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Lafargue answers some frequently asked questions:

Q. “Are you saying it is wrong to ignore the question of original meaning and use the Daodejing as a stimulus and guide in one’s personal search for the truth?”

A. Absolutely not. This has been the approach of Chinese commentators throughtout the ages, and millions have undoubtedly profited greatly from this kind of reading. ‘American Daoists’ such as Benjamin Hoff and Fritjof Capra are simply continuing this tradition – why should it matter that they are not Chinese? The Daodejing is public property and people can do with it whatever they want. If it serves to stimulate and inspire, who could object?

I do have trouble with scholars who place great emphasis on some linguistic or historical point that they think others have missed, complain about ‘translations’ by unscholarly amateurs like Stephen Mitchell and Witter Bynner, insisting on setting limits to what can be considered a ‘legitimate’ interpretation of the Daodejing – but then in the next breath declare their belief that the Daodejing is an ‘open’ text, by its very nature inviting multiple interpretations, so that the project of reconstructing its original meaning is misguided from the start. I believe either that one is trying as best one can to reconstruct what the Daodejing meant to its original authors and audience, or one is not. If one is not, then there is no basis for placing any limits on what can be considered a legitimate interpretation; historical and linguistic information is at best just one more source of interesting ideas among many. Serious historical and linguistic scholarship is relevant only if one is trying to reconstruct what the text originally meant. And in this case, the idea that the Daodejing is an open text with no determinate meaning means that historical research will always be half-hearted, providing an opening for scholars to insert their favorite personal ideas unsupported by historical or linguistic evidence, while at the same time claiming special status for these personal interpretations because they are somehow connected to expertise in linguistic and historical matters.

Q. “Why do you insist that students not take a more free and ahistorical approach in your classes?”

A. Free reading is something all readers can do on their own at home, using whatever version or ‘translation’ of the Daodejing gives them the most inspiration and stimulation. Using the Daodejing in this way might also be quite appropriate in a creative writing course, for example, where the goal is to give students some stimulus and inspiration for developing their own thoughts on whatever subject interests them.

On the other hand, the project of recovering and engaging with the original meaning of the Daodejing is something difficult to do on one’s own, and something for which a college classroom is uniquely suited. And there are some things that can be gained from this kind of historical reading that cannot be gained from a more free reading. For example, this kind of reading is more likely to present students with something more foreign to their present views, therefore something that will require them to stretch their minds further. Also, the Daodejing gives paradigmatic expression to some ways of seeing the world that became foundational for many aspects of later East Asian culture (aspects not always specifically associated with the Daodejing or Daoism)…

Teaching the Daode Jing, Edited by Gary Delaney DeAngelis and Warren G. Frisina. Oxford University Press, 2008, pages 170-1)