Manyul Im’s Chinese Philosophy Blog

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Wuwei (無為) – What does it mean?

Let me restart the conversation Hagop and I started on the Velleman post, but focus on more on wuwei 無為 just by itself. Here’s what Hagop had to say and how I responded:

Hagop:

I’m teaching the Zhuangzi right now in my Chinese philosophy class, and will be discussing Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow along with the stories of the skilled exemplars during our meeting today. Velleman mentions others having made the connection before. I, too, was pointed in the direction of Czikszentmihalyi (by David Wong), but can’t recall at the moment who has written of them together.

As for whether ‘flow’ is a good interpretation of wu-wei, I think there is room to quibble. The phrase ‘wu-wei’ appears two or three times in the inner chapters, and none in relation to Cook Ding. There’s a lot more talk about wu-wei in the outer chapters.

What’s more, the inner chapters seem to include many exemplars who literally ‘do nothing’ (as opposed to acting in a skilled-yet-spontaneous fashion). Think of Zhuangzi’s advice to sit in a gourd or lounge under a tree, or the big yak that is the foil for the weasel (aka Hui Zi), or Zi Qi of South Wall sitting still, or the trees Zhuangzi likes to talk about. All these exemplars are literally doing nothing, and not engaged in flow-like skill activity.

In fact, Butcher Ding is alone as a “skilled” exemplar in the inner chapters (am I foregetting anyone?). Other skilled individuals are mocked. Consider this passage (Watson 2003, 37):

“There is such a thing as completion and injury–Mr. Zhao playing the lute is an example. There is such a thing as no completion and no inury–Mr. Zhao not playing the lute is an example.”

This makes me think that the Butcher is not so central to Zhuangzi’s philosophy and, by extension, that flow is not so central to it either.

(If we are talking about the text as a whole, though, there is more support for the interpretation of wu-wei as flow. In fact, since wu-wei occurs far more often in the outer chapters, along with other stories of skilled exemplars, then perhaps wu-wei as something like ‘flow’ is a later development of the Zhuangist school.)

Me:

Hagop, I agree with you about the “flow” interpretation of Zhuangzi, and I think it’s not merely a quibble. What always struck me were the power of the unintuitive examples in the De Chong Fu (”Sign of Virtue Complete” in Watson): People who’ve had their feet, hands, or noses lopped off for offenses against the kingdom, who aren’t skilled in much if anything, and who, like the useless tree, get along in life precisely by being *unskilled*, i.e. useless. Most noteworthy is Ai Tai Tuo who is both ugly and stupid, yet is someone who can be described as complete in talents 才 and power 德. I’ve never been sure that those examples were even compatible with a “flow” reading, particularly when paired with excellence in skill.

*************************

Despite the title of this post, I think it’s clear what wuwei means at a base level: “non-doing.” But the problem is how further to understand it — non-intentional doing? non-purposive doing? non-forced, effortless, doing? some other thing? Each of those understandings of it implies very different things, suggests very different examples and images, and seems to commit people to very different readings of Daoism. My own thought about the Zhuangzi is that there is more emphasis on something like “non-learned action” in both of senses of “learned”–picked up through training and picked up through advanced education or acculturation.

Another point is how much the concept of wuwei is particular to Daoism. There seems to be really one Confucian instance of it–the two-character phrase itself, at any rate–with the “non-doing” meaning, in Analects 15.5:

子曰:“無為而治者,其舜也與?夫何為哉,恭己正南面而已矣。”

The Master said, “May not Shun be instanced as having governed efficiently without exertion? What did he do? He did nothing but gravely and reverently occupy his royal seat.” [Legge]

But is the concept more generally influential in Chinese philosophical temperament? If so, in which sense or senses, and why?

April 13, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Taoism

17 Comments

  1. I know Eno has done some work with Flow theory. His “Confucian Creation of Heaven” goes into it in the footnotes (although I can’t recall the page number and don’t have the text in front of me; and FWIW it doesn’t go into much detail). I’ve been told that he’s written on it more since then, but don’t remember coming across anything in particular.

    As to the larger question of Wu Wei, I believe this post points out the major critique of Slingerland’s work (was it Dan that wrote a feature review in PEW last year?)–that wuwei can also be taken literally. You last question as to whether this is part of a Chinese philosophical temperament is also interesting in light of Slingerland’s translation of the Analects, which discusses the concept of Wuwei as a central component of the text.

    Comment by Agui | April 13, 2008

  2. Chris Fraser’s review of Slingerland is available on his web page, here:

    http://phil.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/~cjfraser/papers.htm

    Comment by Bill Haines | April 13, 2008

  3. Here are some snippets of Chris’s review for those who haven’t read it (also, for those who don’t know the reference, the book by Slingerland is Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China):

    Begin Snippets

    The phrase ‘wu-wei’ plays essentially no role in Confucian texts and is absent from large chunks of the Zhuangzi 莊子. So Slingerland’s thesis that wu-wei is the joint ideal of both Daoist and Confucian thought faces a daunting justificatory challenge, which he proposes to meet by applying conceptual metaphor theory (10). On his interpretation, wu-wei is not to be understood literally, as “non-doing,” since in the state denoted by wu-wei, the agent is not actually inactive, doing nothing at all (11). This gap between literal meaning and actual reference indicates that the term ‘wu-wei’ functions metaphorically, referring to “a metaphorically conceived situation” in which action occurs even though the agent exerts no effort (11). Slingerland hypothesizes that wu-wei became a technical term for effortless action because it is the most general of a network of conceptual metaphors for effortlessness and unselfconsciousness, including families of metaphors for “following” (29), “ease” (30), and “forgetting” (33). This network expresses a unified, “deeper conceptual structure,” appeal to which justifies the claim that “apparently diverse ideals of perfected action” are in fact articulations and developments of a single metaphorically conceived ideal, though the term of art denoting it—‘wu-wei’—may not appear in a particular text (11).

    Specialists in early Chinese thought will benefit from reading and thinking through Slingerland’s discussion of the texts, whether they ultimately agree with his interpretations or not.

    That said, in my view the book’s overarching theses are not merely unconvincing, but fundamentally misconceived. In what follows, I will unpack this claim by sketching a number of problems with Slingerland’s account.

    On Slingerland’s account, the hallmark of wu-wei is effortlessness, or a lack of exertion. The grounds for this unorthodox claim are unclear, since the book treats it as an axiom, rather than showing that it best explains the texts that directly address wu-wei. Wu-wei activity may sometimes be effortless, but there is little reason to think this is its distinguishing feature. Literally, wu-wei is the absence of wei 為, which, as Slingerland agrees (14, 89), means roughly “to do” or “to act,” not “to exert effort.” Wei probably refers to action undertaken intentionally, for some motive of the agent. (This is how the Mohist Canons explain it, for instance.) Wu-wei would then refer to not intentionally initiating action for one’s own reasons. From the Daodejing, the text in which wu-wei figures most prominently, we might suggest as a first interpretive step that wu-wei is the absence of action motivated by the agent’s desires, will, ambition, knowledge, education, language, or socialization.

    Removing these motives results in activity that conforms to natural processes, thus allowing things to happen “by themselves.” Passages on wu-wei in the Zhuangzi and Guanzi 管子 reiterate this conformity with natural patterns and clarify that wu-wei activity is a sort of unmotivated, reflexive response to the particular situation, in which the agent relinquishes himself and goes along with things. Doing nothing at all is thus wu-wei, as is reacting to things non-intentionally, as when we reflexively catch a ball thrown in our direction.

    End Snippets

    There’s lots more in the review, of which Chris has his own copy available here: http://phil.arts.cuhk.edu.hk/~cjfraser/Papers/Effortless%20Action%20Review.PDF

    I think Chris and I are in agreement about what he calls “unmotivated, reflexive response” as wu-wei in the Zhuangzi.

    Comment by Manyul Im | April 13, 2008

  4. I would add that, as wu-wei in this sense goes, “relinquishing oneself” to “go along with things” is pretty hard and may take quite a lot of initial effort, unless due to fortune and circumstance, one has never been anything but that way. I take it that’s the difference, respectively, between Cook Ding and Ai Tai Tuo. This perhaps unifies the two examples under a common meaning of wu-wei, not so much as effortless action but as reflexive or, in some sense, primitive re action and thus not action at all. Furthermore, a reflexive or primitive reaction could involve strenuous physical exertion or effort though it may not take much or any thinking at all.

    Comment by Manyul Im | April 13, 2008

  5. For what it’s worth, Eric Schwitzgebel and I once had a little back-and-forth about this here. I think we more or less agreed with Hagop and Manyul about the Inner Chapters: there wúwéi usually just means “doing nothing.”

    But I insisted then (and still do!) that at least one passage in Chapter Six uses it in the “non-purposive doing” sense:

    夫道,有情有信,無為無形;可傳而不可受,可得而不可見;自本自根,未有天地,自古以固存;神鬼神帝,生天生地…

    The Way “non-acts” (wúwéi) and yet produces heaven and earth among other things. It’s hard to read this as “doing nothing.” Admittedly this is a very “Laoist” passage and may been inserted after Laozi and Zhuangzi came to be pegged as philosophical kindred spirits.

    It’s possible that the pre-Qin chapters of the Zhuangzi sometimes conflated wéi 為 (make, do) with wěi 偽 (human/purposive activity), which might explain the “non-purposive doing” sense of wúwéi. But so far as I can tell the evidence isn’t very conclusive. A few of the non-standard seal characters match, but the standardized Qin script already uses the person radical to distinguish wěi 偽 from wéi 為. I’m no expert on pre-Qin etymology and will defer to those who are more familiar with the literature. It would be amazing if there weren’t several articles on this already.

    Comment by Justin Tiwald | April 13, 2008

  6. Hi Manyul and friends,

    A quick comment before I run off to class.

    I think wú wéi 無為 is used in different ways in different contexts in different texts. Sometimes it probably does mean, literally, “doing nothing.” A related but distinct use is in “Legalist” contexts (some of which are found in the Zhuangzi “outer” chapters), in which it refers to the ruler taking no action because his ministers handle all the work for him.

    The dominant use of wú wéi in the Daodejing is probably as a political recommendation. It does appear as an ideal of individual action in a few DDJ chapters (perhaps 38 and 48), I think. But as a normative ideal for the individual, it’s more prominent in certain parts of the Zhuāngzǐ, Lǚshì Chūnqiū, and Huáinánzǐ.

    I doubt that wú wéi ever means “effortless action” or refers specifically to the effortlessness of skilled or adept action. Indeed, I don’t think Daoist texts devote particular attention to effortlessness. It’s not an emphasis of the Zhuangzi skill stories, for example; I’d say it’s emphasized more in Xunzi’s descriptions of the highest levels of ethical cultivation. I also doubt that there is any special connection between wú wéi and the Daoist valorization of skill; I don’t see a reason to equate wú wéi with the adept performance of skilled tasks, as some people do. If I recall correctly, none of the Zhuangzi skill stories even mentions wú wéi. I suggest this might be a good reason to suspect that they are not about wú wéi.

    So I question interpretations of wú wéi and its significance that tie it to skill, flow, or effortlessness. The interpretations along these lines that I have seen tend to rest more on preconceptions of what wú wéi ought to be than on convincing explanations of texts that mention or discuss it.

    I suggest that the key to understanding wú wéi in various contexts lies in understanding what wéi is and what it contrasts with. Wéi seems to refer to intentional action and to “deeming” something this or that, shì or fēi. One notion sometimes contrasted with wéi is yīn (respond, adapt); so one promising line of interpretation would be that wú wéi lies in responding to things, rather than imposing one’s intentions or “deemings” on them. A potential connection with skill is that certain sorts of skilled activities may be paradigms of this sort of responsiveness. (This suggestion is just a starting point for getting at one aspect of wú wéi, though.)

    I haven’t had a chance to study Velleman’s paper properly. I first read it a couple of years ago and found it very interesting. I disagreed with his interpretation of the Zhuāngzǐ but the value of his paper isn’t really affected by whether he gets the Zhuāngzǐ right.

    Justin, is the “non-purposive doing” of the Dao really a kind of “doing” at all? I mean: If the Dao is something like the formless, invisible totality of all natural patterns, laws, and processes, wouldn’t the idea be rather that things just happen, according to these patterns, without any action or doing at all—-not even “non-purposive” action? In the passage you cite, to me, wú wéi refers to something roughly like a description of how the Dao causes a pencil to fall to the ground if I drop it. The pencil falls, but the falling is a non-action that isn’t “done” by anything. So I’d read the line you cite as, “As to the Dao, it is real and reliable, but does not act and has no form….”

    Comment by Chris Fraser | April 14, 2008

  7. Justin, thanks for the link to your and Eric’s discussion. Two points in it prompt me to comment. One is your observation about an important potential difference between the “flow” experience and the Zhuangist skill stories. I haven’t read Csíkszentmihályi (I should), but as I understand flow from the few things I have read, it is conceived as involving, as you say, a feeling of control over one’s activity. I think you’re right that this may be an important disanalogy to Cook Ding and the other skill stories. They seem to describe instead the experience of a kind of responsiveness to the grain of things, not the agent’s control over the situation.

    The flow experience is supposed involve to a loss of self-consciousness as well, though. I wonder to what extent this feature might conflict with the proposed feeling of control. Or perhaps by “control,” flow theorists actually mean something like “mastery” or “competence”?

    My second comment is that I probably agree with what I take to be Eric’s main point, which is to question readings of the Zhuangzi that put something like a flow experience at the center of the text’s normative vision and interpret the Cook Ding story mainly as a depiction of the flow experience. Let’s grant that something like “flow” might be part of the content of the Cook Ding story and has a place among Zhuangist normative ideals. Still, there’s much else going on in the story as well—-Ding’s years of training, responsiveness to natural patterns, finding and roaming in the “gaps,” overcoming the tough parts, and so on. All of this should probably be taken as allegorical advice on how to live. Also, Eric correctly calls attention to the passage in “Equalizing Things” on the limitations of any skill. It’s not flow or skill per se that is the core of the Zhuangzi way, I think, as much as a flowing or skilled response to the limitations of any one path we might follow.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | April 14, 2008

  8. I now see that Hagop and Manyul were saying roughly the same things as Eric above…

    Comment by Chris Fraser | April 14, 2008

  9. Good discussion!

    Justin, thanks for linking back to that post on Splintered Mind. I had read that before and forgot about it. You’re right to point out to the similarities.

    For those unfamiliar with flow, here’s a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia. Note, in particular, item 5 in relation to Cook Ding ‘pausing’ during difficult moments:

    =====
    Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following as accompanying an experience of flow:

    1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities).

    2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

    3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

    4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.

    5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

    6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

    7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

    8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

    9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging (Csíkszentmihályi, 1975. p.72).

    Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.
    =====

    Comment by Hagop Sarkissian | April 14, 2008

  10. Besides Chris and myself, who else has read Slingerland’s book for themselves?

    If one is going to read reviews, perhaps it’s better to read a wide selection?

    “Embodiment and Virtue in a Comparative Perspective” (review article) Journal of Religious Ethics 35.4 (December 2007): 715-728 (J. Schofer)

    “Paradox of Wuwei?” (review article) Journal of Chinese Philosophy 34.2 (June 2007): 277-287 (P.J. Ivanhoe)

    “評斯林格蘭對《老子》無為之詮釋” (‘A Critique of Slingerland’s Interpretation of Wu-wei in the Laozi’) (review article), 中國哲學與文化 (The Journal of Chinese Philosophy and Culture) 1 (May 2007): 321-326 (L.J. Yang)

    History of Religions 45.2 (November 2005): 181-182 (R. Campany)

    Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 64.2 (December 2004): 511-516 (K.L. Shun)

    Journal of Asian Studies 63.1 (February 2004): 172-173 (A. Fox)

    China Review International 10.2 (Fall 2003): 452-457 (E. Cline)

    Incidentally, Slingerland’s book is the winner of the American Academy of Religions Best First Book in the History of Religions award.

    Comment by Bryan W. Van Norden | April 14, 2008

  11. Back in grad school when my dissertation work was lagging, I became a really good pick-up basketball player (I’m pretty sure there was some causal relationship in both directions!). So, I’ve experienced “flow” and the list Hagop provides from Wikipedia all sounds familiar. I wonder if we could make two tentative moves, so far, based on this discussion and the one between Justin and Eric on Splintered Mind:

    1. Maybe the experiential phenomenon of “flow” is the topic of the skill passages in the Zhuangzi. But they might also be analogies for something else, something more diachronic–getting through life in way that is more reactive than “proactive.” I’m not sure these are incompatible readings.

    2. Wuwei isn’t necessarily associable with either “flow” or with reactive getting through life. It has meaning plausibly pretty close literally to “doing nothing” in nearly every appearance. So, perhaps wuwei isn’t really the right rubric for the phenomena that are the focus of skill passages (and in fact, such passages are both few in number and lack mention of wuwei).

    Would that make flow and skill peripheral to Zhuangzi’s concerns? That’s a difficult question I think largely because of the problem of textual coherence, in terms of authorship and dating of composition.

    If on the other hand wuwei is central to either Zhuangzi or the Daodejing or to some more practice-based tradition of Daoism (or Buddhism!), what aside from hustle and flow–I mean, flow and skill–would wuwei be, thematically speaking? It seems to me like the answer to that is something far less romantic and/or fascinating than the heightened consciousness, or rather non-consciousness, of flow and skill. It is more like being unambitious and, in a very real sense, dull. Benjamin Hoff is right after all?

    Comment by Manyul Im | April 14, 2008

  12. Bryan,

    Thanks for the references. (And congrats to Ted.)

    I wonder if you have your own opinion about wuwei and skill in the Zhuangzi that you’d like to share.

    Comment by Manyul Im | April 14, 2008

  13. Hi Chris,

    Yeah, that’s not only the better reading, but it’s also cooler than mine (damn you!). I stand by my assumption that the Dao “does” a great deal in that passage, but I agree that “does nothing” nevertheless makes better sense of wúwéi.

    I’m sticking to the assumption because the passage describes the Dao as imbuing spiritual powers (神) in the gods and giving birth (生) to heaven. Strictly speaking shén and shēng are causatives. But I agree with your translation because, as I think you’re suggesting, the passage is best read as unpacking the Dao’s peculiar form of causal participation. The Dao is responsible for the pencil’s falling in one sense, but not responsible for it in another, for it’s not an agent in any familiar sense. This lends itself to a “two-sided” description of the activity of the way, where from one perspective it appears to do nothing but from another it seems to dole out life and spiritual powers. And I see that the commentators cited in the 莊子集釋序 read the passage similarly.

    You point to an interesting tension between the “feeling of personal control” and “lack of self-consciousness” features of flow, which map onto Hagop’s #7 and #3, respectively. My hunch is that Csíkszentmihályi just uses “self conscious” in the more colloquial sense, where it means something like “preoccupied with what one is doing” and “overly concerned with how one appears to others” rather than “aware of one’s self.” But I’m intrigued by your suggestion anyway, since it hints at a more interesting tension (from a Daoist perspective) than Csíkszentmihályi had in mind.

    Comment by Justin Tiwald | April 14, 2008

  14. Justin, I think your characterization of Dao is on the right track, at least as an explanation of the ZZ6 passage and texts such as DDJ 25. Dao may be a reification (of some kind) of various causal patterns and processes. So it’s not an agent and doesn’t act; yet it somehow “produces” things. Thus the various two-sided, paradoxical-sounding descriptions of it.

    An interesting aspect of the Zhuangzi is how rarely this conception of Dao shows up in it, at least explicitly. And it may be confined to certain parts of the text (and certain authorial voices within it). For instance, I see no particularly good reason to think that the ZZ6 passage about Dao represents the same philosophical viewpoint as the Cook Ding story. (I think the reasons against reading the “inner” chapters as an integral block of writings by a single author are stronger than those for reading them that way, though neither argument really satisfies me.)

    Manyul, I think that in some contexts (e.g., Zhuangzi 15), wuwei is part of a conception of a sort of religious transcendence of the self and union with the natural order. The absence of “wei” amounts to the absence of any “personal” or “selfish” action, and thus a form of ethical perfection (very romantic). It probably also refers to emulating the “non-doing” of Dao itself—-as Justin’s been describing. I suspect that wuwei in many contexts is a religious ideal, grounded in faith that there is a natural order that will carry you along if you can only stop “acting” and thus interfering with it. Other discussions of wuwei in early texts may be responding to or struggling with the consequences of this radical religious conception.

    A plausible connection with flow or skill is that one model for the conception of being guided along by the natural order, taking no “action,” could be the experience of following the grain of the world that we sometimes have in skilled activities. An obvious example would be the swimmer story in ZZ 19: He just follows the Dao of the water, doing nothing on his own. Some proponents of wuwei could have been suggesting that all of life should be like that.

    Comment by Chris Fraser | April 14, 2008

  15. As to Cook Ding: it brings to mind the notion of “in the zone,” in the manner that athletes use the term. They are able to accomplish extraordinary physical feats – think of the perfectly timed alley-oop pass in a basketball game – without thinking about it. They have gotten to a point where instinct and perfect apprehension of context allows them to act without thinking, to move with the flow, to allow Tao to unfold. That is a sort of unthinking activity, a wu-wei. But they get to that point only after years of physical practice. In order to be able to “do nothing” they have to, like Cook Ding, spend years in apprenticeship. While the many other examples of footless do nothings are important, I would not simply dismiss Cook Ding as somehow unimportant. After all, in one reading, the useless tree is doing something, it is just that we fail to see it because we impose preconceived expectations on it. Same with the giant gourd in chapter one: it could be useful as a boat but Hui Tzu cannot see this because he is trying to make is a ladle. Uselessness, then, like “doing nothing” is not simply the opposite of usefulness (or doing something). Rather, Chuang Tzu is asking us to change our perspective, to see the apparently useless as useful and the apparent non-action as action of a sort.

    Comment by Sam | April 14, 2008

  16. (Sorry, I have no idea why my post #14 came out twice. I clicked once only. Guess I somehow did it by nonaction.)

    Comment by Chris Fraser | April 14, 2008

  17. (Chris, I have taken care of it through action, if two clicks of a mouse may be said to be wei 為. On the other hand I suppose if “sitting and facing South” is wuwei, perhaps two clicks of a mouse may also be.)

    Comment by Manyul Im | April 14, 2008


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