David L. Hall is Professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso. He received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University in 1967. His principal research interests are American philosophy and comparative Chinese/Western philosophy. His books include: Thinking From the Han: Self, Truth, and Transcendence in China and the West (SUNY, 1998) with Roger Ames; Anticipating China: Thinking through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture (SUNY, 1995) with Roger Ames; Richard Rorty: Prophet and Poet of the New Pragmatism (SUNY, 1994); Thinking through Confucius (SUNY, 1987) with Roger Ames.
paper given at Taoism and Ecology conference
The presumption that construing a world of "objects" or "states of affairs" in terms of description, analysis, or an organization of its elements, provides us with appropriate knowledge is a central claim of the sort of commonsense rationalism undergirding much of Western philosophical and scientific understandings. One of the implications of such a presumption is that "referential language" -- which presupposes a world of objects or states of affairs -- is privileged in most of our informative discourse. Attempts to develop alternative epistemologies within the Anglo-European tradition have often fallen short because of the inability to escape the limitations of referential language. In this paper I will suggest that the language of Taoism is, first and foremost, a language of deference, rather than reference. Beginning with a contrast between nameless and nameable Tao, I will compare the knowing, acting, feeling functions implicit in dominant Western models of knowledge with the wuzhi ("unprincipled knowing"), wuwei ("nonassertive action"), and wuyu ("objectless desire") "mirroring" activities of Taoism ("The sage is like a mirror-- He neither sees things off nor goes out to meet them. He responds to everything without storing anything up.") . My conclusion will be that Taoism promotes a deferential understanding of "the natural world" and, thus, provides a model for ethical interactions with one's natural environs.