The Analects and the Fluency Illusion

One of the major obstacles facing the Western reader of The Analects is a psychological phenomenon called the fluency illusion. Here’s how it works:

  1. You read a passage.
  2. You think you understand it. You tell yourself, “I got this.”
  3. You move on to read the next passage.

It’s called an illusion because you only think you understand what you read–when, in reality, you don’t understand it at all. The fluency illusion is a particularly hard problem precisely because you don’t know it’s a problem at all.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine a Chinese person just starting to learn English. He comes across the following sentence:

Sarah is cool.

It’s a simple sentence, and its meaning seems obvious: Sarah is slightly cold. In reality, that’s just one of many possible meanings. Here are a few others:

  • Sarah is calm and collected.
  • Sarah is emotionally distant.
  • Sarah is a good person.
  • Sarah is hip.

And this is made even more difficult by the fact that native-English speakers can’t quite define what hip means. We have a sense of it, but we can’t quite put it into words.

But our Chinese student isn’t considering any of this because he’s already assumed he knows what it means and he’s moved on to the next sentence. What’s worse, he’s now made an assumption about Sarah that will influence everything else he reads about her.

Now here’s a passage from The Analects that might cause similar confusion:

Confucius said, “Yan Hui is no help to me. No matter what I say, he’s delighted.”

The obvious meaning of this passage is that Confucius is complaining that he never learns anything from this guy Yan Hui because he never disagrees with him. The reader might assume that Yan Hui is simple-minded or that he lacks the courage to disagree with others.

In reality, Yan Hui was Confucius’ most advanced and worthy student. At one point, Confucius even admits that Yan Hui is his superior. When Yan Hui dies, Confucius weeps uncontrollably. In this light, Yan Hui’s delight at Confucius’ teachings can be seen as a deep understanding and appreciation rather than simple-minded acceptance.

The Analects are full of passages like this, and most of them are much harder to detect than this one. So, how should the Western reader overcome the fluency illusion?

First, never rely on your own initial interpretation of a given passage, no matter how obvious it may seem. There are many excellent translations of the text now available, and the commentaries and explanatory notes will go a long way toward dispelling any false assumptions.

Second, if you feel like you understand a passage, try to explain its meaning–either out loud or in writing–in your own words. If you struggle to do this, you probably don’t have a good handle on it yet.

Finally, discuss your understanding of the passage with someone more knowledgeable than yourself. Be humble. This text has been around for centuries and many generations of thinkers–most of them native Chinese-speakers–have struggled to interpret its passages.