By Hans van Ess

Wang Yangming (1472-1529) is one of the two most important Chinese philosophers. (images imago / Imaginechina-Tuchong)

Those who criticize hesitant climate policy often point this out with a quote from Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming: “Anyone who understands and does not act does not understand. How was it meant and what does it tell us today?

Wang Yangming, who lived from 1472 to 1529, is “one of the two most important philosophers of the 2nd millennium in China”: to this day, his thinking has shaped not only Chinese culture, but also Japanese culture, explains Hans van Ess, professor of sinology at LMU Munich.

In Germany too, at least one quote from the Chinese thinker has reached a certain level of consciousness: “Whoever has understood and does not act does not understand. The quote was recently uncovered during climate protests – as a philosophically grounded critique of too hesitant climate policy.

Learn from the things you do

But what was the original meaning of the quote? To do this, we have to imagine the historical context of China in the 15th century: in the training of civil servants at that time, the prevailing conviction was that they could only work in the administration if they had “understood” well. world and things. van Ess. However, this demand “has led to divert learning from books from doing,” leading to major problems in China.

Wang Yangming’s sentence was directed against this excessive emphasis on understanding before action: “He was of the opinion that knowledge and action must go hand in hand; that you have to learn from the things you do and not just from those who study books all the time. “

Even with Wang Yangming, there is a basis for action: “Action is only possible if you really understand something. But you shouldn’t always expect to understand much, much more before you start at some point.

Intermediate path between understanding and acting

For Hans van Ess, Wang Yangming should not be understood as a supporter of pure activism, because he is currently looking for “a good compromise” between understanding and action. For the moment, van Ess sees a double lesson in this: on the one hand, one must not “be seduced by half-understood ideologies” to do things that in the end can do more harm than good. “But conversely, you can’t wait all the time for problems to be theoretically solved and believe that others can relieve you of the annoying need to do something yourself.”

Van Ess formulates Wang Yangming’s central idea as follows: “At some point you should have understood that you understood enough to act.