Monday, January 23, 2012

The Wrecktification of Names

Scott Bradley


An important concern for early Chinese philosophy was the "rectification of names". I confess that I have some difficulty understanding what exactly it is all about. Confucius addressed it, and his concern seems to have been that things are not what we said they are. 'Father', for example, is a name which denotes a particular role in society which is but a reflection of the cosmic order. A father is not truly a father unless he fulfills this role as designated by the name based on the cosmic order. Thus the rectification of names turns out not to be a re-assessment of names, but the application of names to reality so as to get reality to conform to the names.

In this context I would like to address the wrecktification of names. Names are very necessary and helpful tools by which we negotiate our way through life, but if not kept in proper perspective, can also be very harmful. Names are words, and thus all that we say of words applies to names, as well. And all that has already been said. But names, especially as applied to others, raise these concerns to another level.

Names are like boxes. If I say you are 'bad', I put you in that box. From my point of view this is now who you are, and whatever you may subsequently do, it will only be a permutation of your badness, even if seemingly 'good'. From your point of view, relative to my fixed opinion of you, you have lost all freedom to be both 'good' and 'bad', to be a dynamic, growing being. How you might respond to this 'boxing' will depend on your own inner strength, but your ability to share yourself with me will, in any case, be greatly impaired. Whatever you do or say to me will be understood in the context of my fixed opinion of you.

There is a curious presumption in the assigning of names. It requires that I believe I understand you well enough to box you. But frankly, I find it hard enough to understand myself, let alone others. And this is in part because I realize that I am not, in fact, a fixed entity, but an ever-changing flux. And not wishing to reify myself, I try not to do the same to others. It is a serious thing to 'confront' people with the names by which I have chosen to box them. I would do better to understand why I wish to do so.

So how do I go about deciding I can put you in a name-box? Well, if I take this naming business seriously, I accumulate 'facts' about you, and when I believe I have enough to make the case, I apply the name. Unfortunately, there are no 'facts' which do not already partake of a certain presupposed bias. 'Facts' are more an interpretation of reality than an 'objective' understanding of it. And, of course, 'facts' are always selectively chosen. You do something 'good' and something 'bad'; the 'good' is the aberration, the 'bad' is the norm. This is my bias.

All of this is but an unfortunate aspect of the Great Soap Opera of Life. Fortunately, we are sometimes able to realize it as such and change channels accordingly, or to turn off the tube altogether. Unfortunately, our august leaders use a similar accumulation of 'facts' and the assigning of names to justify war and other crimes against humanity. And that's where some serious rectification of names would do us all a world of good.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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