A Ku Indeed!

Hsueh 學 (Learning)

Posted in Analects, Chinese Philosophy, Course Material by Chris on February 11, 2008

We’re reading Hall and Ames’ Thinking Through Confucius in a course I’m teaching this semester, so I’m guessing that here and there I’ll make some posts reflecting on what they say. And with that said…no better place to start than right at the beginning of the book, with their treatment of hsueh, or “learning.”


What is immediately interesting about the treatment of hsueh is the fact that Hall and Ames reject the approach that has the Confucian learning process being about a sort of engagement with theoretical (or at least experientially disengaged) propositions. Instead, they push the suggestion that hsueh is performative, meaning that to learn something is a state of “embodiment” in a sense. To embody X is to, in appropriate circumstances, perform or demonstrate correctly. In some ways, this is not terribly counter-intuitive. Here’s a not so good example; if someone says “where’s the moon?” and you look at the floor, your performance seems to indicate that you don’t know where the moon is. “Didn’t you ever learn where the moon was?” might be the response. (Probably not the best example, actually).

But still, it’s generally accepted (intuitively, anyway) that a person can know X (or have learned about X) and refuse to practice it in the appropriate circumstances. The person might be said to be “hoarding” what they know in a way (clearly a condition that Confucius does not approve of, as in LY 9.13 for example). Hall and Ames seem to want to get past these sorts of “internalized” ways of talking about learning (hseuh) or knowing (chih). They put forth two conditions for learning:

1. Hsueh is unmediated awareness (similar, I suppose, to Heideggerian circumspection, or at least that’s the impression you get from them).

2. Hsueh requires transmission of content.

Two points come to mind. One, if learning is unmediated awareness, it would be difficult (if not impossible) to hoard it. Second, Hall and Ames’ Confucian, in (2), seems to be pushing a much stronger conception of learning that has it that one must teach in order to be said to learn. Given that Confucius is mostly concerned with ritual history, to “learn” the li would be to demonstrate the li for others. Although they do not say this specifically, their emphasis on transmission as a necessary part of hsueh seems to suggest this other-regarding dimension (this is an undeveloped point by them, my stress on it here is somewhat speculative). This is an interesting point, as it would again do away with any possibility of “hoarding” since “hoarded” knowledge would not be knowledge by definition.

(One side point of pedagogical interest here is that students — in my experience — do not take kindly to (2). They tend to think of what they know as their own ‘property’ in a way — no doubt that this is furthered by the fact that they pay tuition to ‘buy’ access to it. Most students bristle at the thought that it might be incumbent upon them as student learners to help others to learn, or even to transmit what they know so that others might, if motivated, learn from it. )

Another point that Hall and Ames make concerns Confucius’ insistence that students have a high degree of desire when they come for instruction. Of course, the quick way to interpret this simply has Confucius saying that to “hit the books” requires determination. If you don’t care, you won’t learn. But this seems too much in the “internalization” mode of thinking about learning.

It could be that there’s a more existential point here afoot. Perhaps it’s not that hsueh requires high degrees of motivation just because of the ‘hit the books’ factor, but also because the learner is required to also (qua learner) make a commitment to embody the process insofar as incorporating it into the very “way of being” of that person. Here I think of Kierkegaard and his notion of subjective truth. We do, in language tend to make this distinction:

1. I know that God is X, Y and Z.

2. I know God.

Up above, (1) is clearly the kind of propositional knowledge that Confucius (or at least Hall and Ames’ Confucius) is trying to get around. Clearly it is this kind of knowledge that is most open to be “hoarded”. But (2) is a different kind of matter. If you were to say that (1) is “true” it would be a correspondence situation between a proposition and an object. But if (2) is true, it’s not correspondence. It’s relational. The subject is in the truth via his or her relationship with God (in this case). Typically, when you say that you “know” God it does mean “being in a relationship” with God or “being transformed” by that object (or relatum, probably more appropriately).

Similarly, I wonder if Hall and Ames are making a similar point here with Confucius. Hsueh requires appropriation and transmission in the same sense that a claim that is not embodied through commitment (transmission) would not be “truth” for Kierkegaard. One cannot hoard because learning is, necessarily, self-transformation.

Ah, that was probably more musings than anything else. Nothing but questions, not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially in a blog post, no less!

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