Quote 2 of 2.

“The point an aphorism makes resides not in the contents of what is said, but in the implicit choice made to bring up this image rather than another. This choice in turn conveys the attitude of the speaker. When someone is deciding whether to take a risk, I might choose say “Better safe than sorry” or I might choose to say “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” The crucial issue behind this choice is not which saying is objectively more true, but which saying I think puts this particular situation in the right perspective. A child who says “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is not explaining an objective truth but is “posturing” – assuming a certain posture or attitude toward a situation, insisting on seeing it in a certain perspective. Everyone saying an aphorism is “posturing” – assuming a certain posture or attitude toward the situation and inviting his or her addressee to share this attitude. In bringing up a particular aphorism, one is not primarily conveying information; one is primarily expressing an attitude. The ultimate basis on which an aphorism hopes to persuade is not the objective truth it directly states, but the attractiveness of the attitude or perspective it “acts out” toward the situation it addresses.

Frequently this attractiveness lies in the particular value orientation underlying the saying. In my view, a relatively unified attitude underlies the entire body of Laoist polemic aphorisms, motivated by a particular value orientation. This attitude, cultivated as a “state or quality of mind,” is the Laoist “Tao,” the Laoist Way, the Laoist “approach” to life (see p. 214).

This attitude is something “acted out” in a saying (“performed” by the saying, as J. L. Austin32 might say), rather than explicitly spoken about in the saying. This is an important part of what it means to say (43[1]:1) that Tao cannot be named. In the present view, this point is immensely important to understanding the Tao Te Ching. Applying it to Laoist aphorisms reveals the perspectival and value-laden character of Laoist wisdom. Laoists neither teach a relativist skepticism of all values33 nor is their advice based on a completely objective set of truths. They take a decisive stand in favor of one particular set of values and advocate adopting an attitude toward all situations based on this set of values. Attitude is important also when considering the problem of “consistency” in the Tao Te Ching. The “consistency” of Laoist wisdom is not based on a set of doctrines or moral-spiritual principles, which Laoists consistently apply to all situations. What is most consistent in the Laoist “system” (see pp. 213-214) is the attitude the aphorisms “perform.” In un-Laoist fashion I have attempted to give an explicit account of the basic value orientation motivating the Laoist attitude, see p. 239 under “Organic* harmony.”

Note that normally, none of the three elements outlined here [the target, the image, and the attitude and the value orientation motivating it] is mentioned explicitly in a given proverb. And yet in every proverb these three elements are essential to its meaning, and highly specific; to guess wrongly about one of them is to misunderstand the proverb. In trying to understand a difficult proverb in the Tao Te Ching, it will not do to stare at the words and try to read directly off of them the meaning of the proverb. What we must do is make educated guesses – with the help of background information and parallel sayings in the Tao Te Ching – about the three essential meaning elements outlined earlier.

The kind of analysis of Laoist aphorisms this leads to can be illustrated by using the famous example: “One who speaks does not understand” (30[56]:1). It is incorrect to take this to mean that literally anyone who ever says anything must lack understanding. One could paraphrase its meaning rather as follows:

1. You might tend to be easily impressed by skillful speech and so assume that the eloquent speaker is a person of great understanding (this is the saying’s “target”).
2. To counter this, I want to call your attention to the image of empty-headed eloquence in which you can see a connection between skillful speech and lack of real knowledge.
3. As a reason for accepting this point, I invite you to adopt a value orientation and attitude in which substance is all-important even when not impressive and impressive show is of little importance (this is the attitude or “posture” the saying expresses).

I think reflection on our normal ways of making decisions in life would show that our processes approximate the “aphoristic” way of thinking illustrated here much more closely than they do the “logical deductions from consistent principles” we usually assume as an official ideal. In my view, attention to the meaning- structure of aphorisms is the single most important key to a proper understanding of the Tao Te Ching.”

The Tao of the Tao Te Ching: A Translation and Commentary by Michael Lafargue; State University of New York Press, 1992. Pages 203-205.


From “Tao and Method,” Chapter Six

“The semantic structure of aphorisms.
1. The proverb as a special genre of speech.

Holmes Welch makes this comment on the saying “A violent man will not reach his natural end” (36[42]:6):

“Lao Tzu is wrong about it, of course. Violent men usually die natural deaths, but not always. In our day the dictatorial score is two to one**assuming Stalin was not done in by his doctors.”[1]

Welch’s comment implicitly assumes that sayings like this belong to the genre of “general laws.” Their formal structure is “A always leads to B,” and so they belong formally to the same linguistic genre as Newton’s, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The “competence” required to understand the structure of these statements, their relation to reality, and their basis in reality, is formally the same. Fung Yu-Lan[2] is even more explicit in asserting that much of Laoist wisdom consists of attempts to formulate general “laws of nature.” This approach has a certain initial appeal, both because it is straightforwardly literal and hence apparently the “simplest” approach, and also because it assimilates Laoist thought to modern scientific and philosophical thought.

When interpreted this way, however, the Tao Te Ching seems to contain many implausible propositions dogmatically asserted without argument.[3] It also contains many contradictions (see p. 000). The fact that there are many ways in which the text does not make sense when interpreted this way should serve as an initial suspicion, at least, that this may not be the most plausible hypothesis about the way language is being used here. And it is relevant to note here (1) that, in their form, Laoist aphorisms[4] resemble proverbs in general use, and (2) that many proverbs in common use also would be subject to a Welch’s objection if they were interpreted as general laws: Consider such wildly implausible general laws as, “When it rains it pours,” and “A watched pot never boils.” And consider such contradictory pairs of general laws as “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” vs. “Out of sight, out of mind,”; and “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” vs. “It’s never too late to learn.” If people really regarded these as general laws predicting what will always or even probably happen, only extremely thoughtless people would ever use them.

In what follows, I will argue (1) that the practical and polemic element in Laoist wisdom is cast largely in the form of aphorisms that have the same formal semantic structure as proverbs generally. And (2) in our everyday use of familiar proverbs, we implicitly understand them as having a formal structure very different from the formal structure of general laws, and we construe them as having a different relation to reality. It is only when the unfamiliarity of a Laoist proverb prevents such spontaneous implicit understanding, that we revert to the “simple” model of literal discourse.


A proverb’s target is also essential in that the meaning of an proverb consists essentially in the fact that it is corrective. Consider for example the fact that “Slow and steady wins the race,” is a common proverb although it is not reliable as a general law about who wins races. “The race usually goes to the swift” is more true, but is not a proverb. Why? People have a tendency to assume that being swift is always the only way to win races, and “Slow and steady wins the race” corrects this tendency. It wakes people up to a different possibility. Its point, which is its meaning, is to compensate for this tendency. But there is no tendency to think that fast people will not win. “The race is to the swift” has nothing to compensate for, and so it has no point that is very useful in ordinary life. As a proverb it lacks significant meaning, because proverbs are essentially corrective, compensatory wisdom. The meaning of an aphorism is exhausted in making a point against a particular target. The scope of its claims is limited to the situation in which it is said. This is a major difference between proverbs and general laws. In evaluating a statement proposed as a general law, say a law of physics, it is important to compare it to a body of established laws to see if it is logically compatible with them. An individual general law needs to be logically connected to and consistent with a system of general laws. Proverbs are not like this. A person might say on one occasion, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and on another occasion, “Out of sight, out of mind.” There is no contradiction here, because the meaning of each proverb is exhausted by making a point against a particular target in a particular situation. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” does not really make any claim about necessary or even probable connections between things, which could conflict with similar general claims made by “Out of sight, out of mind.” The meaning of both sayings is completely context-bound, narrowly limited in scope rather than making general claims. Proverbs are extremely “context-bound” in one sense, if by “context” we mean the concrete life setting in which they are said. But in another sense their meaning is extremely self-contained and free of context, if by “context” we mean some further body of general theories to which they are connected.5. The attitude expressed and the value-orientation motivating it.”


This is excellent stuff, if you ask me (Scott).