This semester I started my Metaphysics course with the Tao Te Ching (the first selection in Cooper’s Metaphysics: The Classic Readings). Having never taught any Eastern philosophy, I’ve been surprised at just how much I’ve enjoyed this. At first I was terrified as it’s a poem with very little formal demonstration. I hate teaching materials where you’re forced to more or less just list bald assertions without being able to provide much in the way of how they’re systematically arrived at. These worries turned out to be unfounded. The Tao has been one of my most enjoyable teaching/learning experiences in years, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the selections from Gotama on conditioned genesis, Lalitavistara, and Nagarjuna.

It’s likely that I have the Tao completely wrong, but here’s my initial take. The first verse opens as follows:

The Tao (way) that can be told of is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the mother of all thing.
Therefore let there always be non-being so we may see their subtlety [or mystery].
And let there always be being so we may see their outcome.
The two are the same,
But after they are produced, they have different names.
They both may be called deep and profound.
Deeper and more profound,
The door of all subtleties!


The Tao Te Ching is extremely elusive and enigmatic text that resists being pinned down in any straightforward way. Throughout it is never quite clear what the author (Lao Tzu(?)) is referring to, and moreover, each assertion is immediately complemented by its contrary the moment that it is said. In many respects, I believe this style is part of the point. This is why Lao Tzu opens by distinguishing between the Tao that can be said and the Tao itself or the eternal Tao. The Tao is not a thing. Rather, it exceeds all things.

The problem with language is that it gives us the illusion of mastery. When I name or speak a thing, I get the sense that I now own it, posses it, have mastered it. As the psychotherapists like to say, “to speak it is to own it”. I say to myself “the rose is red”. In saying that the rose is red, I think that I have captured the rose. This sentence, this proposition, will stand for all eternity, containing within itself the capability of being repeated an infinite number of times without becoming something other than it is. But the rose itself belies these qualities of language. The rose itself is not simply red. It is many other things besides. Moreover, the rose loses the quality of being red. The thing itself exceeds language, yet language introduces a sense of stasis or fixity into thought, giving us the impression that the world itself is static in this way. Moreover, the proposition that “the rose is red” draws us into a subject/predicate model of thought, where all that is to be said about the rose is to be found in predicates inside the substance or object.

read on!

If we are to avoid these sorts of problems, Lao Tzu seems to suggest, we need a style of writing that undermines these tendencies of language itself. In other words, the Tao Te Ching should not just be about the Tao, but rather should also imitate the Tao through its very style of writing. If the Tao is a sort of excess at the heart of being, if it is the inability for things to be simply pinned down, we need a style of writing that emulates this excess and produces the experience of this excess. Poetry turns out to be the perfect style for such a practice. But also, the constant unwriting of every assertion through its opposite, the unity of opposites, etc., all produce the experience of things slipping away just as they become determinate.


Given the first verse, our initial impression is that Tao is something like God. Insofar as Tao is the “mother of all things”, it must be the creator. Thus Tao would be something transcendent to the world. However, we are disabused of this notion in the very same verse. First, we are told that being and non-being (Tao), are the same. A few lines later, in verse 2, we are told that “Being and non-being produce each other”. Elsewhere, in verse 10, Lao Tzu asks, “can you keep the spirit and embrace the One without departing from them?” Were the Tao God, it would be difficult to understand how it can be the same as being. Likewise, it would be difficult to see how being could produce it just as non-being produces being. Finally, in the question from verse 10, we encounter an interesting grammatical construction where Tao is simultaneously One and many. Where we would expect the sentence to run “Can you keep the spirit and embrace the One without departing from it“, we instead get a strange construction where the One is related to the them or the many.

The conclusion that follows is thus that Tao is strictly immanent to world or nature. Tao is not something outside of, beyond, above, or transcendent to world, but rather is indwelling in world. Consequently, if Tao is strictly immanent to the world, if it is not outside the world, we cannot think of Tao as the mother of all things as something from which things emanate as in the case of the relationship between God and his creatures in many theologies. Rather, Tao would have to be being itself producing beings through beings. Tao would not be other than those beings, but rather would be indwelling within those beings themselves.

How, then, are we to think Tao. For my money, the key to Lao Tzu’s hypothesis is to be found in the highly sexual metaphors populating verse 28. There Lao Tzu writes,

He who knows the male (active force) and keeps to the
female (the passive force or receptive element)
Becomes the ravine of the world.
Being the ravine of the world,
He will never depart from the eternal virtue,
But returns to the state of infancy.
He who knows the white (glory) and yet keeps to the black (humility),
Becomes the model of the world.
Being the model of the world,
He will never deviate from eternal virtue,
But returns to the state of the Ultimate of Non-Being.
He who knows glory but keeps to humility,
Becomes the valley of the world.
Being the valley of the world,
He will be proficient in eternal virtue,
And returns to the state of simplicity (uncarved wood).
When the uncarved wood is broken up, it is turned into
concrete things (as Tao is transformed into the myriad things).
But when the sage uses it, he becomes the leading official.
Therefore the great ruler does not cut up…

Lao Tzu’s unfortunate sexual comparisons seem to refer to orientations that penetrate (the masculine) and those that are penetrated (the feminine). Lao Tzu seems to equate the masculine with the absence of wisdom, whereas he equates the feminine with Tao. I think this is the key to his conception of Tao. Being can be understood as objects, things, entities and so on, whereas Non-Being (Tao) can be understood as relation, interaction, alterity, receptivity, otherness. What is it that authorizes this interpretation of Non-Being or Tao as relation? Well in English, of course, we can be cute and point out that Nothing is literally No-Thing. And what is No-Thing? No-Thing is precisely relation. Relation is not itself a thing. However, it is the reference to the feminine that really establishes the grounds for interpreting Tao as relation. For in treating the feminine as the receptive, Lao Tzu underlines the relational dimension of the world.

With this interpretation of Tao as relation, the meaning of immanence falls into place. If Tao gives birth to the things of the world, if it is the mother of all things, then this takes place through relation or interaction. If the One and the Them are identical, then this is because relations pervade things and things relate relations. What Lao Tzu seems to propose, then, is an approach to things in terms of dispositional fields, fields of relations, or fields of interactions. The contrast between masculine thought and feminine thought can be characterized in terms of how form is thought. In keeping with the characterization of the masculine as the active, there seem to be connotations of domination, control, and mastery where form is understood to be something that precedes the object. Like a blueprint in the mind, form is an idea that the non-Taoist subject seeks to impose upon the world from without. As a consequence, within the non-Taoist orientation, the aim is the domestication of alterity or otherness. Put differently, the aim here is to transform world into a reflection of the agent. Alterity is here overcome, transforming alterity into the mirror image of the agent. Here Hegel’s analysis of the slave in The Phenomenology of Spirit comes to mind. If the slave, Hegel argues, ultimately overcomes the master and moves on in the dialectic, then this is because the slave turns both the master and the rest of the world into himself through his labor on that world. He masters or domesticates it.

The Taoist way is entirely different. Here form does not precede the entity as a model or blueprint in the mind, rather form is a product of the interaction between heterogeneous entities. Form is a result that that arises from these interactions, not something that is indwelling in the object from the outset.

Returning to the issues of language I discussed at the outset of this post, our tendency is to focus on objects in isolation and to center thought on subject/predicate relationships. So one way of thinking about the qualities of objects– the non-Taoist way –would be to think of them as indwelling in objects. I, for example, am 6’1″. I might ask myself, why am I 6’1″? Within the non-Taoist framework, I might refer to my genes as the ground of my height. In other words, I treat the ground of this quality as residing solely in the object. By contrast, the Taoist way would treat qualities as resulting from what Boothby has referred to as “dispositional fields” and what I call “regimes of attraction”. While my genes do indeed play a role in my height, they are only a component in the production of this local manifestation. Additional components would be my diet growing up, as well the gravity of the Earth. Had I been born in the 17th century when milk and protein weren’t as readily and reliably available, it’s unlikely that I would be the height that I am. Likewise, had I been born on Mars which is about 2/3rds the size of Earth, it’s likely that I would be taller than I am here as I would have encountered less gravitational resistance as I grew. The quality that I locally manifest isn’t simply indwelling, isn’t simply in me, but rather is an actualization evoked through exo-relations or a dispositional field of objects in interaction with one another.

If this reading is at all accurate, we can thus say– in a formulation designed to accord with the spirit of Lao Tzu’s own style –that the object is the other and the other is the object. The object is the other precisely because it is characterized by receptivity such that the qualities it locally manifests emerge or arise through interactions with others. Others are the object, in their turn, because in actualizing itself, the object in turn provokes actualizations in other objects. Such, I believe, is the nature of what Tim Morton calls a mesh.


Two ethical aphorisms follow, perhaps, from Lao Tzu’s conception of being.

1. The Self is the Other and the Other is the Self.

a. If the Self is the Other, then this is because like, any other entity, the self locally manifests itself or actualizes itself within a dispositional field or regime of attraction, coming to be what it is as a result of its interaction with a variety of other things. As a consequence, I now become capable of recognizing myself in the Other. If I eat a Big Mac, I now know that I am not simply eating a Big Mac, but that I am literally eating global warming (insofar as live stock methane and the clearing of grazing land contributes so much to climate change). I cannot separate myself from these things, but rather am immediately bound up in them.

But also, because the Self is the Other, I now recognize that I am not the complete origin of my qualities or local manifestations. I am not a self-made man like Baron von Munchausen who miraculously saved himself from the quicksand by lifting himself up out of that quicksand by his own boot straps. No, a good deal of what I am results from the mesh or network of relations in which I formed and act. I now notice that these relations are contingent, could have been otherwise, and didn’t originate from or in me. As a consequence, any pride I might have is diminished. I don’t pat myself on the back for making myself, but recognize that my self-making was also the result of all sorts of strange strangers.

And because I no longer suffer the pride of believing that I am completely self-made, my capacity for compassion towards others is increased. Where the non-Taoist might look at the wretched state of another and respond to them with cruelty, working on the assumption that they are where they are because they didn’t, for example, work hard or because they are immoral persons (subject/predicate logic), the Taoist will now look at that other with compassion, recognizing that they belong to a different regime of attraction than oneself and therefore underwent different local manifestations. The non-Taoist looks at the people of Hurricane Katrina breaking into stores as criminals that lack morals. Their solution is to propose sending in troops with M-16s to protect property. The Taoist looks at those people breaking into stores as people that are enmeshed in a dispositional field where there is no food or water who are trying to save themselves, their families, and their friends. Their solution is to send in the National Guard to bring water, food, dry clothing, and assist in evacuating the city. Relations are invisible. They can’t be seen in the qualities of the object. This is why they are non-being or no-thing. The Taoist, however, develops an attentiveness to these fields of exo-relations, to the invisible behind the visible, and this becomes a sources of compassion.

b. There are two ways in which the Other is the self. On the one hand, if I follow the non-Taoist way, I might believe that all the people about me are assholes because people are just intrinsically assholes. Here assholishness is treated as an intrinsic property of objects in much the same way that we might think that height is an intrinsic property that arises from the object itself. By contrast, if I follow the Taoist way, I might reflect that perhaps it is not that others are assholes, but rather that I relate to others in assholish ways leading them to respond to me in assholish ways. In other words, I might be producing the very local manifestations in others that drive me up the wall. Recognizing this, I might develop new ways of relating to others that don’t produce these responses.

On the other hand, if the Other is the Self, then this might be because the characteristics I attribute to the world around me are really a result of my own projections, desires, values, and wants. If I find traffic frustrating, then this might not be because traffic is frustrating, but because I have the desire to get to my location very quickly. If I change that desire, instead desiring to listen to interesting news stories on NPR or great music or to talk to friends on the phone, etc., then I will find traffic to be a welcome respite where I find a bit of leisure time for myself to devote to things I would not otherwise do. When Jerry Falwell sees sex and homosexuality everywhere throughout modern culture, up to and including the children’s show Teletubbies, the question to ask is not whether our culture is saturated with sexuality, nor whether the purple teletubby really is gay, but rather why does it even occur to Falwell to think about this or focus on these particular things. Does Falwell, perhaps, have some unresolved issues with respect to his own sexuality? Do I, perhaps, have some unresolved issues with respect to my tendency to interpret others online as attacking me? Rather than treating these things as properties of the various others themselves, the Taoist instead wonders whether it’s our own gaze that generates these qualities.

The non-Taoist would then be someone who is born with red tinted contacts without being aware of it. As a consequence, the non-Taoist would be led to believe that everything that exists is a shade of red. The Taoist, by contrast, would wonder whether the ubiquity of these shades of red do not perhaps arise from his own eyes rather than from the things themselves, and would engage in an act of reflection or meditation to determine what beliefs, values, desires, or judgments he might harbor to make the world appear in this way. This meditation would become a crucial component in his journey to peace of mind, requiring deep introspection and critical self-analysis so as to overcome those judgments, beliefs, desires, and values that trouble both his own soul and his relations to other.