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)

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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?

Author: Manyul Im

University of Bridgeport

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