Thursday, September 29, 2011

Getting things by their right names, as the Chinese say

The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names.  (E O Wilson, Consilience, 1998, p 2)

What do you do about alleged Chinese proverbs? Try to source them and discard them if they prove phoney?

“May you live in interesting times”, the supposed Chinese curse, is often asserted to be phoney, although according to this Wikipedia article the argument isn't all on one side. [But see note.] The fact is, that whether or not it’s ever been a Chinese curse, it’s certainly become an English saying, of which the first use known to the Wikipedia contributor was by Robert F. Kennedy in 1966. Actually the more I think about it, the less plausible it is that living in interesting times is an idiom that can be freely exchanged between Chinese and English.

Which brings us back to The first step to wisdom is getting things by their right names. Well, I like it. So let’s just say that the first step to wisdom, as E O Wilson says the Chinese say, is getting things by their right names, and leave it at that. Let's not concern ourselves with whether it really is ancient Chinese wisdom.

E O Wilson in 2007, age 78
Of course we need to be alive to the possibility that E O Wilson is simply fooling with us. He could have opted for “the start of any philosophical discussion must be correct terminology”, which would have been true but unmemorable. He could have said “The first step to wisdom is getting things by their right names”, which has a zing but might have sounded pretentious. Throwing in “as the Chinese say” may be nothing more than a device for disclaiming wisdom for himself and displacing it to long ago and far away.

I'm told by the way (see this review for example) that were I to read to the end of E O Wilson's book, I may not like it. Be that as it may, to find a pearl on page 2 isn't bad going.

Note added January 2017. The Wikipedia article has recently been amended, and if you follow the link you will find that actually the argument really is all on one side, that is to say, despite being known as "the Chinese curse", the saying is apocryphal, and no actual Chinese source has ever been produced. Moreover it appeared in English in 1936 not 1966.

1 comment:

  1. But why do we automatically ascribe wisdom to peoples and sayings just because they were a long time ago (albeit in advanced civilisations for the time)? Why should we assume the ancient Chinese or Greeks were wiser than we are now (as a people, not personally speaking!), or even than their own modern counterparts in China and Greece? When did those people stop being wise? Just because they wrote things down before others, doesn't mean we have to treat them with reverence. Or using the same logic the "developed" nations now could be assumed to be wiser than less "developed" ones. This particular phrase seems self-evident, of course it's helpful to call things by their right names, why is it clever to put that into words? I'd argue that by saying "as the Chinese" say the speaker isn't putting some distance between himself and the "pearl" to avoid sounding pretentious, rather he's adding some weight to the saying, implying that if the Chinese said it it must be wise. It's the Emperor's Clothes again! Or maybe I'm just in a grumpy mood this afternoon......