Learning new things

Micael Puett, professor of Chinese philosophy at Harvard, says learning the language is a life-long process of trying to understand the texts

December 12, 2019 07:14 pm | Updated 07:14 pm IST

The more common lament is that philosophy is dying. Not for Professor Micael Puett who teaches Chinese philosophy in Harvard. With his best selling book “The Path” promising to change one’s life, Puett makes that claim for his course too.

Puett tells us why, “Most people tend to assume that Chinese philosophy is really about being trained to accept the world as it is. Most secondary literature presents it that way. It corresponds to our stereotypes of so-called traditional societies….the texts are actually arguing something very, very different For example, people often say Confucius is simply teaching rituals to be a good father and how to properly play our roles. Then, you actually look at these texts and in terms of ritual, their whole point is no, no, no, ritual is to break us from these standard things we're doing in our lives. And when you enter a ritual, you, for that brief moment, become a different person. You act as if you are a different person relating to those around you in a different way.”

Puett illustrates with an example, “…a father/son relationship can be very troubled. So in this ritual, the father and the son would have to enter a ritual space and do a role reversal so each would have to play the role of the other and the idea is it forces each to see the world from the other's perspective. So what I will do is say, think about even little customs and conventions we do throughout the day and if you think of these as rituals, what you're doing is you're really trying to, for that brief moment, become a different type of person and develop different emotional responses to those around you. And it's those little breaks throughout the day that really can transform how we live in the world.”

Puet says the trick is to concentrate on the small day to day things in our life…how do we lead our daily life. Let the large questions like where we came from or what lies beyond human life take care of themselves. If we live each day well, we are progressing, ”… when you read Chinese philosophy you realize some variations of these ideas do in fact appear in Greece and Rome as well. And what's particularly intriguing about the Chinese tradition is a lot of these ideas about how to use rituals and how to do these practices to develop the self became such a focus of philosophical interest over the course of 2,000 years. And so, you're getting is an incredibly developed, refined version of things…”

Puett finds, “Chinese material was incredibly powerful, dealing with issues and developing them in ways that I found very, very exciting….you're not on a clear path, you're sort of working with things endlessly. And in terms of these texts, I think it's a life-long process of trying to understand these texts, teach these texts. I learn new things about them every time I read them.”

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