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Don't call it a spade

Correct Naming

Master Xun (荀子 Xunzi):


Which translates as:

The people can easily be unified by means of the Way, but one should not try to share one’s reasons with them. Hence, the enlightened lord controls them with his power, guides them with the Way, moves them with his orders, arrays them with his judgments, and restrains them with his punishments. Thus, his people’s transformation by the Way is spirit-like [i.e. religious]. What need has he for demonstrations and persuasions? Nowadays the sage kings have all passed away, the whole world is in chaos, and depraved teachings are arising. The gentleman has no power to control people, no punishments to restrain them, and so he engages in demonstrations and persuasions.

When objects are not understood, then one engages in naming. When the naming is not understood, then one tries to procure agreement. When the agreement is not understood, then one engages in persuasion. When the persuasion is not understood, then one engages in demonstration. Thus, procuring agreement, naming, demonstration, and persuasion are some of the greatest forms of useful activity, and are the beginning of kingly works.

When a name is heard and the corresponding object is understood, this is usefulness in names. When they are accumulated and form a pattern, this is beauty in names. When one obtains both their usefulness and beauty, this is called understanding names. Names are the means by which one arranges and accumulates objects. Sentences combine the names of different objects so as to discuss a single idea.

Persuasion and demonstration use fixed names of objects so as to make clear the proper  ways for acting and remaining still. Procuring agreement and naming are the functions of demonstration and persuasion. Demonstration and persuasion are the heart’s way of representing the Way. The heart is the craftsman and overseer of the Way. The Way is the warp and pattern of good order. When the heart fits with the Way, when one’s persuasions fit with one’s heart, when one’s words fit one’s persuasions, then one will name things correctly and procure agreement, will base oneself on the true disposition of things and make them understood, will discriminate among things without going to excess, and will extend by analogy the categories of things without violating them. When listening to cases, one will accord with good form. When engaging in demonstration, one will cover thoroughly all the reasons. One will use the true Way to discriminate what is vile just like drawing out the carpenter’s line in order to grasp what is curved and what is straight. Thus, deviant sayings will not be able to cause disorder, and the hundred schools will have nowhere to hide.

One kind of person is brilliant enough to listen to all cases, but has no combative or arrogant countenance. He has generosity enough to extend to all sides, but does not make a display of his virtue in his appearance. If his persuasions are successful, then all under Heaven is set right. If his persuasions are not successful, then he makes clear his way but lives in obscurity—such are the persuasions and demonstrations of the sage. The Odes says:

Full of refinement and nobility,
Like a jade tablet or scepter is he,
So lovely to hear and lovely to see.
The contented and tranquil gentleman
Serves as a model universally.
This expresses my meaning.

Translation from Eric Hutton’s Xunzi. Pretty good translation, I must say.

And yes, Classical Chinese writing really is that short.


6 responses to “Correct Naming

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  3. Jefferson August 25, 2016 at 18:08

    This line of reasoning crept up on me slowly, and seemed somewhat obvious at the time. It does not seem like many people can grasp this concept (sadly). Furthermore, if the goal of one’s zeal is against this principle, a clever man can contort to make it fit. “Follow these steps to judge righteously,” quickly becomes “follow these steps and your judgements will be righteous.”

  4. ur mum August 26, 2016 at 15:28

    You can see the power of non-contention at work if you talk to a cultured Chinese person, even if they haven’t directly read any Taoist works. It’s a way of thinking that I believe we ourselves have had to some extent, but that has been corrupted with the fall of Christianity. Now you either have decadent permissiveness, which is applied entropy, or you have a chauvinistic zeal (of left or right) of the kind with which our ancestors exhausted themselves in internecine war and honour bouts before submitting to Christendom. Even in the Iliad you can kind of tell we were getting sick of that bronze age horseshit.

    It all stems from the illusion of “should”. We “should” have this outcome instead of that. Well, can you achieve it? No? Ironically or not, a compromise is generally the outcome that brings you closest to your goal. Better a clever compromise than a pyrrhic so-called victory.

    There’s definitely something to be said for the self-evident truths and not trying to taxonomise, rationalise and critique everything. It’s simply against the human sensibility to do so (for good reason, as we’re so often wrong in our rationalising). The middle path is the truest one: and where is the middle? The middle isn’t an ideology that can be defined in ossified logic, towards and against which we always struggle. The middle is a living tradition, known yet unspoken. Tradition changes to preserve itself, but only so far as that.

    “The great Way is broad and plain
    But people like the side paths”

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