Taoism: Following the Way

Sunday, September 23, 2018
First Aired: 
Sunday, December 13, 2015

What is it

Taoism (sometimes Daoism) is one of the great philosophical traditions of China. Lao-Tzu, who is commonly regarded as its founder, said that “Those who know, do not speak; those who speak, do not know.” The arguments that Taoist texts offer for skepticism may seem surprisingly modern. Yet these same texts also offer recommendations for certain ways of life over others. So what exactly is Taoism, and what are its main tenets? Is it a religion, a philosophy, or a way of life? How do Taoists reconcile endorsing a specific way of life with skepticism about human thinking? John and Ken go east with Bryan Van Norden from Vassar College, author of numerous translations and books on Chinese thought, including Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy.

Listening Notes

John and Ken contextualize Taoism’s major thinkers, Zhuangzi and Laozi, by connecting them to their near contemporary Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher who thought similarly to Zhuangzi and Laozi. The two major works of Taoism contain many parables and aphorisms, but was Taoism created by these two thinkers or was it systematized later on by their followers— similar to how Christianity was created by followers of Christ? Also, which came first: Taoism as a religion or as a philosophy? Or is that distinction too Western and non-applicable to Taoism?

John and Ken are joined by Bryan Van Norden, professor of philosophy at Vassar College and author of Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. They start by asking what “the way” or the Tao is, and Bryan answers that it is a metaphysical entity that structures the universe that precedes time and space. Ken asks Bryan how we should make of the most famous parable from Zhuangzi, wherein Zhuangzi wakes up from a dream that he is a butterfly, but upon waking up, does not know whether he dreamt of being a butterfly or is now a butterfly that is dreaming that he is human. Bryan responds that this parable was less about what we know as Cartesian doubt and more about blurring the distinction between humans and other beings. The Tao is the ground of all things, both objects and moral judgments. 

Why does Taoism rely on parables? Bryan argues that Zhuangzi does not want to convince you of a doctrine but that he wants to make you see the world in new ways. Bryan also talks about how Taoism went on to influence East Asian Buddhism and eventually spread throughout East Asia, influencing martial arts as well. Women were also allowed to be important priestesses in Taoist ceremonies, which made Taoism more inclusive than Buddhism and Confucianism at the time. Today, Taoism has not recovered much from being outlawed among other religious systems during the Cultural Revolution, but Confucianism has come back thanks to government support. Taoism is non-moral, apolitical, and about approaching the world ironically, which can be liberating as an ideology for many.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:28): Shuka Kalantari visits a Taoist tea ceremony and seeks to get in touch with tea spirits.

  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:20): Ian Shoales looks at the appearance of the Tao in American popular culture and thought.

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Bryan van Norden, Professor of Philosophy, Vassar College

Researched By

Truman Chen

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