On Learning

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1st reflection on the Analects of Confucius

I have previously examined the nature of knowledge, positing it as our perception of truth (see on Knowledge and Truth). This position commits me to the point that there is a reality, but human nature its flawed facilities of sensation and cognition warp our comprehension of said reality. This could be a diving board from which we could dive, headlong, into the depths of nihilism – if the task of understanding is nigh impossible why undertake the labours? Instead, I would argue that this insight not only acts as a goad to action but as a stand-in for the absolute good (see on the Good).

In the absence of knowing true goodness, wouldn’t the next best act be to attempt to understand the truly good? Without the knowledge of true goodness, our actions could never be truly good – one thinks of the relative goodness that people pursue within a parochial frame of reference resulting in theft, rape, murder, war and genocide. However, as our knowledge of the good comes to be closer to the truth of the good, our actions will begin to conform more closely to that of the good life – as long as we put our knowledge into practice.

Thus in the absence of the good, we should treat the quest to understand the good as the motivating factor in our lives. As such, we should structure our lives, ethics and politics in such a way to allow and encourage learning about the good. I wish to divide this learning from common education, for the two are similar only in that they are activities of the mind. Learning is purely abstract; it pushes an individual to question and unravel the certainties of their mind, smashing past idols and searching for clues in the fragmented rubble. Education, on the other hand, is the practical knowledge which allows an individual to make the correct decisions based off imperfect data to achieve relatively reliable approximations in the sensible world. Learning helps us understand the good, education helps us build a house.

I do not mean to deride education in this context – as part of our ethics and politics education is fundamental to establishing a society in which learning can occur: one finds it difficult to study with a gun to one’s head, dying of starvation and riddled with tapeworms. Thus, education is a prerequisite to allowing deeper comprehension of reality. Education is fundamental to learning, without it we would not have the language with which we share ideas – however education is by no means an assurance that a person is learned.

Original text

the Analects of Confucius


Gu Kaizhi, Admonitions of the Instructress, ca.345–406 CE


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