Skepticism and the Undifferentiated Whole

The earliest Daoist writers described the Dao as an undifferentiated whole. It is all-encompassing, containing everything without distinction. It was from the Dao that all things came, and all things are contained within the oneness of the Dao. While modern thought has diverged from the thoughts of the ancients, there is still value in resurrecting their ideas. In this post I will explain, to the best of my ability, Laozi and Zhuangzi’s writing about the Dao as an undifferentiated whole and demonstrate why using the concept of an undifferentiated whole as a starting point for understanding the universe diffuses the skeptical challenges that arise as a result of the western philosophical tradition’s approach to knowledge acquisition and presents a much more satisfying starting point for understanding.

The writings of Laozi in the 6th century BCE (actual dates are disputed) began the evolution of the still existing Daoist tradition. Despite of the immense influence that Laozi’s writing has had on the history of Chinese thought, little is known about his life. Scholars are still not completely settled about when he lived. Most agree that it was in the 6th century BCE, but some say the 4th, and some argue that Laozi is an entirely fictitious person and that the works attributed to him are actually a collection of works by other authors (this view is held by a minority). Most historians believe that Laozi was a custodian of imperial archives and therefore had access to a vast store of writings. His own writing, Dao-de-jing, which is an approximately 5,000 character account about the Dao (Way), no doubt benefited from the knowledge he gained from the writings he was exposed to.

The next most influential philosopher in the Daoist tradition is Zhuangzi (scholars mostly agree that he lived from 399 to 295BCE). Zhuangzi builds on Laozi’s description of the Dao by giving it a much more mysterious and deeply philosophical description.  Again, very little is known about the life of Zhuangzi. The only seemingly conclusive knowledge about him is that his personal name was Chou and that he had some influence in politics. The text attributed to Zhuangzi, called the Zhuangzi, consists of many chapters on topics ranging from the metaphysics of the Dao to how a person should conduct themselves to how politics should function.

In the Dao-de-jing, Laozi emphasizes the namelessness of the Dao: “The Dao (Way) that can be told of is not the eternal Dao; The name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Laozi is here referring to the fact that the Dao is not something that can be articulated or explained in its totality. The Dao evades these forms of categorization because the process of categorization, when applied to the Dao, only diminishes one’s understanding of it. Laozi again emphasizes the importance of Dao’s namelessness in chapter 32: “Dao is eternal and has no name. Though its simplicity seems insignificant, none in the world can master it…As soon as there were regulations and institutions, there were names (differentiation of things). As soon as there are names, know that it is time to stop.” This passage indicates that it is not just the Dao itself that shouldn’t (or cannot) be named, but all things are best left undistinguished. Even the categorization and distinguishing of things in the world from one another is considered by Laozi to be an incorrect procedure because it is inauthentic to the oneness of the Dao, from which all things came.

Laozi introduces another interesting point about the Dao in chapter 28 of Dao-de-jing about the significance of simplicity: “And [the sage] returns to the state of simplicity (uncarved wood), When the uncarved wood is broken up, it is turned into concrete things (as Dao is transformed into the myriad things). But when the sage uses it, he becomes the leading official. Therefore the great ruler does not cut up.” Although this passage is somewhat ambiguous, it seems clear that Laozi is using the example of uncarved wood to explain the simplicity of the Dao and how the great ruler is the person who sees things in their undifferentiated wholeness and does not “cut them up” into categories or distinguish them by giving them names. The great ruler recognizes the oneness of everything.

Zhuangzi is even more adamant about the undistinguished nature of the Dao: “How can Dao be so obscured that there should be a distinction of true and false? How can speech be so obscured that there should be a distinction of right and wrong?” Zhuangzi makes it clear that the Dao’s oneness encompasses even truth and falseness, and right and wrong. This perspective is especially interesting because of the way it sharply contrasts the western philosophical tradition, which right from the beginning sought to discover the precise distinctions between right and wrong and true and false. For Zhuangzi, attempting to draw a sharp distinction between these things is to misunderstand the Dao, because they are all contained within the all-encompassing oneness of the Dao. Zhuangzi states his point again in this way: “What is division [to some] is production [to others], and what is production [to others] is destruction [to some]. Whether things are produced or destroyed, [Dao] again identifies them all as one.” In this passage, Zhuangzi is bringing attention to the subjectivity of distinctions made by people, and that all the subjective distinctions are unified in the oneness of the Dao.

Zhuangzi makes further comments regarding the subjectivity of distinctions: “How can it be known that what I call knowing is not really not knowing and that what I call not knowing is not really knowing?” Zhuangzi’s epistemological standpoint could rightly be called skepticism since he doesn’t believe that knowledge can be attained with any definite certainty. Argument itself is elusive: “Suppose you and I argue. If you beat me instead of my beating you, are you really right and am I really wrong? If I beat you instead of your beating me, am I really right and are you really wrong?” The way to discern who is right is an impossible task, thinks Zhuangzi, because there is no one who can fairly arbitrate, not either of the parties involved or anyone else because everyone already has a bias.

It is not only in matters of argument and truth judgements that Zhuangzi believes that clear distinctions between right and wrong cannot be made. Judgements about what is worthy of value and desire are also relative: “How do I know that the love of life is not a delusion? And how do I know that the hate of death is not like a man who lost his home when young and does not know where his home is to return to?” Zhuangzi is bold enough to question whether the human desire to live, which seems to be an irrefutably valuable thing, is something that can be known to be good (valuable). Even in matters that seem so obvious, there is room for doubt.

Doubt is not the end of the story for Zhuangzi though, since he doesn’t believe that the inability to distinguish between right and wrong is a problem. Instead of stopping at a place of skeptical doubt, he encourages people to: “…forget the distinction between right and wrong. Relax in the realm of the infinite and thus abide in the realm of the infinite.” It should be noted that Zhuangzi is not saying that we should forget right and wrong but rather the distinction between them. Right and wrong belong to the realm of the infinite as well: “The right is an infinity. The wrong is an infinity.”

Laozi and Zhuangzi have described the Dao as nameless, undifferentiated and simple. Zhuangzi’s description of human subjectivity has further supported the overall discouragement of differentiation and distinction of things. Since knowledge is most often understood as the ability to properly distinguish what a thing is from what it is not, the encouragement from these Daoist thinkers to not engage in this act of distinguishing things seems also to be an encouragement to abandon the search for knowledge (at least knowledge understood in the way defined above). This is a funny sort of skepticism for one who comes from the western philosophical tradition. Skepticism in the western tradition is seen as an endpoint, a necessary and unfortunate conclusion, and a “problem” for future philosophers to “solve.” However, in the early Daoist tradition, a form of skepticism is embraced right from the start. The inability to distinguish between right and wrong or true and false is not considered a problem, but simply a reality. It is not the end point of a futile search for knowledge, but rather the starting point for a proper understanding and attitude toward the world.

When Dao, or oneness, is the starting point for understanding, the differentiation of things of things is put in its place. Beginning with an understanding of the world as an “undifferentiated whole” is indeed a far more plausible approach than the traditional western approach, which specifically seeks to differentiate the parts, and in doing so wrenches them away from the whole so as to determine their distinctive qualities. The history of western philosophy itself lends credence to the absurdity of this procedure. For how long have philosophers been arguing about the nature of the good and the true? Is there any indication that a final conclusion will ever be reached? The inquiries into the nature of goodness and truth always begin with an attempt to pluck a certain concept (e.g. virtue) out of every temporal and situational context so as to discover what is timelessly and universally true about it, and only after this final definition is reached is it supposedly reinstated to govern over all times and situations. How is it that concepts are separated from the whole in order to discover the definition that supposedly fits them timelessly and universally within the whole?

Understanding which begins with the “undifferentiated whole” is necessarily contextual, and necessarily subjective (in the sense that Zhuangzi means it). Concepts are not plucked out of their temporal and situational contexts to be understood, but are rather understood as belonging entirely and inextricably to the temporal and situational whole which they are a part of. In this way they are also subjective: “The speaker has something to say, but what he says is not final” (Zhuangzi). Words that define, differentiate and distinguish do not last. Only the whole lasts, the whole that encompasses all of these definitions, differentiations and distinctions, the whole that they cannot be separated from because it created them.

Maybe it is time for the western tradition of “knowledge” acquisition to be replaced with the more holistic Daoist understanding of the world. Maybe it is time to embrace oneness along with the skepticism and subjectivism that accompany it. Maybe it is time to stop cutting up the world, and to leave it uncarved.


All quotes and historical data taken from Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy by Wing-tsit Chan, 1973.

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