Incongruent Names: A Theme in the History of Chinese Philosophy

Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 17 (3):305-330 (2018)
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Abstract

This essay is meant to shed light on a discourse that spans centuries and includes different voices. To be aware of such trans-textual resonances can add a level of historical understanding to the reading of philosophical texts. Specifically, we intend to demonstrate how the notion of the ineffable Dao 道, prominently expressed in the Daodejing 道德經, informs a long discourse on incongruent names in distinction to a mainstream paradigm that demands congruity between names and what they designate. Thereby, we trace the development of the idea of the ineffable Dao quite differently from modern mystical interpretations. We show how, in an early Chinese context, it first gives rise to a sociopolitical critique of the incongruity underlying socially constructed names in the Zhuangzi 莊子, then to a discourse on the incongruity between moral virtues and names in Xuanxue 玄學 philosophy, and eventually to Sengzhao’s 僧肇 claim that a perceived congruence of names with things does not entail actual congruence between names and reality.

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Hans-Georg Moeller
University of Macau