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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics

Enter Daoism

Ontologically, Daoism presents being as a process of constantly becoming.8 Like water, “[w]ay-making (dao) is the flowing together of all things (wanwu)” (Ames and Hall 2003, 173). For this reason, Daoists do not reduce politics to a narrowminded, self-interested performance of power. “The world,” the Daodejing teaches, is “a sacred vessel,/And is not something that can be ruled” (Ames and Hall 2003, 122). This excerpt gives us a sense of why:

Dao engenders one,

One two,

Two three,

And three, the myriad things.

The myriad things engender three,

Three two,

Two one,

And one, dao.

(Ames and Hall 2003, 143-144)

Epistemologically, this “ceaseless” and “cadenced flow of experience” (Ames and Hall 2003, 14) reflects the dialectical interactions of two, opposing yet intimately linked, forces: yin and yang.9 Not only do yin and yang mutually construct despite their polar opposition but each also exists in the other: yin-within-yang, yang-within-yin (Figure 5.1). Each co-implication underscores the internal linkages to any external struggles.

An appreciation for aesthetics or any kind of intuitive sensibility emerges. A famous excerpt from the Zhuangzi illustrates this point (Ames 1998, 219). It tells of a conversation between Master Zhuang and his dear friend and intellectual sparring partner, Hui Shi. Strolling on a bridge over the River Hao one fine day, Master Zhuang remarks that the fishes must be enjoying themselves. “How do you know,” challenges Hui Shi, “since you’re not a fish?” In effect, Master Zhuang replies: “How do you know I don’t know? And the fact that you asked me how I know must mean that you suspect I know. I know because I’m standing here over this bridge relishing the day, the conversation, and the fishes.” In other words, explains Roger Ames, “[i]t is the situation rather than some discrete agent that is properly described (and prescribed) as happy” (Ames 1998, 221). Master Zhuang enters into subjectivity with the general condition of the day so he extrapolates that the fishes, too, must be happy. Otherwise, how could everything feel so right? True knowledge,

Daoist dialectics

FIGURE 5.1 Daoist dialectics: balanced yin/yang relations according to the Daodejing, cannot be contained or ever reach completion: “Knowing that one does not know is knowing at its best” (Ames and Hall 2003, 189).

Balance in heteronomy (social outcomes) makes the difference. “The heavy is the root of the light;/Equilibrium (jing) is the lord of agitation” (Ames and Hall 2003, 117). Because the dao posits an ontological parity for all things (wanwu),10 it cannot discriminate between any “units” in the system. Instead, the dao recognizes that different times and contexts may value different forces. Sometimes, the “female” principle of yin (representing all that is dark, soft, hidden, and so on) may be more appropriate or beneficial than its opposite, the “male” principle of yang (representing all that is bright, hard, public, and so on). Each has its time, place, and use.

Nothing in the world is as soft and weak as water

And yet in attacking what is hard and strong,

There is nothing that can surpass it.

This is because there is nothing that can be used in its stead.

(Ames and Hall 2003, 197)

Because balance reflects dynamic change, Daoism resists any kind of institutionalized hierarchy (even organized rituals). “Way-making (dao) is an easy flowing stream/Which can run in any direction” (Ames and Hall 2003, 130). When the dao prevails, “[a]ll things (wanwu) would defer of their own accord” (Ames and Hall 2003, 126). Daoism’s esteem for non-coercive action (wuwei) applies especially to governance:

Way-making gives things life

Yet does not manage them

It assists them.

Yet makes no claims upon them.

It rears them

Yet does not lord it over them.

It is this that is called profound efficacy.

(Ames and Hall 2003, 157)

Lastly, Daoism transforms, not merely overturns, hegemonic rule.11 In recognizing the co-implications within (yin-within-yang, yang-within-yin), Daoism cannot proceed linearly or presumptuously, as though the analyst or revolutionary knows all. Instead, Daoism necessitates a multi-angled, multi-layered approach that considers the various desires and aspirations, needs and capabilities of all those involved (including the analyst/revolutionary). Such circumspection helps to foreground how various problems may be related, solutions interactive, communities involved, and knowledges relevant. Drawing on this principle - also found in the subcontinent’s ancient philosophy of Samhkya12 - Buddhism teaches the possibility of trans-subjectivity or interbeing (Thich Nhat 1988). An updated version of the Sanskrit concept of pratityasamutpada (“co-dependent arising”),

TABLE 5.1 Re-constructing IR: shifting the terms of debate




Ontology (“what is?”)


“The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.”

Linguistic: “Saying is doing.”

Water-Like: “Way-making (dao) is the flowing together of all things (wanwu).”


(“how do we know what is?”)

Individualist & Objectivist:

“No one cares what we think . . . only . . . what we can demonstrate.”


“People make society, and society makes people.”

Yin/Yang Aesthetic:

“Knowing that one does not know is knowing at its best.”





“Only great powers matter.”


“We make the world make sense to us by making it work for us.”

Balance-seeking: “Equilibrium (jing) is the lord of agitation.”


(“how are we organized?”)


We all want the same things in the same way.

Interpretive: Different worlds interpret the same things differently.

Generative: “Way-making gives things life/Yet does not manage them.”

Hegemony (“which ideas rule?”)


The world needs a hegemon.


“Different worlds call for, and depend on, different ways of world-making.”


“Those who prize way-making do not seek fullness.”

interbeing refers to the self “flowing” through inter-subjective reverberations with others such that “you are in me, and I in you” (nizhong you wo, wo zhong you ni). Table 5.1 summarizes these comparisons between Realism/Liberalism, Constructivism, and Daoism.

Elsewhere (Ling 2014b), I have detailed Daoism’s implications for world politics. These include a model of engagement - worldist dialogics - that builds on Onuf’s notion of “saying is doing” but with consideration for the yin/yang dialectics within for the speaker, the listener, and the context of engagement. Applied to IR, worldist dialogics suggest a method of balancing the yin of multiple worlds with the yang of realist/liberal IR, thereby mitigating some of the violence that hegemons have come to normalize as the “tragedy” of world politics (Mearsheimer 2001).

Still, for the dao, nothing is ever complete. Like the ceaseless flow of water that it mirrors, the dao remains open, dynamic, and forever in stream. “Those who prize way-making do not seek fullness,” advises the Daodejing (Ames and Hall 2003, 98).

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