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How to Make Sense of the Claim “True Knowledge is What Constitutes Action”: A New Interpretation of W ang Yangming’s Doctrine of Unity of Knowledge and Action



No one denies the importance of applying knowledge to actions. But claiming identity (unity) of knowledge and action is quite another thing. There seem to be two problems with the claim: (1) the identity claim implies that the sole cause for one to fail to act on what one judges to be right is ignorance, but it is obviously false that the sole cause of failure in moral actions is ignorance. (2) The identity statement implies non-separation of knowledge and action. But knowledge does not necessarily lead to action. However, the identity of knowledge and action is what a famous Ming Confucian scholar, W ang Yang-ming, proposed and the concept became the central doctrine of his teaching. Though there are several major interpretations of Wang’s doctrine in contemporary literature, it is not clear to me how they deal with the above mentioned difficulties. In this article, I will discuss these interpretations of the doctrine and propose a new interpretation. My purpose is to give an interpretation of Wang’s doctrine that has the capacity of dealing with these challenges to the doctrine and also captures the essence of his teaching.



DaoSpringer Journals

Published: Jun 1, 2009

DOI: 10.1007/s11712-009-9110-4

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