Is Zhuangzi a Wanton? Observation and Transformation of Desires in the Zhuangzi

Jenny Hung

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This essay considers how the Zhuangzi 莊子 sheds light on a new direction to the contemporary discussion of desires. Harry Frankfurt proposes an account of personhood based on a hierarchy of desires. He defines a wanton as a being that does not have second-order volitions, the desires that a certain desire of action becomes her will. J. David Velleman proposes, in the context of the Zhuangzi, that when a Daoist sage performs her skills she can be regarded as a “higher” wanton because her actions are spontaneous flows of skillful actions. In this essay, I propose along the line of Velleman a constructive interpretation of the Zhuangzian way to deal with desires from my reading of the Zhuangzi. I argue that there are two roles a Daoist sage can play: the observer and the performer. A Daoist sage can be an observer at a certain time and a performer at other times. Although a performer can be regarded as a higher wanton, it is inappropriate to regard an observer as a wanton. Also, I propose that observation is a means to transform desires—once the practitioner achieves high spirituality, one does not need to possess second-order volitions because one’s first-order desires are transformed such that they are in accordance with the Dao 道.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)289-305
Number of pages17
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020


  • Actions
  • Desires
  • Second-order volitions
  • Spirituality
  • Zhuangzi

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy


Dive into the research topics of 'Is Zhuangzi a Wanton? Observation and Transformation of Desires in the Zhuangzi'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this