Zhengming–The Proper Use of Language

Reading Roger Ames recent Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary has got me thinking about the “proper use of language”, which is how he renders zhengming–more typically, “the rectification of names.”  I’d like to raise a question about this here, coming at the issue first by way of some decidedly contemporary and Western thoughts about reference.

A popular and influential way of thinking about meaning in philosophy of language holds that “singular terms”, such as proper names, are “directly referential.”  This means, roughly, that the semantic significance of such a term is limited to its referent.  That is, a name like “Kongzi” doesn’t really mean anything–it simply names a particular person, and it does this because of the historical link between that name and that person.  An important and influential extension of this theory holds that so call “natural kind” terms–terms that label things in natural world such as “dog”, “cat”, “water”, etc.–function semantically like names, picking out or referring directly to natural kinds (or naturally occurring classes or properties). So a term like “lead” refers directly to (instances of) a particular element in the same way, and for the same kinds of reasons, that “Kongzi” refers to Confucius.  Strictly speaking “lead” doesn’t really mean anything either; it’s just a tag or label we attach to a certain kind of stuff.

Now comes the magic: for referential semantics to be true of natural kinds, there have to be natural kinds, that is things in the world that share a nature and are properly grouped together.  Theories of direct reference, in other words, when applied to natural kind terms, assume that language can, as Plato put it, carve nature at its joints to greater or lesser extents.  So in one fell swoop we get a robust Realism (here as opposed to Nominalism) and a kind of essentialism–if “dog” is a properly functioning natural kind term, there really is something that all and only dogs have in common.  It’s not just a word we use to lump some things together for our own reasons that might just as easily been grouped differently.  We also get an elegant way to understand what it is to misuse language–to call silver “lead” is to be, at best, idiosyncratic because  “lead” has in fact been linked to lead, not silver, and as it happens nature doesn’t lump these two things together.  Lastly, referential semantics leads us to a metaphysical view that explains why it would be a mistake of sorts to have a word that refers to, for example, all and only those things that swim in the sea.  On the essentialism lurking here we’d have to say there is no such natural kind–such a term would fail to carve nature at its joints by bunching together things according to an accidental as opposed to an essential property.

To bring this back to Confucianism we run it the other way: what happens when you reject the Realism and essentialism entailed by referentialism about natural kind terms?   Well, you lose, inter alia, the standard by which you can distinguish proper and improper use of language according to its correspondence to how things are.  This is not to say there are no standards we might appeal to–we can say to speak properly is simply to defer to the norms of one’s linguistic community (Humpty Dumpty is still wrong to says “there’s glory for you” can mean “there’s a nice knock down argument for you” because we just don’t talk that way).  But it is, I think, a bit of mystery that such an approach would underwrite the a particularly strict policy about the use of names.

Here then is a puzzle.  I will assume that scholars like Roger Ames and A.C. Graham (and many others) are right to deny that Classical Chinese philosophy embraced the kind of Realism and essentialism entailed by Referential Semantics.  And yet we we see in, for example, Analects 3.13, a kind of rigidity about the use of language that goes beyond what we would expect if social linguistic norms were all we can appeal to.   Social norms are fluid after all, and given his willingness to alter the demands of li as the occasion demands, we might expect Confuicus to be tolerant of linguistic innovation.  (Indeed, it is common to see him credited with his own innovations in the use of the word ren.)  At the very least, we might wonder how zhengming could be made a condition of good government.  So there then is the puzzle: why the linguistic correctness?  In a subsequent post I’ll consider Ames’ answer and add a wrinkle or two of my own.

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