While learning about Taoist philosophy, we learned about Gongsung Long's argument that a white horse is not a horse. We recieved the english translation of his argument, and for me it didn't make much sense (perhaps because of translation issues?) His argument is in pages 364-367 of this book (different from the one we are using, but it is on google books) is here.

I don't understand Long's argument, it seems to make little sense. In my thinking, a white horse category is a subset of the category of horses, so any horse which belongs to the white horse category also belongs to the horse category. Hence, all white horses are horses.

How does Gongsun Long make his argument on the contrary?


5 Answers 5


The general answer that I am familiar with in regards Gonsung Long's argument is that he's engaged in a denial of essences (性 xing). And his point is that if being a white horse is different than being a horse in general, then the essence of horseness is nothing but a name, and being white is nothing but a name, and "white horse" does not pick out those horses that happen to be white, but only the thing that is a "white horse".

At the root of this is an extension of something Taoists might believe about the nature of reality, viz., not only are there no essences but there are also no discrete beings. So the idea that the white horse that appears before him must fall under both the category horse and white is in part supposed to be an argument against essences on the basis of their infinite multiplication (we would need tall white horse, short white horse, etc. to each represent 3, and as we add qualities, we would end up with infinite essences).

(I qualify the above paragraph with "might" because one of the challenges for the student of Taoist philosophy is to try to bubble a theory out of ancient texts that are certainly written by a variety of authors and edited together by people who may not have shared their views).

  • This is very plausible, but the white horse text a horrible way (especially in translation) to make this point! Do you know offhand what one would need to read to make that interpretation seem more plausible than the language-games interpretation?
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 0:56
  • 1
    I think the major way to get the interpretation would be to read things written by contemporary advocates for Taoism. Chad Hansen does a decent amount of this work (he also wrote plato.stanford.edu/entries/daoism ). I remember hearing this presented in this way both by Robin Wang and by Donald Sturgeon who runs ctext.org
    – virmaior
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 1:02
  • Thanks virmaior. My teacher showed a lecture talking about how the Taoists were against the Logicians, or the school of names. Now I understand the connection with that and this text.
    – Cicero
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 2:58
  • 3
    Like the nominalist position on species, i.e. that a species is just a human-named abstraction rather than something intrinsic in the real world?
    – A E
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 14:48
  • 1
    But the basic idea shows that nominal ism isn't quite the right notion to apply here. Commented May 14, 2015 at 21:25

Gongsung Long is 公孫竜.

Now, 公孫竜 or Gongsung Long, is actually not a Taoist but rather part of the "School of Names" 名家 ( Described in Chinese at the link, 白馬非馬 = White horse is not a horse = Gongsung's claim. ))

Now your question,

In my thinking, a white horse category is a subset of the category of horses, so any horse which belongs to the white horse category also belongs to the horse category. Hence, all white horses are horses. How does Gongsun Long make his argument on the contrary?

Gongsung Long was actually, criticized by 鄒衍 ( I am sorry again no English site is available. ) that his assertion was a pure fallacy and it looks like he lost the affection by his lord of 超国 ( the source is in English. ) and it is said he died lamenting the loss.

Now onto his logic, argued here ( English )

Kung-sun in his first argument distinguishes the senses and references of the terms "white horse" and "horse" by noting that "white" is a color word while "horse" pertains to the form (of the natural kind). In his second argument, he focuses on how these terms are used to discriminate white horses and horses, respectively. On this basis, from the perspective of "meaning is use," Kung-sun shows how the qualified compound term "white horse" would express the precise meaning that speakers require in their communication, that is, in the pragmatics of actual speech, where the unqualified term would not be adequate, or perhaps not even relevant.

What he said was, actually, there should be two properties of White horse, and in his logic, the term "white" only denote the property of the color itself, while the term "horse" denotes the horses in general. So here by his saying the term "white" only denotes the property of the pure color,( although independently thinking his assertion is correct but when we compound them together as white an adjective and horse a referenced noun and then both white and horse denotes the properties of the white horse we see in front of us ( though the object-itself is yet incomprehensible ) he went into the paradox and criticized, and well, it is said, he died lamenting the loss of the affection of his lord, 平原君 ( I am sorry no English available ).

  • Thank you for your good editing. Perhaps should one of your interest is Chinese philosophy, then there you will see a looooong way considering its history of hundred schools.......................................
    – user13955
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 5:15

Given the text that you refer to,

enter image description here

it looks like simple crosstalk where using a phrase ■ one person thinks that

  • ab


  • “the group a is not exactly the same as group b”,

while the other person thinks that “ab” means

  • “the group a is not part of group b”.

For example, passage B,

enter image description here

is then interpreted as

Objector: If there are white horses, [then because the group of white horses is part of the group of horses] one cannot say that there are no horses. If one cannot say that there are no horses, doesn’t that mean that there are horses? How could it be that the [group of] white ones are not [part of the group of] horses?

Advocate: If one wants a [general unspecified kind of] horse, that extends to a yellow or black horse. But if one wants a white horse, that does not extend to a yellow or black horse. Suppose that a white horse were a horse [that the group of white horses were exactly the same as the group of horses]. Then what one wants [in each of the two cases] would be the same. If what one wants were the same, then a white horse would not differ from a horse [the group of white horses would be the same as the group of horses]. If what one wants does not differ, then how is it that a yellow or black horse is sometimes acceptable [for wanting any general horse] and sometimes unacceptable [for wanting a white horse]? It is clear that acceptable and unacceptable are mutually contrary. Hence, yellow and black horses are the same, [in that, if there yellow and black horses], one can respond that there are horses, but one cannot respond that there are white horses. Thus, it is evident that a white horse is not a horse [that the group of white horses is not the same as the group of horses].

A good way to think about this could be to think about groups (sets) as denoted by example objects, so that “A white horse is Spanish“ means “Any white horse is Spanish”.

If A sasy that “A white horse is Spanish“ and then B says that “No, a white horse is Portuguese.”, then they’re most likely not talking about two different arbitrary white horses, but about any white horse that one might choose.

However, the first passage, labeled A,

enter image description here

can not entirely be understood this way, because of the word “hence”. I suspect that something’s been lost in translation here.

  • 2
    Here's the Chinese with the English (ctext.org/gongsunlongzi/bai-ma-lun). At least as generally interpreted (and I have no stake in this one), Gongsun Long is taken to be being pedantic about the logic and the meanings of words rather than just plain confused. As in, he's rejecting a one word - one meaning philosophy of language by insisting on its strict application.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 5:02
  • @virmaior: Thanks! Unfortunately I don't know Chinese. However, I think it's worth noting (1) that several explanations can be true, for different pieces of the text or even about the same piece, i.e. insisting on a single general explanation is not necessarily fruitful, and (2) these several explanations can (and probably do) include that the author engaged in inconsistency and nonsense, perhaps to create an air of mystery. Commented May 14, 2015 at 10:00

The advocate and objector in that passage are talking past one another by using different notions of "is"; the advocate is using equality, while the objector is using subset.

Which one is correct depends on what you mean by "is" (or, rather whatever word or phrase was used in the original). Modern set theory can express these ideas so clearly that it renders the argument pretty worthless.

  • I agree with this, but I think that the point of the argument was to show the arbitrariness of names and words. They are flawed human inventions which, according to the Taoists, shed little light on reality.
    – Cicero
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 3:00
  • 1
    @Cicero - Maybe so, but this only shows that Gongsung Long and his imagined objector are bad with words. "I can use words carelessly and get confused" doesn't mean one has to do it that way.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented May 14, 2015 at 4:18

First, I agree with Virmaior's answer. Let me give a little bit of background on Sanskrit reasoning which may shed some light on the white horse.

[I have taken this from Swami Madhavananda's comments on verse 247 of Sankaracharya's Crest Jewel of Discrimination] There are three kinds of 'implied meaning' or Lakshana- Jahati, Ajahati, and Bhaga Lakshana. In Jahati, one of the terms has to give up its primary meaning. For example - There is a white horse living on the Ganges. This does not mean that the white horse is actually living on the Ganges, but actually means it is living on the banks of the Ganges. The second kind, Jahati, the primary meaning is retained, but something is added to make it clear - A white (horse) lives there. The third, Bhaga Lakshana, each of the terms gives up part of its meaning.

In his translation of the Panchadasi, Swami Swahananda says in his comments to a verse (VII. 75.):

The meaning conveyed by 'blue lotus' is technically called Visistartha, i.e., a meaning conveyed by names qualified by certain adjectives...Visista or mutual qualification is seen in the example 'The lotus is blue' where lotus and blue are in the same predicament. Here lotus is qualified by the word blue; so it is not white or yellow. Similarly blue is qualified by the word lotus: so blueness is not of a cloth. In this way the two words qualify each other. Again the same sentence may be construed to mean a lotus having the qualification of blueness, and not vice versa. This is called Visista or qualified.

So the relation of qualifying terms is of two kinds: 1) only one qualifies the other, 2) each qualifies the other. [I did not include the first in the quote as it is not relevant. the second refers to Bhaga Lakshana in the first paragraph]

The purpose of all this is to make clear the meanings of certain scriptural verses such as "Thou art That" to explain the oneness of an individual and Brahman. We call an item made of clay a jar, yet it is only clay - we have superimposed the identity of jar onto it. As Virmaior says in his answer "Taoists might believe about the nature of reality, viz., not only are there no essences but there are also no discrete beings"

  • I am sorry I don't understand at all. Is there any evidence to back up your claim, back in BC 250, when GongSung lived, had any Hindi's philosophical contact with 超 country? Even according to this map ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%A5%9A_%28%E6%98%A5%E7%A7%8B%29#/media/… the most southern territory of Chu ( 楚 ) country is now today' Yangtze River? And GongSung's country is far north ( 超 Zhao ).
    – user13955
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 10:47
  • And I think we should remember there were 2 famous 公孫竜, GongSong Long, one of which was a disciple of Confucius -->ct.taipei.gov.tw/zh-tw/C/Sage/Confucian/4/1/262.htm, who lived at the same age with Laozi ( arounf BC500 ) and another, who was a member of 名家, about whom I answered in my answer.
    – user13955
    Commented May 15, 2015 at 11:19
  • @KentaroTomono This predates Buddha. It was old when Buddha was alive. Buddha was taught this type of reasoning while being taught as a young man, It was 'standard' reasoning then. Commented May 15, 2015 at 15:51
  • I think the questioner nicely intervened and I thought somewhat it or your assertion compromising with thanks to the questioner.
    – user13955
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 2:31

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