- An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies by Steve Coutinho
Every time I begin another perusal of the Laozi, I am again struck with the very first line: 道可道非常道. Any attempt to grasp onto and hold the meaning of dao only succeeds in pushing it further away, leaving some counterfeit idea in its place. Yet, those who are deterred by this warning and abandon their search thus guarantee the unlikelihood of finding themselves traveling it. The investigation of the unintelligible and mystifying as it manifests in experience characterizes the canonical Daoist philosophical writings as well as the approach taken by this enriching book. Yet, there is a temptation at times to exclaim that the methodical explication of such infamously indefinable terms as dao 道, yin 陰, wu 無, and ran 然, and how they fit more or less snugly into a cosmological description of existence, just doesn’t seem all that Daoist! Clarity seems at many times to be purposely avoided in these ancient texts, which may have given Steve Coutinho’s An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies the glossy sheen of naiveté had it not been so elegant and well researched.
This book is an especially important contribution for two reasons. It provides a clear and concise introduction to Daoist philosophical thinking and terminology that benefits both new and seasoned scholars alike. Also, Asian and comparative philosophers will enjoy Coutinho’s attempts to standardize the contemporary language that we use when talking about the texts, which has its basis in both revered, foundational work in the field of Chinese philosophy as well as new, groundbreaking scholarship. He insists notably on “Daoist philosophies” in order to avoid the misunderstandings among different subjects designated “Daoist,” a topic discussed thoroughly in the first chapter, which sets up the interpretive context for reading Daoist philosophy. It is here that he describes his method as “textual phenomenology,” which I take as the intention to “get the feel” for the text in order to provide a full picture that incorporates even the foggier elements. With this approach, the certainty of a correct meaning for a concept is replaced with a spectrum of appropriateness for its interpretation. Coutinho does not shy from admitting that this book is a work of comparative philosophy, but his appeals to Western ideas and their conceptual limits never steal the spotlight from the topic at hand. As comparisons are deployed, the limitedness of their projection onto these ancient works is promptly acknowledged and explained.
The second chapter continues to lay the groundwork for his interpretation. Included are brief sections showcasing the major concepts dao 道, tian 天, de 德, ren 仁, wei 為, and several others, but presenting them according to different criteria [End Page 623] (dao, for example, is interpreted discretely as “processive,” “discourse,” and “indeterminate”) in order to facilitate a hermeneutic interpretation of their possible and likely meanings. Coutinho opposes this method to a metaphysical approach, which must presume transcendence at the price of forsaking pragmatic points of view. There are a great many voices included in these sections, ranging from Rousseau to Xunzi to Democritus, which do service to a unified, though tentative, conceptual precondition for reading Daoist texts. The discussion of yin and yang is vibrant with examples as well as cautions against taking their differences as opposites, an exposition that will certainly please any scholar of Chinese Philosophy.
Reading the next chapter, I had little problem assimilating the author’s belief that the text may properly be called “the Laozi” rather than having recourse to the later-bestowed title, the Daodejing. Dao and de, while undoubtedly central to the text, connote a positivity, a conceptual appeasement, which does a disservice to the abstruse elements of the text. The title may simply be too you 有 to capture the driving force of these eighty-one passages. Here, and in all of the chapters that follow, the reader finds more of the methodological approach of addressing important concepts one at a time, with each filling out another aspect of the probable meaning of the text itself. It is...