysteries
  2. Constantly have desires to see manifestations

With this standard reading, it seems as if the Dao de Jing recommends us to always have desires, but this is inconsistent with the rest of the book. Furthermore, with this reading lines 5 and 6 are not in line with line 7 which reads

  1. 此兩者同出而異名 (Cǐ liǎng zhě, tóng chū ér yìmíng)

These two things come forth together but are differently named.

This line speak of two things, but with the standard reading, we have discussed four things in total: 無(wú), 有 (yǒu), 無欲(wúyù) and 有欲(yǒuyù). Hansens reading only speaks of two things 無(wú) (in lines 3 and 5) and 有(yǒu) (in lines 4 and 6)

  1. Thus, constant lack is used to see mysteries
  2. Constant having is used to see manifestations