Learning without thinking

子曰:「學而不思則罔,思而不學則殆。」
Confucius said: “Learning without thinking is futile. Thinking without learning is perilous.”
子曰:「攻乎異端,斯害也己。」
Confucius said: “To attack a question from the wrong starting point is harmful.”

Even though Confucius must have been cursed to damnation by millions of hapless youths who had to endure the rote learning of the Classics over the millennia, he himself held a more nuanced view of the learning process.

Although he counsels that “to study without thinking is pointless”, he quickly balances this by warning that “to think without studying is perilous.” After all, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Rushing to answer a question without thinking it through properly first can also be very risky, he warns in the next chapter. Better to take a step back and analyze it carefully to stop yourself from wasting a lot of time.

There are heated scholarly disputes over whether Confucius is throwing a few barbs at rival schools of philosophy with his use of the term “wrong end”. I have no idea whether there is any truth to such speculation, but for the purposes of this blog in any case it is irrelevant.

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