Habituation and Xiaoxue 小學

Apologies to all involved for my delay on Fingarette posts—I’ve been unexpectedly consumed by thinking about issues connected with my dissertation, which I’ll be defending next month, and my paper on Proto-Daoists in the Analects, which I’ll be presenting in Vancouver in a couple of weeks. A couple of posts on Fingarette (before the end of the month, I promise!) are in the pipeline.

First, however, I thought I’d put an issue out there that I’ve been thinking about recently, in connection to one of the chapters of my soon to be defended dissertation, about moral education in Aristotle, and its connection to Zhu Xi. My thinking on this was prompted by a suggestion Steve Angle made to me, that one way to understand moral education in Aristotle might be similar to Zhu Xi’s distinction between xiaoxue 小學 (“lesser learning”) and daxue大學 (“greater learning”).  Aristotle holds that the way we come to gain virtue is through a process that begins with habituation, and continues until we come to the point at which we understand the orthos logos (“right reason”) and how certain actions adhere with this. The proper motivation, attitude, etc. toward our actions are also cultivated via this education, which begins with habituation.

For Aristotle, habituation seems to be (at some places, at least) a matter of passive imitation—the patterns of action we adopt and imitate are based on what is around us, and the learned habits we develop upon our constant imitation of these patterns can be said to be habituation. Habituation, on this picture, appears to be far more passive than what is involved in active learning, and indeed Aristotle seems to contrast habituation and learning in the Nicomachean Ethics, in Book I at 1099b9-11: “the question is also asked, whether happiness is to be acquired by learning or by habituation or by some other sort of training…” Thus, at least Aristotle sees key difference between learning and habituation, whether or not the passivity of habituation (in contrast with active learning) is what he takes the distinction to consist in.

Early in Book II, Aristotle says that intellectual virtue is cultivated via teaching and learning, whereas moral virtue is cultivated primarily via habituation. (NE 1103a14-19). It is still unclear from this just what he takes the distinction between learning and habituation to amount to, other than in simply flagging one as connected to intellectual education and the other to moral education. What does seem clear, however, is that moral education begins with habituation, but that in order to be perfected, to gain moral virtue, our moral sense needs to be guided by intellectual virtues such as phronesis (“practical wisdom”). This means that moral education for Aristotle requires both intellectual and moral cultivation, as the two are mutually supportive. Habituation and learning must be part of any moral education.

If we look at Zhu Xi’s view of moral education, there are also two distinct parts of moral education, xiaoxue and daxue. On Zhu Xi’s picture, these both appear to be a kind of learning in the sense of Aristotle’s intellectual learning, in which active engagement on the part of the student is necessary and formal training is given. Some passages from the Zhuzi yulei seem to offer such a picture of xiaoxue, for example. Zhu Xi spoke of formal training in schools that would be set up for the purpose of instruction in xiaoxue, and described the kind of learning that would take place this way:

小 學 是 事 , 如 事 君 , 事 父 , 事 兄 , 處 友 等 事 , 只 是 教 他 依 此 規 矩 做 去. “Lesser learning is the study of affairs—such as serving one’s ruler, serving one’s father, serving one’s brother, and dealing with one’s friends. It teaches one to behave according to certain rules” (Gardner trans., 1.6, p. 93—I know, I know…I usually do my own translations here at UPJ, but I think Gardner is fine here, and I don’t want to get into the thickets of translating 理.) In the next line, Zhu Xi contrasts this with daxue:

大 學 是 發 明 此 事 之 理 。“Greater learning illuminates the principle (li) behind these affairs.”

It seems clear to me that coming to understand the li 理 underlying things in Zhu Xi is fairly similar to Aristotle’s requirement of understanding the orthos logos (“right reason”) as a requirement for virtue, which goes beyond mere habituation. But here is a difficulty: while Zhu Xi is explicit that xiaoxue must come before daxue, training the student so that they are able to understand the li 理 behind things, which they come to understand through daxue, Aristotle is unclear on the order of habituation and intellectual learning. He is unclear about whether one of these must come first, or whether they are developed side by side. In fact, we might see both habituation and intellectual learning as themselves having stages something like Zhu Xi’s xiaoxue/daxue stages.

Of course, if habituation is passive in the way I suggest above, it will be hard to distinguish two stages along something like Zhu Xi’s lines. This is all problematized even further, as well, because there is disagreement among interpreters about how to understand habituation for Aristotle, with some seeing habituation as mainly passive (Sorabji suggests Aristotle at some places in the NE might have claimed this), and some seeing it as more akin to active learning via instruction.

Perhaps most of the problem here is with Aristotle’s conception of moral education, which is, like many of the themes in the Nicomachean Ethics, not fully developed. But could he have adopted something like Zhu Xi’s xiaoxue/daxue picture of moral education, given his reliance on habituation and intellectual learning as necessary for virtue? Interested to hear what you all think about this…

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