The rectification of names

Replying to another of Matthew’s comments, I thought it worth making a new post to draw attention to a significant theme in Confucian thought.

If I may channel my inner Confucian: what bothers me about the phenomenon of Yoga drifting from its ancient roots is not a disdain for “cherry picking” nor a direct concern for the spiritual well-being of Western pseudo-yogis, but an appreciation for what Confucius called ‘the rectification of names’.

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.

When someone says “Yoga”, but what they refer to is not actually Yoga, then we have the beginnings of ignorance and confusion. Defining our terms is vital from a philosophical perspective, and relying on incorrect terms or misappropriated terms is simply wrong; why do it if you don’t have to?

But the truth is that I enjoy looking at the meanings, natures, and definitions of things, as well as the origins and use of words.  I don’t really care if no one else thinks it important or relevant or worth the time and effort.


3 thoughts on “The rectification of names

  1. Hi Zac,

    I hope you don’t mind too much that I remain (at least for now) engaged in this discussion/quibble though I do understand that your post isn’t so much a reply/rejoinder to my previous comment as it is a clarification of your position (which I appreciate).

    I do remember reading that quote by Confucius. In fact it was on the wall of the office where I was previously employed and if I recall correctly it was also fittingly placed some distance away from the pretentious posters that had been placed on the walls by my equally pretentious employers!

    Indeed, if one were to be confronted by a westerner clad in her designer label capri pants, and crop top sports bra, with her hair tied back in a pony tail, a minimal yet noticeable amount of make up on, and a rolled up “yoga” mat over her shoulder, chances are, she will answer in the affirmative to a question such as “do you do yoga?” If this wasn’t pretentious enough she might even use the term “namaste” at the end of this exchange.

    However, one wouldn’t know from such an exchange whether these “yogis” do actually (or at least are making a genuine attempt) to live up to such a name and thus also live up to the Confucian ideal expressed in that quote. Therefore, there is at least a prima facie risk of contravening this Confucian ideal oneself by labeling them as “western pseudo-yogis” without at least some knowledge of their personal and indeed spiritual lives.

    But what is more pertinent here (which was essentially the point of my previous replies) is that in order to make such an evaluation about their spiritual lives one must also have a sound understanding of spirituality and the way in which people ought to apply it to their lives. For there is always a risk of incorrectly privileging or being partial towards a particular form or standard of spiritual practice when it comes to evaluating another. If not, then there is at least the risk of condescension which would be the case whether one defends or criticises westernised yoga. Of course, it follows from this that I myself ought to be less outspoken than yourself. I don’t claim to know anywhere near as much as you do with regard to religion and spiritualism.

    However, I have been told in the past that I am too outspoken and at the risk of vindicating those pretentious employers let me say that I think the label of “western pseudo-yogis” is befitting of most westerners who practice “yoga”.

    I may have uttered the phrase “I do yoga” in the past (condescendingly even!) but I am certainly no yogi nor was I even genuinely attempting to learn about the essential yoga. It was almost purely about learning some good stretching techniques for sports preparation and recovery. Perhaps such a practice/lifestyle could be understood more generally as a means by which I was trying to alleviate the ennui that comes with living a contemporary western liberal secular life. But the point I wish to make is that one may call it “empty posturing” if need be but one must also bear in mind that even Confucius himself would presumably have tried to apply his own edicts to himself in order to achieve his goals and live up to his own ideals.

    Nevertheless, I do sympathise with your concern about names and the terms that we use, especially when we live in a world where notions of prosperity, progress, development, strategy and indeed the good, are predicated on anything that relates to financial gain and material possessions. Westernised yoga is indeed part of this world (for which the Bikram/hot-yoga fad and the overpriced fees that they charge (which people are willing to pay) is one of many instances of this. But the unfortunate thing is that those places and institutions we might regard as sacrosanct are also guilty of this type of compromise (such as churches, schools, universities, hospitals, aged care facilities and their “research” departments, so called “not for profit” agencies, and indeed governments).

    The misuse of words is a valuable weapon for the deceitful.

    Morality, ethics and values are controversial enough and more so when spiritualism and religion are involved and it is difficult for me to be too confident when discussing these types of issues. Indeed as Confucius says, one ought to show cautious reserve in regards to what one does not know and because I do not know enough about religion or spirituality, my current inclination is to focus on other examples. So when it comes to the matter of the way in which we use/misuse words, let me offer a few salient examples that I am more confident of. One is the word “research”, another is the phrase “evidence based practice”, and then there is the sentence “there’s nothing sinister going on here Matthew”!

    • “However, one wouldn’t know from such an exchange whether these “yogis” do actually (or at least are making a genuine attempt) to live up to such a name and thus also live up to the Confucian ideal expressed in that quote. Therefore, there is at least a prima facie risk of contravening this Confucian ideal oneself by labeling them as “western pseudo-yogis” without at least some knowledge of their personal and indeed spiritual lives.”

      That’s why I think it is so important to hedge. I would never say “Westerners do not know what Yoga really is”, but I feel secure making less sweeping generalisations based on observation of Yoga material in the public domain. When people think of Yoga, they tend to think of asanas, not yamas or niyamas, unless they are indeed pursuing Yoga as part of a more traditional spiritual discipline. Unless I’m wildly out of touch with popular opinion (I know, it happens!) the popular view of Yoga is heavily slated toward the fitness side of things.

  2. I agree! All one really needs, so as to be at least somewhat justified in regarding the “yoga” that is practiced in the west as an aberration or at least a significantly attenuated practice, is to observe the “yoga curricula” offered in the west. It’s quite obvious, as you suggest, that it is primarily about the asanas. Thus there can be a genuine contention about whether such a thing ought to be labelled “yoga” or something else, so that we can distinguish it from its more complete tradition. You have indeed made this point.

    I suppose the question of moral/ethical/spiritual worth of such a practice itself (i.e. whether it is good or bad, regardless of what one might call it) is an additional/separate issue, but I now appreciate that this wasn’t really your point.

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