Book of Interest: The Paradox of Being: Truth, Identity, and Images in Daoism by Poul Andersen

Please see below or the publisher page for further information.

About This Book

The question of truth has never been more urgent than today, when the distortion of facts and the imposition of pseudo-realities in the service of the powerful have become the order of the day. In The Paradox of Being Poul Andersen addresses the concept of truth in Chinese Daoist philosophy and ritual. His approach is unapologetically universalist, and the book may be read as a call for a new way of studying Chinese culture, one that does not shy away from approaching “the other” in terms of an engagement with “our own” philosophical heritage.

The basic Chinese word for truth is zhen, which means both true and real, and it bypasses the separation of the two ideas insisted on in much of the Western philosophical tradition. Through wide-ranging research into Daoist ritual, both in history and as it survives in the present day, Andersen shows that the concept of true reality that informs this tradition posits being as a paradox anchored in the inexistent Way (Dao). The preferred way of life suggested by this insight consists in seeking to be an exception to ordinary norms and rules of behavior which nonetheless engages what is common to us all.

About the Author

Poul Andersen is Associate Professor of Chinese Religions at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

7 replies on “Book of Interest: The Paradox of Being: Truth, Identity, and Images in Daoism by Poul Andersen”

  1. “a new way of studying Chinese culture, one that does not shy away from approaching “the other” in terms of an engagement with “our own” philosophical heritage.”

    Would that be new?

    • It could be. But in order to determinate that, you would have to look into the book itself, as opposed to simply asking a four-word rhetorical (and apparently sarcastic) question referring to a truncated version of one sentence in the book description in the publisher’s catalogue and on the cover of the book. In the opening parts of the book, the author discusses how he seeks a departure from some dominant traditional ways of doing Sinology in terms of the notion of a radical distinction between East and West, and from widespread notions about “Orientals” among some of (even the most reputable) Western philosophers. Would that be something new? Does it have to be? You tell me.

    • Thank you, Poul!

      I was not commenting on the book, nor asking a rhetorical question, nor being sarcastic, and I am sorry for having given that impression. I suppose I was expressing surprise.

      In the past this blog was almost wholly for discussion rather than announcements; and I cling to the legacy. I was trying to start a conversation (with anyone) on whether it would be new for Westerners to study Chinese culture (philosophy) “in terms of an engagement with” Western philosophical heritage, as the blurb, the blog post, seemed to say. I wasn’t sure I understood that language, but I thought I should be brief at first.

      I don’t know the field well; my own involvement with it is only with a small corner, not really including Daoism or the controversy about “truth.” But my impression is that a concern to find ways in which Chinese and Western traditional gears could engage has always been a leading part of the Western study of Chinese philosophy. I don’t know whether what the blurb is calling new is this or something else.

      Granted, surely some very prominent long-deceased Western philosophers have been casual about “Orientals.” And granted, as I’ve commented earlier on this blog, there is at least some ugly racism still to be found among big names in Western sinology. I can’t get out of my head the moment in a PBS documentary I saw just a few years ago, on the archaeology of early China, when a scholar commenting on an important dig in or beyond China’s far West, containing something suggestive of very early Chinese culture, told the viewers with excitement that the people whose relics these were “may have been white!” And granted, as I’ve commented earlier on this blog, there has been an enduring myth of a still-to-be-bridged divide between China and the West – a Western myth that China and the West continue to be for each other the unexplored country –that we are new to each other even today. But none of those points, except maybe the last, would be prima facie relevant to my question. I wasn’t asking whether lack of engagement is old, or still common; I was asking whether engagement would be new.

      You raise a new question: “Would it have to be [new]? You tell me.” I say, of course study with engagement would not have to be new in order for it to be good. But something would have to be new in order for one of the blurb’s main claims to be true. The post put the question on the table. Still, strictly speaking, the language can be read to say, not that study with engagement would be new, but only that a certain mode of study with engagement not there specified would be new. And then to understand the claim one would have to look inside the book or ask.

      Of course the bare question whether some blurb or post is misleading is of no interest. What could be interesting or exciting is the substance: is there something important that could be described in the terms of the blurb/post that would be new to the Western study of Chinese philosophy?

    • Here’s another way to put the question: The blurb/post appears to impugn all or most previous Western work on Chinese philosophy by saying that it avoids terms of engagement, and I would like to know whether others agree (or whether I’ve misunderstood).

  2. Hi Bill,
    Thanks for your thoughtful and positive response to my comment on your initial question. I agree with a lot of what you say and appreciate your clarifications of what you meant by your remark. I can hereby stop being miffed by what, at first sight, appeared to be some of its negative implications.
    I wasn’t aware of this blog until just a few days ago when I ran into a link to it in a Google search. And I certainly had nothing to do with the mention of my book as a “book of interest.” My situation right now is being in a kind of limbo between the release of the book (August 6, 2019) and the eventual appearance of the first reviews. In addition, I have been invited to give a book presentation at a few conferences, and any critique of my work is likely to be helpful as I prepare for this.
    I didn’t expect that the first reaction would be to one sentence in the blurb that the publisher had asked me to write. The requirement was that it would consist of no more than 200 words, a fact that caused me no end of frustration in terms of saying something meaningful about the content of the book while also making it appear exactly like “a book of interest” to a wider audience. As a result, I ended up leaving out the specifics about my basic philosophical grounding, and about the contexts in which it might be viewed as something new.
    The question of newness is, of course, an interesting one, but for me, not so much in terms of analyzing the truth conditions of the simple claim that the book exemplifies “a new way of studying Chinese culture, etc.” At the very least, you would have to include the beginning of this sentence, which states that “The approach is unapologetically universalist, and the book may be read as a call for a new way of studying Chinese culture, etc.” But to aim for, or call for, surely does not amount to a very strong assertion of having achieved something new.
    The question of newness is just about as tricky as the question of truth. “There is nothing new under the sun,” says Ecclesiastes, as a conclusion to the initial statement: “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again.” In this context, the only thing that is actually new is God, and incidentally, in Daoism something similar may be said about the Way (Dao).
    You are right that what might be new in my approach has much to do with the question of engagement. And I am pleased that you agree that “strictly speaking, the language can be read to say, not that study with engagement would be new, but only that a certain mode of study with engagement not there specified would be new.” The mode of engagement that I describe in the book is directly related to my point of departure in fieldwork among Daoist priests in Tainan, Taiwan—and to the fact that I interpret what I learned from them, both in terms of the realities of Daoist ritual (and its history), and in terms of the Daoist philosophy that underwrites these practices. There definitely is something new in this, especially when you consider the run-of-the-mill publications within the field of Daoist studies, with their tendency to objectify their topics and to explain everything in terms of social function and context.
    What is new in my book is also in the style of writing, and in a certain breach with some aspects of conventional academic work. I allow myself to be a bit more personal than is usually the case in that world (all related, of course, to my emphasis on truth as subjective and as “a type of being”). I borrow these terms from Alain Badiou, who, in my view, has something important to say about truth, especially in its connection with the event, in which it appears as something new and even strange, something that erupts into our everyday, conventional world out of nowhere, something that is surely in this world, but not of this world. Indeed, in his essay “Thinking the Event,” he expresses his notion of the philosopher as follows:
    “The philosopher is always a stranger, clothed in his new thoughts. And he acquires still more partisans in the ways of silence. This means that he is capable of rallying a great number of people to these new problems, because he has convinced them that these problems are universal. What matters is that those whom the philosopher addresses are convinced first of all through the silence of conviction and not through the rhetoric of discourse.” As I try to demonstrate in my book, there is something in this that is strikingly similar to the basic notion of a Daoist.
    I share your misgivings, by the way, about Victor Mair and his excitement over the blond and blue eyed corpses found in western China. I am not sure that it is racist, though. Rather, it is just another expression of his agenda for coming up with something new that would support his overall desire to go against the grain by discovering that certain aspects of culture that we thought were indigenous to China were, in fact, transmitted from the West at a very early time. What bugs me most is his suggestion that the Daode jing has so much in common with the Bhagavad Gita that we might look for the sources of concepts like wuwei, “non-action,” in the ideology of the latter.
    I hope you will read the book and perhaps give me some feedback based on that.

  3. Thank you, Poul. Being myself an atypical scholar who has hardly been read (that I know of), I deeply sympathize.


    I quite agree: saying that the book calls for X does not assert that the book does X. But in fact I had asked only about what the sentence does assert about other scholars, which is that none of them has done X (or not hardly). But from what you say, I was wrong to think the X you meant, the X that would be new is

    A: studying Chinese culture in terms of an engagement with Western philosophical heritage.

    Really it’s

    B: doing A in a certain manner.

    So you were not denying that A has been common or even the norm. What you meant to say could not provoke or invite my original question as I meant it, and I asked in error.

    And you are not claiming to have done the new thing – B. The new things you describe do not sound like manners of engagement with Western heritage. But maybe they are.

    I’m afraid I don’t understand the quotation from the non-traditional Westerner.

    • They are. Which would be clear if you allow that European philosophy of existence is part of this Western heritage. How this background is helpful for interpreting Daoist thought and practice is an important part of what my book aims to demonstrate.

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