Friday, January 18, 2008

The rectification of names

I'm no Confucius scholar, and have a very limited understanding of his thought, so I'm basically cherry-picking this quotation from a longer analysis by the Master:

Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”

The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.” “So! indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”

The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.

“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..."

Boy are we in need of that now!

"Liberal" has meant so many things in the past two centuries that it is probably been a hopeless case for the last half-century. Now "conservative" is equally hopeless -- remember when it meant conserving things and institutions, instead of conscienceless plundering? "Left" and "right" -- is there a good essay on the Web or in print exposing how empty and befuddling these adjectives are, except for making battle-flags?

Phil Paine has written a short piece
(under reading #15474) a critique of Garrett Hardin's article "Tragedy of the Commons" (Science, 1968) and the analysis associated with it, which deserves wide distribution. One part I think is particularly valuable are the remarks on
"paradox" and "irony" (as well as a common (mis)use of "rational"):

Perhaps the key to the article's success is Hardin's constant use of the word "rational", borrowed in a special usage from game theory, and then employed in an arbitrary way which bears no resemblance to any common-sense use of the word "rational". People are always intrigued and delighted by what they interpret as "ironies" or "paradoxes" in economics, sociology, or psychology. It seems especially delicious to contemplate a "paradox" where "rationality" creates chaos or disaster by some supposed necessity, and that is probably why the essay's arguments have been replicated in so many other contexts. But the appearance of such "paradoxes" does not indicate sophistication — it simply marks the presence of sloppy thinking. Paradoxes are the result of confusion, inattention, or inadequacy in the observer. They do not exist in the real world. Hardin's fictional shepherds exhibit only the "rationality" of a heroin addict deciding on a second-by-second basis whether to inject himself. No real shepherd ever thought or behaved in the way that Hardin considers "inevitable". Trust me in this: I was trained professionally as a shepherd. No real life shepherd was ever as stupid as Hardin's imaginary ones.
I've long had the same attitude toward the widespread use of the term "irony." "Irony" has a legitimate meaning, but the casual use of the phrase "Isn't it ironic" (which long predated the song of that title) almost always makes me want to say "You haven't figured out that old scam yet?"

A very good example of words getting away from even intelligent users can be seen in this blog entry at Crooked Timber and the following comments where the "ambiguity" of power-holders who want to manipulate others by cloaking their intentions is discussed. Some writers are clearly talking about projecting ambiguity to deceive, while others let the term "ambiguity" dominate the discussion and seem to think no one knows the truth. No. The ambiguity, or better, some people's ignorance about the true state of affairs, is produced by others who are consciously deceiving or confusing them. It's lying, people. And in the long run, the "ambiguity" of important liars is usually revealed -- long after the great robbery or the slaughter of innocents is over.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a spot-on quote on that: "Men create oppositions which are not; and put them into terms so fixed, as whereas the meaning ought to govern the term, the term in effect governeth the meaning." - Francis Bacon

    You asked about a "good essay" on this topic; I think this is pretty good, but then, I wrote it... :-)