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Emotion and Agency in Zhuangzi

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Among the many striking features of the philosophy of the Zhuangzi is that it advocates a life unperturbed by emotions, including even pleasurable, positive emotions such as joy or delight. Many of us see emotions as an ineluctable part of life, and some would argue they are a crucial component of a well-developed moral sensitivity and a good life. The Zhuangist approach to emotion challenges such commonsense views so radically that it amounts to a test case for the fundamental plausibility of the Daoist ethical orientation: If the Zhuangist stance on emotion is untenable, then other aspects of Daoist ethics may founder as well. In this essay, I explore what I call a Zhuangist 'Virtuoso View' of emotion and its connections with human agency, attempting to show that at least one version of a Zhuangist approach to emotion passes the 'basic plausibility' test. I begin by describing the Virtuoso View and sketching its theoretical foundation, which involves claims about human agency, the self, psychophysical hygiene, the good life, epistemology, and metaphysics. Next, I defend the Virtuoso View against three objections, namely that it abandons intentionality, that it interferes with a good life, and that it yields a schizophrenic conception of agency. I argue for three major theses. First, the Virtuoso View is easily intelligible and largely defensible. Second, it reflects a crucial insight into a fundamental dichotomy at the core of human agency: the unavoidable conflict within a self-aware human agent between an internal, engaged perspective and an external, detached one. Third, I suggest that certain problems or conflicts arising from the Virtuoso View actually reflect inherent features of the human predicament and thus are not mere conceptual defects. Hence even if we do not find the Virtuoso View wholly convincing, we can nevertheless gain much insight from it.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: February 1, 2011

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