dao horizon


great brick back of house viewed from an alley on Capitol Hill, Denver

Single line drawn from one ocular corner to the
White clouds firmly tethered to shadows.
What is close at hand must first appear on the
What is cast upon us always has a source.

Life need not be the travesty of confusion and disorganization that it seems to be for so many people. When one feels this way, it is nearly always due to two things: Either one isn’t even looking, or one’s vantage point is too low.

Those who follow Tao position themselves on high vantage points. Life never surprises them. Whatever is in their lives today, they foresaw many days before. Whatever is on the horizon, they take the time to prepare. Such people are called wise, not because they have special abilities but because they take the care to view things from a high place.

Those who follow Tao also realize that all phenomena have a source. Just as shadows on the ground are cast because clouds float between the earth and the sun, so too are the events outside of ourselves cast into our minds. A reaction in our minds is like a shadow cast by an external event.

We can understand such phenomena clearly if we stand at a place where we can see them coming. We need to remember to deal with them coming. We need to remember to deal with them not simply by how we feel, but also by looking at their external form, and even checking to see their source. If we take care to do this, then we shall never be deterred.

365 Tao
daily meditations
Deng Ming-Dao (author)
ISBN 0-06-250223-9

Denver Alley 1973
Leica M3 90mm Zeiss
Kodachrome 25
© 1973 - 2005 lisbeth west

The Meaning of Dao

With those caveats, the question of meaning is relatively simple--despite the impression that dao is an impenetrable mystery of the East. The almost universal translation is one of the easiest and most familiar words of the English language--'way'. My view is that it is no accident that the translation sticks and works so well. The two concepts are remarkably close in meaning--except that 'way' has rather more explicit grammatical individuation and lacks a verb form.

To do the metaphysics of dao, we can start by thinking philosophically about ways while trying to reason about them (a) using a conceptual structure like that available to ancient Chinese thinkers and (b) considering the issues salient in their philosophical agenda. We do not set out to do the impossible--reconstruct all features of their lives, all background religious beliefs or any of the other impossible feats of Verstehen that lead to hermeneutic regress and paradox. What we envision is reconstructing enough of their "manifest history" of the philosophical issues and the inference structure of their concepts to think along with them about the nature of normative ways.

Part of the appeal of 'way' as an explication of meaning is that, like dao, 'way' is indefinable--I do not mean ineffable but, in Hacking's helpful phrase it's one of those familiar, tiny, almost unnoticed words that "tend to be circularly defined."[9] Any synonym or attempted definition leads us back to 'way', which is a more primitive English term than any of its partial synonyms.

Hacking's phrase occurs in his discussion of a "loose" distinction between object words, idea words, and elevator words. This distinction will also be handy for our purposes in explaining a philosophical difference between dao and 'way'.

"In addition to 'objects" and "ideas" we need to take note of a group of words that arise by what Quine calls semantic ascent: truth, facts, reality. Since there is no common way of grouping these words, I call them elevator words, for in philosophical discussions they raise the level of discourse." (Hacking 1999:21.)

Hacking notes that elevator words typically are familiar, unproblematic words that have quite innocent uses -- until we employ them for semantic ascent or with philosophical emphasis. Hacking, however, clearly would not consider listing 'way' among his elevator words. It's not that Western philosophers do not use the word; they use it a lot, but usually innocently. Hacking's own account of looping shows how "handy" the term can be in philosophical discourse.

People classified in a certain way tend to conform to or grow into the ways that they are described; but they also evolve in their own ways, so that the classifications and descriptions have to be constantly revised. (Hacking 1995)[10]

Ironically, Hacking's (or anyone's) short list of Western "elevator words" ('truth', 'facts', 'reality') contains words that ancient Chinese thinkers seldom or never used as terms of philosophical ascent.

We could expand the list of philosophically pivotal "familiar" terms which we all learn to analyze deeply as we learn philosophy: 'know', 'reason', 'true', 'believe', 'represent', 'refer', 'mean', along with some longer but equally central notions in our left-side world-view such as 'conscious', 'experience', 'sensation', 'perception'. Finally, we also learn to analyze a cluster of other simple structural words like 'the', 'some' and 'a'. To my recollection, however, I have never seen a philosophical article on the concept of a 'way.' The irony, then, is that the concepts in Hacking's and my "short" list of Western elevator terms include those that are usually either absent or "innocent" in Chinese philosophical literature. The counterpart of dao, the most widely used term of philosophical ascent in ancient China, is an almost unnoticed "innocent" in the West.

The contrasting lists of elevator words manifests the contrast in emphasis noted earlier. Western elevator terms cluster on the entry side of the transitions between language and the world. 'Way' belongs to the exit side. While 'way' is not in Hacking's list, we can find some close relatives--partial synonyms and situational counterparts--in Western ethical reflection and in the anti-Platonic strains of Western thought, e.g., when Western philosophers analyze 'practices', 'conventions', 'games', 'forms of life', 'conceptions of the good life', 'traditions', 'processes', and 'modes'. We may view 'way' as a more comprehensive term that embraces all of these practical concepts--as a genus of which these others are species. The network of words we might use in defining 'way' includes another core term of the language--the question word ‘how'. We point to a way in answer to either a "how to" or a "what to (do)" question. We may think of knowing ways as unlike the routinely analyzed "knowing-that" of Western epistemology, and more like Ryle's "knowing how"[11] or "knowing to."

A possible motivation of meaning-change hypotheses regarding dao may stem from this ironic contrast. Interpreters, cognizant that dao is a major elevator word in Daoist meta-theorizing, naturally seek a counterpart elevator word from Western philosophical discourse. This explains the interesting coincidence that interpretation of dao makes it a Chinese philosophy counterpart of 'reason', 'truth', or 'ultimate reality'--borrowing terms from Hacking's short list of Western elevator terms. If 'way' had become a target of Western philosophical analysis and a mainstream elevator word, one motivation for this interpretation would shrink.

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