On ‘Rectifying’ Rectification: Reconsidering Zhengming in Light of Confucian Role Ethics

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Both an emphasis on logic and an emphasis on rhetoric lead to a kind of care for language. However, in early Greece this care for language through the lens of logic manifested in the drive to ‘get it right’, whereas in early China the care for language manifested in the pervasive concern for zhengming, for using names properly. For the early Chinese thinkers, especially the early Confucians, this was not predominantly a linguistic affair—zhengming is a key component of moral cultivation. As we explore the ethical import of Confucian role ethics, we need to pay attention to the philosophical vocabulary of this worldview and to how our understanding of these crucial terms changes if persons are seen as relational—a central premise of Confucian role ethics. In this essay I argue against reading zhengming as fagu, merely a conservative retrieval of historical meaning, as suggested by the political philosopher Hsiao Kung-chuan, among others. Instead, I argue for three theses: (1) although stubbornly persistent, ‘rectification of names’ is not an adequate translation for zhengming; (2) the conservative reading of zhengming is problematic and needs to be rethought as an hermeneutic process intersecting past meanings, present circumstances, and future possibilities; and (3) zhengming is, in an important sense, the ‘art’ of Confucian role ethics, for achieving moral competency in this tradition is a matter of constantly revising one's roles and relationships.

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Asian Philosophy

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