True learning is a very mysterious thing: What exactly happens when a person learns something? — as opposed to repeating, memorizing, registering, hearing, or believing. There doesn’t seem to be any formula for causing learning to happen; we cannot make anyone learn, but we might be able to make them repeat what they are told. The best educational systems merely provide sufficient occasions and conditions for learning, including teachers who can present what needs to be learned in the clearest and most attractive ways possible. Even so, some students will learn, while most will only hear and repeat — which is often all they need to do to obtain social approbation.
Since learning cannot be made to happen, is there some fundamental condition for learning that can be instilled and developed — some quality of mind or character that can be cultivated so as to make the student more capable of learning? This question arose for me in a recent re-reading of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (late 12th century, a contemporary of Maimonides), who formed the Confucian canon and exerted more influence than anyone else over the Chinese philosophical tradition of the next 700 years. Zhu pulled out of the main body of the Book of Rites two sections that became core Confucian classics, the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean, and he also edited them. The first of these addresses education generally, but more specifically, how we can learn to become better and wiser. We are told early on that to learn anything, the mind has to be present: When the mind is not present, we look and do not see; we hear and do not understand; we eat and do not know the taste of what we eat. (Tr. Legge) Yet for the mind to be fully present, there needs first to be an attitude of care or serious interest: how does that come about?
On the first page of the book we read:
The ancients who wished to manifest their clear excellence throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts/minds. Wishing to rectify their hearts/minds, they first sought to be sincere in their intentions. Wishing to be sincere in their intentions, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their intentions were sincere. Their intentions being sincere, their hearts/minds were then rectified. (translation adapted from Legge)
Classical Chinese philosophy is full of conditional chains like this one. A reader unacquainted with these texts might at first find the logic simply crude and silly, but after some mulling he will usually realize that part of the problem is that the key words do not have exact correlates in English; and translating them into the “approximate” English equivalents creates an impression of imprecise, blurry reasoning. Taking this into account, we then try to peer beneath the translator’s words to understand the train of thought that did not seem imprecise to Zhu Xi’s Chinese readers. However, in this paragraph there is one link in the chain that did puzzle other Chinese philosophers, such as Wang Yangming: Why does sincerity of intention come after the investigation of things? In editing the text, Zhu had switched the traditional order, in which sincerity preceded investigation: Surely genuine care for the matter under investigation had to precede, indeed motivate, the investigation itself? Attitude and interest have to be developed enough before there will be any inquiry. The rectified heart/mind depends on knowledge, which depends on investigation, which in turn depends on sincere interest. According to this reading, the student’s care for the matter has to be nourished before any learning can occur.
Zhu surely understood this objection, and his decision to place the investigation of things before sincerity of intention comes from a profound insight. Sincerity — a word impossible to translate, because it covers a range of meanings that includes authenticity, whole-heartedness, serious interest, but not what in contemporary English we call “sincerity” — cannot be cultivated directly. We cannot just decide to become “sincere” and then work on it; if we try to do that, sincerity becomes a posture — which doesn’t necessarily mean it is false, just that it is then something we struggle for and practice towards, not something we wholly are. For Zhu Xi, we become sincere naturally, through doing something else. When he describes this something else as “investigation of things” and “extension of knowledge,” what he is getting at is the cultivation of intellectual impartiality in the activity of understanding. This applies to the Confucian study of relationships and ethics, but also to the study of nature (Zhu Xi himself was both scientist and philosopher.) In investigating the nature of rust, for instance, one might start by looking at the conditions for it before discovering something like the principle of oxidation; and this is then “extended” to phenomena such as combustion and respiration until the student can go no further. At each stage in the investigation, the serious student will question his own conclusions and seek ways to test them. If the search is motivated by self-interest, such as a zeal for profit from metallurgical knowledge, it will become narrower in its scope and will terminate when the desire has been fulfilled. This is not “investigation of things” as Zhu views it, because — limited by partiality — it stops short of finding “principles.” This applies even more to moral and political questions, where partiality will be governed by fear and desire. We might be “sincere” in our fears and desires, but these feelings will muddy our capacity to recognize what is true or untrue.
The one foundation for learning is impartiality. If we are incapable of stepping out of the frameworks constituted by (usually unconscious) attractions and aversions, we will never achieve clear insight about anything and will never know how to tell the difference between what is true and what we want. This is perhaps why sustained training in mathematics and science might be essential to the study of philosophy. The mind needs to become habituated to standards of self-testing and rigorous self-reflection. For Platonic philosophers these standards came from geometry; for Buddhists, from awareness meditation. Most teachers have probably observed how their students, after having initially been made to study a specific problem, will, after spending some time with the problem, suddenly become interested in it and begin to form their own questions about it. Because they are novices, they will not have the same stamina with questions as more experienced learners have, and will need to be nudged and encouraged until they develop greater capacity for investigation. They will learn to tell if a question has been answered or not, and if not, to find the questions that will take them towards the answer. And they will learn to understand a subject from more than one side, because the many sides of a subject will yield a fuller view of it. After some years doing this, any half-hearted attempt at investigation will strike such students as sloppy and shallow — and they will not be satisfied with the glib and easy answers that come from such attempts.
They will have learned not — as the cliché goes — how to learn, but what it is to learn; they will have gained not techniques of learning, but the touchstone for it in their own minds. The touchstone is founded on impartiality — without which we cannot know whether we know or do not know. Only from this can knowledge be taken to its uttermost limits, and our intentions and actions, whether clear or confused, will always be rooted in what we think we know.
If impartiality is the foundation of all true learning, it follows that in our educational institutions we need to preserve the occasions for strict and exact pursuit of questions for their own sake and not for the sake of their consequences; we need to be able to think beyond our fears and desires, and calmly examine points of view and lines of reasoning that might be antithetical to what we want to believe. The impartial mind is capable of finding itself mistaken, and of acknowledging its perceived enemies to be right. Thus education should never be about corroborating or validating the self-image of groups or individuals, whether majorities or minorities; it should not be for the sake of confirming or consecrating partialities, for if we cannot overcome our own partiality we will not learn anything. Through the cultivation of impartiality, we become more capable of self-reflection and self-criticism — and therefore too of self-reform. The inscription on King Tang’s bathtub read, “If you can renovate yourself one day, then you can do so every day, and keep doing so day after day.”
The Confucian classic goes on to talk about how from the investigation of things and sincerity of intention, all the other human virtues spring. Honest investigation involves courage, humility, respect, generosity, and other excellences. The investigation of things is, according to the Zhu Xi version of Confucius’ thinking, not only a contemplative path, but also the path to becoming a full human being capable of effective action in society.