Classical (especially pre-Buddhist) philosophy of language gives us one of the most detailed and developed alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding how words, the world, human history and society fit together. In comparison with Western rationalism, that ancient Chinese picture is surprisingly naturalistic.
Using a path (dào) rather than a law metaphor to talk about morality and causation explains a lot about how this Chinese naturalism unfolds. Chinese philosophers viewed humans as a part of a natural world, not as spiritually privileged likenesses of a supernatural creator and moral commander. Our ideas are social, historical constructions like the graphs of written Chinese. Dào gives Chinese pragmatism a natural cosmology. Instead of minds populated with ideas, it focuses on social-historical practices, learned behaviours (including naming and cooperating), skills, or know-how, and gives special attention to nature vs. nurture.
We are natural inhabitants of a natural world strewn with a network of natural paths to choose from in guiding our shared behaviour as we adapt to and harmonise with nature. We follow natural dào.
Chad Hansen is Chair Professor of Chinese Philosophy, Emeritus at the University of Hong Kong. He has lived in Hong Kong off and on for almost three decades stretching back to the early 1960s. His research has focused on Chinese theory of language and logic (Language and Logic in Ancient China, 1983) and how the concepts used in understanding language and the 心xīn heart-mind informed Classical Chinese ethical discourse (A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought, 1992), and led to a reassessment of Daoism (Laozi’s Tao Te Ching: The Art of Harmony, 2009). He is past president of the Australasian Society of Asian and Comparative Philosophy, former Chair of the board of the Faculty of Arts and of the Department of Philosophy at HKU. Before coming to the University of Hong Kong in 1991, he was Professor and University Scholar at the University of Vermont. Throughout his professional career, he has been invited to visiting positions at major universities around the world, including Stanford, UCLA, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Hawaii and the National University of Singapore.