Wc-wtl, the background, and intentionality

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 w’u-w’ei---“non-action” or non-intentional action---and to help clarify the sort of activity that might originally have inspired the w’u-w’ei ideal. I draw on Searle’s work and the original Chinese sources to develop a defensible conception of a w’u-w’ei-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 w’u-w’ei presented in ancient texts is untenable. W’u-w’ei-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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