Xunzi on Language

Anyone with some familiarity with modern analytic philosophy of language will find the chapter on Zhengming—‘The Rectification of Names—in Xunzi to be tantalizing and probably a bit frustrating. Here we get hints of a sophisticated attempt to make sense of language and its essential role in social organization that makes clear contact with very current ideas about reference, metaphysics, and linguistic normativity. Or so it seems. It’s always a little unclear, as Xunzi is terse and brief in his explications, and by contemporary lights it can seem as though he no more than hints at one tantalizing idea—a direct reference theory of the theory of names, for examples—before asserting something seemingly incompatible with it. Hence the frustration, and a continuing debate among commentators as to just what Xunzi claims

The following passages are particularly rich and much discussed:

And how does one go about distinguishing between things that are the same and those that are different?  One relies upon the senses.  Things that are of the same species and form will be apprehended by the senses as being all the same thing. Therefore, after comparing such things with other things of a similar nature, one may settle upon a common designation.  In this way one arrives at a common name for all the things of one class, which everyone agrees to use when the occasions demands…(147, Burton Watson’s translation).

Names have no intrinsic appropriateness.  One agrees to use a certain name and issues an order to that effect, and if the agreement is abided by and becomes a matter of custom, then the name may be said to be appropriate…Names have no intrinsic reality. One agrees to use a certain name and issues an order that shall be applied to a certain reality, and if the agreement is abided by…then it may be said to be a real name. There are however, names which are intrinsically good. Names which are clear, simple, and not at odds with the thing they designate may be said to be good names. (148, Burton Watson’s translation)

The line about names having no “intrinsic appropriateness” to the objects to which they refer has been taken by some to suggest Xunzi holds to a direct reference theory of meaning. That words can be more or less felicitous has been taken to show the opposite. That words refer to objects or “realities” (the Chinese word is shi) that are recognized by the sense has been taken to show Xunzi is a metaphysical realist who thinks the categories (lei) words refer to exist in the world prior to being named. Conversely, the claim that names have no intrinsic “reality” has been used to argue Xunzi a thorough going pragmatist who holds to a nominalist metaphysics. And so on.

I think a lot of the apparent inconsistencies here, as well as a lot of the arguments this and other passages from the Xunzi have occasioned, are due to some confusions that can cleared up if we make more use of some modern analytic philosophy of language. I try to points to how this is so in the next couple of posts.

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