Let the ruler be the ruler

Asian Journal of Philosophy 2 (2) (2022)
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How should we understand the Confucian doctrine of the rectification of names (zhengming): what does it mean that an object’s name must be in accordance with its reality, and why does it matter? The aim of this paper is to answer this question by advocating a novel interpretation of the later Confucian, Xunzi’s account of the doctrine. Xunzi claims that sage-kings ascribe names and values to objects by convention, and since they are sages, they know the truth. When we misuse names, we are departing from a sagely convention of naming. As sagely convention determines moral truth, departure from the linguistic convention of the sages is a departure from moral truth. On my interpretation of Xunzi, the rectification of names is not a doctrine about what is true, but a doctrine about how we aim at truth. We are aiming at descriptive truth when our language conforms to the correct name of an object according to what I call ‘Confucian conventionalism’. When we correctly aim at descriptive truth we can aim at moral truth. Therefore, I claim that the doctrine of the rectification of names is concerned with discerning the literal accordance of language with an object (what is descriptively, linguistically true), to determine what is normatively, or morally, true. According to Xunzi, moral truth is grounded in linguistic truth.

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Liam D Ryan
Central European University

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