The Tao That Can Be Named

 There is a common theme which runs throughout the philosophies and religions of the world which features a rejection of the possibility of naming the transcendent, the infinite, or the eternal. This theme, which seems to have especially heavy emphasis in those religious and philosophical systems which draw upon mysticism, regards naming a thing as in some sense placing limitations upon it, circumscribing it, even taking mastership or ownership over it. It is a theme taken up and endorsed by Laozi in chapter 32 of his Daodejing when he writes: “when unhewn wood is carved up, then there are names. Now that there are names, know when to stop!” (Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 178).

Similarly, in the same chapter, just a few sentences previous, Laozi writes that “the Way [or Tao] is forever nameless” (Ivanhoe, p. 178). In fact, in the very opening chapter of the Daodejing, Laozi begins by focusing upon the namelessness of and impossibility of imposing name about the Tao, writing, “a Way that can be followed is not a constant Way. A name that can be named is not a constant name” (Ivanhoe, p. 163). Other translations, such as that by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, draw out the point being made here even more; in the translation of Feng and English, Laozi writes, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name” (p. 3). A similar theme recurs again and again in the Daodejing and other Taoist writings.

Very similar to the Taoist treatment of naming the Tao are the traditions surrounding the name of God in Judaism. In Exodus 3:14, for example, when Moses asks the name of God, rather than providing a name, God replies with the rather cryptic phrase “I Am Who I Am,” indicating that he is transcendent and beyond such concepts as naming and even understanding. Later, a tradition would develop in Judaism which forbade the pronunciation of even this circumlocution of God’s name, in an attempt to avoid boxing in God and, in a manner of speaking, committing the sin of idolatry by believing that one had defined or understood the transcendent and infinite divine.

Similar approaches abound in the religions and philosophies of the world, from Plato’s treatment of the Good in ancient Greece to the Upanishadic views of Brahman as the infinite and eternal Godhead to the medieval Christian mystical tradition of the via negative which emphasized the lack of words and concepts to describe God and through them attempted to draw close to him in spirit. Any attempt to name the infinite, the transcendent, the divine, and the eternal is consistently rejected throughout the great philosophical and religious systems of the world. To name is to limit and one who seeks truth cannot place limits on the limitless.


Feng, Gia-Fu and Jane English. Translators. (1989). Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden. (2005). Readings in classical Chinese philosophy: Second edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.


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