Daoism, dao, and metaphor

Texts and Courses

Primary Texts

  • Daodejing, ch.1

Secondary Texts for Instructor

  • Victoria Harrison, ‘Seeing the dao: Conceptual metaphors and the philosophy of religion’, Religious Studies 51 (2015): 307-322.

Suggested Courses

  • TBD


Daoism is the philosophy of the Way (dao), but an immediate problem is that, as the famous opening lines of the Daodejing tells us, dao ‘cannot be spoken of’. Although the early Daoists offer us different arguments about why dao is ineffable, they agree that it is not amenable to literal propositional description. But this does not mean that we are left empty-handed, for we can draw upon other ways of speaking – figurative language and metaphor, specifically. Ancient Chinese philosophy itself makes generous use of metaphor, and the metaphor of a way is one of the richest. Dao in Chinese has both a nominal and a dynamic sense: it can refer to a way or a path and also to following a way or making a path. Contemporary English also includes this metaphor—we talk of ways of dressing, ways of cooking, ways of living, politely making way for strangers, rudely getting in the way of people, and so on. Students of Daoism are well advised to reflect carefully on the richness of the metaphor of a way as a means of getting a sense of The Way. In so doing, we can unpack the many meanings of this metaphor, which, in turn, offers us a basis for reflection on the Daoist vision of human life and the world. One way to do this is to use the meanings of the metaphor to discern certain Daoist virtues: for instance, to follow a way can require attention, discipline, and focus – as hikers do, for instance –which are also the virtues a person needs if their life is to be in tune with The Way.

Discussion Questions

  • What sorts of metaphors do you use in everyday life?
  • What other metaphors can you think of in classical Chinese philosophy?
  • Why might metaphorical language be especially appropriate to Daoism?


Have students reflect on the many different ways that the metaphor of a way features within their language (an easy way to start is just by thinking of everyday phrases that use the verb ‘way’ – knowing the way, the way we do things, they’ve lost their way). Encourage them to think of activities where the way metaphor is particularly appropriate, like hiking, rambling, or exploring a new place. Then have them try to infer from the metaphor certain moral lessons: if staying on the way is difficult, then you need discipline and a guide who can show you the way.

Author Information

Ian James Kidd (University of Nottingham)