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  • Wu-Wei, Merleau-Ponty, And Being Aware of What We Do
  • Marcus Lee (bio)

I. Introduction

The best kind of life, according to many classical (pre-Qin) Chinese thinkers, is a life lived in line with the Dao (the “Way”). A core feature of living in line with the Dao is attaining the ideal of wu-wei. Although attaining wu-wei is plausibly at the core of much pre-Qin thought,1 in this article I focus on the notion of wu-wei in early Daoism, as suggested by the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi.2 Although there is no uncontroversial interpretation of wu-wei, insofar as it denotes the ideal of living in line with the Dao, we can appropriately think of it as a way of acting. However, since wu-wei is often literally translated as “no-action” or “non-doing,” it appears that the ideal way of comporting oneself is “action by no-action” (wei-wu-wei), or “doing by non-doing.” As such, the literal translation of wu-wei seems to imply a contradiction, which makes the ideal of wu-wei appear paradoxical.3 In this article, I suggest a way we might make sense of this classical Daoist ideal. I will argue that by appealing to a Merleau-Pontyian framework of action we can dissolve the apparent “paradox of wu-wei” and gain a clearer understanding of what action by no-action might amount to.

Although it is common to take the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi to be broadly continuous in such a way that they can be considered to form a school of thought, the two texts are importantly different.4 For example, while Laozi provides many hints concerning the psychology and behavior of the sage—putting a particular emphasis on wu-wei action—there is not much in terms of how we might achieve this ideal. Zhuangzi, on the other hand, gives a far richer picture of how we might cultivate wu-wei by drawing our attention to examples of practical expertise. Zhuangzi’s “skill stories” do not explicitly associate practical expertise with wu-wei, but insofar as they exult the way practical experts behave, it is common for theorists to interpret them as depicting wu-wei action.5 As I know of no better way to interpret them, my argument, too, starts from this assumption.

In the contemporary psychological literature on practical expertise, highly skillful action has been widely observed to manifest a particular phenomenology, commonly known as a “flow experience.”6 This has led many to draw an analogy between wu-wei and “acting-in-flow.”7 If wu-wei [End Page 116] action is, or requires, acting-in-flow, then gaining an understanding of the nature of acting-in-flow should illuminate the nature of wu-wei action. I will try to show that attending to cases of everyday action within a Merleau-Pontyian framework reveals multiple ways we can be aware of what we are doing, and moreover that acting-in-flow is a way of acting that manifests when we are aware of what we are doing in a very specific way. My key suggestion, then, is that the way our awareness of what we are doing manifests our actions when we are acting-in-flow is the same way the Daoist sage’s awareness manifests wu-wei action.

The present article proceeds as follows. Section 2 briefly outlines some characteristic features of wu-wei and explains why, in the orthodox account of action in Anglophone philosophy, this way of acting appears paradoxical. Section 3 sets out an alternative Merleau-Pontyian framework of action, and section 4 applies this framework to ordinary everyday cases of skillful action, distinguishing different ways we can be aware of what we are doing. Section 5 then applies this distinction to a case of acting-in-flow, and suggests that acting-in-flow is essentially characterized by attentive engagement with one’s environment, where this is a specific way of being aware of what one is doing. Although the strategy of drawing an analogy between wu-wei and acting-in-flow is a familiar one, some have found it wanting.8 A...


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pp. 116-135
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