The Tao of the West

Submitted by James Miller on Thu, 02/12/2009 - 20:39
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THE TAO OF THE WEST: WESTERN TRANSFORMATIONS OF TAOIST THOUGHT. By J. J. Clarke. London: Routledge Press, 2000. Pp. xi + 270; appendixes; indexes. Paper, $20.99, ISBN 0-415-20620-0. 


This deservedly prize-winning book's stated aims are "to uncover the ways in which Daoism has entered Western consciousness, and to examine the methods by which ideas and texts from this ancient Chinese tradition have been selected, translated, interpreted, reconstituted and assimilated within the framework of modern Western thought" (5). The book consists of nine chapters: (1) 'The way that can be told': introduction; (2) 'The meaning is not the meaning': on the nature Daoism; (3) 'Cramped scholars': Western interpretations of Daoism; (4) 'The Great Clod': Daoist natural philosophy; (5) 'Going rambling without destination': moral explorations; (6) 'The transformation of things': the alchemy of life, sex and health; (7) 'The Way is incommunicable': transcendence; (8) 'The twitter of birds': philosophical themes; and (9) 'Journey to the West': by way of concluding. 


Chapter one is a general introduction to the possible pitfalls and potentialities of Clarke's hermeneutic approach. Chapter two provides a very clear summary of the latest research in the field of Daoist Studies. Chapter three presents the history of the study of Daoism and is especially strong on the problems of translation as well as the history of the major "Daoist" texts in the West, namely the Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Yijing. Chapter four is mostly about how Daoism in the West intersects with the new physics and with environmentalism. Chapter five, on "moral explorations," deals with questions of ethics, anarchy, and gender. Chapter six on "the alchemy of life, health, and sex" describes the growing popularity of Daoist-influenced self-cultivation techniques, holistic healing, and popularized sexual practices. Chapter seven concerns mysticism and transcendence, including a digression on Daoist themes in Chinese landscape painting and in gardens and the possible impact of those art forms on Western aesthetics. Chapter eight deals with parallels between Daoism and Western philosophical systems, including skepticism and post-modernism. Finally, chapter nine concludes by considering the possibilities of Daoism taking root in the West and what changes it might effect. 


The Tao of the West, it should be made clear, is not an ethnographic survey of contemporary Western Daoist teachers and groups. Clarke is a philosopher, and his book is a history of ideas. However, ideas can only be generated, transmitted and transformed by people. The set of attitudes known as Orientalism typically views Asian religions (and Daoism in particular) as comprised of ancient texts and not living and historical people. Clarke ably dissects and critiques this Orientalist position. And yet, as a historian of ideas, Clarke cannot help but fall into the same trap: very few people inhabit The Tao of the West. Indeed, too many sentences begin with phrases such as "the Daoists believe…", which might prompt a scholar of Daoist Studies to ask, "which Daoists and when?" Clarke's study might be less frustrating for specialists of the Daoist tradition if one were to consider that this book is "a study in the history of Western ideas" and that Clarke has few tools to access Daoist ideas and texts other than the most translated in the West. (Indeed, this book completes Clarke's trilogy on the East-West encounter. Reading the two previous volumes, Jung and Eastern Thought [Routledge, 1994] and Oriental Enlightenment [Routledge, 1997], makes it even clearer that Clarke's interests lie in the West.) 


Nonetheless, The Tao of West admirably lays the hermeneutic groundwork for the ongoing encounter between the West and certain strands of Daoist thought and popular practice. Clarke possesses wide and deep knowledge of Western philosophers and popular thinkers. He ably assimilates a variety of sources and presents his argument in lucid prose. A comprehensive bibliography adds to the book's credentials. The Tao of West is an important book for all scholars of Daoism, enabling them to more fully appreciate the history of their discipline as well as to reflect upon the constructed nature and historical contingency of various interpretative stances. It is also highly recommended for the general reader and as a required text for an advanced class on Daoism. (For a collection of critical responses to The Tao of the West see the Religious Studies Review 28.4.)


Elijah Siegler

Wilfrid Laurier University

May 21, 2003