Language only needs to work well enough for the task in hand, so very few of us require great precision for most activities. However, in major psychosocial projects and for scientific inquiries, we urgently need rectification of names, to use Confucius’ elegant phrase.
When things start going badly wrong, we must know what we are talking about. So in developing the Taxonomy, I sought to embody a Confucian discipline.
"If names are not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
“When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
“Therefore 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. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”
From:, Book 13, Verse 3.
Ambiguity and confusion result from using the same term with many referents, or many terms for the same referent (cf. example of policy).
Meaningful naming provides clarity that:
● reduces misunderstanding
● increases efficiency
● enables better control
● improves cooperation and cohesion.
Ambiguity may be used deliberately to diffuse conflict or gain negotiating advantage. Sometimes being ambiguous is wise and beneficial, but blind confusion and ambiguity are as likely to exacerbate conflict as to reduce it.
No! No! No! At least not in regard to THEE and social life.
We are practical people, not philosophers. So we must do exactly the opposite. Here are the steps once again:
Step 1: We point to something that we come to believe must actually exist as a fundamental (i.e. point to an example of a category) and use phrases or vague terms, and then …
Step 2: We work out its function and properties by discussing, reading, reflecting, comparing and trying out. Simultaneously we adjust and refine terms and formulations, and then …
Step 3: We seek agreement from others on a suitable term to be used regularly as the best label i.e. formal name or THEE-name.
Unless we follow this procedure, we will not have a useful tool that helps us see, discuss and work effectively. As a result, our biggest personal, organizational and societal challenges will overwhelm us.
Surely, they do.
Most academics, managers and politicians don't know how to use the words. They sometimes add qualifiers as if that helps: e.g. is it clearer if we say «moral right», «human right», «universal right», «natural right»?
Consulting to organizations, governing boards and local councils suggests that clarity on such things is the first step to reasonable discussion and appropriate discharge of responsibilities.
Imposition is generally unworkable, while agreement is natural and feasible. In practice, any needed workable terminology can be rapidly developed and agreed within a cohesive work-group for whom meaning is important.
However, it must be recognized that any formal name is not necessarily the right name for every circumstance. Different people, organizations and professional groups may use different names for the same thing.
So it is important to be pragmatic. If you are, clarity will not feel like an imposition, but rather a relief.
Outside work situations, we mostly get by with rather little precision. Even at work, precision on psychosocial issues is rather limited. Most of our endeavours and organizations could probably do with improvement.
When things are going seriously wrong or there is much conflict and disagreement, clarity is necessary.
We could also benefit from more precision in regard to certain personal matters. THEE helps here by enabling a focus on things that deeply affect you and your relationships, but about which you may have only a vague sense.
Scientific researchers are particularly dependent on precision and clarity to get results that are meaningful outside the laboratory.
Precise and valid knowledge in this psychosocial realm awaits a new breed of specialists. They will recognize that THEE offers them a reasonable and unambiguous vocabulary to assist people with their projects and organizations.
Originally posted: August 2009; last updated 15 January 2011.