Sunday, December 07, 2008

Atlas of True Names (or something close)

Many place names are made up of archaic words whose meaning is not obvious. What if, suddenly, the meanings of those words were suddenly revealed and all place names were simple phrases in your language -- like, say, North Bay? Well, the map -- not to mention the insides of our heads -- might look a little different, as in the Atlas of True Names, or the excerpted map above (click to see it up close).

Thanks to Strange Maps and its alert readers for the tip. See Strange Maps for commentary and further links.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

More on the rectification of names

Some time back, in connection with a post by Phil Paine at, I wrote a little piece on "the rectification of names."

Phil has now written a long and meaty essay that explores that theme in connection with recent developments in American and Canadian politics: What Is Progress? What Is Progressive? (Monday,May 12, 2008)

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The rectification of names, 2

Back in January, I talked about the Confucian notion of rectification of names and how the words "irony" and "ambiguity" routinely confuse sensible discussion.

Today I'm linking to Phil Paine's discussion of the phrase "cultural evolution," (page down to the entry for March 15, Barking Up the Wrong Tree) in which he brings to the fore our confusion about "culture" itself.

Highly recommended. Once you've read that, have a look at the previous entry on that same blog page.

Image: A 15th century depiction of Joachim of Fiore.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

The rectification of names

I'm no Confucius scholar, and have a very limited understanding of his thought, so I'm basically cherry-picking this quotation from a longer analysis by the Master:

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..."

Boy are we in need of that now!

"Liberal" has meant so many things in the past two centuries that it is probably been a hopeless case for the last half-century. Now "conservative" is equally hopeless -- remember when it meant conserving things and institutions, instead of conscienceless plundering? "Left" and "right" -- is there a good essay on the Web or in print exposing how empty and befuddling these adjectives are, except for making battle-flags?

Phil Paine has written a short piece
(under reading #15474) a critique of Garrett Hardin's article "Tragedy of the Commons" (Science, 1968) and the analysis associated with it, which deserves wide distribution. One part I think is particularly valuable are the remarks on
"paradox" and "irony" (as well as a common (mis)use of "rational"):

Perhaps the key to the article's success is Hardin's constant use of the word "rational", borrowed in a special usage from game theory, and then employed in an arbitrary way which bears no resemblance to any common-sense use of the word "rational". People are always intrigued and delighted by what they interpret as "ironies" or "paradoxes" in economics, sociology, or psychology. It seems especially delicious to contemplate a "paradox" where "rationality" creates chaos or disaster by some supposed necessity, and that is probably why the essay's arguments have been replicated in so many other contexts. But the appearance of such "paradoxes" does not indicate sophistication — it simply marks the presence of sloppy thinking. Paradoxes are the result of confusion, inattention, or inadequacy in the observer. They do not exist in the real world. Hardin's fictional shepherds exhibit only the "rationality" of a heroin addict deciding on a second-by-second basis whether to inject himself. No real shepherd ever thought or behaved in the way that Hardin considers "inevitable". Trust me in this: I was trained professionally as a shepherd. No real life shepherd was ever as stupid as Hardin's imaginary ones.
I've long had the same attitude toward the widespread use of the term "irony." "Irony" has a legitimate meaning, but the casual use of the phrase "Isn't it ironic" (which long predated the song of that title) almost always makes me want to say "You haven't figured out that old scam yet?"

A very good example of words getting away from even intelligent users can be seen in this blog entry at Crooked Timber and the following comments where the "ambiguity" of power-holders who want to manipulate others by cloaking their intentions is discussed. Some writers are clearly talking about projecting ambiguity to deceive, while others let the term "ambiguity" dominate the discussion and seem to think no one knows the truth. No. The ambiguity, or better, some people's ignorance about the true state of affairs, is produced by others who are consciously deceiving or confusing them. It's lying, people. And in the long run, the "ambiguity" of important liars is usually revealed -- long after the great robbery or the slaughter of innocents is over.

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