Gongsun Long (320–250 BCE)

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(320250 BCE)

Gongsun Long was a logician in ancient China and a representative figure of the School of Names (Ming-Jia ). What distinguishes Gongsun Long's work is his in-depth investigation into the relation between names and reality through conceptual analysis and rational argumentations. His thoughts are delivered in the Gongsun Longzi. Three brief essays in the text, "On the White Horse," "On Referring to Things," and "On Hardness and Whiteness," are considered most important in understanding his thoughts. The first one is considered the most philosophically interesting and influential in view of its substantial philosophical points, its articulate character of rational argumentation, and its sophistication.

Gongsun Long's well-known thesis "[the] white horse [is] not [the] horse" (bai-ma-fei-ma ) is supported by several articulate arguments in the essay "On the White Horse." Modern scholars elaborate their substantial contents and philosophical significance through seemingly competing interpretations. Fung Yu-lan (19521953) renders Gongsun Long a Platonic realist; he considers that all of Gongsun Long's arguments are intended to argue that "white horse" and "horse" represent two distinct Platonic universals and thus the universal of white-horseness is not (identical to) the universal of horseness. One criticism is that Fung seems to impose his Platonic realist reading on the thoughts of a figure in the Chinese tradition whose general mentality and language characteristics have not tended to nourish a Platonic outlook of the universe.

Janusz Chmielewski (1962) takes a set-theoretic line: "white" and "horse" are used to denote distinct classes, and "white horse" denotes the intersection of the two classes, which is an empty class, instead of a subclass of either of the two classes. One major difficulty with Chmielewsky's interpretation is that it obviously deviates from the original text in which Gongsun Long clearly indicated that there are white horses.

Chad Hansen (1983) proposes a radical shift of interpretation based on mereology (part-whole logic) and his mass-noun hypothesis: The term "white horse" is a mass noun and refers to a mass sum whole of horse-stuff part and white-stuff part, distinguishing it from a mutually pervasive compound, like hard-white, that is a mass product ; the whole of white part and horse part is not its horse part. Angus C. Graham (1990) endorses Hansen's mereological interpretation though without being committed to the mass-noun hypothesis. The Hansen-Graham radical mereological interpretation is to bypass class-member relation but resorts to whole-part division alone. Nevertheless, an interpretation that renders Chinese thinkers short of conceptual abstraction intrinsically involved in member-class relation is questionable.

The previous interpretations share one feature: Their interpretations of the semantic reference of those common nouns like "white horse" and "horse" seem to variously derivate from the semantic structure as embedded in actual language practice, in which Chinese common nouns are normally used to denote (a collection of) particular things (including particular properties) via their conceptual contents. A modest mereological interpretation with a collective-noun hypothesis might be reasonable for the sake of capturing the semantic structure. That is, (1) the denotational semantics and deep structure of Chinese common nouns are like those of collective nouns; their implicit ontology is a mereological one of collection-of-individuals with both part-whole structure and member-class structure. (2) The denotation of "white horse" is neither a Platonic universal nor a sum of horse stuff and white stuff nor an empty set, but a collection of white horses. (3) The collection of white horses is both a mereological whole and a class; the part-whole relation here is also the relation between subclass and class that accommodates conceptual abstraction and can be specified in terms of Fregean sense. From this point of view Gongsun Long argues for the thesis that what "white horse" denotes (the collection of white horses) is not identical to ("fei ") or differs from ("yi ") what "horse" denotes (the collection of horses) in view of their distinct conceptual contents, distinct extensions and ddistinct necessary-identity-contributors.

Although Gongsun Long emphasizes distinct aspects of things, he does not ignore common aspects and connections of things and thus explicitly indicates, "It is when what is pursued is their common aspect that the white horse [as a subclass] is [is included in the class of] the horse" The previously mentioned class-mereological nature of the denotation of collective nouns allows a flexible shift between the identity-relation and the class-inclusion relation between two collections, depending on whether the speaker's focus is on distinct aspects or on common aspects of things: The point of the referring subject's focus shift is related to one central point made in his essay "On Referring to Things": those relevant contributing elements involved in the referring subject's act of referring via a name (such as her purpose or focus) make their intrinsic contributions to the identities of things that are referred to.

In "On Hardness and Whiteness" Gongsun Long investigates the metaphysical status of properties themselves like hardness and whiteness, which are mutually pervasive in the hard white stone, by examining their separability. He thinks that the property itself, say, hardness, can stand alone in the form of zi-cang (being self-hidden) but also maintains that "there exists no such hardness in the world [except of its manifestations in particular things]" (the author's translation). The question is this: How could the property per se be self-hidden, in some realist way or in some conceptualist way or in a radical nominalist way? The text of that essay seems to be open to distinctive interpretations. This is a controversial issue that needs to be examined in the context of Gongsun Long's whole thought.

See also Logic, History: Chinese Logic; Mereology.


Chmielewski, Janusz. "Notes on Early Chinese Logic (I)." Rocznik Orientalistyczny 26 (1) (1962): 721.

Fung Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. 2 vols. Translated by Derk Bodde. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 19521953.

Graham, Angus C. "Three Studies on Gongsun Lung." In Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature. Albany: SUNY Press, 1990.

Hansen, Chad. Language and Logic in Ancient China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

For further elaborations of the Platonic realist interpretation, see Chung-yin Cheng, "Kung-sun Lung: White Horse and Other Issues," Philosophy East and West 33 (1) (1983): 341354; and Yiu-ming Fung, On the Gongsun Longzi [Gong-Sun-Long-Zi] (Taipei: Dongda, 2000) (in Chinese). Fung also gives a comprehensive discussion of the previously mentioned authors' various representative interpretations.

For a further elaboration of the collective-noun hypothesis for Chinese names to which the last interpretation resorts, see Bo Mou, "The Structure of the Chinese Language and Ontological Insights: A Collective-Noun Hypothesis," Philosophy East and West 49 (1) (1999): 4562.

Bo Mou (2005)