In his analysis of some of Confucius’ remarks regarding zhengming, Ames characterized the former’s sense of linguistic propriety as demanding both respect for past practice and attentiveness to what is needed to communicate effectively in the present. While the former tends towards a preservative stance towards accepted linguistic usage, the latter welcomes innovation and creativity in response to the demands of new and novel circumstances. This seems to me to be a little inadequate to account for either the strictness of Confucius’ demands to respect proper linguistic practice, or the extent of his disapproval when by his lights language is misused. While it does seem right that at the end of the day the underlying concern for Confucius is effective communication–as opposed to carving nature at its joints–I want to suggest a way in which language use might be thought to be accountable to the way things are without either inviting a metaphysical commitment to something like the realism I discussed in the last post or sacrificing the attentiveness and responsiveness to context. So here goes.
While the classical Chinese thinkers may not have recognized natural kinds, they surely recognized regularities in the world and the pragmatic advantages of being attuned to these regularities. In the Confucian world, the reliable salience in human affairs of certain relationships is one such deeply appreciated regularity, and locating moral virtue in the successful navigation of such relations is a pervasive theme of Confucian thought. So it seems fair to suppose that having linguistic markers for these relationships and the roles they define–father, mother, son, daughter, etc.–would be important, and a use of language that confused or failed to foreground them would be a mistake.
Is this to make “father” a natural kind? No. While it seems that up to a point familial categories of this kind track what we might consider biologically real categories (in the sense that we can offer a strictly biological definition of “father” easily enough), the correspondence is imperfect. Someone can recognize an adoptive parent as a “father” even though the biological relation is absent. Too, through a kind of analogizing, we can see others as “fathers” in a looser but still relevantly similar fashion in the lack of a literal parenting role. These uses of “father” will necessarily recognize purely cultural factors subject to change and evolution. Nonetheless, the typical salience of these kinds of relations in our lives and the constraints and influences on our feelings and attachments effects a limit on just how loose we can be with the word “father” before it begins to lose its linguistic force altogether. Neither firmly anchored to immutable natural kinds nor subject to caprice, language is rooted in the typical, the salient, and human. Terms for family roles, I’m suggesting, are not not mere labels for what I’m calling biologically real relationships, but neither do they entirely lose sight of them.
In a passage from the Spring and Autumn Annals quoted by Ames, Confucius objects strenuously to what he takes to be the misappropriation of the title “prince” by a man who received the honor as a reward. Confucius’ point is not simply that regardless of his merit a man does not deserve to be called a prince if he not one. He also urges that such pretense can have calamitous political results. In my next post I’ll look at this example in the light of the interpretation of zhengming I’m trying to work out here.