Action and Agency in Early Chinese Thought

Action and Agency in Early Chinese Thought. Journal of Chinese Philosophy and Culture 5 (2009): 217–39.

Abstract: This essay presents a broad, programmatic account of how action and agency are conceived of in pre-Qín Chinese thought, along the way drawing contrasts with conceptions of action familiar from the Western tradition. I propose that instead of a belief-desire model of action, early Chinese thinkers apply a “discrimination-and-response” model. Rather than emphasizing individual deliberation and decision-making, this model grounds agency in people’s brute ability to catch on to and become expert in norm-governed practices by developing and correcting skills and habits. Agency is seen as concerned primarily with abilities, habits, and the skill-like performance of familiar patterns of activity. Its ideal expression is reliable, virtuoso performance of the dào (way). This model captures certain features of real-life agency well, and it calls attention to aspects of agency that tend to be downplayed in influential treatments of action in the Western tradition. Thus early Chinese texts may provide a intriguing resource that leads us to reconsider common assumptions about agency.

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Keywords: Chinese action theory, Chinese psychology, 中國哲學與行動理論, 中國哲學與心理學