Gongsun Long

From New World Encyclopedia

Gongsun Long (公孫龍, Kung-sun Lung, Pinyin Gongsun Long) (ca. 320 B.C.E.–250 B.C.E. was one of the best known representatives of the Logicians, a Chinese philosophical school of the third and fourth centuries B.C.E. associated with Mohism, whose adherents were concerned with analyzing the true meaning of words. The school had no influence after its own time.

Gongsun Long is best known for a series of paradoxes in the tradition of Hui Shi; the most famous is the “White Horse Dialogue” in which he attempts to demonstrate that a white horse is not a horse. All of his extant essays are included in the book Gongsun Longzi (公孫龍子, Gōngsūn Lóngzǐ, Kung-sun Lung Tzu), the only surviving work of ancient Chinese literature dealing specifically with logic. A number of early Chinese philosophers made reference to the arguments in the “White Horse Dialogue,” and they caused Chinese philosophers to begin questioning the adequacy of ordinary language for describing reality. Recent scholars have suggested that Gongsun Long did not intend his dialogues as serious philosophical arguments, but as exercises in cleverness, perhaps even as light entertainment.


Gongsun Long (c. 320 - 250 B.C.E.) was a retainer of the Lord of Pingyuan (d. 252 B.C.E.) in the northern state of Zhao. He also ran a school and enjoyed the patronage of rulers; and supported peaceful means of resolving disputes, instead of resorting to the battles which were common in the so-called “Warring States Period.” Little is known about the particulars of his life, except for anecdotes reported in the Zhuangzi and The Annals of Lü Buwei, in which he advised King Hui of Zhao (r. 298-266 B.C.E.) against war (18.1, 18.7) and in disputation with Kong Chuan, a descendent of Confucius, at the home of the Lord of Pingyuan (18.5). “Under Heaven” mentions Gonsun Long as a leading disputer, and the "Han dynasty Records of the Grand Historian" (Book 74) details a disputation about the “hard and white” and the “same and different.” Intriguingly, the Annals depicts him citing the Mohist principle of “all-inclusive care” (jian ai) to King Hui. Together with his anti-war stance, this suggests that he was influenced by and may once have numbered among the Mohists. The Xunzi does not criticize him by name but does cite a version of his White Horse sophism in a list of incorrect uses of names (22.3).

The Annals of Lü Buwei describes how Gongsun Long advised King Hui of Zhao (r. 298-266 B.C.E.) to use logic to avoid war with the state of Qin. Zhao had signed a treaty with Qin promising that each state would assist the other in anything either wished to accomplish. Qin decided to attack Zhao's neighbor, Wei. Zhao wished to protect Wei, but the King of Qin was displeased and sent an envoy to reproach the King of Zhao, saying, “The treaty says, ‘Whatever Qin wishes to do, Zhao will assist it; whatever Zhao wishes to do, Qin will assist it.’ Now Qin wishes to attack Wei, yet Zhao wishes to rescue it. This is not what we agreed on.” The King of Zhao told the Lord of Pingyuan about this reproach, and Lord of Pingyuan reported it to Gongsun Long. Gongsun Long suggested, “We too can dispatch an envoy to reproach the King of Qin, saying, ‘Zhao wishes to rescue Wei, but now the King of Qin alone does not assist Zhao. This is not what we agreed on.’” (The Annals of Lü Buwei, 18.5/457)

Another anecdote recounts a debate between Gongsun Long and Kong Chuan, at the residence of the Lord of Pingyuan. With great cleverness, Gonsun Long argued for the claim that “John Doe has three ears.” (In the Chinese language, plurals are unmarked, making it possible for a sophist to assert of any normal two-eared person, such as John Doe, that he “has ear(s),” and also that he has a left ear and a right ear. Therefore he has “three ears.”) Kong Chuan was unable to reply. The next day, when Kong Chuan came to court, the Lord of Pingyuan said to him, “Yesterday, Gongsun Long's speech was extremely incisive.” Kong Chuan replied, “That's so. He was nearly able to make John Doe have three ears. Although he could do so, it's a difficult claim to accept. May I ask a question of you, your Lordship? Claiming that John Doe has three ears is extremely difficult and in reality is wrong. Claiming that John Doe has two ears is extremely easy and in reality is right. I wonder whether your Lordship will follow what is easy and right, or what is difficult and wrong?” (Annals, 18.5/457)

Thought and Works

Gongsun Long was a member of the Logicians school of ancient Chinese philosophy. He is best known for a series of paradoxes in the tradition of Hui Shi. Many of his Gongsun Long’s writings have been lost.[1] All of his extant essays are included in the book Gongsun Longzi (公孫龍子, Gōngsūn Lóngzǐ, Kung-sun Lung Tzu), the only surviving work of ancient Chinese literature dealing specifically with logic. Though the Han History mentions Gongsun Long as the author of 14 scrolls of writings, only five dialogues and an introduction are extant. The introduction was written at a later date, and according to A. C. Graham, three of the dialogues are forgeries, pieced together much later than the Warring States period, from misunderstood bits of the Mohist Dialectics. The only genuine pre-Han texts are probably the “White Horse,” the essay “Pointing at Things,” and a bit of another dialogue.

The Gongsun Longzi has been the subject of a quantity of interpretative literature both in Chinese and in European languages. Scholars have debated over what theory and premises can be ascribed to Gongsun Long so that his arguments come out as logical defenses of a reasonable position. The text of the “White Horse” dialogue is relatively clear, while “Pointing at Things” seems to be intentionally obscure. Recent scholars have suggested that Gongsun Long did not intend his dialogues as serious philosophical arguments, but as exercises in cleverness, perhaps even as light entertainment, humorously making a case for a claim that everyone knew was inappropriate to its object. The dialogues raise certain philosophical questions, but they were not necessarily meant to be rigorous arguments. Gongsun Long and his contemporaries had a reputation for flippancy and wordplay, and the anecdote about his debate with Kong Chuan demonstrates that his contemporaries took his claims to be patently false and perceived his disputation as not fitting “reality” (shi, also the “stuff” spoken of).

Two other paradoxes attributed to Gongsun Long are:

  • Only the features of things can be pointed out (named), and yet the world (and other wholes) can be named even though the world (or a whole thing) is not itself a feature of anything.
  • One and one cannot become two, since neither becomes two.[2]

The “White Horse Dialogue

His most famous work is White Horse Dialogue (白馬論), structured as conversation between two parties, with one party proclaiming truth in the statement and the other questioning. The argument plays upon the dual semantic meanings of informal language, in particular the dual interpretations of 'is,' being either:

  1. "Is a member of the class called (x)"
  2. "Is identical to concept (x)"

Thus a white horse is not a horse, because the concept of a white horse is not the same as the concept of a horse.

An early and popular interpretation was that Gongsun Long concluded that a white horse was not a horse because, being a white horse, it is a special kind of horse whose “form” is white; since it is not the universal concept “horse,” it is not a horse. (Fung 1958, Cheng 1983). Most Western scholars now agree that, since no ancient Chinese philosopher held a realist doctrine of universals, the text probably does not concern universals. Considering the issues which were discussed in pre-Han thought, it is more likely that the text dealt with the problem of distinguishing “same” from “different,” kind and identity relations [3], [4], part-whole relations </ref>, (Hansen 1983,</ref>, </ref>, Graham 1989),</ref>, how the extensions of phrases vary from those of their constituent terms (Hansen 1992), and even the use/mention distinction [5]. The “White Horse Dialogue” contains five different arguments; different interpretations seem to apply to some of them.

Man: 'White horse in not horse.' True?
QSL: Yes.
Man: Why?
QSL: 'Horse' defines an animal; 'White' defines a color. Specifying color is not specifying animal. Hence, 'White horse is not horse.'
Man: 'Have horse' is not the same as 'Have no horse'. Is not 'Have no horse' the same as 'not horse'? But 'Have white horse' is the same 'Have horse - white'. Why is 'White Horse' 'Not Horse'?
QSL: If you want a horse, any yellow or black horse will do. If you want a white horse, a yellow or black horse will not do. If white horse were the same as horse, then you want the same thing. If it were the same thing, then the horse need not be white. If it makes no difference, then yellow or black horse will do.

An anecdote about Gongsun Long which is included in two later texts, the Introduction to Gongsun Longzi and the Kong Congzi, is helpful in interpreting the White Horse Dialogue. Kong Chuan requests that Gongsun Long abandon his thesis that a white horse is not a horse. Gongsun Long defends it by claiming that Confucius himself accepted the same thesis, and refers to a story also found in the The Annals of Lü Buwei (1.4), in which the King of Chu loses his bow. His attendants offered to search for it, but the King said, “Stop. The King of Chu lost a bow. A Chu person will find it. Why bother to look for it?” When Confucius heard this story, he said, “The King of Chu is kind and right but hasn't yet reached the ultimate. He should simply have said, ‘A person lost a bow, a person will find it,’ that's all. Why must it be ‘Chu’?” Gongsun Long then claims that it is contradictory to accept Confucius’ differentiation between a “Chu person” and a “person,” yet reject his own differentiation between a “white horse” and a “horse.” (Gongsun Longzi, Book 1) In one version of this story, Kong Chuan replies that by omitting the “Chu” he is not claiming that Chu people are not people, but simply broadening the referent of “person” to include all mankind. The inclusion of this anecdote by ancient editors suggests that they interpreted the text as dealing with the extent to which the scope of a noun’s extension can be modified by an adjective.

Whenever we say “person,” we refer to persons in general, just as whenever we say “horse,” we refer to horses in general. ‘Chu’ by itself is the state; ‘white’ by itself is the color. Wishing to broaden the referent of ‘person’, it's appropriate to omit the ‘Chu’; wishing to fix the name of the color, it's not appropriate to omit the ‘white’. (Kong Congzi, Book 11; cf. Graham 1989: 84)

Though it is difficult to find a meaningful interpretation of the “White Horse Dialogue,” it was important in the history of Chinese philosophy, and a number of early Chinese philosophers referred to its arguments. Gongsun Longzi helped to precipitate what has been called a "language crisis" in Chinese philosophy; arguments like those used by Gongsun Long caused Chinese philosophers to question the adequacy of ordinary language for describing reality. Later Mohists and the Confucian Xunzi tried to protect language from what they regarded as superficial wordplay. Others philosophers, such as Huizi, embraced Gongsu Long’s logic and the paradoxical conclusions of his new style of argumentation. Huizi defended paradoxes such as "Heaven is as low as earth, the mountains are level with the marshes," and "I go to Yue today yet arrived yesterday." Other texts like the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi relied less than Huizi on the power of rational argumentation, but embraced paradox as an effective means of expressing philosophical concepts.


  1. "mcgreal"
  2. McGreal, Ian P. "Gongun Long" in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 33
  3. Cikoski 1975,
  4. , Harbsmeier 1998)
  5. (Thompson 1995)


  • 白馬論 (Bái mǎ lùn) "White Horse Dialogue"
  • 指物論 (Zhǐ wù lùn)
  • 通變論 (Tōng biàn lùn)
  • 堅白論 (Jiān bái lùn)
  • 名實論 (Míng shí lùn)
  • 跡府 (Ji fǔ) "Storehouse of Traces"

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Graham, Angus. Disputers of the Tao- Philosophical Argument in Ancient China . Chicago: Open Court Press, 1989. ISBN 0812690877
  • __________. Studies in Chinese Philosophy and Philosophical Literature. SUNY series in Chinese philosophy and culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990. ISBN 0791404498
  • McGreal, Ian P. "Gongun Long" in Great Thinkers of the Eastern World. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. ISBN 0062700855
  • Hansen, Chad. Language and Logic in Ancient China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. ISBN 0472100203
  • Harbsmeier, Christoph. "Language and Logic." Volume 7, Part I of Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780521571432

External links

All links retrieved May 24, 2024.

General Philosophy Sources


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.