Wang Yang-Ming (1472–1529)

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Wing-tsit Chan reminds the reader that "the philosophy of Wang Yang-ming is a vigorous philosophy born of serious searching and bitter experience" (1963, Chan's introduction, p. ix). Wang's doctrine of the unity of knowledge and action, for example, may be regarded as a forceful and concise way of stating the unity of his life and teaching during his formative years. For Wang, learning to become a sage involved a serious and resolute commitment to Dao or ren (humanity)the ideal of "forming one body" with all things in the universe. Says Wang: "The great man regards Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body (yiti ). Moreover, the ren -person also forms one body with plants, stones, tiles, mountains, and rivers" (1963, p. 272).

Alternatively, one may characterize Wang's vision of the highest good as an ideal of the universe as a harmonious moral community. A commitment to the vision of ren is a commitment to the task of clarifying the concrete significance of the visionan ideal theme rather than an ideal norm as a basis for deriving precepts. An ideal theme is a unifying perspective, a point of orientation, not a fixed principle of conduct. For expressing his vision Wang sometimes used the term Dao (way) instead of ren. Dao and ren differ in the direction of stress. On the one hand, ren stresses the significance of Wang's moral vision as residing in affectionate human relationships, a habitat that is capable of indefinite expansion and ultimately embraces the whole universe. Dao, on the other hand, stresses the ongoing course of changing circumstances that calls for an exercise of the agent's sense of rightness (yi ). The unlimited possibilities of the concrete significance of Dao cannot be exhausted with any claim to finality (dao wu zhongqiong ). Notably Wang sometimes uses the term tianli (heavenly principle, pattern, rationale) to express his vision of the highest good. Tianli is inherent in xin (heart/mind); often it is obscured by the presence of selfish desires.

Except for its ethical significance, Wang shows little interest in the pursuit of factual knowledge. Unlike Zhu Xi (11301200), who emphasizes the significance of li (principle, pattern, or rationale) in the investigation of things (gewu ) in the Great Learning, Wang focuses instead on the rectification of the mind (zhengxin ) that deviates from his moral vision. Rectification of the mind involves, in particular, an acknowledgment of the unity of moral knowledge and action (zhixing heyi ), an enlargement of the scope of moral concern in the light of the vision of ren, rather than extensive acquisition of factual knowledge.

Wang's doctrine of the unity of knowledge and action is sometimes stated as the unity of moral learning and action (xuexing heyi ). Wang's discussion involves two different senses of zhi, corresponding to two senses of knowledge. For convenience, this entry will use the distinction between prospective and retrospective moral knowledgethat is, knowledge acquired anterior or prior to action and knowledge posterior to action.

Prospective moral knowledge, for the most part, is a product of learning, an acknowledgment of the projective significance of the standards embedded in the various notions of Confucian virtues. Prospective moral knowledge is implicit in Wang's compendious remark that "knowledge is the direction of action and action is the effort of knowledge" (1963, p. 11) As prospective knowledge, and by virtue of its cognitive content, it provides a direction or a leading idea (zhuyi ) for actual conduct. Another compendious remark appears to make use of both prospective and retrospective senses of moral knowledge: "knowledge is the beginning of action and action is the completion of knowledge" (1963, p. 11). Wang's emphasis on personal realization of his moral vision is an emphasis on retrospective moral knowledge. For Wang, the transition from prospective to retrospective knowledge involves a variety of intellectual acts (inquiry, understanding, sifting, or discrimination) and volitional acts (involving resolution, intention, moral desire, and the purity of moral motives in the endeavor to achieve the ideal of ren ). More especially, in his mature thought, Wang constantly focused on extending liangzhi, commonly rendered as "innate or intuitive knowledge of the good."

Liangzhi, in the sense of the ability of moral discrimination, while basic, cannot capture the depth of Wang's concern in his teaching of extending liangzhi. While the human mind is in the rudimentary sense consciousness, without a commitment to the vision of ren alternatively to Dao or tianli it would be indifferent to moral concern. Possessed of liangzhi, the human mind as informed by the vision will be distinctively marked as moral consciousness. As Wang was wont to say, it is liangzhi that manifests tianli or liangzhi that manifests Dao. As the intrinsic quality (benti ) of the moral mind, liangzhi is "naturally intelligent, clear and unbeclouded" (1963, p. 274). This notion of liangzhi as the seat of moral consciousness does involve liangzhi in the sense of moral discrimination, and significantly stresses the exercise of clear intelligence in discerning the moral import of particular situations. As embodying the concern for tianli, liangzhi is properly considered a personal standard; that is, a standard for making autonomous judgment of the moral quality of thought and actions, as well as feelings. Thus Wang's notion of liangzhi cannot be understood apart from his vision and confidence in the mind as possessing its own capability of realizing the vision.

Liangzhi, being an active concern of the moral mind with tianli, clearly involves the determination to its actualization. As embodying this active concern with tianli, liangzhi cannot be rendered as intuition, as this term is used in Ethical Intuitionism. Genuine perplexity arises in changing or exigent circumstances, where established standards do not provide clear guidance (Cua 1982, ch. 3). While liangzhi is inherent in all minds, the distinguishing characteristic of the sage lies in his or her attitude toward study and reflection. As invested with tianli, liangzhi is indeed a standard, but it does not issue recipes for coping with changing circumstances. Wang believed that liangzhi can provide unerring guidance, but it is unclear how he could account for failure in extending liangzhi and the relation between moral and factual knowledge. Focus on the nature of retrospective moral knowledge and experience may provide a critical point of departure for developing the notion of liangzhi in Confucian ethics.

See also Confucianism; Zhu Xi.


Chang, Carsun. The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought. Vol. 2. New York: Bookman Associates, 1962.

Ching, Julia. To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Cua, A. S. "Between Commitment and Realization: Wang Yang-ming's Vision of the Universe as a Moral Community." Philosophy East and West 43 (4) (1993): 61149.

Cua, A. S. Moral Vision and Tradition: Essays in Chinese Ethics. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998.

Cua, A. S. The Unity of Knowledge and Action: A Study in Wang Yang-ming's Moral Psychology. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1982.

Deustch, Elliot, et al. "Proceedings of East-West Philosophers' Conference on Wang Yang-ming: A Comparative Study." Philosophy East and West 23 (1, 2) (1973).

Tu, Wei-ming. Neo-Confucian Thought in Action: Wang Yang-ming's Youth (14721509). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Wang Yang-ming. Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Wang Yang-ming. The Philosophical Letters of Wang Yang-ming. Translated by Julia Ching. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1972.

Antonio S. Cua (2005)