Grand View of Rivers and Mountains, Ma Yuan, Ming dynasty
On an existential level, when we recognize the extent to
which our lives are molded by social constructs, we become able to free
ourselves from a type of emotional entanglement that disturbs our
tranquility. The social
ambitions that motivate us—money, wealth, power, privilege—lose their grip,
become less influential. Other
possibilities for a flourishing life may emerge, not determined by manipulative
actions and its attendant desires. With the diminishing of the hold of desires
and conceptual constructs, one’s mode of engagement with the world will be more
accommodating, allowing events to happen without attachment to outcome. Thus the loosening of artifice goes hand in
hand with the cultivation of a sort of indifference toward worldly success and
failure.—Steve Coutinho, An
Introduction to Daoist Philosophies (2014)
“Nothing makes it so
difficult to be natural as the desire to be so.”—La
Indeed. This is an illustration of a mental and
behavioral fallacy that Jon Elster, after the late psychologist Leslie Farber,
termed “willing what cannot be willed,” that is, a mental state or state of
affairs in the world—like spontaneity or sleep, courage or faith—that cannot be
the direct product of willing but is
rather a by-product or spillover (thus indirect) effect of other mental states
or actions. And yet, invoking an exemplar from the Daoist tradition and after
Chris Fraser, I want to show how it might be possible, in some sense,
to “will” such a state, in other words, how one might have a “desire” or an
intentional project to “act naturally” and yet not be involved in that species
of pragmatic contradiction that assures failure in the attempt to act
spontaneously or naturally as described so vividly by Elster under the heading
of “willing what cannot be willed.” Such personal willing entails an assertive ego and
anxious self-consciousness with regard to one’s immediate behavior that makes
mincemeat of any attempt to “be natural” or spontaneous.
In Daoism, we discover how it might be possible to have
a desire to act naturally or engage in an “intentional project” to “be natural”
(in the Daoist sense), relying here on the notion of wu-wei (lit., non-action). Livia Kohn’s
entry on this concept from The Encyclopedia of Taoism provides us with a
succinct formulation: “Wuwei or ‘non-action’ means to do things the
natural way, by not interfering with the patterns, rhythms and structure of
nature, without imposing one’s own intentions upon the
world.” The “natural way” is not meant here in the sense of how
most of us, most of the time, “naturally” or habitually behave or are
predisposed to act, but is intended in the sense that to “act naturally” in the
world is to be intrinsically in harmony with or expressive of (in an immanent
sense) of the Dao. Less obliquely, it is to emulate the “way of the
natural world,” properly understood. Thus wu-wei is not, literally,
non-action or not-doing, but refers instead to a qualitatively distinct and
uncommon kind of action, what Huston Smith calls “creative quietude,” meaning
one acts with a still or clear (‘unmuddied’) mind in a manner that embodies the
Dao or acts in harmony with the manifestations of Dao in the world. Such action is
characterized by a freedom and spontaneity (ziran) that come from a
heart-mind (xin) experiencing, it
seems, an ecstatic oneness or identity with “all-there-is.” It is the
characteristic and conspicuous action of the sage (shengren), the
behavior of the ideal ruler and is, arguably, a direct product of ascetic praxis
(or ‘spiritual exercises’ in the Stoic sense) and mystical states of
consciousness. In short, wu-wei is acting with a meditative heart-mind
(like a polished mirror, to use a prominent metaphor) in harmony with the
natural world and tian (‘heaven’) while instantiating the
Ascetic self-discipline, training in the arts (at least
in the Confucian tradition), and meditative praxis are necessary yet not
sufficient conditions for wu-wei. In other words, while “making every
effort,” “striving,” “working hard” or even “willing” are, in one important
sense, truly the antithesis of wu-wei, arduous striving, self-discipline
and training the mind are no less integral to the eventual accomplishment of
wu-wei. The “acting naturally” that is wu-wei, therefore, does not
come naturally to us, hence we are instructed, by way of an “intentional
project,” to “return to the uncarved block,” dampen the passions and still the
mind, all by way of attaining a “second” nature in Joel Kupperman’s sense, as it
requires forms of self-discipline and self-knowledge that are arduous, that
involve ascetic or ascetic-like training of the body and the heart-mind (i.e.,
reason and the emotions). Only then might we prove capable of acting in a timely
fashion with the consummate skill, grace and spontaneity befitting alike the
exigencies of daily situations and unique circumstance, and in a manner
indicative of our ability to “be” one with Dao. In sum, acting naturally
in the Daoist sense means cultivating what for us does not come naturally, and thus
self-cultivation brings about, so to speak, a second nature, a nature in accord
with the natural world, and capable of spontaneously and effortlessly realizing
the Dao. The aim of meditation is to attain an “empty” or clear or
polished heart-mind such that one’s ego is sublimated or absent, that one’s will
is no longer purely personal but individuated through grounding in Dao, which
fills the void, as it were, of the empty mind, making it possible for one to act
naturally, spontaneously, effortlessly, gracefully, in harmony with the natural
and heavenly worlds and (so to speak) thus with Dao itself, the ultimate, impersonal
ground of (individuated) willing: “The personal does not exist for him—isn’t
this how he can perfect what is most personal?” (Laozi/Daodejing: 7.3)
More mundanely, we might
fill out this notion of “acting naturally” as a by-product or spillover effect
from an intentional project in a temporally extended sense, in which the ego and
personal will is sublimated or transcended, with an illustration of what is
involved in the mastering of any skill, craft, or art, be it surfing or playing
the piano. A necessary condition of such mastery is clearly strenuous effort,
hard work, perseverance, and so forth, all of which engage the will and ego and
what we call propositional knowledge, “knowing that...” After Gilbert Ryle, such
knowledge is distinguished from non-propositional knowledge or “knowing how…,”
which is typically exemplified in action, in which case we at the same time
demonstrate the former kind and prior possession of “knowing.” And so it could
be said that the former—‘knowing that’—is typically a necessary yet not sufficient condition
of the latter—‘knowing how’—but possession of the former is often best exemplified
by the latter through our behavior, in the form of actions that are conspicuous
for their demonstration of ease, of gracefulness, of spontaneity, of a kind of
naturalness, and cannot be fully captured in propositional language: like the
master surfer riding a wave or the improvisations of the virtuoso jazz pianist
Art Tatum. As Steve Coutinho explains, “It is not that we cease to
plan, think, and control, or attempt to leave no footprints whatsoever. The only
way we could do that would be to disentangle ourselves from the natural world
altogether, and to do that we would have to cease to exist. Rather, we optimally
minimize our intention to control according to artificially inculcated desires
and instead seek to fulfill our wants and needs with the least interference
possible. In this way, we watch how nature flourishes and find a symbiotic place
in its pattern, enabling both of us to flourish to our natural potential. [….]
It is not that [we] do not categorize things or conceptualize the world at all,
but [our] understanding is not determined by customary systems of significance.
The concepts through which deem things (wei) to be so are no longer thought of
as simply what those things are (wei).”
This newfound non-attachment to or freedom from our
previous desires and habitual ways of carving up the world into concepts and
categories that effectively predetermine our means of “seeing,” thinking, and
acting, means there is no longer “only one way to understand the world,” we are
able to “see things in a new way,” one in which the world no longer possesses an
apparent ontological independence along the lines we previously assumed:
“Phenomenologically, we have the capacity to respond to the phenomena of
experience with a level of subtlety that remains indeterminate with regard to
 Chris Fraser, “On Wu-Wei as a Unifying
Metaphor,” Review of
Effortless Action, by Edward Slingerland, Philosophy East & West
57.1 (2007): 97–106.
 See Elster’s Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983):
 Livia Kohn, “wuwei,” Fabrizio Pregadio, ed., The
Encyclopedia of Taoism, vol. II (New York: Routledge, 2008): 1067. Notice
the definition refers to not imposing
one’s intentions on the world, suggesting the possibility that an
“intentional project” in the extended temporal sense outlined by Fraser in his
review of Slingerland (above), to wit: “If acquisition of an effortless state is
understood synchronically, this is indeed paradoxical: one cannot be effortless
while simultaneously exerting effort. But as long as the process of achieving
the effortless state is understood diachronically, no paradox arises. We can and
frequently do acquire the ability to act effortlessly, as when we master skills
or regain a physical ability through rehabilitation after injury. Acquisition
begins with deliberate exertion, but eventually we internalize the skill and
develop the ability to act automatically and sometimes effortlessly.” And yet, a
paradox perhaps remains: “On the other hand, if we take wu-wei to refer
to the absence of intentional action, as I suggest, then the conceptual
structure of intentionality may indeed render the directive to achieve wu-wei
paradoxical, even construed diachronically. To cite just one of several
potential paradoxes, on some accounts of intentionality, an agent cannot
intentionally cause herself to perform actions that are wholly non-intentional,
because intentions (unlike effort) remain in effect over time, even when not
consciously held in mind, and their scope covers all the subsidiary actions that
contribute to their fulfillment. For example, this morning I set to work on this
review spontaneously, without consciously forming an intention to do so.
Nevertheless, my activity was intentional, because it is part of a project I am
performing intentionally. At some level of description, any voluntary movement
an agent performs is intentional, merely by virtue of being an action rather
than a reflex.” For our purposes, what is important is the possibility that the
original intentional project is capable of becoming “subconscious” or even
“unconscious” in Elster’s sense, meaning one attains a state of “relating
directly to the world without relating
also to the relating,” which he proceeds to characterize as an exquisite
piece of moral psychology, “an argument to the effect that the good things in
life are spoiled by self-consciousness about them.” For further discussion with
regard to the (mystical) state “empty consciousness” (wherein there is absence
of either an external or internal
object) which is nonetheless a state of awareness, please see my paper,
“Daoism: a rational reconstruction of some key terms.”
 In his chapter on
“Confucius and the Problem of Naturalness,” Kupperman distinguishes among a
number of meanings of “naturalness,” and it’s only the Daoist account that
interests us here: “Philosophical Daoism was not a monolithic movement, and even
within a single work (e.g., the Zhuangzi) a reader can find shifting
areas of emphasis. Nevertheless Daoist conceptions of naturalness do have
characteristic foci. I may briefly and simply summarize these as being
spontaneity in behavior, simplicity in social life, and harmony with the
fundamental tendencies of the universe” [here one would need to minimally
understand the dao of ‘the ten
thousand things’ and tian, as well as
the related roles indicated by the concepts of qi and yin/yang in the manifestations of Dao]. Daoist naturalness certainly is
not [as with Confucius and in the salons of the Republic of Letters in the
French Enlightenment] naturalness within ‘the restraints of decorum,’ which the
Daoists considered ridiculous and artificial. The naturalness of the Daoists
also did not involve giving general vent to feelings [as in ‘anything goes’ or
‘let it all hang out’]. The Daoists were not wild men: indeed, they believed
that certain common feelings such as anxiety should be as much as possible
eliminated rather than expressed.” See: Joel J. Kupperman, Learning from Asian Philosophy (Oxford
University Press, 1999): 26-35 and 79-94.
 Steve Coutinho, An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2014): 74.
 Ibid., 100-101.
References & Further
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State University of New York Press, 2003.
- Coutinho, Steve. An Introduction to Daoist Philosophies.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mark and
Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi.
Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.
- Elster, Jon. Sour
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