The rectification of names

April 9th, 2005 by Jason Soon

‘If we stayed away from politics, we could be flying winged chariots to the Moon within a few generations. All that’s needed is to pull down certain barriers to progress -’
‘Such as?’
‘ Latin.’
Latin!? But Latin is -’
‘I know, the universal language of scholars and divines, et cetera, et cetera. And it sounds so lovely, doesn’t it. You can say any sort of nonsense in Latin and our feeble University men will be stunned, or at least profoundly confused. That’s how the Popes have gotten away with peddling bad religion for so long - they simply say it in Latin. But if we were to unfold their convoluted phrases and translate them into a philosophical language, all of their contradictions and vagueness would become manifest.’
‘Mmm … I’d go so far as to say that if a proper philosophical language existed, it would be impossible to express any false concept in it without violating the rules of grammar’, Daniel hazarded.

Excerpt from the quite brilliant and prodigiously researched novel by Neal Stephenson about the 17th century, featuring Papists and Puritans, Pepys, Newton and Hooke (among other starring roles), and the birth of science and markets, Quicksilver.

Incidentally the title of this post is an allusion to the following from Confucius’ Analects, which the dialogue reproduced above reminded me of:

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.

“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.”

Alas, those who think that Mathematics may be the Universal Language hoped for by the characters in Neal Stephenson’s novel will be sorely disappointed for we now know that in a range of areas from physics to economics, mathematics has proven to be just as capable of elegantly dressing up mumbo-jumbo as received wisdom. This reminds me of another quote, this time by Ronald Coase:
‘”In my youth it was said that what was too silly to be said may be sung. In modern economics it may be be put into mathematics”.

4 Responses to “The rectification of names”

  1. Don Says:

    Ah yes… the positivist dream of a language which prevents opponents from expressing their confused ideas.

    Many years ago the logical positivists hoped that they could reduce scientific statements to a combination of logic and sense data.

    If you want to see how this played out then you should read philosophers like W. V. O. Quine and Hilary Putnam.

    It all seemed so clear when Freddy Ayer wrote Language, Truth, and Logic and Carnap was explaining the logical structure of the world. It was the kind of thing that Robert Heinlein might have agreed with.

    Today, you’ll have to deal with thinkers like Richard Rorty, Paul Churchland, and Stephen Stich. They’re the heirs to this tradition.

  2. Rafe Says:

    Freddy Ayer had second thoughts late in life. Asked by Bryan Magee why logical positivism failed he replied that most of its doctines were ratshit (thought not in those words).

  3. Abiola Lapite Says:

    Ah yes… the positivist dream of a language which prevents opponents from expressing their confused ideas.

    Isn’t this called … Newspeak?

  4. Mark Bahnisch Says:

    Best book I’ve read on the search for a perfect language is Umberto Eco’s book of the same name.

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