Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi

Submitted by richeyj on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:37
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RELIGIOUS AND PHILOSOPHICAL ASPECTS OF THE LAOZI. Edited by Mark Csikszentmihalyi and Philip J. Ivanhoe. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. Pp. xi + 276; table and indices. Cloth, $72.50, ISBN 0-7914-4111-3; paper, $24.95, ISBN 0-7914-4112-1.

 

This is a valuable anthology of recent Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholarship on the text variously known as the Laozi (after its alleged author), the Daode jing (after the traditional arrangement of the text), and the Dedao jing (after the arrangement of the text in some recently discovered manuscripts). Csikszentmihalyi and Ivanhoe provide three reasons for compiling such work into one volume: the diffuse, multilingual, and often obscure venues for monographs on the text, the scarcity of "serious studies concerning the religious and philosophical thought of the text" (1), and the almost complete lack of scholarship that incorporates recent archaeological discoveries and/or emerging approaches to the study of early Chinese culture. Accordingly, they have gathered together the work of a diverse group of scholars, ranging from old hands to young faces in the field of early Chinese philosophy and religion, and representing a wide variety of disciplinary and methodological approaches to the text. 

 

The book consists of nine essays: (1) Mark Csikszentmihalyi's "Mysticism and Apophatic Discourse in the Laozi," (2) Harold D. Roth's "The Laozi in the Context of Early Daoist Mystical Praxis," (3) Zhang Longxi's "Qian Zhongshu on Philosophical and Mystical Paradoxes," (4) the late Isabelle Robinet's "The Diverse Interpretations of the Laozi," (5) Robert G. Henrick's "Re-exploring the Analogy of the Dao and the Field," (6) Tateno Masami's "A Philosophical Analysis of the Laozi from an Ontological Perspective," (7) Bryan W. Van Norden's "Method in the Madness of the Laozi," (8) Liu Xiaogan's "An Inquiry into the Core Value of Laozi's Philosophy," and (9) Philip J. Ivanhoe's "The Concept of de ('Virtue') in the Laozi." These essays can be arranged by their guiding assumptions and agendas. Csikszentmihalyi, Roth, and Robinet adopt what might be termed "religious studies" approaches to the text, focusing on historical and textual dimensions of its supposed "mystical" character and applying sophisticated theoretical perspectives from the comparative study of mysticism and hermeneutics to the problem of understanding the Laozi as an historical and social artifact. Zhang and Tateno bring the analytical tools typical of "philosophy" to bear upon the text, while Van Norden, Liu, and Ivanhoe apply a combination of methods-somewhere between "philosophy" and "religious studies" as discrete disciplines-to the Laozi, focusing on the elucidation and interrelationship of key concepts. Henricks' highly personal essay, which he presents as a kind of précis of his classroom lecture on the meaning of Dao in the Laozi, stands alone as the closest thing to Daoist apologetics or preaching in the volume. 

 

In spite of the many incisive arguments and insightful observations offered throughout these essays, a few shortcomings stand out. Neither the editors nor the authors ever make clear what is meant by the terms "religious" or "philosophical," either in relation to the Laozi or as general terms of art. Nor-apart from a brief comment by Van Norden-is there any discussion of whether and how different disciplinary approaches to the text influence its interpretation. Finally, with the exceptions of Roth, Van Norden, and Ivanhoe, none of the contributors takes into account archaeological and philological evidence that suggests both a relatively late date (c. 3rd-2nd c. B.C.E.) and a composite nature for the text. The reader is left to wonder whether silence on these issues signifies the assumption (with the majority of traditional Asian and Western commentators on the text) of an earlier date and an holistic integrity for the text. Nonetheless, this anthology is an excellent overview of recent international work on a perennially engaging and important text, and as such, is highly recommended for scholars in history, literature, philosophy, and religious studies who work on the Laozi, as well as for readers willing to deepen their understanding of the text.

 

Jeffrey L. Richey

Berea College

March 24, 2003