Wu-wei, the Background, and Intentionality

Wu-wei, the Background, and Intentionality. In Searle’s Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy: Constructive Engagement, ed. Bo Mou, Leiden: Brill (2008): 63–92

This paper was published in an anthology that grew out of a conference held by the ISCWP in June 2005. Although the anthology did not appear until 2008, the paper was written in 2005. The page numbers in the published version are indicated in the pdf. John Searle’s reply to the paper can be found here.

Recently I have developed a new interpretation of the concept of wúwéi (“non-doing,” or, roughly, “absence of action initiated on one’s own accord”) that treats it as a sort of normative status. I think this interpretation better explains its role in early Daoist texts and renders it considerably more plausible, though ultimately still unconvincing. So I myself now reject the interpretation of wúwéi I give in the paper posted here.

Abstract: John Searle’s “thesis of the Background” is an attempt to articulate the role of non-intentional capacities—know-how, skills, and abilities—in constituting intentional phenomena. This essay applies Searle’s notion of the Background to shed light on the Daoist notion of wúwéi—“non-action” or non-intentional action—and to help clarify the sort of activity that might originally have inspired the wúwéi ideal. I draw on Searle’s work and the original Chinese sources to develop a defensible conception of a wúwéi-like state that may play an intrinsically and instrumentally valuable role in the exercise of agency. At the same time, however, I argue that Searle’s view that “Intentionality rises to the level of the Background abilities” convincingly explains why the conception of wúwéi presented in ancient texts is untenable. Wúwéi-like states can generally occur only as components of an intentional flow of activity, and thus they are not fundamentally non-intentional.

Download here.