One of the major philosophical problems in Early China was the relationship between the person and the world, and in particular, how to act in relation to the world. This dissertation addresses the problem of agency in Early China, and pursues three main guiding questions: how to act efficaciously in different situations, how to cope with uncertainty and unpredictability in ordinary life, and how to achieve control and freedom.
I offer a critical and systematic analysis of an extraordinary model of successful action that I call “adaptive agency” or “adaptation” (yin 因). As opposed to other models of action attested in early texts, such as the prescriptive and the forceful, the adaptive agent necessitates great capacity of situational awareness, reflection, flexibility, and creativity in order to produce responses ad hoc: strategies of action designed for specific, non-permanent, and non-generalizable life problems. This model for choosing an action as an adjusted response to a specific situation guarantees the agent a higher success rate in his actions, let these be in political, military, professional, medical, religious, ethical or ordinary life contexts.
This dissertation is both born from a new methodological orientation and a contribution toward establishing it, by means of exemplifying how we can build meaningful critical theories in Early Chinese philosophy and intellectual history without using the obsolete hermeneutical categories of school of thought, book and author. I trace tensions and similarities in the Early Chinese approach to the problem of agency cross-textually, using a large range of textual materials and research methods. The philosophical proposal of adaptive agency is particularly suitable to this kind of methodological project, for it consistently appears across a wide variety of texts, authors, and intellectual orientations throughout the Early Chinese period, and therefore could not be studied by using the traditional hermeneutical categories.