Angus C. Graham: Taoist Spontaneity and the Dichotomy of "Is" and "Ought"

Posted on February 15, 2019 by Tommy M. McGuire
Labels: books, naming

Taoist Spontaneity and the Dichotomy of “Is” and “Ought”, by Angus C. Graham

Even among the philosophies commonly called “mystical,” there can hardly be one more resistant to an analytic approach than Taoism. By mocking reason and delighting in the impossibility of putting his message into words, the Taoist seems to withdraw beyond reach of discussion and criticism. No doubt one may try to pin him down by translating “Live according to the Way” into some more managable imperative such as “Live spontaneously,” and then laboriously explain to him that either he is expressing a taste for spontaneity which others may not share, or he is making a covert inference from “I am spontaneously inclined to do X” to “I ought to do X,” an instance of that illogical jump from “is” to “ought” to which Western philosophers have been objecting ever since Hume. But since all the great Taoists are poets as much as they are philosophers, would it not be more to the point to approach Taoism as a view of life to be imaginatively explored and approved or rejected to the extent that one finds it fruitful? However, in the present essay I shall refuse to be deterred from trying to run down that elusive imperative behind the denial of imperatives, the implict logic behind the derision of logic, in most sophisticated of the Taoist writers, Chuang Tzu. Instead of accepting him on his own terms—as a poet only incidentally interested in logic, who by aphorism, verse, and anecdote guides us towards his view of life—I shall perversely insist on confronting him in Western terms. The enterprise has turned out, for me at least, to be a more stimulating experience than might be anticipated. It will be seen that, instead of ending up with a take-it-or-leave-it imperative or a trivial example of a fallacious inference, I find myself colliding with an unexpectedly firm logical structure which forces me to approach the fundamental problems of moral philosophy from an unfamiliar direction.

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