Wang was the leading figure in the Neo-Confucian School of Mind, founded by Lu Jiuyuan of Southern Song. This school championed an interpretation of Mencius, a Classical Confucian who became the focus of later interpretation, that unified knowledge with action. Their rival school, the School of Principle (Li) treated gaining knowledge as a kind of preparation or cultivation that, when completed, could guide action.
Out of Cheng-Zhu’s Neo-Confucianism that was mainstream at the time, Wang Yangming developed the idea of innate knowing, arguing that every person knows from birth the difference between good and evil. Wang claimed that such knowledge is intuitive and not rational. These revolutionizing ideas of Wang Yangming would later inspire prominent Japanese thinkers like Motoori Norinaga, who argued that because of the Shinto deities, Japanese people alone had the intuitive ability to distinguish good and evil without complex rationalization. His school of thought (Ōyōmei-gaku in Japanese, Ō stands for the surname “Wang”, yōmei stands for “Yangming”, gaku stands for “school of learning”) also greatly influenced the Japanese samurai ethic.
Knowledge as action
Wang’s rejection of the pure investigation of knowledge comes from the then traditional view of Chinese belief that once one gained knowledge, one had a duty to put that knowledge into action. This presupposed two possibilities:
- That one can have knowledge without/prior to corresponding action.
- That one can know what is the proper action, but still fail to act.
Wang rejected both of these which allowed him to develop his philosophy of action. Wang believed that only through simultaneous action could one gain knowledge and denied all other ways of gaining it. To him, there was no way to use knowledge after gaining it because he believed that knowledge and action were unified as one. Any knowledge that had been gained then put into action was considered delusion or false.
Mind and the world
He held that objects do not exist entirely apart from the mind because the mind shapes them. He believed that it is not the world that shapes the mind, but the mind that gives reason to the world. Therefore, the mind alone is the source of all reason. He understood this to be an inner light, an innate moral goodness and understanding of what is good. This is similar to the thinking of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who argued that knowledge is virtue.
In order to eliminate selfish desires that cloud the mind’s understanding of goodness, one can practice his type of meditation often called “tranquil repose” or “sitting still” (jingzuo 靜坐). This is similar to the practice of Chan (Zen) meditation in Buddhism.