Thursday, July 14, 2016

Wang Yangming on the Unity of Knowing and Acting

I've been slowly acquainting myself with the later Chinese philosophical tradition. Wang Yangming (1472-1529) is one of the striking figures -- a leading neo-Confucian scholar, as well as an important provincial administrator and military commander. Perhaps his best-known thesis is the unity of knowing and acting:

There have never been people who know but do not act. Those who "know" but do not act simply do not yet know.... Seeing a beautiful color is a case of knowing, while loving a beautiful color is a case of acting. As soon as one sees that beautiful color, one naturally loves it. It is not as if you first see it and only then, intentionally, you decide to love it.... The same is true when one says that someone knows filial piety or brotherly respect. That person must already have acted with filial piety or brotherly respect before one can say she knows them. One cannot say she knows filial piety or brotherly respect simply because she knows how to say something filial or brotherly (Ivanhoe 2009 trans., p. 140-141).

Contemporary readers might tend to find this claim implausible. Aren't we all familiar with weakness of will or willful wrong action in which we do something that we know we shouldn't -- cheating on an exam, having the next drink, skipping out of a commitment to enjoy some time on the beach? Bryan Van Norden suggests that the doctrine is intended as kind of pragmatically motivated overstatement to get bookworms out of their seats, and that the strongest plausible claim in the vicinity is the claim that knowing a moral truth implies at least being motivated to act on it, even if one doesn't ultimately act accordingly. In contemporary Anglophone philosophy the view that moral judgments are necessarily motivating is called motivational internalism.

I find something attractive in Wang Yangming's doctrine, which I think doesn't quite map onto standard contemporary motivational internalist views. The doctrine resonates with my dispositional approach to belief, according to which to believe some proposition is just to act and and react as though that proposition is true. With some caveats, I might endorse the unity of believing and acting.

Here are the caveats:

1. "Action" should be interpreted very broadly. Reaction is a kind of action. Omission is a kind of action. Thinking and feeling is a kind of action. That's broader than standard use but I don't think outrageously broad. The dispositions constitutive of believing that your parents deserve your care include not only dispositions to act in outwardly caring ways but also dispositions to react inwardly with concern if they are threatened and not to forget what is important to them. If you don't generally act and react caringly, I'm inclined to say, you might sincerely judge that your parents deserve your care, and you might (in Wang Yangming's words) "know how to say something filial", but you don't fully possess the dispositional structure constitutive of believing that your parents deserve your care. (If you fail in only a few respects it might still be accurate enough to say that you believe it, similarly to its being accurate enough to call someone an extravert who is mostly disposed to extraversion but who has introverted moments.) To believe something is, on my view, to live generally as though it is so. That's the sense of "action" in question.

2. "Belief" differs from judgment and knowledge. A broad, action-based view of what is constitutive of belief only works if we also have a vocabulary for describing cases in which we sincerely verbally endorse something that we don't consistently act on. I prefer the term "judgment" for sincere endorsements. Thus, on my view, you might sincerely judge that such-and-such is the case, but if you don't generally move through the world as if it were so, you don't fully, or deeply, or completely, or univocally believe it. Similarly, I've argued (contra Wang Yangming), you can know something without believing it in this strong action-encompassing sense of "belief".

3. We often choose moral mediocrity. We can rationally choose actions we believe are morally bad. Morality is an important consideration for almost everyone, but we are often satisfied with far less than ideal moral behavior. Compare valuing health: You can believe that kale is good for your health, and thoroughly live in recognition of that fact, without always choosing kale over brownies, because health is not always your paramount concern.

You might see some tension between the third caveat and the surface interpretation of the doctrine. If the child doesn't act and react in a filial way, maybe she still does fully and unambivalently believe that her parents deserve her care, but she chooses moral mediocrity on this matter? Wouldn't that be a dissociation between believing and acting?

I do think such cases are possible, maybe even common, but that's not the kind of dissociation between believing and acting that I, and maybe Wang Yangming, want to deny. Here's one way of articulating this type of case: You don't value moral goodness much but insofar as you value it you'll care for your parents if it isn't too much trouble. That actually expresses your attitude toward filial duty; that's your belief as manifest in your actions. This differs from the case of the bookish Confucian scholar who says "I know and truly believe that filial duty is vastly more important than personal pleasures, but I just can't bring myself to act accordingly yet." Wang Yangming wants to call bullfeathers on that sort of thing. With more self-knowledge and honesty, this scholar might better say something like, "Yes, intellectually and theoretically, I judge the Confucians correct in highly prioritizing filial duty; but I don't yet personally find myself believing that filial piety is so important -- not deeply, fully, and unambivalently in the way that I deeply, fully, and unambivalently believe that this is a quill in my hand and that I must eat to stay alive."

Philosophers and others interested in the nature of attitudes can legitimately conceptualize belief in different ways. But I think there are practical advantages to accepting a broad-based notion of belief as constituted by the whole range of your choices and reactions, sharply distinguished from a more intellectual notion of judgment or sincere verbal endorsement which need not be reflected in action.

(For more on the practical advantages of a broad, action-based view of belief, see "Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief"; April 7, 2016.)

[image source]


piby4 said...

Interesting and compelling argument. However, I have another take on this based on my still evolving knowledge of Eastern thought.

First issue I have is that these are translated from Chinese to English. Does the translator have sufficient philosophical and linguistic sophistication to accurately convey the statements? Remember, languages such as Chinese - being very old, might have richer set of words to describe something that might loosely get translated to "Action" in English.

Then again, looking at the statement is isolation may be confusing. If one takes a look at it from the wider Eastern Philosophies, the statement makes sense.

Assuming that the translation is correct, what was being conveyed is that Knowledge is Action and vice versa. There is no separation between two. Both action and knowledge happen at the same time. Act of labeling a scenery beautiful becomes an action as includes seeing and emotionally reacting to it. So the Action here includes intrinsic action which is quite consistent with Eastern Philosophies where sitting in meditation can be labelled as an action. This is like action in "Karma" where consequence of action are yours and yours alone. To gain correct "Knowledge", a practitioner attempts to purify mind that reflects "reality" in pure and pristine form without being colored by "Maya". I suspect that one needs to be in this stage to see duality between Knowledge and Action disappear.

But then, “wrongful” action doesn’t or shouldn’t arise for people who transcend to this stage. Why? At this stage – their buddhi or power of discrimination is supposed to be fully evolved.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ivanhoe, the translator, is one of the world's leading scholars, and I know he has given careful thought to this particular phrase. In the original Chinese the key phrase is zhi xing he yi 知行合一.

Wang Yangming valued meditation, but he thought that too much sitting in mediation and not enough practical action was one of the vices of the scholars of his day. He also famously holds that we are born with an innately perfect knowledge that doesn't need to develop or "evolve" but is "obscured" by selfish desires which should be cleared away -- so a pretty different view than the one you're describing!

Unknown said...

Seeing Unity may provide more effort is lost...
...then ways of objective morality may begin to appear as their realities...

Is observation more than description when East meets West..

Callan S. said...

Wang Yangming's doctrine just seems to describe fanatacism, to me. What else does the fanatic do but when they 'know' they immediately act? To not act is to not know? Then all moderation is to not know, it seems - only fanatics 'know'. 'It is known' as the game of thrones quote goes.

piby4 said...

@Eric Schwitzgebel
“Perfect knowledge that doesn't need to develop or "evolve" but is "obscured" by selfish desires which should be cleared away”. How does one go about realizing a state of Perfect Knowledge Does he specify a method? Does that method based on Action alone - like Karma Yoga?

In my analysis I used meditation as a tool for realizing the state of Perfect Knowledge. My inference from Wang Yangming's statements is that "ineffective" meditation is not action in the same way as watching a scenery and not loving it is not action.

If this is incorrect, then does Wang Yangming impose classification on actions - such as "practical" etc?

Warren Frisina said...

Indeed, over the years I've come to know that Ivanhoe and VanNorden are both reliable translators and interpreters of Wang and his phrase chih hsing ho-i (the unity of knowledge and action). Still neither go far enough, I believe, in recognizing the radicalness of Wang's assertion. A long time ago I pushed a more literal reading of the phrase, concluding that Wang was doing more than just nudging his lazy students. My position is that he means it when he says that knowledge and action are one thing, and that what he is doing is trying to bring back into alignment the metaphysical/cosmological assumptions of his tradition, with its epistemological ones. Our tendency to read Wang's slogan as a heuristic device stems, I believe, from the fact that such a reading makes it easier for us to fit Wang into a traditional epistemological conversation about ideas, affects and attitudes. But as I read them the Chinese do not make the early moves that were made in Greek philosophy and thus don't ever feel the need to explain their way out of puzzling dualisms of minds/bodies, subjects/objects, etc. We bring those concerns with us when we pick up their texts. Anyone interested in reading more along these lines can find the article in my Researchgate account at The citation is Philosophy East and West v. 39, no. 4, 1989.

One last thought before signing off. These days I'm particularly interested in the way that Wang's other famous slogan: Forming one body with all things, resonates with contemporary discussions in cognitive science and philosophy of mind about "embodied" approaches to the mind. Here I'm thinking about scholars like Andy Clark, Alva Noe, Lakoff and Johnson, et al. I think there is much good to be mined in bringing their work together with what we find in Wang and the other Neo-Confucians.

Thanks for an interesting post. And thanks to my colleague Tony Dardis for pointing me your way!

Unknown said...

Then action could be more...positive negative neutral action could be parts of Unity... the conditions presented oneself...