Chapter 6. Peccata Contra Naturam
Daoism is in essence a certain world view inspired by the observation of nature. Such a worldview had implications for one’s moral behaviour, and chief of these insights was the need to not over determine effects, in order to allow things to emerge of themselves, all of which was in the end beneficial. The Laozi, which was the definitive text for this world view, had an origin earlier than Confucius’ Analects. It observes how in nature, the seasons come and go, and without any particular being’s interference, creation is renewed and sustained.
The text became a constant focal point of interest for scholars over the years. A series of commentaries were written by thinkers and philosophers over the centuries, trying hard to decipher its meaning. What has constantly eluded scholars is the “Way” (Dao) spoken about in the text, which in the same breathe denies that anything can be spoken of this “Way” without distorting it. For this reason it defies naming, if one seeks in naming it to characterize it accurately. Yet this Way is the source of all things in the world. A major commentator of the text Wang Bi in the 3rd century tried to detail the meaning of this text. He points out that, empirically, no one has seen or heard or smelled or touched this Dao. For this reason, the texts says that the Dao is “form-less”. It has no form. It is, in a sense, completely hidden. And since in Chinese semiotics, you can only name things which have a structural form, it follows that you cannot give the Dao a name either. But the fact remains that the world has a natural order, and this cannot be explained except through the generative power of some source, especially when prior to everything’s orderly existence, it was believed that the world was chaotic. Thus the Dao is formless and nameless, but is nevertheless the “mother” of the “ten thousand things”, sustaining it, but nowhere visibly intervening to do that.
This talk about a nameless and formless Dao, the source of the “ten thousand things”, in turn offers insights into right behaviour. Taking the Dao as the model, one is then invited to imitate the non-interventionism in one’s life and practice. One can certainly quarrel with the theory. A metaphysician might worry about Daoist ontology, which is too unsophisticated to agree or disagree with. Someone given to Aquinas’ metaphysics of being (esse) and its doctrine of the real distinction might wonder if there’s the danger it inclines towards pantheism, and find that the text gives too little to read either way. A trained philosopher will quickly pick on the suppressed premises, and the gaps and leaps in deduction. Argument by analogies, Aquinas did explain, were weakest amongst the argument types. A meta-ethicist might take issue with the attempt to derive a normative system from a merely descriptive one, committing as it were a naturalistic fallacy. And the is-ought gap still is a challenging one to cross.
But these disagreements, even if correct, miss the heart of the text, and would be welcomed, ironically, by the text. Already the first two opening lines of the Laozi states quite categorically that the Dao cannot be fully articulated – “the Dao that can be spoken about is not the constant Dao, and any name that is given it is not its constant name”—and so the implication for any current interpretation is that, “you haven’t quite got it”. Taken in this light, any later disagreement with the current interpretation is most likely fully justified. Furthermore, this could well mean that any new interpretation that is being developed to displace the old interpretation is also itself subject to the same futility: it’s probably not any better at grasping the truth of the text’s message or the Dao. This second implication is particularly important. If any interpretation is as pointlessly un- veritable as another, then what’s the point of trying to bring out, year after year, commentary after commentary, a pretentiously “better” interpretation of the text? Is not Daoist scholarship, and Chinese philosophy, at least in that department, a foolishly doomed affair?
Probably not. The answer to this aporia, at least it seems to me, is to be found in Wang Bi’s commentary on another text, the I-Ching. In that text Wang returns to the question of language and of semiotic symbols. The images of the I-Ching, he says, are like traps which you use to trap a rabbit. It’s the rabbit that you are after, and not the trap. Once you have caught the rabbit, the trap of itself is no more important, and can be set aside. There is no need to be fixated on the trap. Of itself it has no value, and its significance is merely instrumental. It is, at the end of the day, a tool to capture ideas. In the same way, the purpose of linguistic signs is precisely to carry us towards a meaning, and once the meaning is grasped, the signs of itself have no value anymore. If we can assume that Wang’s semiotic is a consistent philosophical paradigm for his I-Ching commentary as well as his Laozi commentary, then for Wang Bi, the Laozi text is simply a kind of sign for meanings, a trap for rabbits, and if the prey is caught, the text has fulfilled its purpose. In other words it is not so much the text we are after, but what meanings that text can capture for us. There is a kind of nominalism about the interpretative hermeneutic; the point is to use the text to catch good ideas.
This nominalistic hermeneutic of the Daoist philosophical enterprise is fully played out in Wang’s own commentary on the Laozi. By employing ingeniously devised equivocations, Wang reads into the Laozi text ideas about ontology as well as politics. He accepts that the Dao is formless and nameless, for reasons we’ve explained above. But the word-sign “formless” (wu xing) also means “not determining, not shaping” as much as it means “shape-less” in Chinese. “Nameless” in Chinese can also mean “without-titles” besides “having no name”. In this way, he argues that, just as the formless and nameless Dao is mother to the ten thousand things, so also the sage should model the Dao as he governs society. In an original move, Wang suggests that like the Dao he is to be “formless”: that is to say, he does not use many laws and rules to over-determine behaviour, lest breeding resentment he fuels rebellion, and inspire deviousness that comes with wanting to bend these oppressive rules. Again, he is to be “nameless” (wu ming), and hence cannot try to make people moral through the distribution of titles as a reward for good behaviour, lest he breed a people who are merely utilitarian and behave well for external rewards, and do not have the natural moral sentiments that should drive moral duties. Thus taken equivocally, like the Dao operating ontologically, the sage is politically non-interventionist: he does not act, but all things come to be of their own accord. These interpretations, one might add, cannot be derived strictly from the Laozi; it they are more likely than not the musings of Wang’s own political science, drawn perhaps from his own observations and generalizations. In essence, Wang Bi fits ideas into the text; he reads them into the Laozi.
From the point of view of someone trying to grasp the “real” meaning of the Laozi this seems completely wrong. However, that is not the point of Wang Bi’s enterprise. Basically what is happening here is a kind of semiotic exercise. Using the Laozi text, the purpose is to draw out from this set of signs interesting and relevant significations, and in Wang Bi’s case, significations that can have political and practical relevance. One’s interest is not in its “original” meaning, even if there is such a thing. One’s interest is to use this as a trap for rabbits. The meaning of the trap is nothing other than the rabbits it can catch. The meaning of the text is nothing other than the interesting significations that it can inspire, and that it can capture. The significations that one reads into the text will no doubt depend on the interpretants one has, and could well vary from person to person. It is probably the interpretants one could quarrel with: one can criticize Wang Bi for his belief that relaxing rules and penal codes is beneficial for politics, which therefore inspired his particular reading of the text. Yet one would be incorrect for criticizing his “reading into” the text such ideas.
Does this mean then that the Laozi text is something like toilet paper which one uses and then discards? Not quite. As a text the Laozi begins by inviting us to think afresh: after all, it explains that there is something quite mysterious that no one, no matter how intelligent, has fully grasped. For the budding commentator or scholar this is a great source of encouragement, because here is a window of opportunity for him to make a contribution to Daoist scholarship. For this reason the Laozi is ongoingly an attractive challenge.
Secondly and more importantly, the Laozi text has a particular perennial relevance, and hence as a trap, it is one that scholars in the past have returned to again and again, and as far as I can see, one that we should return to again and again into the future. There may be a sociological dynamism in many civilizations and institutions to become obsessed with rule following, or to become obsessed with particular external targets, or to become too concerned with planning and determining effects, something coercively. As a textual sign, it plays up the need to relax some of these modes of operation, and while it invites the scholar to interpret the text by importing his own insights, at the same time it constrains the scholar and determines the interpretation somewhat. After all the metaphors that are riddled throughout the text cannot be made to force-fit any and every idea, but seem to me to especially fit those that are more libertarian.
Inevitably the text would appeal to people who are pre-disposed to these latter ideas, and the invitation is for these scholars to use the text as a semiotic stimulus for developing and refining their own insights. As a written text, it displays these metaphors and jolts us for ideas that could constitute a coherent fit, and invites us to explore and develop these ideas that could make up the new commentarial “interpretation”. As it does do, it effectively forces the scholar to develop and refine the interpretant leading to the new interpretation, since if anything the criticism will be launched at it. Thus the effect of re-interpreting the Laozi is not merely a new semiosis, but an infinite semiosis that yields stronger and more rigorous warrants for the ideas in the new interpretation. This means, thirdly, that the Laozi is not just some fancy work to be interpreted for creative pleasure or to showcase literary cleverness, or for trivial fun. Rather, it seeks eventually and quite seriously to have the scholar arrive at rigorous reflection on foundational warrants for one’s new interpretations and prescriptions that are based in the text, but which are not grounded in it. Hence every re-visitation of the text is in that respect profitable.
However, there is still a sense that the Laozi is just one text amongst others, and for this reason need not be over-privileged as a sign-trap. Ultimately the Laozi draws its own inspiration from nature, and from what the authors had observed of the natural world. Behind the written text is another more primitive sign, which seems to me to be the original unwritten text of the Laozi. The natural world which we encounter can also be a source of semiosis, just like the Laozi text was for Wang Bi. We see in the natural world things and events which can also inspire significations that challenge over-determination in the artificial world. Looking at the natural world—the fauna and flora—can sometimes trigger critical insights into our deterministic excesses in our artificial geography.
Photography of nature and the thoughtful appreciation of images of how nature adapts and sustains itself, for instance (but not exclusively) can lead reflectively to questions about the way we run society and institutions. Indeed, every photograph we take of nature can be a kind of visual sign-trap for practical insights. Reading into our photographic observations of nature, one can interrogate the non-natural. Seeing how nature works in various ways to achieve what is beneficial, we can consider analogically if we are doing likewise. We can ask if our artificial constructions obey the self-emergent ways of the natural (ziran) we see in these images. Or, we can enquire whether we may have in various ways un-ingeniously accumulated for our society and institution strategies, rules and policies that are, so to speak, peccata contra naturam.
As with the re-reading of the Laozi, the point of such a semiotic exercise is not to offer a normative theory of practice deductively derived from a model of natural events; any attempt at such an inference is bound to be fallacious. Rather the purpose is to move in analogical leaps of abductive creativity and invent ideas that fit the ways of the unwritten text we call nature. Once these ideas are captured, the text can be displaced. The ideas, on the other hand, can lead, in further searching semiosis, to warrants and justifications that better ground them. In the end, photography of nature can lead in infinite semiosis to a rigorous interrogation of the social science that may support these signed ideas.
Jude Chua Soo Meng, “Nameless Dao: A Rapprochement between Aquinas’ Metaphysics and the Dao de Jing” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, XX
Jude Chua Soo Meng, “Metaphor and Imagery: Modelling the Dao in Wang Bi’s Laozi” Journal of Chinese Philosophy, XX
Jude Chua Soo Meng, “Tracing the Dao: Wang Bi’s Theory of Names” in Chan, A K L & Lo, Y K (ed.), Philosophy and Religion in Early Medieval China, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010, xx-xx