Wú-wéi, the background, and intentionality
|Abstract||John Searle’s “thesis of the Background” is an attempt to articulate the role of nonintentional 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 wú-wéi—“non-action” or non-intentional action—and to help clarify the sort of activity that might originally have inspired the wú-wéi ideal. I draw on Searle’s work and the original Chinese sources to develop a defensible conception of a wú-wéi-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 wú-wéi presented in ancient texts is untenable. Wú-wéi-like states can generally occur only as components of an intentional flow of activity, and thus they are not fundamentally nonintentional.|
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