Edward Slingerland on Wu-Wei



There are two very interesting articles in the new Edge issue. The first, by Terence McKenna, ranges freely all over the map and makes many interesting observations  about the chemical processes that involve mind, cognition, language and blissing out…lots of attention is given to the role of ego, its development, non-development, etc. It’s imminently worth reading for its many gem-like insights.

Also, see the article by Edward Slingerland (scroll down on the Edge website) on the role of wu-wei, sometimes deceptively called “non-action,” in Chinese culture. He’s the author of Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. It’s actually a process of checking on the ego…something the world, the politicians and each of us needs to give ever greater attention. His website is here.

The two articles, in many ways, complement each other.

Here’s a taste of where Slingerland is going with his latest (2014) book on wu-wei, Trying Not to Try.

“In a lot of my recent work I’ve been arguing that these early Chinese models of ethical reasoning, ethical training are psychologically much more, from a modern perspective, more plausible than some modern Western ideas. In some ways I’m arguing that the early Chinese got some stuff right that we got wrong in the Western philosophical tradition. They like to hear that. And I believe this is true. They were very sophisticated moral psychologists, and they’ve got some insights into the way that we reason about morality and the way we train people that I think are a really important corrective to the way we’ve been thinking about ethics in the West.

Edward Slingerland

Edward Slingerland

“But on the other hand I am a critic of certain aspects of the modern Chinese state, and I also worry about the rate of development. I was there in the 80s in mainland China, and going from Taiwan to mainland China was like going in a time machine. Taiwan was relatively modernized. I don’t know how I got to Hong Kong, but I took a boat up the Pearl River from Hong Kong to Canton, to Guangzhou. It was an overnight boat, and I got out in the morning and it was like I’d gone back in time 100 years; there were no cars, no motorcycles, everyone was riding bikes. It was an unbelievable change. Now I go back to Guangzhou and there’s these superhighways and these huge buildings, and it all happened—well, that was not that long ago. So the rate of change is wild. It’s just incomprehensible. I just wonder about how sustainable it is, because it’s creating a lot of wealth inequality and a lot of dislocation.

“I still have my area that is my specialty and now I’m going to bring these new tools to bear on that specialty. A good example is that Effortless Action book back in 2003 that was my transformed dissertation. I have an argument there that one way to look at the trajectory of Chinese thought is that it’s driven by this tension I call “the paradox of wu-wei.” Wu-wei is effortless action or spontaneity. They all want you to be wu-wei, but none of them think you are right now. You’ve got to try to be wu-wei, but how do you try not to try? How do you try to be spontaneous?

trying“So, I call it the paradox of wu-wei, and I argue it’s at the center of all their theorizing about other things. Their theories about human nature, their theories about self-cultivation, their theories about government—these are all ways of grappling with this central tension that’s driving a lot of the theorizing. That claim got criticized, so my former advisor wrote a very scathing critique of it. A lot of people didn’t buy this claim that, first of all, it’s really a paradox, and second of all that it really has any kind of central prominence in early Chinese thought.

“One of the things I’ve been able to do to with the new knowledge I’ve gained from the sciences is come back to this, revisit this topic again, and say, look, from a cognitive neuroscientific perspective, we actually understand why this is a paradox, why using cognitive control to shut down cognitive control is tricky—it’s inherently tricky. We have a lot of evidence from social psychology and sports science and other areas that show that in fact effortless, spontaneous action is very desirable, because hot cognition is very powerful. Work on the power of the unconscious, the adaptive unconscious. We also, from an evolutionary perspective, have an understanding of why the fact that the paradox is a paradox is why it gets focused on.

“Essentially in our theories about where large scale societies come from, the crucial role is played by trust and commitment. It’s really crucial, if we’re going to cooperate I’ve got to believe that you’re committed to this religion or belief system that we are sharing and not just in it for your own good. There’re lots of ways I can assess your commitment. One of them is whether or not you’re being spontaneous. If I see evidence of cognitive control in you, I start to think that maybe something’s going on, because when we’re being conscious and using cognitive control, we’re often doing it to deceive or lie or figure out what’s best for us. The Chinese believe when you’re in wu-wei, you have this power called “de”. It’s like a charismatic virtue. People like you, people trust you. I’m arguing that we can understand this from a naturalistic perspective as the attractiveness someone who is spontaneous kicks off, and for very good game theoretical reasons. Basically you can relate it directly to evolutionary concerns about cooperation.”




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