What does it mean to know li (zhili 知禮) in the Lunyu—knowing how?

The four passages on 知禮 in the Lunyu: 3.15, 3.22, 7.31, 20.3 shed some light on 知—is it knowing how, knowing that, or some combination of them, or perhaps a different kind of knowing?

In 7.31, Confucius himself is challenged. Perhaps here we see an ordering (prioritisation) of li? Confucius is challenged again in 3.15. This is a really interesting case: the person who has observed Confucius asking questions at the Hall presumes that Confucius does so because he lacks knowledge. On this basis, he asks if Confucius actually knows li. Confucius’ response turns the tables on the inquirer. To ask questions (i.e. what he was doing then) is not a sign of not knowing that; it is in fact a manifestation of knowing-how to perform li (it is an act of respect or courtesy by a visitor to the Hall to show interest in its details).

In 3.22, Confucius judges that Guanzhong does not know li — on the basis that he has failed to manifest the appropriate li in court. Hence, Confucius asks the rhetorical question concerning whether Guanzhong did really know li.

So here we’ve got some evidence that knowing how is necessary for zhili in these two conversations. *Perhaps even necessary and sufficient in 3.22? (I’m just not sure about this point, though—and I’d like to hear what others think.).

21 replies on “What does it mean to know li (zhili 知禮) in the Lunyu—knowing how?”

  1. Hi Karyn; interesting question! Just a quick thought: the knowing-how vs knowing-that distinction seems most relevant to analytic epistemology, as a strategy to distance the discussion of propositional knowledge from other ways in which “to know” is conceived. It’s one of those “divide and conquer” devices to try to give an account of what knowledge is. That’s my recollection of how I learned that distinction as an undergraduate — maybe I’m misremembering.

    Outside of that context, maybe we could talk about “knowing that” as a form of “knowing how” and make sense of some ways that philosophers talk, prior to analytic epistemologists. When Socrates wonders whether the poets know anything about poetry since they are unable to answer his questions coherently or at all, it seems like we can understand Socrates’ view as this: To know poetry, you have to be able not only to write it, but also to answer questions about it and explain what it means. Both of the latter seem to be some kind of “know-how,” at least from the point of view of rhetoric.

    There are clearly some kinds of know-how that can’t be reduced to knowing-that (bike riding, juggling, and so forth), but at least from the point of view of rhetoric, it seems like you can reduce all knowing-that to know-how in a broad sense. Based on that, I’m inclined to think making sense of 知 in early Chinese thought is easiest as “know-how” since, as in Plato’s early dialogues, knowledge in the broad sense, and the ability — or know-how — to thwart interlocutors coherently seem to go together (except in Daoist rejections of that very thesis, of course).

    • Hi Manyul, these are exactly the sort of ideas I’m keen to look at: is knowing-that necessary at all in Chinese philosophy? If the answer is ‘no,’ what does that say about the traditional knowing-how / knowing-that distinction in contemporary epistemology. One strong strand in contemporary epistemology cashes know-how in terms of knowing-that (see e.g. the discussions in http://www.uwyo.edu/moffett/research/folkintellectualism.pdf). In brief, knowing-how is reducible to knowing that.

      But in your account, one that I suspect is the prevalent ‘mood and thinking’ in Chinese philosophy, knowing how is primary. That, however, does not allow us to say that knowing-that is reducible to knowing how. I’m looking for a way to get to the intuitions you have expressed in your comments. Thanks!

  2. I suppose I’ve been taking for granted that 知禮 is a common idiom of the time. If one can separately analyze the 知, my guess would be that it literally means “know that,” or more accurately “know [what the rules are], as a polite way of suggesting “know to [do X in such a case].”

    • I think of the phrase as mainly used in the negative 不知禮. Maybe that’s not right. The phrase could have arisen in connection with the selection and evaluation of expert advisers.

      “Know to” is an existing English idiom. I take “knowing to” to be related to dispositions as “knowing how” is related to skills. I don’t see a reason to privilege “knowing how” over “knowing to” ontologically, but maybe there is one. Offhand it seems to me that skills might be classified, with slight strain, as dispositions: dispositions to succeed in doing X should you choose to try. I don’t see how to classify dispositions as skills without more strain than that.

    • Bill, this is immensely helpful–I had been thinking along those lines of dispositions and skills. Certainly, it’s not wayward to suggest that Confucian learning involves cultivation of what we might broadly call ‘dispositions’. (cf the idea of Huang Yong’s raised in Steve’s post below–certainly from Xunzi we see quite weighted emphasis on 欲 (too narrowly translated as ‘desires’ oftentimes).

      I agree completely with your final statement that it would be a long stretch to try to cash out dispositions in terms of skills. I think there are also good reasons to distinguish skills from dispositions, and this is where classifying Chinese philosophy in terms of knowing-how falls short.

  3. Manyul and Karyn, here’s a quote from a draft of a paper I wrote once; some of it may be of interest here, though its tendentious purpose is not. Gotta run now though. -B

    The classical Chinese verb zhī 知 most commonly takes as its object a simple or complex noun. Gong-sun Chou asks Mencius, “What do you mean, you ‘know words’ (zhī yán 知言)?” Mencius replies, “From biased language, I know wherein the speaker is misled (zhī qí suŏ bì 知其所蔽) …” (2A2). Similar constructions are familiar in English. First, sometimes the English “know” has a fairly simple noun complement: you know clouds, wine, Paris, Susie, your tools, math, or the taste of potato chips. You are familiar with it, you understand it, or you know what things of that type mean; in general, you know enough about it for the purposes in question. Second, very often “know” has a complex noun complement easily tranformed into an indicative sentence if we add the main element. For example, I might know the capital of France; for I know that the capital of France is Paris. But similarly I might know where the hips go in the foxtrot, the style of your clothes, the shape of the thing I am looking at, what paisley looks like, how potato chips taste, or who Susie is. Here the missing elements are harder to supply, and sometimes the only practical way to communicate the content of the knowledge involves showing something, such as Susie, or a picture, model, diagram, or sample. Paisley looks like – this. [FN here: Hansen casually lumps all such cases together with knowing how and knowing to, as non-propositional knowledge (Hansen 1983, 66; Hansen 1994, 8, 44). Perhaps that is because his attention is more on belief than on knowledge. One cannot “believe” the taste of apples or the capital of France.]

    It is plausible that knowing a thing in either of these two ways is genuine congition, and amounts at least roughly to propositional knowledge (though the sentences needed to communicate what I know in knowing one thing may be impractically many or complex, or more easily completed with showings than with words). Hence even if Mencius lacked the vocabulary to characterize propositional knowledge as such, he seems to have had the vocabulary to discuss what we may fairly call real knowledge, not mere behavioral dispositions. Even if what he spoke of was more than knowledge because it also involved knowing how, still what he was speaking of would have been knowledge in large part. Indeed, there are good reasons to think that knowing how is itself propositional knowledge. [FN here: Stanley and Williamson, 2001 [Knowing how. Journal of Philosophy, 98 (8): 411-444]. From the fact that Mencius takes certain skills, dispositions, and concerns each to be evidence of wisdom (cognate with zhī 知), Van Norden infers that Mencius takes them to be essential parts of wisdom (Van Norden 2007, 273-7); but the inference is invalid.]

    • Hi Bill, this and your other comments are really interesting. What you have here runs against the grain of Manyul’s post.

    • Hi Karyn! I suppose it does, but in fact I’m in agreement with what seems to me the main thread in Manyul’s comment: a skepticism about taking any of these categories or divisions too seriously.

      When I wrote the draft I was worried about what seemed to me attempts to minimize the extent to which early Chinese philosophers were concerned with anything that might be true or false (I’m worried more generally and more enduringly about the use of Chinese philosophers as excuses not to think hard); so I was keen on propositions.

    • Again, I’d agree with you here. The Harbsmeier chapter I referred to in my first post (Harbsmeier, Christoph (1993). Conceptions of knowledge in ancient China. Epistemological issues in classical Chinese philosophy. s 11- 33 ) shows quite convincingly that there were notions akin to belief in the early texts. This is important for what I want to do: to show that it is not simply that the early Chinese thinkers did not contemplate truth or knowledge in terms of belief, but that they might have, though these did not figure in a prominent way. The question why is another matter.

  4. Hi Karyn and all,

    You might be interested in a paper that Huang Yong recently presented, arguing that neither knowledge-that nor knowledge-how could capture the Neo-Confucian notion of “true” knowledge. The paper is titled “More Than Know-that and Knowing-how: Why “Besire” Is Not Bizarre?” A key aspect of his argument is that zhi combines both belief and desire into a single mental state, which he follows some earlier philosophers in calling a “besire.”

    I know this is all a bit distant from the Analects, but still….

  5. I think we don’t learn much about 知 or知禮 from the passages in the Analects.

    In 7.31, someone asks Confucius whether his former ruler the former Duke of Lu knew ritual; he says yes; he is challenged on grounds of something the Duke did; and he responds only later, to others, and only in general terms, saying he is fortunate to have people who will point out his mistakes. (It seems likely that he felt his original answer and his later humble non-answer were both required of him by 禮, more or less independently of the degree to which the former Duke knew ritual. The original question itself may have been meant mainly as a test for Confucius, or as an attempt to dispose of him.) The evidence that the Duke didn’t 知禮 is that he did something that is or seems to be a violation. The same is true in 3.22: Guan Zhong’s apparent violation of protocol is used to question whether he 知禮.

    One can violate a rule or depart from a pattern because one is ignorant of it or because one isn’t disposed to follow it, or because one lacks the requisite skill. Skill seems to me not to enter in, in in any interestingly distinctive way, in 3.22 or 7.31, though of course one doesn’t know how to follow a rule unless one is aware of the rule. What might suggest that knowing-how is distinctively involved would be some suggestion that the ability to act with ritual propriety in the case involves a specialized or trained physical or mental or emotional agility or balance, say, especially one that is specific to ritual in general or to a large part of ritual; but it seems to me that nothing of that sort is suggested in these passages.

    It seems to me offhand the rule the Duke violated is one that he probably knew of. (Guan Zhong too? I have no idea.) One might infer that the Duke’s violation doesn’t demonstrate a failure of knowing-that or knowing-how. On the other hand, that line of thought may have been of no interest to the minister who posed the challenge: for the challenge may work just as well either way.

    • I have found 3.15 (in which Confucius asks questions in the temple) puzzling. I have thought the story was that he asked questions about the ritual requirements in the temple and thus seemed to display ignorance; and that his reply to the challenge was an implausible cheap trick, such as only someone already under his personal sway might take seriously. On this reading, the challenger would seem to understand “知禮” in the sense of “knowing-that,” and nothing in the passage suggests otherwise.

      But maybe another reading is better: maybe the problem with Confucius’ questions wasn’t they asked for the local ritual rules and thus displayed that he didn’t know them; maybe the problem was just that asking a bunch of questions in the temple seems too pushy, pesky, noisy, or in some other way not reverent enough. In that case his reply doesn’t look like a cheap trick; it’s just a counter-assertion and maybe not a very plausible one. On this reading, “知禮” does look a little more like knowing how. The charge against him was that he didn’t know how to behave in a temple, and not because he didn’t know some specific rule such as is at issue in 3.22 and 7.31.

  6. I’ve found that interpreting 知 in early Chinese philosophy works rather well if it is rendered as “to understand.” The problem with “to know” is not just that it can be ambiguous with regard to “know-that” and “know-how” but that each of these carries a history of philosophical baggage that can be inadvertently smuggled in. The term “understand,” has a broad meaning that essentially refers to the possession of that which one needs cognitively and affectively in order to respond appropriately. I think that when it comes to translating ancient Chinese philosophical terms into English, it is best to avoid English terms that carry a lot of philosophical baggage because then we can get caught up in the debates on the English-language side without ever really getting to the core of the Chinese term.

    • Thanks Bryan. I agree generally that it’s better not simply to adopt words/phrases in English that carry so much philosophical baggage, as you say. If we’re translating 知, ‘understand’ is better than ‘know’. In some occurrences, Ames’ ‘realisation’ works well. In some cases, 知 just is knowledge/understanding manifest in action.

      However, the reason for putting the query this way is that I’m working in the other direction: I’m using 知 to investigate the knowing-how / knowing-that dichotomy that I think is very inadequate. I’m hoping that some of the comments on this blog will also address the shortcomings of the dichotomy. Incidentally, some of this material will be the background to Hetherington’s and my paper for the MIT volume.

    • Hi Brian, that’s a really helpful point. “Understand” is often an excellent translation, and it’s a very helpful corrective to assumptions that come in with ‘know’. But in a pretty large class of cases, I think, “understand” doesn’t work because “知” there just means know of, be aware of – as in these snippets from the Analects:

      1.1 … 人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?
      4.21 … 父母之年,不可不知也 …
      5.5 … 不知其仁 …
      5.8 孟武伯問:“子路仁乎?”子曰:“不知也。” …

  7. Karyn, right. I figured that was it. Sorry I wasn’t more clear. I think that knowledge as “manifest” in action makes a lot of sense.

    Let me be more clear. There are those who suggest that know-that is parasitic on know-how, and those who suggest that know-how is parasitic on know-that. Perhaps, instead, it is a matter of mutual implication–that there is no clear line of delineation between the two and neither can be executed robustly without the other. To verify this, we have to consider two limit cases: pure declarative knowledge and pure procedural knowledge.

    Pure declarative knowledge would be something like trivia, e.g., how long is a year to the nearest second, or what is Sasha Obama’s middle name? These are things I could know but never conceivably put to use in a well-defined domain of activity.

    Pure procedural knowledge would be something like the wheelwright episode in the Zhuangzi. I may know how to do something but be completely unable to transmit it.

    The question, then, is whether these really are pure. Is there no activity at all associated with trivia? Is there nothing significant that the wheelwright can put into words regarding his skill?

    I think an argument can be made for mutual implication. If you look closely at trivia, for example, you notice that it is involved in a discrete practice. There is a certain pleasure for some people in knowing minute facts, which is enhanced when one can display those facts under just the right circumstances. Aside from pleasure, increased knowledge of this sort can lead to a perceived increase in status–so-and-so is very smart because she knows so much.

    That’s why I was saying that taking 知 as “to understand” may free you briefly from the presuppositions of “knowledge.” To understand something generally implies knowledge that can be applied appropriately. I know for instance, that a new series of quarters has been released in the U.S. featuring national parks, but I don’t really understand the finer points of numismatics–I don’t have a good grasp of how to apply the many, many facts of coin collecting to the practice of coin collecting.

    As Bill points out, there may be instances in which “to understand” can be ruled out as an interpretation (the fourth one he gives, certainly; not so sure about the others), but a narrow reading some of the time doesn’t rule out a broader reading at other times.

    The issue you are addressing is: what can 知 as understood (sorry) by the early Chinese tell us about knowledge in general, or as specifically applied to the know-that/know-how dichotomy. Perhaps it can give us some insight into how the two are mutually implicated.

    • Brian,

      re: “Is there nothing significant that the wheelwright can put into words regarding his skill?”
      — I think for adults there are significant things we can communicate. In a wonderful book called Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, Guy Claxton has pointed out, however, how children learn how (and consequently know-how) to do all sorts of things before they are able to comment or reflect on what they are doing. (They quickly learn though that they are expected to be able to explain themselves.)

      Karyn, you might want to check this book out.

    • Hi Brian, Yes; again, I agree with you about many cases, and probably the majority of cases. To get the beginnings of an idea of the relative quantity, I went through the Analects to count passages in which the character appears (not in the sense of wisdom), and came up with these totals. Of course no two people would agree on the numbers:

      17 passages in which “understand X” is clearly appropriate.

      23 passages in which it’s debatable whether what’s meant is closer to “understand X” or “be aware of the existence of X” (because the intent of the original is unclear, or because sometimes the two paraphrases yield pretty much the same point, etc.).

      14 passages in which it’s pretty clear that what’s meant is either “be aware of the existence of X” or “know that X exists or is the case,” rather than “understand X” (4.7, 4.21, 5.5, 5.8, 5.19, 7.19, 8.3, 9.23, 9.28, 13.2, 14.1, 14.38, 15.14, and 18.6.).

      I think the frequency of the latter sort of passage is easy to underestimate, because such uses of the character tend not to pique our philosophical interest.

      I don’t think any of this detracts from your basic point.

  8. Scott, I’ve had a look at the book on Amazon and it looks so interesting. I’ll definitely try to get hold of a copy. Thanks.

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