Problems of logic and epistemology are not among the major topics treated in early Chinese received texts. The Gongsunlongzi is one of the few that deals extensively with these topics, making it somewhat peculiar in the history of Chinese thought. But what does the text actually say about issues of logic, language and epistemology? The international conference “The Gongsunlongzi and Other Neglected Texts: Aligning Philosophical and Philological Perspectives” (August 27–29, 2014), brought together a group of scholars from different disciplines to discuss the Gongsunlongzi and other frequently overlooked or understudied texts addressing similar issues.
‘White horse is not a horse;’ ‘a solid stone and a white stone are two different things;’ ‘a chicken has three legs;’ ‘cows and sheep have five feet.’ These are just some of the most famous paradoxes in Chinese philosophy, all taken from the Gongsunlongzi, which is an anthology of texts usually attributed to the ancient Chinese logician Gongsun Long. Reading this text requires going through its logically sophisticated, rather convoluted, and even humorous arguments that typically support paradoxical theses.
On the basis of historical, textual and philosophical reasons, it is notoriously difficult to read, translate, and interpret the Gongsunlongzi. With regard to its history and textual character, some scholars have claimed that the text was forged during the Chinese Medieval period (3rd–7th C.E.), having been compiled from heterogeneous materials.
Philosophical approaches to the Gongsunlongzi tend to ignore important philological questions, such as the authenticity of the text, by simply acknowledging the Gongsunlongzi as a Warring States text (453–221 B.C.E.). Being aware of these opposite poles, the conference—organized by Wolfgang Behr (Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies/URPP Asia and Europe), Lisa Indraccolo (URPP Asia and Europe) and Rafael Suter (Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies)—sought to contribute to a more accurate philological study that “might not only provide a clearer picture of the process of composition of the Gongsunlongzi and the dating of the different textual layers that compose the text, but might also provide useful information about its context and valuable clues for its interpretation.”
A special theory of reference
Bo Mou (San José State University) and Fung Yiu-ming (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Soochow University of Taiwan) approached the Gongsunlongzi from the perspective of analytic philosophy. They both stressed that the Gongsunlongzi argument ‘White-Horse-Not-Horse’ is based on a special theory of reference. Mou explored philosophically interesting and significant implications of the “white horse” argument, debating the issue of how reference is possible. In particular, he pointed out that the line of thought expressed in the Gongsunlongzi calls our attention to the double reference of names, proposing Lockean-Fregean and Milian-Kripkean approaches to the text. Fung analyzed the relationship between theory of reference and ontology in the Gongsunlongzi. He showed how, according to him, the Gongsunlongzi’s theory of reference as witnessed in the “white horse” argument is grounded in an onto-cosmology. On this basis, Fung proposed a new interpretation of five of the six chapters composing the Gongsunlongzi.
Issues of logic
In the next session, Thierry Lucas (Université catholique de Louvain [Louvain-la-Neuve], Belgium) and Rafał Jan Felbur (Stanford University) delved into issues of logic. Lucas examined features of the Gongsunlongzi’s style as it pertains to logic, looking at a list of significant words, such as you, wu, ke, fei, bu, gu, suoyi, etc., and tracking their occurrences. Proceeding from the idea that each author has his or her own logical style, and that individual logical styles can be measured objectively, Lucas compared similarities and differences between the Gongsunlongzi and a selection of other more or less contemporary texts in order to explore the issue of their origins and authorship. Felbur analyzed the logic of identity in the early medieval Buddhist treatise Zhaolun by Sengzhao (374/384–414). He focused on the concept of ji, which, according to Richard Robinson, has two main functions: (1) „namely, that is,” a copula of complete identity between A and B; and (2) „to reach, to approach,” a transitive verb meaning for A to become B, or for A to remain B. Felbur focused in particular on the former function of ji, i.e. “establishing ‘identity’,” extensively examining its meaning and significance in Sengzhao’s work.
Comparison of texts
Dennis Schilling (University of Munich/National Chengchi University, Taiwan) examined the last chapter of the Gongsunlongzi, ‘Mingshilun’ (‘On Name and Substance’), which deals with the problem of referring to things and drawing distinctions through language. Schilling focused on the category of wèi (‘being in a place’), which he defined as “a part of a categorical schema which exposes the basic principles for the practice/conditions of ‘right naming’ (zheng ming).” Actually, ‘to put something in a position/in a place’ is part of a predication that differs from its referential function. Liu Tisheng (Canton Huanan Normal University) contributed a philosophical analysis of the third chapter of the Gongsunlongzi, the treatise ‘Zhiwulun’ (‘On Pointing at Things’). Ernst-Joachim Vierheller (University of Hamburg) examined how another famous received text, the Zhuangzi, reads the Gongsunlongzi, focusing on the issue of classification and de-classification. Vierheller compared the chapters ‘Zhiwulun’ in the Gongsunlongzi and ‘Qiwulun’ (‘On Equalizing Things’) in the Zhuangzi. From this analysis it emerged that, though the fictive character of Gongsun Long is occasionally ridiculed in some anecdotes preserved in the Zhuangzi, the latter’s author(s) or compiler(s) largely adopted positions held in the Gongsunlongzi and integrated them into their own doctrine. Zhou Changzhong (Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences) offered a philosophical interpretation of the ‘Baimalun,’ the ‘White Horse’ chapter. Ian Johnston (Tasmania, Australia) analyzed the relationship between the Gongsunlongzi and the dialectical chapters of the Mozi, studying their different ideas on language. Wang Ping (University of New South Wales, Australia) contributed an historical overview of the different interpretations of the Gongsunlongzi, discussing contributions of both Chinese and Western scholars to the study of the text. Jiang Xiangdong (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing) provided a new philosophical interpretation of the ‘Baimalun.’ Finally, the last presentation dealt with another “neglected” text, the Yinwenzi, Lukáš Zádrapa (Charles University, Prague) analyzed linguistic affinities in light of basic corpus data.
The conference allowed a sharing of new perspectives on the Gongsunlongzi, which was highly stimulating and beneficial. It both raised and clarified many important issues regarding the study of the text. A selection of the papers presented during the conference will be published in the Swiss Asia Society’s series Worlds of East Asia.
(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 4/2015, pp. 11–12)