• A
  • A
  • A
Follow us on
Religious Studies Unit, Middlesex University London
Saying and Renunciation in Chang Chung-yuan's Commentary to the Dao De Jing

One of the most conspicuous aspects of the Dao De Jing is its negative view of language. Language is unable to express the full nature of being, the Dao, which is, rather, open only to an intuitive, direct and ineffable, spontaneous and creative awareness, which has a transformative influence on the lives of those who reach it. Implicit in the text is a philosophy of language that explores how, on the basis of this intuitive access to the Dao, we can come to understand language itself as one of the Dao's manifestations. In recent years the attention for the relation between the Daoist view of language and Western philosophies (and theologies) of apophatic discourse has grown considerably. But it was the Hawaiian scholar Chung-yuan Chang (1904-1988) who first explored the deep connections between Daoism, the history of German philosophy and in particular Heidegger's philosophy of language, in his little-noted but masterly and sensitive translation and commentary of the Dao De jing (1975). In this paper I will read Chang's commentary in the light of Heidegger's reflections on the relation between Saying (Sagen) and renunciation (Versagen), starting from Heidegger's remark that "renunciation is itself a Saying". The way in which the Dao De Jing acts in a kenotic, emptying, non-acting, nurturing but non-credit taking manner, like the water to which Lao Tzu so often compares the Dao, is an example of this renunciation at the heart of language. Interestingly, Wang Bi (226-249) shows a very clear awareness of this aspect of the text in his classical commentary. Western philosophy reached this insight, which moves far beyond the confines of negative theology, only with Heidegger's, still quite contentious, linguistic speculations.


Johan Siebers is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Middlesex University London and Director of the Ernst Bloch Centre for German Thought at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He has published widely on German philosophy, especially Ernst Bloch, the philosophy of communication and metaphysics. He is founding editor of Empedocles: European Journal for the Philosophy of Communication. He studied Philosophy, Linguistics and Dutch language and Literature at Radboud University Nijmegen, Leuven, and Leiden Universities and holds a Doctorate in Philosophy from Leiden.