Zhi (智) in Confucian literature

Here are a few notes (from a few years back) on zhi 智(commonly translated as “wisdom”) in Confucian literature. I’ve argued that this should be translated as “of proper mind” rather than wisdom. Also, I’ve argued that this word is different from the other zhi (知) commonly used in the Analects (without the radical yue (曰) [“to speak”] attached). I haven’t thought about this much for a while, but I’ve recently been worrying a bit about the moral epistemology of the Analects, so I thought I’d go ahead and post some of this stuff. Let me know what you think!

The main argument I wish to make below for interpreting zhi as “of proper
mind” in Confucian literature is that some translations of the term seem to
neglect the link in Confucius between the epistemic and the moral. Western
philosophical tradition has commonly split the two into different realms.
For Confucius, however, no part of human life is free from the moral.
Everything is appraised in moral terms. Every facet of human life is engaged
with the moral enterprise Confucius sets out in the Analects. Too many translations
I’ve seen fail to translate zhi in a way which bridges the gap between the
epistemic and the moral.

The two parts of this character are zhi 知(to know, understand) and (Ames
and Hall say ri 日(sun), but I think there may be a case that it is yue
曰(to speak). One initial attempt to render the word, based on this, might
be “to speak knowledge” or “to speak knowingly.” This lends to the tendency
to translate zhi as “wisdom.” However, this term has implications in the
west which I think would make it seem more appropriate for other Chinese
terms. “Wisdom” seems to refer to a certain presence of mind, or a general
and practical knowledge of some type, which can be applied to real situations.

We think of someone who is wise as someone having a certain type of knowledge,
namely valuable knowledge. The term zhi does not, I think, refer to a
type of knowledge, in theway “wisdom” seems to, but rather to a certain
characteristic inherent in some of those who have knowledge, an ability
to “hit the mark”, or to speak in an appropriate and knowledgeable manner.

These meanings are also included in the term “wisdom.” The main difficulty
I find with “wisdom” is that it both has meanings definitely not a part of
zhi, and it is also not as wide a term as zhi, as is often the case when
we compare lean English vocabulary to much more elastic Chinese counterpart

Translations of zhi (in the Analects)
In their translation of the Analects, Ames and Hall translate zhi, in which
they consider 知and 智as one term, as “to realize.” (though they use “understanding”
and “wisdom” at various places in the text as well). This seems an appropriate
translation, especially for 知, rather than “to know.” However, I’m a little
worried about clumping the other character 智in with this, as it seems to
me to refer to a different aspect of the general term zhi. If we do what
Ames and Hall have done, zhi seems to become a general epistemic term. In
some texts this might be too broad. If both these epistemic terms are to
be bundled together to express one main idea, “realization” is probably
better than “knowledge,” for the reasons Ames and Hall mention, that “to
realize” recognizes the active sense of the term zhi, while “to know” denotes
a passive, post-reflective state we’re in once we’ve already made our epistemic
decisions. In this way, “to know” seems to describe a state, whereas “to
realize” describes a process. This is keeping with the general tendency
in Ames and Hall to read the Chinese vocabulary as processual rather than
concrete or “substantive.” I agree with this move.
Chan, in his Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, translates zhi as “knowledge”
and “wisdom” in the Analects.

Translation based on zhi, yue
“To speak knowingly” seems to indicate some kind of characteristic, rather
than stored information. I avoid the Ames and Hall “to realize” for the
知 part of this character, because “realize” might seem strange taken adverbally
(realizingly??) zhi might be read as “having the character to speak in
the right way”, posessing a sort of inner cultivation which allows one to
constantly “hit the mark.” Following Jullien’s concern with propensity,
we might even think of zhi as a kind of propensity to act in a certain type
of way, to properly speak, to be on the mark.

Consider a passage from Analects
4.2: “知(I’m reading this as 智here. Ames and Hall seem to do this also,
translating it as “wisdom”) 者利仁。 If we take zhi zhe as “those of proper
mind,” taking zhi to be “of proper mind”, this passage reads “those of proper
mind thrive in ren.” This sounds right to me– “of proper mind,” I think,
gets rid of some of the baggage of “wisdom” as applying a certain type of
knowledge, or simply having great knowledge. “of proper mind” seems to link
the epistemic with the ethical in a way I think Confucius’s thought demands.

We might, however, be somewhat careful to claim that there’s an ethical
sense to epistemic terms in Confucius, because part of the task of the Analects
is to show that all aspects of human life are part of the ethical. If we
build in such an ethical sense to epistemic terms, then why would Confucius
need to demonstrate that the epistemic terms do come under the scope of
the ethical? Why wouldn’t it be something everyone already knew, just by
the meaning of words?

The reason I advocate reading zhi as having an ethical sense is that I believe
Confucius’s teachings give the terms such meaning, regardless of what was
contained in them before. Many terms used in the Analects are terms which
Confucius reworked into his system of ethics based on ren. Terms such as
junzi, and even ren itself took on new meanings in Confucius, determined
by their place in his ethical system. I believe we should read zhi in this
way, as occupying a position with respect to ren. In this light, it would
not make sense to consider zhi in isolation from Confucius’s ethical system.
This shows the possible inadequacy of a translation of zhi as “wisdom”.

Finally, I will consider some relevant passages in Confucius, with the “wisdom”
zhi changed to “of proper mind”. Rather than retranslating the
passages, I’ll work from the Ames and Hall version of the Analects.

2.17– “The Master said: “Zilu, shall I teach you what it is to be of proper
mind? To know what you know, and know what you do not know–this then is
being of proper mind.”

4.1– “The Master said: “In taking up one’s residence, it is the presence
of ren that is the greatest attraction. How can anyone be called of proper
mind who, in having the choice, does not seek to dwell among authoritative

6.22– “Fan Chi inquired about being of proper mind. The Master replied,
‘to devote yourself to what is appropriate (yi 義) for the people, and to
show respect for the ghosts and spirits while keeping them at a distance
can be called being of proper mind.”

Especially in the final passage, I think the superiority of “of proper
mind” over “wisdom” becomes apparent.

17 responses to “Zhi (智) in Confucian literature

  1. Kai Thompson Finlay

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  2. Kai Thompson Finlay

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  3. Kai Thompson FInlay

    i like people who are 9 years old

  4. this was helpful BIG BOI



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