Transmitting 述, Innovating作, and Philosophizing in Confucius

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.

38 replies on “Transmitting 述, Innovating作, and Philosophizing in Confucius”

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for this post on an interesting passage. I too wondered whether Confucius is an innovator or transmitter. You appear to argue against the usual interpretation of 7.1–“that Confucius is not a creative or original thinker, but only hands down the ancient wisdom”. But you conclude by saying that “the real creator is tradition” and by implication what Confucius has done is transmit tradition. So you are affirming the usual interpretation of 7.1. Yes?

    If I am honest with you and myself, and maybe this is not the place for that, the final comparison appears fatuous for some reasons: idiosyncratic choice of texts for a description of ‘philosophy’ in the Platonic corpus; comparison between Plato’s God/human relation and Confucius’ innovate/transmit unjustified, and based on claim about what “sounds very similar” to you; lack of justification compounded by following conclusion that that comparison “could be taken to mean…”. I suppose you are right that the comparison “could be taken to mean…” what you think it means. But this assertion is tautologous since you have just taken it to mean what you could take it to mean. No?

    (Can you or others illuminate the issue about Confucius’ transmission of tradition by recommending passages or papers that discuss this explicitly? What are the main means of transmission for Confucius? Rote learning? Social roles? Pedagogical influence? Does classical Chinese itself facilitate transmission in ways that ancient Greek does not, what with creativity of declensions, tenses, sentence order effects, et cetera?)

    • Dear Vygenydochak:
      It will help if you could explain why my use of Plato’s understanding of ‘philosophy’ is “idiosyncratic choice of texts”, or more generally, what make a quotation of a text “idiosyncratic”? thanks.

  2. Hi Jiyuan!

    Thanks for the terrific and profound post!

    It seems to me that if I receive something from you and don’t pass it along to another, I have not “transmitted” it at all. I have only received it. Granted, one has to receive in order to transmit; but the receiving is no part of the transmitting. (Analogously, one has to do something a first time in order to do it a second time, but doing it the first time is no part of doing it the second time.) Am I right in thinking that this point about “transmit” is also true of 述 ?

    In your (b), by 善述人之事者也 you seem to have in mind mainly the receiving, not the transmitting; and in (c), in the comparison with Plato’s view of philosophy too you seem to be thinking only of reception, not transmission. I wonder whether the main points you want to make in the post are at all about passing things along to others, or are only about receiving?

    This “God possesses wisdom”/ “humans love wisdom” contrast sounds very similar to “father innovates /son transmits” relation in the Doctrine of the Mean.

    Actually the two don’t sound very similar to me. On its face the Greek point is not about how we come to have it, but rather about whether we have it at all (we don’t); while the Chinese point is about how we do come to have it, so that we can take up the position you would say is analogous to the position of Plato’s God.

    We might see more similarity if instead of holding the “it” constant and looking for a similarity between loving(pursuing) and transmitting(receiving), we differentiate the two kinds of “it.” If we think of wisdom as a kind of originating power, an ability to design and judge Ways, then we could read Plato’s point as the point that only God can innovate: humans can only receive and pass along what they have received.

    (This point connects with a view of Socrates that I had in the back of my mind in a comment in the recent Zhuangzi thread, put forth in Michael Forster’s “Socrates’ Profession of Ignorance,” which anyone can see on line in Volume XXVII of the Philosopher’s Annual: )

    Following this, Confucius’s “transmitting/innovating” contrast could be taken to mean that the real creator is tradition

    Are you suggesting that the Confucian idea might be that creation is something done by humans in the aggregate over time?

    • Bill:
      Thanks for the helpful comments. It is difficult to reply in detail here, but your last sentence is what I see the case. Innovation is for Confucius the extension, appropriateion, and deepening of the best in the tradition, not the creation out of nowhere. I think this is why he sees himself as a transmitter, even though he knows what contribution he is making. This seems also what his disciples understand. I have in mind 17: 18 in which Confucius claims that he is thinking of giving up speech, Zigong says, “if you did not speak, what would be there for us your disciples to shu [transmit]? 子曰:“予欲无言。”子贡曰:“子如不言,则小子何述焉?” Again, we have “shu”.

    • Can you explain how Zigong’s question would be evidence for what you say? At first glance it would seem to lean slightly in the opposite direction instead.

      Zigong’s point seems to be that Confucius’ sources are somehow inaccessible to Zigong except from or through what Confucius personally says. That’s a natural idea if Zigong thought of Confucius as mainly innovator, but a less natural idea if Zigong thought of some or all of what Confucius taught as the transmission of things Confucius had found. (Why, we can’t help asking, couldn’t Zigong have got the same things elsewhere?)

    • I take it that Zigong sees his work is to transmit Confucius’s, while Confucius’s is to transmit Dao in the tradition; or he thinks he is also tramitting the dao by transmitting confucius. It shows a kind of continutiy. I guess that as long as one claims he/she is a “Confucian”, he/she is “transmitting”.

      I love to get more passages in pre-Qin texts that contain “shu” and “zuo”. Whereas Confucius thinks he only “transmitts but does not innovate”, Mencius claims that “Confucius was apprehensive and composed [zuo] the Spring and Autumn Annals. (孔子惧,作[zuo] 春秋, Mencius 3b/9). Is Mencius pointedly using the term zuo?

    • To understand 作春秋, it is necessary to understand the basic frameworks of both the Old Text school and New Text school.

      If we believe the New Text school, then Mencius’s description of 作春秋 shows that even early Confucians believed that Confucius created a new dispensation in secret. Other evidence for this can be found in 荀子 and 史记.

      In this case, Confucius really did 作. 述而不作 is merely an appearance.

      I quote:


      Note the emphasis on 天子之事. Confucius in fact usurped the authority of the Zhou Son of Heaven to create a new dispensation in secret.

      I also quote 说苑, which, despite not being a Classic, has supplementary value, in light of texts unearthed within the last fifty years:


    • 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.

      Two thoughts:

      The statement in effect attacks what you earlier call “the dichotomy of transmission/creation,” and I agree. Innovation is pointless unless followed by transmission, and transmission when nothing has been innovated is impossible. Further, as Hu Shih wrote, to be innovative you have to be a good imitator. (“凡富於創造性的人必敏於模仿;凡不善模仿的人決不能創造。創造是一個最誤人的名詞,其實創造只是模仿到十足時的一點點新花樣.” – from “信心與反省”)

      But for opposition to the dichotomy to make sense, it is necessary that “the ideals in the tradition” be less than adequate, yes? Otherwise “to extend” them wouldn’t have a point.

      Back to English words for a moment: just as “transmit” comes from a root meaning “to send,” so “tradition” comes from a root meaning “to give.” When you say the real creator is tradition, I wonder whether you mean the real creator is the transmission process (as your list might suggest: “continue, extend, accomplish”), or instead mean that the real creator is past society.

      Did Confucius or his contemporaries have a word for “tradition”? Offhand I can’t think of one, unless it’s先王之道, and maybe there are analogous phrases that I’m failing to think of. (The Brookses, discussing An.1.12, say this is a phrase from Xunzians; but I’m inclined to disagree.) That sort of phrase fits a “past society” conception of tradition rather than a “transmission process” conception.

      But if past society can innovate, then, one might think, so can ours. That’s not to say that individuals can do it unassisted.

  3. Concerning Kongzi’s “transmitting” and Socrates’ “being in love”, my attention is drawn more to the disanalogies than to the analogies. The main analogy I see is that both characters disclaim being the origin of whatever wisdom they may possess. There is a source on which each draws, but beyond this I think the contrasts begin to pile up.

    Throughout his work (most notably in his reflections on teaching, as in Protagoras and Meno), Plato advances points that seem to undermine the very idea that a tradition could possess authority. A theme throughout his writings is the basing of authority at best secondarily in human institutions and customs, and primarily in something else. The same could arguably be said of the early Confucians, but in terms of degree Plato spends far more time and effort trying to think through issues independent of the traditions and customs around him. The moment a Warring States Confucian jettisons his allegiance to the specific Ru tradition, he turns into a Mohist or some other kind of moralist less reliant on pedagogical conceptions of cognitive improvement.

    “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.”

    To match one broad self-description with another: if Confucius transmits the best of the Zhou tradition, Socrates helps people give birth to the virtue and truth that grows within them. This imagery suggests a respect for cognitive self-reliance outstripping anything we see in early Confucianism—the baby belongs to the interlocutor rather than to Socrates, what conceived it was something divine, and Socrates characteristically brings it to birth by asking questions instead of teaching. (That’s the contrast he draws, although obviously there are complications.)

    • (I should clarify that when I say “cognitive self-reliance”, I mean primarily independence from the teaching and influence of other human beings—not independence from the reality that lies at the root of all possibility of improvement.)

    • thanks for the comments.
      (1) “God possess wisdom/humans love” v.s. “Tradition creates/humans transmit” is an analogy, and I use it as an inspiration to derive a reconstruction of the latter. I do not think what Plato says about tradition matters much here. that would be a different comparison.
      (2) Regarding Socrates, I said on another occasion: “to take seriously Confucius’s claim that he does nothing more than hand down the old, however, is as naïve as taking seriously Socrates’ claim that he knows nothing.” This is of course not a direct reply to your comment which has a good point and deserve a specific reply.

    • Jiyuan, in support of your claim in (2) just above:

      You wrote in the original post, 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.

      In the Analects, Confucius seems to circumscribe these points about will and work fairly narrowly: in the former case to the time before the father’s death, and in the latter to the time within three years of the father’s death, or as we might say, the time when the father’s death is still not fully digested:

      The Master said, “While a man’s father is alive, look at the bent of his will; when his father is dead, look at his conduct. If for three years he does not alter from the way of his father, he may be called filial.” (Legge)

      This discrepancy might help your argument, by showing or at least suggesting that on a topic that is on its face very like the topic of 7.1, Confucius can make an apparently unqualified claim on one occasion and qualify it quite severely in another place.

  4. Hi Jiyuan, I have to agree with Stephen’s historically- and philosophically-sensitive account of the Ru tradition.

    I believe it’s important also to note that, in the Er Ya, (釋言) section, 述 is aligned both with regulation and compliance (釋言: 律,遹,述也). I don’t think this can be aligned unproblematically with ‘philosophia’.

    On the other hand, however, I think you are right in suggesting that the widely-used transmit-innovate distinction might be rather too shallow. In terms of its composite characters, 辶 and 术, 述 says much more than ‘transmit’. To walk (the way of) a method/art/skill/technique is not simply to follow blindly. Incorporated in 术 is a sense of cultivation, reflection, discretion etc. In light of your interests in ancient Greek philosophy, I wonder if you might get a more interesting set of contrasts between 述 and techné.

  5. Karyn:
    The Er Ya section is good, thanks. My ‘philosophy’ analogy is an analogy, and to take it literally of course poses difficulties.

    In modern Chinese, ‘transmitting’ can mean ‘narrating’ (叙述), ‘stating’(陈述), ‘telling’ or ‘reporting’(讲述), ‘accounting for’ (论述), ‘interpreting’(阐述), etc. The last two could produce highly original works. To which is Confucius’ ‘transmitting’ close?
    I will think about the shu/techne contrast.

  6. Karyn and Jiyuan –

    Yes, I think “techne” might be a great point of focus for Plato-Ru comparisons. With my Warring States background, I got very interested by the discussion of competence towards the end of the Meno. Plato acknowledges that, to some extent, being competent doesn’t require being knowledgeable – there’s a techne/episteme split. I find it entertaining when (as also in Ion) “experts” are denied ownership of their own expertise, and Socrates thinks they ought to feel honored not as owners of anything but as conduits of divine influence. (神!)

    Insofar as it does make sense to contrast techne with episteme, in broadly Platonic terms, the Ru seem concerned far more with techne. Episteme drags in the theoretical (and theological, and erotic) concerns that are so famously absent from the early Ru tradition.

    • Interesting — that proposal fits the prominence of 善 as a term of commendation in the Chines texts. It doesn’t always mean “skilled” or “good at,” but that seems to be its main application.

  7. Glad to see the inspring discussion here. I wonder if we should add to Jiyuan’s list of observations the following two points: (1) Loving the antiquity does not mean that Confucius embraces everything from the past without selection. Obviously he does not accept the way of the past tyrants. (2) The Master’s words should be understood within the context of his own deeds, his overall teachings, and the historical background. He was creative in many ways, though his creations were always grounded deeply in the Zhou tradition. Reading this passage together with 6.15, and considering the fact that at his time shaping a culture creatively was something only sage kings were supposed to do (Chapter 28 of the Zhongyong says, “No one but the Son of Heaven can examine ritual proprieties, make the laws, and determine the written scripts. … Even if one has ascended the throne, if he has not achieved the necessary virtuosity (de 德), he dare not initiate ritual proprieties and music. If he has achieved virtuosity but does not occupy the throne, he also dare not initiate ritual proprieties and music”), we have reasons to believe that the Master was being modest here.

  8. Hi Peimin — I agree with you that he was probably being modest, but I’m not sure I understand the reason you derive from Zhongyong 28. That passage seems to me to say (among other things) that for someone not actually occupying the imperial throne to initiate or try to initiate ritual is wrong, like the Ji family having eight rows of eight dancers. The implication would be that if Confucius were initiating ritual and denying doing so, that would be the exact reverse of modest: it would be a concealment of something bad, not of something good!

    • Hi, Bill:

      My quote of the Zhongyong was following Huang Kan 皇侃. In his Yi shu 義疏, Huang quoted the passage to show that Confucius had the virtuosity (de 德), but not the position (of the imperial throne) to make innovations in rituals and music. But Confucius, in my view, is an innovator, though not necessarily in the sense of creating new rituals. He edited the Songs (9.15), and supposedly “completed the Spring and Autumn Annals.” Mengzi says, “Strictly speaking, this is the Emperor’s prerogative. That is why Confucius said, ‘Those who understand me will do so through the Spring and Autumn Annals; those who condemn me will also do so because of the Spring and Autumn Annals'”(Mengzi, 3b9). Supposedly, what Confucius did with the Spring and Autumn Annals had a lot to do with clarifications of rituals. Is this good or bad? Indeed this is a question we can reflect on.

      His innovation is also displayed through his creative use of terms such as “junzi”, “xiaoren” (to give them moral meanings) and his use of the concept of ren, etc. As for the Ji family’s use of eight rows of eight dancers, I think Confucius would say that this is a violation of the ritual, not an innovation.

    • Thanks for the explanation, Peimin. (My comparison was not between the Ji pageant and innovation, but rather between the Ji pageant and usurping the Emperor’s prerogative.)

  9. Nice posts and discussion!

    Researches on the original meanings of Zuo and Shu apart, here is another perspective for the question. My suspicion is that Analects 7.1 has often been misunderstood as people tend to ignore the contexts and tone of Confucius’s words. In my humble opinion,

    1) Confucius’s words is a “modest/humble” self-description of his learning/achievement, we should never take it as an honest/objective facts on C’s achievements. E.g. just because someone says “I am not good at calligraphy,” we should not take it to evidence his lack of talents for calligraphy – for in China, such words may well be said by a true master of calligraphy for reasons of modesty. (by what standard you evaluate his work? for a true master, his standard must be very high, and that’s why he says he is not good)

    2) the other common mistake is to say Confucius believes one “should” not create but only “transmit.” Such interpretation appears to completely overlook the contexts of his words and his intention for a humble self evaluation. It seems that all he wanted to say is “I am not good at “creating” so I did not do it but only transmitted the good creations of the sages.” It may well imply that “let those who are really good at “creating” do their jobs!

    Whether Confucius is a true innovator, of course, is a question for careful historical research and people may draw different conclusions from different perspectives. Such a humble self disclaimer in Analects 7.1, in my opinion, is no evidence for his lack of creative spirits indeed – to do so would be a mistake of shallow understanding of Chinese culture of modesty indeed.

  10. To those who think Confucius was a significant innovator: I’m curious to know what you regard as some of his main innovations.

  11. Bill, nice questions. I don’t have a set answer for whether Confucius is an innovator. But I think it may help to distinguish two sense of creativity or innovation in this context.

    1) Zuo / innovation: as the institution and establishing of new systems of ritual, law and social institutions. Confucius’ words in the Analects and Zhongyong demonstrate that he is not an creator in this sense. For to issue regulations/constitutions of a society without proper authority, for COnfucius, would lead to chaotic situations and disastrous confusions of social orders. Confucius, in other words, did not make new laws and rules of ritual, because he did not regard himself as the one with the right authority to do so.

    2) Creation/innovation in a broader sense: creativity for the understanding of humanity, human character, paths of moral cultivation and self realizations. I think there may well be ways to interpret Confucius’ teaching as creative and innovative in this broader sense of creativity. Indeed, even we adopt Confucius’s respect for the tradition, to apply and realize the ancient wisdom in a chaotic historical period may well require a great amount of creativity – To account for and to promote such ancient wisdom in a new and different social setting may well prove to be an innovative task by itself. E.g. I am sure that one needs innovation to learn to move/walk in balance on the moon!

    My two cents!

  12. 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.

    That might mean
    (a) People usually take the words to mean he is unoriginal (which is consistent with the idea that Confucius is speaking falsely, from modesty).
    (b) People usually infer from this that Confucius thought he was unoriginal.
    (c) People usually infer from this that Confucius was unoriginal.

    Jiyuan, I think you mean (b). Anyway, before this week my sense was that there was a long-standing consensus that (i) the surface claim is that he stuck to ancient ways (I do not recall anyone mentioning the idea that it meant he was wholly uncreative or unoriginal); and (ii) the claim is not to be taken at face value, for he elsewhere reports departing from ancient ways. Is the consensus very different among Chinese commentators? Or have I been mistaken about the anglophone consensus? I’ve read too little, almost all of it in English, and (outside of this blog) almost all of it some years ago.

    Confucius occasionally talks about how to arrive at a view of the Way. A main part of the method is to be observant of the people, trusting one’s sense of what seems good and bad in others, what is attractive and unattractive in others, articulating that sense and then applying it to oneself. That sounds like creative, independent thinking to me.

    I have what might be a bad reason for thinking of Confucius as a creative innovator. The Analects strikes me as full of shining wisdom, articulated (for practical use) far better than one sees in most other places. That’s a sign of a stalk sticking far above the crop. But it might be a bad reason, because I know so little about the contemporary and preceding crop. On the other hand, remarks like Zigong’s (quoted by Jiyuan above) strongly suggest that the things Confucius said were not commonplace at the time: were not already present in the tradition unless the tradition was esoteric.

    I wonder whether our sources are adequate to show that he was an innovator in vocabulary. Words for for feudal ranks seem to have a strong natural tendency to acquire a normative sense, though of course a bold thinker could hurry the process. If he did, one might expect to see the process in his remarks, not just the result. 13.3 suggests that Confucius would not be happy with such words’ jettisoning their rank sense and keeping only their moral sense; though of course 13.3 might be an interloper.

    Regarding Confucius’ view of the creativity of society over time, I’m puzzled. Some passages strongly suggest that he thought he knew the Way by special gift from Heaven; others strongly suggest otherwise; still others suggest that he thought the human origin of his Way should be concealed. Fortunately, many passages suggest that his ideas on many points were not settled, which is just what we should expect from a really good thinker. Any two of his recorded remarks might reflect different views, not just because they may be spoken to different people, but also because they may come from different years.

  13. Anyway, whatever the consensus may have been, I think it’s very helpful to raise explicitly the point that Confucius was an active thinker – not so much because that should change our views about the value of his ideas, but rather because it helps draw attention to his ideas on method.

  14. Here is a passage about述 from the Liji that might be read to say that in order to 述 a rite in detail, one need only be provided with its leading idea.

    In ceremonial usages we should go back to the root of them (in the mind), and maintain the old (arrangements of them), not forgetting what they were at first. Hence there is no (need to be) calling attention to the demonstrations expressive of grief; and those which (more particularly) belong to the court are accompanied by music. There is the use of sweet spirits, and the value set on water; there is the use of the (ordinary) knife, and the honour expressed by that furnished with (small) bells; there is the comfort afforded by the rush and fine bamboo mats, and the (special) employment of those which are made of straw. Therefore the ancient kings in their institution of the rules of propriety had a ruling idea, and thus it is that they were capable of being transmitted, and might be learned, however many they were.(Legge)

  15. I don’t have it in front of me right now, but doesn’t Michael Puett’s _Ambivalence of Creation_ focus on the notions of 述 and 作?

  16. Bill Haines wrote: “It seems to me that if I receive something from you and don’t pass it along to another, I have not ‘transmitted’ it at all. I have only received it. Granted, one has to receive in order to transmit; but the receiving is no part of the transmitting.” This is interesting and it reminds me of a question about 述 a friend of mine and I have had about LY 7.1. Most translators interpret 述 as “to transmit” in Lunyu 7.1. But are there any instances of 述 meaning to “transmit” prior to the Analects? The 漢語大詞典 glosses 述 in LY 7.1 as to 闡述. But didn’t 述 simply mean to “follow”? Aren’t we reading something into the text that isn’t there when we translate 述 as “to transmit”? Why not simply translate 述而不作,信而好古,竊比於我老彭 as: “Following instead of creating, trusting and loving the ancients, I venture to compare myself to Old Peng”?

    • Hmm! Nice questions. I didn’t know 述 could mean simply “follow.”

      are there any instances of 述 meaning to “transmit” prior to the Analects?

      Maybe there’s an instance in the Shijing, 夏書, 五子之歌:
      “they related the Cautions of the great Yu in the form of songs”(Legge)

      Of course that doesn’t settle what the character means in 7.1.

      Why not simply translate 述而不作,信而好古,竊比於我老彭 as: “Following instead of creating,…”

      I don’t know.

      Here are some thoughts that weigh on the side of “transmit”, though their collective weight is very slight:

      Assuming that we are to take 作 as referring to innovation in teaching, not only in action, the contrast with 作 is simpler and more direct if 述 is “transmit,” because then the contrast just about where he gets what he offers: “what I offer comes from others” v. “what I offer doesn’t come from others.”

      Also if it’s “follow,” the first part of the saying leaves open the question whom he follows, and the second part suggests an answer – which seems to me slightly awkward.

      Also 信 seems ever so slightly more apt if 述 is “transmit.”

      Also it seems to me offhand that an old coot would be more of a character for his chatter than for his traditional actions.

    • Suppose that in the passage in Book 17, we read 述 as “follow” rather than than “transmit”:

      The Master said, “I would prefer not speaking.” Zi Gong said, “If you, Master, do not speak, what shall we, your disciples, have to 述?” The Master said, “Does Heaven speak? The four seasons pursue their courses, and all things are continually being produced, but does Heaven say anything?” (Legge)

      Confucius’ remark about Heaven then might seem more directly to the point. But it would also be absurdly immodest. For that reason, it looks like there must have been no question of Zigong’s possibly meaning “follow.”

      How about that?

  17. Thanks Bill. Legge translates 述 in LY 17.19 as “record”; so does Richard Wilhelm (“was haben dann wir Schüler aufzuzeichnen?”). That makes sense to me here. Nor does “If the Master does not speak, then what will we little ones follow” sound nonsensical to me. I’m still curious to know where the “transmit” reading of 述 came from and what it’s based on.

  18. Hi Paul. I’m not sure there’s a significant difference between “transmit” and “record” in the context of the Shijing line.

    “Follow” is certainly not nonsensical in 17.19. My thought was about the comparison between these two readings of 17.19:

    –I would prefer not speaking.
    –Then what would we follow?
    –Heaven doesn’t speak, but the parts of nature know what to do.

    –I would prefer not speaking.
    –Then what teachings would we pass along?
    –Heaven doesn’t speak, but the parts of nature know what to do.

    In (B), the point of Confucius’ reply is to question the need for speaking in general. That’s not immodest.

    But in (A), the point of Confucius’ reply would have to be that the disciples can follow him as nature follows Heaven. So (A) is unacceptable as a reading; it makes Confucius say something wildly immodest.

    So, further, if “follow” were a common enough reading of 述 that there was a reasonable likelihood that Zigong might have meant “follow,” Confucius would have avoided the reply we see here, on the grounds that it would too easily sound like the immodest point. The reason it would too easily sound like the immodest point is that the immodest point in (A) is a more direct reply to (A)’s Zigong, while the modest point in (B) is a more indirect reply to (B)’s Zigong. On the other hand, this kind of argument relies pretty heavily on the assumption, which is questionable, that the transcript does not seriously abbreviate the original conversation.

    As for “record” v. “transmit” in 17.19, “record” suggests that writing was a larger part of studying with Confucius than is usually thought. Do you have a view about that?

  19. But Paul, you have me concerned about the line Jiyuan quotes from ZY 18: 夫孝者,善继人之志,善述人之事者也。 Maybe 述人之事者 here just means carrying out (finishing) the father’s particular projects, not transmitting anything.

  20. Jiyuan, regarding the view that the original meaning of the Greek word “philosophy” involves the idea that the philosopher does not possess wisdom:

    This view implies that “philosophy” was a glaring exception to the usual ancient Greek use of the very common prefix “phil-”, which in general did not suggest lack. As a prefix to a person or thing, it does not suggest lack: “philakratos,” loving unmixed wine, “philadelphos,” loving one’s brother, “philodespotes,” loving one’s master, etc. As a prefix to an activity or quality, it strongly suggests that one engages in the activity or has the quality to an unusually great degree: for example, “philagreutes”, loving to hunt; “philagwn,” loving the games; “philophthonggos,” loving noise, noisy; “philakoulouthos,” readily following; “philaidemwn,” loving modesty; “philaiteros,” censorious, loving to blame or attack; “philaploikos,” fond of simplicity; etc.

    So I think the view that “philosophy” originally implied not being wise bears the burden of proof.

    I think the view reflects two sources. One is a remark Pythagoras is supposed to have made: that he called himself a philosopher rather than wise, because only God is wise. (Note that such a claim does not require the word ‘philosopher’ to imply non-possession of wisdom; the word need only be consistent with the non-possession of wisdom.) Anyway it seems likely that Pythagoras never said it, and that it originated with a follower of Plato:

    The other source is a passage or two in Plato, including the one you cite. On the other hand, in Protagoras 442Af, Plato has the young Socrates use the word ‘philosophy’ (albeit in a flight of fancy) in such a way as to imply wisdom.

    Anyway the important question, I suppose, is whether the way Socrates or Plato actually thought of his intellectual work resembles in some way the conception of 述 that you find operative in 7.1. What resemblance do you see?

    • Bill: thanks. I really should have replied in time to so many wonderful comments. But i took over a sick colleague’s class, and have been teaching everyday. Regarding your comments, it is true that ‘love’ implies ‘lack’ and it is one central point in Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium. However, I do not like to bring the sense of lack into my analogy (unless it is qualified strictly). ‘Love of wisdom’ itself is a kind of wisdom, albeit not the degree of wisdom that God possesses. Aristotle in his Metaphysics A1-2 calls “the science he is seeking” sophia. Similarly, ‘shu” is also a kind of ‘innovation’, although not the degree of innovation that tradition shows.

    • Thank you, Jiyuan! I think Diotima sticks to “eraw” rather than “philew,” yes? (And while it might not make sense to desire exactly what one has, it seems to make even less sense to desire what one thinks one can’t get.)

      But I stand corrected on the main point – your point about philosophy is not about the lack of wisdom, except maybe the lack of complete wisdom.

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