Philosophy 52 - 3.3.3 Daoism

The dao as a philosophical concept or a school of philosophical thought is associated primarily with the texts the Daodejing, commonly attributed to Laozi or the “Old Master,” and the Zhuangzi, attributed to Zhuangzi (c. fourth century BCE). Many contemporary scholars question whether Laozi actually existed. It is likely that both texts are collections of writings from a variety of thinkers who belonged to a common school known as Daoism. Daoism is a belief system developed in ancient China that encourages the practice of living in accordance with the dao, the natural way of the universe and all things. Daoism is associated with a countercultural religious movement in ancient China, contrary to the dominant, traditionalist Confucianism. The religious movement of Daoism varied depending on the region, but the unifying theme among Daoist religions is a focus on a naturalistic, nontheological view of the underlying basis for morality and goodness. Part of the attraction and variability of Daoism is the fact that the dao is commonly understood to be empty of content, equally open to interpretation by anyone. This perspective leads to a kind of anarchism, resisting traditional hierarchies and authorities.

Daoism is highly critical of Confucianism, as can be seen from passages such as the following in the Doadejing: “When the Great Dao was discarded, only then came ren and right. When wisdom and insight emerged, only then came the Great Artifice. When the six kinship classes fell out of harmony, only then came filiality and parental kindness. When the state is darkened with chaos, only then do the loyal ministers appear” (Eno 2010, p. 15, 18). Here, the author criticizes the five constant virtues of Confucius by suggesting that these emerged only after China had lost its way and been separated from the dao. Similarly, the Daodejing is highly critical of Confucian benevolence (ren) and sagehood. It sees the notions of right, virtue, and goodness as concepts that distract the masses and obscure their awareness of the dao. Consequently, it recommends a kind of antisocial tendency to reject the way of the masses and act contrary to conventional wisdom.

The Dao as a Metaethical Concept

One of the ways in which Daoism differs from Confucianism and Mohism is that it emphasizes the grounds for moral norms but refrains from offering specific moral guidelines for action. Daoism starts with a certain conception of the natural world that serves as the basis for an ethical perspective on life, whereas Confucianism largely ignores any description of nature untouched, focusing directly on moral behavior. The dao itself is understood as a natural force that guides all life: “Men emulate earth; earth emulates heaven (tian); heaven emulates the Dao; the Dao emulates spontaneity” (Eno 2010, p. 17, 25). The general moral guidance of Daoism involves becoming aware of the dao and ensuring that one’s action doesn’t oppose natural forces.

In a general sense, the dao is considered to be an order governing the universe from its beginnings through the various forces of nature and reaching into human affairs. The human condition sets human beings against the dao and places them in opposition to this underlying force, so most of the Daodejing is focused on attempts to bring human beings back into alignment with the dao. The text warns, “As a thing the Dao is shadowed, obscure” (Eno 2010, p. 16, 21b). The problem is that the typical strategies for illuminating and clarifying things further obscure the dao because the dao itself appears contradictory: “To assent and to object—how different are they? Beauty and ugliness—what is the distinction between them?” (Eno 2010, p. 15, 20).

Language and rational concepts pull one away from the dao, which is either contentless and empty or contradictory: “When the Dao is spoken as words, how thin it is, without taste” (Eno 2010, p. 21, 35). This is why followers of the dao should resist attempts to categorize it in a determinative way: “Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know” (p. 27, 56). Instead, the one who follows the dao is capable of embracing contradiction: “One who knows white but preserves black becomes a standard for the world. Such a one never deviates from constant virtue and returns again to being limitless” (p. 18, 28a). Here, it is evident how Daoists draw lessons about the study and mastery of morality from their understanding of metaphysics. If reality is fundamentally contradictory and escapes the human capacity to capture it in language, then the person who wants to remain closest to fundamental reality should refrain from attempting to categorize it and should be willing to live with contradiction.

That said, this teaching leads to several tensions. It seems difficult to derive ethical prescriptions from nature when nature itself seems to lack a prescriptive force. The dao is simply the total forces of nature, neither good nor bad. Yet when Daoists advise one to allow the forces of nature to govern all activity, they themselves must refrain from theorizing. Nevertheless, in order to provide guidance, the Daoist must speak or write. This leaves the reader in a difficult interpretive position (Hansen 2020).

Skepticism, the belief that one can never attain certain knowledge, is entrenched in Daoism. It’s not clear, however, whether the reason for skepticism is that there is no ultimate answer, that there is an answer but it cannot be known, or that the answer can be known but it cannot be communicated. The Daodejing suggests that the best path is to recognize the limits of human knowledge: “To know you do not know is best; not to know that one does not know is to be flawed. / One who sees his flaws as flaws is therefore not flawed” (Eno 2010, p. 32, 71).


The chapter on epistemology takes a deeper look at Daoism and other forms of skepticism.

The Ethics of Wuwei

Daoist texts teach readers to adopt a stance that is typically called wuwei, meaning nonaction, softness, or adaptiveness to the circumstances at hand. Wuwei is contrasted with action, assertion, and control. In the Zhuangzi, followers of the dao are characterized in a way that resembles the psychological state known as flow, where they find themselves completely absorbed in their task, losing awareness of themselves as a distinct ego and becoming completely receptive to the task at hand. The Zhuangzi tells the story of Cook Ding, a butcher who was so skillful that he had used the same knife without sharpening it for 19 years. He never dulled the blade by striking bone or tendon. Instead, he was able to find the gaps in the joints and cut through with the thin edge of his blade, no matter how small the gaps. He explains, “At the beginning, when I first began carving up oxen, all I could see was the whole carcass. After three years I could no longer see the carcass whole, and now I meet it with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes” (Eno 2019, p. 23, 3.2). The metaphor of flow also resembles descriptions of wuwei that compare it to water: “Nothing in the world is more weak and soft than water, yet nothing surpasses it in conquering the hard and strong—there is nothing that can compare” (Eno 2010, p. 34, 78).

Moreover, being in a state of nonaction, softness, and flow allows one to be spontaneous and reactive to circumstances. Spontaneity is another characteristic of someone who follows the dao: “To be sparse in speech is to be spontaneous” (Eno 2010, p. 17, 23). Here, speech seems to be associated with control. This may be because speech exercises a certain control over the world by placing names on things and identifying them as similar to or different from other things, grouping them in categories, and assembling these categories and things into chains of reason. For the Daoists, this puts a distance between humanity and the fundamental forces of nature. The Zhuangzi states, “The Dao has never begun to possess boundaries and words have never yet begun to possess constancy” (Eno 2019, p. 23, 2.13). The attempt to use language to provide distinctions in the dao obscures the dao. This is a function of the nature of words to be true or false, allowable or unallowable. The implication is that these distinctions are foreign to the nature of the dao. In another section, the Zhuangzi reiterates this principle with the slogan “A this is a that; a that is a this” (Eno 2019, p. 16, 2.7). The point is that anything that can be designated as a “this” could also be designated as a “that,” which the author takes to imply that language is relative to the perspective of the speaker.

As a result, the Daoists instruct one to surrender their attempts to understand and control nature: “The wish to grasp the world and control it—I see its futility. The world is a spiritlike vessel; it cannot be controlled. One who would control it would ruin it; one who would grasp it would lose it” (Eno 2010, p. 19, 29a). Inaction and the lack of a desire to grasp or comprehend the nature of the world are characteristic of wuwei: “He who acts, fails; he who grasps, loses. / Therefore the sage takes no action (wuwei) and hence has no failure, does no grasping and hence takes no loss” (p. 30, 64c). In contrast with Confucius, the Daoists link inaction and the lack of reason (spontaneity) with virtue: “The highest virtue does not act (wuwei) and has no reason to act; the lowest virtue acts and has reason to act” (p. 21, 38).

Write Like a Philosopher

Philosophers from around the world believe in the human ability to use reason to create both individual and social flourishing. Describe the qualities an individual has to possess to achieve ethical well-being in Aztec, Confucian, and Daoist thought. Then discuss what qualities you personally believe an individual needs to accomplish this goal.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax