Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Another Look at the Laozi XIV

Scott Bradley

Know the honored by keeping to the disgraced, and you will be the valley of the world. Being the valley of the world, the power of sustainability will be whole, and you will return to the unhewn state.
(Laozi 28; Ziporyn)
"The unhewn", "the uncarved block", is a central metaphor in philosophical Daoism's view of how the world makes 'sense'. Ziporyn (Ironies of Oneness and Difference) devotes considerable space to a discussion of its implications.

The world does not, in fact, make sense; that is the fundamental meaning of the unhewn. Elsewhere it is represented as Chaos. But this chaos is not that idea of chaos that emerges from our belief that there is something else — chaos in contrast to order. True chaos, like the unhewn, is unnamable for the simple reason that naming it betrays it. Chaos admits to no nameable order; nothing lies outside it. The unhewn, that which 'is' before all naming, before anything has been hewn from it, is incomprehensible. In speaking of the unhewn we have already betrayed it; but our betrayal is a necessary condition of our humanity. (Who said any of this has to make ‘sense’?)

The metaphor of the unhewn is much more flexible and nuanced than the idea of chaos. In its negation (un-) it suggests the hewn. And there is the hewn. That would be everything, the manifest; that would be you and I, and the words I now write. But the hewn is embedded in and utterly dependent on the unhewn, and Laozi suggests that we cannot experience "sustainability" (reliable coherence) until we have released ourselves from our myopic obsession with the hewn and acknowledged its rootedness in the unhewn. Thus, our coherence (our sense of ourselves in the world) is rooted in incoherence, and is therefore itself incoherent. Were it otherwise, we would have once again betrayed the incoherent, made it coherent. This is, of course, what we continually do — Dao becomes yet another thing (something our minds have hewn) that confirms our own precious thing-ness. Laozi is thus calling for a transformative revolution in how we understand ourselves in the world, and consequentially, how we conduct ourselves in the world.

Returning to “the unhewn state” is thus not returning to chaos (utter incoherence). (Death will likely accomplish that.) There is great irony implied by this unhewn state; for it involves an internal contradiction; it implies the hewn that we are, while simultaneously implying that we are not.

Philosophical Daoism clearly has a trajectory toward monism, but it is more concerned with an affirmation of Two-ness than of the One-ness; Oneness may very well be the Ultimate, but for us in our present existence as the hewn, its primary value is in helping us make the most of that. Oneness can take care of itself.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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