Friday, March 2, 2012

Yuan Dao: Emergent Dao

Scott Bradley

Continuing his elucidation of Dao through contrast with traditional Western metaphysics (and thus the method by which we typically understand reality), Ames (Yuan Dao) writes: "For Aristotle, episteme is the knowledge of the causes of being, and the knowledge of the ultimate causes is the highest level of episteme, wisdom." The highest knowledge of things (wisdom) is thus an abstraction divorced from the contextual and historic things themselves.

For Daoism (Ames says 'Chinese thought', though in the context of the Neo-Confucian exaltation of li (principle), I think this brush is too broad), on the other hand, "order is emergent rather than existing as an independent scientific principle, knowledge of it must be qualified by the when and the where of it. As such, knowledge must be provisional, and more modest in its claims." Dao, in this case, is what is happening now, and cannot be known through the past, nor projected into the future. Dao, as we saw earlier, is an unpredictable becoming.

"This account sets historical limits on our understanding. Our relatively clear understanding of our present situation cannot be 'universalized' to apply to all past or future situations. These categories cannot stand as 'principles'...."

The ramifications of this understanding of what it means to know Reality are many. It means that Daoist knowledge is derived through engagement in the specific and personal experience of the emergent Dao. Dao is not 'out there', but 'in here'; one finds it in oneself — as oneself.

And because it is a unique, personal and historically contextual knowledge, it cannot be universalized so as to apply to others. We honor every unique unfolding.

Nor can knowing be separated from the knower: "Given the inseparability of agent and context assumed in this tradition, dao has as much to do with the subjects of knowing and their quality of understanding as it does with any object of knowledge....” Knowing is personal experience.

And this experience has as its consequence a happier existence. “Further, ‘knowing’ is meliorative—it makes the situation better. ‘Knowing’ is thus more pragmatic than theoretical....Such knowing gives rise to creative strategies that enable one to be efficacious in what one does.”

There being no distinction in Daoism between knowledge and wisdom, “Knowing is always practical, contingent, and moral: it is a ‘doing’ rather than a state of mind.”

Finally, purpose arises as derived and moment-specific, rather than universal and imposed: “The alternative to some given and governing purpose, then, is localized and temporalized self-sufficiency — a collaboration between the human knower and the world as it is realized, to get the most out of each situation. Thus, 'knowing’ dao is always proximate — you have to be there."

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


  1. Scott,

    I hope you take this in the spirit that it is meant. Your writing and exposition is excellent but to me it is becoming too impersonal. It is not that you are losing me in your depth of thought but that I am losing you. Please take this as constructive brotherly criticism. I would love to hear more about you and how Tao applies to the life that you are living.

  2. I think Scott is indulging his "inner academic."

    I have already said I'd like to hear more sea stories.


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