Common Knowledge 16 (3):417-423 (2010)

Barry Allen
McMaster University
Introducing the sixth and final installment of the Common Knowledge symposium “Apology for Quietism,” Allen looks at the symposium retrospectively and concludes that it has mainly concerned “sage knowledge,” defined as foresight into the development of situations. The sagacious knower sees the disposition of things in an early, incipient form and knows how to intervene with nearly effortless and undetectable (quiet) effectiveness. Whatever the circumstance, the sage handles it with finesse, never doing too much but also never leaving anything undone that must be accomplished. Quiet, when it is knowingly and effectively quiet (not pusillanimous or poor in spirit), is about what not to do, how not to approach a problem, what not to decide, what is not known, what will not work. Allen explains these principles in terms of traditional Chinese thought, Daoist and Confucian: wei we wei, or “doing-not-doing,” means effective inaction. What makes such wisdom possible is not mystical insight, he argues, but discipline in a certain kind of art. The sage has no need of reasons (let alone doctrines), only effectiveness; and he does not need truth or justice, only subtlety. The detachment of a quietist has little, if anything, to do with transcending perspectives. Detachment is good as a means to flexibility, and instead of transcending perspectives, a sage is skilled in the quiet art of never getting stuck in one. To be effectively quiet is not so much to be silent as to be inaudible, invisible; the sage “vanishes into things.”
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DOI 10.1215/0961754X-2010-003
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