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I find some of the individual ideas in Taoism comforting when applied to my own life (e.g. effortless action, non-attachment, acceptance, duality), but I don't really know what Taoism is as an all encompassing framework, and how it naturally leads to these ideas. Taoism seems to be a description of "the way" of things and non-things, and "that way" is the Tao. But why do things (and non-things) need to share a common way? Why must I follow a certain way? Why should I practice non-attachment, for example?

I guess my question is, is Taoism a philosophy or a 'spiritual guide'/religious text? In my eyes, a philosophy tries to justify their ideas using logical reasoning, but I am reading the Tao Te Ching (translated by Derek Lin) and there isn't much justification of anything. Do the ideas need to be justified to be a philosophy? Or can a philosophy just be a lens through which we can view life and the universe?

I hope my question makes sense. I am just a bit frustrated reading this text. I want to understand the essence of it, but I am struggling a bit. Any guidance is appreciated, thank you.

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    I think it is basically a psychology, like Buddhism is. The lens is us looking at the world, and all the things we see out there are projections of how we perceive and think. Seems pretty indisputable.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 7, 2023 at 13:10
  • 1
    "Seems pretty indisputable" please may you elaborate?
    – jacob
    Dec 7, 2023 at 13:16
  • 2
    See Daoism : "Daoism stands alongside Confucianism as one of the two great religious/philosophical systems of China." Please, note that both categories of philosophy and religion according to Western tradition does not necessarily fit with other tradition. Both Daoism and Confucianism are usually considered religions, but they are quite "strange" for us: no God, nor church, no transcendence, no afterlife... Dec 7, 2023 at 13:16
  • If I say that what we see or believe we see is shaped by how we see, is there any possible refutation?
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 7, 2023 at 13:20
  • 1
    I see Daoism as above all a stance towards the limits on the usefulness of language & symbolic reasoning. See: 'Philosophers or philosophical traditions that reject symbolic reasoning' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/82360/…
    – CriglCragl
    Dec 7, 2023 at 13:59

8 Answers 8

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I do not agree with the other answers (at the time this comment was made, I agree with some of the answers now). Just because an eastern philosophy values different ways of doing philosophy (like an absence of logic, which isn't necessarily true either) does not mean it is not philosophy, or that it doesn't have philosophical merit. Saying it doesn't count as 'philosophy' (whatever that means to you) reinforces the idea that the western tradition is 'right' or 'higher' compared to others (not saying anyone does believe this, but it is an implication of what may be said by dismissing some eastern philosophy). Yes, the traditions are dramatically different in how they approach philosophy, but both are still philosophy. As soon as your definition restricts the field to something that requires logic or what-have-you, you're excluding and diminishing important traditions, creating a western philosophy echo-chamber of sorts.

Daoism and Confucianism is respected and studied as philosophy by many academics. To find an overview of both of their philosophy and philosophical merits, you can look at The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (linked), where both are treated as philosophical traditions worthy of being studied and thought of as philosophy. Not to mention the countless western philosophers that have been influenced by eastern thought.

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    So you are agreeing with the second option in the OP: "Or can a philosophy just be a lens through which we can view life and the universe?" I guess it depends on which door marked 'Philosophy' you want to walk through. I like the 'Fire Exit' door :-)
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 7, 2023 at 16:33
  • Maybe you could agree with some of the newer answers now?
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 7, 2023 at 20:26
  • @ScottRowe definitely Dec 8, 2023 at 3:16
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Like many questions in philosophy, this is the subject of live controversy, and does not admit an entirely agenda-free, objective answer. I will outline some of the major points of view, try to give them context, and advocate for my personal choice:

  • "Philosophy is a Greek word, describing a practice originating in the Greco-Roman tradition, and is properly applied only to the European tradition of philosophy": This is a common point of view, particularly historically. While it's true that "philosophy" is a Greek word, and that what we now think of as, for instance, "Chinese philosophers" weren't necessarily conceptualized in the same way in their own historical context, it's also true that many of the views and perspectives we unquestioningly call "philosophical" in the European tradition have close analogs in the Chinese "philosophical" tradition (often centuries earlier). Once we eliminate racism or Eurocentrism, there doesn't seem to be any valid reason to deny them the label "philosophy." For a good, scholarly examination of this topic, with references and citations, I recommend VanNorden's book on the topic, Taking Back Philosophy (Columbia University Press: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/taking-back-philosophy/9780231184373)

  • "Philosophy is a logic-based discipline": It's quite possible, of course, to agree that many Chinese systems of thought count as philosophies, but deny that title to Taoism. This is the line of argument developed in the original post. The idea that philosophy is primarily logical, however, is largely the specific position of the analytic tradition of philosophy, and isn't universally endorsed. Plato, for instance, uses logic extensively, but mostly destructively. In the Neoplatonist tradition (which I follow) we understand Plato as using logic only as a tool to open his followers' eyes to the deeper, more mystical truths he wants to guide them towards (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/neoplatonism/). Neoplatonism, to the extent that it is an extralogical philosophy, is not entirely unlike Taoism in this way--the same can be said of Kierkegaardian Existentialism, the work of thinkers in the Continental tradition such as Deleuze and Guattari, and (as Ted noted in his answer) the philosophical traditions of most religions.

  • "Philosophy is a organized system of thought or inquiry, characteristically concerned with unsolved or controversial questions, and aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of the world": This would present my own shot at defining philosophy, and as such, I'm not in the best position to critique objectively, except to say it might cast too wide a net. At any rate, it would admit Taoism without reservations.

The aim here is not necessarily to argue for one point of view over another, but to illuminate the ways in which a seemingly simple question such as "Is Taoism a philosophy?" taps into multiple unsettled controversies.

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First, let me point out that this question blurs Buddhism and Daoism a bit. That's understandable; Buddhism has tended to absorb and co-opt other traditions as it expanded, so a lot of our perspective on Daoism has a distinctly Buddhist flavor. But strictly speaking, concepts like 'non-attachment' are not specifically Daoist.

At any rate...

Daoism is a mystical philosophy, not an analytical philosophy. The difference:

  • analytical philosophy (which makes up the bulk of modern Western philosophy) is language-centric. It tries to capture deep, fundamental concepts in language so that they can be explored and understood within explicit cognitive structures
  • mystical philosophy (which covers most older philosophical schools, and persists within certain religious traditions) is apperception-centric. It holds that deep, fundamental concepts cannot be captured within the limitations of language, and can only be captured implicitly through reflection, contemplation, and experience.

The first few sections of the daodejing spell that out specifically, trying to explain that words are not going to get us to the understanding we desire, and to lead us beyond them.

If I were to summarize the philosophy (briefly and coarsely) I'd start by pointing out that the title 'daodejing' is merely descriptive. It's three words:

  • Dao: the way (the way of the world); how things work; what 'is' in a dynamic, systemic sense.
  • De: virtue (virtuous behavior); what we should do to work with and within the way of the world
  • Jing: classical text or scripture

So we can see that daoism is a naturalist philosophy, suggesting that the world works in a certain way, and we are part of that world. The best way to live our lives comes from understanding that 'way' and conforming to it instead of fighting against it. Fighting against the way is exhausting, destructive, and ultimately futile; real virtue calls for a more finessed approach of working within the world so that the way of things naturally supports and amplifies one's efforts. The rub, of course, is that this 'way' cannot be captured in structured philosophy. That's the first line: "The way we can talk about is not the way, the word we can use is not the word". So, much of the work is an exercise in pointing and describing, trying to bring across the sense of the way without falling into the trap of denoting what cannot be denoted.

Most ancient philosophies are wrapped in religious ideation. Prior to the invention of the printing press, the only way to maintain a philosophical tradition was through oral transmission or hand transcription, which demands an organized and dedicated order of people (aka, a cult or sect). But the justification for the dao is not primarily spiritual or religious. It's philosophical: an observation that intellectual knowledge is partial and superficial, so we have to learn to see through what we know to get at understanding.

Hope that helps.

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  • Let me ask you two questions: 1. Why do you say that this question blurs Buddhism and Daoism a bit. The OP's question does not speak about Buddhism. 2. You mention at least three different philosophies: analytic, mystical, naturalist. What is your definition of the basic term "philosophy"? Thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 7, 2023 at 19:32
  • @JoWehler: (1) The question invokes at least one (and possibly two) concepts that are buddhist interpretations or extensions of daoism. Not a problem; just being clear. Dec 7, 2023 at 19:50
  • @JoWehler: (2) Philosophy is any structured and systematic approach to understanding the place of human beings within the material world. It's the reification of the is/ought problem. Dec 7, 2023 at 19:55
  • 1
    This is an excellent answer and I have upvoted, but I will point out that I don't think "jing" is a superlative. My Chinese dictionary and Wikipedia suggest that "jing" means "scripture" or "classic work", as in "fojing" ("Buddhist scripture"), "shengjing" ("Holy Scripture", aka the Christian Bible) or "shisanjing" (the "Thirteen Classics" of Confucian tradition).
    – T Hummus
    Dec 8, 2023 at 4:33
  • @THummus: You're right; I misremembered. I'll correct. Dec 8, 2023 at 5:25
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  1. You ask

    Taoism a philosophy or a 'spiritual guide'/religious text?

    I consider Taoism a highly speculative worldview. It is not philosophy because - as you say - Taoism in general lacks philosophical arguments based on logic. Already at the beginning the teaching veils itself by rejecting any explanation:

    The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.

  2. There is the classical introduction by Alan Watts: What is Tao?

    And also Trey Smith and Alex Paul: Around the Tao in 80 days. The latter book has for each of the 81 sections a short commentary. So one can read the Tao like a daily calendar motto with a short comment. The book can be read online, it is embedded within the blog The Rambling Taoist. Already a blog entry for the first section, written by Ben Hu, shows the necessity to identify and to problematize the two fundamental technical terms "Wu = nothing" and "You = anything".

  3. I share your experience with Taoism. For me Taoism seems more cloudy than comparable texts, e.g. the Upanishads from Hinduism. But from time to time one stumbles upon some aphorism which speaks to oneself, recalling some personal experience or insight. Possibly one has to be content with these moments.

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  • "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao" does indeed reject any intellectualizing about the Tao, so that is a good point. Appreciate the point about a "speculative worldview" - something to think about! :)
    – jacob
    Dec 7, 2023 at 13:39
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    You pick an unjustifiably narrow definition for philosophy. A great deal of Stoicism focuses not on word games, but personal development & reflection - which is about experiential change, not logic. Stating that language is limited in understanding the world, is not rejecting understanding; see also Nagarjuna, or the Buddhist Hsinhsinming. I think you need, like with koans, to read into the cultural context & philosophical/religious disputes of the time, or of course it will seem incomprehensible. Like any writing from millennia ago.
    – CriglCragl
    Dec 7, 2023 at 15:06
  • @CriglCragl You object to my concept of philosophy as being to narrow. Could you please state your definition of philosophy; thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Dec 7, 2023 at 18:06
  • I understand philosophy as a toolbox for correcting distortions in our thinking, & enabling wise choices. Discussed in more detail here: '(Why) is this negative outlook on the concept of philosophy misguided?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/86865/…
    – CriglCragl
    Dec 7, 2023 at 19:05
  • 'Speculative' applied to Taoism must be a first😃 Did you by any chance mean 'enigmatic'?
    – Rushi
    Dec 8, 2023 at 5:29
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Daodejing is based on a philosophical logic called dialectical reason which has been criticized by Western analytical philosophers as being a logic of illusions. The theoretical foundations of the criticism also apply to metaphysics in general and are part of the push against metaphysical philosophy.

For example, Kant's view on dialectical logic is that.it is the part of logic that deals with the discovery and solutions of logical illusions in fallacious inferences. It is the reification of ideas or the trend of reason toward hypostatic assumptions. Kant's dialectic is not a separate theory but an integral part of logical theory itself, on the same footing as the other part called analytic. It is a logic of illusion, and its illusory assertions do not fit into a canon of the sort that the analytic ought to contain. Kant's Transcendental Dialectic argues for the restriction of knowledge within the bounds of sensibility and provides a critique of metaphysics. In summary, Kant's view is that dialectical logic deals with logical illusions and is an integral part of logical theory, providing a critique of the understanding and reason

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  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Dec 8, 2023 at 10:02
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This was my first post and it wasn't finished. It was posted trought the Stackexchange mobile app after attempting to add a new line through the enter key.

I would like to add a quote from the recently re-emerges 1950 letter of Albert Einstein in which he criticized the deterministic nature of Quantum Theory by denoting a magical and logically unjustified assumption about reality. It is the space of that assumption in which metaphysical philosophies such as Daodejing are ablego find plausible philosophical ground.

To answer the question: philosophy is primarily about the Why question and whether one attempts to restrict logic to the boundary of language or accent poetry as a means to convey meaning, ultimately what matters is plausibility of an answer in the face of what can be considered Good.

Albert Einstein on the fundamental assumption of reality in Quantum Theory:

 

Dear Schrödinger,

You are the only contemporary physicist, besides Laue, who sees that one cannot get around the assumption of reality-if only one is honest. Most of them simply do not see what sort of risky game they are playing with reality-reality as something independent of what is experimentally established. They somehow believe that the quantum theory provides a description of reality, and even a complete description; this interpretation is, however, refuted...

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  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Dec 8, 2023 at 8:59
0

Daodejing is based on a philosophical logic called dialectical reason which has been criticized by Western analytical philosophers as being a logic of illusions. The theoretical foundations of the criticism also apply to metaphysics in general.

For example, Kant's view on dialectical logic is that "it is the part of logic that deals with the discovery and solutions of logical illusions in fallacious inferences. It is the reification of ideas or the trend of reason toward hypostatic assumptions. Kant argues that dialectical logic is a logic of illusion, and its illusory assertions do not fit into a canon of the sort that the analytic ought to contain. Kant's Transcendental Dialectic argues for the restriction of knowledge within the bounds of sensibility and provides a critique of metaphysics."

Philosophy is primarily about the Why question and whether one attempts to restrict logic to the boundary of language or accept poetry as a means to convey meaning, ultimately what matters is plausibility of an answer. Therefore a primary means for academic progress in philosophy is through critiques.

While Kant showed a Western case against metaphysics and dialectical philosophy such as Daodejing, a recently re-emerged 1950 letter of Albert Einstein in which he criticized the deterministic nature of Quantum Theory by denoting a magical and logically unjustified assumption about reality, shows a critique and a Western case for a philosophical door to metaphysics. 

"_Dear Schrödinger,

You are the only contemporary physicist, besides Laue, who sees that one cannot get around the assumption of reality-if only one is honest. Most of them simply do not see what sort of risky game they are playing with reality-reality as something independent of what is experimentally established. They somehow believe that the quantum theory provides a description of reality, and even a complete description; this interpretation is, however, refuted..._"

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The Tao [Way] that can be told of is not the eternal Tao

Does this not suggest that someone who calls the Way "a philosophy" or "a religion" is somehow missing the point? It is merely the Way.

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