Taoism & the Tao of Bourgeois Philosophy

by Ralph Dumain

Review of: Clarke, J. J. The Tao of the West: Western Transformations of Taoist Thought. London; New York: Routledge, 2000.

The game plan

This book contains significant historical information about the history of Daoism (Taoism) in China, but it is really about the uses made of Daoism in the West since Jesuit missionaries first reported on it to their fellow Europeans circa 1700. Clarke discusses various Chinese positions taken on Daoism, but his main task is to outline just about every conceivable position taken on Daoism in the West over the past 300 years.  

The book is quite valuable for the objective information it contains as a contribution to the history of Western philosophy, in its engagement with China. In the abstract, Clarke’s own viewpoint need not interfere with our appreciation of the objective information provided, but his framing of the pros and cons, with the concomitant eventual omission of yet other possible perspectives, may interfere with a coherent evaluation on our part if we allow ourselves to get sucked into his unacceptable framework, his apparent willingness to countenance alternative perspectives notwithstanding.

In relation to our present undertaking, this means that we must necessarily avoid any pretensions at rational closure while at the same time committing ourselves to the critical appraisal of all interpretative strategies, including our own. There is in an important sense no 'outside' to this process, no lofty peak to which we might hope to climb and from which we will be able to view Daoism with completely detached objectivity, and hence no separating out of some primordial and authentic Daoism into whose presence we may hope to be admitted by cutting through the layers of intervening interpretations. And of course the present study is no exception to this reflexive process but is itself just another mirror, one with its own peculiar camber and its own idiosyncratic refractions. It is not a 'view from nowhere', but the view of a white liberal, with pluralist and relativist inclinations, speaking from within the European academy, who nevertheless seeks to transcend its limitations by sighting it from a wider intellectual and cultural perspective. I make Do attempt, therefore, to disguise my own partiality towards Daoism, whether in its traditional forms or in its recent reincarnations in the Western, nor my belief in its importance for us at the present time. To echo a voice which will be heard later in this work, 'I stand in the chain of narratives, a link between links' (Buber 1956: 1). [p. 12]

This of course is the latest fashion among white liberals—reflexivity, or the guilty admission of one’s own subject position as a gesture of putative epistemic honesty. However, as we shall see yet again, people can be hyper-self-conscious and yet remain utterly clueless as to their real presuppositions.

The problem lies in the recurrent pattern. There are Westerners who denigrate Daoism. Then there are those who advocate it as a corrective to the West’s own alleged weaknesses. But is not even the latter stance a projection onto the East of the West’s own subjective needs? Could this too not constitute an aggressive subsumption of the Other, an act of selfish appropriation, of Western cultural imperialism? Clarke replays this scenario again and again.

Clarke begins the book haunted by Edward Said’s critique of ‘orientalism’. Finally, though, Clarke regards this perspective, though useful as an admonition, as itself reductive. So how can Clarke have it both ways? The key to Clarke’s position is to utilize Daoism as a critique of the West while recognizing its Otherness as well, that is, to enter into a dialogic relationship with Daoism, and the key to this maneuver is the hermeneutics of Hans-George Gadamer. [10]

I’m going to jump ahead several chapters, to the end of the penultimate chapter, where Clarke again gives away his whole game, in discussing postmodernism:

At the same time, however, we need to remind ourselves that these putative benefits are not the consequence of credal solidarity, and certainly not of a revamped confidence in universalism or in a new Western-inspired perennial philosophy. The benefits lie more in the tensions and differences that prevail and which continue to place Daoism and contemporary philosophical thinking in a creative counterpoint with each other rather than in comforting unison. Delicate balance is needed here, for there is an all-too-easy passage from fruitful difference to hostile incommensurability, from conversation to conflict, from liberating otherness into repressive toleration. In moving away from old-style universalism which sees all the world's major philosophical systems as expressions of a single underlying metaphysical Truth, with all its attendant Eurocentric implications, we risk gravitating to a view which patronises Daoist thinkers as merely convenient sparring partners in a contemporary philosophical game, one which helps to confirm our current thinking and to beatify our favoured cultural narratives. There is a danger here that, as with our earlier criticism of Hansen, once again we integrate the unsettling foreignness of an oriental way of thinking by assimilating it neatly into our own language game, even if that game— whether it be postmodernism, neopragmatism, or hermeneutics happens itself to be an unsettling counter-discourse. As the contemporary philosopher Hongchu Fu insists, it might simply be misleading to stress certain similarities between the two and to ignore the fact of 'disparate cultural traditions which set deconstruction and Taoism apart' (Fu 1992: 319). Both ways lead us into labyrinths of self-questioning, but while Daoist probing was part of a spiritual-religious quest, with its lighthearted irony tied to a serious soteriological enterprise, postmodernism is a theoretical discourse, a product of academic disputation rather than a pathway towards wisdom or to the enhancement of life and compassion. Deconstructive postmodernism, in spite of its rejection of some central tenets of Enlightenment modernity, its much publicised quarrels with science and its emancipatory instincts, still tends to portray the (constructed) world as inherently banal and aimless, and therefore to exude a kind of scepticism that leads to cynicism and even despair rather than to wisdom or spiritual growth. [p. 193]

Clarke’s concluding statement is of course correct, that the ancient Daoists could not possibly have been interested in self-referential language games, but he still wants to utilize Daoism in pursuit of such games, wearing his white liberal guilt on his sleeve at the same time, paying lip service to the Other, difference, and traditions. But rejecting universalism and respecting difference and different traditions is a fraudulent position. And there are other ways of placing Daoism within a universalist framework, respecting its contributions and calibrating its limitations. This, bourgeois philosophy cannot do. But I am getting ahead of myself. First, we must plow through the book.

Origins, demarcations, dissemination

Chapter 2 informs us of the fundamental difficulties in defining our subject matter. First, there is no simple historical origin for Daoism. The different philosophical and religious traditions within China can no more be clearly separated from one another than they can be merged into one seamless whole (as acrimony is also part of the history). There is a history in the West, but also in China, of distinguishing between philosophical and religious Daoism, but historically there is no clear separation, and even the Chinese distinction (Daojia / Daojiao) does not correspond exactly to the Western philosophy/religion distinction [22].

Western engagement with Daoism is rather different from other Western encounters with Asian religions and mysticisms. Daoism was not used as a buttress of Western imperialism, and Daoism was long marginalized in the West. The Chinese had a hand in the mischief as well, as Confucians were in league with the Jesuits, who used them for their own imperial ambitions, against Daoism. Chapter 3 gives a capsule summary of Western reception.

The Jesuit Matteo Ricci was the first major conduit of Chinese philosophy to Europe. His ambition was to use Confucianism as a bridge for the advance of Catholicism into China. On the other hand, Voltaire portrayed Confucianism as deistic and favorably opposed it to Catholicism. Leibniz sought a solution for religious discord. There is an historical dispute over whether Leibniz’s organicist monadology was influenced by Chinese thought.

The foregoing exhibits a recurrent pattern of alternating valuation and disparagement of things Chinese. On the downside, China was viewed as corrupt, or static (e.g. in Weber’s sociological theory). Chinese Studies was founded early in the 19th century, which was also an age of Western imperial ambitions.

One historical problem is that Daoism was received as a primarily textual object, not a living tradition. [50] The one Daoist text the Jesuits thought worthy of publication was the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), which they translated into Latin. The French orientalists of the 19th century were the first to take a serious scholarly interest. English and German editions followed, and a variety of interpretations ensued. [54] Of course, interpretations were already filtered through various biases, beginning with Catholic and then Protestant missionaries. James Legge, a pioneer translator, was also a Protestant missionary, and one of those inclined to dismiss popular Daoism. [44] Paul Carus saw Daoism as a model of religious universalism and toleration. [47] Other pioneers of Western scholarly appropriation include Henri Maspero, and in the 20th century, Martin Buber, Richard Wilhelm, and Martin Heidegger. Problems of translation as well as variety of interpretation are legion. The other major text, the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), was ignored by the Jesuits and French philosophes. It was translated into German in 1870 and into English in 1881.

Cosmology, natural philosophy, science

Clarke begins with a description of contemporary chaos theory, and reviews the argument that current scientific work on chaos, complexity, and self-organizing systems, with their emphasis on becoming and process, are in accord with Daoism. The bugbear here is mechanistic science. Daoism is seen as akin to Whitehead’s process metaphysics. [66]

There are recurrent disputes over the value of Chinese science. Its cosmology is based on correlative�thinking (systems of correspondences). [69] Some see this as proof of the primitive state of Chinese scientific thought. Whitehead himself did not think much of Chinese science. Many have been attracted to the yin/yang concept, Jung, for example. [73] And of course there is the rash of books such as Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. [75-76]

Daoism has also played a significant ideological role in environmentalism and ecofeminism, and there is the current rage over feng shui.

Joseph Needham plays a special part in this story. He was a prominent biochemist and Marxist, but also an organicist, a member of the Teilhard de Chardin Society, and an Anglican! [207] He is also famous for his multi-volume work Science and Civilisation in China. His work advocates the importance of Chinese science and the importance of Daoism in it. [76-79] Needham advocated the thesis that Leibniz was influenced by Chinese thought. [40-41, 70] Needham emphasized the basic incompatibility of Daoism with Western theism. [67] Daoism’s anti-transcendental empirical mysticism, as opposed to Confucian scholasticism, fostered the development of science (analogous to the struggle against scholasticism in Europe). [147-148] Needham saw parallels between Chinese correlative thinking and western organicist thought as an alternative to mechanism, and was sympathetic to the Chinese cosmological five-element theory. [70-71] Needham was not terribly sympathetic to the I Ching [61], uncharacteristic of his usual advocacy. He defended Daoist sexual practices while dismissing the theory behind them. [131] But Needham also lamented the dismissal of Daoism as superstition and the underestimation of its contribution to science. [74] He was even willing to speculate on the possibility that Chinese science could have bypassed the mechanistic stage en route to contemporary scientific developments. He attributed the failure of Chinese science to advance to the stage of modern science to sociological rather than philosophical causes. [78-79] He thought that Daoism would play a significant role in the philosophy of the future. [209]

Needham was eager to place China on a comparable footing with the West. Some nonetheless criticize him for measuring Chinese science and culture by Western standards. Other critics argue that Daoist ‘science’ is totally at variance with modern science. Still others argue that Daoist ‘naturalism’ has little in common with Western organicism. One should also not exaggerate the case that the Chinese were devoid of concepts of natural law, even sans an external Lawgiver. [79-81]

Clarke cites other criticisms raised against Western claims in general. Chinese thought was not entirely devoid of tendencies towards transcendence and creationism. [67-68] Doubts are raised about naturalism and environmentalism. [85] Actual historical Chinese practices are at odds with contemporary environmentalism. [87] And Daoism is after all a pre-modern phenomenon, hence modern interpretations are suspect. [88]

An interesting paradox is raised, which recurs in the chapter on morality: how is it possible to be unnatural, not to follow nature? [86, 100-101]

I want to raise another issue with Needham as my takeoff point. At various points in the book, Clarke discusses the Romantic affinity to Daoism. (Romanticism’s opposition to the Enlightenment re-emerges as a recurrent duality in Western thought to the present day.) However, he fails to criticize the dichotomy he consistently tacitly upholds: mechanism vs. organicism. Whether or not Daoism is really organicist in nature, its deployment by organicist thinkers—Romantics, process philosophers, etc.—is a symptom of a real problem. How curious it is that Needham was not only a scientist and a Marxist but an organicist who adhered to so many questionable ideas. Though it is not mentioned in this book, Needham also played a role in the history of the concept of emergent properties. Marxism is customarily opposed to organicism, though it too has a history of allegiance to the concept of emergence, and has had some crypto-organicist tendencies, perhaps because of its corruption by Stalinism and third world nationalism. When Soviet philosophy was put on a more professional basis in the 1960s, it was necessary to combat certain superficial arguments against mechanism and reductionism. The overall point, though, is that Clarke fails to challenge this dichotomy of mechanism and organicism (which roughly corresponds to scientism vs. Romanticism and positivism vs. lebensphilosophie), which functions as the backbone of the philosophical dualisms that plague bourgeois philosophy. Both the East-West dichotomy and all the attempts to transcend it are also a staple of bourgeois philosophy. In order to effect this schematic dichotomy, it is necessary to suppress a good deal of intellectual and real history—those who know the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ do not know Hegel, Marx, or Engels, to begin with.

Morality & politics

Daoism has been variously accused of quietism, individualism, and amoralism.� On the other hand, a virtue of the Daoist approach is its skepticism towards conventional morality. The question of relativism is raised, and here there is a comparison with Nietzsche. [94-95] The ethical emphasis of Daoism seems to be on self-cultivation.

Historically, Daoism’s role in the state underestimated, as Confucianism’s conservatism is overestimated. [103]. Daoism has a politically subversive history. [104-105] Some see it as an anarchist philosophy [106], but there is also a preoccupation with statecraft. [107] It has contemporary associations with primitive communitarianism [108] and pacifism [109].

Gender politics is then considered. There are arguments for and against Daoism’s feminist implications. There was relative egalitarianism in the Daoist ranks.

Alchemy & other practices

Chapter 6 concerns alchemy, immortality, sex, and health. Both the preoccupation and philosophy behind the notion of physical immortality are analyzed. Chinese alchemy is analyzed, along with the contribution of Carl Jung to its interpretation [126-128], emphasizing the distinction between internal and external alchemy. Daoism has a distinct meditation (‘yoga’) practice, only lately imported to the West. There are also visualization techniques which have received attention. Daoist sexology is debated—the nature of the practices, their spiritual nature, attitude toward women, etc. Martial arts and other health practices are now well known. Finally, skepticism about the notion of ‘holism’ is noted. [138]


Chapter 7 summarizes the debates on transcendence: is Daoism mystical—yes/no, pro/con. Is Daoism another instance of a perennial philosophy or does it have characteristics peculiar to it? Among Western interpreters, Thomas Merton and Martin Buber played historical roles in promoting Daoist ideas. Clarke argues for a unique Daoist mysticism [146], which is this-worldly, emphasizing personal transformation, non-transcendental, everyday experience, and nature mysticism. Chinese landscape painting is discussed at length.

As usual, the chapter ends with caveats. Is transcendentalism absent from Chinese thought? Is the postmodern interpretation of Hall and Ames and their ilk a delusion? [164]

Philosophical trends

In chapter 8, Clarke’s intellectual bankruptcy emerges full-blown, for here is where his sympathies for contemporary irrationalism come to the fore. But first, he confronts the historical prejudice that Chinese thought is inherently anti-philosophical and non-rational, often attributed to the character of the Chinese language. Chad Hansen approaches Chinese philosophy via differential approaches to discourse: Confucianism is conventionalist and conformist, while Daoism operates with a distrust of conventional discourse. Furthermore, Daoism is usable in the critique of Western philosophy, and is resonant with modern linguistic philosophy. Hansen is unabashedly pro-Wittgenstein. But to his credit, Clarke cites the skeptical counterarguments. And what does linguistic philosophy have to do with spiritual purification? [169-170] But Clarke doesn’t stop; he continues with the alleged crisis of Western philosophy, postmodernism, Rorty, and Heidegger.

Heidegger proves to be a pivotal figure here too, and it turns out that he was inspired in a major way by Daoism and Zen. [172-175]

Clarke then addresses the question of relativism and skepticism. Clarke critically analyzes the claim that Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) was a relativist. [177-179] Clarke also wonders whether Chinese ‘skepticism’ is different from skepticism in the West. [180] While imputations of relativism and skepticism cause existential and moral panics in the West, the Chinese case suggests that there is no need for such anxiety.

Finally, we come to postmodernism and an extended discussion of Derrida and Rorty. Derrida sees Chinese thought as non-logocentric. [188] Rorty rejects rational argument and calls for different styles of discourse. Others deem Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) a kindred spirit to this project. While irony is discussed, the possible difference between the purpose it served for the Chinese Daoists and what it means as the plaything of the deconstructionists is inadequately addressed. Clarke showers this project with compliments, but concludes with his usual caveat. I’ve already cited and discussed his weaseling on p. 193, which epitomizes his master strategy.

Clarke’s conclusions

Clarke takes a 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, about a pilgrimage to India led by the trickster Monkey King, as a parable for the Western engagement with Daoism: is this a serious quest or an empty joke? The ‘Tao’ is now part of popular culture, but is it anything more than an arbitrary projection? As a rebellion against modernity, could this fascination not have a dark, politically reactionary side? [196-197] Clarke ponders with remarkable candor:

Moreover, the nostalgic utopianism of Daoism—if we take its primitivism literally—which appears to favour a distant mythical past over the present, combined with a certain irrationalist and messianic mysticism, carries more sinister connotations. We have already drawn attention to the possibility that Daoism implies a form of amoralism, an apparent elevation of self-realisation above social solidarity and moral responsibility, which is open to exploitation for all sorts of undesirable ends, and that its supposed relativism can lead to moral indifferentism. At the level of the individual this attitude, especially evident in the cultivation of an inner spontaneity, may have unfortunate consequences; at the political level in the hands of a ruler who sees himself as above right and wrong, beyond good and evil, or as a species of romantic national self-realisation, the consequences could be catastrophic. We must inevitably ask, therefore, whether Daoism in the modern context could offer a subtle and seductive pathway towards the sort of irrationalist politics which fears critical thinking and seeks to return to an organic unity wherein the individual is lost to the demands of the whole or to the visions of a charismatic leader. The liaison, albeit brief, between Daoism and Legalism in the period of Warring States gives some historical substance to this fear. This seemingly unlikely conjunction might be seen as a portentous foreshadowing of certain forms of twentieth-century fascism in its identification of the sage ruler's vision with the natural order of things, the eternal ground which transcends the contingent needs and desires of individuals, a General Will which is validated by Nature itself.

Also troubling is the notion that the Daoist world 'is above all the world of nature rather than that of society' (Robinet 1998: 20), and that, despite its involvement in the wider political and cultural life of China, its concern with human life is submerged in a preoccupation with a larger, all-encompassing whole. As with certain criticisms levelled by feminists at Deep Ecology, Daoism might be seen as advocating a somewhat abstract, even esoteric love of nature while discounting the importance of the love that is cultivated through personal relationships, and as obliterating the value of the individual in favour of a greater cosmic totality (Plumwood 1993).

These anti-modernist, anti-democratic fears are enhanced by the interest shown in Daoism by a philosopher such as Heidegger. His criticism of the modern world led him to reject many of the key assumptions that are associated with the European Enlightenment, and for a while at least he came to identify the 'disclosure of Being' with the aims of the Nazi revolution. Such an association hardly amounts to a condemnation of Daoism, and indeed its robust individualism, its anarchist radicalism and its decentralist, anti-statist tendencies may prove liberating in ways that we have already indicated. But, as with the support given by Zen Buddhism (itself a part-product of Daoism) to militaristic nationalism in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, it warns us against the seductive assumption that Eastern wisdom is entirely unproblematic from a contemporary political and moral point of view (Heisig and Maraldo 1994). Political philosophies in the West with irrationalist and organicist tendencies have often proved to have powerful reactionary and oppressive implications, and we need to remain alert to the possible misuse of Daoism in a contemporary Western environment where democratic ideals can no longer be taken for granted.

These worries, it must be added, are not directed towards Daoist ways of life in their traditional setting which, leaving aside the brief association with Legalism, have not displayed any of these fascist or collectivist tendencies, but rather against their possible misuse in their Western re-embodiment. [197-198]

Clarke’s main concern, though, is with the West’s ‘orientalism’, pulling the strings of its pretended dialogue and exploiting Daoism as a resource for its own needs. [198-200] But in the end Clarke doesn’t let these worries stop him. More qualifications follow, but Daoism still serves as a counterweight to Western narcissism and serves a countercultural function. [200] More Gadamer. The ‘hermeneutics of difference’ can even serve to conserve the Other’s traditions and indigenous practices. [201] Clarke speaks the language of postmodern particularism:

Eurocentric attitudes, and the espousal of a more pluralist and decentered approach to human cultures, evident for example in the burgeoning fields of postcolonial and subaltern studies. In opposition to the universalism of modernist discourse, there has been a marked shift in recent years towards the valorisation of indigenous cultural forms and vernacular idioms, an affirmation of the importance of hitherto undervalued and marginalised practices and beliefs. Moreover, taking a view from a broader perspective, it is increasingly recognised by critics in this field that the whole orientalist phenomenon, hitherto often seen as a monolithic process of oppression carried out by the West at the expense of the East, has been a highly complex process in which currents of power and influence have operated in both directions (Young 1990: 148f17, King 1999: ch. 9).

There is of course a blurred boundary between exploitation on the one hand and creative transformation on the other. However, the issue of cultural conservation, with its inescapable ambivalences, should not obscure the growing importance of Daoism in the world beyond its ancestral homeland, nor deter us from celebrating and amplifying its global impact at the present time. As we have emphasised throughout this book, Daoism has no single, unitary essence but enjoys a polychromatic richness that has been subject to constant renewal, reinterpretation and proliferation throughout its long history in China. [202]

The language of multiculturalism. Sickening! Yes, cultures are not hermetically sealed, but this framework, with the rhetoric of respecting difference and the pretense of not absolutizing it, is false and deeply conservative. His categories are still ‘East’ and ‘West’, not class society and rational universal progress. Clarke feels guilty about slumming, but ultimately, that is what the white liberal mentality consists of. It is not rational or radical in its shunning of a critical universalistic perspective:

This is the spirit in which I believe we need to approach Daoism at the present time: respectful of its traditions and anxious to honour and help preserve them, to study and interpret them in their original context, while at the same time appreciating these traditions as, 'Relevant to ever new ways of thought and going along with continuously changing times' (Kohn 199la: 226). William de Bary is surely right when he insists that 'no tradition . . . can survive untransformed in the crucible of global struggle' (198 8: 138), and we need to accept that Daoism has gained a new, and inevitably different, life of its own in the modern world. It is a life in which Daoism will no doubt interact creatively with non-Chinese traditions of thought in ways similar to those which have characterised its earlier productive relationships with the other ancient traditions of China, India and Japan, and which will progressively involve scholars, writers and practitioners of all kinds from both Asia and the West. [203]

This chapter’s final section, ‘Beyond Daoism’, heaps on the noxious rhetoric. Daoist temples can now be found in the West, but we cannot inhabit another culture. [204] Still, Daoism can serve towards a reevaluation of Eurocentrism and Western orthodoxies. It is a valuable challenge to technology and Enlightenment thinking. [206] More rhetoric about nature and ecology. [207] Clarke places himself in the irrationalist camp:

In the first half of the twentieth century, where the influence of positivism meant that traditional religious systems from remote parts of the globe could conveniently be ignored, Daoism had little place. But in recent years the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and our times are marked by a retreat from the certainties sought by positivists, and a compensating emphasis in science, philosophy and literature on unpredictability, disorder. incommensurability and a suspicion of the truth-telling power of language. In the previous chapters, we have noted in various ways not only the importance of Chinese ideas in the emerging ecumenism of philosophical hermeneutics, but the relevance of this intercultural discourse to contemporary philosophical interest in issues concerning self, truth and gender identity, and of course in general to postmodern critiques of the Western Enlightenment project. The impact of Asian thought has long been felt, if only marginally, in the West's struggle with the nihilistic mood that arose both out of and in reaction to modernism. Earlier, it was Hinduism and Buddhism that entered into this dialectic. Now it is the turn of Daoism, with its robust sense of finitude and its romantic healing of our relationship with the natural and the ordinary, to help find a way beyond nihilism without having recourse to narratives of transcendence. [208]

Clarke ponders the prominent role of Asia in the coming globalized century. He eschews a universal global perspective but favors divergence and harmonious co-existence of different beliefs and ways of being. Pluralism is the watchword, along with the Green hopes of peace with nature and other species. [209-210] What drivel!

My conclusions

At various points I have interjected criticism of Clarke’s fundamental assumptions—the East-West dichotomy, rejection of universalism in favor of difference and pluralism, the mechanism-organicism dichotomy (which pairs with Enlightenment/Romanticism, scientism/Romanticism, positivism/lebensphilosophie, and other analogous formulations). The one orthodoxy Clarke preserves is the postmodernist orthodoxy, the last bastion of a dying liberalism. For all of the guilty self-consciousness and anxiety about projection of the narcissistic self on to the Other, Clarke is blind to any possible perspective transcending or rejecting this dilemma. All the pros and cons and pluralist posturing add up to nothing, for, when Clarke ventures beyond strict documentation of various positions to evaluation, he fails to take a solid position on the Daoist approach to language, science, cosmology, morality, politics, and personal transformation. Lacking a coherent evaluation of the original ideas, and refusing to take a coherent stand on contemporary reality, how can anyone intelligently evaluate the applicability of Daoist ideas today?

By placing Daoism in Western intellectual history, Clarke unwittingly adds to our historical picture of the ultimate dead-end to which bourgeois thought has arrived. Daoism takes its place in the irresolvable ideological dichotomies of bourgeois society, and its advocates are unable to advance beyond them.

Clarke is unable to sort out the mess he dumps on us. How do we finally separate and interrelate the components of philosophical Daoism, religious and magical Daoism, physiological practices, spiritual practices, personal transformation, morality, and politics, and sift out the usable ideas from the superstitious and reactionary ones? The vacuous feelgood rhetoric about process, nature, pluralism, environmentalism and the like, is an expression, not of Western privilege, but of bourgeois privilege, useless to anyone anywhere in the world regardless of cultural background. All of this rhetoric, all of this ideological static, is, as Clarke himself half-heartedly confesses, at variance with what was valuable in the spirit of what philosophical Daoism tried to accomplish in its original setting. Discounting the superstitious, nonscientific cosmology and the obsolete feudal assumptions, what is left to us? Sadly, Clarke leaves us in the dark as to the subsequent development of Daoist ontology and epistemology in China itself, especially as Daoism entered a more logically elaborated stage in the ‘Neo-Daoist’ period. By historical examination of this logical development we could learn of the potentials and limitations of the original ideas couched in the less logically explicit, poetic language of image, metaphor, irony, and parable. We can respect aspects of this sensibility—the intuitive dialectic of being and non-being, of actuality and potentiality, of the indeterminate and determinate, the spirit of negation, defamiliarization of empirical reality, the ironic perspective based on the need for cunning strategic maneuvering in a restricted, contradictory, treacherous world. There is an intuitive appeal here, but it cannot stand on its own, especially not in the contemporary world where we need to know so much more and have evolved knowledge and perspectives a pre-modern society could never have dreamed of.

How to we put these two scenarios together—the ancient Chinese and the contemporary global situations? Clarke is wrong about the potential of Daoism for the future. For Daoism already displayed all of its critical potential in the countercultural 1970s. I lived through that period and discerned the limitations of that kind of thinking by the time the decade was out. There was a certain plausibility to New Age ideas based on the sensibility of the time and limited access to historical information and more sophisticated philosophical concepts. It is remarkable, I think, how the ‘essentialism’ of New Age thought managed to morph into the postmodernism that took root in the academy of the ’70s while the counterculture had not yet discovered it. Since then we have witnessed a quarter century of cultural disintegration, which neither Daoism nor postmodernism is equipped to rectify. Incoherence is a disguise for ideological bankruptcy. Irrationalism is no solution, nor is the rhetoric of pluralism and diversity. The Dao of bourgeois thought has come to a dead end.

Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), a new translation
reviewed by R. Dumain

Discussion topic: Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching)
[The Book of the Way and Its Nature/Power/Virtue], foundational text of Taoism (Daoism)

(June 9, 2005)

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