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  • Sean O'Leary

The Power of Naming

There is an old saying that sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me. While this example of everyday wisdom is not always true, it does reflect the power of names in the human psyche.


In everyday life, we often take naming things for granted. As children, everything we learn about already has a name. When it comes to naming something new like a pet, we choose a name that we like from the language that we’ve learned. I had a dog who looked regal, so I named him Prince.


In science, naming things is more complicated and conforms to standard rules established in the subject discipline that are followed by scientists from around the world. This makes understanding the world much easier and ensures that the name of something is a reliable classification of the thing.


In Chemistry, when a compound is made of a metal and a non-metal, the metal element is listed first. So, if a compound is made of iron and oxygen, it is called iron oxide. The names of the elements themselves are arranged on a Periodic Table that provides useful information about the properties of the elements.


In Biology, the classification of living and extinct organisms is known as taxonomy. The system of naming species that is accepted internationally is the Linnaean system developed in the 18th Century by the Swedish naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus who was the son of a curate. This naming system recognises the relationality of a species.


Every species has a Latin name consisting of two parts. The first part gives the genus and the second part gives the species. For instance, the Latin name for a house cat is Felis domesticus. Other cats in the same genus include the Chinese mountain cat, called Felis bieti or the Sand cat, known as Felis margarita. Big cats do not belong to the same genus but belong to the same Family, a broader category of classification.


We belong to the species Homo sapiens, which means wise man. We are the only surviving species of human. Other species of the same genus are now extinct, such as Homo neanderthalensis.


The work of Carolus Linnaeus influenced Charles Darwin’s work on the Theory of Evolution and Gregor Mendel’s work on genetic inheritance. His work also influenced the use of science to strengthen bureaucratic and administrative processes with the aim of improving a country’s overall welfare.


Naming things is important because it also carries with it a deeper understanding of the world and the way it works. If we can’t name things or agree on how they should be named, we have no way of reaching a common understanding of the way the world is.


Some philosophers argue that we can never really know anything, that the world is in flux and that nothing ever remains the same. While there may be some partial truth to this perspective, such radical scepticism about how the world works does not do justice to our ability to understand reality.


In everyday life, the ignorance espoused by radical scepticism doesn’t get us very far. We can recognise and know our friends, our neighbours, our families and our immediate environments. We also know that science does actually work despite its limitations.


Philosophers, such as Plato and St. Augustine argue that not everything changes even though some characteristics might change. There is a universal essence to things that can be relied upon. This essence is not a physical reality. For instance, there is something common to all humans that endures despite superficial differences in skin colour, height, age etc. This perspective is called metaphysical realism and it attempts to establish a secure foundation for knowledge.


Metaphysical realism does not deny the existence of names and our ability to classify things or do science, but it suggests that there is something deeper beneath the surface of things. However, some philosophers prefer the view that universal essences are simply concepts in the mind. This view is called nominalism. When we observe real similarities between things in the world, the universal essences that come to mind are just useful concepts as opposed to indicating something deeper.


So, when we say a word like ‘home’: Do we think that it just shares the same label as all other homes we can think of or are we saying that the word we use implies a deeper meaning that goes beyond the basic concept?


While I appreciate the arguments of nominalism, I find the arguments of metaphysical realism more compelling. Naming something in science or in everyday life is much more than an act of convenient categorisation. It stems from our understanding of the relationality of things. A name is not only a name! It means something. This may be why derogatory labels can be so powerful.


In modern culture, naming things has become fraught with tension and labels have taken on a new power. Instead of reading about humanity and understanding the shared meaning of the word, we often read articles and hear conversations that focus on subdivisions. Indeed, the subdivisions have grown at such a rate that it can be difficult to keep up.


When we see labels or names as just concepts in the mind, the label becomes much more critical because it risks becoming the only thing that matters in the power struggles of society. Accusation and counter-accusation can replace fruitful dialogue concerning the common good of all. The use of labels then takes on a superficial quality that does not represent the intricacies of life.


While people that often self-classify within subdivisions of humanity have legitimate concerns in relation to their experience of society, the overuse of labels could easily fuel further discord and lead to even greater subdivisions in the future. The problems caused by the neglect and apathy of mainstream culture will not be solved by constantly emphasising differences.


Names can hurt because names attempt to capture the heart of the matter, the very essence of things. Both science and our everyday experience tells us that names point to the deeper relationality of all creation. But our use of names is also limited. Sadly, names can be used to reinforce division rather than promote unity.


When we see the person beneath the label, we have a deeper sense of our shared humanity. It is this broader and deeper understanding of humankind that modern culture often ignores.


Our interconnectedness with others and with all creation is what defines us as human. It is the glue that binds us together and it is the strength that will enable us to overcome our differences and diminish our frailties. Our shared humanity should not be taken for granted lest it disappear in the conflict of ideas that shape the world.


We impoverish ourselves by limiting our appreciation of names to the fractured subdivisions of modern culture. Biblically speaking, the act of naming is our first vocation. The act of naming is associated with power and authority but also with responsibility and obligation. In that sense, naming is simply the beginning of knowing.


It is good to remember that each person named by Jesus was blessed and loved. For Jesus, naming was associated with a new mission, an endeavour that shaped the very foundations of the Church. Today, the Church celebrates the extraordinary power of giving name to every child christened at Baptism.


For Christians, personhood is the best way of thinking about our place in the world. It more clearly describes the reality of our existence. Being made in the image of God gives us the ability to understand the order of things established by the Creator.


God gives us the freedom to choose what is true and good. When we recognise that each and every person carries the image of God, we see this image shining forth in the communion of persons.


Each time we bless ourselves, we remind ourselves of our baptism and remember the sanctity of the human person: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.