How Can We Try Not To Try? The Daoist Paradox of Wu-Wei

Effortless Action SlingerlandIn his book Effortless Action, Edward Slingerland delves into a deep paradox found in the work of ancient Chinese philosophers.  Wu-wei, which can be translated as either non-action or effortless action, is a state of freedom, flexibility and spontaneity acquired through the practice of living a good life.  It is identified with life and the cosmos, and can be called the skill of living well, the skill of all skills.

While it can be found once in the Analects of Confucius and then later in the Confucian works of Mencius and Xunzi, it is most prominent in the Daoist works of Laozi and Zhuangzi.  Some philosophers, such as the Daoists, say that it is our original state, that which we had before we were born and early as children.  Others, such as Xunzi, say that it is opposite our original state, which we did not have at all when we were immature, and is only acquired through study and practice.

This presents us with a paradox: How can we try not to try?

mind reason and being-in-the-world dreyfus mcdowellHeidegger was familiar with the works of the Daoists, and it is possible to answer this paradox in a Heideggerian way, relevant to the Dreyfus-McDowell debate about the interrelation of thought and action.  When we are first performing an action, we must think as we act and are clumsy in acting, but after we acquire a skill it becomes second nature and does not require the effort of thinking or being clumsy.  I discussed this in a previous post about Chuck Knoblauch over-thinking while throwing to first base.  Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher, illustrates this in the story of Butcher Ding, who learns over the years to trust his actions without thinking and impresses the emperor.

pythagorean YIf one practices living life well, at first it is difficult, but after good habits become ingrained it becomes easy and effortless.  Thus, one can become effortless through effort over time, and the paradox is resolved.  This is similar to the forking paths of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher who taught that the left-hand path of pleasure is easy but it leads to destruction, while the right-hand path of effort is hard but it leads to wisdom, happiness and tranquility.

The problem is that bad habits are as easy, if not easier, to obtain as good habits, and so we must make the effort to choose what will become effortless.

Objective Truth, How Does It Work?

“We are really discovering objective truth in the world, not merely subjective truth in the mind… but it is hard to distinguish truth in the world from truth in the mind… and I don’t know how to tell the two apart… but let’s keep going!”

Who said we were going to stop, or that the objective world should be exclusively divided from the subjective mind which gives it meaning?

Troika’s Squaring the Circle

troika_squaring_the_circleIn the Modern European Philosophy class this past week, we were discussing Locke and his distinction between primary, objective qualities and secondary, subjective qualities.  Locke argues that shape is objective, while color is subjective.

This piece, titled Squaring the Circle by the art trio Troika, challenges this distinction.  From one side, it appears to be a square, but from the other, it appears to be a circle, showing that even shape can depend on perspective.

Are You Aware? You Are An Idiot

Buddha Bronze SeatedIn the Dhammapada, the collected sayings of the Buddha, it says:

The fool who knows he is a fool is that much wiser.  

The fool who thinks he is wise is a fool indeed.

This is quite comparable to Socrates, who argued in front of the Athenian assembly that he was, as the Oracle of Apollo said, the wisest man in Athens because he was aware of how little he knew, while others thought they knew a great deal but knew very little, like himself.

Does Chuck Knoblauch Exist When He Throws To First?

mind reason and being-in-the-world dreyfus mcdowellLately, I have been studying the connections between the early work of Heidegger and the later work of Wittgenstein.  One of the most fascinating issues involved is the ordinary way that we act when we are “in the flow”, conscious of an action but not self-conscious or critically thinking.  How much must we conceptualize ourselves or our actions in order to act?  This is the issue debated between Hubert L. Dreyfus, who taught me Heidegger at Berkeley, John McDowell and others in the book Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World (2013).

chuck knoblauch throws to firstOne example featured in the debate is Chuck Knoblauch, a famed second-baseman who began to have problems throwing to first to get runners out because he was over-thinking his throws.  As Lee Braver points out, there seems to be an antagonistic relationship between conceptual thought and skillful action, such that thinking can interrupt action.

Frankenstein vintage movie posterIn his book Groundless Grounds (2012), Braver says that if we think about walking as we walk, we walk like Frankenstein.  Zhuangzi, my favorite Chinese philosopher and the second patriarch of Daoism, said that if the centipede stops to figure out how he coordinates all of its legs, it would fall all over itself.  That said, how much is thought or conceptions involved when we are consciously acting but “in the flow”?

Café_de_FloreDreyfus, following Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, argues that in absorbed action, we do not have a conception of ourselves or reasons for why we are acting.  Sartre said that when he runs to catch the streetcar, there is no ego.  We could also say that when Sartre is focused entirely on catching the streetcar, he also is not thinking of reasons as to why he is catching it, such as getting to Cafe de Flore to sip espresso and chain smoke.  Merleau-Ponty, friend of Sartre, said that when we are absorbed we act in a “field of forces”, reacting to threats and opportunities without thought.

Streetcar new orleansAgainst Dreyfus and very much in accord with Kant, McDowell argues that for an act to be intentional, it must be done consciously, and this requires that it be conceptual.  McDowell would say that Sartre must conceptualize himself, the streetcar, and that his purpose is to catch it in order for his dashing towards it to be an intentional act, different from the way one’s leg jerks when we are struck in the knee by a doctor.  The question is, if Sartre sees the streetcar as an opportunity, or Knoblauch sees the runner as a threat, how much must they conceive of things in addition to perceiving them?  It is difficult, and hence the Dreyfus-McDowell debate, because our perceptions and conceptions are so intertwined in so many complex ways.

Prince of the Magicians movie posterLee Braver has offered what I think is a brilliant architectural metaphor that could reframe the debate, leading to new insights and solutions. In his later work, Wittgenstein presented philosophy and math as extensions of embodied physical action.  Heidegger wants us to see that we do philosophy like we use a hammer, as we respond intuitively and immediately to words as we do to arguments.  McDowell says that all is conceptual, which Dreyfus criticizes as upper floor abstract aristocrats all the way down.  Dreyfus says there is a basement beneath the upper floors where absorbed servants toil, but the two are disconnected.  Braver says that we can go with a third plan, that it is basement servants all the way up (as opposed to turtles all the way down).  We get rid of the class distinction between the aristocrats on the upper floor and the servants in the basement.  This gets rid of Dreyfus’ gap but reverses the direction of McDowell.

What do you think?  In what ways are action and thought interrelated or opposed to each other?

Buddha & Descartes, Thought & Thinker

The opening lines of the Dhammapada, the collected sayings of the Buddha, read:

We are what we think.  All that we are arisBuddha Statue Taiwanes with our thoughts.  With our thoughts we make the world.  Speak or act with an impure mind and trouble will follow you as the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart… Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow you as your shadow, unshakable.

Speaking and acting are the two ways one uses one’s mind to draw trouble or happiness from the world.  This fits with Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein, who said that when we speak, our words are our thoughts, with no separation between speaking and thinking.  The same applies to acts.  Perhaps all thinking is rooted in speaking and acting.  Perhaps picturing something in the head is rooted in the experience of looking, moving one’s eyes, head, neck and body such that a thing comes into view.

Descartes statueDescartes famously wrote, “I think, therefore I am”.  Both Buddha and Descartes reason that if there is thinking, then there is a thinker, but they see this relationship in opposite ways.

For Buddha, the thinking is the coming into existence of the thinker, such that there is no thinker without thought making it so.  The thinking causes the thinker to be a particular thing.

For Descartes, the thinking is evidence of the thinker, leading to the conclusion that there exists a thinker prior to and independent of the thinking.