Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Terminology Tuesday: Taoism

Taoism: An ancient philosophical and religious worldview developed in China. The term derives from the Chinese word tao, meaning "the way." Taoists believe that there is an underlying metaphysical and ethical structure to the cosmos and that humans who understand this can order their lives rightly. However, this structure, or tao, is ineffable, and thus our knowledge of it is not propositional in character. The most famous Taoist philosophers were Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzu.1

1. C.Stephen Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 113.


Lance said...

I always enjoy Terminology Tuesdays. I am, however having trouble with some of the terminology used to explain the terminology. For us newbies, could you please explain what you mean by "not propositional in character?"

Brian said...

Thanks for the comment, Lance.

First understand the word ineffable means that something is incapable of being expressed in language. So when something cannot be expressed with words, or sentences, then no propositions can be made about it.

Propositions are statements or sentences that are either true or false.

So basically, you could say that "the way" cannot be expressed in words - and to try to describe it as something true or false is not possible.

Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking post!

Daoism is something I'm currently studying and the ineffable-ness of it starts right with the first sentence of the Daoist "bible", the Dao De Jing, in which the word "Dao" is used with 3 different meanings (!).


"The 'Dao' that can be spoken of is not the unchanging 'Dao'."

And the text doesn't really get any better from there. It only gets more convoluted and bizarre.

But within Chinese annotated editions and commentaries on it, certain authors try to equate the Daoist concept of "Dao" with either "God" or "Jesus" (as the "logos" in the Gospel of John).

Quick quiz:

How can you tell from just the first verse of the Dao De Jing that the "Dao" is neither God, as He revealed Himself in the Scriptures, nor Jesus?

Look forward to your responses! :)

DawnCoyote said...

The Tao Te Ching is meant to be felt, not read intellectually. :)

Look closely at the teachings of JC, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Krishna and other "holy" men...you will see striking similarities...

Anonymous said...

"Look closely at the teachings of JC, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Krishna and other "holy" men...you will see striking similarities..."

Can you share some of the similarities with us?

Actually, I am currently studying the teachings of Buddha and Laozi, both directly and indirectly, in both English and Chinese. (I live in the Far East where people "live" their teachings.) They are nothing at all like the teachings of Jesus on several accounts.

Example 1: Christ taught compassion on individuals, especially the poor. However, if you're poor and living under a Buddhist-based culture, the concept of "karma" indicates that your handicaps and lot in life were predetermined by your own actions in a previous life. So if you're handicapped or poor, it's your own fault. (I've engaged Buddhists on this topic directly.)

Example 2: Buddhism also doesn't teach in God, in the biblical sense as defined in the Scriptures. They'll take atheists, monotheists, henotheists, polytheists, and any other type of ism that'll go with them. Jesus taught that He is the Son of His Father and that His Father was God - the One and Only.

Example 3: Name one piece of verifiable history in the Dao De Jing. (NOTE: We don't even have evidence of who the original author is.) There are plenty of biblical places and people that can be verified outside its pages, the most important being Jesus Himself.

Example 4: Name one moral precept taught in the Dao De Jing.

Example 5: Neither Buddhism nor Daoism has an official set "canon". Yet Jesus acknowledge the inspiration of both the Old and New Testaments.

Please do respond because I would be most interested in the similarities you've found. I would also be interested in knowing, if you weren't joking, how you could feel the "dao" of the Dao De Jing; what it is and how you would distinguish the "dao" from, say, indigestion. And if I may ask you one simple question: What is "dao"?


Unknown said...

Well, truth4taiwan's, your last question is anything but "simple." Indeed, the very first sentence of the Dao De Jing, as you rightly point out, makes answering that question impossible. Or as the saying goes, "if one person asks 'what is the dao,' and the other answers, then neither of them know the dao."

While this seems (and indeed, to a degree, is) esoteric, it isn't entirely uncommon in modern epistemology either. Even in linguistics, for example, we make a very strong distinction between "implicit" and "explicit" knowledge, and part of "implicit" knowledge is that it can't be, well, explicated. It can't be expressed in words, but nevertheless has tangible consequences. For example, as a native speaker, I understand how to use the word "the," and I know that I must say it for things like "The Mississippi River" and "The River Thames," "The Pacific Ocean" and "The Sea of Bengal," but that I can't use those articles with "Lake Michigan" or "Okanagan Lake." "*The Lake Michigan" is impossible, and I have no doubt in my mind as to that fact, but if I tried to say *why* that is so, I would 1) probably not say something that was true, and 2) probably not even manage to express my underlying knowledge base accurately.

So, since Taoism stresses "ineffability" as Brian explained earlier, asking your "simple question" really flaunts the premises of the whole system. We can't very well just ignore the premises of that stance simply because we don't come into the argument sharing belief in them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking time to respond, R.

If the "dao" is ineffable, then how does a human obtain and express information about it? Where did the third person in your example get their information about the "dao"?

Contrast that with Christian claims regarding God, whom we maintain is both personal and involved with His creation (i.e. He is knowable because He makes Himself known to us and He created us to know Him, particularly through His Son, Jesus).

In your analogy, the minor flaw is that although you may not know what rule(s) govern the accepted or proper usage of "the", someone on Earth does and could explain it, someone like an English teacher or a non-native speaker (since non-native speakers tend to focus on rules more often than native speakers).

Just my $0.02.


Unknown said...

You're absolutely right that knowledge of the English article system (i.e. "the," "a," "some," and the null article) is *not* ineffable. I only used it as an example of knowledge we acquire implicitly, without ever being told the "rules" or how it works. I could just as well have used examples like learning the importance of sportsmanship by playing sports, or learning what "honor" means through combat experience, or learning how to improvise well by practicing jazz piano. In all of those cases, people are usually never "told" the "rules" or given an explicit explanation per se, but they come to have knowledge of it all the same. The fact of the matter is, while the process is not very well understood, people *do* acquire implicit knowledge all the time. (Many psychologists work on this problem of the "etiology" of implicit knowledge acquisition. It's really fascinating stuff if you get a chance to look into it.) People acquire an implicit knowledge of language through prolonged periods of intense exposure and use, for example. Now, I am not a Taoist by any stretch of the imagination, but my understanding is that implicit knowledge of 'tao' is said to come from prolonged meditation, study, and introspection. To be clear, the things one studies are not actually a description of the 'tao' itself so much as a guide to the thinking process, but through the process of that study, one is gradually able to acquire knowledge of the tao indirectly, implicitly. At least, that's the idea.

I'm an applied linguist myself (which is why I picked the language example). I've taught and researched English and a few other languages for many years, and I can tell you that the jury is still out on a few parts of the system. But of course it's something that could in principle be expressed in words, at least at some future time. In Taoism, however, the tao--the fundamental order of the universe, if you will--is something that cannot ever even in principle be explicated. Nevertheless, it remains something that we can (at least in part) come to understand.

So yeah, it is definitely esoteric, but it's not an entirely foreign (or exclusively Eastern) concept.

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