lao tzu and Kant

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lao tzu and Kant

Asian Philosophy, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2002

    Wu-Wei: Lao-zi, Zhuang-zi and the aesthetic



    ABSTRACT The concept of wu-wei (nonaction) has undergone signi. cant changes from

    Lao-zi to Zhuang-zi. This paper will argue that, while wu-wei in Lao-zi is a utilitarian

    principle, wu-wei of Zhuan-zi represents an aesthetic world-view. The aesthetic nature of the Daoist nonaction will be illustrated through Kant’s concept of ‘purposiveness without purpose’.

    Scholars have given several, not necessarily competing, interpretations to the Daoist concept of non-action (wu-wei). Non-action is, according to Wang Bi and Fung Yu-lan, natural action or action restricted to what is necessary (‘never over-doing’) [1]. For

    instance, in the matter of clothing, the principle of nonaction enjoins one against overdressing. Duyvendak thinks of wu-wei as having no ‘conscious effort’, no ‘set

    purpose’ [2]. Creel deems wu-wei a paradox: it means doing nothing when it is

    ‘contemplative’ and doing something when ‘purposive’, [3] Recently, David Loy has

    written that non-action (wu wei) is ‘nondual action – that is, action in which there is no

    bifurcation between subject and object: no awareness of an agent that is believed to do

    the action as being distinct from an objective action that is done’ [4]. He means that the

    principle of nonaction collapses the objective side of the action into the subjective side the ‘action’ in ‘I perform the action’ is being de-objecti. ed or denied.

    Acknowledging some ambiguities, I think that all of these interpretations are sound, but there is room for improvement since none of these interpretations have adequately dealt with the following issue: is the principle of non-action the same in Lao-zi and

    Zhuang-zi? If it is different, what is the signi. cance of the change? Aiming at these two issues, this paper is divided into two parts. Comparing Lao-zi and Zhuang-zi, Sections

    18 delineate the fundamental differences in the two works with regard to non-action. I will argue that wu-wei is in Lao-zi a utilitarian principle, a means that serves the social, especially political, purpose of winning the world, but in Zhuang-zi, wu-wei is an

    ultimate philosophical attitude toward the world, and it becomes an end in itself instead of a means to something beyond. Sections 911 dwell on the meaning of the thematic

    change from Lao-zi to Zhuang-zi, the evolution of wu-wei from a social-political formula

    to an aesthetic and philosophical ideal of human existence, by using Kant’s theory of

    the aesthetic judgement to explain Zhuang-zi’s theory of non-action. It is no coincidence

    that, as the paper intends to show, there is a parallel between Kant’s purposiveness

    without purpose and Zhuang-zi’s wu-wei-wu-bu-wei (doing nothing, but leaving

    nothing undone). Zhuang-zi’s Daoism is a poetic philosophy in the sense that it

    expands a person’s aesthetic experience, like that described by Kant, into a metaphysical

    experience of man and the world. ISSN 0955-2367 print/ISSN 1469-2961 online/02/010053-11 Ó 2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/09552360220142252

    54 Rui Zhu

    1. Three Meanings of Wu-Wei in Lao-zi

    In Lao-zi, wu-wei or its kindred concepts occur in 17 chapters, all of which use wu-wei in the context of government by sagehood [5]. Wu-wei means a policy of

    non-interference adopted by a generic sageruler to manage his country. It is only in

    one place, chapter 37, where wu-wei takes on its metaphysical dimension non-action

    is an attribute of Dao: ‘Dao never acts, but leaves nothing undone.’ This textual

    disproportion heavily tilted toward the social-political dimension is by itself suf. cient to justify this point: wu-wei, a political thesis derived from a metaphysical principle of Dao, is not intended to undermine politics, as it is meant to do in Zhuang-zi, but support


    In Lao-zi, as the way to govern, the meaning of non-action is triadic. First, a sage does not act, but lets nature take its own course. It is a belief common to all Daoists that things will take care of themselves as long as we do not interfere with them. Lao-zi

    calls this kind of self-suf. ciency of things ‘zi-ran’ (chapter 17: ‘wo-zi-ran’, I am

    self-suf. cient). In the agricultural, fertile land of Chu, where Lao-zi was from, evidence for this natural self-suf. ciency abounds. Trees and plants grow on their on their own. People lead their lives in peace and order, as long as the government leaves them

    alone. In this regard, Daoism stands opposed to Confucianism, which thinks that the world is in a mess and wants a top down recti. cation. Confucius said, ‘The virtue

    of a gentleman is like wind; the virtue of a common man, grass’ [6]. A common

    man should submit to the commands of a gentleman, in the way grass submits to the wind, but Daoists believe that the Confucian recti. cation programme amounts to an unnecessary, extravagant imputation of human will onto the great transformation of Dao, and is doomed to fail. Consequently, a sage does not act, and dares not to act either [7].

    The second of the triadic nature of wu-wei refers to a utilitarian principle, focusing

    on the utility of nothingness (wu), that favours nothingness over something, lack

    over ful. llment, or non-being over being. As observed in Lao-zi, many practical goals

    are accomplished by the way of non-being, a phenomenon that, although it is common, takes Daoist wisdom to understand. The utility of a cup depends on its lack of water. A house is inhabitable because it is empty within. Windows are also useful in virtue of their lack or nothingness. Dao itself is even more of nothing than something we feel its presence by its absence, observe its function by its non-performing. A person who models himself after Dao understands that non-action achieves more than action and that lack of desire garners more than being full of desire. This utilitarian understanding of wu (lack or nothingness) is unique to Lao-zi: ‘thirty

    spokes are united around a hub, on whose nothingness depends the utility of a wheel;’ ‘that nothingness penetrates the seamless, in virtue of which I understand the

    utility of nonaction’ [8]. This ‘utility of wu’ differs from the later famous Daoist

    formulation ‘the great use of no-use’ (wu-yong-zhi-da-yong). In Lao-zi, nothingness or

    non-action is not useful because it is useless, but because it is more useful than being or


    The third aspect of non-action is a recurring theme in Lao-zi. Non-action is to yield,

    act without arrogance or ? amboyance, or accomplish one’s job without fanfare. The

    most effective ruler is, according to Lao-zi, the one who keeps his people in the dark

    about his intention or activity. He makes sure that his people are simple-minded, do not travel and have no desire to see the world. He keeps everyone’s life primitive, so there

    Wu-Wei: Lao-zi and Zhuang-zi 55

    will not be much competition. He does not show his treasures, so no one desires them, to the extent that ‘a sage is clad in rags but carries jade in his pocket’ [9].

    This theme of crafty policy of early Daoism permeates the book of Lao-zi: ‘The

    ancient ruler who understands Dao does not enlighten, but stupe. es his people.’ If he

    wants to rise above them, he instead talks about serving them from below; if he wants to use others, he lets them take the lead [10]. This art of trickery is not only key to a king’s success, but also to that of the state. If a country wants to absorb another

    country, it puts itself ‘below’ that country. The surprise factor is paramount in war, so

    a country would not show off its weaponry before it strikes.

    2. Wu-Wei is Based on ‘Return’

    The utility of nothingness or the way of overcoming others by submitting to them is based on the Daoist

    principle: ‘The movement of Dao is to return’ [11]. This means

    that the strong at its peak always reverts to the weak, or that success is a hotbed for disaster. Therefore, if the end is to be strong, a wise man will choose to appear weak. He will not put himself in a position of competition, but choose to yield to others. But his purpose is not yielding. He thinks it best to have his way by yielding his way. ‘The

    sage follows others and, as a result, leads others.’ He appears altruistic, therefore is able

    to accomplish his private agenda [12].

    It is now obvious that non-action in Lao-zi is a means. The sage lets nature and his

    people take care of their own business for the sake of stability. The utility of nothingness is the utilitarian justi. cation of nonaction. The movement of Dao is always to return. By appearing weak, one becomes strong. By following, one leads. By serving, one masters. Hence, one does not act, but in the end leaves nothing undone (wu-wei-wu-bu-wei). Wu-wei (doing nothing) is a means to wu-bu-wei (leaving nothing

    undone). Wu-wei and wu-bu-wei are conceptually separable because the latter is the

    teleological cause of the former.

    3. Wu-Wei in Zhuang-zi: Be Gone (Qu) vs. to Govern (Zhi)

    In Zhuang-zi, the theme of wu-wei as a way to win the world is replaced by a nonchalant

attitude toward politics in general. In Lao-zi, one’s passivity toward worldly affairs

    belies a purpose of control and manipulation, but in Zhuang-zi, there is no ulterior

    motive beyond non-action in political governance. If the choice one is urged to take in Lao-zi is to govern by non-governing, one is now expected to turn away from governance all together and take up the task of life nurturing (yang-sheng). Zhuang-zi

    relegates the issue of governing to an issue of branch, dealing only with externality (zhi-wai), and calls people’s attention to maintaining their internal spirit, an issue of


    According to Zhuang-zi, to deal with externality, while oblivious to the internal nature of things, is as impossible as ‘digging a river in the sea, or asking a mosquito

    to carry a mountain’ [13]. Zhuang-zi inherits the belief, from Lao-zi, that everything

    is self- suf. cient, but has shifted its focus to that on which a thing’s self-suf. ciency

    depends: the nature of a thing. A thing’s nature is perceived in Daoism as a

    manifestation of Dao in individual things. People can rely on their own nature as much as on Dao itself. Even humble things know how to manage life in terms of their nature; for instance, birds know how to avoid an arrow by • ying high, and rodents dig deep to escape danger. Thus, is there any need to govern at all? The 56 Rui Zhu

    attitude of Zhuang-zi toward politics is an absolute rejection, differing from the secret politiking of Lao-zi:

    [When asked by Tian-Gen about the matter of governing the world,] the nameless man retorted: ‘Be gone! (italics mine) You worthless man, why ask

    such a boring question! I am just about to befriend the Great Creator; if bored, I will ride on the remote, high-soaring bird, go beyond the six extremes, wander in the never-never-land and limitless realm of the world. Why do you disturb me with such a question?’ [14]

    Be gone to the question of governance! One need not be concerned about running the world at all. The implausibility of caring for things from outside, the way of externality, instead of trusting things to their own nature, is illustrated by a fable in which the Count of Lu wasted the life of his pet bird by caring for it in a non-birdly, but humane, way [15]. What is good for a man is not necessarily good for a bird. What is good for me is not necessarily good for others. Zhuang-zi wants people to stop

    worrying about things that they do not need to worry about, calls for abandoning any normative way of thinking, and recommends leading a natural, unbounded way of life by following nature only. As a result, governance, a way of externality, gives way to life nurturing, the way of internality. Zhuang-zi’s philosophy is an interesting turn from that

    of Lao-zi.

    4. Wu-Wei in Zhuang-zi: To Forget (Wang) vs. To Hide (Cang)

    Action (wei) in Zhuang-zi also means inauthenticity (wei). Eve