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  • Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland
  • Paul D'Ambrosio (bio)
Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. By Edward Slingerland. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014. Pp. 1 + 295. Hardcover $26.00. Paper $15.00, isbn 978-0-7704-3761-9.

Edward Slingerland has been working on notions of spontaneity in classical Chinese thought and modern science for many years. In his newest title, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, he approaches this topic by weaving short anecdotes, recent discoveries in cognitive science, and classic Chinese philosophy into an eloquent tapestry that depicts both the everydayness and paradoxical nature of spontaneous action. The text does not read like many other contemporary academic books: it uses colloquial language and does not directly address contemporary philosophical debates. But this does not compromise its ability to stimulate the intellect, or deliver solid philosophical arguments. Slingerland does a wonderful job at providing the reader with solid scientific evidence and textual analysis in a lighthearted, easy to read fashion. In many ways it follows the style of Hans-Georg Moeller's The Moral Fool: A Case for Amorality in being original, informative, and well researched while simultaneously moving seamlessly between theoretical problems and concrete practice.1

In order to present the complexity and pervasiveness of spontaneity, Slingerland begins the book with self-descriptions of sports stars and musicians who say that they perform best in a cultivated state of effortless action. They all note that this "being in the zone" is extremely productive, but also not something that is easily achieved. In fact, trying to get there is often a one-way ticket to failure—the more one tries to be spontaneous the more "tried" their actions become, and therefore less spontaneous. One must somehow deal with this paradox of "trying not to try" in order to get "in the zone." Slingerland points out that this is part of everyone's daily lives. Everything from dating to competing in the Olympics can benefit, he argues, from a strategy for overcoming the tension between conscious effort and acting in a natural, spontaneous manner. This goes against the grain of many traditional philosophers such as Plato or Descartes, who emphasize rational analysis and abstract thinking as the basis for action. Slingerland points out that many traditional Chinese thinkers can provide a resource for a more "embodied view of cognition" that is useful for dealing with the problem of trying not to try (p. 13). He argues that "For the early Chinese thinkers … the culmination of knowledge is understood, not in terms of grasping a set of abstract principles, but rather as entering a state of wu-wei [无为]" (pp. 13–14). [End Page 298]

Setting up the framework for this discussion, Slingerland looks closely at wu-wei and de. Wu-wei is basically equated with spontaneity, and characterized by two essential features. First, it is experienced as a type of "split" between personal identity and other forces or desires. Grounding this concept in everyday familiarity, Slingerland notes that this break is articulated in common expressions such as "I couldn't make myself get out of bed this morning" (p. 26). Second, a wu-wei or spontaneous state is extremely efficacious—a point that was addressed already in the self-descriptions of sports stars and musicians. Slingerland goes on to say that cognitive science is beginning to recognize the difference between spontaneous (wu-wei) and non-spontaneous action in terms of cognition. Scientists generally agree that there are "fast, automatic, effortless, and mostly unconscious" ways of thinking that are considered "hot" (p. 27). They are contrasted with "cold" "slow, deliberate, effortful and conscious" thinking (pp. 27–28). De 德 ("virtue," "power") is, then, the outward sign that someone is in a state of spontaneity or wu-wei. According to Slingerland, early Chinese philosophy revolves around reaching or achieving wu-wei and de, though this goal is not always explicit. Scholars of Chinese thought unfamiliar with Slingerland's previous work may find this point somewhat unconvincing as Slingerland does not give thorough arguments for reading wu-wei as a significant concept in texts that never mention...


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pp. 298-301
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