Zhengming and Wu-Wei: Terminology and Definitions

When engaged in critical examination and thinking, it is crucial to get things right. Context, as already mentioned, helps us do so in one way. But we also need to make sure that we understand the “thing” itself, so that we can make sure we’re looking at the right context. Let’s make that a bit clearer by example:

This is a dumbbell. We can look at the context of its weight, color, workout plans using these weights, marketing using this color, etc. to get the context. And, despite being right about several context issues, we can still be entirely wrong about the context of this dumbbell. How? Because its context here is… a paperweight! Or it could be a doorstop. Or any number of other uses I could put it to, that your initial context examination did not cover.

So, what did we miss? Why were we wrong? We were wrong because we did not understand the thing itself. Sure, it is a dumbbell, and our assessment was partially right. But, we missed the fact that a name – in this case “dumbbell” – does not give us the whole story. What matters is not the name, but the meaning – and meaning depends on use, not on sounds. A nice summary of this point can be found in the Islamic principle of law, that says: “regard is given to the meaning, not the name.” What they meant by this, is the use of the term was irrelevant to law – what mattered is the meaning the term took on.

Classical Chinese philosophy found itself faced with a similar issue: how do we actually know what a thing is? Simply giving things names is not enough – as seen in our example. So, they came up with a pair of related concepts, that would solve the problem: zhengming and wu-wei.

Zhengming translates into “rectification of names.” To rectify, means to put a thing straight, or right; to fix a thing – as in to place it so that it does not move. What the Chinese meant by zhengming is getting our definitions properly set, so that their meanings were clear. This required defining the thing in context – so that the relations of a thing were properly understood. At the end of the process of defining the thing, they gave this list of attributes a name. Once we encounter a thing, we check its performance against our list of definitions and attributes – and when we find a set that fits, we have a name to put to it – and thus we know what a thing is.

For the Chinese, as for us today, the simple use of a term could be misleading. Having a title assigned to a thing does not mean that it actually functions in a way we would expect. As a simple example, we have the old joke: “what do you call a boomerang that does not come back when you throw it? A stick.” On a more serious note, we have corporate titles that imply certain abilities, skillsets, and performance, but often do not actually meet any of those expectations. A manager who does not manage, or who mismanages, cannot really be considered a manager – regardless of the title. A patriot, who betrays his country is not a patriot – but a traitor. The danger, of course, is that assuming performance on the basis of a title, gets the whole thing backwards. One should earn the title by performance, not assume performance by title.

Here, the famous example of Mencius’s conversation with King Xuan can clarify:

King Xuan of Ch‘i asked, ‘Is it true that T’ang banished Chieh, and King Wu marched against Tchou?’
‘It is so recorded,’ answered Mencius.
‘Is regicide permissible?’
‘He who mutilates benevolence is a mutilator; he who cripples rightness is a crippler; and a man who is both a mutilator and a crippler is an [outlaw]. I have heard of the punishment of the “[outlaw] Tchou”, but I have not heard of any regicide.’[1]

For Mencius, the execution of “king” Tchou is justified. This is a prime example of zhengming: the definition of a king is what matters – not the title. By definition, not only is Tchou not a king, he is an outlaw. By the definition of an outlaw, their punishment and even execution is justified, and even necessary.

So, now we have a term that helps us remember that identification should be a product of performance, not the other way around. However, we can still misidentify the expected performance, as with the dumbbell. Here, the second term comes into play.

Wu-wei translates into “action without action.” While this may sound very “oriental” and Zen, what the Chinese meant by this term was, letting a thing reveal what it is, without our interference. With the dumbbell, we made assumptions, we projected our ideas of definitions on the object. We forced our preconceived notions onto it. This projection is what often gets us into trouble, because it relies on our assumptions, instead of a critical analysis. Wu-wei­, on the other hand, cuts off our projections, and lets the thing show us what it is, by what it does and how it is used. This keeps us from assuming we already know the answer.

When zhengming and wu-wei are coupled together, we have a list of definitions by which we will judge the performance of things, and thus classify them accurately – while keeping our assumptions in check, so that we learn what a thing is, by critical observation. This kind of thinking is why we value “fresh eyes” on a project – preconceived notions can get us stuck in a rut, while approaching the problem without such assumptions can allows us to see the problem and possible solutions in an entirely different light.

An additional benefit of this kind of thinking is in keeping us from falsely assuming that we share definitions, because we share a term. Reverend Gary Hall’s response to Richard Dawkins is a great example of recognizing this false assumption. Given Dawkins’s position on God, Rev. Hall replied, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in either.” Theology aside, Rev. Hall’s statement cuts to the heart of the issue: while both men use the same term, their respective definitions of God are so radically different that any debate on the topic is actually impossible – they can’t help but talk right past each other (also known as incommensurability). However, despite these radical differences, we often engage in all sorts of debates and discussions, failing to realize that we’re never actually speaking about the same topic – all because the terminology sounds the same.

With zhengming and wu-wei as our guiding principles, we should be on the constant lookout for definitions and the way in which they’re being used. It is crucial to realize that this process is not about being right or wrong; it is about being coherent. Whether we subscribe to Dawkins’s or Rev. Hall’s definition of God, or neither, is irrelevant. What matters is whether the terms we use match in meaning, and thus allow us to speak about the same topic. Without a shared understanding of ideas, we cannot actually communicate (even if sometimes it may sound as if we can).

Finally, introducing strange new terms requires us to justify that introduction. With every new term, especially those that are not part of our common, everyday vocabulary, we also introduce additional complexity – and thus complications. If we want to introduce additional complexity, we have to justify it with benefits that exceed the drawbacks of complexity. So, what are the benefits of introducing a pair of Chinese terms to our vocabulary? One benefit is that the terms have no English analogues, so we don’t have a term we could substitute for them. More importantly, these terms have a very specific meaning, in terms of orders of operation. First, we set up definitions; second we assign terms to the definitions; third we critically observe the world – keeping our own preconceptions and biases in check and letting things demonstrate their nature; finally, on the basis of what and how a thing is, we assign it the appropriate term. This four-step process is very particular to these specific terms, and the only way of capturing the same ideas and process in English would be by that entire definition, or by making up new terms. Constantly giving the full definition is too arduous, and making up terms adds complexity – especially where we already have terms that are recognized for having that specific meaning. Thus, I believe the added complexity of the two terms introduced here is justified.

[1] Mencius. Mencius. Ed, Tr. D.C. Lau. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Pg. 23.

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