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Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China (review)
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Reviewed by
Edward Slingerland. Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xii, 352 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 0-19-513899-6.

In Effortless Action Edward Slingerland sets out to accomplish two goals, the first of which is to present a systematic account of the role of the concept of wu-wei as a spiritual ideal for both Daoists and Confucians in Warring States thought. The second is methodological in nature: to apply contemporary conceptual-metaphor theory to the study of early Chinese thought in order to suggest the potential of this approach for sinology, comparative religion and philosophy, and the humanities in general. With regard to the first goal Slingerland clearly succeeds, making this work required reading for any serious scholar of early Chinese thought. It is only with regard to the second goal that there are some lingering questions about his project. Slingerland argues that wu-wei, which literally means "in the absence of / without doing exertion," has been misunderstood in translation as "non-action" because it "properly refers not to what is actually happening (or not happening) in the realm of observable action but rather to the state of mind of the actor" (p. 7). Maintaining that wu-wei is "a set of dispositions that has been so thoroughly transformed as to conform with the normative order" (p. 7), Slinger-land goes on to argue that wu-wei refers to a family of metaphorically conceived situations in which a subject no longer needs to exert effort in order to act.

One of the most important claims developed by Slingerland throughout the work is that wu-wei has been understood primarily as a technique for governing, to the neglect of its most basic meaning in the Analects, Laozi (Daodejing), Mencius, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi: as a spiritual and religious ideal. This ideal finds expression in the metaphor families discussed in Slingerland's overview of contemporary metaphor theory in chapter 1: lack of exertion (cong "following," an "at ease"); unself-consciousness (wang "forgetting," shi "losing"); and the natural or spontaneous (ziran, "so-of-itself"). Slingerland tells us that

whereas spontaneity in the West is typically associated with subjectivity, the opposite may be said of the sort of spontaneity evinced in wu-wei: it represents the highest degree of objectivity, for it is only in wu-wei that one's embodied mind conforms to the something larger than the individual—the will of Heaven or the order represented by the Way. This is why the state of wu-wei should be seen as a religious ideal, for it is only by attaining it that the individual realizes his or her proper place in the cosmos. (p. 8)

Slingerland argues that the spiritual ideal of wu-wei, examined through the lens of metaphor theory, importantly serves as a way to explore further a problem that has manifested itself both in Chinese and Western philosophy. Slingerland calls it [End Page 452] "the paradox of wu-wei" and notes the resemblance it bears to what David Nivi-son has called "the paradox of virtue" (where we can only become virtuous if we are not consciously trying to become virtuous) and to what is known in Western philosophy as the Meno problem (where we can only be taught if we first recognize the thing taught as something that must be learned).

The paradox of wu-wei centers on the fact that "effortless action" is a state that must be achieved, prompting the question of how it is possible to try not to try, or, more specifically, how a program of spiritual striving can result in a state that lies beyond striving. Slingerland examines the different soteriological paths proposed in the Analects, Laozi, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and Xunzi to bring us to the ideal state of effortless action, and in so doing explicates the different form taken by the paradox of wu-wei and its proposed solution within each text. In the Analects, this difficulty arises because a moral transformation cannot occur unless a student "genuinely desires to be moral and loves morality for its own sake—rather than as a means...