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Thursday, December 8, 2011
Philosophy ... Spirituality ...

What’s in a name? We all have names – hi, I’m Jim. There’s more to my name than that, but for starters, call me Ishmael . . . eh, Jim, that is. (Admittedly I’m out of my element when discussing classic authors like Melville.) So names are important. But just what are they, and why do we have them?

Those questions don’t seem all that tough – – unless you want them to be. If you pursue the more difficult issues raised by such questions, you will eventually reach one of those show-stopping queries from philosophy, i.e., just who and what are we, once our names are taken away? This is all Zen stuff, but I like Zen stuff, so let’s follow this a bit further if you don’t mind.

Names. They are necessary for social living, and human survival requires living social. We are hard-wired as a social species, although we’re not “eusocial” like ants and bees and termites, with their robot-like, Orwellian-nightmare living arrangements. Ants and bees and termites don’t need names. Neither do most members of the Borg Collective – although they do need numbers for operational efficiency. (I am obviously more comfortable talking about Star Trek than classic literature).

But we humans need complicated names, because we retain much individuality and independence despite the intricate social structures that we depend on to stay alive and entertained (e.g., family, neighborhood, government, business enterprises, political groups, and increasingly, the “distributed” social networks evolving via the 2.0 web). We try to find the right mix of order and freedom, rules and chaos, and prose and poetry in our individual and collective lives. So we use our language facilities to develop identifiers for each of us, i.e. complex mixtures of symbolic sounds and squibbles on paper or computer screen, in combinations that apply just to us. Our names.

(Well, not exactly “just to us”. It’s a big world and we don’t seem to mind a relatively small degree of name repetition. When I Google my own name in quotes, I get 475 results. When I Google “John Murphy” I get a count of 6,540,000, and “Maria Rodriguez” garners a pretty respectable 3,750,000. John Smith still looks like the champ, though, at 22,200,000 hits. To be honest, I can’t remember ever meeting a “John Smith”; but they’re out there somewhere, obviously.)

Before we get to the big Zen question of what is left of us without our names, let’s take a second to think about a less ambitious but still interesting issue: how do the names that we are given (usually by our parents) affect who we become? I’m Jim, more formally James. Would I have been different than I am today had I been called Bruno or Anthony or Shawn? How about Hollis or Ivan or Dunstan? What if the family and communities that I grew up in had more often used “James” rather than “Jim”?

There is some evidence that names help determine our character and behavior. One research study indicates that girls with highly feminine names steer clear of math and science classes and careers more than the Hildas and Berthas. Another one argues that boys who grow up with popular names such as Michael, Joshua and Christopher have a good chance of leading law-abiding lives, whereas young men with names like Kareem, Alec or Garland wind up in jail more frequently. This study focused on the effect of having an uncommon or unpopular name and found some correlation with increased incarceration rates. Supposedly, more feminine-ish names for boys also raise the chances of doing time; e.g. you are more likely to see a Maurice or Ernest behind bars than a Bill or Ed. (But not by much; the study concludes that names aren’t causes of crime, although they might have some influence on life situations).

So, obviously we and those around us do take names very seriously. There is something in a name, after all. There are reasons why we have them. But what? Well, there is practicality and flexibility; bees and ants don’t need names because they all follow strict genetic programming in responding to the environment in a social fashion. But our “human species collective” does better by deviating from strict instructions in unique circumstances. In order to send someone on a mission that they and those around them haven’t done before, the human species needs a way of identifying a specific individual and separating them out from others. The mission requires it.

But that could be done with a simple alpha-numeric system, as the Borg used. We humans, with our super-brainpower and emergent self-consciousness, have ‘higher needs’, including the need to assert ourselves as free individuals. (Well, free at heart, anyway.) So we want to be more than a number. We like the idea of having an “identifier” similar to those we use for tangible or perceivable things like pretty rocks (“Amber”, “Crystal”) and sunrises (“Dawn”). We also want our names to be distinct from the names of those around us (up to a point, anyway – it can’t be TOO MUCH unlike others; I grew up amidst ethnic Polish, Irish and Italian kids, and I’m glad that my name was not Xi Tse-Huan.)

So, our “name policies and philosophies” say a lot about what we humans are like on deeper levels. We’re getting pretty deep here, but let’s go on to the even more metaphysically flavored question – what would we be without our names? Yes, now we’re entering Zen territory. But also Christianity – e.g., there are many names for God (including “God” itself), but at various points in scripture, God is said to be of the opinion that he or she is ultimately beyond all names – “I am who am”, or more simply and powerfully, “I am”. Try Genesis 26:3, Exodus 3:14, and John 8:58.

Nonetheless, let us move on to the Far East and its love for paradoxical viewpoints. “I have something that has no name and no form” said the 7th Century Chinese Zen patriarch, Hui Neng. More recently, 1960’s Zen impresario Alan Watts said that he is not Alan Watts, not in the ultimate sense. And “the ultimate sense” is what Zen is in search of (with the qualification that if you find the ultimate sense and name it “the ultimate sense”, then it is not the ultimate sense).

(Watts also said that the menu is not the meal. If our names are the menu, what are we as ‘meals’, outside what a tiger or shark might think?)

The Tao is also after that “ultimate sense” (and I’m one of those who believe that Zen is more of a Taoist thing than a Buddhist thing). So what does the Tao say about the “name, no-name, beyond all names” topic? A lot, right from the git-go. The second sentence of the Tao Te Ching says (more or less, depending upon the translation): “the name that can be given is not the absolute name”. Also in chapter 25: “there was something before heaven and earth . . . truthfully it has no name, but I call it The Way [or Tao]”.

We humans like to think that we are more than the sum of our daily circumstances, e.g. what we had for lunch, how much we can spend, how our bodies are holding up, how our clothes and speech and performances influence others, etc. We’d like to think that we are ultimately “spiritual” in nature (well, quite a few of us, anyway). So, the closer we might get to the ultimate spirituality, the less that our names should matter.

Do they ever mean absolutely nothing? Without our names, do we completely disappear in the wake of the infinite? Or do we become “co-eternal with the infinite” (sort of what the Church says about Jesus Christ), with no further need for a name?

This is interesting fodder for one’s meditation practice, so long as it doesn’t distract you from actual meditation And usually it does (which is too bad, because meditation can be like tasting the nameless ultimate, at least on its better days). But that’s just where most of us are. Still here on planet Earth. So, hello, I’m Jim. And who, might I ask, are you?

(Ah yes, I do remember the 1978 song by that title; by The Who, quite appropriately).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:20 pm      

  1. Jim, Since it seems to me that most of this particular blog is really a series of questions about names and naming people, so I myself would like to pose some questions. I see two separate areas in this blog. One is at the beginning where you take a kind of “scientific” approach to naming; the second part is where you pose a Zen/Tao position about naming.

    So, first to the scientific: I am not sure why the comparison was made between bees and ants and humans. Of course, such beings as bees and ants have no need for names. But I find myself wondering if some higher order animals might, e.g., bears, lions, tigers, elephants, whales, dolphins, orcas, might, if they could, identify themselves by name. (This is as short list; I can think of 6 more but will not list them.) Perhaps scent, which many of these animals use to identify each other, serves as a kind of name.

    One doesn’t even have to go to such a high level of development in the animal world to realize that even animals identify others as different from themselves. Dogs themselves have different personalities and reactions to other dogs. Why is it that my dog sitting on the sofa watching the neighborhood dogs go by has such different reactions to different dogs taking their daily dozen? Sometimes his bark is the type that says, “hello, just saying hi” (kind of just letting the other dog know he’s here). Other times his bark obviously is saying, get off my territory or you’ll be sorry. Just wondering if my dog is reacting to something about the “self” of other dogs he likes or does not like. Just asking/wondering.

    Then too, I wonder about the business of “feminine” names versus—not “masculine” names—but “popular” names. Wouldn’t it seem that if there is going to be a comparison to “feminine” the comparison be “masculine”, rather than “popular”? And I have to be honest: I tend to think of Josephine and even Priscilla as names that carry some “heft”, rather than being “feminine”, which I take is supposed to be somehow “frilly”. Just guessing. What would be a “feminine” name other than names that our society just assigns to women? I really have no clue.

    I find myself wondering if those men with certain “popular” names who do NOT end up in jail are such because of their economic status—as opposed to men with names who tend to end up in jail. I notice no comparison is made to what is a “masculine” name as opposed to a “non-masculine” name. Just wondering here again.

    I am just asking if there might be a flaw in that research. Since there is no place in this research for “masculine” names, I wonder how “popular” is defined? The name given to the most children born? In what period of time? Couldn’t the same be applied to female children—“popular” names rather than “feminine” names? Just wondering.

    Now to the Zen/Tao part: I am not sure I understand the whole business of “the ultimate sense”. I’m not being critical here as I realize this is tantamount to a religious type of belief, and I am not about to denigrate anything that fits into that category. But I do find myself asking some questions: Specifically, if we are to live on this earth, if we cannot use scent as an identifier, then why not names?

    I also find myself thinking and wondering about people with mental health problems (as defined by our society) who often have difficulty “settling” on what it is they want to call themselves. I know one woman who, the best I can figure, calls herself by different names, depending on some internal mood she may be experiencing—or so it seems to me. She insists on doing this but will not discuss why she does this. Then I find myself wondering about those who experience multiple personalities within themselves; they seem to have a need to “name” their various personalities by different names. I am not sure if they are simple “identifiers” or if the name itself has some significance. Even tho I know such a person, I have never had the chance to ask.

    As to the “ultimate sense” business: It does seem to me that as long as we are here on earth, we will not/cannot reach the “ultimate” of anything as defined in Zen/Tao; thus identifiers/names would seem important.

    Then too, on another totally different line of thinking: How is it that often in intimate circumstances, say of a family setting, an individual may have a “formal” name (his/her given name) but be called something entirely different (a nickname) by the members of the family—and maybe even different nicknames by different loved ones. I have tended to think of these different names as marks of affection, as in “my special name for you”; the name that identifies you and me as relating to each other.

    Another tho’t comes to mind: Often when individuals enter religious life, they assume a different name from their given name. Seems to me that there is a significance there. Don’t even the Buddhists do this?

    Then too, I find myself thinking that the MORE we achieve “ultimate spirituality”, might it not be that we have a need that our names matter MORE, rather than less? Just asking.

    I tend to think that a person’s name is his/her “identifier”, an important significator of the “person”. Yes, I know Buddhism/Zen (I should not equate them and am not here, just mentioning both) tend to think in terms of “no self.” Yet, it does seem to me that, at least while we are on this earth, we have a serious need to identify ourselves—both here on earth and even in any life hereafter. But perhaps we will change our way of identifying ourselves in the hereafter? OR might we be identified by our personality—somewhat like “scent” but certainly NOT like “scent”.

    These are just SOME of the questions your comments set me to thinking about. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 9, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

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