Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Velleman, Frankfurt, and Zhuangzi

I just ran across a fascinating paper by David Velleman, “The Way of the Wanton,” which he lists as a work in progress. It’s available on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), for download, here. Anyone interested in Zhuangzi should find this very interesting. In the paper, Velleman gives a non-standard reading of Frankfurt’s early work (“Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy 68, (1971)) on second-order desiring, the idea of the self, “identification” with first-order desire, and Frankfurt’s idea of “wantonness.” It strikes me as an excellent example, not of comparative philosophy, but just plain philosophy that takes something “transportable” (?) in Chinese philosophy seriously.

To give a very brief synopsis of Velleman’s reading: Contrary to Frankfurt’s own conclusions, Velleman argues that a reflexive self–one that has second-order attitudes toward one’s own first order attitudes–doesn’t contribute to identification, but to something phenomenologically opposite, what he calls “dis-identification” (p. 14). Here’s the example Velleman gives:

“Being the subject of a desire usually entails being the subject of various thoughts symptomatic or expressive of the desire. Being thirsty, for example, entails thinking thirsty thoughts: looking around for quantities of liquid, wondering if they are potable, considering ways of reaching them, avidly imagining their taste, and so on. All of these thoughts are framed from the perspective of a potential drinker, but none explicitly represents the occupant of that perspective. They are framed from the point-of-view of a potential drinker who remains out of the picture, at the unrepresented origin of that point-of-view. Of course, the thoughts symptomatic of thirst may include the first-personal thought “I’m thirsty,” but that thought is in the first instance an atomic expression of thirst, like smacking one’s lips or crying ‘Water!’, rather than a compositionally analyzable attribution of thirst to oneself.

The difference between that expression of thirst and the attribution of thirst to oneself defines a continuum of possible thoughts that include awareness of one’s thirst in various degrees of explicitness. Sometimes one looks for a drink without yet knowing that one is thirsty; sometimes one looks for a drink while knowing about one’s thirst but not attending to it at all; sometimes one attends equally to the possible drink and the dryness of one’s throat or the urgency of one’s craving; sometimes one focuses on the thirst to the exclusion of the prospects for slaking it.

Across this continuum, one becomes progressively less engrossed in the activities motivated by thirst. At the former end are the cases in which one ‘loses oneself’ in gazing at the cool drink being served at the next table, or in peeling an orange, or in assaulting the shell of a cocoanut. In the middle of the continuum are the cases in which one undertakes such activities with cool self-possession. At the latter end are cases in which one is distracted by one’s thirst from the very activities that it would motivate. Cases of the first kind can end with the thought ‘Oh, I must be thirsty’: noticing that one’s attention has become engrossed in the pitcher of water carried by a waiter, one belatedly becomes aware of one’s thirst. Cases of the last kind can end with the thought ‘Stop thinking about how thirsty you are and get a drink!’

This last thought is naturally couched in the reflexive second-person, because it occurs when one has put a distance between oneself and one’s thirst—that is, between one’s reflecting self and one’s thirsting self. Attentively reflecting on one’s thirst entails standing back from it, for several reasons. First, the content of one’s reflective thoughts is not especially expressive of the motive on which one is reflecting: ‘I am thirsty’ is not an especially thirsty thought, not necessarily the thought of someone thinking thirstily. Second, attentive reflection is itself an activity—a mental activity—and as such it requires a motive, which of course is not thirst. Reflecting on one’s thirst is therefore a distraction from acting on one’s thirst, and in that respect it is even a distraction from being thirsty. Most importantly, though, consciousness just seems to open a gulf between subject and object, even when its object is the subject himself. Consciousness seems to have the structure of vision, requiring its object to stand across from the viewer—to occupy the position of Gegenstand.” (pp. 14-16)

Velleman thinks his reading of Frankfurt has some good news for Franfurtians (pp. 17-19) but also some bad news. I’ll skip to the bad news because it is relevant to Velleman’s discussion of Daoism in Zhuangzi. Frankfurt’s idea of identification as Velleman sees it, can’t really be an account of “the self”:

“But I have now interpreted higher-order volitions as identifying the agent with his motives, not in the normative sense of authorizing them to act as his proxies, but in the phenomenological sense of putting him ‘in touch’ with them, by bridging the reflective gap. Under my interpretation, Frankfurt’s theory becomes a theory of how to stay engaged or even engrossed in one’s activities, despite the distancing effects of reflexive consciousness. As such, it may no longer pick out a proper part of the psyche that (in Davidson’ words) ‘can execute the decision and take the rap’….

…[I]f Frankfurt’s theory is intended to solve the problem of reflexive awareness, as I suggest, then it may turn out to be a half measure, stopping short of a complete solution. Although we can bridge the reflexive gap and get “in touch” with our motives by means of higher-order volitions, we can eliminate the gap entirely by becoming so engrossed in an activity that we stop reflecting and lose ourselves. There is at least one philosophical tradition that recommends transcending reflexive awareness in this manner. It is the
Daoist tradition, especially as represented in the Zhuangzi. In my interpretation of Frankfurt, his theory of agency becomes a prolegomenon to that work.” (pp. 20-21)

Did you catch that last part? Velleman thinks of Frankfurt’s theory of agency as a kind of prolegomenon to the spontaneity (wuwei) views in the Zhuangzi. I’ll quote some snippets of his discussion of Zhuangzi and let you read the rest:

“The spiritual ideal expressed in the Zhuangzi is one of effortless action, as described by the phrase wu wei. The word wei means ‘action’, and wu wei is its negation — literally ‘non-action’. But ‘non-action’ does not mean doing nothing at all; it means acting without deliberate intention or effort — spontaneous activity….” (p. 21)

“The performance of artisans like Butcher Ding and Woodworker Qing is guided by an inexpressible knack. Wheelwright Pien says: ‘You can’t put it into words, and yet there’s a knack to it somehow. I can’t teach it to my son, and he can’t learn it from me’. The way to exercise such a knack is not to keep one’s eye on an ultimate goal, or to follow the precepts of a method, or even to focus on one’s actions themselves. On the contrary, Woodworker Qing must forget external goals (‘congratulations and rewards, titles or stipends’), forget evaluative judgment (‘blame or praise … skill or clumsiness’), and indeed forget himself: ‘I forget I have four limbs and a form and body’.” (pp. 22-23)

“Zhuangzi’s conception of spontaneous activity has been compared to the ‘flow’ experience described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990). Csikszentmihalyi
conducted research in which subjects were prompted to record their activities, and their feelings about them, at regular intervals during the day. He then identified a category of “optimal experiences” that occur in the course of highly challenging activities in which
the subject exercises appropriate skills.

According to Czikszentmihalyi, ‘flow’ begins as follows:

When all of a person’s relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, that person’s attention is completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess psychic energy left over to process any information but what the activity offers. All the attention is concentrated on the relevant stimuli. [53]

As in the ‘knack’ stories of the Zhuangzi, evaluative judgment is suspended

In normal life, we keep interrupting what we do with doubts and questions. ‘Why am I doing this? Should I perhaps be doing something else?’ Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions, and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because the action carries us forward as if by magic. [54]

Also as in the ‘knack’ stories, awareness of the self disappears:

[O]ne of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience [is that] people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing. [53]

Czikszentmihalyi goes on to explain that this loss of self-consciousness ‘does not involve a loss of self, and certainly not a loss of consciousness, but rather, only a loss of consciousness of the self’ (64).

As we have seen, Frankfurt regards reflexive awareness as the distinctive characteristic of humanity. A spiritual ideal of transcending reflexive awareness would thus be, in Frankfurt’s terms, an ideal of transcending what makes us human. But transcending what
makes us human is just what the Zhuangzi and Czikszentmihalyi recommend.” (pp. 24-25)

What do you think of this, as a reading of Zhuangzi or Frankfurt? Comments open…


April 3, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy, Daoism, Taoism


  1. Thanks for the post, Manyul. Someone else had told me about Velleman’s paper before, and perhaps now I will sit down and read it.

    It’s been a while since I read that Frankfurt article (like, a very long while), so I have nothing to say about Velleman’s reading of Frankfurt.

    But, coincidentally, I’m teaching the Zhuangzi right now in my Chinese philosophy class, and will be discussing Czikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow along with the stories of the skilled exemplars during our meeting today. Velleman mentions others having made the connection before. I, too, was pointed in the direction of Czikszentmihalyi (by David Wong), but can’t recall at the moment who has written of them together.

    As for whether ‘flow’ is a good interpretation of wu-wei, I think there is room to quibble. The phrase ‘wu-wei’ appears two or three times in the inner chapters, and none in relation to Cook Ding. There’s a lot more talk about wu-wei in the outer chapters.

    What’s more, the inner chapters seem to include many exemplars who literally ‘do nothing’ (as opposed to acting in a skilled-yet-spontaneous fashion). Think of Zhuangzi’s advice to sit in a gourd or lounge under a tree, or the big yak that is the foil for the weasel (aka Hui Zi), or Zi Qi of South Wall sitting still, or the trees Zhuangzi likes to talk about. All these exemplars are literally doing nothing, and not engaged in flow-like skill activity.

    In fact, Butcher Ding is alone as a “skilled” exemplar in the inner chapters (am I foregetting anyone?). Other skilled individuals are mocked. Consider this passage (Watson 2003, 37):

    “There is such a thing as completion and injury–Mr. Zhao playing the lute is an example. There is such a thing as no completion and no inury–Mr. Zhao not playing the lute is an example.”

    This makes me think that the Butcher is not so central to Zhuangzi’s philosophy and, by extension, that flow is not so central to it either.

    (If we are talking about the text as a whole, though, there is more support for the interpretation of wu-wei as flow. In fact, since wu-wei occurs far more often in the outer chapters, along with other stories of skilled exemplars, then perhaps wu-wei as something like ‘flow’ is a later development of the Zhuangist school.)

    Comment by Hagop Sarkissian | April 8, 2008 | Reply

  2. Hagop, I agree with you about the “flow” interpretation of Zhuangzi, and I think its not merely a quibble. What always struck me were the power of the unintuitive examples in the De Chong Fu (“Sign of Virtue Complete” in Watson): People who’ve had their feet, hands, or noses lopped off for offenses against the kingdom, who aren’t skilled in much if anything, and who, like the useless tree (the image of which Sam Crane likes so much he turned it into a blog name), get along in life precisely by being *unskilled*, i.e. useless. Most noteworthy is Ai Tai Tuo who is both ugly and stupid, yet is someone who can be described as complete in talents 才 and power 德. I’ve never been sure that those examples were even compatible with a “flow” reading, particularly when paired with excellence in skill.

    Comment by Manyul Im | April 9, 2008 | Reply

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