Xunzi on integrity of langauge

Picking up on a passage in Confucius (Kongzi) on the ‘rectification of names’, Xunzi (later 3rd C. b.c.e.) argues at length for the importance of integrity in language, in Chapter 22 ‘On Correct Naming’ (tr. Ivanhoe and Van Norden). In the good old days, Xunzi says:

“they called it a great vileness to mince words and recklessly create names so as to disorder the correct names and thereby confuse the people and cause them to engage in much disputation and litigation. This wrongdoing was considered to be just like the crime of forging tallies and measures…[Nowadays] strange words have arisen, the names and their corresponding objects are disordered, and the forms of right and wrong are unclear…. If the names and their corresponding objects are tied together in a confused fashion, then the distinction between noble and base will not be clear, and the like and unlike will not be differentiated.”

On the importance of using language correctly in order to think correctly, and so act correctly, it is worth comparing this chapter to Orwell’s discussion of the use and abuse of language. One of the important connections Xunzi draws out here is that between having suitable names and being able to value correctly.

When a student asked in seminar whether we thought Xunzi was right that mixed-up language can lead to mixed-up valuing, I put it to the students to come up with examples. They had a field day! They drew on historical and contemporary political instance; and they are very alert to, and suspicious of, marketing tricks of naming. The likening of language abuse to forgery and fraud bears further reflection.


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