Interpreting the Daodejing: “The Minimally Discernible Position” (Supplement to Liveright Edition, 2023)




Interpreting the Daodejing


The attentive reader of the Daodejing will quickly notice in it a wide range of images and tropes which have a similar structure, a kind of rhyme scheme that echoes through the text’s seemingly very disparate topics and claims and styles. This structure involves the repeated contrast between two poles, and in every case these two poles are organized around an evaluative assumption that reflects the conventional valuations prevalent (rightly or wrongly, from the modern point of view) in early Chinese societies. On the one hand we have terms like being, having, name (fame), adulthood, strength, hardness, masculinity, fullness, action, high, bright, flavorful, complete, formed and so on. These are all things that were at the time assumed to be valued and sought. We will call this category A. On the other hand we have the opposite terms, like nonbeing, lacking, nameless, infancy, weakness, softness, femininity, empty, non-doing, low, dark, flavorless, incomplete, formless and so on. These are all things or states it was assumed that readers would disvalue, would be trying to diminish or avoid or eliminate. We will call this category B. Again and again in the Daodejing, we find the contrast of the valued A and the disvalued B, in one form or another, poking through one or another twist or turn in the text. And conversely, we will notice a tendency to invert their positions: to promote the B and demote the A.[1] But why, and with what consequences?

There are some common early Chinese assumptions about language and identification and evaluation behind this way of setting up these A and B categories. Awareness of these assumptions can help us understand both the conventional value/disvalue pairings and the strategies found so often in the Daodejing for undermining and reversing them. Crucial among them is the assumption that naming and knowing and identifying and valuing things are all rooted in a kind of ability to “cut” something out of a prior presence, a skill in parsing or separating something out from a larger context, finding or establishing boundaries for the known or named or valued thing.[2] In this framing, our ideas of identities of specific objects — concrete or abstract — are derived from the cognitive act of cutting some­thing out from a background. Whenever something is focused on and singled out, something else is left behind in the background from which the chosen object was taken. The singled-out, whatever it may be, is thus in category A. The left-behind is thereby relegated to category B. We do not do this randomly or disinterestedly: we are motivated by desire. How we identify the objects we apprehend and pursue is conditioned by our preferences, which in turn are heavily influenced by our society and our language, and the values encoded in them.  Desiring a thing makes us single it out for notice, and having a thing singled out for our notice, advertised as desirable via linguistic or cultural signs, further incites our desire for it. The singling out and the desire go hand in hand, working in both directions, mutually reinforcing. And wherever something is foregrounded in this way, something else is neglected, becoming background. It is to this leftover background that we now turn.


The Key to the A/B Structure

The most useful figure in our text for tracking the implications of this idea of a leftover portion is perhaps the trope of the “unhewn” (pu 樸)— that which is left behind by the “hewing” of chosen things out of the raw material of the world, physically or mentally. These cuttings are regarded here as potentially quite arbitrary, contingently conditioned by all sorts of personal and social factors: not necessarily made at joints belonging to the natural world itself. In fact, such joints—determinate joints present prior to human intervention–may not exist at all. The unhewn can be cut up in all sorts of ways, and each way will leave an as yet unhewn remainder or background. The unhewn is the primal model here of the B category, and will be our best guide to understanding the implications of the relentless forefronting of all its various avatars: the dark, the low, the formless, the nameless, the feminine, the empty, non-being, non-doingand so on.

The name tentatively and paradoxically given to this unhewn background, the background left by any cut whatsoever, is dao 道. In earlier tradition this word had been used to mean almost exactly the opposite: a Way or Course or Guide (cognate with dao 導, “to guide”), which is to say, the means used to attain a set purpose one is pursuing, a path carved out as a way to reach a goal. In other words, “dao” was originally a category A term par excellence. The most significant rhetorical move in the Daodejing is to use this most global of A terms ironically, thus denoting instead the entire category B, for reasons to be discussed below. In its original everyday sense, the term means something very close to purposive action as such: a prescribed course to attain a prescribed goal. It is precisely something that is selected out, valued, desired, kept rather than discarded. Dao, in its everyday sense, means a source of value: whatever it is you may regard as valuable, what you need is a dao, a way, a method, a purposive course of action, that will produce or procure that value, and that is the “course” you should follow. If you want good government, for example, what is needed is a dao of government: it is what you should do to fulfil the purpose you have embraced. If you want family harmony, or to become a good archer or charioteer, or to become virtuous, or to be a successful merchant, you need to practice the proper dao of each one, the one leading to the attainment of that goal. Whatever you are carving out of the world as the target of your deliberate action, of your purposive endeavors, you need a path to get there, a set of behaviors that will generate the sought value: a dao. The ironic Daoist usage of the term dao turns this meaning on its head: it is thus an ironic usage, used deliberately in the opposite of its literal sense–to make a point. The real way to attain value is through what we don’t value, the real way is an anti-way, the real fulfillment of purpose lies in letting go of purpose. It is like saying, “Oh great, nothing is going as I planned” and then realizing, wait, it is great that nothing is going as I planned, or as anyone planned—and it is great not in some new sense of “great” that I need to be convinced to accept in place of the originally intended sense, but in precisely that original sense: in that it is how I do get what I had originally wanted. This would be so, for example, if one were to become convinced that it is only because things do not follow any particular plans that there are such things as “plans,” or such things as states of affairs that fulfill those plans. It would be so if I somehow became convinced that my plans are fulfilled only because nothing follows a plan. It would be so if I somehow became convinced that values that are valued are not what produce values and the achievement of those values. This is precisely what Daodejing seems to conclude. But why would anyone conclude that?

The notion of the unhewn comes to our aid to answer this question. When we identify a thing– a chair or a table or a tree or a rock–and assign it an “essence,” a determination of what it is, we distinguish it from other things and designate what qualities or features contrast with those of other things. But how one thing differs from others does not account for all of its qualities or features, nor even for what enables it most constantly and indispensably to be “itself” among these others to which it is opposed. The alleged distinguishing essence of a thing is not what makes it what it is, nor is it all that is. A human being, we are told, has 97 percent of the same DNA as a chim­panzee. If we identify “humanness” as the 3 percent of DNA that is unique to humans and assume that this inheritance makes us what we are, we conjure an impossible being, equipped with only the unique 3 percent of DNA: such a being could not live, could not be any sort of animal, let alone a human one. When we identify things, when we try to define essences, we separate the extruding tip-top of an enormous iceberg, a protrusion easy for the eye to differentiate, from its substratum in what is not differentiated in this way. This unidentified iceberg is the unhewn raw material that is not unique to the identifiable protruding tip, that are not part of its “identity,” that are useless in in differentiating it from other things and thus identifying it, but which are the most constant among its attributes, and which sustain even its unshared characteristics.  The unhewn — what is left over when the determination of any definite thing is made — is by definition indefinite. Nor is it even one definite indefiniteness, for the unhewn is whatever gets left out whenever anyentity is identified: the unhewn is whatever you are not paying attention to, whatever you have no inter­est in at any given time. We cut things off from their real roots when we conceive of them as too cleanly marked off from other things, or from the non-thing, the indeter­minate which is neither one definite thing nor many definite things, which is the actual source of their existence as such and such a thing, and also of whatever values have motivated us to so identify it.

The Daoist understanding of the structural implications of this situation are nicely illustrated by a passage in the Chapter 9 of another great classic collection of Daoist writings, the Zhuangzi:


Unless the undyed and unhewn raw material is mutilated, what can be made into libation goblets?   Unless the white jade is broken, what can be made into the ritual scepters and batons?   And unless the course and its intrinsic powers (daode) are broken down, what can be picked through to select out humankindness and duty?   …   The mutilation of the unhewn raw material to make valued vessels is the crime of the skilled carpenter.  The destruction of the course and its intrinsic powers to make humankindness and duty is the fault of the sage.[3]


We see here that the valued objects like libation goblets and ritual scepters are made by mutilating an original raw material from which they are carved out, and that this is compared to the process by which the Confucian values of humankindness and duty are made by mutilating the course and its intrinsic powers. That is, the small-d daos, purposive activities such as the Confucian dao, are made by carving something out of the prior ironic big-d Dao, not an alternate definite “carved” identity or purpose, but what is prior to the carving out of definite identities and definite purposes, what is mutilated by any such carving.   The text is not offering an alternative dao, but an alternative to all daos. This absence of all daos is ironically called Dao. A passage from Chapter 12 of the same text (like Chapter 9, a part of what is known as the “Outer Chapters” of the Zhuangzi) spells out the further implications of this conception:


When a hundred-year-old tree is chopped apart to make ritual vessels and painted in lovely greens and yellows, the detritus is thrown in a ditch.   If you compare the ritual vessel with the detritus in the ditch, they undoubtedly differ in terms of their beauty and ugliness; but they are alike in having lost their inborn nature.  Robber Zhi and men like Zeng Shen and Shi Yu undoubtedly differ in the righteousness of their conduct, but they are equal in having lost their inborn nature.[4]


The valued and the disvalued are generated simultaneously by a single cut: the ritual vessels and the detritus come into being with the same stroke, with one then cherished and the other discarded. In this passage, a somewhat later elaboration of the basic structure under discussion here, both of these, though so different in beauty or social value, equally represent a loss or mutilation of the pre-cut unhewn raw material, denoted here by the term “inborn nature” (xing 性). This inborn nature is here, in this later elaboration, depicted as if it were a determinate third thing identifiable in distinction to both the vessel and the detritus, like the tree from which both the vessel and the leftover woodchips are cut. But this word xing 性, which becomes such a key term in later Chinese thought, does not appear anywhere in any of the Daodejing materials (or for that matter in the “Inner Chapters” of the Zhuangzi, usually considered the earliest core of that text). The use of the term in this “Outer Chapter” passage of the Zhuangzi is very possibly a polemical response to the adoption of the term by Mencius (372—289 BCE) and other Confucian thinkers as part of their project to naturalize Confucian ethics, claiming that the inborn nature of human beings already includes, in some sense, the impulses that can be grown into the mature Confucian virtues of humankindness, duty, ritual propriety, and wisdom. The usage of the term here in the Zhuangzi to denote a state devoid of precisely these qualities, and indeed mutilated by the carving out of these qualities, is understandable as part of that debate. Nevertheless, it can somewhat obscure a crucial insight embedded in the deployment of this trope in the Daodejing materials as we have them, prior to the adoption of this new terminology to engage the Confucians on their own ground: that there is a special relationship of the discarded detritus to the pre-cut unhewn. For in the Daodejing schema, though the detritus, being the result of a cut, is determinate (“named”), while the unhewn is, by definition, uncut and indeterminate (“nameless”), the kind of determination specific to B category items, disvalued items, is such that it provides a sort of backdoor access to the pre-cut state, the last gasp and final remnant of the uncut within the system of cuts, and one that through its peculiar structure actually opens the distinctive Daodejing approach to the nameless and indeterminate. In the Daodejing, the detritus and the vessels, the B and the A, are not simply seen equally as mutilations, as may seem to be the case in this late Zhuangzi passage, taken in isolation; for the Daodejing, as for the “Inner Chapters” of the Zhuangzi or arguably the Zhuangzi as a whole (which has its own many ways of addressing this larger point, working beyond the local rhetorical move of this particular passage), the A and the B categories do not have the same relationship to the indeterminate unhewn. The reason for this lies in the crucial double meaning of “the unhewn.” For to see the raw material, we must look not to the vessel but to the woodchips in the ditch. Though carved away, they are still what is “formless” as opposed to the “form” defined by the valued vessel, what is incongruous to what was sought in the carving, what exceeds the constraints of the model that guided the cut. The woodchips in the ditch are what do not conform to the model, to the dao that guided the cutting out of the vessels: they are what overflow the form, and as such they are also what is left of the pre-cut background. Those leftovers in the ditch thus show us both the detritus that is excluded and discarded after the object has been carved out and also the raw material of the unval­ued, uncarved stuff prior to the cutting, the unformed raw material that remains constant in both the beautifully shaped vessel (the formed, the named) and in the inchoate woodchips that conform to no recognizable or desired shape (the formless, the nameless). Dao (that is, the ironic anti-dao that nevertheless surprisingly fulfills the original role of whatever dao we were priorly committed to, through violating it) is thus the “unhewn” in these two senses simultaneously. It is both the “disvalued” and the “not yet valued or disvalued, the neither-valued-nor-disvalued.”  This is where we get the special status of the detritus, of the B categories: since the undifferentiated pre-cut unhewn is by definition unknowable and unknowable, it is only through these B categories, the disvalued garbage of the system, that we can in any way indicate from within the system (of names, determinations, forms) what is prior to the system.

The Dao of the Daodejing thus becomes a catch-all term, like “garbage,” that means simply “whatever I am not looking for.” But garbage is always a broader category than non-garbage: it means anything and everything that doesn’t fit into the category of use, of purpose, of desire, of what-I’m-looking-for in any given context. Non-garbage has a certain finite set of shapes and definitions; garbage is everything else. So as I’m sifting through the world hunting for that one thing–that flower, that letter, that name, that value, that X–everything else is “not it, not it, not it, not it, crap, garbage, no, no, no…”  Garbage has infinite shapes and sizes and colors and forms. Among them also are the very sources of the X I am looking for—whatever the sources of X are, they must be by definition non-X, but since all-non-X is by definition garbage, the source of X must be garbage. It is the compost from which the desired X grows. So I might be tempted to say ironically, “Oh great, the world is all garbage”—but then, hearing what I’ve just said, I realize that there is another sense to it, which I can mean sincerely: “Oh wait, it is great that the world is all garbage!  That’s where everything we want comes from!”

The minimally discernible gist of the Daodejing thus intimates three things about the B category, the unhewn and its various faces. First, that it is the unseen and unseeable source and destination of all concrete things (of whatever we are looking at, whatever we are interested in, whatever we are currently valuing, whatever has been “hewed out”), both from which and toward which they flow; it denotes both the raw material prior to the carved-out thing, and the garbage pile to which it eventually reverts after the identifiably valued thing is used up. Since both are defined precisely in contrast to the differentiated, they are by definition undifferentiated, and thus impossible to differentiate from one another. Second, that the unhewn reveals itself to us as the course of all things: this flow of rise and reversion from the raw material to the garbage, in the sense of embodying their tendency to “return,” is a bell-shaped or inverted V-shaped pattern of rise and fall, from and to that unseen source.   The source is by definition unseen but is made evident by its function as a center of gravity toward which things return, giving a specific up-down forward-back shape to their existential trajectory; hence its manifestation as the “course of things.” And third, that the unhewn is the stuff of which all things consist, as the raw material from which they are carved out and of which they are still composed.

Here we have the core of our minimally discernible tradition, the opening shot of what comes to be called Daoism. This way of thinking stands in sharp contrast to those philosophical traditions, such as we find for example in the dominant strands of ancient Greek thought and its inheritors, which assume that “like begets like,” that “from nothing nothing comes,” and apply this principle to the origin of all things.[5] The upshot of those traditions is that whatever is good must come from something good, usually something even more good than itself, or even from what is perfectly Good; if there is any being or value or order in the world (anything in the “A” category), it must be an emanation of some prior being or prior value or prior order, which ends up requiring that these must all be in some sense always priorly existing, not to have arisen at all, but to have always been in some sense present, perhaps “eminently,” in the eternal or infinite, perhaps in the divine. The Daoists do not think like that, partially perhaps because their ontological premises—that a “being” means a determinate being, and that every determinate being is what it is relative to an indeterminate background–do not allow for an absolute ontological dichotomy between being and non-being. This way of thinking, arguably rooted in or at least encouraged by certain peculiar features of the classical Chinese language in which it was developed,[6] admits of no definite state which does not arise from a prior not-being-that-state, just as there is no definite being that does not appear in a context of surrounding entities that are not it. For the idea of “the whole world” to have any meaning at all, this term must be intelligible, but to be intelligible requires us to presuppose some non-world around it, in which it exists. If I say “the universe exists,” I am already presupposing a non-universe in which it exists, or in contrast to which it exists. In this sense, even “all that exists” must exist “in” something else.   The same would apply to a deity or any other putative origin of all things imagined to have originally existed prior to anything else: the idea of any entity existing alone in the universe, at any point in time, is unintelligible, since it requires simultaneously positing the surrounding context in which it exists. Even “non-being” or “the original void in which all arose” will have to be in something else, if it can be said to exist at all, which it must do to do its work of being determinately non-being (i.e., definitively excluding “being”). Thus we arrive at the conclusion that if there is in fact anything eternal and omnipresent, it must thus be something that is in some sense not even any definite being–in some sense a formlessness, but not even a definite formelessness. But the working out of the implications of this position obviously brings with it many puzzlements and complications of its own, to which we must now turn.

For it is from here that we can begin to grasp the inner logic in some of the seemingly contradictory moves we find in Daodejing. On the basis of the double-meaning of B explained above, the relation of the B category (the Dao, the unhewn, the garbage) to the A category (whatever we are focusing on, valuing and desiring), now takes on six surprising and only apparently conflicting forms:


  • B is the opposite of A, excluding A. This was its original meaning.
  • B is the source of A, and what it must return to. Whatever A we pinpoint, it can only have an origin in something that is non-A; thus B. However we define value, it must originate in non-value; however we define an entity, it must originate in non-entity—given that it has come, there is nothing else from which it can come. The formed originates in the formless, the carved comes out of the unhewn raw material.
  • B is actually both A and B, including both A and B. For B is the raw material from which A was cut, and A is still entirely made of what we now, after the cut, refer to as B. The wooden cup is still wood, so “wood” refers both to the cup and to the scraps carved away from it.
  • B is really neither “A” nor “B”; true B excludes both so-called A and so-called B. For we only use the name “B” in contrast to “A,” and “A” only appears after the cut.   We name what precedes names with the name “namelessness,” but then this “namelessness” is only another name.  The real namelessness is named neither “name” nor “namelessness.”
  • B is actually always more B than whatever we call B. Since it is neither A nor B, it is even more a negation of form and value than B, which was supposed to be the negation of all form and value (i.e., all A), but was still itself a form and a value, precisely because it had a specific delineation (i.e., contrast to and negation of A). It is even more “formless” than (the form we call) “formlessness,” even more indefinite than (whatever we are defining as) indefinite. The real B is beyond B, more B than B.
  • B is actually in a sense more A-ish than whatever we call A. B is more A than A. By definition, A was supposed to be the locus of value, where value comes from, how we get value. But it turns out what really does that is B—the source, the end, the stuff of A, which thus is also the true key to its course of rise and return, the course defining its real trajectory and enabling its optimal flourishing. B is the true course of all A. A means the exclusion of B, but A without B turns out not to be sustainable value at all. Conversely, B includes both A and B, so B is the only true A. Dao is an A term that is here used in a new ironic B sense, enfolding all the previous senses. The true strength is the weakness that has the power to manifest as both weakness and strength—it is able to do more than just “strength.” The real masculinity is the femininity that has the power to manifest both femininity and masculinity—this has more of the traditional masculine virtues of (say) courage, competence, endurance, efficacy than masculinity alone. The real substantiality is the emptiness that underlies and supports and enables both the empty and the substantial. And so on. B is the real A.


The point of all this is the asymmetry between A and B. A is defined precisely as the exclusion of B. But the exclusion of B, from the B side, has an unexpected side-effect, due to the ambiguity of B as both pre-cut and post-cut. B includes A, but A excludes B.

If we wanted to make our six types of simultaneous A/B relations a little more intuitive and accessible, we might try out the more user-friendly example of the flower (A) and the dirt (B):


  • Dirt (B) is the opposite of flower (A), what is excluded when we pick out “flower.”[7]
  • Dirt is the source of the flower, from which the flower is formed, and is what it must return to. Flower emerges from and returns to non-flower.
  • Dirt includes both dirt and flower—the entire flowering plant not only emerges from the dirt, but is, from seed to bloom, a transformation of what we now call the non-flower, the dirt.
  • But this dirt is thus neither “dirt” nor “flower.” It includes much more than the mere exclusion of flower (our prior definition of “dirt”): it is what precedes the distinction between flower and dirt, not what excludes flower. So it is not flower, but it is not “dirt” either.
  • But that makes it even more “dirty” than what we normally call dirt—it is even more formless, diffuse, resistant to any particular use or structure or name.
  • But it is also more “flowery” than flower—because the so-called flower alone, separated from dirt, is actually not a real flower—it is a dead flower or a plastic flower. The only real flower is the total flower and dirt system, the combination of dirt and flower, which, as we saw in number 3 above, is one of the meanings of “dirt”—but not one of the meanings of “flower.” It is dirt that actually “flowers” more than the flower does, including both the blossoming done by the flower and the blossoming forth of the flower from the dirt—it is the dirt that blossoms as both flower and dirt. Dirt is the real flower.


Dao in this tradition is thus unlike many conceptions of an ultimate reality or origin or deity, in that Dao is not the apotheosis of A, the extension and glorification and worship of what is fully formed (i.e., of the definite and the certain) and of what is valued (i.e., “the Good )–but rather just the reverse, the glorification of B. It is not the glorification of a divine purpose, but rather just the reverse, the glorification of purposelessness. It is not the assurance that everything is in some sense in good hands, that control is the ultimate cosmological fact, but just the reverse: that no one and nothing is in control, and that this is the best possible news; non-control is the unsurpassable fact everywhere and always, but it is also where all that we may identify as goodness, including even control itself, actually comes from, and is always in some sense made of.

Hence we find the Daodejing repeatedly suggesting that the universe has no values—but that this is just where values come from:


Heaven and earth are not humane.

To them all things are straw dogs.

The sage is not humane.

To him all the people are straw dogs.


But is not the space

between heaven and earth

itself like a bellows?


Empty it is but never deterred.

With each and every movement

more and more emerges.


(Daodejing 5)


Straw dogs were ritual effigies made of straw. That is, they were useless crap (B) lying around, which was then bundled together in a particular form (A), given a name and an identity and a function and a name, worshipped and valued for a while, and then, after the ceremony, thrown away, becoming garbage (B) again, trampled back into namelessness and valuelessness and uselessness. That’s how we all are. We didn’t exist. Now we exist.  Later we won’t exist again. We were worthless, purposeless. Now we have purposes, values, worth. Later we’ll be worthless and purposeless again.

That’s how heaven and earth treat us. They don’t value the middle segment of that process, the one where there are purposes and values and names and identities, any more than the first segment or the last segment. Like a bellows, the universe is empty—of intention, of values, of humankindness, of purpose. And, if this juxtaposition of what were perhaps originally two self-standing aphorisms has any rationale behind it, that emptiness is described as a productive emptiness, like the space in a bellows: inexhaustible, undefeatable, constantly spitting forth—what?  Values, purposes, persons, things, ways. The emptiness of value in the first phase is the source of the value of the temporary “straw dog” phase at the crest of the curve, and it is just its emptiness, its unconcern with the crest, that allows for the crest, the ceaselessness of crests, the availability of infinite crests, infinite values, infinite purposes.

Dao has no purpose, and is not in control. It is rather the opposite of a controller, and devoid of purposes. It is not anyone’s “lord,” and above all it does not want to be known or praised:


The vast course, how it overflows all banks,

drifting in all directions,

to the left, to the right!


All things depend on it for birth.

None declines it and none are declined.

It gains no fame for the work it gets done.

It cannot be named as any being at all.


It clothes and feeds the ten thousand things,

yet never plays their lord and master,

ever and always beyond all desiring:

it can be named the vanishingly small.


Never playing their lord and master,

the ten thousand things are always drawn back to it:

it can be named the vast and great.


It is precisely never making much of itself

that makes it so very great.


(Daodejing 34)


It is just its directionlessness, its purposelessness, its valuelessness—in the sense of both not embracing any values and of not inciting any values, not being valued—that makes it so valuable. Like “garbage,” it is just its exclusion from everything that allows it to be inclusive of everything. It is just its having no purpose that generates all purposes, and also generates anything that ever fulfills all those purposes.  It is just its not being lord that makes it great.  It is just because it does not control anything that it contains and nourishes everything, that all things cleave to it, that it contains and possesses all.  It is just because it is the opposite of a divine Intelligence or Will that all things find their source in it, return to it, make use of it, find their purposes and values and ways in it, from it, to it.  Its vastness is a drifting, a directionlessness, a both/and, a left and right, an all-inclusivity, a choicelessness, a purposelessness.  Dao is, in this sense, the very opposite of a providential deity, making Daoism one of the world’s most thoroughgoing atheologies.

From this understanding of Dao, we can also begin to see what a Daoist epistemology might look like. For the Daoist, the more clear-cut that things are, the further they are from any sustainable reality; the more clearly we know things, the less accurate our knowl­edge is; the vaguer our knowledge, the more it resembles, and participates in, the reality of things. Vague knowledge goes together with a vague will. Accord with Dao means not knowing exactly what you are doing and therefore not knowing exactly why or how you are doing it—not because Dao does know what and why and how and you are to thus to leave it to Dao, but rather precisely because you are in thoroughly not knowing what and why and how you are the more like Dao. But precisely because it is without any preference or determination that would exclude anything in particular, this also does not imply an exclusion of mental processes or even of directed volitions. We relinquish control not to install someone or something else as controller, but to access what is anyone’s beyond control but is the source and stuff of all control.  Similarly, we relinquish knowledge to access what is not knowledge but is the source and stuff of knowledge. The Daodejing offers this striking and instructive image:


A newborn infant:

weak of bones and soft of tendons,

yet firm of grip;

not yet knowing of the union of male and female,

yet penis fully erect—

such is the ultimate potency.

(Daodejing 55).


This infant has no mental image of the goal of his erection, but he has an erection just the same. The infant’s erection does not know what it is doing, what it wants, but it does in a certain sense want — vaguely, inchoately. To paraphrase the first chapter of our text, it is “always desiring, always desireless.”  But this vague, inchoate wanting without knowing is, the Daodejing says, the real source, the real course, the real stuff and essence of virility, of what actually accomplishes the union of male and female and the birthing of all creatures.

From here we can get an understanding of the implications of perhaps the most crucial term in the Daoist vocabulary: wuwei 無為 –which we generally render in this translation as “nondoing.”  Wu is a negation, meaning “lacking, without, absent.”  Wei, the term negated in the phrase, means “to take a determinate role, to be something in particular, to be deemed or made into something,” and also, with an alternate pronunciation, “to be for the sake of, to have the purpose of.”  So we find this term translated appropriately as “non-doing,” or “non-action,” or “effortlessness” or “unforced action” or “non-deliberate action” or “non-purposive action.”  On the one hand, wuwei describes how heaven and earth function: without plan, without purpose, without intention, without values, without control, without mastery, without governing or ordering or directing.  From this void of intention, this vast indifference, this exceptionless allowing, all “good” things—i.e., not some specific goods but whatever anyone considers to be good–have grown, for it is from this that all things have grown.  Natural processes are like water taking whatever shape may become available, simply restoring equilibrium by going toward whatever has been neglected, whatever is “low” and disvalued–not like structures built for a purpose or according to a blueprint, ascending toward an ideal.  The order we see around us is one of many outcomes of the chaos underlying it, and in fact always remains an aspect of that chaos—it is the flower that is a transformation of the unflowery dirt, the B that is not only the opposite of A but the source of A, the includer of A, neither A nor B, the real B, and the real A.

But the text also uses wuwei in an ethical sense, as an ideal for humans. Now, given what we have established above, any kind of “ideal” will be necessarily paradoxical: as soon as something, anything, is made an ideal, it becomes an “A,” and sets up a corresponding B contradicting it. Real value will then ipso facto shift to the B term. This is the import of the famous first line of Chapter One of the text: dao ke dao fei chang dao道可道非常道, which we have translated “Any course can be taken / as the right course to take / but no course like that / can be the course taken always.”  The meaning of this is that any guiding course, if taken explicitly as a guide (i.e., “no course like that”—no course taken as the right course to take), ceases to reliably guide. If there is any course always taken (e.g., in natural processes), the one thing we know about it is that it can’t be any particular course that has been picked out as the right course to take—for that selection of something as the course that should be followed, cutting it out as an “A” term, is precisely what makes it exclusive of other courses, makes it impossible to be what is always and everywhere in effect, to be what can be relied upon in every situation. Any ideal, if taken as an ideal, ceases to be a really reliable ideal—precisely because it has been selected out as an ideal. That applies also to ideals like “wuwei” or “prioritizing the B.”

What then can be done?  If we try not to try, if we make it our purpose to be purposeless, we will end up in the same situation we started in. By definition anything we try to do is engaging our will, and our ordinary process of desiring and willing involves pursuing whatever the desired outcome to the exclusion of whatever it is not, trying to get as pure and flowery a flower as possible. It’s no use trying to get a pure wuwei by excluding non-wuwei to the greatest extent possible. What’s worse, we cannot get out of this dilemma simply by deciding to pursue a nice balance of the two, just enough flower supplement by just enough dirt to get the sustainable totality of flower and dirt, for then we have just reestablished the same problem, pursuing the pure “balance” or “totality” to the exclusion of the “unbalanced” or “partial” or whatever is outside this determinate balanced totality as we conceive it. Nor, it seems, will it do simply to pursue whatever is formless, nameless, indeterminate, nothingness, beyond all definition–for all of these then become definitions, forms, somethings, and again are ipso facto posited as the A term.


Living The Paradox

It is in facing this kind of practical impasse that the double meaning of the unhewn and the sixfold A/B relations really start to pay off. First, we can try to direct our attention to the B term of any pair, the opposite of whatever we regard as good. Initially this will be only the opposite of A, but as we have seen, it will end up meaning also what includes both A and B, due to the intrinsic double meaning of all B terms. Pushed to its extreme, given this intrinsic nature of B-ness as rooted in the fundamental structure of all determinacy and valuation (i.e., as cutting-out-from-a-background), we inevitably encounter a reversal into the other senses of B: not just as exclusion of A, but also as source and end of A, as what includes both A and B, as what is neither A nor B, as true B and as true A. Again and again the text walks us through this process of reversion resulting from turning our attention toward B: pure garbage, given its full range, turns into soil, which turns into flower. Getting in the habit of noticing the structure of our own habits of valuation, looking at what we are valuing and seeing what is neglected or excluded in it and without which it ironically loses its initial value, has an effect on how we come to experience B. Further attention to B allows the full range of B to show.

This turn toward B also has an effect on the very structure of our desire, of our will itself. Imagine the following scenario: Bob is an overachiever, single-mindedly intent on getting what he wants, working assiduously toward his goals, acting purposefully at all times to maximize his effectiveness—so much so that he develops chronic insomnia. After a few weeks of lacking sleep, Bob’s performance in pursuing his goals during his waking hours starts to suffer. He cannot concentrate, he has become physically uncoordinated, he has to make ever greater efforts to perform even the smallest tasks, micromanaging every motion with deliberate and concentrated executive control—which is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the longer his insomnia persists. It gets so bad that eventually his hands are shaking, sometimes so much that it takes intensive concentration even for him to drink from a cup without spilling, let alone pursue his grand goals. The Daodejing depicts the human condition as something roughly analogous to Bob’s situation. We want all sorts of things, but our conscious agency, focused on purposive achievement of its goals, directed at what it can foresee and desire, wants them so single-mindedly, and so to the exclusion of whatever would fail to meet the standards it has set for itself, that it has become counterproductive, interfering with our ability to experience any of what we want, because our method of pursuing them cuts out the very powers that actually bring them to us and bring us to them.   The Daodejing suggests that, if Bob were able to get some normal sleep, he might find that he could lift a glass of water to his lips without even thinking about it, smoothly and without having any sense of an effort to exert control—and indeed, that all his other goals would also be approached much more smoothly and with much less sense of deliberate effort and strain.

Can we then simply advise Bob to go get some sleep? That seems to offer no solution, for that would of course simply make “sleep” his goal, zeroing in on it as a purpose (A), and then sending him off to try to sleep. As many insomniacs know, this is often the worst thing one can do: the more one tries to sleep, the less likely sleep is to come, because it was precisely our obsessive goal-oriented will, now directed toward the ideal “sleep,” that had been keeping us awake. The single-minded style of endeavor, this obsession with making things better all the time, this relentless focus on getting what we think is good and getting rid of what we think is bad, this conscious pursuit of ideals and progress and achievement and the Good, has developed into a habit that has become hard to break—so much so that we literally don’t know any other way to be. So it would seem that simply putting “get some sleep” into the slot reserved for “how to make things better” in this selfsame obsessive improvement-oriented structure just exacerbates the problem rather than solving it. What then?

We can broadly identify (at least) three different answers to this question in our text, which I will call Strategy 1, Strategy 2 and Strategy 3. The first of these can be found in  a number of chapters which simply remind us of the existence of B as source of A, and try to redirect attention there, effectively saying, “Just clear out the A obsession and let B do its thing, and plenty of A will emerge spontaneously!”  We have seen this basic position already in Chapter 5 quoted above, but in fact the entire sequence of Chapters 4-8 exemplifies this trend:




The course:

a gushing through,

a jumbling together,

an emptying out–

yet harnessed for use

by every random unfilled space.


So deep an abyss it seems

the very source of all the ten thousand things–

blunting their edges

untangling their knots

blending with their shines

merging with their dusts.


So translucent,

a mere semblance of a presence,

something without known parentage—

an image of what precedes

even the highest deity.



Heaven and earth are not humane.

To them all things are straw dogs.

The sage is not humane.

To him all the people are straw dogs.


But is not the space

between heaven and earth

itself like a bellows?[8]


Empty it is but never deterred.

With each and every movement

more and more emerges.


Where instructions are many,

blind alleys multiply.

Maintain instead the center within.




The spirit of the valley, imponderable and undying:

an obscure she-beast.

The gateway of this obscure she-beast:

the root of heaven and earth.

A gauzy fabric ever spreading,

a mere semblance of a presence–

but gently active

and activated gently.




Heaven long endures.

Earth long persists.


Why can heaven so long endure,

earth so long persist?


It is because they do not live themselves

that they teem so enduringly with life.


Just so does the sage put himself behind

but find himself ahead,

cast himself out

but find himself still there.


Is it not precisely because he has no private interests

that all his private interests are fulfilled?



The highest good is like water–


Water, so deft,

so good at benefiting things

by non-contention with them,

by putting itself

where none want to go.


That is why it is so close to the course:


In dwelling

so good at finding the place.

In centering

so good at finding the depths.


In interacting

so good at being kind.

In babbling

so good at ringing true.

In aligning

so good at shaping up.


When put to work

so good at gaining the power.

When making a move

so good at finding the moment.


Because never contending,

Ever beyond reproach.


In each of these, we have what we will call Strategy 1: the assertion of pure B (gushing translucent abyss barely there, valueless emptiness of the bellows, the valley she-beast’s empty opening, heaven and earth devoid of their own lives, water with no shape or agenda going to the lowest and most despised places) which, because utterly empty of A, bring forth plenty of A (activity, function, teeming life, private interests fulfilled, all the goods and skills of water). This is most straightforward of the text’s approaches to this problem.

But more often, and perhaps more interestingly, we find two other strategies put forward. One is the simultaneous embrace of both A and B, which we will call Strategy 2.  The other is the reversal of B and A enacted by doing just what we have just said cannot be done: putting B in the A slot, desiring the B, endeavoring the non-endeavor, doing non-doing, saying in effect, “Try to sleep!”  We will call this Strategy 3. But it must be understood that this is a way of deliberately exacerbating the problem, intensifying the paradox, as a way of riding the inevitable failure entailed in this strategy into a new form of success, as we shall see in detail below.

Obviously, these three strategies—and there may be others in the text as well—are closely related, all playing on the basic sixfold structure of A/B relations discussed above; attention to B, attention to the whole of A and B, or attention to the paradoxes and reversals that result when we pay attention to B are all entailed in that fundamental structure. We might say that they differ only in emphasis. For any of these three strategies to work, the B objects must be allowed to show the full range of the effects of this alternate type of goal. The B categories rejected by our goals must come to be seen as always present in those goals, as the very stuff of which they are composed, and also as necessary sometimes even outside of those goals. Indeed, this alternate type of goal comes with an already existing alternate relation to goals as such: our explicit ideals and desires, targeted toward conscious images or ideas of which we are aware, are parasitic on another type of desire that has no explicit conscious target. Hence in Chapter 12 the Daodejing suggests an important contrast: between the eye and the stomach:


The Five Colors blind the eyes.

The Five Tones deafen the ears.

The Five Flavors distort the palate.

Chasing and hunting madden the mind.

Hard-to-get goods trip up the stride.


So it is that the sage

tends to the stomach,

not to the eye–

“Abandoning that over there,

taking instead this over here.”


The eye, trained to pick out the valuable from the valueless, scans the far-off horizon for something to be pursued, which sets up ideals that it envisions.  Its desire is abstract, based on convictions about what is good and what is bad. It has no natural stopping place, no intrinsic measure or limit to its avarice: its premise is that more is better. More is straightforwardly more. It wants as much of the good as possible: it believes that the more of the good there is, the more good it is. The stomach, however, envisions no particular object, mushes together whatever comes into it, and because its desire is concretely felt rather than thought, rooted in its concrete physical limitations rather than abstract evaluative commitments, it stops desiring when it gets filled.  Its desire is bound to a natural rise and fall cycle of want and satiety, of rise and reversion, like the bell-shaped career of the straw dogs mentioned in Chapter 5, quoted above. Chapter 55 makes a similar point with the surprising image of the infant with an erection, as we also already saw. Without any knowledge of sex, with no mental pictures of what it is supposed to be for, no idea of an aim it is pursuing, the infant penis now and then stiffens, expressing its own rhythm of fullness and emptiness, as the stomach grows hungry when a certain point is reached. The claim here is that when the eye-desires are superimposed on the stomach-desires, dominating and controlling them, both are undermined. When our life is put in service of our ideals, both suffer.

This is the background assumption behind the possibility of all the strategies. In the case of Strategy 1, the suggestion is that Bob can forget about his goals a bit not by replacing those goals with the goal of going to sleep, but rather can clear them away by paying attention instead to the stomach type of impetus, something occurring without any intention or goal, like hunger or the infant erection, like heaven and earth with no private agenda, like the empty bellows with no values, like water shapeless and lowdown—something subtly ever-present beneath the noise, barely noticeable and devoid of any discernible agenda or will of its own, that nevertheless constantly puts forth a functioning that is the real source of all the more obvious shapes and sounds and activities and impulses, but has hitherto been channeled and corralled into the eye-type desires of the mind’s ideals, as the hunger of the stomach is channeled into a need for particular gourmet foods or the infant’s vitality into the obsession with a particular sexual scenario. Finding that quiet hum of the neglected source, disentangling it from the bound and limited form in which it has been captured, releasing it to spill over beyond any definite forms or conscious aims, letting it revert to the background field that rises and falls in its due time as this or that activity or impulse, relaxing into the purposelessness at the root of all purposes—this is Strategy 1.

Or, to embrace the more complex Strategies 2 and 3, Bob can on this basis attend to the double-meaning of B, the asymmetry of A and B, and the sixfold A/B relation that comes with it, tracking the many twists and turns of the Daodejing, and its apparent contradictions.   We have seen that this asymmetry implies, among other things, that although A excludes B, B does not only exclude A, but rather also includes it—the third of the six delineated A/B relations. Purposeful activity (definitive of the A category) requires control, doing, desiring, while entailing an endeavor to exclude whatever does not in some way serve the stipulated purpose. But purposelessness (B) does not simply exclude purpose: it allows any and every purpose. Instead of excluding purposes, it merely relegates them to the “straw dogs” position, the bulge of the bell curve, rooted in and returning back to the purposeless.  This should lead us to expect just what we find: control, doing, desire not only for the B items that may subvert the structure of desire, as just discussed, but also for ordinary A items, also have their place in the ruminations of the text. The role of desire is flipped this way and that, sometimes affirmed, sometimes denigrated. We see the qualified affirmation even of A desires emphatically and explicitly in “both/and” constructions of chapters like 28 and 52, where a place is made for equal and simultaneous embrace of both the A (male, purity, honor, sons) and the B (female, impurity, disgrace, mother), but placed in a particular relation to one another, stressing the necessary connection between the two:


To know the masculine

while also maintaining the feminine

is to be a channel for all the world.


Being a channel for all the world,

the power of what is constant remains undivided–

a reversion to the state of a newborn child.


To know the lucid

while also maintaining the opaque

is to be a microcosm of all the world.


Being a microcosm of all the world,

the power of what is constant remains unwavering–

a reversion to the boundlessness of utmost absence.


To know the honorable

while also maintaining the disgraceful

is to be a valley for all the world.


Being a valley for all the world,

the power of what is constant remains ever sufficient–

a reversion to the unhewn.


When the unhewn gets shattered

it is made into vessels and tools

each with its purpose.

But as instead used by a sage,

it is what has seniority over all such functionaries.

For the great structuring carves

but it does not sever.

(Daodejing 28)


That all in the world has a beginning–

take that itself as the mother of the world.


Having found the mother,

know thereby her children.


Having known the children,

maintain and protect their mother.


Then even at the demise of your body,

nothing is endangered.


Blocking its exchanges,

closing its gates,

it is forever free of toil.


Opening its exchanges,

assisting it in its tasks,

it never can be saved.


Seeing the vanishingly small is called clarity.

Preserving and protecting the softness is called strength.


Making use of the shine but always returning it to this sort of clarity,

you expose your body to no harm—

for this is to put into practice what is constant.

(Daodejing 52)


In these Strategy 2 chapters, the A category is represented by all sorts of ordinary desires and activities (sons, masculinity, lucidity, honor, shine): the recommendation is not to eliminate them, but to reconnect them to their B substratum (mother, femininity, opacity, disgrace, vanishingly smallness, softness, this sort of clarity (=seeing the vanishingly small)).  Ordinarily, all of these A activities and states are pursued by deliberate executive control, willed agency guided by explicit ideals. Regrounding the A terms in the B terms means instead keeping the body from pursuing anything outside itself, reorienting it to the self-enclosed rise-and-fall stomach desires of the body unassisted by external images, as food and sex are to be reconnected to the stomach and to the unknowing vitality of the infant erection. Interestingly, it is by remaining fully alive to the total A/B relation that here is said to put one in a fully B role oneself: by knowing A but holding also B, one becomes the child, absence, valley, channel, unhewn and Polaris model—all perfect B terms. But of course all of these also imply the power of B to generate and sustain A: the emptiness of the valley or channel that enables the flow, Polaris as the still-point orienting the Dipper’s rotation around it, the infant as source of the adult’s vitality, the unhewn as source of the vessels and so on.  The wager seems to be that this orientation to B would moderate the excesses of the A-oriented eye-desires without having to deliberately curtail them through willpower (which, being the very form of A-obsession, would only exacerbate A-oriented habits), without having to completely renounce them—in fact even in a certain sense empowering them.   They are to be “known,” which here implies knowing-how: enabled to function well.  The same is implied in Chapter 12, quoted above, the source of the eye/stomach distinction, where we are told that the sage prioritizes the stomach over the eye.  Yet here the eye is precisely to be protected through this move, rather than eschewed: the “five colors” blind the eye, the five tones deafen the ear, and so on. Prioritizing the eye over the stomach harms the eye. This does not mean seeing and hearing are bad—on the contrary, it is to protect and enhance the functions of seeing and hearing that these five specific colors and tones, the ones singled out as especially valuable by the ritual and cultural systems of the day, are denigrated.  What is wrong with these specifically valued sights and sounds is not that they are sights and sounds, but that they limit the range of the seen and heard: these five colors are cut out from the spectrum of all that is seeable, A cut out from B, socially valued and defined colors which turn the rest of the visible spectrum into garbage to be neglected or adjusted, dulling the eye’s capacity to see at its fullest potential.  So opening up the body to pursue the unlimited external vistas of the eye is paradoxically just what limits the activity and capacity of the body, even limits its ability to experience the external world—a very typical Daodejing irony.   The sage is for the stomach and not the eye so as to protect and nourish the eye: by taking care of B rather than A, he also takes care of A.

An even more striking example of this “both/and” structure for value and disvalue can be seen in Chapter 60:


Ruling a large country is like frying a small fish.

When the course is applied to the care of the world,

the demons lose their spiritual powers.

Their spiritual powers are not really gone–

they simply cease to be harmful to others.

It is not only the spiritual powers of the demons

that then cease to be harmful:

The sages too then stop harming others.

Because the demons and sages no longer harm one another,

their powers are exchanged one to the other

until, intermingled, each is possessed by all.



In the relation between demons (B) and sages (A), the demons are rendered harmless, and indeed even become sources of virtuosic powers, as soon as the sages–now ruling only in the way one cooks a small fish, with minimal interference–cease to harm them and everyone else in the world with their meddling. That is, as soon as A ceases to oppress and try to demolish B, B and A intermingle and converge as a source of real value, with both the A and the B aspects now distributed everywhere. A excludes B, but B includes A. The customary affirmation of only A is what had made the relationship between A and B mutually destructive. Once this prioritization of A is abolished, and the mutually destructive relations ceases, both A and B are affirmed.

Finally, Bob may want to try the really tricky stuff: Strategy 3. Here the further complexity of the A/B intertwinings and reversals enabled by these basic structures, with all their mutually entailing modalities of both/and and neither/nor, is fully embraced and exploited. We may begin to explore this strategy by looking at Chapter 13:


Being favored, as much as being disgraced,

should come as a terrible shock.

But great calamity should be valued

exactly as much as one’s own body.


Why should being favored come as a terrible shock,

just as much as being disgraced?

To be favored is to be subordinated.

To gain it is one shock,

to lose it will be another.

That is why being favored, as much as being disgraced,

should come as a terrible shock.


Why should great calamity be valued

exactly as much as one’s own body?

It is owning a body that makes us

subject to calamities.

If we possessed no body of our own,

what calamity could we have?


So it is that one whose valuing

lies in regarding his own body as the entirety of the world

may be entrusted with the world,


And one whose cherishing

lies in regarding his own body as the entirety of the world,

may be given charge of the world.


Here a customary A term (social favor) is revalued, demoted to a disvalue, because like all social values and names, having been made into a circulating token of value, a self-standing object of desire and thus an end in itself, it is cut off from its B roots, and as such is inconstant, unsustainable, not a true value at all since it places one’s value in the hands of unstable external sources.  The chapter goes on to elevate whatever is unwanted, whatever threatens those A values–calamity of all sorts–to equal status with one’s own body. This seems to be because the value of whatever is threatened with loss depends on one’s prior and implicit valuing of one’s own body. For this body is the neglected B root of those social determinations and values. What is revealed by great calamity is that there is a background that one was previously implicitly valuing, and in terms of which all one’s other values were established—a kind of value and valuation of which one was never previously aware, valued precisely in the act of being neglected in favor of those other “eye” values that previously held all of one’s attention. This is what remains when everything else is lost, and is only revealed when everything one had defined as valuable is lost. Calamity is the fall of the straw dogs, and thus serves as a revelation of the pre-reflexive lived body, and of the up-down curve that is the true course of all A determinations, which entails a completely different form of value: the unknowing and purposeless stomach form of valuations that rise and fall without any overall agenda, as opposed to the eye desires fixed on things like social favor, which define the desired object sharply and commit to pursuing its purification (the dichotomous expulsion from it of any connection to the undesired) and its acquisition without limit. So calamity is extremely valuable–in a certain way it is exactly equal to the value of the body, for it is the very revelation of that value, and of that form of valuation, in the valuelessness that is the true source of all value, the living presence of B as the true A. Calamity is a unique solution to the paradox of how to make the implicit explicit, how to actually experience the always neglected-background, make B into A without losing its B-powers. It is the very dawning of the B as “B,” making the unconscious B an actual part of our conscious experience. The stomach desires had been tucked away beneath the surface of the eye desires, just as the unknowing potency of the infant erection is the inner force channeled into the calculating object-orientating lust of the adult sex addict. The love of the body is hidden there in the straw dogs of those A desires, revealed when they finally tumble back to the ground and scatter again to the grass.  It is this that is so valuable about the great calamity: it reveals what is really of value, what one has always really been valuing implicitly in all one’s valuations, and the alternate type of valuation operative there.

So it is that this chapter then goes on to make one of the most surprising statements in the Daodejing—directly at odds with the Strategy 1 position of Chapter 7 discussed above, where absolute selflessness, unconcern for one’s own body and life, the pure purposelessness of undiluted B, was what allowed for teeming life and also, ultimately, for the achievement of one’s private ends of prevailing and lasting long, like selfless empty heaven and earth. For here we are told that a person who values his own body as the world, i.e., as worth as much as the whole rest of the world, or even worth more than anything else in the world, is the person who can best govern the world. This is of course another instance of stomach (his own body) over eye (the whole world). But here we see how placing the exclusive purposive will itself, the very motor of A-obsession, on the paradoxical B object (stomach, body)—such as occurs in the aftermath of great calamity–changes the nature and outcome of that willing. Purpose, preference for one thing over all others, in this case one’s own body over everything else in the world, creates an indifference to all other purposes; this particular purpose has as its by-product the disclosure of a wide swath of purposelessness. Seeing how everything else can be lost, and only had value in relation to the life of the body, this person now cares only about his own (previously ignored) body. Caring only about this body, so that this body is the whole world to him, makes this person exclude the whole rest of the world, makes him cease to care about any other purpose. But in doing so, the rest of the world and the body are both benefitted. This purposelessness created as a by-product of intense purpose, focused on the one purposeless thing in a sea of purposes (focusing on the stomach in a sea of eyes, focusing on the inchoate body of the infant erection in a sea of desirable objects) makes everything else purposeless too, but this allows everyone to share in the benefits gained, allows for all alternate purposes to be served. By taking the stomach-desiring body and its lack of any external purpose as one’s purpose, we end up with the fulfilment of identifiable eye-purposes, including both the shared purpose of a well-governed empire and the (renounced) personal purpose of gaining an empire.

This Strategy 3 trope of putting a paradoxical B item in the position of desired object usually reserved for non-paradoxical A objects, shifting attention and desire over onto a non-object, recurs in more general form in Chapter 35, where we are told to “hold to the great image”—both “holding” and “image” being very “A” terms:


Where the great image is held fast

all the world comes together–

coming together yet all unharmed–

the vastest form of safety, of peace.


Music and other lures will stay passing guests,

but when the course passes the lips–

how bland, how flavorless!

Gazing at it there is nothing worth watching,

listening to it there is nothing worth hearing–

yet wherever put to use nothing can exhaust it.


The further elaboration here about this course (dao) that is “flavorless, not worth watching, not worth hearing” is telling us precisely what that “Great Image” is—something that normally would be too insignificant or formless to serve as the object of attention or desire: pure B. This is precisely the kind of ungraspable image described in Chapter 21:



“Those who grand powers of virtuosity have shown

followed their course and their course alone.”

But what kind of thing is this course, with which we are called to comply?

Naught but confusion, pure indistinction, is there to meet our eye.

So very unclear, so very confused!

In this itself is an image construed.

So very confused, so very unclear!

In this itself does a something appear.

So very unreachable, so very dimmed!

In this a kernel, an essence, is limned.

A life-giving kernel so real and true–

for in it is something reliable too.


From ancient times until today

such names as these don’t fade away–

for they reveal incipience of every kind to our survey.


How do we discern all the many shapes and forms of incipience?

Through just this.

(Daodejing 21)


Here we have the idea of the image of no image. How would we “grasp” such a thing?  Like the name “namelessness” or the form “formlessness,” this is a way of putting the paradoxical B object in the position of A: singling it out with a cut, construing it as a definite thing. But the point of doing this is that the instability of this object leads straight to the other meanings of B. By being made a definite thing, B first functions as the definite opposite of A (first of our six A/B relations); here this serves as a conduit toward the other aspects of B: as including both A and B, beyond both A and B, and then as source of A and even true A. The clinging insistent desire for this one special kind of specific thing, a B thing, in this case the great image of imagelessness, is thus what breaks down the desire structure, but leads thereby to the attainment of A purposes: world peace, inexhaustible function, all forms of incipience, names (implying value, achievement, fame) that don’t fade away.

Chapter 14 clarifies this picture in a similar move, linking this purpose (i.e., deliberately focusing on the paradoxical B object) more closely to more everyday purposes and desires:


If when trying to see we find nothing there,

still we name it: “smooth.”

If when trying to hear we find nothing there,

still we name it: “faint.”

If when trying to grasp we find nothing there,

still we name it: “subtle.”


Three names, three determinations,

in which nothing further can be sought.

Just so are they blended into a oneness,

neither dark on the bottom

nor bright on the top,

extending on and on

never definite, always unnamed,

reverting to what is no thing at all.

This is called the shape of the shapeless,

the very image of no-thing.

This is called the vague and indistinct.

Meeting it we see no front,

Following it no back.

So it is that by holding to the course of ancient times

we ride and steer through all that is present now.

Ability to know this ancient beginning

is called the threading that runs through the course.

(Daojejing 14)


Here the very generation of the “imageless image” is put before us: as in Chapter 13, it comes as the result of a calamity, a failure.  It is in the purposive straining to apprehend the full range of sights, sounds and touches, all the way to the faint and the smooth and the subtle, that these new names for what is undifferentiated appear to us: these names are a substantiation of the very failure to attain what we are seeking, generated by that seeking and its failure. Purpose here again serves as a means that leads to its own destruction through its own singleminded obsessiveness, greedily straining to exhaust the entire spectrum of possible objects of perception, at its own limits reversing into the undifferentiated. For where sights and sounds and touches are all different, no-sight and no-sound and no-touch are undifferentiatable, hence “blended into a oneness.” Directing our will toward this new shape of shapelessness, this B appearing at the limits of our pursuits of shape, is then affirmed as defining the course of A, allowing us to steer through all beings and shapes that exist—B as the true A, the real “course.”


In Chapter 3 we have a similar motif:



Not esteeming the worthy

prevents the people from contending.

Not valuing rare goods

prevents the people from thieving.

Not displaying desirable things

keeps hearts and minds undisturbed.


Just so does the governing, the treatment

administered by a sage

empty hearts and minds

but fill bellies,

weakening aspirations

but strengthening bones–


always leaving the people untouched

by knowing and desiring,

so no intentional actions are ventured

by the knowing.


Doing nondoing,

all is ordered,

everything heals.


Here we find a direct recommendation for the non-distinction between the worthy and unworthy, between A and B. But non-distinction between A and B is itself is a B term (third and fourth meanings: B includes both A and B, B is neither A nor B). Yet here, this non-distinction is precisely what brings about the consequence of social harmony (A), which is why we wanted to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy in the first place (according to the principle of selective meritocracy proposed first by the Mohists and later adopted by Confucians as a key to good government). In this case the B term is clearly presented as a means, and the A term (the attainment of good order, which was sought in the first place) is the end and final value. As we were told in Chapter 35 to hold the “great image” of imagelessness, here we are told to “[do] nondoing”—applying our will to an intrinsically B item, leading instead to the attainment of A. We have already briefly touched on this formula that so nicely exemplifies Strategy 3, found in Chapters 3 and 63, in the expansion of the simple “nondoing” (wuwei 無為) to the explicitly paradoxical “[do] non-doing” (wei wuwei  為無為).  This is an example of using our doing and willing, our purposive endeavor, directing it not toward A as we usually do but toward the paradoxical B object (nondoing) as a way to throw a wrench in the works of ordinary “doing” itself.  A similar structure occurs in Chapter 2: “[abide] in the work of nondoing, [practice] the teaching of noninstruction,” where “abiding” and “practicing” are equivalent to “doing,” to purposive terms generally applied to A terms, but applied here to a paradoxical B object. But we see the full complexity of this move developed much more emphatically in this chapter:


When all in the world know beauty to be beauty,

there already is ugliness.

When all know goodness to be goodness

there already is badness.


Just so do presence and absence generate each other,

difficult and easy complete each other,

long and short contrast each other,

high and low collapse each other,

tone and noise harmonize each other,

ahead and behind follow each other.


This is why the sage abides in the work of nondoing,

practicing the teaching of noninstruction.


For it is through this that all things arise,

none declining it and none declined;

through this that all get their birth and have their life,

none possessing it and none possessed;

through this that all move and act and become,

none counting on it and none it counts on:

for, its achievements complete, it claims no credit,

never dwelling on its finished works–

and precisely because never dwelling

never gone.

(Daodejing 2)



Here too, the typical category A gesture of differentiating A from B– beauty from ugliness, good from evil–leads away from the A goal (beauty, goodness) it was meant to promote. Hence the inseparability of the A and B—itself a characteristic dimension of B–is stressed as a remedy, which alone can bring A.  But then this non-separation is itself presented as orienting one toward a “task without deeds, a teaching without words”—and a “task” or “teaching” involves a goal, a form of control, differentiation of one outcome from another, like “doing nondoing.” This is putting B in the A position again.  Here, this in turn generates a “merit” (A) which is enduring precisely because, B-like, it is not posited as a merit. Enduring merit, A, is then the outcome of the previous non-differentiation.  Renouncing all A-purposes and instead taking purposelessness, B, as one’s purpose leads to the attainment of the A purposes one has renounced, because one renounces them.  B as opposite of A (1st A/B relation) reveals itself as entailing B as the true A (6th A/B relation).  And around and around it goes.

So we see that Strategy 3 embraces the “try to sleep” paradox and tracks its flipflops through all the twists and turns entailed by the sixfold A/B relation. The (doomed) attempt to direct our will toward those B category items is therefore recommended precisely because it is doomed to fail. Because the B items do not function like fully defined objects (i.e., objects that clearly exclude what opposes them), since B ends up also including A, since all the B terms are like “garbage,” actually encompassing whatever we tried to exclude from them, the will directed in their direction is splayed and confounded and undermined, gradually loosened and relaxed, returning to the kind of impetus not directed toward a particular goal but stepping back to find the way in which any particular desire is rooted in the formless, the imageless, the desireless.  Thus, if Bob starts seeing the value of the disvalued B items, directing his will toward them, perhaps without noticing it he will fall asleep rather than going to sleep, and awake refreshed—and lo and behold, find himself able to pursue whatever momentary goals may then arise much more effectively and much less effortfully, even with a bit of oblivious grace. Such is the reversal entailed in the ethical application of wuwei: we engage the paradoxical multifariousness of the garbage-like B categories, the way they elude the attempt to fix them as regular A items, as we cannot simply decide or will to be hungry or to have an erection—and from this relaxing of our pursuit of A, we are able to attain A—a recurring theme the Daodejing. These reversal structures between A and B, in both directions, occur throughout the Daodejing, and we are beginning to see how complex and multifarious they can be—for in each case the entire paradoxical sixfold relation of A/B is in play, approached now from one corner and not from another.

All of this seems to recommend B only as a way to get to the desired A. But this does not necessarily imply that the authors of this text believed that these particular instances of A are really valuable. Rather, the text begins in media res, presupposing that human desires already exist, rather than trying to legislate what should be desired per se. The premise seems to be that, since certain desires already exist, the promise of their satisfaction can initially be the only motivator and indeed the only criterion of success for anything the text might recommend. But in fact, anything at all that is desired, singled out as an ideal, will be in structurally the same situation; the examples are simply the ones considered most likely to be recognizable and valued in the society in which the text was produced. Ok, you want to be awake and alert to do stuff. Given that fact, let’s see if we can find a way for you to fall asleep and be unconscious and do nothing—because that’s the way get what you already want, to be alert and do stuff. If you want something else, the same advice will apply, but mutatis mutandis. However, if you take going to sleep as another thing to go do, you’ll never get to sleep. But your very failure to control sleep, to make it another one of your achievements, will possibly help you notice that desiring sleep and unconsciousness and doing nothing doesn’t quite work like the desiring of a normal object of desire, as a goal for one of your projects. The hope is that this will instigate a change in the way you desire things more generally, the way you engage objects as such, shifting from the eye-desire that seeks to fill its coffers with more and more of the “good,” for more and more select delicacies, to the blind rise and fall of the stomach-desires that mush everything together (or from the porn-addict to the infant erection), thereby modifying though not abandoning the initial desires.   As the text says three times, the sage “[abandons] that over there, taking up instead this over here”—the stomach, not the eye.[9]

Are we then to understand that a measured purposelessness is simply a sly contrarian way to achieve one’s prior goals?  Many Confucian critics of the Daodejing have thought so, and have rooted their ethical disparagement of Daoism on its advocacy of this sneaky form of power-hungry selfishness and amoral manipulation. Or, on the contrary is the text suggesting that all purpose is to be understood as exemplifying, feeding off, leading back to purposelessness (as both ordinary sexuality and pornography do with the infant erection, or as both gourmet dining and gluttony do with the stomach), with various sideways recommendations for reconnecting more robustly with purposelessness through redirection of our unavoidable faculty of purposeful intention?  The Daodejing as a whole offers no univocal way to resolve this question.  As we’ve begun to see above, some of the chapters in the text suggest one view, some suggest the other view. Precisely because the Daodejing so insistently interrogates the nature of “final goals” and “ultimate values,” it can be difficult to pinpoint whether purpose or purposelessness is the final purpose, the ultimate value here.  Whatever content is plugged into the position of goal will undergo the paradoxical transformations which are central to the text’s treatment of the notions of goal and value per se.  But this pattern of purpose and purposelessness leading back and forth into one another, with now one and now the other posited as the final goal, once stated in those terms, should be easy to spot in chapter after chapter of the text. Wherever we have the goal of the good, any good, put before us, we find also a non-separation of good and bad, or a ceasing to make the distinction, put before us too as the true source of what was wanted in the initial goal, thus making the distinction again, and so on, back and forth. Historically speaking, the Daodejing might be a collection of verses loosely assembled, which is one way to explain its diversity of views on this point. But read as a whole, it challenges us to harmonize these two views.   Indeed, we may view Chapter 1 as an attempt (probably added to the collection relatively late in its process of formation) to summarize this double structure, such that the two ultimately converge: here we are given a rather radical summation and overview, in which the differentiated and undifferentiated lead back and forth to one another, such that they are ultimately alternate names for the same thing, and indeed the truly differentiated is the truly undifferentiated, and vice versa.

Above we have availed ourselves of the example of flower and dirt to illustrate the sixfold relationship of A to B. This certainly makes things clearer, but perhaps it is also making things a bit too clear—that is, too easy for ourselves. “Flower” is easily recognized as a desirable thing, and “dirt” as an epitome of the undesired, and the relation of literal generation and support is well-understood and universally accepted in this kind of example.   And indeed, the A values in the Daodejing text as we have it are recognizable to us as things human societies are historically known to have encouraged (long life, good government, harmony, order, success—as well as wealth, prominence, masculinity, adulthood, and so forth), even if some of these enforced social preferences are now seen as highly problematic.   But the logic of the text as we’ve laid it out here should apply no matter what the A terms are.   That is, we should be able to construct the sixfold levels of A/B relations for any A whatsoever. Imagine a society that, for whatever strange reason, valued only standing as the epitome and pinnacle of all virtues, and consistently disparaged all forms of sitting with horror and dread as something to be avoided at all costs. Its Daodejing would then propose a “B” Dao structured like this:


  • Sitting (B) is the opposite of standing (A), what is excluded when we pick out “standing.”
  • Sitting is the source of standing, from which standing is formed, and is what it must return to. Standing emerges from and returns to sitting.
  • Sitting includes both sitting and standing—standing not only emerges from the sitting, but is a transformation of what we now call the non-standing: sitting.
  • But this sitting is thus neither sitting nor standing. It includes much more than the mere exclusion of sitting (our prior myopic definition of “standing”): it is what precedes the distinction between sitting and standing, not what excludes standing. So it is not standing, but it is not “sitting” either.
  • But that makes it even more “sitting” than what we normally call sitting—it is even more of an eluding of all that is made to “stand,” all that is valued as metaphorical extensions of the one true virtue, from which all stability and coherence derives, the standard according to which all being is judged to be a fully constituted being —standing; even more than sitting it eludes any fixed structure or name linked to standing.
  • But it is also more “standing” than standing, because the so-called standing alone, separated from sitting, is actually not a real standing—it is an abstract dream of standing, a painting of standing at best. The only real standing is the total standing and sitting cycle, the combination of standing and sitting, which, as we saw in number 3 above, is one of the meanings of “sitting”—but, in a society where only “standing” is valued, not one of the meanings of “standing.”


Or we might just as well imagine just the opposite, a society that values only sitting.  That society’s Daodejing would have to propose a Dao best exemplified by standing, which would also structure around the sixfold meaning:


  • Standing (B) is the opposite of sitting (A), what is excluded when we pick out “sitting.”
  • Standing is the source of the sitting, from which the sitting is formed, and is what it must return to.   Sitting emerges from and returns to standing.
  • Standing includes both standing and sitting—the entire sitting not only emerges from the standing, but is a transformation of what we now call the non-sitting: standing.
  • But this standing is thus neither standing nor sitting. It includes much more than the mere exclusion of sitting (our prior myopic definition of “standing”): it is what precedes the distinction between standing and sitting, not what excludes sitting.  So it is not sitting, but it is not “standing” either.
  • But that makes it even more “standing” than what we normally call standing—it is even more of a rising away from the stability and settledness of every metaphorical extension of the one true virtue (i.e., sitting), from which all stability and coherence derives, the standard according to which all being is judged to be a fully constituted being; it is even more elusive of “sitting” than mere standing, for it refuses even to “sit” in or as “sitting”—it eludes every structure or name.
  • But it is also more “sitting” than sitting, because the so-called sitting alone, separated from standing, is actually not a real sitting—it is a dream or painting of sitting, an abstract fiction of sitting. The only real sitting is the total sitting and standing cycle, the combination of sitting and standing, which, as we saw in number 3 above, is one of the meanings of “standing”—but, in the context of a society where “sitting” is exclusively valued, not one of the meanings of “sitting.”


I said to imagine a “society” where this is true, which might be taken to suggest a kind of “social constructivist” assumption about all values—i.e., that they have no natural basis and are merely social constructions.  But for our purposes here, we can replace the word “society” with the word “world” and arrive at the same result. Imagine a world where nature worked a certain way, where natural law was such that certain things were related to other things in a certain definite way, and where in addition certain of those things just are intrinsically and universally valuable, whatever that might mean. The same structure emerges, whatever the facts of actual dependency and growth turn out to be as stipulated in the natural laws of that world, as long as there are any beings there who do indeed value whatever is valuable.  As it happens, in our world, flowers are factually dependent on dirt—how about a world where that was not true?   If flowers depended on sand, and sand were considered less valuable than flowers, then sand would be what was “dirty,” and we could imagine the pro-sand Daodejing.  If flowers-and-sand were valued but factually dependent on a less-valued system of, say, a certain species of slimy worms, considered dirty in comparison to the esteemed flowers-and-sand system, then we would imagine a pro-worm Daodejing. If worms alone were valued and flowers disvalued, we’d have a pro-flower Daodejing, finding the source of the worms in the flowers. Barring a world in which experiences were not understood as connected in any way at all, not only devoid of any concept of cause and effect in the physical sense of ends but also of any concept of ends and means such as arguably pertain to purposive behavior as such (“final causality”), arguably intrinsic to any desire and need (themselves arguably essential to being alive, which is itself arguably essential to experiencing anything), it is hard to imagine a world in which some version of the same A/B problem would not somehow apply. The reader is thus invited to conduct the same thought experiment on any value/disvalue pair imaginable, as dreamed up in any science fiction scenario of alternate worlds however outlandish, and draw up the relevant sixfold chart. In a society or world that values only baldness and disvalues hair, hairiness would be the sixfold Dao, the course: the opposite of baldness, the source of baldness, the includer of both baldness and hairiness, the excluder of both baldness and hairiness, the real hairiness, the real baldness! In a society or world that valued only hair and disparaged baldness, baldness would be the sixfold Dao, the non-hairiness that excludes hairiness but also the source of hairiness, the includer of both hairiness and baldness, the excluder of both hairiness and baldness, the real baldness, the real hairiness!  And so on.

The same would apply even if the values were embraced not by any entire world or society, but just by a particular individual: whatever one may embrace consistently as valuable to the exclusion of its opposite is one’s own A term, and its excluded opposite would then be one’s private Dao.  Here we begin to get a glimpse of something more that may be gained by engaging the many layers of the Daodejing, as commentators did over the centuries: the way in which B terms (whatever they might be for any particular society or individual) provide a way to harmonize the other positions, while the reverse is not the case—again because of the great asymmetry between A and B, between purpose and purposelessness: the former excludes the latter, but the latter does not exclude the former. It is the circle of ends and means that seems to characterize the text, which maintains all the senses of the A/B relationship, both their distinction from each other and their non-distinction: the continual process of A and B as flipflopping inseparable ends and means of one another. The idea of exclusive commitment to a single purpose is embedded in the basic structure of purposiveness as such, insofar as one is engaged in purposive behavior: as long as one is pursuing that purpose, one is by definition making every effort to exclude whatever does not fulfil it. This can of course be offset by the embrace of contrary purposes, the alternation of purposes, the tempering of one purpose against another as a way to eliminate the fanatical singlemindedness this seems to imply; but as long as the basic structure of purpose remains in the driver’s seat, this exclusivist structure will be operative as an obstructive to genuine coexistence; each purpose by its nature will seek to exclude the others, a power struggle which can perhaps only then be resolved by installing a meta-purpose (e.g., harmonization of purposes) to rule the hierarchy, a meta-purpose that recapitulates the same exclusive structure. As an alternative to this outcome, the Daodejing can be viewed as initiating a critique of this exclusive structure of purpose itself, for it is this that ends up being undermined in the juxtaposition of purposeful uses of purposelessness on the one hand, and purposeless emergences of purpose on the other. The denial of any single ultimate purpose, the rootedness of all purpose in purposelessness, here shows itself not as the elimination of purpose, but as the allowing of purposes, the source from which they flow and the nourishment that allows them to flourish. The opposite of a world dominated by a single purpose is then not a world with no purpose, but a world manifesting the coexistence of many purposes. The denial of ultimate purpose is not the excising of purpose, but the open door to multiple purposes. Although the purposes trotted out in this ancient text are not all that extensively diverse, being the standard set of the usual human desiderata of the assumed ancient Chinese readership—long life, good government, harmony, order, success, masculinity, adulthood and so on—their groundedness and return to what is beyond any purpose provides a way to relate different purposes to each other, pivoting on the unity of the empty hub which is equally a part of multiple opposed purposes, multiple alternate values.  This step is not explicitly taken in our text; but it is tempting to glimpse in the Daodejing’sempty hub at the center of the thirty spokes (Daodejing 11) a seedling of the thought that develops into the “Axis of Daos” (daoshu 道樞),  the empty center that allows and responds to and even enhances the values of every possible perspective and the transformations from any one of them to any other of them–a move we find set before us in the next great work of classical Daoism, the “Inner Chapters” of the Zhuangzi.

I noted in the Introduction that, in the robust two plus millennia of classical Chinese commentary, no consensus ever emerged with respect to the most basic question about the Daodejing—what its topic or subject matter is, in the most general sense—let alone with respect to the precise points it was trying to make about whatever that subject matter might turn out to be. I offer here the A/B analysis as the minimally discernible position that can accommodate precisely this lack of consensus. It is a general structure that can apply to whatever referent one might construe to be the subject matter: whether what is at issue is ontological or metaphysical claims, political advice, personal health and hygiene, long life and possible immortality, instructions from a deity, managerial skill, theories of natural process, normative ethics or meta-ethical critique, the A/B structure has its application in that sphere. Thus we can leave unresolved the question of what the “actual” subject matter might be.

It should be noted too that on this analysis the text need not be construed as either asserting or denying any claims about the existence of a mysterious entity beyond appearances and conceivability which is the source and sustainer of the world. If some chapters posit such an entity (e.g., Chapters 25 and 52), this need not be taken as a general rubric or premise for every other chapter—indeed, if it were, we might expect to find it placed at the beginning of the text, or at least the beginning of a section of the text, i.e., in the position of Chapters 1 or 38, rather than suddenly plunked down in the middle of a bunch of other topics, turned away from as quickly as it appears. Instead, we take it to be just what it appears to be: one among a vast number of gestures and images exemplifying the more general structure, applying it to a particular area of concern, to a topic that may be of interest to some but not all of its readers. This is how this A/B-Polar Unhewnotics would apply to metaphysics, if one happens to care about metaphysics. If not, here’s how it applies to government, if one cares about that. If not, here’s how it works when looking at wheels and vessels and rooms. The point is the cumulative effect of all these parallel images and structures, taking shape in both their resonating rhymes with one another and in their abrupt disjunctions from one another.

Rather than definitively asserting or denying the existence of any particular metaphysical entity or staking out a specific metaphysical position, the Daodejing opens to us as a fugue of overlapping rhetorical torques that function to redirect our attention toward whatever is at any time and by anyone unnoticed and unthought–or even toward whatever is not clearly seen or thought, or even toward whatever is (though perhaps clearly seen or thought) considered unimportant or valueless. Such redirection of focus would fold in concerns about the existence or non-existence of an ineffable source or ground of the world (insofar as this ineffable source or ground were in any instance unnoticed or not experienced clearly or considered unimportant) just as it would fold in many other concerns. In thus bowing to the actual historical and textual record and more conservatively assessing the range of the text’s definitive claims, we also radically expand its applicability, and also guard against making it into another one of those things (for example, systems of ethics, philosophy, politics) that attempt to produce and enforce universal agreement—those things that, as Chapter Two puts it, try to get all in the world to agree about what is beautiful or good (or, we may add, true), but instead, in the view of this text itself, inevitably increase the strife in the world rather than reducing it, since on this view it is precisely the obsession with universally applicable, consistent, confirmable, maximizable and self-aware Beauty, Goodness, and Truth that destroys whatever there may be of beauty, goodness or truth in human experience. One may either accept or reject a claim about an ineffable source of the world, or about the value of a particular system of government or a specific ethical commitment. In contrast, the claim that there are sometimes some things some people value or attend to less than other things, and that these can often get entrenched into rigid habits of exclusivist attention and valuation—a point that is almost too trivial to state clearly, perhaps even strictly tautological, maybe even an ineluctable condition of possibility of any experience at all–is presumably pretty uncontroversial.[10]




[1] The basic structure of this convenient A/B schema for organizing a coherent approach to the text, though not the conclusions drawn from it, are derived from A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao (LaSalle: Open Court, 1989).

[2] See Chad Hansen, “Chinese Language, Chinese Philosophy, and ‘Truth,'” in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3 (May, 1985), pp. 491-519.

[3] My translation, from Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings, translated by Brook Ziporyn (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2020),  p. 82.

[4] My translation, from Ibid., p. 107.

[5] See for example Aristotle, Metaphysics 1049b17-29.

[6] See A.C. Graham, “Being in Western Philosophy compared with shi/fei and yu/wu in Chinese Philosophy,” in Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).

[7] We may of course first contrast the blossom, as A, to the stem and roots and sprout and seed, as B; we can also then consider this whole flowering plant the A and the surrounding dirt the B, and so on.

[8] Operating and giving forth abundantly through its very emptiness—of humankindness.

[9] The irony and intricacy of this remark, telling us to choose the non-choosing stomach side instead of the choosing eye (or the edible “fruit” instead of the visible “flower” as in Chapter 38, or knowing and cherishing rather than seeing and valuing, as in Chapter 72), is not to be missed. Indeed, “abandon that and choose this” may strike us as an attempt to state in the starkest terms possible exactly what all “A” positions have in common, the very structure of all A-orientation: the choosing of the valued and the exclusion of the disvalued.   As such, we may count it as an example of a technique in this text that we will call “ironic repurposing.” In other instances, this takes the form of the repurposing of what appears to be a pre-existing “straight” saying by this “ironic” community, likely an old saw originally intended to reinforce traditional values, stated verbatim in a new context that reveals a new meaning, indeed precisely the reverse meaning of that originally intended: a discovery of the irony right in the heart of the straight commitments, showing the “B” unsuspectedly lurking in the heart of them, pronounced by them in spite of their conscious intentions, and discernible to the attuned ear.   This would make these of course a beautiful example, built into the very form of the text, of exactly the kind of unseen underpinning of A by B that is its main theme. See “Notes on the Translation” below.

[10]In thus reading the Daodejing as remaining aloof from any definite claims about a metaphysical absolute, we are certainly to some extent distancing it from the “perennial philosophy” category to which it often assimilated, a category in which it would be read as an ancient exemplar of a worldwide consortium of speculations about the ineffable source of the world, or about a superessential but inconceivable divinity “beyond Being” such as is found in many apophatic theologies. Yet we are not going quite as far in this direction as much of what is present in traditional Chinese commentary and in the Daoist canon itself, expressed perhaps most strikingly in the first lines of the Guanyinzi 關尹子–a text now generally judged to have been composed in the Tang dynasty, but traditionally attributed to precisely that mythical ancient Keeper of the Pass who cajoled the sage Laozi into grudgingly composing his classic text, and obviously meant as a commentary to or paraphrase of the first lines of this work’s first chapter.  There we find a much more adamant and definite denial of any such ineffable entity, turning our attention instead to the experience of ineffability itself:  “There is no such thing as Dao that cannot be spoken; unspeakability is itself the Dao.  There is no such thing as Dao that cannot be conceived; inconceivability is itself the Dao.”  非有道不可言,不可言即道。非有道不可思,不可思即道。








4 responses


    Important article I believe concerning taoism generally and what is being touched upon here on the last note. As for the last quote, one could find the same thing expressed in many other places, even in Islam, for example in the famous sentence of Abu Bakr : “The inability to perceive is perception.”

    Thank you for your translations.

  2. Dear Brook,

    Attention moves and shifts from context to context, focusing on the same or a different object, always driven by intentions and specifically driven by desire and aversion. This is the classical model of attention I’ve been wanting to study in more depth. It’s not the one we found in modern thought since Brentano and Husserl. Neither does it coincide fully with the model of attention in ancient Buddhist thought (the only strand I’m familiar with).

    If you’re interested in clarifying their similarities and differences, I would like to ask you to share your view. By the way, on the other side of the screen is typing a student, but with a keen interest in this part of the history of philosophy.

    Many thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts on the Daodejing and Zhuangzi.

    Best regards,

    Hessel beijaard

    • Thanks for your kind comments! I’m delighted it was meaningful to you. Yes, there is a plan to publish the essay along with the translation in a forthcoming paperback edition. When exactly that will happen I am not sure….

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