Wuwei, as I understand it, means the following, depending on the context:

  • You do something because you are born for it and do it without wondering why you need to do it (e.g. trees produce oxygen not because oxygen is needed for animals, but because they need photosynthesis).
  • When you are doing it you are being present in the moment, and allow life to lead you to something unexpected, yet you do not get confused and unprepared when the unexpected occurs.
  • Your action has been simplified to its most basic parts so it can be accomplished in the most efficient and effortless ways.
  • You don't need to do anything because you see the order from the chaos, and you see the big picture from above.

I understand Daoists aim at the whole thing, not just a particular topic when they discuss the Dao. But from my experience, every time they discuss it in any particular context (for example, cooking), it is just tacit knowledge and that's all. They can say that you can try to grasp the whole via intellect but there is no way that you can get it all except feeling it directly, but I find this contradicts wuwei, in the sense that if you have seen the order from the chaos, and can accomplish the task in the most efficient and effortless way, then explaining it in a perfect combination of words should be the easiest task for you.

Is there any contradiction here?

Bonus question: if possible, can you explain whether this is logocentricism or anti-logocentricism? Or is it irrelevant in here?

  • 1
    Why would explaining it in a "perfect combination of words" be possible at all, let alone easy? Words are a very flawed device, and a poor substitute for experience. Try explaining how you feel watching the Sun, the snow, and the woods below standing at the top of a mountain you just climbed. The best poets complain that words are not up to the task, and this is much simpler than "grasping the whole". Every moment of experience is inexhaustibly rich in depth, and words are just scattered dust that roughly sketches the contours of the surface.
    – Conifold
    Mar 8, 2019 at 8:10
  • the way you write you comment can be regarded as organizing words in perfect combination. Surely there will be people who may not understand your words at all, but it is still perfect for you. Any concrete definition, like "the elephants are the large mammals forming the family Elephantidae in the order Proboscidea" would be a perfect combination of words in my mind
    – Ooker
    Mar 8, 2019 at 8:16
  • You should consider the ineffability of practice. Practical knowledge (know-how as opposed to know-that) may very well be ineffable. For example, I see that every time when I serve as an instructor for martial arts: Being able to feel and know how to do a thing perfectly the moment you do it may be vastly different from being able to conceptualise and express it for others or, for that matter, even for yourself perfectly.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 8, 2019 at 9:57
  • @PhilipKlöcking actually the way you give an example when you serve as a martial arts instructor illustrates how you have overcome the ineffability of practice. (Of course I don't really know what you really feel, but at least for me, this is it.) When we are stuck at explaining something, the (one and only) strategy to explain is to use metaphors. Via metaphors, the hard-to-explain concept is mapped to the easy-to-understand one. For more information, take a look at conceptual metaphor.
    – Ooker
    Mar 8, 2019 at 11:26
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    You sure are easy on "perfection". But as I was writing the comment, I explicitly thought that it was not poetic enough for the occasion, and if words were "perfect" only for me then there is no point to them at all, it is what I attach to them that matters. Also, you wouldn't be complaining about the words of Daoists, perhaps they are "perfect" for them. Consider also people trying to define elephants before the concepts of mammal, Elephantidae and and Proboscidea were introduced by biologists. Even with metaphors, we are in a worse position, and permanently, when it comes to the "whole".
    – Conifold
    Mar 9, 2019 at 4:08

3 Answers 3


According to Wikipedia:

In classical logic, a contradiction consists of a logical incompatibility between two or more propositions.

Also according to Wikipedia, tacit knowledge does not involve propositions.

Tacit knowledge (as opposed to formal, codified or explicit knowledge) is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it.

Since tacit knowledge is not codified into propositions it is not able to be contradictory.

When Daoists claim they aim at "the whole thing" but include only tacit knowledge they may simply be wrong in their claim. However, they may be right if such explicit knowledge is derivative of the whole thing and no longer, according to them, part of the whole thing, but rather part of something else, say, a text.

To see that the latter might be the case consider this description of wu wei:

Following the development of wu wei in a political sense by Shen Buhai, and then Mencius, the Zhuangzhi and Laozi turn towards an unadorned "no effort". Laozi, as opposed to carved Confucian jade, advocates a return to the primordial Mother and to become like uncarved wood. He condemns doing and grasping, urging the reader to cognitively grasp oneness (still the mind), reduce desires and the size of the state, leaving human nature untouched. In practice, Wu wei is aimed at through behaviour modification; cryptically referenced meditation and more purely physical breathing techniques as in the Guanzi (text), which includes just taking the right posture.

This suggests that a Daoist might not consider explicit knowledge as relevant. Note the emphasis on behavior modification, not propositions. Note how this might simply include "right posture". If one takes out the propositional statements (or beliefs) one is left with habits that can be modified.

These habits can be viewed as "practices" without involving specific "beliefs". Examples of similar practices need not even look like Daoism or Wu wei. Here are three from diverse sources:

  1. Rupert Sheldrake's Science and Spiritual Practices "illustrates how science helps validate seven particular practices which underpin all major world religions." Sheldrake is looking at practices (habits) that even atheists perform.
  2. Will Johnson's The Posture of Meditation shows how Rolfing, a practice of posture, can help meditators of any belief (or no belief) system improve their practice.
  3. Steven Gundry's The Plant Paradox advices that the best change in diet would be to stop eating certain food.

None of the three sources reference (to my knowledge) Daoism or Wu wei, but they could be said to promote practices at least similar to Wu wei. So propositional knowledge about Wu wei or Daoism may not be necessary to practice Wu wei. Even the explicit knowledge codified in these books is not necessary to practice what is recommended in these books if people already perform Sheldrake's spiritual practices, Johnson's posture habits or Gundry's diet without having read the books.

This makes me suspect that not only is Daoism and Wu wei not in contradiction with each other but they may actually know the whole thing without believing any propositional knowledge about what they tacitly know.

Gundry, S. R., & Solimene, C. (2017). The plant paradox. Tantor Media, Incorporated.

Johnson, W. (1996). The posture of meditation: A practical manual for meditators of all traditions. Shambhala Publications.

Sheldrake, R. Science and Spiritual Practices: Transformative experiences and their effects on our bodies, brains and health. Counterpoint. 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, February 17). Contradiction. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:26, March 8, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Contradiction&oldid=883799251

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, February 18). Tacit knowledge. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:24, March 8, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tacit_knowledge&oldid=884010284

Wikipedia contributors. (2019, March 7). Wu wei. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:40, March 8, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wu_wei&oldid=886618125


I cannot quite understand your point about ineffability. The Tao or true nature of Reality is ineffable but this does not mean it is not known. It is because it is known that there is this teaching on Wu Wei.

Wu Wei is about allowing the world to function without the ego interfering. For the sage there is no actor or action just cause and effect, be it mental or physical. Tasks may be performed as usual, just with the illusory 'doer' taken out of the equation.

In his wonderful book The Ultimate Understanding Ramesh Balsekar (a follower of Wei Wu Wei, the advaitan teacher) writes this.

..."Living volitionally, with volition, with a sense of personal doership, is the bondage. Would, therefore, living non-volitionally be the way in which the sage lives? But the doing and the not-doing - the positive doing and the negative not-doing - are both aspects of ‘doing’. How then can the sage be said to be living non-volitionally? Perhaps the more accurate description would be that the sage is totally aware that he does not live his life (either volitionally or non-volitionally) but that his life - and everyone else’s life - is being lived.

What this means is that no one can live volitionally or otherwise; that, indeed, ‘volition’ is the essence of the ‘ego’, an expression of the ‘me’ concept, created by ‘divine hypnosis’ so that the ‘lila’ of life can happen. It is this ‘volition’ or sense of personal doership in the subjective chain of cause-and-effect which produces satisfaction or frustration in the conceptual individual.

Again, what this means is that it is a joke to believe that you are supposed to give up volition as an act of volition! ‘Let go’ - who is to let go? The ‘letting-go’ can only happen as a result of the clear understanding of the difference between what-we-are and what-we-appear-to-be. And then, non-volitional life or being-lived naturally becomes wu wei, spontaneous living, living without the unnecessary burden of volition. Why carry your luggage when you are being transported in a vehicle?

To be enlightened is to be able to accept with equanimity anything in life at any moment as God’s will."

The final sentence should not be read as theism but as a way of describing the right attitude, or the attitude that one has having properly understood one's situation.

You might like to google 'Wei Wu Wei' since a lot of his sayings and teachings are online and he is trustworthy. Curiously, he was Irish and grew up as lover of racehorses and fine wine.

  • thanks for the excerpt. At first I don't know how this answer my question (as you already said), but from it I think the answer is "no, there isn't any contradiction. The act of searching for words to express the ineffability can still be a wuwei action. It's just that a Daoist doesn't necessarily feel they need to do that". What do you think?
    – Ooker
    Mar 8, 2019 at 16:45
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    @Ooker - This ineffability is simply a fact. The true nature of Reality would be beyond conceptual fabrication and this would be known. I'd say this is a more important issue than ineffability.since all experiences are ineffable. Reality would outrun the categories of thought, and this would the real issue you're asking about. It would be unthinkable and indescribable, but knowable as such.
    – user20253
    Mar 9, 2019 at 12:01
  • But as LaoTsu says, Tao must be talked, and it is possible to do so if one speaks of it paradoxically or by way of the 'via negativa'. It's a subtle and tricky issue that takes some work to grok. I couldn't answer directly because I don't feel your question-title makes sense as written. There's no immediate connection between ineffability and Wu Wei, or not that I can see. . . .
    – user20253
    Mar 9, 2019 at 12:03
  • thanks for saying the bit "The true nature of Reality would be beyond conceptual fabrication and this would be known." I have always thought that it's just an inexpressible concept. Perhaps I have accidentally amended the text to fit my lens. However, I still wonder: if it's really beyond concept, then how can one know which is an incorrect interpretation? Even if you have to express it paradoxically, the very act of knowing it make it a concept isn't it
    – Ooker
    Mar 10, 2019 at 5:55
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    @Ooker - A difficult topic. The 'union with reality' spoken of by the mystics takes them beyond the knower-known distinction, so in a way you'd be right. 'Who is there to know the knower, or understand the understander?' ask the Upanishads. In the end knowing and conceiving are transcended for being, The conceiver cannot conceve the conceiver but must be prior to concepts. There would be no interpretation involved in this state. This topic requires a lot more space and takes us the very heart of what Yoga (as the art of union with Reality) is all about. . . .
    – user20253
    Mar 10, 2019 at 12:09

It seems to me that you've misconstrued the notion of wu-wei. Wu-wei is 'doing-without-doing' or 'effortless doing', but you've imported western notions of determinism, efficiency, and ordered-ness that don't really apply.

'Effortless doing' is like riding a bicycle or driving a car. The first time you do either it seems like an impossible task, because you must mentally coordinate all sorts of physical behaviors. The first time you ride a bike, you fall; the first time you drive a car, you lurch and swerve and stall. These things happen because you are expending a tremendous amount of mental effort coordinating new behaviors. But after a while, riding a bike or driving a car becomes effortless second nature. Your body coordinates all of the actions you need to do without needing the mind's attention.

This doesn't mean you were born to ride a bicycle or drive a car, and it doesn't mean that the car or bike determines where you go. You've merely integrated these behaviors so they are smooth, seamless, and easy on the mind.

We can take this a step further, and note that it's one thing to know how to ride a bicycle (effortless doing on one level), but it's another thing entirely to know how to ride a bicycle on a busy street. A busy street presents unexpected and unforeseeable events: other people in cars and on foot, potholes and lampposts, rain and snow and fog... And yes, it takes mental effort to navigate these things. But this mental effort can also be integrated so it's smooth, seamless and easy. Most experienced riders weave in and out and around these hazards with barely a glance, with something in the back of their mind thoughtlessly keeping track of what needs to be tracked.

Expand this out further and we have the dao: the natural flow of the universe that all of us find ourselves moving within. Daoism doesn't suggest that we should let that flow carry us along blindly; it suggests we integrate it, so that when we decide to do something within that flow we can do it effortlessly, not mentally fighting it at every step. We cannot grasp the dao intellectually any more than we can 'intellectually' grasp every muscle movement required to ride a bike. But we can integrate both. The more we integrate, the more we free our minds of effort, and the smoother and easier our path through life becomes.

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