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January 23rd, 2007

The comments in the original posting are my most verbose attempt to analyze the limitations of language.

I bought a copy of Legge's Texts of Taoism*, 1891 (pre-newage hype and part of the 50 volume Sacred Books of the East) and am simply delighted to read this man's footnotes and commentary.  Even though they are from a Christian perspective and often theologically comparative, Legge resists prefacing the chapters with his commentary and places them after his transl(iter)ation.  I think that lessens his interpretive influence and lets us form some kind of reaction first, and I had some "postmodern" reactions to his commentary and footnotes.

Legge complains that his contemporaries taint Lao Tzu's meaning by translating the character Tao into English words like "the Way" or "Nature" and insists that Zhuangzi defines Tao as a metaphor for what the Tao Te Ching describes.  Legge discusses how Ti, often translated "God", and Thien, often translated "Heaven", are other characters within the Tao Te Ching that Chinese Taoists would not agree with the Christian meanings as understood by English readers, or even Confucianists of the same language, as seen when his contemporaries swapped the translations of the characters to miraculously deify an object or subject.  Legge's point is, I believe, fundamentally Taoist; the Tao Te Ching itself was an inadequate means for Lao Tzu or whoever to convey the Tao or for readers to understand the Tao.  Yet somehow, Taoists comprehend.

I think this conclusion speaks volumes for postmodern criticism of language, specifically the limitations of language and therefore the limitation of knowledge conveyed via text.  Naturally I think Western analytic thought, or I should say skeptics of anything new-agey, scoff at "somehow" understanding something.  Legge resolves this skepticism early in his translation with a Christian comparison, of all things.  His commentary on the first chapter says:
"To understand the Tao one must be partaker of its nature.  [The previous paragraph] suggests the words of the apostle John, 'He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.'"

*originally posted to philosophy where anosognosia responded.