Lao Zi’s Skepticism and its Conceptual Influence on the Development of Song Dynasty Neo-Confucianism
Arthur Tu (atu)
A thesis submitted in fulfillment of the requirements for an
independent study in Philosophy
Advisor: Professor Joseph Ramsey (jdramsey)
Taoism and Confucian are two of the most representative schools in the history of Chinese philosophy. The Taoist philosophy created by Lao Zi is a school that emphasizes the connection between metaphysical and ethical notions. Thus, given the elusive nature of the universal truth, the Tao, Lao Zi conceived a skeptical philosophy that defines the notion of good based on the absence of intentionality and beliefs. As Confucianism progressed, the Confucian scholars adopted many of Lao Zi‟s
philosophical conceptions into their studies while retaining many classical Confucian methodologies, therefore creating a new school of Confucian philosophy in the Song Dynasty, often referred to as the “Song Neo-Confucianism” or “The School of
Reason.” This thesis is targeted at the interpretation and analysis of the skeptical ideas in Lao Zi‟s Taoism and their influences on the development of the Song
The Metaphysics and World View of Lao Zi’s Taoism
Lao Zi‟s (est. 600 B.C – 470 B.C) Taoist metaphysics inherits many views from
the Chinese “book of changes” (易經) originated in the Zhou Dynasty (est. 1046 B.C
- 256 B.C) (also known as Zhou-Yi (周易), meaning the “Zhou‟s book of changes”).
In Zhou-Yi metaphysics, everything in the world is originally one integral, inseparable whole. As the world evolves, the unity divides into two polar extremes, the Ying (陰) and the Yang (陽). The Ying represents passiveness, and the Yang
denotes activeness. The conception of the polar extremes of Ying-Yang is known as
1the Tai-Ji, meaning “the great polar extremes”. In Lao Zi‟s conception of Zhou-Yi
metaphysics, “Tao” (道), is perceived as the universal truth to which all physical and non-physical interactions pertain. Thus, the Tao is applicable to all tangible and intangible entities.
In particular, Lao Zi perceives the Tai-Ji to be an embodiment of the Tao, thus the interactions of matters too pertain to the Tai-Ji. The relationship between a tangible entity and the Tai-Ji can be evidenced in the life span of a human: an infant grows out of weakness and becomes a physically strong adult; then the adult grow out of the physical prime, and becomes aged and weak. Thus, Lao Zi concludes that polar extremes are interdependent, in the sense that a movement towards one polar extreme often results in movements in the opposing extreme and when one extreme gets too
1 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 40,42
2violent, the tension will cause its opposing extreme to prosper. In this perspective,
the only unchanging truth is the set of principles described by the book of changes (ie. Tai-Ji), and under Lao Zi‟s conception, this unchanging truth is called the Tao.
A total epistemological understanding or a metaphysical description of the Tao, in Lao Zi‟s view, is impossible. As Lao Zi stated in the opening chapter of his Tao De
Jing (道德經), or Book of Morals:
This is interpreted as “If there is an expression for the Tao, the expression is not
3eternal; If there an object is named, the name is not eternal.” By this, Lao Zi
contends that no one can perceive the world in its physical and metaphysical entirety, thus no name or description assigned to Tao and its creations will be consistent throughout history. This epistemological anti-realist conception characterizes the essence in the study of the Tao, which is what the Chinese referred to as “the
metaphysical studies” (玄學), or “the studies of entities beyond perception.”
Following this perspective, Lao Zi is more concerned with the metaphysical conceptions of tangible matters, than their physical composition, as Lao Zi describes in chapter 11 if the Tao De Jing:
Which translates into: “Each wheel has thirty spokes, when the
wheel‟s center is hollowed out, it can be used for transportation; the
purpose of ceramics is to create containers, only when the center of
the pot is hollowed out, can the pot be useful; we fix windows for a
room, when the center of the room is hollowed out, the room
becomes desirable to live in; thus the notion of „being‟ benefits
utility, whereas the notion of „nil‟ defines the usage.”
Working from this perspective, Lao Zi establishes two concepts, one physical and the
2 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 16, 25, 30, 36, 52, 58, 57 3 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 1
other metaphysical. Physically, he asserts that the hollowing out of items is what creates their usage. Metaphysically, he asserts that the matter merely grants utility and that the usage of the product is granted by something intangible. (For example, a wheel is not useful because it is made out of wood but rather because „circular objects
are easier to roll.‟)
Lao Zi‟s Taoism, as its name adequately describes, is a school that grounds its philosophical notions in the Taoist metaphysics. The metaphysical conceptions such as Tao‟s agnostic nature and the continual cycle of the great polar extremes in particular have significantly contributed to Lao Zi‟s development of a skeptic
philosophy on which Lao Zi‟s ethics and political philosophies root.
Lao Zi’s Skepticism
The skepticism in ancient western philosophy is founded on the notion of questioning existing beliefs; Lao Zi‟s skepticism on the contrary, is a fundamental
conception of skepticism that focuses on preventing the acquisition of beliefs derived from the Taoist metaphysics.
The metaphysics of Taoism dictates that the polar extremes of the Tai-Ji are interdependent, interacting and complementary. Lao Zi‟s understanding of the
4applications of the metaphysics to the physical is summarized in the Tao De Jing:
This translates into: the Tao gave birth to unity; from the unity
formed the two polar extremes; from the interaction of the polar
extremes came the birth of all matters. The matters bear Ying
(passiveness) and thus resort to Yang (activeness), the two trends
blend to form harmony. People detest loneliness and clumsiness, and
thus the Chinese kings often refer to themselves as the „lonely and
4 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 42
clumsy ones‟ in light of modesty. Thus, matters gain from losses, and
lose from gains. I must teach what others teach. „the forceful ones
will suffer dreadful deaths‟ is the father of all teachings.
5As well as the following:
This translates into:
To cease one must first expand. To weaken, one must first strengthen.
To abolish, one must first nurture. To take, one must first give. This
is a subtle understanding. Tenderness overrules rigidity and strength.
A fish must not leave the river; a nation must not display its tools
(mainly weapons) to others.
In light of these intricate interactions and consequences of the polar extremes, Lao Zi suggests that when one extreme becomes too violent, it will turn into its opposing extreme, or, its opposing extreme will becomes more obvious; following this perspective, the notion of “completeness” in Lao Zi‟s Taoism is founded on the
6aloofness of extremes; therefore, anything that is truly complete, will lack perceptible notions, and thus appear as if it is lacking in many regards. This concept is described
7in Tao De Jing as the following:
This translates into:
True completion appears as if something‟s lacking, even though
5 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 36 6 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 2, 18, 22, 29, 30, 36, 40, 41, 42, 45, 58, 68, 76, 77, 79, 81 7 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 45
nothing is in shortage. True abundance appears as if something‟s
weak, even though nothing is in depravity. The great righteousness
appears as if one‟s been humiliated; the great craftsmanship appears
to be clumsy; the great rhetoric appears to be a temperance of speech.
Impetuosity conquers chill, calmness conquers heat, and the state of
peace is righteousness.
The same notion of completeness is extended to Lao Zi‟s view of learning and
8education, as the following passage:
This translates into:
The act of learning makes one gain, the act of practicing the Tao
makes one lose. One continues to lose, until one loses all intentions to
conduct. No intentions to conduct, thus does no evil (misbehaviors).
Lao Zi reveals in the passages that the common notion of learning is in fact a process that entices one to intellectual dogmas and beliefs, which are considered extremes in the thoughts under Lao Zi‟s Taoism. Similar in essence, yet different from ancient Greek skepticism methodologically, Lao Zi suggests a more fundamental development of skepticism that refrains the practitioners of Tao from approaching
9extremes. As Lao Zi would say,「其安易持」, or “Something is easier to maintain
when it is calm.”; prevention of intellectual corruptions is likewise, more effective than the purging of thoughts.
This skeptic conception of Lao Zi‟s philosophy can be complemented with
considerations for actuality and then be applied to practical situations such as the forming ethical judgments, which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.
Lao Zi’s Ethics
8 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 48 9 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 64
Proceeding to the applications of Taoist ideals to the society, Lao Zi established his notions of ethics by extending his ideas of skepticism to incorporate the valuation of tangible entities.
As an extended notion of dogma, Lao Zi views tangible entities such as titles, wealth, or even the word „saint‟ itself as enticements that move one‟s mind from the
10mean. According to 「多言數窮;不如守中。」, which translates to “loquacity
exhausts the effects of the speeches, one should instead uphold the „mean‟,” Lao Zi‟s
rendition of the doctrine of the mean is based on the lack of extremes, or more specifically as the state of「無為」, or “non-intentionality”. (Note: the character「為」
in Mandarin Chinese could be interpreted as either “intention” or “action”; this
ambiguity may account for the interpretations that concluded Lao Zi‟s notion of the
mean to be „physical inanimation,‟ or „thoughtlessness‟ which is a blatant
philosophical contradiction to numerous notions of „self-improvement‟ in the Tao De
Having instituted the doctrine of the mean and the notion of non-intentionality, Lao Zi suggested the denunciation of tangible entities that is summarized in chapter 3 of the Tao De Jing:
This translates into:
Without the respect for the saints, there is nothing for people to
compete for. Without the obsession with valuables, there is nothing
for people to steal. Without the sight of the desired, the heart is free
From the above passages, Lao Zi concluded that tangible entities inspire the intentions to adopt beliefs, which according to Lao Zi is a favoritism that violates the Tao‟s
mandate of neutrality, as described in chapter 5 of the Tao De Jing:
10 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 5
This translates into: The universe does not uphold the virtue of
kindness, thus all are no more than creatures that they are in this
perspective. A saint, likewise, does not uphold the virtue of kindness,
thus all people are no more than the creatures that they are in the
eyes of a saint.
In light of this anti-favoritism, the competitions for and pursuits of tangible entities are the products of intentionality, and are thus considered inconsistent with the practice of the Tao.
Lao Zi‟s Taoist ethics, as a collection of notions galvanized by the suspension of dogmas and beliefs, object the pursuit of virtuous notions like the ones sought in Confucianism. In chapter 38 of the Tao De Jing:
Which translates into: Thus, when the way of the Tao is lost, there
are virtues. When the virtues are lost, there is kindness; when
kindness is lost, there is righteousness; when righteousness is lost,
there is courtesy.
Lao Zi argues here that the pursuit of concrete notions of ethics is an undesirable alternative to the practice of the Tao. When there is a conceivable notion of ethics, the study of virtues become an intentional, pretentious practice, and thus is not truly
By the same conception, Lao Zi deemed the commoners as ignorant
conformists driven by emotions and easily enticed by tangible entities. The view of a practitioner of the Tao is summarized in chapter 20 of the Tao De Jing:
Which translates into: People seem to interact with such joy, as if
they are on their way to attend a ceremony, or to go sight-seeing in
the spring. I stood and grew alone without such passion; like an
11 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 36
infant, I‟m exhausted and I don‟t belong to such a congregation.
Everybody seems to have something to rely on, yet I am alone as if
I‟ve been left out.
From the quotes Lao Zi described explicitly the difference in philosophical views between a Taoist practitioner and a commoner. It seems as though a commoner who indulges in concrete absolutes has more to enjoy and boast whereas a practitioner of Tao would have no beliefs to rely on, and thus appear to the public as unwise and confused.
Lao Zi’s Government and Politics
The notions of politics and government under Lao Zi‟s Taoism make further
extensions on Lao Zi‟s ethics, more specifically on the doctrine of the mean and the concept that “preventions are more effective than antidotes”.
As suggested as a part of Lao Zi‟s ethics, a practitioner of the Tao is to
disengage in conceptual extremes. Chapter 65 of Tao De Jing stated the following:
Which translates into:
Since the ancient times, those rulers who practice the Tao weren‟t
there to pave a path to wisdom for the people, instead, they were
there to fool the people. When people become wise and crafty, they
are hard to govern.
As an extended notion consistent with the doctrine of the mean, Lao Zi perceives purging people‟s conceptual extremes as a responsibility of the governor. This effort cannot be done through strict legislations and law enforcement, as Lao Zi
12stated 「太上;下知有之。其次;親而譽之。其次;畏之。其次;侮之。」, which
translates into “The best way to rule over (to govern) people, is to take away the pressure of being governed; second to that, is to govern so people uphold your image and praise your name; and below that, is to make people fear the stern governor; and below all, is to bully the people.” In light of „non-intentionality‟, Lao Zi complements
12 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 17
the political notion with 「故聖人云，我無為而民自化;我好靜而民自正;我無事
13而民自富;我無欲而民自朴。」, which translates into “Thus the saints say: If I lose
my intentions, the people will adjust themselves; if I value peace, people will become righteous themselves; if I don‟t stir up troubles, the society grows wealthy; if I lose my desires, people will too embrace simplicity.”, thus illustrating an ideal governor
who sets himself (herself) as an example of the mean for the commoners to observe rather than forcefully imposing ideologies on the people.
Aside from the extension of the doctrine of the mean, Lao Zi through the quote「治之
14於未亂。」 (translates into “fix it before it falls to chaos”), re-emphasized the
importance of his fundamental precepts that it is more effective to demonstrate the „mean‟ during peaceful times, than to use it as an imperative response to crisis.
Neo-Confucian Historical Background
The Song Dynasty Neo-Confucian movement is one of the most prominent renaissances in the history of Confucianism since its original conception in the feudalist late-Zhou dynasty.
After the feudal state “Qin” (秦) conquered the rest of the feudal states and
brought an end to the era of the warring states (戰國時代, 403 B.C – 221 B.C), the
scholars of different schools of philosophy dedicated themselves to the studying of the texts left from the Zhou Dynasty. In the Tang Dynasty (唐朝, 618 A.D – 907 A.D) ,
the Confucian texts and its related source books were organized into what is known as “The Four Books and the Five Classics” (四書五經). The four books are The
Confucian Analects (論語), The Great Learning (大學), The Doctrine of the Mean (中
庸) and The Analects of Mencius (孟子); The five classics are: The Classic Poems (詩
經), The Book of Government (尚書), Customs and Courtesy (儀禮 or 禮記), The
Book of Changes (周易 or 易經) and The History of Late-Zhou Warring States Era:
Spring and Fall (春秋 or 左傳).
Since its introduction in the Han Dynasty (漢朝, 202 B.C – 220 A.D),
Buddhism (釋), along with Confucianism (儒) and Taoism (道), were considered the
three mainstream philosophies in the Tang Dynasty (618 A.D – 907 A.D) and have
developed great influences on each other.
13 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 57 14 Tao-De-Jing (“The Book of Morals”) Chapter 64