When a white horse is not a horse
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 is not horse') is a famous paradox in Chinese philosophy. Around 300 BC, Gongsun Long wrote this dialectic analysis of the question "Can one legitimately assert 'white horse is not horse'?", in a work now named for him, Gongsun Longzi, in a segment called the "White Horse Dialogue" (Chinese: 白馬論; pinyin: Báimǎ Lùn; Wade–Giles: Pai-ma Lun; literally: 'White Horse Discourse').
The original text
The White Horse Dialogue (Baima Lun) constitutes chapter 2 of the eponymous Gongsun Longzi. The purported author, also known as Master Gongsun Long, was counted among the School of Names (AKA the Logicians or the Dialecticians) in the Hundred Schools of Thought. Most of Gongsun's writings have been lost and the received Gongsun Longzi text only contains six 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:
Advocate: It is.
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, one may say "white horse is not 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 horses, that extends to yellow or black horses. But if one wants white horses, that does not extend to a yellow or black horses. Suppose that white horses were horses. Then what one wants [in the two cases] would be the same. If what one wants were the same, then 'white' would not differ from 'horse.' If what one wants does not differ, then how is it that yellow or black horses are acceptable in one case and unacceptable in the other case? It is clear that acceptable and unacceptable are mutually contrary. Hence, yellow and black horses are the same, one can respond that there are horses, but one cannot respond that there are white horses. Thus, it is evident that white horses are not horses.
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 堅 'hard; hardness', and bai 白 'white; whiteness', ming 名 'name; term', shi 實 'solid; true, actual; fact, reality', the abstract zhi 指 'finger; pointing; designation; universal' (like "whiteness"), and the concrete wu 物 'thing; object; particular' (like "a white horse").
Difficulties of interpretation
The Chinese of '[a] white horse is not [a] horse' is bai ma fei ma 白馬非馬, whose meaning hinges upon the negative fei 非 'not, is not; no, negative; oppose; wrong'. The Classical construction "A fei B" (A非B) can ambiguously have multiple meanings: Interpreting this equivocation fallacy, A. C. Graham says this "white horse versus horse" paradox plays upon the ambiguity of whether the is in it conveys:
In other words, the expression "white horse is not horse" is ambiguous between "white horse is not synonymous with horse" (true, because white horse is more specific than horse), versus "a white horse is not a member of the set of horses" (obviously false). The Advocate in the dialogue is asserting a lack of identity between horses and white horses, while the Objector is interpreting the Advocate's statement as a claim that the category of horses does not include white ones.
An illustration of the alternative uses of fei may be found in the widely known "Happiness of Fish" dialogue in Zhuangzi. Huizi says "You are 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 are not me [子非我], so how do you know that I do not know what fish enjoy?" (denying that the individuals Huizi and Zhuangzi are equivalent).
Beyond the inherent semantic ambiguities of baima fei ma, the first line of the White Horse Dialogue obscurely asks ke hu 可乎, '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. Bryan W. Van Norden suggests that "the Advocate is only arguing that 'a white horse is not a horse' could be true, given a certain interpretation. He might acknowledge that, in another interpretation, 'a white horse is a horse.'"
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.
However, there are recent histories of Chinese philosophy do not subscribe to Feng Youlan's interpretation. Other contemporary philosophers and sinologists who have analyzed the dialogue include Graham, Hansen, Harbsmeier, Thompson, and Van Norden.
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."
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.
The Mengzi (6A4) notes that bai 白 'white' has different connotations whether one is 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?'
- Graham, Angus Charles (1990); Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature, p. 334, p. 334, at Google Books.
- Zhuangzi; tr. Watson, 1968; Chapter 17, pp. 188–189
- Van Norden, Bryan (2011). Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. p. 111. ISBN 9781603844680.
- Fung Yu-lan (1934); A History of Chinese Philosophy; tr. Derk Bodde (1952); Princeton University Press; p. 206.
- 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
- 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.
- Harbsmeier, Christoph (1998); "Language and Logic in Traditional China"; Science and Civilisation in China, Volume 7, Part I; pp. 298–321.
- Thompson, Kirill Ole (1995); "When a 'White Horse' Is Not a 'Horse'"; Philosophy East and West, 45.4:481–499.
- Graham, p. 80., p. 80, at Google Books
- Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings, tr. and ed. Burton Watson (2003), Columbia University Press; p. 35., p. 35, at Google Books
- Legge, James (1895); The Chinese Classics: a Translation, Part 2: "The Works of Mencius", p. 398., p. 398, at Google Books
- Fung Yu-lan (1953). A History of Chinese Philosophy, tr. Derk Bodde; Princeton University Press. OCLC 3583254
- Graham, Angus Charles (1989); Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China; La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Press. ISBN 9780812690873, ISBN 978-0-8126-9088-0; OCLC 19554332
- Graham, Angus Charles (1990). Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature. Albany: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780791404492; ISBN 9780791404508; OCLC 21043695
- 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; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press; ISBN 9780472100200; OCLC 8590314
- Harbsmeier, Christoph (1998); "Language and Logic in Traditional China"; Science and Civilisation in China. Volume 7, Part I; ed. Joseph Needham; Cambridge University Press.
- Ivanhoe, Philip. J.; Van Norden, Bryan W. (2005); Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed.; Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing; ISBN 9780872207813; ISBN 9780872207806; OCLC 440608439
- Legge, James (1870); The Chinese Classics: A Translation, Part I; New York: Hurd and Houghton; OCLC 29370740
- Thompson, Kirill Ole (1995); "When a 'White Horse' Is Not a 'Horse'"; Philosophy East and West; 45.4:481-499.
- Van Norden, Bryan W. (2011); "Language and Paradox in the 'School of Names'"; Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy; Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing; pp. 102-119. (Includes a section titled "On the White Horse".)
- Van Norden, Bryan W. (2005); "On the White Horse"; Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed.; eds. Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden; Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing; pp. 363-368.
- Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu); Zhuangzi: Basic Writings; tr. and ed. Burton Watson (1964); New York: Columbia University Press; OCLC 559127601
- 白馬論 "The White Horse Dialogue", CText.org, Chinese Text Project