Proper Names

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names”

Intriguing quote often attributed to Confucius, where “proper name” is the translation used for 正名. It brings to mind the convolutions of meaning we find in Newspeak, reminding us that it is hard to make sense of reality if we don’t define our terms first, which, yes, includes calling a spade a spade, even if that is taboo.

That said, it is not so clear that this is what 孔子 was thinking of. Concretely, in Book 13 of the Analects he is said to have written: “名不正,则言不顺;言不顺则事不成”. In Legge’s loose translation, this is interpreted to mean: ‘If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.”

Interpretations of this have varied over the centuries, but here is one interesting one: “If you desire to discover the true and the false, nothing compares to making use of names.  Names reveal the true and the false as a measuring line reveals crooked and straight.  Investigate names and actualities, observe whether they depart from or coincide with one another; then there will be no mutual deception concerning the disposition of what is true and what is false.” (Dong Zhongshu, circa 110 BC).

(thought in progress)

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