Asia Institute Essay:
“Wise Words of Confucius on Shifts in Institutions”
October 22, 2012
Confucius argued that the most critical issue for a healthy society is the relationship of the terms we employ to the institutions and objects that they describe. Now, in an age of increasing incoherence and confusion about the most basic terms used to describe our society and economy, Confucius’s insight offer us an invaluable perspective. His suggestion that it is the discontinuity between terms we use and the practice they describe, rather than simple unethical behavior and greed, that produces these contradictions presents us with a means of going beyond the unproductive argument all problems stem from the fact that a small group of the powerful are too greedy. Knowing that a small group of powerful people has immense control does not does not help us understand how we got in this situation, or how we can get beyond it.
Confucius suggested that the problems we encounter in the political realm are the result of a slippage in the meaning of the terms that we use to describe. For example, there has been tremendous slippage in the significance of the term “bank” and that slippage has introduced chaos into our society. Although we use the word “bank” without even thinking about its meaning, the term’s significance is far from clear. Whereas the word “bank” referred to an organization with a rather limited mandate to lend money under strict regulations, it has evolved into a complex financial instrument whose roles are multifarious and changing rapidly as money itself has shifted in its significance as a result of the IT revolution. We need perhaps to redefine “money” at the same time.
Although there is obviously greed among some who work for banks, our inability to regulate banks is most directly related to the immense shifts in the meaning of the very term “bank.” If we want to solve the problem, we are more likely to be successful if we first address the meaning of the term than trying to artificially go back to a previous golden age. The meaning these institutions have most likely changed permanently and we should make sure that their new meanings are clear. In the extreme case, if a “bank” has become a casino, perhaps it should be called that. If “money” has become bits of “information” maybe the term needs to be modified.
Let us look at what Confucius wrote in the Analects.
If the terms that we employ to describe the institutions in society cease to be accurate representations of what those institutions have become, then, although we can discuss the problems of our age, the discussion will not correspond with the actual reality in a political or economic sense.
In that case, if our discussions on the issues of our time no longer correspond with reality, no matter how much we say, we really will not be able to accomplish anything. The result will be that since our discussions about policy do not go anywhere, then all political discourse will lack the vitality and relevance.
Under those conditions, if the political discourse lacks vitality and significance, then we cannot expect that the processes of government can properly function.
The ultimate consequence of such a breakdown in governance will be confusion among the people as to what they are supposed to do.
It is for this reason that the terms employed by the intellectual be such that they can be explained readily. And that speech must be formulated so that it can be readily implemented. In a word, the intellectual must not be sloppy in the terms that he employs.
Confucius postulates that the failure in public debate and policy response stem primarily from gap between the terms used and the institutions described. This problem is easy to identify in our society. If we look at our newspapers, whether progressive or conservative, we can find a universal failure to engage in a thoroughgoing consideration of the meaning of the terms employed. We read about the International Monetary Fund, but we provide no detail, or make no investigation into how that institution has evolved and changed in is mission and its structure over the last 10 to 20 years, let alone its primary mission. A more extreme case is Google, which people praise or condemn, but they rarely stop to think how that term “Google” refers to something quite different today than what it referred to two years ago, or five years ago. Tracing the evolution of these institutions and terms is perhaps a more pressing issue than reporting on the latest predictable development, but it is never done.
Before we start to attack individuals for greed and immorality, we should think carefully about how the terms like “Pentagon,” “Republican Party,” “Central Intelligence Agency,” and “university” have fundamentally shifted in significance over the last few decades. In a sense, it is unfair to attack people in these institutions for doing things that are “immoral” if what we really mean is that they are doing things that are improper only according to our accepted definitions of those institutions
“Wise Words of Confucius on Shifts in Institutions”