Theory of Knowledge 1: Gewu and Zhizhi

  • Yiu-ming FungEmail author
Part of the Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy book series (DCCP, volume 13)


As two important classics of the Pre-Qin 先秦 Confucianism, the Great Learning (Daxue 大學) and the Doctrine of Mean (Zhongyong 中庸) were later extracted from the Book of Rites (Liji 禮記) and combined with the Analects (Lunyu 論語) and the Mencius (Mengzi 孟子) to form the Four Books (Sishu 四書) by Zhu Xi 朱熹. Zhu Xi treats the Great Learning as the entrance to the cultivation of virtue (ru de zhi men 入德之門) for junior scholars. He also thinks that the three guiding principles (san gongling 三綱領) and the eight clauses (ba tiaomu 八條目) in the beginning of the essay are most important in Confucian study. These principles are:Although the text does not give any explanation for these principles, most traditional scholars think that they are related to the eight clauses. These scholars, including Zhu Xi, believe that the first principle, “to illustrate the illustrious virtue” (ming mingde 明明德), is about inner and personal cultivation and the other two principles, “to renovate the people” (qin men 親民) and “to rest in the highest excellence” (zhiyu zhi3shan 止於至善), are about socio-political practice. They also believe that the former principle is substantiated by the first five clauses and the latter two principles are materialized in the last three clauses. In the second passage, the writer of the Great Learning stresses that the eight clauses have an intimate relationship step by step from each item to its following item. It says that:It seems that for each step to its following one, from gewu1 格物 (to investigate things/affairs), zhi1zhi2 致知 (to extend knowledge/understanding), chengyi 誠意 (to be sincere in thoughts/intentions), zhengxin 正心 (to rectify the mind/heart), xiushen 修身 (to cultivate oneself), qijia 齊家 (to regulate the family), zhiguo 治國 (to make the state well-ordered), to pingtianxia 平天下 (to made the whole kingdom to be tranquil and happy), there is a necessary condition in the sense that the following step cannot be well-done without the previous one. Since a necessary condition is not a sufficient condition, the well-done of the former step cannot guarantee the well-done of the latter step though the former is required and helpful or useful for the latter. It means that there is a relative independence in terms of cultivation or governance for each step from the first five clauses to the last three clauses though they are formed into a web of close relationship. So, even though we do not know from the text about the exact meaning of each one of the eight clauses, it is obvious that each step has its own work in terms of internal cultivation or external governance for people or institutions.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of HumanitiesHong Kong University of Science and TechnologyHong KongPeople’s Republic of China

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