As I watch my niece slowly learn her first few words, I am reminded of the importance of language. After all, there is only so much you can communicate to a person with ‘mamma’, ‘pappa’ and ‘ball’. Although other species have their own unique ways of interacting with each other, the sophistication of human language has enabled us to share ideas, thoughts and emotions leading to the development of complex societies and cultures.
Nonetheless, we must also keep in mind that no language is perfect in fully representing our internal subjective experience or the continual dynamic flux of the external world. Although it is extremely useful, language is always limited in portraying reality which is constantly changing and evolving. This is what Lao Tsu is alluding to in the famous opening lines of the Tao Te Ching,
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Limits of Language
To understand his point, let’s look at an example. Two men are in love with a woman. The first is very articulate with a strong command over the English language. He is able to craft exquisite love letters and court her with his beautifully spoken prose. The second, although his love for the women is no less sincere, struggles to find the right words to express his emotions.
It would be wrong to say that the first man’s affection is any greater or is more genuine. Rather, he is just more skilled in the nuances and intricacies of this given language.
We are always restricted by the language(s) that we speak. Take for instance the commonly used word ‘love’ in English. The term is used to describe a myriad of different things. One could use it to describe their desire for a piece of chocolate cake, while another individual can use can use it to express their deep affection for their spouse.
On the contrary, the ancient Greeks had used different words to more precisely describe the unique meanings and connotations of the idea of love. For instance, ‘philia’ represents friendship and companionship, ‘eros’ signifies passion or intimate love, while ‘agape’ means unconditional love alluding to the warmth and care a mother has for her child. Having a wider array of terminology available allows you to speak with more accuracy and precision.
The key point is that language and concepts slice up reality into fragments, ultimately affecting how we see and make sense of things. While useful, the concepts we use and rely on during our day to day lives to make sense of things can never fully characterize the complexity of our experience.
It can point towards meaning, but can never capture the complete essence of what is being said. The issue arises when we make the mistake of confusing abstractions and thoughts with reality itself.
As the philosopher Alan Watts describes in Tao: The Watercourse Way,
There is no way of putting a stream in a bucket or the wind in a bag. Verbal description and definition may be compared to the latitudinal and longitudinal nets which we visualize upon the earth and heavens to define and enclose the positions of mountains and lakes, planets and stars…. For the game of Western philosophy and science is to trap the universe in the networks of words and numbers so that there is always the temptation to confuse the rules, or laws of grammar and mathematics with the actual operation of nature.
Defining the Sacred
As I mentioned in my last article, the Tao can be thought of as the ‘way’, source or principle which drives the universe.
Although there are important differences between the Tao and the Judeo-Christian God, there is a similar logic in resisting classification of the divine. As the sociologist Erich Fromm writes in To Have or to Be ?,
The God of the Old Testament, is first of all a negation of idols, of gods one can have…God must not have a name; no image must be made of God.
Every time we put labels and classify things into discrete categories, we turn the infinite into the finite making something into an object that we can possess. The beauty and mystery is lost as the divine turns into an idol or abstraction.
Rather than imposing our will and social conventions on the world, Taoism invites us to be receptive to the ultimate mystery of life – to welcome the spontaneous flow of existence and live-in harmony with nature. To accept things as they are as opposed to the way they ought to be.
Thus, in the Tao Te Ching Lao Tsu continually reminds to be open and receptive to the energy, forces and current of the universe; to embrace stillness and let life flow through you.
If we can’t fully understand the nature of things through language, models or concepts, what are we to turn to?
Taoism emphasizes intuition or tacit knowledge. That is, knowing through direct experience, by getting the ‘feel of it’ and directly participating in the activity. Tacit or experiential knowledge is that which is difficult to express verbally or in written form.
You can’t learn to ride a bike just by reading an instruction manual just as one can’t adequately learn a language by studying its grammar.
You have to actively and routinely engage in and participate in these activities to be able to get a firm grasp over them.
The illusive and esoteric ideas of Taoism remind us that the world is a far more mysterious place than we may imagine.
I can not be certain if this article has explained the concept of the Tao accurately, but then again words can only get you so far. It is the role of the poet, author or artist to go beyond the confines of words – to make you understand at a deeper level what is attempting to be said.
Perhaps next time you find yourself in a state of awe or wonder, or become immersed in an activity and lose yourself in a state of flow, you will have a better idea of what I mean.
 Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, the Tao is not something that has direct authority/control over the universe nor something to be worshipped.
4 thoughts on “Beyond Language: A Taoist Perspective”
Thanks for this clear, enlightening post, Andrew. It’s worth more than one read.
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You certainly like exploring the more difficult concepts
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Thank you, I hope you enjoyed the read:)
Very well written but yes I had a difficult time with the understanding of your point ________________________________
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