I have long wished to see Brook Ziporyn apply his scholarship and insight to the Laozi (Daodejing = Tao De Ching) as he has to Zhuangzi and now I find that he has done so in his Ironies of Oneness and Difference: Coherence in Early Chinese Thought; Prolegomena to the Study of Li. As one might construe from the title, this is a tough read, and one which I can only take in small bites. I am unable to faithfully reconstruct his arguments regarding the Laozi and its place in the wider context of Chinese thought here (since they are complex and I don't fully understand them, in any case), but still there are aspects of those arguments which I can relate and hope to elaborate.
Ziporyn is careful, when quoting from or commenting on the Laozi, to specify that he does so with reference to the "received" Laozi in contrast to previous versions to which we have no or little access. This is because the book appears to be a compilation of traditional sayings compiled over a considerable amount of time and as such was susceptible to the whims of much editorial manipulation. In other words, it has been altered over time to make the case for various points of view. Our received version is thus just one more such manipulation and needn't be thought of as sacrosanct. Indeed, we might even take this as an invitation to engage in some editorial manipulation of our own (as in fact do some translators like Stephen Mitchell).
Among those bits of previous versions of the Laozi to which we do have some access are the Guodian fragments discovered in a tomb sealed around 300 B.C.E. These, Ziporyn tells us, reveal a "pre-ironic proto-Daoism" quite distinct from the "ironic proto-Daoism" of the received Laozi. (Ziporyn makes a pivotal distinction between the non-ironic—that which knows and tends toward a linear, active engagement with the world — and the ironic — that which does not know and tends toward a circular, ever self-critiquing and self-negating engagement with the world. The non-ironic does; the ironic does by non-doing. The non-ironic knows; the ironic knows by not-knowing. The non-ironic follows a definite Dao; the ironic follows a dao that is not Dao.)
One important indication of this non-ironic disposition is found in its obvious comfort with the Confucian pursuit of Benevolence and Righteousness. Whereas our received version of the Laozi sees their pursuit as an obstacle to their realization, the Guodian version endorses their active pursuit. Ziporyn suggests that the Guodian version reflects the contemporaneous view of the Neiye (“Inner Training”) chapter of the Guanzi where “the indescribability of the Dao leads to no extreme skeptical or ironic results, and does not lead to self-reflective criticisms or erasures of statements just made . . . Rather, it points unproblematically to another way in which the Dao can be ‘attained’; through psychophysical cultivation and stillness of the mind.”
If you’ve got this far, yet still wonder why it matters, I would simply suggest that in contrasting these two points of departure we are better able to understand the choice between them.
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