Once upon a time I made some photocopies of some sections of Chad Hansen’s A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. (Google Book, Amazon). I felt enlightened to some issues he dealt with but was more disbelieving of his overall project, which seemed to interpret everything in the Daodejing or Laozi in terms of “philosophy of language.” Recently I began re-reading some of his work (I don’t have a copy of the book yet) and thought I’d share some thoughts on it. These comments are just on some sections of the book and are not fully-informed from reading the entire book from cover-to-cover.

On page 200, regarding Daoism/the Laozi, he writes, “you do not lessen the explanatory burden on an interpretive theory by observing simply that the orthodoxy accepts it … the ancestry of a bad interpretation does not make it a good interpretation.” I don’t disagree with this, although it’s certainly possible that an interpretation that has a long history may be closer to the correct one. [edit: see Chris Panza’s comment below.]

On page 201, he writes, “We [Chad Hansen] share with Neo-Confucianism the assumption that the text [the Laozi] is a philosophy text: that it fits into the philosophical milieu we have been talking about. We have seen that Confucius, Mozi, and Mencius have psychological and linguistic doctrines which differ from Western folk theory. Our assumption amounts to saying the theory of the Daode Jing should emerge from some of the same presuppositions and focus on the same issues. The holistic principles of interpretation rule out the image of a philosopher as a private thinker reflecting on the world de novo from innate Platonic concepts.4 The Daoist is not going to start, inexplicitly, talking of truth and meaning, definitions, proof structure, reality and belief. He is not proposing how to further the debate between Parmedides and Heraclitus. He would be reflecting on the Ru-Mo Confucian-Mencius [Mohist?] dispute about shi-fei this:not this, names, dao, guidance in language, and social organization.”

Again, I find much to agree with, but I do not share his assumption that the authors of the Laozi were philosophers in much the same vein as Confucius, Mencius and Mozi. I believe there is evidence that the authors had some interests significantly different from them. For example, I think some of them had much stronger “spiritual” inclinations/experiences. Hansen seems to think that everything they have to say will be on the same topics as Confucians and Mohists. He makes it sound ridiculous to disagree with him by tossing out some Greek names like Plato, Parmedides and Heraclitus. Some might argue that his book subtitle does say his interpretation is a philosophical one (much like Hall & Ames’ Daodejing translation). Indeed it does, and perhaps that is a significant detriment to his reconstruction of “Daoism.”

Hansen and I both share the view that the text of the Laozi is an edited collection of “fragments” and that there was no single author. We also both agree that the Mawangdui versions of the text may or may not be closer to the original. His goal is to challenge the traditional interpretation of the Laozi, and since the Mawangdui texts may differ from this, they are largely irrelevant to this project. In his note to this issue, he wrote, “I agree with Schwartz in treating the Mawang Dui text as belonging to a Huang-Lao cult that became popular with the ruling circles at the onset of the Qin-Han dark age. What has emerged as the contents of those documents so far does not incline me to class the text among the philosophically interesting schools of the classical period. Part of my choice of text reflects a view that the philosophical interest of the text is diminished and subverted by the structural changes. The prominent one is to place the political, purposive part of the text first and to bury the philosophical reflections on language that explain it in the middle. This reflects a split in editorial intentions. One stresses political strategy, the other the philosophical reflections. Similarly the Mawang Dui text adds characters that seem designed to force what I would argue is a less successful interpretation on ambiguous passages. I choose the traditional text partly because it plausibly reflects Daoist and philosophical emphasis more than the Huang-Lao ruler-directed political emphasis. Given the assumptions that have guided this whole work, I treat it as more likely that philosophically interesting things will stem from the classical thinkers than they that they will be added during a period of ruler-dominated superstition orthodoxy and suppression of philosophy.” (p. 400 n6)

Hmmm. Throwing out terms like “Qin-Han dark age” and “ruler-dominated superstition orthodoxy” seem unnecessary and probably untrue. Personally, I don’t think the structural changes diminish and subvert the stuff that is philosophically interesting. I happen think that the Mawangdui’s first chapter (traditionally #38) is quite interesting. I was surprised to learn that Hansen thinks the grammatical particles that we find in the Mawangdui texts were added, and not the more common view that they were removed over time (resulting in the Traditional text). The version of the text found at Guodian (after Hansen had published his book) do not support his conclusion (see chapters 2, 9, 16, 40), but it also doesn’t completely negate his view, as in other places the Guodian and traditional text lack the grammatical particles the Mawangdui texts have. I suspect it is chiefly the traditional first chapter where Hansen objects to the Mawangdui texts’ additional particles (see his note 7 on pages 400-1). Unfortunately, the Guodian text does not contain that chapter (possibly because it hadn’t been written yet). The Mawangdui texts’ use of Heng 恆 in place of Chang 常 seem to be the original word used, as verified in other places in the Guodian text and the likelihood of Heng being replaced because it became a taboo word near the beginning of the Han.

As for his opinion that “philosophically interesting things will stem from the classical thinkers,” and not those from the “Qin-Han dark age,” I snicker.

In a second note, he wrote, “The new discoveries confirm the previously held view that the text was still circulating in a state of flux as late as the Han Dynasty. And they prove the existence of a Huang-Lao cult and render live the hypothesis that adherents of different schools selected and edited texts in different ways. The discovery of one sample neither disproves nor seriously undermines the prior assumption that earlier varieties of the traditional text were also circulating at that time. We should not refer to the Mawang Dui text as the state of the text at that time. To draw that conclusion would be to try to determine the batch from one instance – and in this case an instance drawn from a place that marks it as a biased sample: the tomb of a powerful member of the ruling class! Intellectual hermits were not buried in tombs that would preserve their rotting bones into the twentieth century … I would assign a higher probability to the hypothesis that versions of at least both traditions were circulating at the time …” (p. 400 n7)

I think Hansen makes some excellent points here. (He says a bit more about his view in his note that continues onto page 401). I don’t know what he means when he says the Mawangdui texts (texts, plural, and not singular as he keeps saying) “prove the existence of a Huang-Lao cult.” They certainly don’t. And I don’t really buy his argument that the Mawangdui texts are biased because they were buried in a tomb or his assumption that the original authors were poor “intellectual hermits.”

Hansen writes, “We assume further that the text is a Daoist one. This assumption is particularly troublesome since there was no clear Daoist school in the sense in which there was a Confucian and a Mohist school. Han Historians coined the term Dao Jia [道家] hundreds of years later. The philosophers in question do share some attitudes and doctrines. What justifies the term is that both central texts (The Daode Jing and the Zhuangzi) focus on second-level metadiscussion of dao itself. Daoists were intrigued by the Ru-Mo Confucian-Mohist dispute about which dao to follow and by the problems of interpreting dao in practical action. Should we even be trying to construct, propose and effect a positive dao? They began to reflect on the very nature of dao and on deep puzzles in the proposal to guide guiding discourse.” (p. 202)

A “second-level metadiscussion of dao” is what makes the authors/texts Daoist. Not sure what to make of this. Both the Laozi and Zhuangzi surely contain more material not dealing with this metadiscussion of dao than they do discussing it. But Hansen points out that those he identifies as Daoists tended “to share an iconoclastic social-political attitude. Daoists lean away from society and convention” (p. 203). I suspect he is right here, though I would also say that some Daoists were very much into politics ande wrote parts of the Laozi, Zhuangzi, Huainanzi, etc.

His view of the development of Daoism comes from his interpretation of chapter 33 of the Zhuangzi where “the Laozi lies between the theory of dao attributed to Shendao and the mature Daoism of Zhuangzi” (p. 202). I find this a bit problematic, as chapter 33 is not an outline of the development of Daoism. If such were the case, the author deemed the sophist Hui Shi as the last of the Daoists, a position I suspect nobody would hold.

Hansen wrote that Zhuangzi “may have felt a deep sympathy for primitive Daoism [of the Laozi], but Zhuangzi obviously knows the Neo-Mohist objection to it and avoids the error himself” (p. 203). Okay, so Hansen likes the Zhuangzi (chapter 2) more than the Laozi. I like both texts for different reasons, though I don’t think chapter 2 of the Zhuangzi is any more useful.

Hansen wrote, “Laozi was, like Mencius, a mystic in one key sense: he was antilanguage. But Mencius backs into that position, where Laozi seems to be fascinated with paradoxes of trying to state the limits of language in language. His theory of those limits however, reflects the Chinese view of the role of language. Language purports to express dao. Dao, as we have argued, is guidance. Laozi discusses the limitations of language as a guide, not as a descriptive system. Laozi shows his mysticism, as Mencius did, in reflecting the prescriptive role of language. The theory of the limit of language and the mystical tenor is practical, not metaphysical” (p. 203).

Without getting bogged down in all this, I don’t see the role of language as either descriptive or prescriptive. It surely is both. Sure language can express a dao, but that is not all it can do, and I do not think we can pigeonhole all of the stuff in the Laozi that Hansen has in mind as talking about language as guidance. Hansen writes that Laozi “has no motivation both to start treating the role of language as representing reality and then denying that representation is possible” (p. 203). Again, it’s not an either-or distinction! He continues, “He certainly does not give any of the familiar Buddhist or Western arguments for the inability of language to describe reality. Traditional interpreters see the focus on limitations of language and the mystical paradoxes and supply the Indo-European justifications as the obvious deep explanations. This requires them to reinterpret dao as a metaphysical object” (203). I’m all for being careful about equating different world traditions or worldviews. I’m skeptical about the “perennial philosophy,” although, from reading Ted Slingerland’s work, some of Lakoff & Johnson (Philosophy in the Flesh) and works on mysticism, I do find a number of similarities, similarities that seem inevitable, considering that we are all physically “identical” (e.g. social bipedal apes). And although I can’t be bothered right now to dig into the texts to prove it, I’m not sure I agree with Hansen that the Laozi or Zhuangzi do not give similar arguments about the limitations of language to describe reality as Western traditions.

Hansen goes on to tell his interpretation of the historical background and development of early Daoism (pp. 204-210). Again, there’s some very good insights there, but also questionable assumptions and mountains constructed from molehills. I get the feeling that Hansen’s Daoist theory is built like a house of cards.