13. Daoism as Critical Theory [chapter]

Mario Wenning
Constructive Engagement of Analytic and Continental Approaches in Philosophy  
Classical philosophical Daoism as it is expressed in the Dao-De-Jing and the Zhuang-Zi is often interpreted as lacking a capacity for critique and resistance. Since these capacities are taken to be central components of Enlightenment reason and action, it would follow that Daoism is incompatible with Enlightenment. This interpretation is being refuted by way of developing a constructive dialogue between the enlightenment traditions of critical theory and recent philosophy of action from a
more » ... action from a Daoist perspective. Daoism's normative naturalism does neither rest on a primitivist call for a return to the past, nor does it suggest future-directed activism. By way of reconstructing its descriptive, explanatory and emancipatory dimensions, it is shown that Daoism constitutes an alternative form of critical theory. In contrast to future-directed purposive action or blind rule-following, Daoism's key normative concept of "wu-wei" emphasizes effortless non-calculative responsiveness in the present. Drawing on recent insights in the philosophy of action, a reconstruction of wu-wei allows to conceive of a promising form of emancipatory agency. Comparative Philosophy 2.2 (2011) WENNING customs and border control officer. Yin Xi asked Lao Zi to pay his dues. Since the sage was not an affluent man and did not possess anything dispensable, he was politely asked to pay for his passage by writing down what he had discovered during his philosophical wayfaring. After giving in to the request, Lao Zi left the kingdom to move West where he died much later at the magnificent age of 160. According to this legend, it is thus only by accident, or, to be more precise, through a generous act of exchanging the right of passage for the codification of Daoist philosophy, that the 5000 words divided into the 81 chapters we know under the title of Dao-De-Jing have been passed down to us. During his exile from Nazi Germany, the Marxist poet Bertholt Brecht carried a painting depicting the scene of Lao Zi riding a water buffalo towards the border with him. Brecht's captivating poem from 1938 about the -Legend of the Origin of the Book Dao-De-Jing on Lao Zi's Road into Exile‖ was circulated widely among those persecuted by totalitarian regimes. The poem sparked a sense of hope in the midst of historical catastrophe. Did Brecht's adaptation of the legend simply present an unwarranted and sufficiently exotic consolation for the victims of an atrocious history who, if they were lucky, could escape, or does it indeed contain a philosophically significant content, an explosive message in a bottle? When the boy accompanying Lao Zi was asked by the pragmatic gate keeper in Brecht's poem what the sage had discovered, the boy responds: -he learnt that soft water, by way of movement over the years, will grind strong rocks away. In other words: that hardness succumbs.‖ 2 Drawing on the at the time common trope of the power of water to overcome the seemingly greatest of obstacles, 3 what Brecht's border-crosser Lao Zi had discovered was an understanding of what could be called -liquid resistance.‖ In contrast to firm materials, formless water does not overcome obstacles by way of direct confrontation, but through seemingly unintended, effortless and unpredictable processes of emulation and changing course whenever necessary. Rather than provoking resistance through acts of direct engagement, water is efficacious in overcoming obstacles by way of yielding and acquiescing to them. It purifies itself by standing still and finds its way by floating to the lowest point. The captivating poem by Brecht and its equally rich effective history poses the vexing question: what is the critical potential of Daoist philosophy that motivated Brecht and other social critics identifying with the fate of the most abject, degraded and precarious forms of existence to be swayed 2 Bertolt Brecht (1981, 660-663). The cited quotation from stanza 5 reads in the original: "Daß das weiche Wasser in Bewegung/ Mit der Zeit den mächtigen Stein besiegt. / Du verstehst, das Harte unterliegt.-See also Heinrich Detering (2008). 3 The water imagery is developed in chapters 4, 7, 43 and, most extensively, in chapter 78 of the Dao-De-Jing: -In all the world, nothing is more supple or weak than water/ Yet nothing can surpass it for attacking what is still and strong./ And so nothing can take its place./ That the weak overcomes the strong and the supple overcomes the hard/ These are things everyone in the world knows but none can practice.‖ (chapter 78, 81). Sarah Allan (1997) persuasively traces the way in which water serves as a root metaphor to illustrate the principles governing human conduct in classical, pre-Qin Chinese philosophical traditions. Comparative Philosophy 2.2 (2011) WENNING
doi:10.1163/9789004248861_017 fatcat:nrnhe4zdrbaddm3e7qncswfrxa