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Word power: ‘The way’ and the way you say it

by Florian Coulmas

OGYU SORAI’S PHILOSOPHICAL MASTERWORKS: The Bendo and Benmei, edited and translated by John A. Tucker. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006, 478 pp., $56 (cloth).

One of the foremost thinkers of our time, Noam Chomsky, has argued that the United States is a rogue state. To arrive at this conclusion, he applied the definition the U.S. government uses to identify rogue states. A quibble about semantics? Certainly not, if by that we mean an insignificant argument. Much rather it is an example of the eminently political nature of determining the meaning of words and how they relate to facts.

This relationship is at the heart of the most influential current of Eastern philosophy. In “Analects,” Confucius explains the fundamental importance of language to politics. He taught that “if we don’t use the correct words we live public lies. If we live public lies the political system is a sham.” The “rectification of names” was, therefore, the noblest and most important task to secure just government and harmonious social organization.

Centuries of Confucian and Neo-Confucian teachings have revolved around this all important issue of how the world is, and should be, grasped through the categories that find expression in language. Within this tradition, early modern Japanese philosopher Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) occupies a pre-eminent position.

Although Sorai was a stern critic of eminent Neo-Confucians such as Chen Beixi and Zhu Xi, his analytic method derived from the same source. It was words that philosophers had to analyze. Only by recovering the right meaning of important terms could truth, moral rectitude and lawful government be established. His philosophy is language philosophy.

The present volume makes available, in an excellent English translation, Sorai’s two most important works, “Bendo (Distinguishing the way)” and “Benmei (Distinguishing names).” Both were published in the form of “philosophical dictionaries” (jigi) explaining the meaning of terms in the tradition of “teaching by names.” “Once names and things are grasped without discrepancy, we can fathom the way of the sages and discuss matters in relation to it.” Sorai thus states his reason for writing “Benmei.” Each of its 34 chapters starts out with a philosophically significant term that the author discusses at length, relating it to other terms as well as earlier interpretations by other philosophers.

The much shorter “Bendo” is similarly structured. Together, the two Ben represent a comprehensive philosophical worldview addressing the basic questions of social and political life.

The first entry of “Benmei” is “the way” (Chinese dao, Japanese michi), the pivotal notion of the text that is instrumental to the analysis of most other notions. A privileged concept in the philosophical lexicon, “the way” is interpreted by Sorai not as a metaphysical term akin to “nature,” “providence” or the like, but as a normative concept underlying ethical conduct and state organization. It is a rather rigid notion that cannot be called into question. That the people follow it is more important than that they understand it.

Further notions expounded in Benmei include “virtue,” “humaneness,” “wisdom,” “ritual principles,” “goodness,” among others. Sorai develops a conceptual network holding them together by referring to the ancient sage kings whose understanding must be recaptured if the realm is to be ordered properly.

There is, Sorai claims, a rational structure within everything that the common people cannot hope to recognize without the help of the sages. More than that, it is not necessary or even desirable that they do, as long as they observe the “rites” that the ancient sage kings formulated in accordance with “the ways.”

It is not hard to see why Sorai’s philosophy was criticized by thinkers of later generations as conveying little more than a technique for rulers to order the people of their realms. Rites are tools for ordering society, which is clearly Sorai’s highest concern. Yet, as Tucker explains in his excellent commentary, seeing in Sorai nothing more than an apologist of the social order established under Tokugawa rule would not be doing him justice.

Tucker places Ogyu Sorai into the Neo-Confucian tradition and explains his special position in it. While his thinking can only be understood against the background of this tradition, he also introduced new ideas. His constant reference to the ancient sage kings is deeply conservative, yet he foreshadowed notions, such as the distinction between the public and private spheres, that would enter mainstream political thought only when the Neo-Confucian Tokugawa regime had been swept away by the Meiji Restoration.

The great variety of subsequent philosophers who have taken issue with Sorai’s work ever since its publication 270 years ago up to the present testifies to his importance as a political thinker for Japan’s intellectual history. John Tucker’s knowledgeable account of the reception of Sorai’s Bendo and Benmei allows us to appreciate his long lasting influence and the power of his words.