Philosophy 179 - 9.5.2 Wu Wei

The Daoist approach to life is one that recommends reserve, acceptance of the world as it is, and living in accordance with the flow of nature. In ancient China, Laozi and other thinkers responded to the unrest, conflict, and suffering they witnessed in their society. Laozi’s response (and Zhuangzi’s development of it) is critical of the way we normally live in the world. For example, we are normally wasteful, we resist change, and we try to transform the natural world to suit our needs. Daoism recommends instead that we move with the current of the natural way of things, accept things as they are, and find balance and harmony with the dao. The Daoist call this the practice of wu wei, which involves what is often described as nonaction (Chan 2018). Offering a clear account of wu wei can prove challenging because it is a paradoxical concept. Our normal concept of action includes motivated, directed, purposeful activity aimed at desire satisfaction. To act is to impose your strength and will on the world, to bring something about. Practicing wu wei, in contrast, suggests a natural way of acting that is spontaneous or immediate. When you practice wuwei, you act in harmony with the dao, you are free of desire and of striving, and you spontaneously move with the natural flow of existence.

Attitude toward the Dao

One who practices wu wei, or nonaction, is someone free of unnecessary, self-gratifying desires. The normal way we act in the world fosters an attitude of separateness and causes us to act against nature or in ways that resist the natural way. Practicing nonaction brings one in harmony with the dao. The individual develops an attitude of connectedness rather than individuality, of being one with the natural world and the way of things rather than separate from or against it.

Receptivity and “Softness”

The Daoist way of living in the world is one that values being receptive to the natural flow and movements of life. We practice a “soft” style of action when we practice wu wei (Wong 2021). Daoists think we normally practice a “hard” style of action, we resist the natural flow. The common view or understanding of the natural world treats it as separate from the human world, as something valuable only for its usefulness. Such a view promotes values like strength, dominance, and force because we view nature as something that must be overpowered and transformed to fit the human, social world. The Daoist conception of softness suggests living in the world in a way that is in accord with the natural way of things. Instead of acting against the current of the stream, you move easily with the flow of the waters. A “soft” style suggests being receptive to the natural flow and moving with it. When you are sensitive to the natural movements and processes of life, you are free of desire, calm, and able to live in harmony with it.

Read Like a Philosopher

Excerpt from the Daodejing by Laozi

Identify ethical norms that you feel are communicated through the passages below. How do they compare to the systematic normative theories that you have encountered in this chapter so far? Note that this translation uses the spelling “tao” rather than “dao”. These two spellings refer to the same concept.

Laozi (Lao-tzu) Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), translated by James Legge.

Chapter 1

  1. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
  2. (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.
  3. Always without desire we must be found,
    If its deep mystery we would sound;
    But if desire always within us be,
    Its outer fringe is all that we shall see.

  4. Under these two aspects, it is really the same; but as development takes place, it receives the different names. Together we call them the Mystery. Where the Mystery is the deepest is the gate of all that is subtle and wonderful.

Chapter 4

  1. The Tao is (like) the emptiness of a vessel; and in our employment of it we must be on our guard against all fulness. How deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of all things!
  2. We should blunt our sharp points, and unravel the complications of things; we should attemper our brightness, and bring ourselves into agreement with the obscurity of others. How pure and still the Tao is, as if it would ever so continue!
  3. I do not know whose son it is. It might appear to have been before God.

Chapter 8

  1. The highest excellence is like (that of) water. The excellence of water appears in its benefiting all things, and in its occupying, without striving (to the contrary), the low place which all men dislike. Hence (its way) is near to (that of) the Tao.
  2. The excellence of a residence is in (the suitability of) the place; that of the mind is in abysmal stillness; that of associations is in their being with the virtuous; that of government is in its securing good order; that of (the conduct of) affairs is in its ability; and that of (the initiation of) any movement is in its timeliness.
  3. And when (one with the highest excellence) does not wrangle (about his low position), no one finds fault with him.

Chapter 13

  1. Favour and disgrace would seem equally to be feared; honour and great calamity, to be regarded as personal conditions (of the same kind).
  2. What is meant by speaking thus of favour and disgrace? Disgrace is being in a low position (after the enjoyment of favour). The getting that (favour) leads to the apprehension (of losing it), and the losing it leads to the fear of (still greater calamity):--this is what is meant by saying that favour and disgrace would seem equally to be feared. And what is meant by saying that honour and great calamity are to be (similarly) regarded as personal conditions? What makes me liable to great calamity is my having the body (which I call myself); if I had not the body, what great calamity could come to me?
  3. Therefore he who would administer the kingdom, honouring it as he honours his own person, may be employed to govern it, and he who would administer it with the love which he bears to his own person may be entrusted with it.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax