At a meeting of the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, it was pointed out that the Chinese term dao (formerly tao), usually translated “way,” also has the meaning of “discourse.” I found this usage tantalizingly close to that of the Greek word logos, diversely translated as “word,” “discourse,” “speech.” In the New Testament book of John that famously opens with En arche en ho logos [In the beginning was the Word], Jesus also identifies himself as “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14.6). The parallelism between logos and dao offers a privileged opening to the difference and similarity between the two cultures.

As a follow-up to our discussion, my colleague William Bodiford of East Asian Languages and Cultures recommended to me Chad Hansen’s A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (Oxford, 1992), which I read with great interest. I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that ancient Chinese thought, focused on the social, “performative” use of language, is closer to GA’s understanding than Western metaphysics, which sees language from the perspective of the individual mind. I also felt a considerable affinity with the paradoxical thinking about language in Laozi and others, despite the fact that there is no room for an originary scene in this mode of thought (see Cecily Hurst’s “The Origin of Language in Chinese Thought”), which never conceives of the human social order as other than a kingdom.

For these thinkers, language is important above all not as a medium for enunciating true propositions but as a means of guiding action. As Hansen points out:

Classical Chinese does not have explicit descriptive and prescriptive forms. Students of comparative translation, therefore, will find huge chunks of text that one translator renders in declarative English and another in imperative English. Behind this apparent ambiguity, I suggest, lies this assumption about the function of language. All language functions to guide behavior. Given that assumption, a community would not require an explicit prescriptive marker.

That does not mean that all sentences are prescriptive sentences. It means only that, like a computer program, the input as a whole guides our action in the world. We use all the distinctions made in language in guiding action. The communication of information is a subtask of language. Information is always information in relation to a program that guides action. (51)

In other words, the Chinese declarative has not become metaphysical; it has not lost its connection with what I have called the “elementary linguistic forms”: the ostensive and imperative that designate objects of significance, for worship or practical action.

The central tension in Chinese thought reflects the ambivalence of the deferral of violence through representation as the bringer of both freedom and order. On the one hand,Confucianism is concerned with maintaining traditional ritual usage through “rectifying names,” making sure that the signs of language name a socially appropriate object. (A Western parallel might be the debate as to when a fetus becomes a “human being.”) Confucianism, unlike traditional Western thought, has not lost sight of the primary link between language, music, and ritual. The modern rediscovery of this connection in the West could be made only through the detour of ethnology; in contrast to Confucianism,Christianity, the religion that abolished sacrifice, has no internal conception of ritual. On the other hand, the Daoist current reflects the fact that no use of language can put an end to dialectical reciprocity. Daoism is inhabited by a sensitivity to the fundamentally paradoxical relationship of language to what it asserts that is almost wholly lacking in the West. “The way [dao] that can be spoken is not the constant way.” That is, once you’ve spoken of a “way,” it’s no longer the same way; it has become an object toward which you must take a stand rather than the series of steps you are taking. Ethical language, by the very fact of suggesting a “way” of action, modifies that way of action. Because the focus of Chinese thought about language is ethical rather than metaphysical, it sees paradox neither as a nuisance a la Bertrand Russell or as a psychological operation a la Gregory Bateson, but as a fundamental property of language.


Hansen, whose lucidly and passionately argued views are, as I understand it, somewhat controversial, groups Buddhism and Indian thought in general with Western individualist logic and language philosophy, leaving China (he says nothing of Japan) as the sole source of truly non-Western thinking. Chinese civilization understood over two thousand years ago that (1) ostensive words are more fundamental than declarative sentences; (2) language is closely allied to ritual as a means of creating order, yet (3) the assertion of this order in language is paradoxical. In contrast, the mature intellectual life of the West begins with Plato’s construction of the concept or Idea as an object of reflection accessible only through the declarative sentence. This separation of declarative objectivity from ostensive-imperative pragmatic activity has its parallel in the founding scene of Judeo-Christian religion, God’s appearance to Moses in Exodus 6 (the burning bush), where he names himself with the declarative sentence Ehyeh asher ehyeh: I am/will be who/what/that I am/will be. (See Science and Faith.) Western culture has been built on the forgetting of the originary function of language.

I am tempted to use a paraphrase of Laozi’s gnomic words to explain why GA’s recalling of these “Chinese” insights has met with little enthusiasm. What makes a culture function, its dao, is incompatible with the revelation of its operation. The ethical paradoxality of language is the suppressed truth of Western individualism, built upon what we might call the Lockean fiction that language is the subjective possession of individuals who subsequently come together to communicate objective truths about the world. The individual mind and external nature (“what is the case”) are perceived as the polar elements of linguistic communication, so that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus with its “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen” [what we cannot speak of, we must leave in silence] becomes the ultimate, tragic work of Western philosophy. As Hansen shows, Chinese thought’s refusal to lose sight of the interpersonal nature of language has been associated with the domination of language and society by a centralized despotism rather than the seemingly utopian proliferation of “ways” encouraged by Daoist thought. Insight for insight, Western emphasis on the individual’s possession of language has been more socially productive than Chinese emphasis on its communal origin.


The twenty-first century, however, may change all that. A new era is dawning, one marked by the global interplay of cultural modes. The very success of market society means that it no longer belongs exclusively to the West. Even the triumph of Western liberal democracy over (European) communism may perhaps best be understood as the end of the era in which the historical dialectic was played out on Western terrain.

One way to formulate the historical dilemma implicit in this development is as a choice between two models of globalization. If we take as unquestioned the unity of the global market, then the crux of twenty-first-century history (have you noticed that–unlike the French who entered le dix-septième siècle in 1600–English speakers live for the first time in a century with a compound name?) will be the progressive integration of the “third world” into this market. In this case, the main axis of world tension will be between the (more or less Christian) West and Islam, the world’s chief source of resistance to market society. In contrast, if Chinese culture, as expressed in the Confucian-Daoist dialectic, is indeed the true Other of Western-based world civilization, then the potentially richest, as well as most dangerous, interaction is likely to be that between the US, the leader of the global market, and China. As every consumer in the West is aware, China, unlike the lands of Islamic fundamentalism, is a real and growing presence in the marketplace, yet it shows little sign of evolving toward the Western model of liberal democracy.

The next few decades should tell us whether there is indeed a distinct Chinese road to market dominance. As a good Westerner, my sympathies lie with Francis Fukuyama’sposition that liberal democracy is the freest and therefore the most creative social form and, consequently, the inevitable outcome of the evolution of market society. But the Western world should not make light of the challenge of a society whose understanding of human interaction was shaped over two thousand years ago by a non-theistic anthropology of language that brings together ritual order and self-referential paradox.