Effortless Action: Wu-wei As Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China
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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.
m earl y Chines e thinkers , true understandin g is not an abstract gaz e that—a s fo r Plato o r even th e neo-Confucians—sees through con crete realit y i n orde r t o acquir e a theoretica l gras p o f som e sor t o f underlying (and ultimatel y more real ) order . Rather, tru e "clarity" is a n illuminatio n of th e actual landscape before one's eyes that serves to guide one through it, and is thus always intimately and inextricably tied to action. Thus, in place of the representa tional
e wh o love s it , an d on e who loves it is not the equal of one who takes joy in it." That is, it is not enough to have a merely intellectua l or practical understanding of the meanings of the rites and th e content s o f th e cano n (the Way) , an d eve n lovin g (hao # ? ) th e Way involves to o muc h consciou s focu s upo n th e object . Th e goa l i s t o becom e s o immersed in the practice tha t all distinction between sel f and object is forgotten. This is how we are to understand 1 1
elite is here blamed for the common people's hunger, and the regarding o f those i n authority is cited a s the cause o f their unruliness . That these tw o ill s — excessive desir e an d regardin g —are essentiall y linke d i s mad e quite clear in the description of the Way found i n chapter 34: The Way is vast, reaching to the left a s well as right. SO Effortless Action It is successful and accomplishes it s tasks and yet has no name. The myriad things return to it and yet it does not
Tightness and a "two-root" picture o f morality. Mencius ha s criticized such a view in passages I have cited before , and he rejects it here again, but no w h e provide s u s wit h a psycho-physiologica l explanatio n fo r wh y a n external view of morality will not work. Let us review his argument. To begin with, Mencius introduces the term zhi /fe . Zhi has often been trans lated as "will," but "intention" might be better, as many commentators have noted Cultivating the Sprouts: Wu-wei in
germina l force o f th e sprouts ; an d i n th e SEL F A S HYDRAULIC FORCE metapho r i t i s th e inexorable forc e o f wate r flowin g downhil l o r a sprin g breakin g throug h th e ground. Th e cognitiv e equivalenc e o f thes e variou s metaphori c expression s i s revealed b y thei r frequent mixing ; to th e many examples w e have already seen , we migh t ad d fo r goo d measur e th e observatio n i n 1:A: 6 tha t afte r a torrential spring rain formerly dry sprouts "spring up [xing H ] out