Monday, February 16, 2015

From the Department of Better Late than Never (Classical Chinese Philosophy Edition)


In December of last year, the New York Times published a profile on scholar Edward Slingerland's work on the Chinese concept of wu-wei (literally "not doing" or "nonaction"; figuratively, effortless action). I teach courses on Chinese philosophy, and have presented a paper or two which relates to this topic, so naturally the article was of great interest to me.

Slingerland is the most important researcher in this area, but I believe the article over-simplifies its explanation of wu-wei. This seems to be caused both by problems with Slingerland's own account and problems with the article's popular explanation of Slingerland's account. Slingerland has always proposed a sharp dichotomy between effortful action and wu-wei that seems inaccurate to me. In this article, and to a lesser extent in his published works, he draws a comparison between wu-wei and the spontaneity championed by the Romantics and the 20th century counter-culture that also seems incorrect. Both of these points are connected to his characterization of wu-wei as acting on the basis of feelings or instinct and effortful action as acting on the basis of rational calculation. This simply won't do, as most forms of action based on passion are not wu-wei.For example, actions motivated by desire, fear, or anger are not in general compatible with wu-wei.

I think Slingerland is only able to generate his "paradox of wu-wei" by over-emphasizing the dichotomy between deliberate action and spontaneous action. The connection between the two is actually a commonsense notion, because that is how all skills are formed. What first requires deliberate action because of unfamiliarity over time becomes a habit which can be exhibited spontaneously. Or something like that. Treating virtue and wisdom as skills whose perfection involves a kind of effortlessness or spontaneity is not only a Chinese idea; you can see it in Aristotle's conception of virtue as well. However, Aristotle does place a greater emphasis on the role of rational calculation in acquiring and manifesting virtue than does the Chinese philosophical tradition.
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