Zhengming III

In my previous post I suggested that Confucius’ insistence on and recognition of a “proper” or “correct” use of language reflects a grounding of our linguistic practices salient regularities found in nature.  Importantly, I think the social roles so important to Confucianism are seen in the traditions as being rooted in these kinds of regularities, so that that there is a sense in which family relations are natural.  That is, a vocabulary that identifies and distinguishes essential family relations is a critical part of an effective language.

What about the extension of this rendering of Confucian linguistic norms to Confucius’ objections to the misuse, as he sees it, of a political label like “prince”?  This looks at first glance considerably less plausible.  In fact, in light of what I’ve said, it might look as though here Confucius is committing a version of the classic conservative error of mistaking a socially created distinction for one of nature.  If, that is, we take it that governments are creations of human practices, we might conclude that it is a fundamental confusion to suppose nature in any sense compels a division of a population into princes and paupers.  Like many pre-moderns, we might suppose, Confucius is confusing a social hierarchy for a natural hierarchy if he supposes our political language must contain words like “prince” if they are to be effective, and that the use of the word must conform to supposedly salient regularities of nature.

There may be a way, however, of making the picture a bit more palatable to our modern (i.e. liberal) sensibilities, though I think the worry will remain.  Or rather, what will look like a worry to our liberal sensibilities will remain; from another perspective it might be better to say that we will be left with a challenge to that liberalism.

Perhaps the idea should not be that our language must conform to a naturalistic (or maybe quazi-naturalistic) demand for monarchy and aristocratic government.  Perhaps the demand is for a recognition of and sensitivity to the inevitability of political hierarchy, something that may allow for some degree of variation in its realization.  So read, what Confucius was objecting to was not so much misuse of the word “prince”, but rather a misuse that would obscure what really matters, which is that in any well functioning polity we must acknowledge distinctions between roles, and the fact that authority is exercised by way of clearly defined roles.  (It is I think more plausible to suppose that the latter kind of confusion could feasibly be a threat to the political order than the mere misapplication of a title.)

The remaining worry is such a view weaves inequality into the world in a way that might still strike us still as the reification of what is actually a social artifact.  On the other hand, we might argue instead that such a view in fact reflects a more realistic acknowledgement of the pragmatic value of certain kinds of hierarchy and inequality, something that for obvious reasons liberalism has a hard time conceding.  And this, the argument might continue, despite the persistent failure of liberal states–actually existing liberalism as it were–to achieve genuine and lasting political equality.

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