What I am looking for are sources (wether historical or, even better, contemporary), that stand in the tradition of daoistic philosophy and focus on the concept of humanity.

The goal is basically developing a holistic, more general understanding of man as destinct from animal in order to become more independent from what could be called 'western philosophy'.

There is a similar question regarding hinduistic (indian) philosophy here.

  • I started to write an answer but then realized I don't have any of the secondary literature collected for Daoism and human nature.
    – virmaior
    Sep 25, 2016 at 2:13
  • @virmaior: I nevertheless thank you for your insights. I absorb anything I can get my hands on ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Sep 25, 2016 at 11:58
  • Interesting. Scientific literature about the evolution of humankind is full of great books. Have you read any of them yet?
    – Rodrigo
    Jul 29, 2017 at 12:42
  • @Rodrigo: I do include books of e.g. Michael Tomasello and other similar literature. These are written with a western mindset, and in western scientific tradition, though. The hook is that Asians do not accept individualistic, libertarian notions of universal human rights western thought accepts as common-sense and often put the growth and needs of the community over individual rights (see Bangkok Declaration). This should be grounded in a different understanding of what it means to be human and the rights growing out of it. The religious and philosophical roots and extensions are of interest.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 29, 2017 at 13:01
  • I think you should be careful to separate the biological evolution (Darwinian evolution) from the social theory behind it (social Darwinism), because the first is real science, while the second is much more philosophy than science. And real science may have been dominated by Westerners, but its methods are universal, and anybody coming from any cultural/mythological background is able to make the same advances or discarding of old theories. Next I'll suggest a few books you might enjoy (more real science than philosophy).
    – Rodrigo
    Jul 29, 2017 at 13:29

3 Answers 3


During recent years, there's been some pushback at distinguishing the texts of ancient Chinese philosophy by school. Instead, it is now commonly believed that separating them into schools arose later as sides were taken and Confucianism (or perhaps better Ruism 儒教) became a form of state orthodoxy. Thus, in contemporary discussions, Taoism 道家 or 道教 is associated with the Daodejing 道徳経 and the Zhuangzi 荘子 (and many texts at later points in its history).

A second thing to consider is that there's multiple strains of Daoism. Thus, there's an anti-social hermitic strain and what we could call a type of naturalistic approach among others. For a much better treatment of the strains, see the SEP entry on Daoism.

The Chinese term most closely associated with "human nature" is 人性 renxing. There's some debate as to whether any Chinese thinker had an essentialist view of human nature so there's a good deal of question as to what the xing here means (ren means human). Some Confucians have a prescriptivist account of what humans should be like and in part the Daoists are involved in rejecting these.

But it's not quite that simple. A major feature of Taoist thought is the rejection of Confucianism and its concept of the Dao as a harmonious society built on ritual. But the question is whether this is a mere rejection or a rejection because this mechanizes the Dao.

Here, I think we will need to distinguish between the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi in their general approaches. The Daodejing separates mere man from the sages (a term also use by Mencius / Mengzi / 孟子) and highlights how the sage will have better contact with the Dao. The Zhuangzi at several points highlights a rejection of traditional expectations for humanity -- arguing that these are out of contact with the Dao. Here's a few classical passages from Zhuangzi that hint at Daoist ideas of the specifically human:

  1. "Webbed Toes"
  2. "The Deformed Object Shu"
  3. From "The Full Understanding of Life"

I am having some trouble finding the exact reference but there's also a passage about a guy whose body is falling apart. His friends think something terrible is happening to him but he thinks it's fine because this is Dao.

Moving to secondary literature, my knowledge is a bit more limited since I haven't focused on Taoism in Chinese philosophy. My sense is a good place to start is by reading through the prefaces to recent translations by Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont of the Daodeijing and oddly enough the Analects and some other texts. They write extensively about their translation choices and have an opinion on the subject directly.

I've commented briefly on some of that in a publication with respect to their views of autonomy vs. relationality in the self, but I do recall having done some reading on renxing in Chinese thought, but I'm not sure where those notes are.


In Nonduality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy, David Loy mentions the following in his Bibliography for Daoism (and also notes that there isn't a lot of literature available):

One of the most interesting is by Chang Chung-yuan: Tao: A New Way of Thinking (New York: Harper and Row, 1975). It includes an introduction and extensive commentary which relates Taoist to Western thought, particularly that of Heidegger.


Zhuangzi is regarded as having ideas about the evolution of life, though he haven't found a method, like Darwin and Wallace did. Anyway, he considered human beings as just another animal species, subject to the same natural rules as the others. In James Legge's translation of 至樂 we read:

The seeds (of things) are multitudinous and minute. On the surface of the water they form a membranous texture. When they reach to where the land and water join they become the (lichens which we call the) clothes of frogs and oysters. Coming to life on mounds and heights, they become the plantain; and, receiving manure, appear as crows' feet. The roots of the crow's foot become grubs, and its leaves, butterflies. This butterfly, known by the name of xu, is changed into an insect, and comes to life under a furnace. Then it has the form of a moth, and is named the Qu-duo. The Qu-duo after a thousand days becomes a bird, called the gan-yu-gu. Its saliva becomes the si-mi, and this again the shi-xi (or pickle-eater). The yi-lu is produced from the pickle-eater; the huang-kuang from the jiu-you; the mou-rui from the fu-quan. The yang-xi uniting with a bamboo, which has long ceased to put forth sprouts, produces the qing-ning; the qing-ning, the panther; the panther, the horse; and the horse, the man. Man then again enters into the great Machinery (of Evolution), from which all things come forth (at birth), and which they enter at death.

In the Dao De Jing, although humankind arises from the myriad of the "ten thousand things" (万物), we have a special place in it (because we're a little smarter? Or because we are us, and one should value itself? It's not clear). Other passages, however, reduce the importance of this "special place", as we shall see later.

DDJ 40

All things under heaven sprang from It as existing (and named); that existence sprang from It as non- existent (and not named).

DDJ 42

The Dao produced One; One produced Two; Two produced Three; Three produced All things.

DDJ 25

the Dao is great; Heaven is great; Earth is great; and the (sage) king is also great. In the universe there are four that are great, and the (sage) king is one of them.

In my original I have 人 instead of 王 in chapter 25, so I read "people is also great" instead of "the (sage) king is also great". The original here also uses 人, though all three translations there translate 王 (the "representative of Heaven and Earth" -- Heaven is the top row, Earth the bottom row, and their representative, the middle row, connects top and bottom).

Anyway, from Daoist general point of view, we humans are bound to the rules of Nature/Dao, just like any other species. Since we're not different, we don't deserve any "special treatment":


Heaven and earth do not act from (the impulse of) any wish to be benevolent; they deal with all things as the dogs of grass are dealt with.

Dogs of grass, or straw dogs, were small decorative objects specially made for a ritual celebrating life, and destroyed after the ritual. Just like we are born, live, and are finally destroyed in the end.

Considering also that our own instincts are usually enough for a good life, the Daoist mindset puts us closer to the other animals than the Western monotheisms:

DDJ 57

Therefore a sage has said, 'I will do nothing (of purpose), and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity.'

The "primitive simplicity" is considered an ideal not impossible to achieve even nowadays, opposed to that Adam and Eve had "before the fall" in the "Garden of Eden".

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