Two notes on Taoism

1. A recent translation of the Lao Tzu relies on the old scheme of “correlative cosmology” and nicely illustrates the persistence of what is apparently a lack of rigor between distinguishing Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist (meta)axiologies and cosmologies. But even if, for example, we succeed in distinguishing, e.g., the Tao of the Lao Tzu from the Confucian Tao of the I Ching appendices, the ambiguities in the term “correlative cosmology” seem to indicate less a mere problem of equivocation than a deficiency in the very structure of the problem. “Correlation” is a distinctively modern European concept—the very problematic simply does not exist for the classical Taoists; so too the notions of identity/difference, sub/object. This is evident from the very first lines of the Lao Tzu: nowhere does the Taoist need to posit that “difference is simply what there is (such that the problem is unity)” or, conversely, that “the world is my representation and idea”. The scholarly literature is abysmally lacking in this respect (with one notable exception): either we begin with a general apologetic for the incommensurability of conceptual schemes or we wax exotic about the “striking similarities” between the unified thought of the Axial Age from Greece to China. Both constitute, as opposite sides of the same coin, the fundamental obstacle for anyone trained in our philosophical institution really to read the Taoist texts and to say anything more than superficial about anything in common between Derrida and Taoism (Graham, Clarke), the “intrinsic ontology” of the Chinese language and predicate logic (Graham again), or presocratic necessity (Needham). A great step forward was taken by I.A. Richards (surprisingly!), Ames, and Cheng whose hermeneutics are especially suited toward the injunction “to seek the way” in Taoism (see the “Great Appendix” to the I Ching). But what our philosophical institution will never be able to see is the Taoist thinker is not, strictly speaking, a thinker. The Taoist sage is not the one who has knowledge of the truth but also the one who experiences (and teaches) the good—and the only Greek equivalent here is Plato.

2. The real meaning of Cioran’s question—“of what use is Taoism and Buddhism to us?”—is not historical but, rather, political. The real contradiction is between politics—especially in its educative and moral manifestations—and Taoist solitude. This is not quite the romantic lament of a Rousseau with respect to the dualism of nature and culture but, rather, a structural contradiction between the silence of Taoist practice and the ideologies of discourse in any political practice. And what Cioran has said about history is also true for politics: for us, politics is compulsory—we cannot not be interpellated by the political demands precisely of those who are unable to make such demands because they have been reduced to silence and mark their existence in only a sob, a scream, or in banality.

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