In Analects XII, a disciple asked Confucius the right principle of government whereupon Confucious said:

The one thing needed first is the rectification of names.

What did Confucius mean by this?

  • 2
    To me, he is doing the same thing Plato did. Things must remain fixed. Fixity. Confucius was probably more concerned with tradition than with triangles, nevertheless this is a move to conserve the Form, conserve the Idea, conserve the noun.
    – Gordon
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 0:54
  • 2
    Isn't the reference to Analects XIII (specifically XIII.3 instead of XII? (though 12.17 does also treat the subject).
    – virmaior
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 1:10

1 Answer 1


There are experts on site to whose opinions I defer but a brief and approximate answer might run as follows:

The doctrine of the 'rectification of names'

Language is one of Confucius s primary concerns, since it is so strongly associated with the social and moral order. Confucius s key theory of language is known as the "Rectification of Names."In Book 13 of The Analects, when asked about the first measure to be taken in order to improve the administration, Confucius replied, "It would certainly be to correct language" (159). He further explained why the rectification of names is imperative:

If language is incorrect, then what is said does not concord with what was meant, what is to be done cannot be effected. If what is to be done cannot be effected, then rites and music will not flourish. If rites and music do not flourish, then mutilations and lesser punishments will go astray. And if mutilations and lesser punishments go astray, then the people have nowhere to put hand or foot. Therefore the gentleman uses only such language as is proper for speech, and only speaks of what it would be proper to carry into effect. The gentleman in what he says leaves nothing to mere chance (159).

Most commentators of this passage do not emphasize the relationship between language and reality, but the relationship between language and action. Every name contains implications for the social relationships of responsibilities and duties. There is an agreement between name and action (the king must act as a "king" should act). This passage indicates one of the most important tenets of Confucius: that is, that individuals should readjust their behavior according to the expectations raised by their "names." The necessity of the rectification of names lies in the supposition that improper names not only misrepresent human relationships, but also have a direct effect upon action and, as a result, lead to social disorder in reality. (Zheng Jie and Fang Jianjun, 'Language and Consciousness: Brecht's Language Strategy and Confucius's "Rectification of Names"', The German Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 1 (Winter 2013), pp. 72-89: 80-1.)

The Greek parallel

Professor Guthrie limits his comparison of Socrates and Confucius to just one point, the "Rectification of Names." This is the doctrine that things in actual fact should be made to accord with the implications attached to them by names. He writes: "To Socrates, as to Confucius, correct language, the rectification of names, was the prerequisite for correct living and even efficient government."[8] Later, Guthrie supports his comparison by quoting from Phaedo 115e, where Socrates says: "You may be sure my dear Cebes that inaccurate language is not only itself a mistake; it implants evil in men's souls." [9] The passage from the Analects which states this doctrine reads, in part,

If names be not used correctly, then speech gets tied up in knots; and if speech be so, then business comes to a standstill.... 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.

(Warren E. Steinkraus, 'Socrates, Confucius, and the Rectification of Names', Philosophy East and West, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Apr., 1980), pp. 261-264: 262.

[8] W. K. C. Guthrie, The Sophists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1971, p. 276. [9] W. K. C. Guthrie, Socrates (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1971. "Perhaps the man who came nearest to the aims of Socrates in his search for meanings of words was not a Greek at all... [but] ... Confucius." p. 16.)

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