Category Archives: Eastern Philosophy

Philosophy East and West, Pt III; “Dao Deh Jing” Ch. II

This is part 3 of a series, if this part does not make sense to you, the following links with take you to Parts One and Two

Chapter II.

A. “Yin, Yang and the Two Truths”

The whole world recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; the whole world recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;

The difficult and easy complement each other;

The long and short off-set each other;

The high and low incline towards each other;

Note and sound harmonize with each other;

Before and after follow each other.” Dao Deh Jing II.4-6


In the first half of this chapter we see a list of pairs of opposites. According to conventional truth, the opposites are completely other from each other, but from the perspective of Ultimate truth, they are *the Same*.

Traditional Chinese origin myths always began with the mating of two original principles of Yin and Yang. What Classical Chinese philosophy adds to this myth is the idea that underlying the Yin Yang dualism there must be a common unified principle which they called the “Dao”. Both Daoists and Confucians used this term in this way, although their approaches were quite different. In any case, this relates to “Two Truths” theory from the previous post since we clearly see that we have preceded from a discussion of the Two Truths into a series of complementary opposites, each of which form an underlying unity. If you look at the Yin-Yang symbol above with this in mind, you see that this is exactly what is illustrated; within each opposite half is a core that belongs to the other. In each case it is said that the opposites define, produce, or complement each other. Thus it seems the the Yin and Yang pattern spans radically different levels of discourse:

  1. conceptual definitions – It is commonly noticed that many things cannot be defined without their opposites; e.g. odd and even, more and less, good and bad.
  2. production by nature of skill – “Thus Something and Nothing produce each other”; in which yin and yang are placed directly in the realm of form and matter, i.e. Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory of change, a theory of natural and artificial change. More on this later!
  3. value – “complement each other” refers to the fact that many things are worthless without a opposite counterpart. For example fuel is worthless without oxygen, a tool without material, building material without a location, the weather without land, etc.

In the next section, we see another version of the yin and yang, where the highest/best exemplar of a thing is alson the same as the highest exemplar of its opposite:

Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.” Dao Deh Jing II.6

The greatest action consisting laisez-faire, non-intervention, being fully present as an example, or some other small token action done at the right time. In Chinese this is called “Wei wu wei”, literally “doing not doing”. The greatest action is in simply being there and acting very little. The natural world is filled with these things: in biology, for example, the most intricate design appears with no designer.

In the last section, this trait is attributed to the lack of selfish motive or egoistical method in taking the action:

The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority; it gives them life yet claims no possession; it benefits them yet exacts no gratitude; it accomplishes its task yet claims to no merit. It is because it claims no merit that its merit never deserts it.” Dao Deh Jing II.7,7a

This gibes well with many findings of modern science; evolution is not so elegant in spite of the lack of a Intelligent Designer, but because of that lack. Guiding intelligence would ruin Nature. Likewise with society; a properly run nation does what it does not because of the ruler, but in spite of them; the best ruler will simply get out of the way.

What Lao Tzu shares with Greek thought is the idea that metaphysics’ proper task is a comprehensive theory of change that suits both the natural, the artificial and the political. In both China and Greece none of these realms can be reduced to another, but they are all subsumed to the highest form of knowledge with draws closest to the general principles underlying cosmic levels of both permanence and change. While Greek thought includes extended reflection on the logically necessary that is lacking in the Dao Deh Jing, However, Aristotle shares with Daosim the attitude that reflection on the natural is of higher dignity to the conceptual.


Philosophy East and West: Pt II: Introduction to the “Dao Deh Ching”

As stated in my previous post, in this series of blog posts I wish to highlight the common aspects of classical philosophy in India, China and Greece. Now we begin with the Dao Deh Ching by Lao Tsu. In this I will be guided by the agenda of seeing how the author is concerned with answering what I call (after Buddhas’ example) the “Four Noble Questions” of philosophy,.  Because Lao Tsu is a philosopher in the sense that we are using here, he has answers to all of the Four Noble Questions:

  1. What are the “Many Things“, that we find in this world? The Ten Thousand Things; Heaven and Earth.
  2. What is the main Problem with the many things? Life out of Balance/Ignorance of the Way.
  3. What is the “One Special Thing“? The Way (Tao).
  4. How is the One Special Thing from step three the Solution to the Problem of step two? True Power (Teh).

[Sorry about some of the formatting problems: I wrote this in LibreOffice and much of it completely messed up on cutting and pasting into WordPress.]

Chapter I.

A. The “Ten Thousand Things”

In this chapter, we shall look at Lao Tzu’s domain of discourse. He calls it “The Ten Thousand Things”. Of course there are more than 10.000 of these things; in Chinese, the phrase is slang for “everything”. But for those who are accustomed to reading Western philosophy, we notice that there is at least one type of thing conspicuously absent: ideal beings, known to the Greeks as “Forms” or “Ideas”. These sorts of beings are outside of time and space. Even geometric forms such as the Form of ‘Cube’ or that of the ‘Sphere’ are not in a particular place. The funny thing is that “Forms” and “Ideas” are not considered worthy of a full treatment in Chinese thought as they are in Greece. In this way, early Chinese thought is what we in the West call “naturalistic”, meaning that the domain of beings considered “real” and worthy of explanation all exist in space and time… except for perhaps the Tao itself, although even this is left for the reader to guess. 1

Such doubts aside, there is a sense in which Daoism is extremely naturalistic. 2But what we mean by this here is that the thinkers so called restrict themselves to those beings which exist in space, time, and physical causality. I assume that Old Lao believes in divine beings, but these beings are, like us, actors in space and time. They may be made of some exotic form of matter and perhaps they will last for eons, but they are not the sort of thing that exists outside of nature in the way that Aristotle’s “Prime Mover(s)” and Plato’s Forms. 3

Lao Tsu classifies  the weather, the seasons, animals, plants, medicine, families, villages, works of art, gardens, and kingdoms as among the “Ten Thousand Things”. So although they are all in space and time, even the artificial is ‘natural’ in this sense. In this it follows Greek thought; Aristotle’s “Physics”, which defines its primary subject matter as “nature” or “physis”, does this with the assumption that the ultimate principles of nature also govern the artificial (‘tekne“) as well. This is also true of modern science; physics is used to study both nature proper as well as engineered or artificial systems.

The Dao as Arkhe

The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way; the name that can be named is not the constant name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth; The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.”

The “Arkhe” is a Greek term which translates as “principle, basis, reason (for), cause, origin, ruler”. I have already dealt at lengths with it here. It is an untranslatable Greek word that includes the meanings of the English words “principle”, “origin”, “basis”,“leader”,“oldest”, “first” and others. Philosophy, science, and engineering all seek the arkhe behind everything, and every major scientific revolution in science seems to reduce the number of principles needed for explaining things while increasing predictive power. Defined at length in Metaphysics V.1 by Aristotle, where he defines it with the meanings given below; for the sake of the unGreeked reader, I have underlined all words that render some form of the Greek wordarkhe”. In the Dao Deh Ching, the word “Dao” is used in precisely the same ways asArche”, so after each sense given for “Arkhe”, I will place a synonymous usage of “Dao”.

“‘BEGINNING‘ [Gk.arkhe] means

  1. That part of a thing from which one would start first, e.g a line or a road has a beginning in either of the contrary directions.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics V.1)
    1. There is a thing confusedly formed, born before heaven and earth. Silent and void it stands alone and does not change, It is capable of bieng the mother o the world. I do not know its name so I style it ‘the way’.”4 Dao Deh Ching XXV.56
  2. That from which each thing would best be originated, e.g. even in learning we must sometimes begin not from the first point and the beginning of the subject, but from the point from which we should learn most easily.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics V.1)
    1. Woe unto him who wilfully innovates while ignorant of the constant [Dao], But should one act from knowledge of the constant [the Dao], one’s action will lead to impartiality, impartiality to kingliness, kingliness to heaven, heaven to the way the way to perpetuity, and to the end of one’s days one will meet with no danger.” Dao Deh Ching XVI.38
    2. In a home it is the site which matters… “ Ibid.VIII
    3. Hold fast to the way of antiquity..” Ibid. XIV.34
  3. That from which, as an immanent part, a thing first comes to be, e,g, as the keel of a ship and the foundation of a house, while in animals some suppose the heart, others the brain, others some other part, to be of this nature.” (Aristotle, Metaphysics V.1)
    1. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth; The named is the mother of the myriad creatures.” Dao Deh Ching I
    2. The myriad creatures rise from it and yet it claims no authority; it gives them life and yet claims no possiession.” Dao Deh Ching II.7

I know that the above only hints at the full sense of Dao used by Lao Tzu, but for the time being we will leave it here to illustrate our general approach.

So we can see that the dao is a principle, but how is it that it is so mysterious? After all, it is “untellable” and “unsayable” in lines 3 and 4, so how is it that this can be a “philosophy” in the sense similar to that found in Plato and Aristotle? This is dealt with in the next section, where I deal with many of the things normally cited as evidence that Daoism is more mysticism that philosophy.


The “Two Truths”

Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations. These two are the same but diverge as they issue forth. Being the same they are called mysteries, mystery upon mystery, the gateway of the mainfold secrets.” (Dao Deh Ching I.3-3a)


What is Old Lao talking about here? The way I like to say it is that for him, there are “Two Truths”.5 The two truths are not like two different truths that contradict each other, but rather they are more like two different ways of using the same word “truth”. Each of these two truths operate on different levels, and they only conflict if this difference is ignored. Just as we reinterpret many common words for use in science, for purposes of philosophy it seems useful to stipulate two different senses of “truth”.6 In Buddhism the “Two Truths” are as follows:

  1. Conventional truth – this is the common sense view of the world
  2. Ulitmate Truth – The reality of the world according to knowledge.7

Normally, we think of ultimate truth as truth that has superceded conventional truth. Once that has happened, it seems more natural to think of the previous truth as being proven untrue. Why in the world would we retain it as being called “true” in any way at all?

Modern science requires its own ‘dialethisms’. For example, we know that humans and animals are not radically different but share a common ancestor. This is a good example of “Ultimate Truth”. However, in the course of out daily lives, we treat humans as being special compared to all other types of living creatures. (Pretty much all animals do this.) This is what we would call “Conventional Truth”. Conventional truth does not get replaced by ultimate truth; since it still it guides our actions in most cases. Ultimate Truth is only brought into play on special occasions when we are faced with deep paradoxes or exceptionally rare decisions.

Another example of the two truth distinction concerns atomism. We know that material objects are made of atoms and empty space, and yet in most cases we still deal with them on a common-sense level. This is a very accurate example because there were actually a couple of atomist schools of Mahayana Buddhism who defined the two truths thusly:

The Sarvāstivādin’s ontology[2] or the theory of the two truths makes two fundamental claims.

  1. the claim that the ultimate reality consists of irreducible spatial units (e.g., atoms of the material category) and irreducible temporal units (e.g., point-instant consciousnesses) of the five basic categories, and
  2. the claim that the conventional reality consists of reducible spatial wholes or temporal continua.

To put the matter straightforwardly, for the Sarvāstivādins, wholes and continua are only conventionally real, whereas the atoms and point-instant consciousness are only ultimately real.8

So what are the Daoist two truths? As with Buddhism, the difference lies with the intention of relating to beings from two different motivations:

  1. Knowledge – ““Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; ”
  2. Desire – “But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.”

It is pretty much the same in every philosophy; knowledge and desire denote two different ways of relating to beings, each of which has their own level of “truth”. In any case, the distinction underlies many paradoxical statements in the Dao Deh Ching, such as what we find in the next chapter.