Thursday, October 13, 2005

Cheng Ming: The Rectification of Names

In Book Thirteen (§3) of the Analects, Confucius says,

When names are not correct, what is said will not sound reasonable; when what is said does not sound reasonable, affairs will not culminate in success; when affairs do not culminate in success, rites and music will not flourish; when rites and music do not flourish, punishments will not fit the crimes; when punishments do not fit the crimes, the common people will not know where to put hand and foot. Thus when the gentleman names something, the name is sure to be usable in speech, and when he says something this is sure to be practicable. (D.C. Lau's translation)

Ezra Pound provided his own translation, which I think is preferable in many respects. (I don't know whether it is more accurate, of course.)

If the terminology be not exact, if it fit not the thing, the governmental instructions will not be explicit, if the instructions aren't clear and the names don't fit, you can not conduct business properly.

If business is not properly run the rites and music will not be honoured, if the rites and music be not honoured, penalties and punishments will not achieve their intended effects, if penalties and punishments do not produce equity and justice, the people won't know where to put their feet or what to lay hold of or to whom they shd. stretch out their hands.

That is why an intelligent man cares for his terminology and gives instructions that fit. When his orders are clear and explicit they can be put into effect. (Guide to Kulchur, p. 16)

I actually prefer Lau's translation of the last part, mainly because it shortens the distance to "usage" (i.e., "usable in speech") but both translations make it clear that something as simple as correct terminology or "the rectification of names" (cheng ming) has wide reaching consequences for life more generally.

"To govern (cheng) is to correct (cheng)." (Analects, XII, 17).

What intrigues me here is the central place that language is given in much broader business. Pound made the idea his own in the ABC of Reading as part of a theory of language that I've heard some people describe as naive or simpleminded: "Language was obviously created, and is, obviously, USED for communication." (ABC, p. 29)

Your legislator can't legislate for the public good, your commander can't command, your populace (if you be a democratic country) can't instruct its 'representatives', save by language.

I recently stumbled on a passage in Wittgenstein's Investigations that reminded of this idea:

Not: "without language we could not communicate with one another"--but for sure: without language we cannot influence other people in such-and-such ways; cannot build roads and machines, etc. And also: without the use of speech and writing people could not communicate. (§491)

Pound makes it clear that literature is that specialized use of language which keeps it working properly. Literature just is the rectification of names, correction of usage. Cheng ming.

"If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays." (ABC, p. 32)

I believe that Hamlet was talking about something along these lines in his first soliloquy.

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

(I take it "business is not properly run" = "unprofitable use of the world".) The abiding concern of these pages is the condition of all the uses of the world, the shape they're in, their form, which may ultimately be traced to the state of current usage, to grammar.


Kirby Olson said...

I started to get used to your clear logic in our argument with Patrick Star. This passage is remarkably clean and clear with a strong far reach into the ideas presented. It's incredible that you are writing in a second language. Count me among your fans.

We have many terrible milieux in America. One if the single-issue politico who uses their identity as the basis of their politics. Those people have now made academia almost impossible. But the street is filled with young anarchists like Patrick whose ideas on property, decency, marriage, kindness, shoplifting, etc., seemingly look to the pirates of old for substance.

How to shift back to James Madison and our founders is part of my question.

By the way, Were you raised as a Lutheran?

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thank you very much, Kirby. You have certainly picked the right things to praise about my writing.

As I get older, I'm coming slowly to see the wisdom of honouring the rites. And I take that is what you mean by shifting back to the founders. Things must be done in age-old ways, mainly because only the priviledged can keep up with change.

I recently found a copy of Pound's Great Digest translation, which he introduces with the interesting idea that what is there described is "the only process that has repeatedly proved its efficiency as a social coordinate."

I'm not sure, however, how well this sense jibes with (yes) my Lutheran upbringing, but I'm sure you've got that better worked out than I do.

As to whether I'm writing in a second language, yes and no. My first language is Danish, chronologically speaking, but I moved to Canada when I was ten, returning to Denmark at 24. I work mainly in English, and it is much better than my Danish. But working in the global idiom in a small country has, I think, profoundly affected my sense of the language. Or maybe that sense would have developed in any case.

I'm certainly glad to hear it suffices. Good to have you around.