Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Body and Cosmos in China: An Interdisciplinary Symposium in Honor of Nathan Sivin

The Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania is delighted to announce an interdisciplinary symposium in honor of Nathan Sivin at Perry World House, 3803 Locust Walk, Philadelphia, PA 19104, on Oct. 14-15, 2017.

The symposium is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is required.  Just click here if you’d like to attend:


Continue reading “Body and Cosmos in China: An Interdisciplinary Symposium in Honor of Nathan Sivin”

September 5, 2017 Posted by | Academia, Asian Philosophy, Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Chinese Texts, Comparative philosophy, Conference, Confucianism, Confucius, Cosmology, Daoism, Events, Han Dynasty, History, History of Philosophy, Huainanzi, Human nature, Medicine, Metaphysics, Methodology, Mysticism, Nature, Philosophy in China, Religion, Taoism | one comment

WuWei Revisited

Scott Barnwell revisits one of our favorite topics:

Off and on over the past 18 months I’ve been working on a new essay for my blog series “Classical Daoism – Is There Really Such a Thing?” The essay is on Wuwei 無為 and whether it could be considered a defining feature of a group or tradition we call (early) Daoism. I’ve got some thoughts I hope some may feel like addressing. As far as I can tell, wuwei does not have just one meaning or usage. I think there are a few different uses and would like to know if others would differentiate them as I do.

Continue reading “WuWei Revisited”

May 12, 2015 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daodejing, Daoism, Laozi, Taoism | 68 comments

Daoist Philosophy: Enigmatic Texts | Thursday May 29th, 4-6pm | Segal Theatre, CUNY Graduate Center

The Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy is thrilled to co-sponsor this event, featuring several distinguished scholars. Details below:

Daoist Philosophy: Enigmatic Texts

Thursday May 29th, 4-6pm | Segal Theatre, CUNY Graduate Center, 365 5th Ave, NYC

Daoist philosophy has been highly influential in East Asian thought, and is becoming increasingly so in the West.  Yet its texts are often inscrutable. Most notably, they frequently seem to express themselves in contradictions and paradoxes. In this meeting, a number of world experts discuss how to understand this.

Participants: Continue reading “Daoist Philosophy: Enigmatic Texts | Thursday May 29th, 4-6pm | Segal Theatre, CUNY Graduate Center”

May 7, 2014 Posted by | Conference, Daoism, Taoism | no comments

Book Review – The Tao of Chip Kelly by Mark Saltveit

I just finished reading Mark Saltveit’s book The Tao of Chip Kelly. For anyone curious about the book, I’m posting an informal review here.

The Tao of Chip Kelly is an enjoyable read on the leadership and coaching strategies of Philadelphia Eagle’s head coach, Chip Kelly. The book presents lessons on leadership from Kelly’s coaching career, the majority of which are drawn from his four seasons at the University of Oregon. While Saltveit’s introduction claims the book is aimed towards management strategy, the book is accessible to anyone and potentially of interest to anyone interested in team strategies, football, or contemporary applications of ideas drawn from Laozi or Zhuangzi. Continue reading “Book Review – The Tao of Chip Kelly by Mark Saltveit”

February 10, 2014 Posted by | Book Review, Books of Interest, Daoism, Taoism | 8 comments

Barnwell on Classical Daoism, part 4.2

Friend of the blog, Scott Barnwell, has posted part 4.2 of his work on whether there really was such a thing as classical Daoism, over on his Baopu blog. Here’s a snippet. Feel free to comment here or there.

In what follows I will often translate Tian as “the heavens” to specify the referent as the sky above, including the sun, moon, stars and planets and sometimes as “Nature” to widen the referent to include the earth and imply the natural, dynamic forces at work in the universe.

We may now ask, who (or what) was believed to have created the heavens and earth? An excavated text called the “Chu Silk Manuscript” (Chu Boshu 楚帛書) contains the earliest evidence of a myth involving Baoxi 雹戲 (a.k.a. Fuxi 伏羲) and Nüwa女媧, who, in a time described as “indistinct and dark”(夢夢墨墨), gave birth to four children, who helped separate above and below (上下), that is, the heavens and the earth. Eventually, after thousands of years had passed the sun and moon were somehow born. Later[9] myths tell of Nüwa creating living things (out of already existing materials); for example, the late-Han Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 records that (Nü)Wa was an “ancient female deity that transformed (=made) the myriad things” (古之神聖女,化萬物者也).

Aside from this text, it would appear that some of the authors of the Laozi and Zhuangzi were the first to attempt a “non-mythological” answer…

January 22, 2013 Posted by | Cosmology, Daoism, Taoism | no comments

Saltveit’s new project: Taoish.org

Friend of the blog, Mark Saltveit, writes:

Hello.  I have a new project that may be interesting to readers of WW&W: http://www.taoish.org, a place for irreverent spirituality.  My focus is on manifestations of contemplative religion/philosophy in the modern West, primarily Daoism of course but not limited to that.

My current post might be especially interesting to your followers: an analysis of one line of chapter 10 of the Daodejing by Steve Bokenkamp of Arizona State. http://www.realchange.org/taoish/mirror-mirrormirror/

(Earlier, I reposted his classic 1993 Daoism FAQ, which is pretty fun.  http://www.realchange.org/taoish/authoritative-answers-to-questions-about-taoism/ )

January 22, 2013 Posted by | Daoism, Taoism | 2 comments

Classical Daoism – Is There Really Such a Thing? Part 3

[Scott Barnwell posts Part 3 of his series “Classical Daoism – Is There Really Such a Thing?,” parts 1 and 2 of which also appear here and here at WW&W. We’re using the “Reblog” function for the first time. Feel welcome to initiate discussion here or on his own site. In any case, please direct all comments or questions to Scott.  – Manyul]

August 6, 2012 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism, Zhuangzi | no comments

Huainanzi – shorter edition

Huainanzi update: A couple of years ago — has it really been that long? — WW&W posted an announcement and hosted some discussion that included the authors of the unabridged Huainanzi translation published by Columbia University Press. FYI, I just received in the mail an abridged version of the translation (272 pages instead of 1016), which is now available: The Essential Huainanzi.

Unrelated book note: The WAC (“Writing-across-the-Curriculum”) Clearinghouse at Colorado State University is offering, free of charge, electronic access to Chinese Rhetoric and Writing: An Introduction for Language Teachers by Kirkpatrick and Xu.


April 11, 2012 Posted by | Books of Interest, Daoism, Huainanzi, Rhetoric, Taoism, Translation | no comments

Rethinking the "mystical" in the Dao De Jing

Joel Dietz, a regular follower of the blog, has written up the following summary of research he has been doing into the nature and background of “mystical” texts like the Dao De Jing. It’s fascinating stuff; enjoy! Please address comments to Joel.

Continue reading “Rethinking the "mystical" in the Dao De Jing”

March 30, 2012 Posted by | Daodejing, Daoism, Taoism | 15 comments

Popular Daoism

Mark Saltveit, professional comedian and author, guest-posted last year on comedy and Daoism. Subsequently, he published his thoughts on that topic with MeFiMag (available for download). Mark is back with some questions that he has about popular Daoism, to get some discussion and opinion from members of our forum. He plans to publish an article about this topic as well (note Mark’s comments below about seeking permission to quote or cite from those who comment in this forum). Please address all comments or questions directly to Mark.


Hello.  I’m working on a feature article (for an intelligent general audience) about criticism of popular Daoist authors (particularly Ursula K. Le Guin and Benjamin Hoff) by certain academics of Eastern religion who are centered around the University of San Diego and the Center for Daoist Studies (http://www.daoistcenter.org/homepage.html).

Some of this criticism seems rather polemical, rooted in an anti-Orientalist critique of the concept of Philosophical Daoism as a Western (and arguably Protestant) gloss. (I’m using the term “Culturalists” as shorthand for this group, and positing Michael Saso as its founder.)  Russell Kirkland calls Le Guin a “fraud” and Louis Komjathy won’t even write “Philosophical Daoism” without applying strikethrough to the words to show his disapproval. Kirkland goes so far as to argue that the Daodejing itself distorts Daoism, “sanitized” by its 3rd Century BCE redactor in a “marketing ploy” designed to strip it of “cultural baggage” and make it more presentable to Northern Chinese courts.  Continue reading “Popular Daoism”

February 16, 2012 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism, Translation | 55 comments

Classical Daoism – Is there really such a thing? Part II

(Scott Barnwell continues his guest-posting on this topic. Here is Part II of Scott’s thoughts. This post also appears on his own blog. Please address Scott directly in your comments.)

Laozi 老子

The first person to be investigated will be Laozi 老子, the “Old Master”; his supposed text being the Laozi or the Daodejing 道德經 (The Classic on the Way and Its Power). Although the Laozi has long been regarded to be the work of more than one author in both China and the West, Sima Qian 司馬遷, in his biography of Laozi, gives no indication that he thought the text was written by more than one person. Although he reports that there was uncertainty about the actual author, he seems to have felt the most plausible one was Lao Dan 老聃, “Old Long-ears” (a.k.a. Li Er 李耳[1]), the keeper of the Zhou archives from the southern state of Chu 楚 whom Confucius (551 – 479 B.C.E.) had gone to see.[2] The words exchanged at this famous meeting are always different in the various accounts we encounter.[3] The Lüshi Chunqiu, Zhuangzi, Liji, Hanshi Waizhuan, Xinxu, and Baihu Tong also all affirm that Lao Dan was a teacher of Confucius’; however, they do not suggest he was the author of the Laozi.[4]

Continue reading “Classical Daoism – Is there really such a thing? Part II”

October 21, 2011 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 5 comments

Classical Daoism – Is there really such a thing?

(Scott Barnwell, a long time friend of the blog, will be guest-posting on this topic. Here is Part I of Scott’s thoughts. This post also appears on his own blog. Please address Scott directly in your comments.)

Daojia and Huang-Lao

Classical Daoism, Philosophical Daoism, Early Daoism: these terms are increasingly being seen as obsolescent by scholars in the last couple of decades. The general public – those who have heard of Daoism or have read a little bit of it – are largely unaware, despite the fact that for quite awhile writers have admitted that there were no “Daoists” in pre-Han China and that the two most famous “Daoists,” Laozi and Zhuangzi, surely never thought of themselves as Daoists. The more recent interest in what was once called “religious Daoism (Daojiao 道教),” as opposed to “philosophical Daoism (Daojia 道家),” has seen a shift towards using “Daoism” to refer only to the former.

In this series of blog posts I am going to explore this matter. First, I will look at the oldest evidence for a “Daoist school” in the Historical Records (Shiji 史記) and the Han Documents (Hanshu 漢書). Next I will look into both the text and the legendary man Laozi 老子, followed by Zhuangzi 莊子. Texts that will be mentioned along the way will include: the Laozi 老子, Zhuangzi 莊子, Hanfeizi 韓非子 (esp. Jie Lao 解老, Yu Lao 喻老), Lüshi Chunqiu 春秋左傳, Mengzi 孟子, Xunzi 荀子, Guanzi 管子 (esp. Neiye 內業), Huainanzi 淮南子, Heguanzi 鶡冠子, and the Huangdi Sijing 黃帝四經. I will also survey various scholars’ views on early Chinese “schools of thought.”

Continue reading “Classical Daoism – Is there really such a thing?”

October 17, 2011 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 30 comments

Taijiquan, Daoist Metaphysics, and Practice

I often wonder about the connections—or lack thereof—between some interesting and potentially mind-blowing metaphysical claim and what might be called (although I don’t like the phrase) “real life.”  Lately, that wonder has been directed toward ways in which training in a practice such as taijiquan that at least purports to be meaningfully Daoist might inform and be informed by academic study of Daoist metaphysics.

I’ve had a bunch of different taijiquan teachers over the years.  Some of them were widely read about Chinese culture and history.  Others, not so much.  For whatever it’s worth, only one them—my first taijiquan teacher, who taught Yang family style in Chapel Hill back in the late 90’s—was Chinese, and though I never found out how well-read he was, I have come to appreciate how deeply knowledgeable that old man was about both taijiquan and Chinese traditions.  I feel like I learned a great deal from some of my teachers and that I managed to learn a bit less from others, but I’m grateful to all of them for offering me something important, and I suspect that I could have learned more from each and every one of them than I did, had I understood how to be a better student.  In each case, the teacher taught with sincerity.

As I’ve tried to learn taijiquan, I’ve had various moments when I’ve had the opportunity to think about the connections between the practice I was learning and the Chinese philosophy I work on academically.  Let me share two such incidents. Continue reading “Taijiquan, Daoist Metaphysics, and Practice”

October 1, 2011 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Metaphysics, Taoism | 11 comments

Kohn's Zhuangzi

On a tip from friend of the blog and guest blogger, Mark Saltveit, here’s a link to a translation of the Zhuangzi by Livia Kohn. You can preview part of it by clicking on the “Google Preview.” Anyone know anything about this? It seems to have been translated for a non-academic press — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Any thoughts about Kohn’s translation choices, either based on the Google preview or from knowledge of the translation otherwise acquired?

August 2, 2011 Posted by | Daoism, Taoism, Translation, Zhuangzi | 2 comments

Comedians as Daoist Missionaries

From friend of the blog, Mark Saltveit who, among other things, is a professional stand-up comedian, we have a special guest post. Mark writes:

I’ve written about my profession of standup comedy as applied Daoism.  I’ve just turned in a draft of this for editing to MefiMag, the print expression of the Metafilter website, who commissioned it.  I would love to get feedback and corrections from your readers for my final version.  (MefiMag doesn’t mind if this appears on the web before they print it.)

Mark will be replying to your comments himself. Enjoy.

Comedians as Taoist Missionaries

By Mark Saltveit

I’ve worked as a paid standup comedian on the West Coast for 12 years.   It’s fascinating, rewarding, and usually compelling – but it’s still work.  Comedians joke around a lot and are usually fun people, but the job itself is not especially amusing.  I’ve heard that stripping and prostitution aren’t that sexy, either.

Continue reading “Comedians as Daoist Missionaries”

June 21, 2011 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comedy, Daoism, Humor, Taoism | 20 comments

NEH Summer Seminar on Daoist Literature and History

Terry Kleeman and Steve Bokenkamp will be jointly offering an intensive, 3-week Summer Seminar this coming summer. They write:

This intensive reading seminar, introducing texts from the earliest Celestial Master petitions to manuscripts still in use among Daoist in Taiwan and China, will be held on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder from July 18 to August 5, 2011.  We are looking for scholars who want to learn how to read Daoist texts and would like to expand their research and teaching to incorporate Daoist individuals, texts, teachings, and practices. There will also be an opportunity to participate in an anthology of translations from Daoist sources.  The Seminar will be demanding but participants will be free to explore the mountains on weekends.  NEH provides a $2,700 stipend to defer travel and living expenses; we expect housing on campus to run roughly $1150 (shared) or $1800 (single) per person.

For more information, see their website.

December 22, 2010 Posted by | Daoism, Opportunities, Religion, Taoism | no comments

Daoist Liberalism

In comment #14 in this thread, I suggested that “parts of the Zhuāngzǐ are committed to a form of political liberalism, on which all individuals should be allowed to live, without government interference, in a way that comes naturally to and pleases them, provided they allow others to do so as well.”

It occurred to me that explicating this claim might make for an interesting post.

The Chinese political tradition is generally regarded as authoritarian, in cases even totalitarian, in both theory and practice. This view is one basis for certain claims about differences between traditional Asian and contemporary Western political cultures, which have sometimes been cited as grounds for resisting liberal democratic reforms in Asian countries. Continue reading “Daoist Liberalism”

March 18, 2010 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | 8 comments

The Sage is Not Friendly

Having finished the Daodejing section of my introductory course, one of my students said to me, “The Daoist sage doesn’t sound very friendly.” That caught me by surprise because I had always based my images of Daoist sages on the colorful — and it seems to me, friendly — figures in the Zhuangzi, including the image of Zhuangzi and Huizi having clever and fun conversations with each other. But I realized that my student was responding to the account in the Daodejing and that she was onto something. Continue reading “The Sage is Not Friendly”

November 18, 2009 Posted by | Daoism, Taoism | 20 comments

New SEP Entry on Neo-Taoism (xuanxue)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Neo-Taoism”, by Alan Chan (at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, formerly of National University of Singapore’s philosophy deparment), just became available on October 1. From He Yan and Wang Bi to Guo Xiang, everything you wanted to know about post-Han Daoism, encyclopedically considered. Here’s a teaser:

Both He Yan and Wang Bi were known for their expertise in the Yijing. Both were deeply interested in the Laozi. The fifth-century work Shishuo xinyu (New Accounts of Tales of the World), which is indispensable to understanding early medieval Chinese literati culture, relates that He Yan was working on or had just completed a commentary to the Laozi, but when he saw Wang Bi’s Laozi commentary, he recognized the superiority of the latter and reworked his own into two essays on the Dao and “Virtue” (de) instead (4.7 and 4.10). Wang Bi’s Laozi and Yijing commentaries occupied a privileged place in the formal xuanxue curriculum later, and arguably they remain the most important philosophical treatment of the two classics today. However, it should be noted that both He Yan and Wang Bi wrote on the Confucian Lunyu as well. Through their extant writings, we gain a good view of the central concerns of Neo-Daoist philosophy. Continue reading “New SEP Entry on Neo-Taoism (xuanxue)”

October 23, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | no comments

Hansen's Tao Te Ching

A little blogging while I’m running around and setting up the transition to the group blog…

Chad Hansen’s translation of the Daodejing is available now. I happened to see it at the Yale Book Store, did a double-take, and snatched it up. It has a kind of boutique feel to it, literally — the hardcover has an elegant silky-cloth finish with an embossed 道 on the front; the paper quality seems expensive; there are myriad glossy photos and art reproductions throughout. This attention to reader aesthetic experience suggests that the volume is not primarily meant for scholarly reference, most scholars being more utilitarian about the print quality of their reading material. On the other hand, what translation of the Daodejing after Legge’s really targets an academic audience? Nonetheless, I’m always a sucker for translations of the DDJ by scholars that I like.

The translation differs from what I remember of the one he had on line for a while (that page is no longer available from Hansen’s website — why?!). It’s more elegant, I think, but of course remains faithful to Hansen’s guidance-dao/performance-dao, non-mystical interpretation. Since chapter 1 is usually how people tend to judge translations of the DDJ, here is Hansen’s version, including his titular heading for it:


Ways can be guided; they are not fixed ways.
Names can be named; they are not fixed names.
“Absence” names the cosmic horizon,
“Presence” names the mother of 10,000 natural kinds.
Fixing on “absence” is to want to view enigmas.
Fixing on “presence” is to want to view phenomena.
These two, emerging together, we name differently.
Conceiving of them as being one: call that “fathomless”.
Calling it “fathomless” is still not to fathom it.
…the door to a cluster of puzzles.

Continue reading “Hansen's Tao Te Ching”

October 19, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 6 comments

Agency Versus Freedom

Just wanted to share a snippet from a book I just read, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It’s an excellent book, very readable, that is part social theory and part personal history of someone who left philosophy, as a profession, but kept it with him into his career as a motorcycle mechanic. The primary thrust in the book is to rethink the partitioning off of manual labor as a non-thinking, non-intelligent activity and at the same time to rethink the social engineering that has taken place in the past century of turning labor in general, whether white or blue collar, into something that is divorced from types of activity that contribute to human excellence. You might say it’s a book against the trends in contemporary life that promote both mindlessness and alienation from the “mechanism” of the world. The book is written with style and without any pretentiousness. Great reading; I finished the entire book on a 5 hour flight.

Apropos this blog, I thought there was some excellent resonance in the book with the “skill-mastery” portions of the Zhuangzi, particularly in the ways that Crawford talks about how “freedom” and “autonomy” have been co-opted by the consumer ethic that has taken over our lives. Here’s a bit of it:

…there is a whole ideology of choice and freedom and autonomy, and that if one pays due attention, these ideals start to seem less like a bubbling up of the unfettered Self and more like something that is urged upon us. This becomes most clear in advertising, where Choice and Freedom and A World Without Limits and Master the Possibilities and all the other heady existentialist slogans of the consumerist Self are invoked with such repetitive urgency that they come to resemble a disciplinary system. Somehow, self-realization and freedom always entail buying something new, never conserving something old.

Thinking about manual engagement seems to require nothing less than that we consider what a human being is. That is, we are led to consider how the specifically human manner of being is lit up, as it were, by man’s interaction with his world through his hands. For this a new sort of anthropology is called for, one that is adequate to our experience of agency. Such an account might illuminate the appeal of manual work in a way that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather simply gives credit to the practice of building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, as an element of human flourishing. (pp. 63-4)

Continue reading “Agency Versus Freedom”

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Daoism, Taoism | 14 comments

Confucianism — Saving the Planet!

I don’t know; I’m a bit skeptical. Someone convince me otherwise.

From the Christian Scientist Monitor:


How Confucianism could curb global warming

China openly debates the role of Eastern thought in sustainability.

By James Miller
from the June 26, 2009 edition

Kingston, Ontario – Now here’s a curveball to secular Western policy experts: China’s intellectuals are openly debating the role of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in promoting the Communist Party’s vision of a harmonious society and ecologically sustainable economic development.

Nowhere is the question of what to do about the environment more vital than in China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – especially because scientists agree that climate change disproportionately affects the poor and the disenfranchised and that climate change will affect future generations far more than the present.

Yet the general impression of China’s role in issues relating to environment is one of foot-dragging because it hasn’t bought into a Western model to address it.

But Pan Yue, China’s vice minister for environmental protection, is calling for China to capitalize on traditional Chinese religions in promoting ecological sustainability.

He says, “One of the core principles of traditional Chinese culture is that of harmony between humans and nature. Different philosophies all emphasize the political wisdom of a balanced environment. Whether it is the Confucian idea of humans and nature becoming one, the Taoist view of the Tao reflecting nature, or the Buddhist belief that all living things are equal, Chinese philosophy has helped our culture to survive for thousands of years. It can be a powerful weapon in preventing an environmental crisis and building a harmonious society.”

And this just might work.

As The New York Times recently reported, China is in the midst of a transformation to cleaner forms of energy.

Continue reading “Confucianism — Saving the Planet!”

June 26, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Daoism, Taoism | 27 comments

Like the Infant

Sent along by Chris Fraser (much thanks!) — comments welcome:

Scientific research supports Daoist ideas? … (Chris’s question)


(From http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/to_be_a_baby/)

To Be a Baby

Bibliolog/ by Evan Lerner / May 5, 2009

Alison Gopnik describes new experiments in developmental psychology that show everything we think we know about babies is wrong.

Thomas Nagel famously asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” That question has become a staple of Philosophy 101 courses, but we might be better served asking a more basic one: What is it like to be a baby? Though all of us experience life as a baby firsthand, we’ve long held misconceptions about what babies are capable of thinking, feeling, and understanding. Only recently have we overturned dominant theories of development in which very young children were thought to be barely conscious at all.   

In The Philosophical Baby developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik compiles the latest in her field’s research to paint a new picture of our inner lives at inception — one in which we are, in some ways, more conscious than adults. Gopnik spoke with Seed’s Evan Lerner about how babies and young children learn from us and what we can learn from them. 

Seed: How does a better understanding of what’s going on in the minds of babies help us as adults?
Alison Gopnik: One of the things we discovered is that imagination, which we often think of as a special adult ability, is actually in place in very young children, as early as 18 months old. That ability is very closely related to children’s ability to figure out how the world works. Imagination isn’t just something we develop for our amusement; it seems to be something innate and connected to how we understand the causal structure of the real world. In fact, the new computational model of development we’ve created —  using what computer scientists call Bayesian networks — shows systematically how understanding causation lets you imagine new possibilities. If children are computing in this way, then we’d expect imagination and learning to go hand in hand.

Seed: You describe children as being “useless on purpose.” What do you mean by that?
AG:  It’s related to one of the basic things that came out of our research: Why do children exist at all? It doesn’t make tremendous evolutionary sense to have these creatures that can’t even keep themselves alive and require an enormous investment of time on the part of adults. That period of dependence is longer for us than it is for any other species, and historically that period has become longer and longer.

The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagine — which is our great evolutionary advantage as a species — and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use. So one of the ideas in the book is that children are like the R&D department of the human species. They’re the ones who are always learning about the world. But if you’re always learning, imagining, and finding out, you need a kind of freedom that you don’t have if you’re actually making things happen in the world. And when you’re making things happen, it helps if those actions are based on all of the things you have learned and imagined. The way that evolution seems to have solved this problem is by giving us this period of childhood where we don’t have to do anything, where we are completely useless. We’re free to explore the physical world, as well as possible worlds through imaginative play. And when we’re adults, we can use that information to actually change the world.

Seed: You think Freud’s and Piaget’s conceptions of young children’s theory of mind are wrong. What do we know that they didn’t?
AG:  Both Piaget and Freud thought that the reason children produced so much fantastic, unreal play was that they couldn’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. But a lot of the more recent work in children’s theory of mind has shown quite the contrary. Children have a very good idea of how to distinguish between fantasies and realities. It’s just they are equally interested in exploring both. The picture we used to have of children was that they spent all of this time doing pretend play because they had these very limited minds, but in fact what we’ve now discovered is that children have more powerful learning abilities than we do as adults. A lot of their characteristic traits, like their pretend play, are signs of how powerful their imaginative abilities are.

Seed: So is this just a matter of a changing frame of reference, where we now value imagination more?
AG: Well, the science has changed, too. For Freud and Piaget, it was a perfectly good hypothesis. If you just looked at young children and babies, they just did not seem very smart. We have new techniques we use to get more subtle measurements of what’s going on in children’s minds, and that’s the thing that has overturned that earlier view. When we take more than a superficial look at what children are doing, it turns out that they both know much more and learn much more than we ever thought before.

Seed: What are these techniques? How can we interrogate the minds of people who can’t yet fully communicate?
AG: Children are not very good at spontaneously telling you what they are thinking. With adults, we give them a questionnaire and have them give us answers. That doesn’t work for babies, who can’t talk, and for young children, who can only give a kind of stream-of-consciousness response. So one thing is to look at what they do rather than what they say. This works if you give them very focused questions with very simple answers. Rather than ask a child to explain how a toy machine works, we’ll ask, “Do you think this block or that block will make the machine go?”

Seed: What have you found?
AG: These techniques show that children can work with very complex statistical information. In the machine example, we show children’s patterns of conditional probability, the relationship between certain blocks and the machine turning on or off. If I tried to give you just a description of the sequence of events in one of these experiments in a conversation, I’d probably get it wrong and you wouldn’t be able to remember it — it’s pretty complicated for even adults to describe. But when you give kids these complicated sets of relationships and then just ask them to make the machine go or make the machine stop, they do the right things. Although they can’t consciously track how these conditional probabilities work, they are unconsciously taking that information into account. And they do this in the same way that sophisticated Bayesian network machine-learning programs do.

Seed: What about less objective causal inferences, such as ones dealing with morality?
AG: One of my favorites of these experiments is one that’s been around for quite awhile but hasn’t been fully appreciated. Two-and-a-half-year-olds already recognize the difference between moral principles and conventional principles. You can ask them if it would be okay to hit someone at daycare if everyone said it would be okay, versus asking them whether it would be okay to not hang up your coat in the cubby if everyone said it would be okay. These children say it’s never okay to hit someone, but whether or not you have to put your clothes in the cubby could change from daycare to daycare. They already seem to appreciate the difference between the kinds of morality that comes from empathy and the kind that comes from our conventional rules. From the time they are two, they recognize both are important but in different ways. That’s pretty amazing.

Seed: So where do adult philosophers go from here?
AG: Back to the 18th century, in some ways. If you look at someone like David Hume, he thought he was doing a kind of theoretical science — he didn’t think there was a line between what we find out from science and what we find out from philosophy. Increasingly, modern philosophers say that we can learn about the big questions by looking at science. But science, especially developmental psychology, can also tell us about philosophy; it can tell us about what we start with, what we learn, and what the basic facets of human nature are. The kind of picture you often get from scientifically oriented philosophy is often very much in the vein of evolutionary psychology, with everything innate and genetically determined. But one of the more important things that has come out of developmental work is that there’s also a powerful capacity for change. And we’re starting to understand how that change takes place at a very detailed neurological and computational level. 

And the same is true when we look at our moral development. A lot of moral psychology has been saying that we have these innate moral instincts, or innate moral grammars. When we look at children, we do see some of these innate moral intuitions, but there is also this tremendous capacity for moral revision. In some ways, I think those are some of the most distinctively human abilities. They give us the ability to say, “Oh wait, the way that we’ve been operating is not working, and that’s wrong.” And this gives us the ability to change those things that are wrong and get to better moral principles than we started out with.

May 17, 2009 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 9 comments

Daodejing Translations

I’ve been off the air for a bit, trying to catch up to a few things. One of them is ordering books for the Fall semester. I’m teaching a Daoism course and I’ve been pondering a change in the Daodejing translation that I use. I’ve used the Addiss and Lombardo recently–I’m kind of a sucker for their sparse style. I’ve used Lau in the past, and once tried using LaFargue. I’d like to do something different from any of those. I’ll take suggestions. As I implied, I like translations that are not as wordy as Lau and that have some poetry to them. I also like consistency–e.g. dao 道 translated with either the same or with a cognate form of the same word each time. A lot of translations flub that, as far as I’m concerned, in the very first lines of the traditional Chapter 1. Anyway, it’s a good way for me to get back into the flow of blogging. So tell me about a translation you like, and why you like it. Thanks!

April 20, 2009 Posted by | Daoism, Pedagogy, Taoism | 22 comments

What Would Zhuangzi Do?

Over on Facebook, Hagop Sarkissian dropped the question: WWZZD (what would Zhuangzi do)? That of course made me think, first, “He would do nothing” but I immediately realized that I was confusing WWZZD with WWLZD. My second thought, and the one I trust more, was that WWZZD isn’t really formulated correctly. It should be HWZZDT–“How would Zhuangzi do this (or that, depending on perspective)?” As far as I can see, Zhuangzi isn’t concerned so much with aims as much as methods. Does anyone read Zhuangzi differently? ‘Zhuangzi’ here refers to the nonhistorical persona that haunts the Zhuangzi text; maybe there’s more than one such specter.

(HWZZDT seems to roll off the tongue so much better than HWCTDT, doesn’t it?)

December 2, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 7 comments

Little Fish, Little Fish, Swimming in the Water…

Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) 60 begins with:

“To govern a large state: like cooking small fish…” (治大國,若烹小鮮)

Dan Robins and I were wondering how to interpret “cooking small fish.” The first thing that comes to mind seems to be to be careful because of the fish’s delicacy. I’ve favored in the past, thinking of small fish as actually requiring less delicacy–i.e. small fish can just be tossed onto the pan and cooked whole, without any cutting or cleaning–sort of like smelt (which only helps you if you’ve ever cooked or eaten smelt). But Dan pointed out to me that at least in contemporary China and probably in the recent past, larger fish are also often cooked whole without any cutting or cleaning, as anyone who’s gone to a good Chinese restaurant can attest. So, I guess I don’t really have a compelling interpretation, unless cooking large fish whole is only a recent development. Any thoughts? Any early Chinese cuisine experts out there? Any other interesting or weird interpretations? Jump in…

October 20, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 157 comments

Guidance through Principles vs. Concepts/Terms–What's the Difference?

So, continuing some thoughts about language and theory in ethical thought, I’ve been thinking about what significant difference there is supposed to be between ethical guidance through principles as opposed to guidance through some form of “conceptual mastery” or even “skill mastery.”

One way to think of the difference, roughly, between Western and early Chinese ethical thought is to think of the former as emphasizing formulation of principles and guidance through them and the latter as emphasizing either mastery of some sort of “thick” ethical concepts or some set of “ethical skills.” Hence, dominant forms of ethical theorizing in the modern West seem concerned to formulate correct principles of right action so that people can adopt them for deciding how to act, in morally relevant contexts of choice. On the other hand, what seems of concern to early Confucianism seems to be to grasp the meaning and import of certain important terms such as ren 仁 (“humaneness”), li 禮 (“ritual piety”), and so forth; and/or to master certain sorts of “moral perception” skills that involve some kind of correct “connoisseur” responses and judgments–e.g. seeing something as ren or as failing to be li.

There are a few questions about the accuracy of these generalizations that call for some narrowing. Isn’t “Western” really just a gloss for a particular style of theoretical inquiry, largely in the modern era, that models itself on scientific inquiry or on legal reasoning? Shouldn’t something be said about the role of “manuals” of ritual and ceremony, e.g. the Zhouli (The Rituals of the Zhou) and the Liji (The Record of Ritual) for Confucian thinking about ritual piety? They seem to provide discursive action-guidance, and maybe even justification (as a set of rules) for particular ritual actions and attitudes, if not for the institution as a whole (which is something I take Xunzi to have been trying give). Also, the Mohists seem pretty clearly to be formulating an action-guiding principle–viz. to promote benefit.

But those sorts of questions aside, I wonder how different in practice competent application of principles could be from expressions of competence with respect to concept application or skill implementation. What I have in mind is that application of a principle, like application of a concept, actually requires a skill–call it a “connoisseurship of principle application”–that then subsumes the process under similar sorts of success-conditions as any other skill: there has to be something like a “correct perception” of when a principle applies to a situation, just as in the situation where one sees that a concept applies.

Those who know the later Wittgenstein views could maybe see a connection here–I’m not at all an expert on Wittgenstein and it’s been years and years since I read anything on his views, so that would be helpful if someone could speak to the connection or its lack. Those familiar with W.D. Ross should see some connection here, I think, because Ross’s intuitionism requires some kind of noetic perception of one’s true duty from the interactions among considerations of prima facie duties that apply to a situation. That sounds like a skill to me, not unlike skill in legal reasoning (?)–someone who knows about this could also speak to it better than I.

This is all to suggest, tentatively, that there really isn’t much difference when we get down to the business of ethical living between having a “principle-based” view and some more “skill-based” view. Or is there? I’m inclined to reduce principle-application and concept-application to considerations of skill, albeit some kind of mental or “perceptual” skill, but maybe there are problems with that…

July 20, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Comparative philosophy, Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, Taoism | 13 comments

Naturalism & Metaphysics in Early China, part I

I’d like to sneak up on an interpretive issue about early Chinese philosophy from a couple of directions–call them “tentative pincers.” This post will be part I of a two-parter; it will deal with one of the pincers.

The interpretive issue is this: what can we attribute by way of ontology to the early Chinese? (So, as you can see, this is a really minor topic…ha ha.) Chad Hansen has argued at length about this in A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought (passim). He argues that the whole package of abstract objects (ideas, minds, meanings, etc.) that comes from an Indo-European linguistic base for philosophical speculation, should be left out of a proper understanding of the early Chinese thinkers. The latter have at base a much more pragmatically oriented conception and/or use for language. So, the early Chinese see language primarily as a guidance system. That should color the views we attribute to them–ontological commitments do not venture beyond what is necessary for “getting about” in the world, with the result, for example, that we should understand concern with dao 道 “naturalistically” to be concern with ways of doing, rather than metaphysically to be concerned with some “supernatural,” perhaps abstract, thing to be revered. That’s of course a very cursory summary of Hansen, but we could talk more detail as it comes up. What I wanted to do was to take one step back from Hansen’s approach and discuss a couple of topics that strike me as necessary to clarify prior to Hansen’s argument: naturalism, on the one hand, and “the metaphysical,” on the other. So in this part, we’ll discuss naturalism.


How should we construe “naturalism” in the early Chinese context? I feel like I have some handle on naturalism, but only as a set of commitments of philosophers after the rise of empiricism in its various forms. How do we construe a pre-empiricist philosopher, either in the East or the West, as holding to naturalism? That might seem simple at first: any philosopher who explicitly or implicitly holds to a set of commitments identical to those of naturalism after empiricism is a naturalist. The problem, it seems to me, is that the going understanding of philosophical naturalisms requires someone who is a naturalist to constrain either their method or ontology through some form of reflective equilibrium with empirical science. Here’s why.

There are different ways to characterize views that are regarded philosophically as naturalistic. In recent analyses, at least two large categories of naturalism have been distinguished: methodological and substantive. Alvin Goldman (“A Priori Warrant and Naturalistic Epistemology” Philosophical Perspectives 13) characterizes the two kinds of naturalism, using “metaphysical” in place of “substantive”:

Some forms of naturalism involve metaphysical theses—for example, the thesis that everything in the world either is physical or supervenes on the physical—and some forms of naturalism involve methodological doctrines—for example the doctrine that proper methodology is purely empirical. (p. 2)

Substantive naturalism holds less interest for many contemporary philosophers because of its dogmatic, or potentially question-begging, flavor. Brian Leiter (“Naturalism in Legal Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2002/entries/lawphil-naturalism/>.) provides a useful expanded discussion of methodological naturalism, which holds more appeal and has a more complicated relationship with the empirical:

Naturalism in philosophy is most often a methodological view to the effect that philosophical theorizing should be continuous with empirical inquiry in the sciences. Such a view need not presuppose a solution to the so-called “demarcation problem”—i.e., the problem of what demarcates genuine science from pseudo-science—as long as there remain clear, paradigmatic cases of successful sciences. Some M-naturalists [i.e. methodological naturalists] want “continuity with” only the hard or physical sciences (Hard M-naturalists); others seek “continuity with” any successful science, natural or social (Soft M-naturalists). Soft M-naturalism is probably the dominant strand in philosophy today.

Assuming then that use of empirical inquiry can be demarcated, so that genuine sciences can be identified, methodological naturalism involves preservation of continuity, or coherence, of one’s own inquiries with a larger class of inquiries. “Continuity with” successful science, however, can be further spelled out by what Leiter refers to as “Results Continuity” and “Methods Continuity.” The former

…requires that the substantive claims of philosophical theories be supported or justified by the results of the sciences…. Moral philosophers like Gibbard and Railton, despite profound substantive disagreements, both think that a satisfactory account of morality’s nature and function must be supported by the results of evolutionary biology, our best going theory for how we got to be the way we are…. A philosophical account of morality that explains its nature and function in ways that would be impossible according to evolutionary theory would not, by naturalistic scruples, be an acceptable philosophical theory.

By contrast, Methods Continuity

…demands only that philosophical theories emulate the “methods” of inquiry of successful sciences. “Methods” should be construed broadly here to encompass not only, say, the experimental method, but also the styles of explanation (e.g., via appeal to causes that determine, ceteris paribus, their effects) employed in the sciences.

Understanding naturalism in these ways, it seems to me like naturalism of any sort has to privilege modern, contemporary science. For example, to be a “naturalist” about ethics, broadly speaking, is to think that the concepts and justifications in ethical theories ought to be constrained by what the available science deems likely to be true of the world, whether it is the kinds of properties and causes that exist generally for various kinds of events and objects, or the psychological explanations that exist for the actions and attitudes of humans and other animals. Alternatively, we could think of naturalism to involve not so much a direct constraint from available science, but at least a hearty commitment to reflective equilibrium that takes seriously into account the picture of the world that the empirical sciences portray.

So, here are some questions I’m mulling: Can empirical science, or empiricism more generally, be attributed to the early Chinese context? On the other hand, does it even seem necessary to connect naturalism to empiricism? Can “naturalism” or “naturalistic” be applied usefully to the early Chinese thinkers without attributing empiricism? Am I being too narrow in construing philosophical naturalism in the ways cited above?

May 4, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Hermeneutics, History, Taoism | 9 comments

Wuwei (無為) – What does it mean?

Let me restart the conversation Hagop and I started on the Velleman post, but focus on more on wuwei 無為 just by itself. Here’s what Hagop had to say and how I responded:


I’m teaching the Zhuangzi right now in my Chinese philosophy class, and will be discussing Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow along with the stories of the skilled exemplars during our meeting today. Velleman mentions others having made the connection before. I, too, was pointed in the direction of Czikszentmihalyi (by David Wong), but can’t recall at the moment who has written of them together.

As for whether ‘flow’ is a good interpretation of wu-wei, I think there is room to quibble. The phrase ‘wu-wei’ appears two or three times in the inner chapters, and none in relation to Cook Ding. There’s a lot more talk about wu-wei in the outer chapters.

What’s more, the inner chapters seem to include many exemplars who literally ‘do nothing’ (as opposed to acting in a skilled-yet-spontaneous fashion). Think of Zhuangzi’s advice to sit in a gourd or lounge under a tree, or the big yak that is the foil for the weasel (aka Hui Zi), or Zi Qi of South Wall sitting still, or the trees Zhuangzi likes to talk about. All these exemplars are literally doing nothing, and not engaged in flow-like skill activity.

In fact, Butcher Ding is alone as a “skilled” exemplar in the inner chapters (am I foregetting anyone?). Other skilled individuals are mocked. Consider this passage (Watson 2003, 37):

“There is such a thing as completion and injury–Mr. Zhao playing the lute is an example. There is such a thing as no completion and no inury–Mr. Zhao not playing the lute is an example.”

This makes me think that the Butcher is not so central to Zhuangzi’s philosophy and, by extension, that flow is not so central to it either.

(If we are talking about the text as a whole, though, there is more support for the interpretation of wu-wei as flow. In fact, since wu-wei occurs far more often in the outer chapters, along with other stories of skilled exemplars, then perhaps wu-wei as something like ‘flow’ is a later development of the Zhuangist school.)


Hagop, I agree with you about the “flow” interpretation of Zhuangzi, and I think it’s not merely a quibble. What always struck me were the power of the unintuitive examples in the De Chong Fu (”Sign of Virtue Complete” in Watson): People who’ve had their feet, hands, or noses lopped off for offenses against the kingdom, who aren’t skilled in much if anything, and who, like the useless tree, get along in life precisely by being *unskilled*, i.e. useless. Most noteworthy is Ai Tai Tuo who is both ugly and stupid, yet is someone who can be described as complete in talents 才 and power 德. I’ve never been sure that those examples were even compatible with a “flow” reading, particularly when paired with excellence in skill.


Despite the title of this post, I think it’s clear what wuwei means at a base level: “non-doing.” But the problem is how further to understand it — non-intentional doing? non-purposive doing? non-forced, effortless, doing? some other thing? Each of those understandings of it implies very different things, suggests very different examples and images, and seems to commit people to very different readings of Daoism. My own thought about the Zhuangzi is that there is more emphasis on something like “non-learned action” in both of senses of “learned”–picked up through training and picked up through advanced education or acculturation.

Another point is how much the concept of wuwei is particular to Daoism. There seems to be really one Confucian instance of it–the two-character phrase itself, at any rate–with the “non-doing” meaning, in Analects 15.5:


The Master said, “May not Shun be instanced as having governed efficiently without exertion? What did he do? He did nothing but gravely and reverently occupy his royal seat.” [Legge]

But is the concept more generally influential in Chinese philosophical temperament? If so, in which sense or senses, and why?

April 13, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Daoism, Taoism | 17 comments

Velleman, Frankfurt, and Zhuangzi

I just ran across a fascinating paper by David Velleman, “The Way of the Wanton,” which he lists as a work in progress. It’s available on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), for download, here. Anyone interested in Zhuangzi should find this very interesting. In the paper, Velleman gives a non-standard reading of Frankfurt’s early work (“Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy 68, (1971)) on second-order desiring, the idea of the self, “identification” with first-order desire, and Frankfurt’s idea of “wantonness.” It strikes me as an excellent example, not of comparative philosophy, but just plain philosophy that takes something “transportable” (?) in Chinese philosophy seriously.

To give a very brief synopsis of Velleman’s reading: Contrary to Frankfurt’s own conclusions, Velleman argues that a reflexive self–one that has second-order attitudes toward one’s own first order attitudes–doesn’t contribute to identification, but to something phenomenologically opposite, what he calls “dis-identification” (p. 14). Here’s the example Velleman gives:

“Being the subject of a desire usually entails being the subject of various thoughts symptomatic or expressive of the desire. Being thirsty, for example, entails thinking thirsty thoughts: looking around for quantities of liquid, wondering if they are potable, considering ways of reaching them, avidly imagining their taste, and so on. All of these thoughts are framed from the perspective of a potential drinker, but none explicitly represents the occupant of that perspective. They are framed from the point-of-view of a potential drinker who remains out of the picture, at the unrepresented origin of that point-of-view. Of course, the thoughts symptomatic of thirst may include the first-personal thought “I’m thirsty,” but that thought is in the first instance an atomic expression of thirst, like smacking one’s lips or crying ‘Water!’, rather than a compositionally analyzable attribution of thirst to oneself.

The difference between that expression of thirst and the attribution of thirst to oneself defines a continuum of possible thoughts that include awareness of one’s thirst in various degrees of explicitness. Sometimes one looks for a drink without yet knowing that one is thirsty; sometimes one looks for a drink while knowing about one’s thirst but not attending to it at all; sometimes one attends equally to the possible drink and the dryness of one’s throat or the urgency of one’s craving; sometimes one focuses on the thirst to the exclusion of the prospects for slaking it.

Across this continuum, one becomes progressively less engrossed in the activities motivated by thirst. At the former end are the cases in which one ‘loses oneself’ in gazing at the cool drink being served at the next table, or in peeling an orange, or in assaulting the shell of a cocoanut. In the middle of the continuum are the cases in which one undertakes such activities with cool self-possession. At the latter end are cases in which one is distracted by one’s thirst from the very activities that it would motivate. Cases of the first kind can end with the thought ‘Oh, I must be thirsty’: noticing that one’s attention has become engrossed in the pitcher of water carried by a waiter, one belatedly becomes aware of one’s thirst. Cases of the last kind can end with the thought ‘Stop thinking about how thirsty you are and get a drink!’

This last thought is naturally couched in the reflexive second-person, because it occurs when one has put a distance between oneself and one’s thirst—that is, between one’s reflecting self and one’s thirsting self. Attentively reflecting on one’s thirst entails standing back from it, for several reasons. First, the content of one’s reflective thoughts is not especially expressive of the motive on which one is reflecting: ‘I am thirsty’ is not an especially thirsty thought, not necessarily the thought of someone thinking thirstily. Second, attentive reflection is itself an activity—a mental activity—and as such it requires a motive, which of course is not thirst. Reflecting on one’s thirst is therefore a distraction from acting on one’s thirst, and in that respect it is even a distraction from being thirsty. Most importantly, though, consciousness just seems to open a gulf between subject and object, even when its object is the subject himself. Consciousness seems to have the structure of vision, requiring its object to stand across from the viewer—to occupy the position of Gegenstand.” (pp. 14-16)

Velleman thinks his reading of Frankfurt has some good news for Franfurtians (pp. 17-19) but also some bad news. I’ll skip to the bad news because it is relevant to Velleman’s discussion of Daoism in Zhuangzi. Frankfurt’s idea of identification as Velleman sees it, can’t really be an account of “the self”:

“But I have now interpreted higher-order volitions as identifying the agent with his motives, not in the normative sense of authorizing them to act as his proxies, but in the phenomenological sense of putting him ‘in touch’ with them, by bridging the reflective gap. Under my interpretation, Frankfurt’s theory becomes a theory of how to stay engaged or even engrossed in one’s activities, despite the distancing effects of reflexive consciousness. As such, it may no longer pick out a proper part of the psyche that (in Davidson’ words) ‘can execute the decision and take the rap’….

…[I]f Frankfurt’s theory is intended to solve the problem of reflexive awareness, as I suggest, then it may turn out to be a half measure, stopping short of a complete solution. Although we can bridge the reflexive gap and get “in touch” with our motives by means of higher-order volitions, we can eliminate the gap entirely by becoming so engrossed in an activity that we stop reflecting and lose ourselves. There is at least one philosophical tradition that recommends transcending reflexive awareness in this manner. It is the
Daoist tradition, especially as represented in the Zhuangzi. In my interpretation of Frankfurt, his theory of agency becomes a prolegomenon to that work.” (pp. 20-21)

Did you catch that last part? Velleman thinks of Frankfurt’s theory of agency as a kind of prolegomenon to the spontaneity (wuwei) views in the Zhuangzi. I’ll quote some snippets of his discussion of Zhuangzi and let you read the rest:

“The spiritual ideal expressed in the Zhuangzi is one of effortless action, as described by the phrase wu wei. The word wei means ‘action’, and wu wei is its negation — literally ‘non-action’. But ‘non-action’ does not mean doing nothing at all; it means acting without deliberate intention or effort — spontaneous activity….” (p. 21)

“The performance of artisans like Butcher Ding and Woodworker Qing is guided by an inexpressible knack. Wheelwright Pien says: ‘You can’t put it into words, and yet there’s a knack to it somehow. I can’t teach it to my son, and he can’t learn it from me’. The way to exercise such a knack is not to keep one’s eye on an ultimate goal, or to follow the precepts of a method, or even to focus on one’s actions themselves. On the contrary, Woodworker Qing must forget external goals (‘congratulations and rewards, titles or stipends’), forget evaluative judgment (‘blame or praise … skill or clumsiness’), and indeed forget himself: ‘I forget I have four limbs and a form and body’.” (pp. 22-23)

“Zhuangzi’s conception of spontaneous activity has been compared to the ‘flow’ experience described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990). Csikszentmihalyi
conducted research in which subjects were prompted to record their activities, and their feelings about them, at regular intervals during the day. He then identified a category of “optimal experiences” that occur in the course of highly challenging activities in which
the subject exercises appropriate skills.

According to Czikszentmihalyi, ‘flow’ begins as follows:

When all of a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person’s attention is completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess psychic energy left over to process any information but what the activity offers. All the attention is concentrated on the relevant stimuli. [53]

As in the ‘knack’ stories of the Zhuangzi, evaluative judgment is suspended

In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. ‘Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else?’ Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because the action carries us forward as if by magic. [54]

Also as in the ‘knack’ stories, awareness of the self disappears:

[O]ne of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience [is that] people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing. [53]

Czikszentmihalyi goes on to explain that this loss of self-consciousness ‘does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self’ (64).

As we have seen, Frankfurt regards reflexive awareness as the distinctive characteristic of humanity. A spiritual ideal of transcending reflexive awareness would thus be, in Frankfurt’s terms, an ideal of transcending what makes us human. But transcending what
makes us human is just what the Zhuangzi and Czikszentmihalyi recommend.” (pp. 24-25)

What do you think of this, as a reading of Zhuangzi or Frankfurt? Comments open…

April 3, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 2 comments

Lots and Lots of Dào

There’s a way of reading Dàoist philosophy according to which there is one great dào, and the Dàoist aim is to achieve some kind of relation to that one dào, presumably some kind of union.

As I understand it, this sort of reading implies that once you’ve achieved union with the dào, this will carry you through life no matter what it brings you. And this, I think, sits poorly with much of what we read in Dàoist texts. Verse 1 of the Dàodéjīng in particular is suspicious of the very idea of a single, constant dào; and the Zhuāngzǐ often seems to value a recognition of what is particular to the various situations we face.

So I suggest (I’m largely following Chad Hansen on this) that it would be better to think of dào as differing in different situations, and in ways that are largely unpredictable. Dào is thus not a single thing that one could relate to, or achieve union with, as a whole; no union we could achieve with dào now would carry us through the unpredictably various situations we are liable to face in the future.

(One could put my suggestion by saying that there are different dàos in different situations, but I prefer to follow the classical Chinese, in which “dào” is normally a mass noun.)

This implies that the Dàoist aim cannot be to achieve once and for all a union with the one great dào, it must instead be to maintain an openness to the different dào in different situations—just as, for example, the monkey keeper in Book 2 of the Zhuāngzǐ is open to the dào of his monkeys (in particular, to their preference for having their bigger meal in the morning). This is how I understand the value frequently placed in Dàoist texts on flexibility; I take it to be at the heart of the ideas of míng 明 (illumination) and of the pivot of dào in Zhuāngzǐ 2.

Should this openness itself be conceived of as a dào? This may be an issue over which Dàoists disagreed. The butcher in Zhuāngzǐ 3 loves dào because it takes him beyond skill—that is, beyond any dào he has previously mastered, so he can deal with the situation before him. But the swimmer in Zhuāngzǐ 19 denies that he has his own dào, saying he swims instead according to the dào of the water.

If we take openness to the different dào in different situations to be a dào, then it is a short step to thinking about this as the same as the dào according to which phenomena arise in nature. Perhaps it is in this sense that the texts sometimes tell us that dào is prior to heaven and earth.

March 14, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 17 comments

A Tu (圖) is Worth…

I was thinking about Zhou Dunyi’s Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate (taijitu 太極圖).

Well, about the general idea of such diagrams (tu) really. I’ve been a relative ignoramus about this, but some reading that I’ve been doing recently about whether or not Chinese characters are ideographs got me thinking about diagrams (there are very vehement denials of that thesis by linguists recently, from DeFrancis onward; I think Chad Hansen defends a version of the thesis, though he must have figured out a way to do it without relying on any “language of thought” assumptions). Apparently there was a movement, or “school” of diagrams and numerology. Robin Wang writes in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“From the Han dynasty through the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912 CE), there was a consistent tension between two schools of thought: the school of xiangshu (images and numbers) and the school of yili (meanings and reasoning). At issue between them is how best to interpret the classics, particularly the Yijing. The question often was posed as: ‘Am I interpreting the six classics or are the six classics interpreting me?’

For the school of Xiangshu the way to interpret the classics is to produce a figurative and numerological representation of the universe through xiang (images) and shu (numbers). It held that xiangshu are indispensable structures expressing the Way of heaven, earth and human being. Thus the school of Xiangshu takes the position that ‘I interpret the classics’ by means of the images and numbers. The emphasis is on the appreciation of classics. The school of Yili, on the other hand, focuses on an exploration of the meanings of the classics on the basis of one’s own reconstruction. In other word, the school of Yili treats all classics as supporting evidence for their own ideas and theories. The emphasis is more on idiosyncratic new theories rather than the explanation of the classics. In what follows, our inquiry focuses on the legacy of the Xiangshu school.”

Does anyone know whether what Wang means by the “am I interpreting the classics or are they interpreting me” question is explicit in texts? That would be interesting, I think, for its early hermeneutic sophistication–depending on how early the question is made explicit I suppose.

Anyway, as usual, I have puzzles about diagrams–by now some of you have figured out that “puzzling” is my first approach to anything. One is about how a diagram is helpful. I assume it can display certain relationships through spatial metaphor better than linear discourse could. But how, in general, is a spatial metaphor very helpful for relaying information about non-spatial relationships? Related to that puzzle, I wonder whether sometimes the metaphor itself becomes something that needs explanation and ends up being unhelpful. Take the taijitu, for example. The diagram is, presumably, supposed to be helpful in explaining cosmological relationships. Every time I look at it however (or more to the point, every time a student asks about it), I feel like the diagram is itself a mystery. There’s further irony in the existence of the difficult commentary literature that develops around what the diagram is meant to convey. So, is the diagram helpful in this case or has it only generated an “epi-problem” over and above the cosmological relationships it was meant to clarify?

I wonder if there is something that makes this a general problem or just an issue for particular diagrams, such as the taijitu.

February 24, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Daoism, Taoism | 5 comments

The Value(?) of Philosophical Mindset

Just to pick up on–and to pick on a little bit–some comments in the previous thread:

Don’t there seem to be clear rejections of the value of the philosophical mindset in the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, assuming we can identify the mindset more or less clearly? It also seems like Confucius and Mencius rejected the inherent value of philosophical questioning and argument. Confucius’ love of “learning” (xue 學) is really about ritual, literary, musical, and moral-historical learning. Mencius only seems interested in philosophical thought to the extent that he feels the need to quell interest in Mohism and other movements that he finds calamitous. Maybe with the Neo-Confucians the “investigation of things” implies putting on a philosophical point of view–but even there I’m not so sure it isn’t just more of the type of learning that Confucius loved.

In short, aren’t the Daoist and Confucian traditions actually hostile to the kind of philosophical mindset that challenges and questions, analyzes and clarifies, and so forth? I suppose we could still be interested in Daoism and Confucianism from such a point of view–just like the analytic philosophical interest in the later Wittgenstein–but it all seems a bit perverse, no?

February 7, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Confucius, Daoism, Mencius, Taoism | 12 comments

100 Ways…

Just for fun, there is this site that lists 100+ translations of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching)’s famous chapter 1.

I’m not sure what to make of the “Bureau of Public Secrets” business (you’ll see, when you follow the link). We should all be grateful to the mysterious author of the page, however, for this public service.

Comments, quips, exclamations, discussion of any translations that strike you as strange–all are welcome!

February 2, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Daoism, Taoism | 16 comments

Rectification of Names and Names that Can Name (名可名)

While we’re on the subject of ming, “names” or “terms,” I thought I’d say a something about the second line of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), ch.1. So, the line is:

“Names can name yet they are not constant names.”

(The traditional Wangbi text reads: ming ke ming fei chang ming, 名可名非常名; but the Manwangdui text has ming ke ming ye fei heng ming ye, 名可名也非恒名也; the Guodian text is missing ch.1)

As a hypothesis, suppose that this is directed in some critical way toward Confucius’s idea that rectifying names is the first task of good governing. That would suggest that the project of rectifying names has something to do with making them constant and unchanging. So, I have some questions for anyone with an opinion here:

  1. Is this a plausible hypothesis, given what you think the Daodejing is setting out in ch.1?
  2. What would it mean to make a name or term constant? Does it refer to the term or the concept it stands for? Can we even assume that distinction for the authors of these texts? Better yet, is there some kind of written or spoken term fetish that we can attribute to them that makes it likely they are really concerned with the term rather than the concepts that terms refer to?

I hope that isn’t too much of a question mash-up. Any takers?

January 30, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Daoism, Taoism | 9 comments