Friday, 19 August 2011

Confucius say:

One day a disciple asked Confucius `If a king were to entrust you with a territory which you could govern according to your ideas, what would you do first?' Confucius replied, `My first task would would certainly be to rectify the names.' The puzzled disciple asked, `Rectify the names? And that would be your first priority? Is this a joke?' Confucius was required to explain what he meant: `If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If the language is without an object, action becomes impossible - and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes impossible. Hence, the very first task of a true statesman is to rectify the names.'
From The Analects of Confucius, Book 13, Verse 3
I've never heard the task of philosophy explained so clearly and precisely. 

A lot of people get annoyed at lazy first year Oxford Philosophy students asking "what do you mean by 'is'" and other such useless questions. This is unfair. I'll grant they're doing junk cargo cult philosophy, but they're at least cargo-culting the right task. The task of philosophy, or at least the task I am doing when I engage in philosophy is exactly clarifying concepts and names. As a first example, the word philosophy means "love of wisdom" and has been used by various people to mean literally every part of the mental life of man. To say that philosophy is one very narrow task cannot be to declare all these people wrong by fiat. It must rather be an explanation of how I use the word and an outlining of one task that I feel valuable.

The job I do when I say I'm doing philosophy is exactly the rectification of names so that they match realities. That doesn't mean fussing about whether something should be called X or Y, nor asking for definitions of definitions all the way down. That is the job of the lazy first year student at Oxford. This means working out what concepts are good, which are bad, and trying very hard to kill the bad ones.

What do I mean by a bad concept? I mean a mental framework or paradigm through which problems are viewed that systematically produce bad outcomes. This covers to a greater or lesser extent almost all concepts we regularly use. This isn't a problem if (as most people in history) nothing you do really matters on the big scales, but as science makes every person more powerful this becomes a problem. For medieval peasants to be superstitious doesn't really change much, for an influential member of a trade union to believe the lump labour fallacy causes disastrous problems.

Some rough headings:

  • Just because there's a word for it doesn't mean it's a thing. Reptile, soul, the set of all sets, that greater than which nothing can be thought, customer. A map doesn't prove that the territory exists or makes any sense if you find it.
  • Just because the two of you are using the same word doesn't mean you're talking about the same thing. "Suffering is good", god, science, truth, moral, reasonable, selfishness, money, basically everything me and my roommate last year have ever had a discussion about. 
  • Hidden assumptions in language. The word Y may mean one specific type of X, that doesn't mean all the things you call Y are in fact Xs. All logical arguments for or against the existence of gods, all political, religious or economic labels, everytime someone says "by definition" after something false, all scientific jargon in advertising.
  • Just because there's two words doesn't mean there's two things. Religion/superstition, pyramid scheme/whatever you're calling it today, freedom fighter/terrorist, buyer/seller, not-a-racist-but/racist, middle class/working class, them/us, bourgeois X/proletariat X (see also the entire communist manifesto), decent folk/bad guys. 
  • Just because there's one word doesn't mean it's one thing. God, authority, a right, maths, teaching, stupid, rape, bad, fun. "This is an X, we should do Y when there's an X, we should do Y" almost always only works the the majority of Xs.
Anyway, I found this quote randomly as I was reading a rambling after dinner speech by an eccentric Cambridge maths lecturer. And I was very impressed. In my blinkered, euro-centric notion of the history of ideas I had thought almost all ideas of this kind belonged to the western rationalist tradition, and for them to be this well articulated would mean they were most likely post-Wittgenstein logical positivists. I obviously need to read a lot more Confucius.  

1 comment:

  1. Nets are for catching fish; after one gets the fish, one forgets the net. Traps are for catching rabbits; after one gets the rabbit, one forgets the trap. Words are for getting meaning; after one gets the meaning, one forgets the words. Where can I find people who have forgotten words, and have a word with them?

    — Zhuangzi, Ch. 26

    Alternative translation to the end of the main quotation:

    "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect."


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