November 05, 2006

White Horses

Language Hat's discussion of the Chinese spelling of "Africa", in which the character 非 is used phonetically, triggered a few thoughts about Chinese philosophy. The word 非 is usually translated as "not", or in compounds, as a negative prefix such as "un-" or "i(n)", as in 非 法 feī fǎ "illegal". This has led some people, on encountering the statement 白馬非馬 in the writings of philosophers of the 名家 míng jīa "Logicist" school, as, for example, in the title of a famous work by 公孫龍子 Gōngsūn Lóngzı̌ known in English as the White Horse Dialogue, to interpret it as "A white horse is not a horse.", which appears to be a contradiction. A key point is that in Classical Chinese 非 can mean "different", so the statement can be read as "A white horse is different from a horse". The White Horse Dialogue plays on the ambiguity created by the two meanings of 非.

The Logicist tradition in Chinese philosophy, which bears a much closer relationship to the Western scientific tradition than does the Confucian tradition, was largely submerged by Confucianism and was for a long time poorly known. It was brought to prominence by Hu Shih 胡適, who, after a traditional education in Chinese philosophy became a student of John Dewey, in his doctoral dissertation The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China. To my astonishment, it is available from He is probably better known as one of the leaders of the shift to the use of the vernacular in written Chinese and as the ambassador of the Republic of China to the United States from 1938-1941.

[Addendum: A nice discussion of the White Horse Dialogue is to be found in the Stanford Encylopaedia of Philosophy.] Posted by Bill Poser at November 5, 2006 06:00 PM