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Reflection, imitation, or experience?
Muse #157 - What was Confucius trying to say?
I read this quote and have been mulling about it for over 36 hours. And yet, I am not sure what “Confucius” is trying to say here…
By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
— Confucius (551 BC - 479 BC) Chinese Philosopher
I am not sure where this translation comes from, but it widely available on the internet. However, I am sure this was written differently in Chinese or whatever variation it was written in more than 2500 years ago.
Imitation is the easiest to start with, so I start there. What I am guessing he means by this is copying something without understanding it is one way of learning wisdom, but this quote does not tell us whether there was utility from that action. Blind action obviously is not going to lead to high utility, maybe some will luck out to get something out of it.
I am guessing experience is better because of the effort required to generate that experience, the hard work in support of its practice. Or is it bitter because it took a long time to learn it through experience and then looking back, one thought, “If only I had known and understood this years back?” I have another problem with this though, Confucius seems to talk about the blind experience. I am sure, many an experience is supported by reflection then, in reality, is a constant cycle of experience, reflection, and improvement supported by more practice to gain more experience.
And then he says Reflection is the noblest. Can there be a reflection for just the sake of reflection? I am sure reflection needs supporting answers and that comes from finding more material to read, or perspectives to acquire and even practices to reflect from the experiences so that one could reflect some more. If so, there is a huge correlation between the reflection and the experience as one can’t work without the other and vice-versa and we need both to really create something of high utility.
So, what I derived from his quote and reengineered it with my perspective so far:
We can’t learn wisdom by easy imitation as it leads to limited utility. To learn wisdom: you need the nobleness of constant reflection supported by the bitterness of hard work to gain experience from practice, the two of them combined to create high utility.
I hope Conficous is not turning in his grave reading this…