When a white horse is not a horse

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When A White Horse Is Not A Horse (Chinese: 白馬非馬; pinyin: Báimǎ fēi mǎ; Wade–Giles: Pai-ma fei ma; literally: "white horse not horse"), also known as the White Horse Dialogue (Chinese: 白馬論; pinyin: Báimǎ Lùn; Wade–Giles: Pai-ma Lun; literally: "white horse discourse"), is a famous paradox in Chinese philosophy. Gongsun Long wrote this circa 300 BCE dialectic analysis of the question Can it be that a white horse is not a horse?.

The original text[edit]

Is it a horse?

The White Horse Dialogue (Baima Lun) constitutes chapter 2 of the eponymous Gongsun Longzi "Master Gongsun Long", who was a leader in the "School of Names" (aka "Logicians" or "Dialecticians") in the Hundred Schools of Thought. Most of Gongsun's writings have been lost and the received Gongsun Longzi text only contains 6 of the supposedly 14 original chapters. Parts of the text are dislocated and some commentators and translators rearrange them for clarity. The dialogue is between two unnamed speakers.

Can it be that a white horse is not a horse?

Advocate: It can.

Objector: How?

Advocate: "Horse" is that by means of which one names the shape. "White" is that by means of which one names the color. What names the color is not what names the shape. Hence, I say that a white horse is not a horse.

Objector: If there are white 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? For there to be white horses is for there to be horses. How could it be that the white ones are not horses?

Advocate: If one wants a 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. Then what one wants [in the two cases] would be the same. If what one wants were the same, then a white [horse] would not differ from a horse. If what one wants does not differ, then how is it that a yellow or black horse is sometimes acceptable and sometimes unacceptable? It is clear that acceptable and unacceptable are mutually contrary. Hence, yellow and black horses are the same [in that, if there are yellow or 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.[1]

This dialogue continues with deliberations over colored and colorless horses and whether "white" and "horse" can be separated from "white horse".

Other Gongsun longzi chapters discuss Baima-related concepts of jian "hard; hardness" and bai "white; whiteness", ming "name; term" and shi "solid; true, actual; fact, reality", and abstract zhi "finger; pointing; designation; universal" like "whiteness" and concrete wu "thing; object; particular" like a "white horse".

Difficulties of interpretation[edit]

The syntax, semantics, and logic of the White Horse Dialogue are ambiguous in the Classical Chinese original and thorny in English translation: for example, in Chinese, 白 (or bai, and so on) has the characteristic of a verb, in English. Thus, to translate, the term bai ma is more precisely rendered as the phrase "be white horse", or as referring to a "being white horse". In the Chinese context, color attributes are verbal rather than adjectival, whereas "horse" is nominal.

The Chinese bai ma fei ma 白馬非馬 syntactically hinges upon the negative fei "not, is not; no, negative; oppose; wrong". The Classical construction "A fei B" "A非B" can ambiguously mean either "A is not a member of the class B" or "A is not identical to B".[2] Interpreting this equivocation fallacy, A.C. Graham says this "white horse" vs. "horse" paradox plays upon the ambiguity of whether "is" means:

  1. "Is a member of the class (x)"
  2. "Is identical to (x)"[2]

In other words, the expression "a white horse is not a horse" is ambiguous between "a white horse is not identical with a horse" (true, because "white horse" is more specific than "horse"), and "a white horse is not a member of the set of horses" (obviously false). The Advocate in the dialogue is asserting that "a white horse is not [identical with] a horse," while the Objector is interpreting the Advocate's statement as "a white horse is not [a member of the group of] horses."

An illustration of the alternative uses of "fei" may be found in the widely known "Happiness of Fish" dialogue in Zhuangzi (17, tr. Watson 1968:188-9). Huizi says "You're not a fish [子非魚] — how do you know what fish enjoy?" (denying that Zhuangzi is a member of the class of fish) and Zhuangzi replies "You're not I [子非我], so how do you know I don't know what fish enjoy?" (denying that the individuals Huizi and Zhuangzi are identical).

Beyond the inherent semantic ambiguities of Baima fei ma, the first line obscurely asks ke hu "Can it be that …?". This dialogue could be an attempted proof that a white horse is not a horse, or a question if such a statement is possible, or both. Van Norden suggests "that the issue is not whether it is always true that 'a white horse is not a horse,' but whether it is possible for it to be true."

An alternative interpretation is offered in Feng Youlan's History of Chinese Philosophy (translated in 1952 by Derk Bodde):

Strictly speaking, names or terms are divided into those that are abstract and those that are concrete. The abstract term denotes the universal, the concrete term the particular. The particular is the denotation, and the universal the connotation, of the term. In western inflected languages there is no difficulty in distinguishing between the particular ('white' or 'horse') and the abstract ('whiteness' or 'horseness'). In Chinese, however, owing to the fact that the written characters are ideographic and pictorial and lack all inflection, there is no possible way, as far as the form of individual words is concerned, of distinguishing between abstract and concrete terms. Thus in Chinese the word designating a particular horse and that designating the universal, 'horseness,' are written and pronounced in the same way. Similarly with other terms, so that such words as 'horse' and 'white', being used to designate both the concrete particular and the abstract universal, thus hold two values.[3]

However, there are no contemporary histories of Chinese philosophy that subscribe to Fung's interpretation. Other philosophers and sinologists who have analyzed the dialogue include Hansen;[4] Graham;[5] Thompson;[6] Harbsmeier;[7] and Van Norden.[1]

Historical Influence[edit]

In the Chinese philosophical tradition, the Baima Lun's significance is evident from how many Chinese classic texts directly or indirectly discuss it. The Liezi, which lists and criticizes the paradoxes of Gongsun Long as "perversions of reason and sense", explains "'A white horse is not a horse', because the name diverges from the shape."[8]

Two Zhuangzi chapters (17 and 33) mock Gongsun Long, and another (2) combines his zhi 指 "attribute" and ma 馬 "horse" notions in the same context.

To use an attribute to show that attributes are not attributes is not as good as using a nonattribute to show that attributes are not attributes. To use a horse to show that a horse is not a horse is not as good as using a non-horse to show that a horse is not a horse, Heaven and earth are one attribute; the ten thousand things are one horse.[9]

The Mengzi (6A4) notes that bai 白 "white" has different connotations whether we are using it to refer to a graying person (who is worthy of respect because of his age) or a white horse (which should be treated like any other animal):

Mencius said, 'There is no difference between our pronouncing a white horse to be white and our pronouncing a white man to be white. But is there no difference between the regard with which we acknowledge the age of an old horse and that with which we acknowledge the age of an old man? And what is it which is called righteousness? The fact of a man's being old? Or the fact of our giving honour to his age?'[10]

Other early "A white horse is not a horse" references are found in the Hanfeizi (32), Mozi (11B), and Zhanguoce (4).


  1. ^ a b Gongsun Longzi. (2005). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, pp. 364–365, p. 364, at Google Books
  2. ^ a b Graham, Angus Charles. (1990). Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature, p. 334., p. 334, at Google Books
  3. ^ Fung Yu-lan. (1953). A History of Chinese Philosophy, p. 206.
  4. ^ Hansen, Chad. 1976. "Mass Nouns and 'A White Horse Is Not a Horse'", Philosophy East and West, 26.2:189-209; Hansen, Chad. (1983). Language and Logic in Ancient China, p. 140.
  5. ^ Graham, Angus Charles. (1989). Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, pp.75-95; Graham, (1990). Studies, pp. 125–216., p. 125, at Google Books
  6. ^ Thompson, Kirill Ole. 1995. "When a 'White Horse' Is Not a 'Horse'", Philosophy East and West 45.4:481-499.
  7. ^ Harbsmeier, Christoph. (1998). "Language and Logic in Traditional China". Volume 7, Part I of Science and Civilisation in China, pp. 298–321.
  8. ^ Graham, p. 80., p. 80, at Google Books
  9. ^ Zhuangzi. (2003). Zhuangzi: basic writings, p. 35., p. 35, at Google Books
  10. ^ Legge, James. (1895). The Chinese Classics: a Translation; Part 2, The Works of Mencius, p. 398., p. 398, at Google Books


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