Ziporyn entitles his treatment of the Laozi and Zhuangzi "Ironic Coherence and the Discovery of 'Yin'" (Ironies of Sameness and Difference). The book generally is about the various Chinese attempts to find coherence in the world, that is, ways of making sense of the world so as to know how best to live in it. Attempts before the received Laozi and Zhuangzi were largely non-ironic approaches (though the "seeds" of ironic coherence can even be found in Confucius where, for instance, the sage-ruler rules by example, not by ruling). Coherence is essentially the search for a wholeness that enables intelligibility. Thus, Confucianism, for example, tells us, "this is it".
The problem with the search for coherence, however, is that it never finds a final coherence. Coherence is the uniting of things, Heaven and earth, for example. But that coherence must necessarily seek something else outside and greater than itself with which to cohere; it cannot arrive at a final, and thus real, coherence. Coherence is uniting — it cannot, therefore, ever complete itself.
Non-ironic coherence is thus a kind of dishonest coherence; it must pretend to provide coherence when it cannot; it finds an artificial place to stop and say, "this is it".
What ironic coherence introduces is "yin", the unintelligible, the dark and mysterious, the "unhewn", the wu (absence; "non-being") as 'part' of the whole. Ironic coherence is the uniting of the intelligible with the unintelligible. This union cannot, however, yield an intelligible coherence — it necessarily self-negates. It is a coherence that is not-coherence.
Ironic coherence ever self-negates (is a coherence that is not-coherence) because the "yin" side is privileged. All things emerge from Mystery and return to Mystery. Thus, though we affirm things in their existence, we understand how they are embedded in non-existence, the unintelligible — in Mystery. This renders even the intelligible as unintelligible, the known as unknown, the Dao as not-Dao.
None of this is intended as speculative metaphysics; it is descriptive of our actual experience and is intended to help us to harmonize with that experience — it is intended to help us find 'the best way to live'. It is an "Illumination of the Obvious".
Because this sense of the ironic character of 'reality' is rooted in our experience, its realization has comprehensive implications for our behavior. As Ziporyn points out, suddenly an abundance of negations appear in the texts; wu-wei, not-doing as a way of doing, for example, becomes the most harmonious (and thus most effective) way to proceed in the world. Wu-wei is the actualizing of ironic coherence in our manner of living; the best way to get something done is to not do it, to let it happen, and this (ironically) might require our doing it.
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