Gongsun Long

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Gongsun Long (simplified Chinese: 公孙龙; traditional Chinese: 公孫龍; pinyin: Gōngsūn Lóng; Wade–Giles: Kung1-sun1 Lung2, c. 325–250 BC[1][2]) was a member of the School of Names (Logicians) of ancient Chinese philosophy. He also ran a school and enjoyed the support of rulers, and advocated peaceful means of resolving disputes in contrast to the wars which were common in the Warring States period. However, little is known about the particulars of his life, and furthermore many of his writings have been lost.[3] All of his essays — fourteen originally but only six extant — are included in the anthology the Gongsun Longzi (Chinese: 公孫龍子; pinyin: Gōngsūn lóng zi; Wade–Giles: Kung-sun Lung-tzu).

In Book 17 of the Zhuangzi anthology, Gongsun thus speaks of himself:

When young, I studied the way of the former kings. When I grew up, I understood the practice of kindness and duty. I united the same and different, separated hard from white, made so the not-so and admissible the inadmissible. I confounded the wits of the hundred schools and exhausted the eloquence of countless speakers. I took myself to have reached the ultimate.

He is best known for a series of paradoxes in the tradition of Hui Shi, including "White horses are not horses," "When no thing is not the pointed-out, to point out is not to point out," and "There is no 1 in 2." These paradoxes seem to suggest a similarity to the discovery in Greek philosophy that pure logic may lead to apparently absurd conclusions.

White Horse Dialogue[edit]

In the White Horse Dialogue (Chinese: 白馬論; pinyin: Báimǎ Lùn), one interlocutor (sometimes called the "sophist") defends the truth of the statement "White horses are not horses," while the other interlocutor (sometimes called the "objector") disputes the truth of this statement. This has been interpreted in a number of ways.

Possibly the simplest interpretation is to see it as based on a confusion of class and identity. The argument, by this interpretation, plays upon an ambiguity in Chinese that doesn't exist in English. The expression "X is not Y" (X非Y) can mean either

  • "X is not a member (or subset) of set Y"
  • "X is not identical to Y"

The sentence "White horses are not horses" would normally be taken to assert the obviously false claim that white horses are not part of the group of horses. However, the "sophist" in the dialogue defends the statement under the interpretation, "Not all horses are white horses". The latter statement is actually true, since — as the "sophist" explains — "horses" includes horses that are white, yellow, brown, etc., while "white horses" includes only white horses, and excludes the others. A.C. Graham proposed this interpretation and illustrated it with an analogy. The "Objector" assumes that "a white horse is not a horse" is parallel to "a sword is not a weapon," but the "Sophist" is treating the statement as parallel to "a sword is not a blade." [4]:89 Other interpretations have been put forward by Fung Yu-lan and Chad Hansen among others.[4]:82–83

This work has been viewed by some as a serious logical discourse, by others as a facetious work of sophistry, and finally by some as a combination of the two.[5]

Other works[edit]

He was also responsible for several other essays (; lùn; "discourses, dialogues"), as short as 300 characters.[6]

  • “On Pointing at Things” (指物論; Zhǐwù Lùn): An enigmatic discussion on reference and the referent, or designation and the designated. Some believe it to be an ancient practical joke that is intentionally self-contradictory.[6]
  • “On Understanding Change”[7] (通變論; Tōngbiàn Lùn)
  • “On Hardness and Whiteness”[7] (堅白論; Jiānbái Lùn): based on the example of a stone that is both hard and white.
  • “On Name and Substance”[7] (名實論; Míngshí Lùn)
  • “Storehouse of Traces” (跡府; Jifǔ)


  1. ^ Zhou, Yunzhi, "Gongsun Long". Encyclopedia of China (Philosophy Edition), 1st ed.
  2. ^ Liu 2004, p. 336
  3. ^ McGreal 1995, p. 31
  4. ^ a b A.C. Graham, Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Chicago: Open Court, 2003) [1989]
  5. ^ Harbsmeier, Christoph (1989). "Humor in Ancient Chinese Philosophy". Philosophy East and West. University of Hawaiʻi Press. 39 (3): 289–310. doi:10.2307/1399450. JSTOR 1399450.
  6. ^ a b Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). "Pointing and Things". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy..
  7. ^ a b c Translated titles are from Chang, Han-liang (1998). "Controversy over Language: Towards Pre-Qin Semiotics" (PDF). Tamkang Review. New Taipei: Tamkang University Press. 28 (3): 1–29.


  • Graham, Angus C. (1989). 'The Sharpening of Rational Debate: The Sophists.' Pp. 75–95 in Graham, Disputers of the Tao. Chicago: Open Court Press.
  • Liu, Jianguo (2004). Distinguishing and Correcting the pre-Qin Forged Classics. Xi'an: Shaanxi People's Press. ISBN 7-224-05725-8.
  • Zhou, Yunzhi, "Gongsun Long". Encyclopedia of China (Philosophy Edition), 1st ed.

External links[edit]