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.
Pretty much everyone who has written on the subject is quick to point out that wuwei is not a prescription for inaction, passivity, etc. I think this partially true, for, while I think it’s impossible for any living animal not to engage in action/activity, I think one prevalent use of wuwei is that of non-interference. While the recommendation of non-interference does not mean one should never do anything (e.g., plant crops, cook and eat food, raise children), it does suggest one do less, one refrain from acting in many circumstances where we might feel like we should be doing something. This interpretation allows some actions and perhaps even some interference — minimal action). It may also denote refraining from maladaptive or “unnatural” action, i.e., action that is not yin 因 and goes against the grain (li 理) or fails to conform to the situation or the times (yushi 與時). Many have also argued that it is only specific types of action that are being suggested for one to reduce or refrain from — e.g., coercive action, action intended to fulfill one’s desires or self-interest, action that imposes itself on others or the world, contrived action, or evil deeds.
Another usage is nowadays the most common: wuwei refers to refraining from purposive or deliberate action, or, put positively, wuwei is non-purposive action. This is the usage many find in the Zhuangzi, even though many of the passages which suggest non-purposive action to do not mention wuwei at all. I do think “non-interference” and “non-purposive action” are distinct, though many scholars mention or conflate both in their explanations (e.g., Feng Youlan, Roger Ames, Angus Graham, Chris Fraser).
Personally, I find “non-interference” to be the best “translation” of wuwei in the Laozi – as opposed to “non-purposive action” – and the latter more prevalent in the Zhuangzi. (Laozi 38 being an exception, although it is more explicitly specified: wuyiwei 無以為).
There is also the fact that certain thinkers do not suggest wuwei for everyone, but only for rulers (e.g., Shen Dao, Shen Buhai, Zhuangzi syncretists, Hanfei, Lüshi Chunqiu, Guanzi, Chunqiu Fanlu). There doesn’t seem to be any indication in the Laozi that its authors DON’T hold this view.