Warp, Weft, and Way

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

Rectification of Names and Names that Can Name (名可名)

While we’re on the subject of ming, “names” or “terms,” I thought I’d say a something about the second line of the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching), ch.1. So, the line is:

“Names can name yet they are not constant names.”

(The traditional Wangbi text reads: ming ke ming fei chang ming, 名可名非常名; but the Manwangdui text has ming ke ming ye fei heng ming ye, 名可名也非恒名也; the Guodian text is missing ch.1)

As a hypothesis, suppose that this is directed in some critical way toward Confucius’s idea that rectifying names is the first task of good governing. That would suggest that the project of rectifying names has something to do with making them constant and unchanging. So, I have some questions for anyone with an opinion here:

  1. Is this a plausible hypothesis, given what you think the Daodejing is setting out in ch.1?
  2. What would it mean to make a name or term constant? Does it refer to the term or the concept it stands for? Can we even assume that distinction for the authors of these texts? Better yet, is there some kind of written or spoken term fetish that we can attribute to them that makes it likely they are really concerned with the term rather than the concepts that terms refer to?

I hope that isn’t too much of a question mash-up. Any takers?

January 30th, 2008 Posted by | Chinese philosophy - 中國哲學 - 中国哲学, Confucianism, Daoism, Taoism | 9 comments

9 Responses to Rectification of Names and Names that Can Name (名可名)

  1. Thomas J Wood says:

    1. There is some plausibility to this hypothesis. The very next line is something like “the nameless is the origin of heaven and earth” (if I recall rightly). We “name” things and thus carve up nature creating good/bad, left/right etc. If I understand the text properly its author(s?) is arguing that naming is all well and good but names are “mere” conventions. Having a “constant” or “correct” name might imply that names are the essence of things, i.e. if we would just use the correct name for “x” it would stop the apparent disorder of “x.” The Daedejing, arguably, scoffs at this (straw man?) Confucian doctrine. If names are only conventions, and conventions are arbitrary/historical, then what exactly is so “constant” or “correct” about them?

    2. Tougher question. Under my analysis for 1, I assume that the Daodejing conflates/combines both the term and its concept. To coin a term or name is to carve out a section of the nameless, which is to conceptualize it. Presumably if another term or name is applied to that same section of the nameless, a different concept is born. I’m not sure I have any good ground for this assumption. Naming could just as easily be giving appellations to separate objects/concepts as easily as it could be carving up nature into concepts/objects.

    Clearly I need to give this more thought.

  2. Dave says:

    Roger Ames and David Hall, in their “Philosophical Translation” of Daodejing, treat chang as an intensfier — fei chang becomes “not really.” They translate the line as: “Naming that can assign fixed reference to things is not really naming.” FWIW. I do like your hypothesis, though I’m in no position to evaluate it critically myself.

  3. Dan Robins says:

    Hey Manyul,

    A little quibble: the Guodian texts are “missing” DDJ 1 only if DDJ 1 was already part of the corpus when the Guodian selections were made; we don’t know that to be the case. It’s not there, that doesn’t mean it’s missing.

    On the main point, I doubt that the rectification of names was the specific target of DDJ 1. (I actually suspect that the doctrine postdates DDJ 1.) Rectifying names does seem to involve establishing stable conventions for the use of names, so it could well be relevant, but it wasn’t only the Confucians who wanted stable conventions.

    Here’s another thought. The next few lines of DDJ 1 can be read so that they treat the use of “you3 / there is” and “wu2 / there is not” as names (e.g., “you3” names the mother of the ten thousand things). Read this way, the text tells us that treating one of these names as constant involves forming a particular desire (e.g., treating “you3” as constant, one desires thereby to observe what is manifest). Maybe this links up the inconstancy of names with the DDJ’s concern elsewhere with the reversal of preferences? (Or maybe it would be better to focus on the possibly more fundamental idea that pursuing what you desire often ensures you won’t get it. This could be a kind or source of inconstancy, though I don’t immediately see what specifically it has to do with naming.)

    I hope that makes sense. And, it’s always a pleasure to see a translation of the opening lines of the DDJ that doesn’t muck up the grammar. (Have you ever seen it parsed that way in a published translation? I seem to recall Thomas Cleary gets it right, on at least that point.)

  4. Dan Robins says:

    Well, maybe it could work like this: to take a name as constant is to take what it names as a goal, but this cannot really work because taking that as a goal will often ensure that you achieve the opposite. E.g., treating ‘beauty’ as constant would mean striving for beauty, which DDJ 2 (on one reading) says leads to ugliness.

  5. Manyul Im says:

    Dan, a quick clarification question. If the doctrine of rectifying names postdates the DDJ, I assume you mean that Analects 13.3 postdates the DDJ too? Or does 13.3 predate DDJ, so that 13.3 represents something other than a doctrine of rectifying names?

    “Establishing stable conventions for the use of names” could mean getting the conventions to be universal–getting everyone to use the names in the same way–which would be pragmatic in orientation. It might, however, mean getting the conventions *correct* so that the convention matches some kind of “real” meaning of the names. In the latter sense, a universal convention, say for the use of wang 王, “king,” could still be incorrect. By the convention we would all be identifying someone as a king though as a matter of fact, in some sense that would have to be spelled out, he would not be a king. Do you think both orientations are represented in the period or just one?

    I haven’t seen the second line of DDJ translated the way I do, though it seems almost obvious if we take the Mawangdui version to be giving us evidence for how to read it. I’m sure someone much smarter (and subsequently wealthier) than I has translated it that way, though, in their published translation of the DDJ. I haven’t checked, though there is an interesting link I think I’ll post, right now.

  6. Dan Robins says:

    Yeah, the suspicion is that Analects 13.3 is somehow a reaction to Xunzi, and so might well come after DDJ 1.

    I think the distinction in your second paragraph might leave out too much. The use of names is embedded in all sorts of practices, and many of the various masters thought it wasn’t just convention that determined whether those practices were right or wrong. This would place a normative constraint on the conventions governing certain terms (such as role terms), but that’s a far cry from saying a sound has a real meaning independent of convention (and the correctness of the practices might itself get conceived of in pragmatic terms).

    I do tend to think that both Xunzi and the Later Mohists were fairly thoroughgoing conventionalists about names whose whose use isn’t embedded in the social structure in this way. (I’m thinking about the names that Xunzi tells us are based on distinctions between same and different rather than between noble and base.) There’s one qualification: Xunzi implies that our biological nature (especially the way our sense organs function) affects how we naturally tend to group things into kinds, and maybe this provides another sort of constraint on convention (though not a realist one).

    There’s one point on which your translation is not obvious: “ke3-ming2” would normally be “can be named” rather than “can name” (that would be “ke3-yi3-ming2”). The text probably isn’t talking about whether names can be named, but it might be using “ke3-ming2” as a noun phrase, the meaning being “naming what can be named.” (This is how Hansen treats it in his online translation.)

    (Btw, Cleary gives “names can be given, but not permanent labels,” which is a bit free for my tastes, but seems to agree with your translation on the point of the line.)

  7. Jacques Briand de Crevecoeur says:

    Chapter 5, line 2: sheng4 ren2 bu4 ren2 yi3 bai3 sheng3 wei2 chu2 gou3
    sages have no benevolence treating the hundred surnames as strawdogs

    ‘Strawdogs’ were offered this way; first honoured and then trampled on. ‘The hundred surnames’ was the name of the nobility untill 375 BCE, when common people were given surnames in Qin. Therefore later on ‘the hundred surnames’ changed meaning to ‘common people’. The nobility lost the priviledge to return their surname to the ruler to reduce the penality, when found guilty in a crime.

    ming ke ming fei chang ming
    (sur)name admissible (sur)name wrong constant (sur)name

    The lines 1 of the two chapters too correspond to eachother.

  8. Manyul Im says:


    Very interesting, indeed. I do have two questions of clarification, though. To “return their surname to the ruler”–does that mean to give up their status as nobility (hence trading in nobility for reduced penalty)? What, on this reading, does “admissible surname” mean, and what does “wrong constant surname” mean?

  9. Jacques Briand de Crevecoeur says:

    1. Yes – according to Mark Edward Lewis ‘Writing and Authority in early China’ page 24
    2. The (sur) means, that you should try to add sur to name in all variations. You are the philosopher! Which of the 7 possible variations make sense in your opinion? My favourites are: surname admissible name, wrong constant surname … because a surname can be returned … and surnames admissible name, wrong constant name … because surnames changed meaning from ‘nobility’ to ‘common people. The first variation changes the english line 2 translation to: names admissible name, wrong constant names … and the last changes to: names admissible name, wrong constant name.


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