As this is my first blog, please forgive me if it is not consistent with the standard style of common blogs. What is posted below is potentially the first of two installments (i.e., if the second one will ever come through).
Gilbert Ryle has made the famous distinction between knowing-that and knowing-how. Knowing that is the knowledge that something is the case, and knowing how is the knowledge about how to do something. With this distinction in mind, it has been common among students of Chinese philosophy in general and Confucianism in particular to think that Confucians advocate knowing-how in contrast to knowing-that.
Given the fact that Confucians are primarily concerned with moral knowledge and they have undoubtedly put great emphasis on moral self-cultivation, it is clear that knowledge in Confucianism is not merely propositional and theoretical knowing-that. Indeed, if knowing-that and knowing-how have exhausted all possible types of knowledge, then I would certainly also agree that moral knowledge in Confucianism is knowing-how rather than knowing-that or at least is more knowing-how than knowing-that. However, what I would like to challenge is precisely the assumption that knowing-how and knowing-that have exhausted all types of knowledge, and consequently I would also like to challenge the characterization of Confucian moral knowledge as knowing-how. In contrast, I would like to claim that it is other (or more) than knowing-how and knowing-that. I shall use Wang Yangming as an example.
In Wang Yangming, this moral knowledge is called liangzhi 良知, literally “good knowledge” or, simply, “moral knowledge.” However, it is not the knowledge about the “good” or “moral”; rather it is the knowledge that itself is good or moral. To understand the unique feature of Wang’s liangzhi, it is important to relate it to the well-known neo-Confucian distinction between knowledge of/as virtue (dexing zhi zhi 德性之知) and knowledge from seeing and hearing (wenjian zhi zhi 聞見之知), first made by Zhang Zai 張載 but more fully developed by Cheng Yi 程頤. Knowledge from hearing and seeing is perhaps equivalent to Ryle’s knowledge-that, but knowledge of/as virtue is not equivalent to Ryle’s knowledge-how. What is unique about knowledge of/as virtue is that it inclines its possessor to act accordingly: “When knowledge is profound, action will be thorough. No one ever knows without being able to act. If one knows without being able to act, the knowledge is superficial. Because they know the danger, people do not eat poisonous herbs when hungry, and do not tread on water and fire. People do evil things simply because they lack knowledge.”
It is precisely this aspect of moral knowledge that Wang Yangming wants to emphasize with his idea of liangzhi: “there has never been one who knows and yet does not act. To know and yet not to act is without knowledge” (Wang: 5). Such knowledge that inclines one to act Wang calls liangzhi. Thus he states, “one knows what is good and yet does not act according to this good knowledge (liangzhi), or one knows what is not good and yet does not refrain from doing it according to this good knowledge, only because one’s good knowledge is clouded and one does not make an effort to recover this knowledge.”
To illustrate this type of knowledge that inclines one to act accordingly, Wang uses the famous analogy from the Great Learning: “The Great Learning shows us what are genuine knowledge and genuine action. It asks us ‘to love the good as we love the beautiful color and to hate the evil as we hate the bad odor.’ Here seeing the beautiful color belongs to knowledge, while loving it belongs to action. However, at the very moment one sees the beautiful color one has already loved it; it is not the case that one decides to love it only after seeing it. Similarly, smelling the bad odor belongs to knowledge, while hating it belongs to action. However, at the very moment one smells the bad odor, one has already hated it; it is not the case that one decides to hate it only after smelling it.” In this analogy, since seeing the beautiful color and loving it (or smelling the bad odor and hating it) are not two separate mental states, so knowing what is good and desiring to do the good (or knowing what is evil and not desiring to do it) are not two separate mental states. In other words, liangzhi, good knowledge, will naturally incline a person to act accordingly.
With such an understanding of moral knowledge in Confucianism in mind, let us revisit Ryle’s distinction between knowing that and knowing how. Suppose that we know that we ought to love our parents. As knowing-that in Ryle’s distinction, such a propositional knowledge is entirely compatible with our not actually loving parents. This is what Neo-Confucians call knowledge from seeing and hearing. Now suppose that, in addition, we also know how to love our parents (for example, by keeping them warm in the winter and cool in the summer). As knowing-how in Ryle’s distinction, it is also perfectly compatible with our not actually loving our parents. In other words, neither knowing-that nor knowing-how, as Ryle defines them, inclines us to act according to our knowledge. Even if we know that we ought to love our parents (having the knowledge-that) and know how to love them (having the knowledge-how), we may still fail to love our parents.
However, as we have seen, moral knowledge in Confucianism, knowledge of/as virtue or liangzhi, is precisely the knowledge that inclines us to act according to such knowledge. If our knowledge that we ought to love our parents is the knowledge of/as virtue, and not knowledge from seeing and hearing, then we will not only naturally learn how to love our parents (i.e., seek knowledge-how), if we don’t know how to love them yet, but will take delight in loving them and feel pain for our failure to do so. It is in this sense that I claim that moral knowledge in Confucianism cannot be simply characterized as either knowing-how or knowing-that: it includes both but has something additional; it is more than knowing-that and knowing-how. What is this additional thing? As we have seen, it is the inclination or disposition that a person with moral knowledge has to act according to such knowledge.