Originally I conceived of posting a "Roadmap for researching x" but I assume that would be too localized for this site.

Background: After much dilly-dallying, I have finally zoned in to pursue lifetime in Taoist research. I have studied mathematical philosophy, cultural anthropology, symbolic logic and enrolled in Eastern studies class for next semester. I understand the professor for latter class would be an excellent source of reference but currently semester is closed.

Problems facing: As I learned in English class it is important to take copious notes during research even if it means 24 hours so I am currently photographing everything that pertains to Taoism. But due to the complex nature of the subject itself and the concept of wu-wei, action in non-action, I am unsure as to how to approach research. I understand if I pursue degree in this field I should familiarize myself with the language and journals and pretty much everything that is related to it. This brings me to my original point:

Question: What would be a good strategy to do research on Taoism? Do I conceive of a thesis and work downwards from it? Or do I start from the scratch - so to speak- and bootstrap my way to a knowledge base. Problem with latter and given the complex nature is if I start with no thesis, then it would be an aimless wandering. But- then again, isn't that what Taoism is all about?

EDIT: In lieu of JeffE's comment below I am rephrasing the original question:

During a research, is it a good idea to start with a working thesis as early as possible?

  • 9
    You're presenting a false dichotomy. One does not work only bottom-up, nor does one work only top-down. Rather, one balances between the two approaches, first pursuing one and then the other, as the sun pursues the moon. The Tao moves in endless cycles.
    – JeffE
    Dec 22, 2012 at 1:09
  • You are quite right. I wanted to also add: "or both". I am editing the question in light of the comment. Dec 22, 2012 at 2:22

2 Answers 2


In general, I agree with JeffE. Both top down and bottom up.

In the case of Taoism, there is more - how proficient is your Chinese?

You said pursue lifetime in Taoist research. I am not sure you can do that without knowledge in Chinese language equivalent to at least masters degree in Chinese.

Taoism is rooted from Laozi's original text Daodejing. Reference Taoism. Most native Chinese speakers do not understand that text. If you want to conduct life time research in Taoism, that book is a must read and must understand. Without fully understanding that text, you are at best a second class researcher in Taoism.

I am a native Chinese speaker. How much do I understand the text? Less than 5%. If I spend 20 years or more on it, I might be able to understand 80% of it. Actually, I am bluffing. Some people contribute his whole life in it and then claimed that he only understood less than half.

  • Somebody pointed to me after reading my answer that I should have used "proficient" instead of "fluent". I am not sure. Would anyone provide opinion?
    – Nobody
    Dec 23, 2012 at 3:24
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    Fluent is normally used for conversation (as it 'flows') proficient would be more appropriate in your context. That said, your point is an excellent one. Understanding the subtleties of a key work takes amazing language skills and the effort for that should not be under-estimated.
    – earthling
    Dec 24, 2012 at 1:17

I can't help at all specifically on the Taoism part, but as an answer to your final question:

During a research, is it a good idea to start with a working thesis as early as possible?

You are talking about a thesis, and posting here, so I presume you want to do research in academical environment.

In my experience, you have Bachelor and Master years for establishing a broad knowledge base and identifying your interests.

Once you start as a PhD student, you get a research topic, but since it is research, it is subject to changes. The topic was defined before you actually immersed in the subject, so while you are working towards that goal while pursuing your thesis, the goal can change as you learn new things.

Oh, and you really don't need to familiarize yourself "with the language and journals and pretty much everything that is related to it" before pursuing a degree.

Note: The precise names of stages and the line between broad and focused research might be different elsewhere, but I think both phases should exist. In case you're aiming to start directly at a "focused research" phase, my (subjective) advice would be to take some time before to do some broad research on your own.

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