Emergence, Spontaneity, and Volition: A New Interpretation of Wuwei

Event time: 
Thursday, November 9, 2023 - 5:00pm to 6:30pm
Henry R. Luce Hall (LUCE ), 203 See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

This talk is based on chapter 5 of my new book manuscript on the collective character of agency, tentatively titled All Entities Have Consequences. In this chapter, “The Power of the Assembly: A New Interpretation of Wuwei,” I approach the phenomenon of reversal (fan 反) through the angle of by-product states: optimal states that can only come about as the by-product of actions undertaken for other ends. In the contemporary philosophical literature, spontaneity is one such paradigmatic by-product state, but, according to the Daodejing, so is power, strength, beauty, virtue, efficacy, excellence, and, crucially, social order. None of these sought-out states can be achieved through the direct application of individual willpower for, I’ll suggest, they emerge out of the non-centralized, collective action of complex and extended systems, namely, by relying on what I call swarm agency. We’ll apply this theory to challenge the centrality of volitional (intentional, free, rational) actions: actions experienced as the deliberate pursuit of individually and freely set goals. Not to dismiss the immense power of the human experience of volition nor its many functions and advantages, but to rethink its place within the much broader field of agency and to illuminate the often-ignored usefulness of a wide range of possible action modes beyond volitional action, such as wuwei (non-action). I end the chapter with an analysis of the Daodejing and some of its commentaries in the Huainanzi to propose a new interpretation of wuwei as a strategic mode of effective relational action that consists in relying on the non-intentional and decentralized cooperative power of the assembly (swarm agency), and which, despite its multiple determination, raises the emergent property of spontaneity: the feeling of being naturally self-caused, without intervention, mediation, nor constrains (“just as we are, of ourselves”—ziran 自然) for all the conscious entities involved.

Mercedes Valmisa is interested in expanding the ways in which we think about agency. Her research focuses on philosophy of action and is oriented by multicultural approaches, including Chinese and Buddhist philosophies along with the Anglo-European tradition. Mercedes is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. She obtained her MA from National Taiwan University and her PhD from Princeton University. Her first book is Adapting. A Chinese Philosophy of Action (OUP, 2021).

Mercedes Valmisa - Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Gettysburg College