Philosophy Daoism and Philosophy
Jung Lee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0360


Along with Confucianism, Daoism represents one of the major indigenous philosophical and religious traditions of China. Although we can trace the origins of Daoism to the 4th century BCE, the term “Daoism” (daojia 道家, lit. “family of the Way”) only gained currency during the Western Han (206 BCE–6 CE) when the neologism was coined by the historian Sima Tan 司馬談 (d. 110 BCE) in his “Essentials of the Six Schools” (liujia zhi yaozhi 六家之要指), long after the introduction of such foundational texts as the Laozi 老子and Zhuangzi 莊子. Having said that, we can note certain family resemblances among textual sources and master-disciple lineages during the pre-Han period that point to shared views on the cosmology of the Way (dao 道, lit. “road” or “path”), the ultimate metaphysical force in the cosmos, and self-cultivation practices or “techniques of the Way” (dao shu 道術) that would enable the adept to attune or merge with the Way and lead a more realized life. It is the presence of these “techniques of the Way” that led Sima Tan to label certain individual “experts” and practitioners “Daoists.” Toward the end of the Eastern Han in 142 CE, we witness the beginnings of Daoism as an organized, institutional religion with the founding of the Way of the Celestial Masters (tian shi dao 天師道) and then later with the emergence of subsequent religious communities like the Shangqing 上清 or Highest Clarity and Quanzhen 全真 or Complete Perfection. Although there has been an historical proclivity, now less pronounced, on the part of some Chinese scholars and Western sinologists to bifurcate Daoism into “philosophical Daoism” and “religious Daoism,” the distinction needlessly essentializes aspects of Daoism and ignores the complex process of poetic influence and conceptual appropriation within the tradition. With this in mind, this entry will focus on selections that highlight the philosophical dimensions of the Daoist tradition, beginning with a section on Daoism in the context of early Chinese philosophy along with dedicated sections on the Laozi and Zhuangzi. The rest of the entry will be organized into topics that address particular aspects of Daoist philosophy, including epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, social and political philosophy, and comparative studies.

General Overviews

Introductory works and general overviews of Daoism face enormous challenges in terms of disabusing readers of lingering misconceptions, making methodological choices about sources and periods, and striking a balance between accessibility and coverage. Sivin 1978 reflects on the terminological perplexities of the term “Daoism” and the histories of interpretation that have contributed to its vagueness and ambiguity. Kirkland 2004 addresses some of the “hermeneutical challenges” of studying Daoism and attempts to expand the study of Daoism to more than the “classical legacy.” Komjathy 2013, Littlejohn 2009, and Miller 2003 offer very accessible overviews of Daoism that cover the entire history of the tradition. Coutinho 2014 focuses more on Daoist philosophy, particularly the foundational texts of the classical period, while Maspero 1981 and Robinet 1997 highlight the religious dimensions of the tradition.

  • Coutinho, Steve. An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

    A concise, nuanced introduction to early Daoist philosophy, particularly of the Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Liezi. Beyond a detailed examination of these foundational texts and some of their fundamental concepts, the book also engages in a methodological discussion about the perils of comparative philosophy when reading early Daoist texts.

  • Kirkland, Russell. Taoism: The Enduring Tradition. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    This is an introductory work that addresses some of the “hermeneutical challenges” of studying Daoism, particularly in regard to the legacy of Orientalism in the West. Challenges many of the received interpretations of Daoism and attempts to expand the parameters of Daoism beyond the “classical legacy.”

  • Komjathy, Louis. The Daoist Tradition: An Introduction. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

    An introduction to Daoism that advances a “continuous tradition” view that rejects the distinction between “philosophical Daoism” and “religious Daoism” and suggests that there are significant continuities between early master-disciple lineages during the classical period and later religious movements. Dedicates a significant amount of space to Daoist cultivation practices.

  • Littlejohn, Ronnie L. Daoism: An Introduction. New York: Tauris, 2009.

    Introduces the reader to Daoism through the analogy of a kudzu vine, arguing that the “great vine of Daoism” can be viewed as a trunk, branches, and overlapping vines and stems. This is perhaps a more contextualized discussion of Daoism than many other introductory works and takes into consideration the influence of place and history as well as the effects of material culture on the growth of the Daoist tradition.

  • Maspero, Henri. Taoism and Chinese Religion. Translated by Frank A. Kierman Jr. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.

    Published posthumously, this influential volume includes nine important essays by the French sinologist on a range of subjects in Chinese religion. Chapters like “An Essay on Taoism in the First Centuries A.D.” effectively contextualize the thought and practice of early Daoism within the larger history of Chinese religion. Originally published in French as Le Taoïsme et les religions chinoises (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).

  • Miller, James. Daoism: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.

    An accessible introductory work intended for undergraduates that is organized thematically around eight fundamental concepts (identity, way, body, power, light, alchemy, text, nature) and an historical introduction. Written from the perspective of an educator, the book attempts to give the reader the hermeneutic tools to develop her own understanding of Daoism.

  • Robinet, Isabelle. Taoism: Growth of a Religion. Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

    A comprehensive history of Daoism that traces the origins and development of the Daoist religion. The book is organized as a history of ideas which seeks to map the major lines of “doctrinal evolution” within the religion. Originally published in French as Histoire du taoïsme: Des origines au XIVe siècle (Paris: Cerf, 1991).

  • Sivin, Nathan. “On the Word ‘Taoist’ as a Source of Perplexity. With Special Reference to the Relations of Science and Religion in Traditional China.” History of Religions 17.3–4 (1978): 303–330.

    DOI: 10.1086/462796

    A seminal article that addresses the problematic nature of the term “Daoism,” particularly in regard to the artificial distinction between “philosophical Daoism” and “religious Daoism.” Notes how the lexical ambiguities and conceptual vagueness of the term have been exploited by different parties for competing rhetorical purposes. Available online by subscription.

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