Philosophy 178 - 9.5.1 The Dao

In Daoism, the dao is often translated as “the way.” Daoists rejected the narrow Confucian view of dao as a way of behaving in society to ensure order and social harmony, and instead view the dao as the natural way of the universe and all things. The dao is represented as the source or origin of all that exists. Daoism tells us that we must live in accord with the dao if we want to live a good life or live well.


In the very first chapter of the Daodejing, we learn that the “dao” that can be spoken of or named is not dao: “Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth. Naming: the mother of ten thousand things” (Laozi [ca. 6th century BC] 1993, 1). When you name something, when you speak about it, you pick it out and give it a definite identity. Dao is the source of all that exists, of all characteristics and properties, but it is itself without limits and impossible to define. It represents the underlying connectedness and oneness of everything. Dao is an inexhaustible source of existence, of things, and it is that to which all things return.


In moral philosophy, naturalism is the belief that ethical claims can be derived from nonethical ones. In Daoism, “moral dao must be rooted in natural ways” (Hansen 2020). It emphasizes living in accord with nature by following the dao, or natural way of things. The individual who lives in the right way lives in accord with nature and exists in harmony with it. Daoism characterizes a fulfilling life as a calm, simple life, one that is free from desires and greed. Its focus on returning to nature, on naturalness, and on living in harmony with the natural world makes Daoism a naturalistic philosophy.

Daoist Metaphysics

The Daodejing offers a metaphysical perspective. The dao is characterized as the source of all things that exist, as the source of being and nonbeing. In Chapter 4 of the Daodejing, dao is said to be “empty—Its use never exhausted. Bottomless—The origin of all things” (Laozi [ca. 6th century BC] 1993, 4). The source of all that exists, of change, the dao nevertheless remains unchanging. Daoism, then, can be read as a philosophy that provides answers to important metaphysical questions in its exploration of the underlying nature of existence.

The metaphysical account of reality found in Daoism provides a foundation for other Daoist positions. Daoism’s naturalistic philosophy is supported by its metaphysical claims. The dao is the source of all, and living in accordance with it is living in accordance with the natural way, with the flow of all existence. Daoists claim, therefore, that we act morally when we act in accord with the dao and thus in accord with the natural way of things. Their metaphysics suggests a view of the world that recognizes the dynamic connections and interdependence of all things that exist. When we name things, when we differentiate things and treat them as individual, existing entities, we ignore the fact that nothing exists on its own independent of the whole. To truly understand existence, then, Daoists urge us to be more aware of and sensitive to the way everything depends on and is connected to everything else. Each thing is a part of a larger, ever-changing whole.

Skepticism, Inclusion, and Acceptance

In the Daodejing, it can be hard to grasp or form a clear conception of the dao. In fact, when Zhuangzi expands upon the earlier teachings of Laozi, he “repeatedly brings forth the issue of whether and how the Dao can be known” (Pregadio 2020). The dao cannot be known in the sense in which we normally know things about ourselves, objects, or our world. Daoism is thus skeptical not only about those things humans have so far claimed to know and value, but also skeptical that knowledge of the dao is possible. This skepticism regarding the extent to which we can know the dao pushes Daoism to be inclusive and accepting. It makes Daoism open to and accepting of various interpretations and readings of the Daodejing so long as through them we are able to live in accordance with the dao—to live a fulfilling life.

Paradox and Puzzles

Throughout the Daodejing, there is paradoxical and puzzling language. For example, it says that the dao “in its regular course does nothing . . . and so there is nothing which it does not do” (Laozi [ca. 6th century BC] 1993, 37). The paradoxical ways the dao is described within the texts is a way to bring attention to or highlight a way of thinking that is fundamentally different from our everyday experience of the world. Indeed, Daoists believe that our problems are a consequence of our regular way of being in the world and living without awareness of the dao. We are accustomed to treating things as distinct, definable entities, and we think of ourselves in the same terms. Unaware of the dao, of the true nature of reality, we act against it and cause pain and suffering. Through paradoxical language and expressions, Daoism attempts to make us aware of something greater that is the generative source of existence. It challenges us to look at things differently and change our perspective so that we can see that our pain and suffering is a consequence of conventional values and beliefs. It attempts to sidestep the limitations of language by using paradoxes and puzzles to encourage and promote a deeper awareness of the nature of existence. Daoists criticize the way humans normally live because it fosters and encourages bad thinking, problematic values, and resistance to living differently.

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