C O U R S E L E C T U R E
Confucius' View on Learning vs. The Enlightenment
Notes taken on May 8, 2015 by Edward Tanguay
often translated as "study"
better translation is "learning"
just as process of ritual gives us a language for acting, allows us to behave like cultured human being
xue (learning/studying) allows us to think like cultured human beings
today in Western society we are very much believers in creative thought
coming up with new ideas
e.g. Apple slogan: Think Different
we have geniuses who come up with completely new ideas
if you want to translate this into Confucius language, it's "Think Ancient"
Confucius wants you to think like the Zhou Dynasty kings thought
"A man who has not mastered the Odes is like someone standing with this face to the wall"
you need to have traditional learning in order to think properly
Xue [zhoo] - learning (acquiring Classic knowledge)
Si [see] - thinking and reflecting
thinking and reflecting is not something you can do outside the context of learning
the tools that you use in learning are the classics
traditional texts like the Book of Odes or the Book of History
to Confucius, these books are distillations of the right way to think
so the goal is to memorize the classics and internalize the language and the message
e.g. the proper way to express anger is indirectly
today you still see this that it is preferable to express yourself indirectly
important to understand how the classics work
not about following commandments but imitating
they tell stories about the Duke of Zhou, King Wen and King Wu
seeing how they behaved in difficult situations, you absorb proper values
this is not completely foreign to us in Western society
in Christianity we have this phrase "What would Jesus do?" which captures the spirit of paragon modeling
and we have stories of how he behaved in various situations
this idea is that by hearing these stories over and over again, you extract a pattern of behavior that you can use in your own life
not just pouring knowledge into an empty mind
although learning is based on acquiring a high amount of experience reading the classics
requires individual participation
you have to engage in reflection
requires thinking and concentration
but acquiring knowledge has priority over thinking
Analects 2.15, "If you learn without thinking about what you have learned, you will be lost, but if you think without learning, you will fall into danger, the latter being the worst of the two"
to think without acquiring knowledge is a way of reinventing the wheel
thinking outside the classics will probably lead to randomness and chaos, it is a doomed endeavor
"the Zhou dynasty figured this stuff out and figured it out right, they have these documents preserved, so this is what we need to start with if we are going to be a proper human being"
Analects 15.31, "I once engaged in thought for an entire day without eating and an entire night without sleeping, but it did no good, it would have been better for me to have spent that time in learning."
Western Enlightenment is opposed to this idea
in the West, we admire thinking is autonomous
the whole idea of the Enlightenment was about freeing thought from tradition
wake up, stop listening to what the priests say
stop being a child, be an adult and think for yourself
if you want to change the world, change the way you think
but it is odd movement since most cultures value traditional thought
Descartes: "There is not novelty to me in the reflection that, from my earliest years, I have accepted many false opinions as true, and that what I have concluded from such badly assured premises could not but be highly doubtful and uncertain. From the time that I first recognized this, I have realized that if I wished to have any firm and constant knowledge in the sciences, I would have to undertake, once and for all, to set aside all the opinions which I had previously accepted among my beliefs and start again from the very beginning."
in other words, if you want sure and certain knowledge, you need to forget everything your culture has taught you and begin again on solid foundations
Descartes then decided to engage in a "serious and unimpeded effort to destroy generally all of my former opinions"
although he very suspiciously gets God and the Catholic Church back on solid foundations
what's important in contrast to Confucius' approach to learning is that Descartes has attained this knowledge himself and through first principle
this is an idea that we have in the West: use our internal reason to determine what is true of the world
there is good reason to think that Descartes' project of rejecting all former knowledge is doomed to failure from the start
exaggerates the power of reason without substance
ignores that we are cultural and social animals
most of what we know is shaped by our cultures and things we learned from the past
in contrast, Confucius' approach of first internalizing the knowledge of the Zhou dynasty and using that as a basis for thinking, is a more accurate view of how we think, since we have to think in terms of some kind of concepts
the student is not going to radically come up with new ideas
but participation is important
a student is not an empty receptacle but has to take action with the content that is being learned
Analects 15.16: "I have never been able to do anything for a person who is not himself constantly asking, What should I do, what should I do?"
you have to be possessed by a thirst for knowledge
you have to anticipate what you are going to be taught
Analects 7.8: "I will not open the door for a mind that is not already striving to understand, nor will I provide words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak. If I hold up on corner of a problem, and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to instruct him again."
students should be paying so much attention and be engaged as such a deep level, that they see where their learning is going, this habit is essential to internalize the classics