New Book: Adapting. A Chinese Philosophy of Action

Mercedes Valmisa has published Adapting. A Chinese Philosophy of Action (Oxford University Press, 2021) [publisher’s website here].


If you are from the West, it is likely that you normally assume that you are a subject who relates to objects and other subjects through actions that spring purely from your own intentions and will. Chinese philosophers, however, show how mistaken this conception of action is. Philosophy of action in Classical China is radically different from its counterpart in the Western philosophical narrative. While the latter usually assumes we are discrete individual subjects with the ability to act or to effect change, Classical Chinese philosophers theorize that human life is embedded in endless networks of relationships with other entities, phenomena, and socio-material contexts. These relations are primary to the constitution of the person, and hence acting within an early Chinese context is interacting and co-acting along with others, human or nonhuman.

This book is the first monograph dedicated to the exploration and rigorous reconstruction of an extraordinary strategy for efficacious relational action devised by Classical Chinese philosophers, one which attempts to account for the interdependent and embedded character of human agency-what Mercedes Valmisa calls “adapting” or “adaptive agency” (yin) As opposed to more unilateral approaches to action conceptualized in the Classical Chinese corpus, such as forceful and prescriptive agency, adapting requires heightened self- and other-awareness, equanimity, flexibility, creativity, and response. These capacities allow the agent to “co-raise” courses of action ad hoc: unique and temporary solutions to specific, non-permanent, and non-generalizable life problems.

Adapting is one of the world’s oldest philosophies of action, and yet it is shockingly new for contemporary audiences, who will find in it an unlikely source of inspiration to cope with our current global problems. This book explores the core conception of adapting both on autochthonous terms and by cross-cultural comparison, drawing on the European and Analytic philosophical traditions as well as on scholarship from other disciplines. Valmisa exemplifies how to build meaningful philosophical theories without treating individual books or putative authors as locations of stable intellectual positions, opening brand-new topics in Chinese and comparative philosophy.

“Mercedes Valmisa’s Adapting: A Chinese Philosophy of Action uses the canonical texts themselves to make her cogently argued corrective on persisting interpretive studies, studies that would begin from foundational individualism as an uncritical and yet highly problematic assumption. In this Chinese version of philosophy of action that is grounded in an irreducibly relational notion of both agency and action, everything that persons do, including the construction of their own identities, is the outcome of their relations with others. This gerundive conception of persons who are always ‘adapting’ and thus making affordances in their doings and undergoings gives full register to the reflexivity and interpenetration of agency, requiring as it does a sociology of efficacious action.” — Roger T. Ames, Professor of Chinese Philosophy, Peking University

“Valmisa takes on the challenge to investigate what adapting is, how to adapt, and why to adapt in early Chinese philosophy. This distinctive and multifaceted study of the greatest source of our ontological and epistemological anxieties presents a variety of Chinese philosophical strategies to cope with uncertainty and unpredictability in ordinary life, and to recover control and existential competence in becoming a successful adaptive agent that embodies a particular philosophy of life and action. It is truly a joy to turn each page!” — Robin R Wang, Professor of Philosophy and Director of Asian Pacific Studies, Loyola Marymount University Author of Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

“Mercedes Valmisa places action at the heart of the Chinese philosophical tradition. Her masterly analysis of ancient Chinese texts generates fresh ways to understand humanity and relationality, and agency, orientation and initiative. Challenging the entrenched western philosophical categories of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, Valmisa makes Chinese philosophy shine.” — Karyn Lai, Professor of Philosophy, The University of New South Wales, Sydney

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