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I’ve lately been trying to get a better understanding of Daoist thought, as I believe Daoism to be the major philosophical tradition I have so far understood the least. I have done this by turning to the two texts most widely read in the tradition: the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu), and the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) – the latter the name of both text and author. (I use the modern Pinyin spellings which are now most accepted by contemporary scholars, but older Wade-Giles spellings like “Taoism” and “Lao Tzu” may be more familiar to a general audience.) Were I to have free rein to teach a course that involved a component on Daoism, I would almost certainly focus on Laozi and Zhuangzi there as well.

To focus one’s study of Daoism on Laozi and Zhuangzi is very common. It is also controversial. Russell Kirkland attacks this approach in an article.1 Kirkland makes an article-length attack on the approach, dating to 19th-century sinologists like James Legge, that contrasts “the sublime wisdom of the sagely old philosophers ‘Lao-tzu’ and ‘Chuang-tzu’ with the degraded superstitions of later magicians and alchemists.” (112)

About later thinkers and practitioners regarded as Daoists, whether or not they were “magicians and alchemists”, I have little to say. I know little about them. The question is whether I, or others interested in traditions regarded as Daoist, have significant reason to learn much about them. And this, Kirkland provides little of. It’s clear that Kirkland really doesn’t like Laozi and Zhuangzi and wishes he could avoid teaching them: “If one is a specialist in Taoist studies and has the luxury of teaching a course on Later Taoism, one may be able to get away with ignoring the sainted wisdom texts, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.” (113, my emphasis) But he recognizes how little interest there would be in a course that ignored Laozi and Zhuangzi; “I did so once in a Stanford seminar, and both of my students enjoyed their course.”

So, grudgingly, “because of the general necessity of maintaining somewhat larger enrollments”, a course on Daoism should cover Laozi and Zhuangzi “expeditiously in order that the course can move on to the rest of the tradition.” But why? If the course is trying to present the whole of something called “Daoism”, it is perhaps useful to recognize that this term and its Chinese equivalents have covered a great deal that was not Laozi and Zhuangzi. But then one should ask: why, exactly, should one try to present the whole of “Daoism”?

I have wondered often enough whether the term “Daoism” (whether transliterated with a D or a T) actually means anything at all. Unlike with “Hinduism”, the two indigenous Chinese terms translatable as “Daoism” (dao jia 道家 and dao jiao 道敎) go back over a millennium. But picking apart what these terms mean, and how their referents differ from each other and from “Confucianism” (or native terms for it such as ru jiao 儒教) or “shamanism” (wu 巫) is a thorny task indeed. Kirkland cites an article by Nathan Sivin2 as required reading for teachers of Daoism, but Sivin’s article just muddies this water even further, pointing out how the Chinese terms for “Daoism” and “Confucianism” were used in at least as many senses as “countercultural” and “conservative” might be now. If that is the case (and I suspect much of it is), then one wonders why there is anything to be gained by studying “Daoism” as such, as opposed to simply studying “Chinese culture” or “Chinese philosophy”. Kirkland repeatedly insists that one should study “Real Taoism”, as opposed to the “fake Taoism” of books like The Tao of Pooh – but he tells us little about what distinguishes this “real Taoism” from any “real not-Taoism” in China’s past, nor about why we should care.

What we are dealing with in Kirkland’s article, it would seem, is another example of the unfortunate populist bias in contemporary religious studies, where the practices of large numbers of people are viewed as inherently more valuable than the great works that have typically inspired those same people. And the argument for that populist bias typically rests on a concept with a shaky basis in the first place: for “most religious people” or “most Daoists”, “religion” or “Daoism” was not “about” the great texts. But most of those people being described didn’t necessarily view themselves as “religious” or as “Daoist”. They were just doing a bunch of things that they’d learned from their families and communities, and they didn’t necessarily give those things a collective name. We may well find some things of interest in those things they did – as I have come to find in modern Indian aesthetics – but there’s no inherent reason to privilege their practices over the works that they themselves held in high esteem.

Now that I’ve called the concept of “Daoism” (however one spells it) into question, I need to say more about the sentence with which I opened. If “Daoism” is such a murky category, what can it mean for me to say that it is “the major philosophical tradition I have so far understood the least”? Or even that I am trying to get a better understanding of “it”? What I mean by this is that through the millennia there have been people who have perceived themselves in some respect to be followers of the ideas of Laozi and of Zhuangzi together, and possibly of some other related thinkers (such as Liezi) with them. And so far, as far as I can tell, I have understood neither Laozi nor Zhuangzi nor their followers as well as I have understood the likes of Buddhism, Greek thought, German thought, Christianity, Jainism, or even Judaism, Confucianism and Islam. That’s what I’ve been trying to remedy. And as a philosopher I make no apologies for keeping my focus on the two old masters themselves.

1 Kirkland, Russell. 1998. “Teaching Taoism in the 1990s”. Teaching Theology & Religion 1(2): 111-19.

2 Sivin, Nathan. 1978. “On the word ‘Taoist’ as a source of perplexity, with special reference to the relations of science and religion in traditional China.” History of Religions 17(3-4): 303-30.