Naming and the nameless in the Tao: A response to Paul Gibson

As some of the regular readers may have noticed, another author posted their own translation of the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching in the comments section of the post on Darkness and Mysterious Depth in the Tao.  I’m not sure if the comment was left in part as a criticism of the post, but there is in my mind some disagreement on the potentiality of naming and the nameless between our and Paul Gibson’s interpretations.

In our translation (and in our first tweet as well), we tried to emphasis the importance of both naming and the nameless.  Without a doubt, the reality of Tao is the truth of existence, but without our own experience and understanding of it, how can we come to appreciate this reality?

Thus, common among many translations of the Tao is a sort of dichotomy between the two.  For instance, here is an example of exactly this sort of translation:

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets.
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.

The importance of this passage to me lies in the final two lines.  The nameless and named are two sides of the same thing.  Without the name, there is no entry point into the mystery of the nameless.  Therefore, the most important thing to remember is that though no name names the lasting nameless, without names we cannot begin our examination of the mysterious depth of existence.

In contrast (I think), Gibson’s translation, and others like it, seem to emphasis the importance of the nameless over that of the named.  In one sense at least, this might be right.  Tao is the ultimate reality.  It comes first, and without it there are no manifestations to appreciate.  Worse, as Gibson’s translates, “Once Tao is put into words, Tao is no longer infinite.”  This idea is taken up in one of the chapters of the Chuang Tzu.

However, in the second line, “Once defined, the definite is favored over infinite,” there’s a hidden assumption that, though perhaps usually accurate, isn’t always.  Definitions are a tool.  Naming, despite its flaws, and its potential to overdetermine, is necessary.  The problem is, as Gibson notes, when the definite is favoured.  But it need not be.  It can simply be a starting point to a deeper understanding. 

This is well-captured in our recently posted definition of the uncarved block, which serves nicely as a metaphor for this debate.  The importance of the uncarved block is its potential to be so many different things and to adapt to different situations.  Potentiality implies becoming.  As we said before, the catch is to return to the simplicity, rather than getting stuck seeing something, or doing something a particular way.  So long as manifestations are not mistaken for ultimate reality, they are an essential entry point into the mysterious depth of Tao.

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