Everyone knows the Master’s saying that he “transmits, but does not innovate” (“述而不作”, Analects 7:1), and usually it is taken to mean
that Confucius is not a creative or original thinker, but only hands down the ancient wisdom. Yet this reading must be shallow, given Confucius’s founding
role in Chinese philosophy. I would like to make a few observations about this saying and wonder whether it makes sense to you.
While the Analects 7:1 seems to establish the “transmitting/innovating” dichotomy, at 7: 28 the Master said, “No doubt there are those who try to innovate [zuo] without acquiring knowledge, but this is a fault that I do not posses.” “盖有不知而作者，我无是也.” Accordingly, it is not simply that Confucius does not “innovate” or “create;” rather, he does not do this out of ignorance.
(b) The term ‘transmitting’ (shu) also appears in the Doctrines of the Mean to define the virtue of piety. Confucius says there that what makes a son a filial
son is his ability “to continue (ji) the will (zhih) and to transmit (shu) the work of his father.” (夫孝者，善继人之志，善述人之事者也. Ch. 19). If we put this definition of filial piety (xiao孝) together with Confucius’s self-description as a transmitter, it appears that Confucius likens himself to what a filial son does to his father’s work. A filial son “transmits” his father’s aspirations, causes, and ideals, and seeks to develop and actualize them. Similarly, what Confucius transmits is the spirit, value, and ideals of the tradition. Confucius’s philosophical activity of transmitting traditional values could be regarded as an expression of his piety with regards to the authentic tradition in which Confucius believes the dao of Heaven is embedded.
(c ) More importantly, even the dichotomy of transmission/creation appears in the Doctrine of the Mean. Confucius says: “It is only King Wen of whom it can
be said that he had no cause for grief. His father was King Ji, and his son was King Wu. His father innovated (zuo) it, and his son transmitted (shu)
it.” (子曰：无忧者其唯文王乎。以王季为父，以武王为子，父作之，子述之. Ch.18) . The saying supplements the previous saying about piety in the sense that the son “shu” because his father has already authored or “created”. The father “innovates “(作zuo) and the son “transmits” (述shu), and the sons’ job is to continue pursuing and developing what the father has done. To apply this to Confucius’ case, he transmits but does not innovate because classical texts have been authored and his work is to pursue that wisdom, to master it, bring it, and develop it.
At this juncture, I would like to recall the original Greek meaning of philosophy. Philosophy by name is the “love of wisdom,” not the possession of wisdom itself. Plato interprets that it is because God has the wisdom, and hence it is more proper to say that we human beings are pursuing it (Plato, Phaedrus, 278d ). This “God possesses wisdom”/ “humans love wisdom” contrast sounds very similar to “father innovates /son transmits” relation in the Doctrine of the Mean. Following this, Confucius’s “transmitting/innovating” contrast could be taken to mean that the real creator is tradition, and what an individual can do is to
transmit, that is, to continue, to extend, to accomplish the ideals in the tradition.
In this way, “shu” in Confucius is strikingly similar to what ‘philosophy’ originally means in the West.