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NTU Philosophical Review

Issue 54, October 2017

Shih-Chen Chen
Pages 43-82

A Research on the “Unity of Knowing and Acting” and Its Transcendental Explanation Based on Ethics

The doctrine of the “unity of knowing and acting” is one of the core concerns of Wang Yangming’s philosophy. This paper is trying to elucidate Wang’s theory by investigating: 1. The philosophical origin of this doctrine. 2. The justification of its ethical theory. Regarding the investigation of its “origin”, I will show the philosophical inheritance between Wang’s doctrine and classical texts by the support of relevant textual evidence, instead of examining the linkage between different general ideas in the School of mind. The common ground is revealed in Book 4A of Mencius, of which has been stated clearly that to know is to act. The relationship between knowing and acting is analytic. Since knowing is the richest content of wisdom, and genuine knowing is the observance of action, the knowing of benevolence and righteousness is also the observance of such values. Such Mencius’ idea serves not only the lexical origin as suggested by Lao Sze-kwang, but also as the textual ground of Wang’s understanding of the knowing function of the mind of discerning right and wrong. The second purpose of this paper is to justify the doctrine of the “unity of knowing and acting” by ethical interpretation. Lao emphasizes the significance of activity in the concept of “acting”, and transforms the meaning of “acting” from common sense to the level of school of mind and philosophy of language. Nevertheless, if the ethical necessity of the “unity of knowing and acting” has to be justified, i.e. the reason why knowing necessarily entail acting, a further explanation is needed. In this paper, ideas in School of mind will be explained in terms of ethical concepts in order to achieve a transcendental analysis. The “unity of knowing and acting” is possible in subjective identity, which is the a priori condition to make the concept of an ethical norm and imputation possible. The ethical necessity of the “unity of knowing and acting” can thus be revealed. In the subjective identity, the ethical “ownness” of knowing and acting is justified, and an ethical norm and the possibility of imputation can also be possible. Since knowing and acting belong to one’s own self, the ethical norm and its imputation is then valid. This is a formal argument constituted by the self-relation of one’s subjectivity.