Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China

Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China

Edward Slingerland

Language: English

Pages: 365

ISBN: 0195314875

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


This book presents a systematic account of the role of the personal spiritual ideal of wu-wei--literally "no doing," but better rendered as "effortless action"--in early Chinese thought. Edward Slingerland's analysis shows that wu-wei represents the most general of a set of conceptual metaphors having to do with a state of effortless ease and unself-consciousness. This concept of effortlessness, he contends, serves as a common ideal for both Daoist and Confucian thinkers. He also argues that this concept contains within itself a conceptual tension that motivates the development of early Chinese thought: the so-called "paradox of wu-wei," or the question of how one can consciously "try not to try."

Methodologically, this book represents a preliminary attempt to apply the contemporary theory of conceptual metaphor to the study of early Chinese thought. Although the focus is upon early China, both the subject matter and methodology have wider implications. The subject of wu-wei is relevant to anyone interested in later East Asian religious thought or in the so-called "virtue-ethics" tradition in the West. Moreover, the technique of conceptual metaphor analysis--along with the principle of "embodied realism" upon which it is based--provides an exciting new theoretical framework and methodological tool for the study of comparative thought, comparative religion, intellectual history, and even the humanities in general. Part of the purpose of this work is thus to help introduce scholars in the humanities and social sciences to this methodology, and provide an example of how it may be applied to a particular sub-field.

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thing live and flourish in its own natural and spontaneous The Tenuous Self: Wu-wei in the Zhuangzi 77 7 way. They used "names" (language) to pick out things in their world and left i t at that—they did not let language overstep it s bounds an d become reified int o rigid concepts and categories. Therefor e i n determining what was right (yi i i ), they relied no t upon linguistic preconceptions o r traditional conventions (fo r instance, that i t i s "right " to welcom e a visitin g

onc e space withi n the Self ha s been cleared . "Emptiness " or "not-(having)" (wu) ar e thus viable metaphor s fo r Laozi's perfecte d stat e onl y becaus e th e "container" of th e Self , onc e emptied , spontaneously wells up with an internal force that has hitherto been suppressed. 48 Although th e containe r languag e o f "inner/outer " (neiwai f t ^ ) tha t late r becomes ver y popular i s almost completely absen t fro m th e Laozi, this structur e is clearly implie d by the metaphor of

naturalnes s alon g wit h him. This i s what i s mean t b y sayin g tha t th e sag e i s abl e t o "assis t th e myria d thing s i n [returning to ] naturalness " althoug h h e "doe s no t dar e t o act " (chapte r 64) . "Returning t o naturalness" represents a return to the state of "great flowing along with" (dashun ^v)l|S ) that once prevailed i n the world (chapter 65), and this idyllic state of affairs—which wil l come abou t again if a ruler in Laozi's own time coul d only grasp the Way—is

morality—a s th e perfec t marriag e o f huma n biological disposition s an d cul tural mores. No t incidentally , demonstrating th e link between Zho u cultura l ide als an d human biology als o serve d t o refute th e Laozian/primitivist charg e tha t Confucianism i s unnatural and, as we shall see, helpe d t o defuse th e paradox o f wu-wei as it existed i n the Analects. It is thus in response to a daunting constellation of challenges tha t Menciu s developed hi s great innovations—the theory

sens e o f the characteristic behavior of a thing—its ergon (Munro 1969 : 66) . The fact tha t xing can b e use d t o refer t o th e characteristi c behavio r o f a species i s importan t fo r understanding certain exchange s in the Mencius, fo r many of the debates o n this topic hinge upon a distinction between (a) xing in the more specific sense of those natural, developmenta l trait s tha t ar e prope r t o huma n being s (an d uniquel y related t o the project o f morality) and (b ) xing i n

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