What if I told you that there’s no such thing as an individual action? That every time you eat, walk up the stairs or read a book, you are not the sole agent behind what you are doing, but are engaged in a process of co-creation – as much acted-upon as acting?
To grasp what I mean here, imagine riding a horse. While I can effortlessly distinguish between myself and a horse, I’m aware that neither I nor the horse alone can produce the action of riding. Riding emerges as a kind of co-action between myself and others, and these others are not limited to the horse: they extend towards the particularities of the terrain, the open space that affords movement, the training that the horse and I have undertaken together, the bridle and saddle, and even the food we have ingested to give us energy. All these agencies and many more collaborate to produce the event of riding.
I’m going to suggest that, just like riding, all actions are collective. While this would be close to common sense for a Chinese philosopher of the ‘classical period’ (roughly 6th to 2nd century BCE), it might seem counterintuitive to those of us raised in Western contexts.
There’s currently a dominant tendency in what we call ‘the West’ (the Anglosphere and some parts of Europe) to buy into the myth of individualism: the notion that individuals alone are responsible for their failure or success, that we are self-reliant and independent from each other and the natural world. Basically, that we can do things by ourselves. A prominent manifestation of individualism is the American Dream – which in her book Cruel Optimism (2011) Lauren Berlant called a desire that becomes ‘an obstacle to your own flourishing’. Individualism promises prosperity and success based on individual effort and merit, but it delivers ideas and conditions that make those things unattainable for all but a privileged few. Under this ideology, drug addicts are blamed for their weakness, pregnant women who choose not to become mothers are shamed for their recklessness, and the unemployed are condemned for their laziness. Yet in a world where corporations manipulate doctors to overprescribe drugs, where reproductive rights are in retreat, and where jobs are often humiliating, exhausting and poorly paid, individualism has become a cover for those very entities responsible for these grave injustices and inequalities. The performance of an ideology that supposedly benefits the person but brings about the opposite of what was intended – that’s the notion of cruel optimism.
What happens, though, if we dispense with the individualistic way of framing reality? In parts of contemporary academia, the countervailing notion of relationality has become a prism to rethink both the humanities and the sciences. There are Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s assemblages; Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory; Donna Haraway’s posthumanism; and Karen Barad’s entanglement, among many others. And this is just in the West. Asia has more resources to think through relationality simply because it’s been doing it for a longer time. Along with classical Chinese philosophers, I support a form of relational and process metaphysics, which favours flowing interrelations, interconnectedness and interdependence. These concepts can help us think differently about issues that affect our daily lives, reframing agency in terms of our relations and dependencies with others. Much as we can’t ride a horse by ourselves, there’s nothing in our social and political life that’s entirely up to us as individuals. We are co-constituted, co-acted and co-dependent on others – from the air we breathe to the ground that affords our walking. If we start seeing the world like this, it has the potential to make things much better for the many life forms that inhabit this planet.
According to an influential strand of thought within Chinese philosophy, humans and other animals are not the only entities with the capacity to act. We are in turn acted upon by everything around us: objects, ideas, laws, genes, food, rules. The claim that these things can act subverts our conventional understanding of agency. Traditionally, in the West, agency is linked to intentionality: we have agency – the capacity to act – only insofar as we can represent our intentions and goals. But in classical Chinese philosophy, things like drinking vessels and dress attires, while not animate, have tendencies to behave in certain ways, and such behaviour affords certain possibilities for action. The Daodejing – a work attributed to Laozi, written around the 4th century BCE – notes that the emptiness of a house allows room for lodging. And in the Zhuangzi, a compilation of philosophical writings from the same era, the tree is said to afford shade in which to lie down. Such affordances can affect, inspire, encourage, invite, forbid, prevent and enable us to do certain actions. Whatever is entangled or related to an agent in a certain situation becomes a co-actor and participant in what is happening.
In classical China, these ideas are the bedrock of what I call the co-action paradigm. If we unpack it more carefully, it contains three claims. The first is that all actions are collective rather than individual (hence ‘co-actions’). Also called distributive agency and intra-action by Jane Bennett and Karen Barad, respectively, the idea is that no single subject is the root cause of any event; rather, agency is the result of a dynamism of forces distributed across a diverse field of actors, both human and nonhuman.
The second claim, related to the first, is that things also have agency. A thing is something without awareness and intentions. How should we understand this non-subjective and non-intentional form of agency? I understand this agency – the agency of laws and books and landscapes – in terms of efficacy and propensity. When applied to actors with intentions, efficacy is about the way we use certain tendencies and affordances to achieve a goal: say, training, saddling and collaborating with our horse in order to ride it. But when it comes to inanimate objects or non-intentional agents, efficacy can also be the power to effect change, to make things happen, to generate a stimulus that calls for a response (ganying 感應: ‘resonance’).
Propensity becomes a collective capacity to self-organise by harmonising with others
I believe that things have efficacy in the sense that they can make things happen. We might think, in line with Confucian moral theory, about how different types of music excite different moods, some inviting peaceful reflection, others instigating rebellion and violence. Or, based on the political philosophy of Shen Dao and Han Feizi, how it’s the position of a ruler – rather than his personality, achievements, or virtue – that allows him to effectively exercise power, authority and influence.
Propensity, in turn, is a tendency to behave in certain ways that can be anticipated: like the way we can expect fire to burn. But when we think about things in assemblies rather than in isolation, propensity becomes a collective capacity to self-organise by harmonising with others, in ways that generate new configurations and emerging processes and events (he 和: ‘harmonisation’; shi 勢: ‘propensity’; the emergent collective power of an assembly of things). In the Huainanzi, a 2nd-century BCE collection of philosophical and political essays, natural entities such as trees, birds, fish, rocks, gorges, wind and rain all collaborate to nourish and provide each other with the conditions to thrive – and all this without a plan or desire to do so.
In these accounts, neither efficacy nor propensity need an intentional subject. Yet, when humans participate in co-acting along with things, there is more than resonance and harmonisation at play, because intentions are introduced into the equation. This leads us to the third claim embedded in the co-action paradigm: that humans should design their actions so as to take into account all the others participating along with them.
In classical Chinese philosophy, the principle of acting along with others is called adapting (yin 因). Adaptive actions are effective because they make good use of the available affordances and the agency of things to accomplish a goal. A metaphor that I particularly enjoy speaks of ‘riding’ the power of things, like the Chinese wingless dragon rides on clouds to fly, according to Chinese culture. Adaptive actions start, first, from understanding the interdependence of all entities in a given situation; second, from acknowledging the agency of things in terms of both efficacy and propensity; and finally, in consequence, from being able to put the power of things to good use. In short, the idea is that humans must adapt ourselves to the agentive power of the things we are co-acting with.
In the Zhuangzi, Butcher Ding adapts to the particular piece of ox he’s cutting up. In the story, he’s said not to see with his eyes nor listen with his ears, since these perceptual processes are understood to posit things as dead and passive, upon which we exert effort and violence. Instead, the butcher resonates with the piece he’s working on, allowing himself to respond to its tendencies, efficacy and propensity; that’s how he can collaborate with it in raising new events in a more effective way.
Examples of the agency of nonsubjective entities also abound in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (c5th century BCE). Here, we see that individual actors are not the source of effective actions; instead, their agency relies on coordinated efforts with others. These others include mountain ranges and fire, and changing weather and terrain conditions, all of which can trump a commander’s strategy unless this is created in adaptation to them. These collectives or assemblages of things display emergent efficacy and propensity in their own right. In The Art of War, the skilled commander is like water: fluidly shaping his strategies according to changing conditions in the configuration of collective power.
But how can we perform the final claim in the co-action paradigm, the praxis of adapting in order to harness the agency of things around us? First, we must displace our sense of self as a privileged source of values, preferences and reasons. Instead, the self becomes just one more interconnected element in a larger situation; it’s not the only standard (not even the main one) by which to decide a course of action.
Chinese philosophers called this approach forgetting and emptying the heart-mind. The rationale is that, when our sense of individual self is too strong, it’s hard to invite others in. We can even become blind to the efficacy and propensity of things around us; we tend to act forcefully, arbitrarily imposing our will without taking others and their context into account. What made Butcher Ding the best at his trade was how he adapted to the particular configuration of flesh, bones and tendons he was facing each time. After many years, his knife would still look like new, because he avoided the hard parts and moved freely in the open space between them. The unskilled butchers, on the other hand, would either follow preset guidelines on how to cut an ox or do it forcefully, with the result that they constantly bumped into bones and tendons, and their knives deteriorated quickly. Classical Chinese philosophers don’t agree on much, but they agree that holding individualistic, forceful and self-centred attitudes inevitably leads to clumsiness, conflict, harm and failure.
Philosophers interested in adapting also claim that the success of a plan of action lies in its being an ad hoc response to unique, impermanent circumstances. That is, truly adaptive agents should also avoid following inflexible scripts or preset responses for behaviour, and should instead adapt to the tendencies of things available at a given moment. The states of emptiness and readiness to tailor a response to ever-changing situations are illustrated in the Zhuangzi and other texts with the metaphor of the mirror, which perfectly reflects any and all forms it encounters without preconception or judgment. But it doesn’t store or retain those forms. The mirror ‘forgets’ those forms as soon as they are gone, so there aren’t expectations to make us rigid and inflexible in our future responses to the world.
What’s right for Confucius necessarily changes along with situations, contexts, actors and their tendencies
The parable of the hare in the Han Feizi, attributed to the political philosopher Han Fei, 3rd century BCE, offers a sarcastic illustration of this point. A man witnesses a hare bumping into a tree and breaking its neck, and then he patiently waits for another hare to break its neck against the same tree (it happened once, why shouldn’t it happen again?). The man is presented as an absurd and ridiculous figure that we can all laugh at comfortably. Yet, as much as we may want to laugh at his silliness, we can also recognise ourselves in it. We often hope for things to go in the same way that they’ve unfolded in the past, and we make plans accordingly. We also tend to jump to hasty generalisations based on insufficient evidence. And we look for reliable standards to guide our actions: for example, we might commit to certain fundamental values, and let them serve as unmovable universal standards against which we measure different courses of action.
In contrast to the flaws and foibles of the man in the Han Feizi, the figure of Confucius is an embodiment of variability and inconstancy. In the Analects we learn that, in seeking to do what is right, there’s nothing that Confucius invariably accepts or rejects, affirms or denies. What’s right for Confucius necessarily changes along with situations, contexts, actors and their tendencies. Confucius claims to have no preconceptions about what is or isn’t valid and legitimate, and that his lack of preconceptions is precisely what separates him from all other influential moral and political figures. In one memorable example, Confucius gives radically opposing advice on the same issue to two different students: one is urged to move forward with what he’s learned because he’s naturally withdrawn, while the other is encouraged to hold back before he acts, because he’s too eager.
Confucius stands out among aspiring sages precisely due to his inconstancy. This isn’t something we typically value; we don’t usually admire people for lacking reliable standards, nor do we praise them for being noncommittal and inconstant in their actions. But that’s precisely what made Confucius the greatest sage of his time: his variability, his self-contradiction, and his capacity to waver. Of course, this inconstancy is neither arbitrary nor individualistic; his variable positions were a result of his adaptability, his ability to act along with things, according to the needs of the situation before him.
Adapting, then, is an open process that allows agents to be temporarily guided and filled with a plurality of possible courses of action. What shapes an adaptive action is not its content (what is done) nor its goal (why it is done). Rather, it is the procedure (the how, or the means by which it’s planned – suoyi 所以). This implies that all sorts of actions can be adaptive as long as they are planned ad hoc along with the agency of things. For example, in the military classic the Sima Fa (4th century BCE), we see kings and strategists who publicly engage in divination, prayers and sacrifices in order to persuade the people and the soldiers that Heaven and the spirits are favourable to the battle. Ritual and prescriptive-looking actions, then, can actually be adaptive if they are responding to people’s psychological or emotional needs, and are not the result of pure conformity.
This also means that adapting is not a model of action per se, but a method, or meta-model; it’s a kind of flexible structure for producing an endless number of adaptive co-actions. Some texts refer to this meta-model of action as wufang 無方, a method without a (fixed) method – embracing all available courses of action as possible, and using them as needed. Not having a method (wufang, where wu means ‘absence’, and fang also means ‘place’ or ‘location’) implies not being tied to nor getting stuck in any fixed position, rooted to a place and unable to shift and wander (you 遊). The adaptive agent can take unambiguous and distinct positions each time without fully committing to any of them; they do not define her as an agent, and she can let go of them as soon as the situation is over. Like water, which can adapt to any sort of terrain while none of its shifting shapes ever becomes definitive.
I’ve become fascinated with a silk manuscript discovered at Mawangdui, a burial site from the Han dynasty, titled ‘Entities Necessarily Have Forms Chart’ (Wu ze you xing tu 物則有形圖; thereafter WZYX). The WZYX is a performative text that not only tells us something about the co-action paradigm, but performs its message. It affords readers the experience of adaptive co-acting as they manipulate the silk manuscript in their hands. The standard way to read a manuscript in classical China, whether on bamboo slips or silk, was from right to left and top to bottom. But not so for readers of the WZYX. As Luke Waring has shown, to decipher the round design on the piece of silk, we must rotate the physical manuscript in a clockwise direction and read the text from the inside outwards.
That’s a unique way to read a text, both for us and for classical Chinese readers. Precisely because it’s unfamiliar and requires an effort, it allows us to see the praxis of adaptive co-action very clearly in the event of reading the WZYX. As the text itself notes, the action doesn’t come fully from the outside (the manuscript doesn’t force me to read or rotate it); and it doesn’t come fully from the inside either (since I’m not independently deciding to read the manuscript through a rotational operation). The successful reading of this silk text is the result of a co-action: a cooperation between a person and other agencies, where the human, an intentional agent, must adapt to the tendencies of things to effectively accomplish a goal. Notice that this would happen with any successful event of reading (if we hold a book upside down, we’re also co-acting, but in quite an ineffective manner!). What the manuscript does, and where its pedagogical force lies, is to nudge the reader to realise the extent to which the ‘outside’ world constitutes what she conceives to be ‘her own’ individual actions, by offering an unusual kind of reading experience.
As the contemporary philosopher C Thi Nguyen argues, games demand we temporarily suspend our ordinary goals, values and means. We must flex our agency to fit the game designer’s art (who has created its environment, aims, rules and the limited means by which to achieve the goal). For example, putting a ball through an elevated basket is not an ordinary goal of mine, and if it were I’d probably raise myself to the height of the basket by using some steps, which is sure to enhance my efficacy. Nevertheless, I can easily adopt the game of basketball’s goals and the available means to achieve those goals (like putting a ball through an elevated basket by aiming at it from the court).
Using the co-action framework, we see that games force us to jump into an adaptive-agency mode where we adapt our actions to different tendencies in our environment – even in ways that wouldn’t be reasonable in ordinary, non-ludic states. Much like the WZYX manuscript invites us to rotate it clockwise, games invite us to adapt to their unique or unusual rules; they afford some possibilities of action while prohibiting others. Both games and the WZYX help raise awareness of the reality and necessity of co-action, and about how easily we’re able to modify our actions even to strange or unfamiliar sets of relations that put unusual demands on us (such as using only our feet in soccer, or reading a text by rotating a piece of silk in your hands with the WZYX).
We can’t keep acting as if we’re fully autonomous and independent individuals. We are radically not self-reliant
That we continuously adapt to the tendencies around us seems like a trivial insight: we do it every day, when we walk, type on a keyboard, open a door, breathe, talk with a friend. Where adaptive co-action becomes more interesting is how it might apply to planning for actions with wider social, political or environmental consequences.
In fact, it’s precisely at the sociopolitical level where the co-action paradigm could be most relevant and powerful. If we acknowledge the extent to which human agency is distributed across a diverse field of actors, then we can’t keep acting as if we’re fully autonomous and independent individuals. We are radically not self-reliant; we must rely on the agency of things, their behaviour and affordances, their efficacy and propensity. Like the dragon, we need the clouds and the wind to fly. Yet under the ideology of individualism, as mentioned earlier, immigrants are accused of stealing other people’s resources; non-voters are discounted for their neglect of democracy; the poor are despised for their lack of merit.
All this attention to ‘individual choices’ originates from a mistaken account of agency – an account where actions are the direct result of an individual’s intentions, desires, preferences and will. But, as the sociologist Peter Callero remarks, even if in theory we have the right to vote, can we really perform the action of voting if there are no voting stations near us, or further, we may add, if we have to work on election day? Voting is a co-action enabled as much by my desire to cast a vote as by a multiplicity of structures, institutions, laws and objects that enable or prevent me from doing so. As a thing, the ideology of individualism also has its own tendencies (its own behaviour and affordances) and its own non-intentional agency (its efficacy and propensity). One of the many powers of individualism – certainly one of the most corrosive ones – is that it makes us blind to the structures, institutions and resources that enable our possibilities to act and to become who we want to be, both personally and as a society. The way individualism makes us see social reality is the heart of its efficacy.
The efficacy of relationality, and co-action in particular, is how it lets us see the extended network of co-actors that participate in our actions. It brings to light the structures that enable some to succeed, such as growing up in a safe neighbourhood, or having access to high-quality education, as well as those that hinder success, such as being unable to secure a safe and legal abortion when you can’t care for more children. Another pressing example is the climate crisis – I’m currently writing from Seville in southern Spain, where we have been experiencing Zoe: the world’s first named heat wave, involving constant extreme temperatures of above 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) for the past two weeks. More than 1,000 people have died across the country as a result. We must finally acknowledge that our planet, with all its tendencies and affordances, is a co-agent in all of our actions, and that we can’t act forcefully and individualistically as if we were independent from the natural world. We’re learning this the hard way, by means of death and destruction of everything we love. Yet we don’t seem capable of effectively changing our lifestyles to adapt to the tendencies of things, and so to survive.
Classical Chinese philosophers emphasised that thinking of human agency as an individual and independent activity is misguided. At best, individualism leads to clumsy and ineffective courses of action and, at worst, to conflict, chaos and harm. Yet nothing in this theory of co-action intends to take power and control away from humans. Counterintuitively, it’s in the act of acknowledging that we aren’t in full control of our actions that we gain more control over their outcomes, and greater imaginative scope to create more harmonious and effective social structures. In order to more justly attribute responsibility, guilt and merit across the field of entangled actors, and to design social systems that offer more equitable and nurturing paths for the future, we must look to the others around us who participate in our agency. Casting human agency in a more distributive and collective mode will help us to become more genuinely autonomous – as interwoven, interdependent, relational beings.
Chinese classics, recommended editions
The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation (1999) by Roger Ames, Henry Rosemont Jr
Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation (2003) by Roger Ames, David Hall, et al
Sun Tzu: The Art of Warfare (1993) by Roger Ames
Zhuangzi: The Complete Writings (2020) by Brook Ziporyn; or Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries (2009) by Brook Ziporyn
Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010) by Jane Bennett
Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007) by Karen Barad
Adapting: A Chinese Philosophy of Action (2021) by Mercedes Valmisa
The Myth of Individualism: How Social Forces Shape Our Lives (3rd ed, 2017) by Peter Callero