Issue #60 March 2023

The Tao of Dialectic

Ethel Spowers, "Tug of War", (1933)

When we consider where we should look for a philosophy most resembling the Hegelian dialectic, an answer that springs to mind is Taoism. The famous unity of yin and yang which one finds from the most ancient to the most modern Chinese philosophies, the mystical and mysteriously contradictory phrases of the Tao-te Ching by Laozi, and the self-inverting lines of thought one finds in the Zhuangzi are telling enough, but we also find the explicit position of the co-determination of opposites, that without the other there could not be the one. While to the common view it is Taoism that may strongly come to mind, the dialectical aspects of it are really found across various schools of Chinese philosophy.

The Hegelian dialectic is famous primarily for being contradictory and developing. This quality undeniably seems to strongly appear in Chinese philosophy. From a Hegelian perspective it should be quite interesting to investigate how close these traditions come. In the Lectures on the History of Philosophy Hegel states:

“In as far as in the Eastern mind, reflection, consciousness come through thought to distinction and to the determination of principles, there exist such categories and such definite ideas not in unity with the substantial. The destruction of all that is particular either is an illimitable, the exaltitude of the East, or, in so far as that which is posited and determined for itself is known, it is a dry, dead understanding, which cannot take up the speculative Concept into itself. To that which is true, this finite can exist only as immersed in substance; if kept apart from this it remains dead and arid. We thus find only dry understanding amongst the Easterns, a mere enumeration of determinations, a logic like the Wolffian of old.”

Here we see that Hegel claims that there is nothing like the speculative Concept of philosophy in Chinese thought. I shall here compare some of the most interesting highlights of the dialectical affinity of Chinese thought in general, which goes beyond Taoism, in comparison to Hegel’s speculative dialectic to show how the comparison made by a beginning Hegelian can misunderstand and think these philosophies share a strong resemblance, but I shall also show where these two traditions surprisingly converge. I shall treat certain highlighted abstractions from Chinese philosophy under an admittedly external lens, that of Hegelianism, for the interest is in showing the affinity for the Hegelian.



The yin-yang philosophy which is the foundation of so much of the deep metaphysical structure of Chinese thought is dialectical, but it is not dialectical in the Hegelian sense. In that it is dialectical, it is so in being a thought which looks upon the world in complementary relations and not in fragments. In that yin and yang are seen not only to complement each other, but also to change into each other in a cycle, the yin yang philosophy is also dialectical in the sense of a developing relation, but again, not in the Hegelian sense. The yin-yang school or lineage of thought did exist historically as its own independent current, but the concepts in it (yin-yang and the five agents or processes) long preceded this school, and the school itself became absorbed for the most part by Taoism and to a lesser extent in Confucianism. None of the writings of its proponents, such as Tsou Yen, remain. The comprehension of what yin and yang really mean has also changed through the different schools of thought. The etymological or historical origin of the term is unknown; the most ancient usages concern the sunny and shadowy side of a hill, the sun and clouds, and masculine and feminine.

Yin is generally understood as the negative, yang the positive. They have also been thought as tranquil and active, weak and strong. The dialectical nature, again, not only concerns their complementarity, but also their development into each other. This transformation is most clearly grasped in the comprehension of tranquil and active.

“The Ultimate of Non-being and also the Great Ultimate (Taiji)!The Great Ultimate through movement generates yang. When its activity reaches its limit, it becomes tranquil. Through tranquility the Great Ultimate generates yin. When tranquility reaches its limit, activity begins again. So movement and tranquility alternate and become the root of each other, giving rise to the distinction of yin and yang, and the two modes are thus established.

By the transformation of yang and its union with yin, the Five Agents of Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth arise. When these five material forces (ch’i) are distributed in harmonious order, the four seasons run their course. The Five Agents constitute one system of yin and yang, and yin and yang constitute one Great Ultimate.”

—Zhou Dunyi, An Explanation of the Diagram of the Great Ultimate

Here we see that yang is generated in activity, which in fulfilling itself becomes tranquil and thus generates yin in turn, which in fulfilling its tranquility becomes active again. Zhou Dunyi uses motion as the ground of activity and tranquility, but there is no explanation as to why activity should consume itself to a limit and become tranquil, nor why tranquility would consume itself and move again. The intuition is not too hard to glean, for what he has in mind is the cyclical rhythms of concrete life, of day and night, of working and resting, etc. The truth, however, is stranger than Zhou Dunyi implies here, for yin and yang not only follow each other, but come together as faces of the same being, of the Taiji. The meaning of activity that becomes tranquil, and which in being tranquil becomes active, is actually found in a work long before Zhou Dunyi’s time.


I-Ching: Change

“Change has neither thought nor action, because it is in the state of absolute quiet and inactivity, and when acted on, it immediately penetrates all things. If it were not the most spirit-like thing in the world, how can it take part in this universal transformation?”


Following from the yin-yang philosophy, change is their consummate process. As a unity of yin and yang, however, it is contradictory. Change is tranquil and active not in succession, but at once. As change it is active, but in relation to itself it is tranquil since as change it remains itself undisturbed in its endless flux. In being tranquil, change changes since it ceases to change, it simply is. In simply being, and therefore changing from being change, it has changed, and thus its tranquility immediately springs into activity. In being active, it remains change, and thus it is tranquil to itself again. This contradiction is certainly true and astonishing, but it is not explained this way by the thinkers of the Chinese tradition, and so it is merely stipulated, but is not developed immanently. Therefore, though here we spy a very similar dialectic like that of Hegel’s development of Becoming to determinate Being, it cannot be said to be the same given that there is an absence of following the concept’s logic through explicitly.


The Five Agents (Wuxing)

The traditional five agents or processes/phases (mistakenly called the ‘five elements’ in older English translations) are fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. The reason these are called ‘agents’ is because they are modes of change; they are activations of being, not beings themselves. What is dialectical about the five agents is that they are complementary, relational, and developing into each other in a cycle. We thus see in this what is in the Hegelian lexicon closest to the highest dialectic as the developing and resolving ‘dialogue’, i.e. the dialectic not of immediate supplanting as in Being, or of complementarity such as in Essence, but of self-development of the Concept.

“The first category is the Five Agents; namely, Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth. The nature of Water is to moisten and descend; of Fire, to burn and ascend; of Wood, to be crooked and straight; of Metal, to yield and to be modified; of Earth, to provide for sowing and reaping.”

—from Master Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals

In Master Lu’s account it is the case that from earth follows wood, then metal, then fire, then water, then back to earth. The logic here is of relational overcoming or feeding into: earth is overcome by or feeds into wood, wood overcome by metal, metal overcome by fire, fire overcome by water, and water overcome by earth. Historically this order has changed, and now it is generally taken that the order is from earth to metal, to water, to wood, to fire, and back to earth. This order has an intuitive logic behind it which makes sense of everything except for why water should follow from metal if what we are thinking of is the substances. If instead we think of the dynamic form of these as activations we see that metal’s liquefaction leads to water, but water’s deactivation as ice does not really make much sense leading to wood, but the relational aspect of feeding into wood and thus being overcome does make some sense. Such transformations only work on the assumption of the agents as given, their relations and transitions are not fully conceptually clear, and often rely on different analogies rather than as produced immanently as the one from the other.

The five agents are thus enumerated, but not explained. Regarding how the five agents relate to yin and yang, Shao Yung writes:

“At the first appearance of activity, yang is produced. As activity reaches its limit, yin is produced. The interaction of yin and yang gives full development to the functions of Heaven. At the first appearance of tranquility, the element of weakness is produced. When weakness reaches its limit, the element of strength is produced. The interaction of these two elements gives full development to the functions of Earth. Greater activity is called major yang, while greater tranquility is called major yin. Lesser activity is called minor yang, while lesser tranquility is called minor yin. Major yang constitutes the sun; major yin, the moon; lesser yang, the stars; and lesser yin, the zodiacal spaces. The interaction of the sun, moon, stars, and zodiacal spaces gives full development to the substance of Heaven.

Greater tranquility is called major weakness, while lesser tranquility is called minor weakness. Greater activity is called major strength, while lesser activity is called minor strength. Lesser weakness constitutes water; major strength, fire; lesser weakness, earth; and lesser strength, stone. The interaction of water, fire, soil, and stone gives full development to substance of Earth.”

Supreme Principles Governing the World

With Shao Yung’s explanation we see an attempt at systematic derivation which is impressive when one considers his view that, “By its nature, the Great Ultimate is unmoved. When it is aroused, it becomes spirit. Spirit leads to number. Number leads to form. Form leads to concrete things” (Sayings of Shao Yung), which then leads to the specific developments of yin and yang. With Yung’s thought we have true development linking the whole dynamism of reality, but an incomplete one which begins with given assumptions that are unexplained. It must also be noted that Yung ejects metal and wood from his agents, replacing them with stone, and making the Earth (the complement of Heaven) as the unity of their process. As Yung details the agents, they seem more like stable substances, but one must not forget that they are results of yin and yang, which are themselves moving dynamics of tranquility and activity, and so this changing tendency remains in them. Though imperfect, the five agents as a closed circuit of mutual determination and change is a formal example of the thinking behind Hegel’s Concept, which is the logical space within which the developmental dialectic appears as the generation of the individual from the process of particularity and universality as mutually becoming each other. Yung’s unification of the agents as the whole of Earth hints at such a development, but remains arbitrary, formal, partial, and still lacking a clarity of explanation for its determinations. Not much else can be said of the yin-yang philosophy as dialectical, but Shao Yung provides a good example of the later and more advanced dialectical thinking found in the Daoxue (Neo-Confucianism) movement which dominated late Chinese philosophy.

Ethel Spowers, "The Giant Stride", (1933)

Shao Yung’s Dialectics

“Substance has no definite function—its function is to transform itself. Function has no definite substance—its substance is change itself. In the interaction of substance and function, the principles of man and things are complete.” —Shao Yung

Though initially posited as distinct, substance and function here are presented as necessarily two sides of the same, and so they are not merely complementary, but stand within a whole from which they are generated. When treated as distinct, substance has function, and the first proposition is stated in the perspective of this distinction. The second, however, completely changes the meaning of the first. In that the substance of function is change itself, we know that the substance is actually pure function. What functions and is functioned on is function itself. This self-reversing cycle of the same negatively relating to itself endures as a closed circuit upon itself, and thus is substantive. The logic in this is a finer and more explicit form of the dialectic of changeless change in the earlier I-Ching. Here, however, the logic of essence in the Hegelian philosophy is reached explicitly, and we see a highly condensed yet valid determination of what in the Science of Logic is the form-matter dialectic. All that Shao Yung lacks is the explication unfolding what is already fully immanent in the stated determination of substance and function.

“The past and the present in the universe is comparable to morning and evening. When the present is viewed from the past, it is called the present, but when viewed from posterity, it will become the past. When the past is viewed from the present, it is called the past, but when viewed from the past itself, it would be its present. Thus neither the present nor the past is necessarily the present or the past as such. The distinction is entirely due to our subjective points of view. People generations ago and people generations to come all have this subjective viewpoint.” —Shao Yung

Here we see Yung become aware of past, present, and future as indexical, as determinations based on the subject’s relative position in the system of terms. This external dialectic grasps the unity of the terms only in their formal relation as complements that only mean anything in a codetermination of each other at the same time. The present is considered only in negative relation to the past or future, which are themselves only considered in their negative relation to the present. In-themselves, that is without relation to each other, the moments of time are not different. This dialectic is relational, and essential insofar as Yung only realizes that the terms have meaning only in their reflected relation. Interestingly, Hegel does not disagree with Yung that the relation of the temporal dimensions is subjective, making it clear in the Philosophy of Nature that the distinctions of past and future are entirely a psychological reality which is not present in pure time as such. For Hegel, time itself is simply the indifferent distinction of nows which are merely separate totalities of space becoming outside of itself, i.e. “slices of time” which have no preferential ordered relation to each other, i.e. no arrow of time.

“The root engenders the trunk; the trunk, branches; and the branches, leaves. The greater the division, the smaller the result, and the finer the division, the more complex. Taken as a unit, it is one. Taken as diffused development, it is the many. Hence the hexagrams ch’ien (Heaven) divides, k’un (Earth) unites; chen (activity) augments, and sun (bending) diminishes. Augmentation leads to division, division leads to diminution, and diminution leads to closing.” —Shao Yung

Here we see one of the most potent speculative developments in any philosophy: the grasp of the unity of universals and particulars not as opposites, but as two sides of the same. Implicit in this is an account of the finitization of the Infinite. We find this repeated in Wang Yangming’s thought when he uses the example of a tree’s roots and branches for the same purpose. Without the whole in which roots and branches are parts of, neither roots cannot be roots nor branches be branches, and without its parts the tree cannot be a tree since a whole is a whole of parts. This very intuitively exemplifies the dialectic of the universal and particular we find in Hegel’s Concept, but yet yet again we do not find in it the fully explicit reasoning or intelligibility of why this is so.


Laozi: The Inverting Negative

“Therefore the sage manages affairs without action (wu-wei)

And spreads doctrines without words.

All things arise, and he does not turn away from them.

He produces them, but does not take possession of them.

He acts, but does not rely on his own ability.

He accomplishes his task, but does not claim credit for it.

It is precisely because he does not claim credit that his

accomplishment remains with him.”


In the Laozi we find many contradictory claims, but also complementarity. This work is therefore dialectical not only as involving the unity of opposites, but also the immanent inversion of all determinations. In fact, Laozi explicitly states the self-inverting nature of the Tao (Way) in another line: “Reversion is the action of Tao.”

“To yield is to be preserved whole.

To be bent is to become straight.
To be empty is to be full.
To be worn out is to be renewed.
To have little is to possess.

To have plenty is to be perplexed.
Therefore the sage embraces the One
And becomes the model of the world.”

Laozi states the inversions, but he does not explain them. The truth of the mystery of the Tao remains hidden. Insofar as the contradictions of the Laozi are made sense of by the understanding, it is by providing the context in which the claims make sense. Very few of Laozi’s claims involve a conceptual contradiction as conceptual, i.e. about the thing itself directly being contradictory as itself. Many contradictions and complements are put forth, but by Hegelian standards they are only externally contradictory in the mind of the one who chooses to bring them together as opposites even when they may not really be so. Only the Tao is such that its nature is itself simply contradictory such that in non-being it is all, in not doing it does all, and in being one it is many. That this is so is clear, but the dialectic of Laozi does not reveal how or why this is so.


Zhuangzi: This and That

Zhuangzi is a greater dialectician than Laozi, and part of it is perhaps due to a funny historical reason: one of his great rival interlocutors, Huizi, was a member of the School of Names which is famous for their love of conceptual paradoxes. In the Zhuangzi we find moments where linguistic or conceptual reason turns itself in circles, but the Tao is like the center beyond the division of the finite line of the circle. Though reason seems incapable of expressing the Tao, it is necessary to exercise it to dispel the illusions of exclusion or one-sidedness in language. We see this exemplified in the dialectic of ‘this’ and ‘that’:

“There is nothing that is not the “that” and there is nothing that is not the “this.” Things do not know that they are the “that” of other things; they only know what they themselves know. Therefore I say that the “that” is produced by the “this” and the “this” is also caused by the “that.” This is the theory of mutual production. Nevertheless, when there is life there is death, and when there is death there is life. When there is possibility, there is impossibility, and when there is impossibility, there is possibility. Because of the right, there is the wrong, and because of the wrong, there is the right. Therefore the sage does not proceed along these lines (of right and wrong, and so forth) but illuminates the matter with Nature. This is the reason.

The “this” is also the “that.” The “that” is also the “this.” The “this” has one standard of right and wrong, and the “that” also has a standard of right and wrong. Is there really a distinction between “that” and “this”? Or is there really no distinction between “that” and “this”? When “this” and “that” have no opposites, there is the very axis of Tao.”

—Zhuangzi, The Equality of Things

While the Analytically minded would point out that what is dealt with here are indexicals like left and right, which are relative to a subject’s pointing out, this is the less interesting and insightful interpretation. With this dialectic, Zhuangzi comes close to Hegel’s insights into the dialectic of something (this) and other (that). What differentiates Hegel and Zhuangzi is the depth to which Hegel can go with this dialectical development. Zhuangzi only stipulates that both are dual determinations of all things, but he does not explain why this is really so. Insofar as he does, it is an external reflection of comparison, of seeing that we can and do refer to things as this and that in relational context. A thing is this insofar as it is not that, and insofar as that refers to the first this as its that, the that is a this. With this and that we can observe that indeed these are mutually produced terms that are simply negative reflections of each other, but we do not understand why they arise in the first place.

Hegel is aware of this comparative identity and difference and even notes it in the section prior to his own explanation of the difference of something and other in the Science of Logic, particularly noting the Latin etymology where the difference of each word is simply perspectival, i.e. as aliud (the one or other).


Kung-Sun Lung: Marks and Things


Kung-Sun Lung was a member of the so-called School of Names, and his remaining fragments are the most interesting insofar as his paradox of marks (which may concern names or forms, but it is not clear which interpretations are definite) and things is a genuine conceptual dialectic of form and matter.

“All things are marks. But marks are no marks [for themselves]. If there were no marks in the world, nothing could be called a thing. If there were no marks, can things in the world be spoken of as marks? Marks are what do not exist in the world, but things are what do exist in the world. It is incorrect to consider what does exist in the world to be what does not exist in the world.”

The argument begins with positing that all things are marks, i.e. marks are all there is. Marks, however, are meant as marks of things, not marks of marks or marks without relation. Without marks, there are no things insofar as ‘thing’ is itself a mark. But if marks are removed, it seems that there should still be things since it is marks which depend on things, and not things that depend on marks. Marks do not exist on their own, nor do they exist in the world as such, but things do.

“[If] there are no marks in the world, things cannot be called marks. What cannot be called marks are not marks. Not being marks, all things are marks. [To say that if] there are no marks in the world things cannot be called marks, does not mean that there are [things] without marks. There not being [things] without marks means that all things are marks. All things being marks means that marks are not marks. That there are no marks in the world is due to the fact that all things have their own names which do not serve as marks. To call them marks when they do not serve as marks, is to consider them all as marks for another and really no marks. It is incorrect to consider what is not a mark as a mark.”

Ethel Spowers, "Gust of Wind", (c.1931)

The argument continues: Marks do not exist, and things aren’t marks, but thereby things are marks because if we determine that they cannot be marked, they have been marked as unmarked. But their lack of mark already disqualified their thinghood, and so all they are is marks marked as unmarked. But marks are marks of things, not independent beings themselves, therefore this world of nothing but marks is utterly unmarked since nothing is distinguished by these marks. They do not form things to distinguish them nor do they mediately signify them as a name, but are the direct things themselves. Therefore we conclude that what we really have is only things, but no marks. We see that so far we have gone from a world of all marks, a world of no marks and just things, back to a world of all marks, and now back to a world of all things.

“Furthermore, marks serve as marks for each other. That there are no marks in the world means that things cannot be said to be without marks. That things cannot be said to be without marks means that there are none which are not marks. As there are none which are not marks, then all things are marks. Marks are different from what are not marks. Marks and things combined are different from marks. If there were no marks of things in the world, who could say that [x] are not marks? If there were nothing in the world, who could say that [x] are marks? If there were marks in the world but no marks of things, who could say that [x] are not marks, or that all things are not marks? Furthermore, marks are in themselves not marks. Why do they have to be combined with a thing in order to be marks?”

Finally: “Marks serve as marks for each other.” This is an outstanding insight of supreme reflexivity, and in complete contradiction to the very beginning where it was stated that marks are not marks for themselves. In light of this statement, the second, “That there are no marks in the world means that things cannot be said to be without marks” is easily interpreted under this reflex. There are ‘no marks,’ i.e. these unmarked things are things precisely as unmarked, for we cannot make sense of the very conception of the unmarked without already marking it. Being that now the unity of marks with things has been derived again, all marks are things, and all things are marks. But marks and things are different, and their combination is different from their pure distinction. Without marks we could not state that there is the unmarked. Without things, there is no way to say there are marks at all since such is relational. If there are only marks uncombined with things, then there is no way to distinguish that which is not a mark. But if only marks exist, they are no longer marks since they are not mediating or signifying another thing, and so a mark in itself is not a mark, but we already have seen that the unmarked is itself marked.

Kung-Sun Lung was a master of the immanent dialectic who would have made Hegel smile. This is the brilliance of ancient philosophy which only the greatest thinkers could achieve, and it is a great tragedy of history that his writings and the writings of the School of Names in general did not survive, for these approached the pure concepts of thought which are the domain of philosophy released from all other duties but the self-speculation of reason.


Final Remarks

As one can see, there are indeed some surprising similarities between Chinese and Hegelian dialectic. In fact I opted to point these out more than to point out the dissimilarities. Insofar as Chinese dialectical thought is different from Hegel, it is simply because it remains in the mere stipulation of complementarity, contradiction, and an arbitrary sequence of development in the likes of the five agents. As Chinese thought develops, however, we find that the quality of distinctions and explanations develop with it and begin to approach Hegel’s own explicit logic of self-contradicting and self-generating relations.

This similarity is not presented as a mere curiosity, a talking point to impress one’s friends. The main purpose is in fact deeper. Such confluence expresses the actuality of the intimation of philosophy as essentially one grand project across time and peoples. No thought and thinker is in essence alien to another, unintelligibly walled into different conceptual schemes from which they are prevented from reaching out and touching the so-called Other. Not only are people in the present not alien to each other, the people in the past are also not truly alien to us. All that it takes is to be reasonable, i.e. to engage in their thoughts sincerely, and we can indeed not only see the world from different perspectives, but realize that these perspectives are not as alien to us as they may first seem.

Antonio Wolf is a former philosophy student, and continuing autodidact. Currently he’s focusing on Hegel. He authors a blog, the Empyrean Trail, which tries to expound Hegel’s philosophy to make it accessible without watering it down.


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