Hegel on Daoism (Taoism)

Dao generally means "the way," the right way of spirit, i.e., it means "reason." The sect of the Dao occurs already (as we see) in the twelfth century B.C. It was a noteworthy event that the emperor passed over esteemed officers with his rewards; his intention was in a subtle way to put them to one side, to separate them from his other retainers. These gallant officers included masters of the teaching as well as some who were only initiates at a lower level. Seven noble officers had distinguished themselves by particular deeds of valor; in the eyes of the mass of soldiers they were regarded as Shen who had only assumed human bodies, and they presented themselves in that light as well. On a ceremonial day the emperor addressed them, saying he had not forgotten them, that he recognized very well the value of their merits. "Even though you have bodies," he continued, "you are Shen, of that there is no doubt. The outstanding actions that you have performed under my eyes are sufficient proof of that to me. The intention, for the sake of which you returned to the earth, can only be to acquire for yourselves new merits, to disclose new virtues. I can do no better than to put you in a position to practice these virtues, by safeguarding you against the corruption of the times." He therefore determined the mountains to be their residence, where they could spend their remaining time in intimate association with the Shen who no longer have human shape. They were supposed to take with them all who belonged to their sect, all who strove solely to attain immortal life. He made these seven into chiefs over all the mountains of the realm and gave them all rights of dominion over the initiates. Thus they were to apply themselves to the study of the Dao and to the effort to make themselves immortal; together with the other Shen, they were also supposed to acquire information about the secrets of nature that are impenetrable to other human beings. Thus they were separated from actual society.

From this account we see that at that time there was already a class of people who occupied themselves with the inner life, who did not belong to this universal state religion but built up a sect that devoted itself to thinking, withdrew within itself and in its thinking sought to bring to consciousness what the true might be.

Therefore, the next stage of this initial configuration of nature religion—which was this very knowing by immediate self-consciousness of itself as the highest, as the ruling element, i.e., this immediacy of taking immediate willing to be what is highest—is the return of consciousness into itself, the demand that consciousness should be inwardly meditative—and that is the sect of the Dao. Linked with this, in any case, is the fact that human beings who recede into thought or into the inner domain, who applied themselves to the abstraction of thought, have at the same time the intention of being immortal, of being pure sages, of whom some are newly initiated while others have attained the mastery or the goal and already regard themselves as higher essences also with respect to their existence and actuality.

Therefore we already find among the Chinese in antiquity this orientation toward the inner, to the Dao, an orientation to abstractly pure thinking, which orientation constitutes the transition to the second form of nature religion. There occurred in later times a renewal or improvement of the Dao teaching, attributed especially to Lao‑zi, a sage who was somewhat older than Confucius but who lived contemporaneously with Confucius and Pythagoras. Confucius is thoroughly moralistic and no speculative philosopher. Tian, this universal power of nature, which by the emperor's authority is an actuality, is linked to the moral nexus, and Confucius chiefly developed this moral aspect. His teaching coalesced with the state religion. All the mandarins had to have studied Confucius. But the sect of the Dao based itself solely on abstract thinking.

Dao is the universal. It is quite noteworthy that the determination "three" immediately comes into play to the extent that Dao is something rational and concrete. Reason has produced one, one has produced two, two produced three, and three the universe—the same doctrine that we see in Pythagoras. The universe rests upon the dark principle and is at the same time embraced by the bright principle, by light. A spirit or breath unites them, and brings about their harmony and maintains it. The initial determination of the triad is the One, and is called J; the second determination is the Chi or light breathing; the third is Wei, what is sent, the messenger. These three symbols are perhaps not Chinese; one sees in them the three letters J, H, W, and correlates this with the Hebraic tetragram Jehovah, and with the trigram Yao of the Gnostics. The One is the indeterminate, that without characteristics, the impoverished initial abstraction, what is wholly empty. If it is to be internally concrete, to be living, then it must be determinate, and thus it is the Two, and the Third is the totality, the consummation of determinateness. Thus, even in the first efforts of humanity to think in the form of triunity or trinity, we can observe this necessity.­ Unless three determinations are recognized in God, "God" is an empty word. Right at the beginning of thinking we find the very simplest and most abstract determinations of thought. If, from this assertion that the absolute power is, there occurs the progression to the universal, then thinking begins, though the thinking itself is originally quite empty and abstract. Further developments of this relationship are found in Chinese literature. The symbol of the Dao, is on the one hand a triangle, and on the other hand three horizontal lines one above the other, the middle one of which is shortest, with a vertical stroke through all three as a sign that these three are to be grasped essentially as one. In China these symbols are called Gua. The [eight] Gua embody the elements of the higher Chinese reflection.

Thus in the sect of the Dao the beginning consists in passing over into thought, the pure element; but one should not believe that a higher, spiritual religion has established itself in this case. The determinations of the Dao remain complete abstractions, and vitality, consciousness, what is spiritual, do not, so to speak, fall within the Dao itself, but are still completely within the immediate human being. Thus Lao‑zi is also a Shen, or he has appeared as Buddha. The actuality and vitality of the Dao is still the actual, immediate consciousness; in fact, it is even a deceased individual such as Lao‑zi, although it transforms itself into other shapes, into another human being, and it is vitally and actually present in its priests. Just as Tian, this One, is the ruling element, though as this abstract foundation, whereas the emperor is the actuality of this foundation, the one who in fact rules; so the same is the case with the Dao, with the representation of reason. Reason is likewise the abstract foundation that has its actuality for the first time in existing human beings. Since the universal, the higher, is only the abstract foundation, the human being thus abides in it without any properly immanent, fulfilled inner element; one has no inner hold on oneself. One has for the first time a footing within oneself when freedom and rationality emerge, when one has the consciousness of being free and when this freedom elaborates itself as reason. This developed reason provides absolute principles and duties; and people who are themselves conscious of these principles in their freedom and within their conscience—people in whom they are immanent characteristics—have for the first time a footing within themselves, in their conscience. But insofar as human beings find themselves in that preceding relationship, where the absolute is only an abstract foundation, they have no footing within themselves, no immanent, determinate inwardness. For that reason everything external is for them something inward; everything external has significance for them, it has a relation to them, and indeed a practical relation. This relationship is in general the constitution of the state, the circumstances of being ruled from without.


SOURCE: Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Volume II: Determinate Religion. Edited by Peter C. Hodgson; translated by R.F. Brown, P.C. Hodgson, and J.M. Stewart, with the assistance of J.P. Fitzer and H.S. Harris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995 (orig. 1987). (Translation of: Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion.)  This extract (pp. 556-561) is from the Lectures of 1827; A. Immediate Religion, or Nature Religion; 1. The Religion of Magic; c. The State Religion of the Chinese Empire and the Dao.

Note: The footnotes have been stripped from this extract, as have indicators of page numbers and page breaks of the German edition. 

Hegel’s main sources of information were:

Abel-Rémusat, Jean Pierre. Mémoires sur la vie et les opinions de Lao-Tseu. Paris, 1823.

Klaproth, Heinrich Julius. Review of Mémoires sur la origine et la propagation de la dontrine du Tao, fondée  par Lao-tesu, by G. Pauthier. Neaveau Journal Asiatique; ou, Recueil de mémoires, d’extraits et de notices relatifs à l’histoire, à la philosophie, aux langues et à la literatures des peoples orientaux (Paris 7 (1831): 465-493.

Mémoires concernant l’histoire, les sciences, les moeurs, les usages, etc. des Chinois par les missionaries de Pekin. 16 vols. Paris, 1776-1814. Vol. 15 is cited in the editors’ footnotes.

The section in which this extract appears can be found in the cited Hegel volume, pp. 547-562. Daoism is compared with Buddhism (568-9) in the subsequent section of the 1827 lectures: 2. The Religion of Being-Within-Self (Buddhism, Lamaism) (pp. 562-579).

See also in this volume:

The Lectures of 1824: A. Immediate Religion, or Nature Religion; 1. The Religion of Magic; c. The Religion of Ancient China; pp. 299-303.

The Lectures of 1831: 1. Chinese Religion: The Religion of Measure; pp. 729-731.

In addition to the footnotes, additional editorial remarks can be found on pp. 5, 36, 59-60, 76.

See table of contents of the three volumes of this translation.

For other selections from another translation of this work, see: Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, together with a work on the Proofs of the Existence of God, translated from the German by the Rev. E. B. Speirs and J. Burdon Sanderson, 3 vols., Routledge & Kegan Paul; first published 1895.

Also highly relevant is Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 1805-6, trans. E S Haldane, 1892-6: see section on “Oriental Philosophy”.

Also relevant is Hegel’s The Philosophy of History (1837, E. Gans, ed.), based primarily on lectures of 1830-31, with additional material, translated by J. Sibree. See section “The Oriental World”.


Secondary Literature

Articles in English:

Young Kun Kim. "Hegel's Criticism of Chinese Philosophy," Philosophy East and West, vol. 28, 1978, pp. 173-180. Available to subscribers via JSTOR.

Zhang Yunyi. "Philosophy's Predicament and Hegel's Ghost: Reflections on the View That There Is "No Philosophy in China"," Frontiers of Philosophy in China, vol. 2, no. 2, April 2007, pp. 230-246. Available to subscribers via Springer.

Abstract: When Western science was introduced to modern China, more translated words were used to express fundamental concepts and terms than borrowed words. The process of academic translation, commensuration, and communication between Western and Chinese philosophy is a process of comparative philosophical research. Nowadays, however, it seems that Chinese philosophy is evaluated by a Western Hegelian criterion. This leads to the debate over whether or not China has philosophy. But it is meaningless to argue about whether or not China has the name of philosophy. The key issue is whether or not China has the actuality of philosophy. Looking at the history of Western philosophy, it seems that the Hegelian definition of philosophy was the only one that existed in Europe. However, during the last 200 years after Hegel that the two main philosophical trends of positivism (scientism) and irrationalism developed from anti-Hegelianism or "Spurning Metaphysics." As metaphysics is being reconstructed, the ghost of Hegel has reappeared. It is clear that in the future, philosophy will evolve from the development of human metaphysics or cultural philosophy. It is a process of the "negation of negation": from traditional metaphysics to the spurning of metaphysics, and then to human metaphysics.

Articles in other languages:

Lesjak, Gregor. "Hegel and Daodejing" (in Serbo-Croatian), Filozofska Istrazivanja, vol. 29, no. 2, 1989, pp. 607-615.

Abstract: The author deals with two basic problems in this paper. Hegel's interpretation of Chinese philosophy is discussed first, and Hegel's relation towards the oriental religion in general is explored in greater detail. Hegel's understanding of the relation is then connected with the Daodejing's philosophy.

Wohlfart, Gunter. "Hegel und China: Philosophische Bermerkungen zum Chinabild Hegels mit besonderer Berucksichtigung des Laozi," Jahrbuch für Hegelforschung, vol. 3, 1997, pp. 135-155.

Abstract: The text can be divided into six chapters. (1) I make some introductory remarks on German Thinkers on China'. (2) I try to give an outline of Hegel's thoughts about the Orient on the whole. (3) I concentrate on Hegel's reflexions on China. (4) I have a closer look at Hegel's remarks concerning Laozi. (5) I focus on the confrontation of Hegel's separation of nature and freedom on the one hand and the impossibility to separate nature from freedom in Laozi's concept of ziran' (self-so-ing). (6) I close with some final remarks on the necessity of comparative philosophy.


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