Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Rectification of Names (zhengming, 正名)


Confucius famously says in Analects 13.3 that the first thing to do in conducting state affairs is to “rectify names” — or “correct terms.” Otherwise, he says, “speech will not follow” (yan bu shun 言不順), with the result that “affairs will not be accomplished” (shi bu cheng 事不成), with the result that “rites and music will not flourish,” with the final result that “punishments and rewards will not be appropriate.”

You could ask a lot of questions here as to what this all means. The one I’ll ask is whether this has anything to do with Analects 12.11–as a lot of people seem to think–where Confucius is asked about governing and he says, very tersely, “jun jun, chen chen, fu fu, zi zi” (君君臣臣父父子子). The way most people seem to render this is some version of “A lord should lord, a minister should minister, a father should father, and a son should son,” where the verbal occurrence is usually embellished (plausibly, I think) with “should act like a proper______.” There are a couple of things that bother me about this, however:

  1. I don’t see how 12.11, so construed, is about “names” or “terms” (ming). It seems ostensibly about lords, ministers, fathers, and sons on the one hand and on the other about roles or actions–not about the terms or titles for such people or such roles (or actions). To be about names or terms, at least one of the instances of each pair, the noun or verb–assuming that is how we should construe the grammar–would have to be a mention as opposed to a use. But, how are we to read 12.11 then?
  2. Suppose a lord does not act like a proper lord, a minister like a proper minister, and so forth. Why would that threaten to undermine correct or effective speech, as 13.3 states? I could almost see how improper use of the terms–for example, calling someone a lord who is not actually a lord–could undermine correct usage, if the practice caught on or was enforced. But the fact that someone who is in fact, legitimately, a lord isn’t living up to the name or title, doesn’t have an effect on the correct usage of the name or title; correct usage is necessary to make that judgment in the first place. And, if he isn’t legitimately a lord, then his not living up to the title is just to be expected and doesn’t pose a problem. So, 12.11 can’t really be about making sure people live up to their (properly) applied titles if it is to be relevant to 13.3.

Any thoughts? I could probably clarify my worries, but I’ll let you tell me that before I do.

Author: Manyul Im

University of Bridgeport


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