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Lao Tzu and modern western philosophy.

IMAGINE that the masterpiece of one of the fathers of philosophy -- say, Aristotle -- has been rediscovered in a copy made only fifty years after the sage's death, leap-frogging millennia of duplication, distortion and texual corruption. Imagine that this work is one of the world's best-loved classics, translated into many languages, read by millions. Imagine further that it gives a unique perspective on some of the most urgent concerns of modern thought.

Hence the excitement when, in 1973, archaeologists found two copies of the Lao-Tzu, the ancient philosophical treatise, in a hoard of silk manuscripts disinterred from a Han dynasty tomb at Ma-wang-tui, southern central China. Internal evidence dated the earlier copy to 206-194 BC, only some fifty years after the work's existence is first attested and predating all extant versions by at least two centuries. Furthermore, these later variants were transmitted through countless intervening copies, with much scope for corruption.

Transcriptions of the Ma-wang-tui Lao-Tzu were published in China from 1974 onwards. D. C. Lau, the noted translator responsible for the Penguin Classics edition of the Tao-Te-Ching, published an English version in Hong Kong in 1982. Now transcriptions of both scrolls have been published, together with notes and a lucid, concise parallel translation, in a handy and cheap paperback edition (Lao-Tzu, Te-Tao-Ching, translated and edited by Robert G. Henricks, Rider, 1991), bringing the general reader up to date with this revolution in sinology.

The Ma-wang-tui manuscripts differ substantially in structure, though not in meaning, from the canonical editions. They are unbroken texts, without the traditional division into 81 short chapters, which must now be taken as a later editorial convention. Some passages fall in a different order to the accepted sequence. Furthermore, the two halves (Tao and Te) into which the work is usually divided are trasnpored, so that the Lao-Tzu's other common title, Tao-Te-Ching, becomes Te-Tao-Ching. One proposed explanation is that two versions were in circulation around 200 BC; one of which commenced with the second, slightly more political section. Another is that the copyist responsible for the Ma-wang-tui texts simply switched the two parts by mistake. Overall, though, the Ma-wang-tui Lao-Tzu presents the same arguments as the later standard variants; only somewhat more clearly, thanks to the greater use of grammatical particles in archaic written Chinese.

What is this work, then; what does it say? It is the most popular book ever written in Chinese, almost as widely disseminated as the Bible. Its anonymous author, who lived around the third century BC, hid behind the name of Lao Tzu, a semi-mythical sage said to have instructed Confucius. It is addressed by implication to a Sage-King, although its contents range far from statecraft. The late Professor Angus Graham called it |a long philosophical poem or poem cycle, much of it rhymed'; he then went on to say |The question "What is it about?" is however not necessarily any more relevant to the Lao-Tzu to other poetry'. Facets of it reflect on politics, economics, stategy and technology as well as on philosophy and mysticism. Its central theme, though, is how to find and keep to the Way: the Tao of Tao-Te-Ching, a word with roughly the same meanings as the English |way'.

The Way was the goal of all Chinese philosophical enquiry; it was the way to live. Where the Greeks asked |How shall a man live?', the Chinese asked |What is the Way?' As with the Greeks, the Chinese began the search for the Way in the sphere of human public life. Confucius used Tao to denote the proper course for the gentleman to follow through the political and social life which, again like the Greeks, he saw as fundamental to man. Central to his theme was the |correction of names'. Names must be clarified so as to fit them properly to what they named; for discrepancies between name and named confused and misled men. So murder must be called murder, as distinct from execution or death in battle. But in the four centuries which followed, the meaning of Tao broadened to embrace the order of the natural world, fate and the heavens. So it was that the Lao-Tzu author could begin the section Tao by declaring:

The Way that can be spoken is not the constant Way;

the name that can be named is not the constant name. (1)

This opening couplet does not say that the Way cannot be put into words (|spoken' here is actually a verbal use of Tao, meaning |to call/show as the Way'). It means what it says: the Way can partly be rendered into words, but that is never the whole Way, for name and named always diverge.

Already we touch on Lao-Tzu's relevance to modern Western philosophy. Clearly such a dictum is antithetical to the idea of the Logos: the universal order embodied in logic; the Word. Yet Heidegger traced the etymology of logos back to a root meaning, |collection', |order', and in so doing demonstrated how Western thought had developed a constitutional bias towards transcendentalism: a bias defined by certain sinologists as dividing all things into oppositions of A and B in which A is felt to transcend B. Plato's ontology of the Ideas is the firs step down that road, for it critically locates the Logos in the word, not the world, which is seen as a disorderly shadowplay obscuring a higher sphere of primary reality whose order is only clarified in language, and especially in the refined, orderly discourse of logic.

It is the reaction against what Professor Graham characterized as the Western tradition of |seeking necessary truths by logic for some 2,000 years' which stimulates so much modern philosophy and makes the Lao-Tzu so pertinent. For the Chinese philosopher maintains that logic -- a human enterprise--can do no more than reflect a tiny portion of a truly universal order of things. The most fertile fields of contemporary thought, those marked out by Heidegger and Wittgenstein, similarly are founded on the premise that Reason -- as systematized by Plato and Aristole -- cannot be the final arbiter of Truth, simply because its categories are either constitutional, or arbitrary. Heidegger especially focused his criticism on Descartes' cogito ergo sum -- a formulation already weakened by Nietzsche's remorseless exposure of the half-dozen assumptions under-pinning this supposedly necessary and self-evident truth. Heidegger took it as near blasphemy to maintain that though could be set up as the judge of existence. Yet Descartes had only summed up in three words the gist of two millennia of Western philosophy and theology. To quote Heidegger. |The fundamental metaphysical position of Descartes is taken over historically from the Platonic-Aristotelian metaphysics'.

Chinese though never took this particular road. No mind/matter split ever developed in the classical Chinese world-view. The word which comes closets to |matter' in Chinese cosmology, chi, orginally meant breath, and defined a universal ether resembling Einsteinian mass/energy, condensing to form objects and rarefying to make up spirits; whereas the root etymology of |matter' is the Latin word for dead wood. When the Chinese postulated paired opposites, they usually saw them as mutually defining; unlike Western dichotomies like mind/body, unextended/extended, ideal/real, where one was felt to transcend the other.

One factor shaping the evolution of Chinese thought was the Chinese language, |perhaps nearer to symbolic logic than any other language' (Graham). All surviving philosophical traditions, except for those in the Chinese ambit, have evolved in or been influenced by Indo-European cultures. Therefore, all philosophies except the Chinese have been affected by such oddities as the confusion, in Indo-European tongues, of existence with essence: the |that it is' of a thing with the |what it is' exhibited in the copulative relation |this cat is black'. Plato, falling into this trap, declared that if X is lighten than Y therefore X is. The Indo-European copula is a displacement of the existential |is' to fill a space in sentences which grammically require a main verb but logically do not. In Chinese, the essence of a thing, its ch'ing, is that which makes its name fit it; it has no other relation to being per se. Even Plato devised a similar definition: Socrates says in the Theaetetus, |everything that exists in its own right can only be named, no other determination is possible, neither that it is nor that it is not'. Yet it took Aristole to disentangle Plato's confusion of essence with existence -- which can only be rendered into Chinese at all by new coinages made far vaguer than their native equivalents. Heidegger located the first |forgetting of Being', which he regarded as critical to the subsequent intellectual position of the West, in the grammar of the Homeric eon, which could represent either the infinitive of the verb |to be, or a transcendent entity, a supreme being.

Another built-in safeguard in Chinese philosophical language is the behavior of nominalized verbs. The English |Meaning' -- or any similarly nominalized entity -- takes on a life of its own thanks to the change in form from the verb which sired it: a third term appears midway between |A word' and |means', an entity often assimilated to the transcendent realm of Pure Forms. In Chinese, a verb standing in a nominal position does not change form: no third entity is created.

A broader basis for the stance which led to Lao-Tzu has recently been distinguished by sinologists: that the Western world-view tends to begin with parts and add these up into a whole; whereas the Chinese start with the whole and then divide down. This process of divisionis associated by the Chinese with naming; making distinctions; delineating categories. By unlearning such differentations one could, in theory, work back to an unmediated apprehension of a primal unit: the Way; the Uncarved Block of Taoist terminology. Opposites, demarcations, even right and wrong, all hide and detract from the Way:

The common people discminate and make fine distinctions;

I alone am muddled and confused.

Formless am I! Like the ocean. (20) One finds the Way by suspending the operation of distinctions, names -- even the name |Way' which itself equally obscures:

It can be regarded as the mother of Heaven and Earth.

I do not yet know its name;

I |style' it |the Way' (25)

Wittgenstein approached such a position in eschewing saying for showing, in locating truth in what was rather than what could be said. similarly, Heidegger exalted the wordless skill with which a craftsman appropriates the ready-to-hand, and dismantled the verbal constructs -- often worked up from incorrect transpositions from the Greek -- that shored Western thought. Derrida followed this lead in reversing the usual oppositions within the Western tradition; as in the Lao-Tzu:

The purest white appears to be soiled (41)

All this might be merely scholarly diversion, save that it has more immediate point. Questions of being, meaning and truth in a modern Western context embrace of values, ethics, and in particular the crisis of the |devaluation of all values' identified by Nietzsche. Descartes' starting question, |How I know I exist?', remained unanswered by Descartes or anyone else in a manner that couls ensure cerntainty for the extended world. |Through Descartes, realism is first put in the position of having to prove the reality of the outer world' (Heidegger). Once again we see why Wittgenstein insisted on showing, not saying; on the importance of philosophy unlearning such questions, whose conceptual sleight of hand is hidden by grammatical plausibility. While Cartesian faith in Reason remained unchallenged, all truths, including moral verities, were held to inhere in the realm of the unextended, not in the contingent outer world. Truth remained not a matter of demonstration, but of sustained faith in the argument from the cogito.

Furtheremore, Cartesianism armed this world-denying doubt with the fruits of technological progress. Once again, Heidegger: |Machine technology remains up to now the most visible outgrowth of the essence of modern technology, which is identical with the essence of modern metaphysics'. Cartesianism stressed the calculable: that part of existence which could bee determined by the mathematical law which had become the creed's sole criterion of truth. This stress provoked many -- not least Descartes -- to enormously extend man's ability to calculate. Up until around the seventeenth century. Chinese mathematics and technology had been far in advance of the West, owing in part to a Taoist openness to phenomena. Cartesianism reinforced the Christian concept of a material world subject to a rational soul, and in so doing liberated the Western mind from moral inhibition of enquiry at the same time as it furnished both means and motive for such enquiry: and the West leapt ahead.

Yet the flaws in the Cartesian world-view, unhealed, have now grown into fissures in Western culture that have already almost brought it crashing down. The incalculable, which soon turned out to include the moral and political arts that regulate human community, has been relegated for centuries to the status of fiction. Moral and political thought in the West have yet to match the astonishing development of science and technology: if anything, they have regressed to the materialism, reductionism and rank nihilism so prevalent throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, Descartes, who had invoked Reason to prove the necessity of God, ended by requiring God to sustain Reason. That is, the Platonic structure inherent in Cartesianism required that transcendent realm identified with God, and as faith in its existence declined, so did faith in Reason, Truth and the Good. Kant was only the first to demand that Reason should derive its truth not from its own order but from the world. Today, the sciences nurtured by Cartesianism have spawned relativity, quantum uncertainty, chaos theory: all of them inimical to the goal of a completely calculable cosmos posited by Descartes and embodying principles of paradox and uncertainty quite alien to the traditional form of Reason.

Ethics and politics in the West are still unregenerate. Nationalism, Communism, fascism, and other ideologies have convulsed Europe for two centuries. In each case, the creed carries over procedures of faith, of self-consistency, of ultimate ends that override lesser goods, characteristic of the transcendent bias of both Christianity and the moral ideals beloved of Western philosophers. The habit of belief, of crediting particular ideas, has become so ingrained that men are willing to go to any extreme rather than face nihilism which appears to be the only alternative. Furthermore, the current calm in these waters is simply that of exhaustion: the tides still flow. The second Holocaust -- or the final Revolution, call it what you will -- has only been postponed.

If this is a genuine problem, what might a solution look like? Lao-Tzu is one model, a way of though freed from the constituent weakness of our Western culture. Yet one need not abandon oneself to Chinese philosophy, however valuable the perspective it affords on our own. The Western tradition has the vitality to regenerate itself. Take, for instance, Wittgenstein's conclusion to his thoughts on how to gauge the genuineness of expressions of feeling: |What one acquires here is not a technique: one learns correct judgements. There are also rules, but they do not form a system and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating-rules'. Or, to quote a recent review in The Times Literary Supplement, |human affairs can be at best understood, and never "explainedz", in the sense given to that term by philosophers of science. . . Success in history and the social sciences alike "consists in understanding more and knowing less".' And Heidegger's conclusion, arrived at via thought processes which constantly employed metaphors of the path, or the trail, was Alles ist Weg (|all is the way, or wayfaring').

Let Professor Graham have the last word on Lao-Tzu: |Perhaps Lao-Tzu's Way is how [truth] will look to us when we are no longer haunted by the ghost of that transcendent Reality'. Not that the book offers answers: seeking absolute answers is one bad habit that the West is learning to break. Rather, it opens one's mind to the right questions. For this reason, it is a timely work, and the Ma-wang-tui texts are a timely discovery. We are lucky to live in such times.
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Title Annotation:Chinese manuscript
Author:Mackintosh, Paul St. John
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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