Gongsun Long Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Gongsun Long left the largest corpus of the Chinese School of Names. He produced paradoxical conclusions that followed from the examination of references of words.

Early Life

In traditional Chinese sources, Gongsun Long’s date of birth is given as 380 b.c.e., but subsequent scholarship indicates he was probably born about sixty years later. Gongsun Long was a native of the state of Chao (now Shanxi). He was an entertainer at the court of the Lord of Bin Yuan and amused and confounded his audience with logical paradoxes and arguments rather than with magic tricks or physical dexterity.

Legend has it that Gongsun Long produced his most notable work, “The White Horse Dialogue,” to convince a customs official that he should not be prevented from transporting his horse across the border. The dialogue is a record of a conversation that Gongsun Long had with Gong Zhuan. Several anecdotes are preserved about debates between the two concerning various outlandish or paradoxical claims. This suggests that Gongsun Long was less serious in intent than some other members of the School of Names (a group of Chinese sophists), including Hui Shi, who may have been producing paradoxes in the service of a metaphysics of the unity of all things in one entity and a morality of concern for everyone. Ironically, Hui Shi’s more serious work survives only in fragments, while Gongsun Long’s essays are preserved in extensive form. Hui Shi’s paradoxes, some of which resemble the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea’s paradoxes, have been given a geographical and political interpretation. In contrast, Gongsun Long’s paradoxes have no relevance whatsoever to political, moral, or practical issues and therefore are unusual in Chinese philosophy. This lack of practical political relevance led Gongsun Long’s work to be ignored during most of Chinese history, although interest in the School of Names revived during later periods.

Life’s Work

The original version of Gongsun Longzi, written in the early third century b.c.e., had fourteen chapters. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the extant version contained only six chapters, five consisting of essays and one of biographical material. The essays, attributed to Gongsun Long, are “The White Horse Dialogue,” “Pointings and Things,” “The Hard and the White,” “Understanding Change,” and “On Names and Actuality.”

One Western commentator likened the views in “The Hard and the White” to those of the German idealists of the nineteenth century in that the essay discusses the conditioning of the senses by the mind. Part of the argument involves the fact that “white” is recognized by sight and “hard” is recognized by touch, but sight cannot determine hard and touch cannot determine white. Furthermore, the mind must process and combine the sensations to form whole objects. Some Western scholars have suggested that “The Hard and the White” is a later forgery because it involves the Buddhist theory of knowledge that developed in China centuries after Gongsun Long’s life. However, many Chinese scholars consider the treatise authentic. The early Chinese philosopher Mencius refers to this idea in passing, so essays on the subject are assumed to have existed during this time. If the essay on hard and white dates from this early period, it would be the first mention of the theory of knowledge in Chinese philosophy. However, if the essay dates from six centuries later, when the Buddhist theory of knowledge was well known in China, then it is of much less significance.

“Pointings and Things” develops puzzles of reference. Gongsun Long states that one cannot point to a pointing, nor can one point to the universe as a whole. Similarly, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his “Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung” (1921; best known by the bilingual German and English edition title of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922, 1961), posited that one cannot see one’s own eye and that the world as a limited whole is the “mystical” and is beyond the sort of reference that can pick out facts. The Chinese philosopher’s idea also resembles German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion that the universe as a whole and the knowing subject are not objects in the way that bounded, delimited things are. Gongsun Long’s essay also implicitly distinguishes reference to an object from reference to a referring expression or meaning. To attempt to refer to the whole universe would also refer to the referring expression or pointing itself. However, if the referring expression or pointing must be separate from the object, then this is impossible.

The paradox that opens “Understanding Change” appears to depend on the Chinese way of writing the number two with two parallel horizontal strokes. It can be claimed that the stroke on the bottom is not two and the stroke on the top is not two, yet together they are two. This passage is generally agreed to be an authentic piece of the sophistry or argumentation prevalent during the Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.), although the rest of the chapter is most likely a later forgery based on misunderstood borrowings from Mohist logic developed by followers of the fifth century b.c.e. philosopher...

(The entire section is 2172 words.)