The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name

I spotted this “Chinese proverb” on AIGA’s article Where Design Is Going, And How To Be There, and, naturally, I immediately wanted to find out which proverb it is exactly, in its original Chinese form. I landed on a forum post where one poster claimed the original wording to be “认知是智慧的开始,” which obviously doesn’t even sound right. At the end of the discussion, the conclusion was that the only possible proverb that would fit the sense of the English was “名正言順.” Additional searches seemed to confirm this conclusion, most results equating the English rendition to “名正才能言順.” The source text came from the Analects, where Confucius is recorded as saying,
If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. (Zi Lu, 3)
So the English translation is in fact a very loose translation. While we might arguably say that unsound arguments have no wisdom in it, I believe the English has been intentionally crafted this way to parallel Proverbs 1:7, often rendered “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” What was the translator’s original intention? I really don’t know, but possibly the translator might have wanted to say something to the effect of “whereas the Bible was the foundation of Western culture, Confucius was the foundation of Chinese culture.” But in any case, I believe the puzzle of “what proverb is this?” has been solved.
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One Response to The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name

  1. michelle says:

    I love this proverb and have had it hanging over my desk (in English) for years. As a technical writer/editor in the 80s, it became my personal motto, since so much of good technical writing depends on only calling a thing by one name and never calling different things by the same name. From what you say, it seems that it is not the beginning of wisdom but any perception of truth that depends on calling things by their correct name. So a more fluid version of your literal translation could be “Wisdom depends on calling things by their right name”? or “The pursuit of wisdom depends on calling things by their right name”? or possibly “The truth of things cannot be understood without precise language.”

    Thanks for this post. I only found it because I was trying to prove to someone that the source of the expression was Confucius, not Socrates as some seem to think.

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