A white horse is not a horse, of course

I’m at the point in my book where I can’t fit everything in. So, it can overflow here! The “School of Names” (mìngjiā) is one of the also-rans of ancient Chinese philosophy— they didn’t make a big splash at the time, and unlike (say) the Mohists, they don’t appeal any better to modern tastes.

Anyway, perhaps their best known piece is 白马论 Bái mǎ lùn (White Horse Essay), by 公孙龙 Gōngsūn Lóng, which attempts to prove that a white horse is not a horse. It’s a little reminiscent of Zeno proving that movement is impossible: one can admire the argument and even be perturbed by it, but feel that surely if the dude believes it for reals, he’s confused at best.


Anyway, I decided to attempt a translation, since the Old Chinese (OC) here is not (generally) too hard, and because at least half of it is pretty amusing. It’s written as a dialog; to simplify things I’ve divided the lines into blue and red. My comments are in black. The original text and Donald Sturgeon’s translation are here.

If anyone wants to criticize my translation I’d be happy to take corrections!

Bái mǎ fēi mǎ, kě hū?
white horse not horse, can Q
Can it be said that a white horse is not a horse?

OC has no copula, but it does have a negative copula, fēi. (Wikipedia makes a big deal of OC not having a separate adjective class— words like bái are more like verbs— but nothing in the essay depends on this; bái mǎ works just like “white horse”.


It can.

Hé zāi?
what EXCL
How so??

Mǎ zhě, suǒyǐ mìng xíng yě; bái zhě, suǒyǐ mìng sè yě. Mìng sè zhě fēi mìng xíng yě. Gù yuē:“Bái mǎ fēi mǎ”.
horse NOM / whereby name shape PT / white NOM / whereby name color PT / name color NOM not name shape PT / therefore say / white horse not horse
“Horse” names a shape. “White” names a color. What names a color does not name a shape. Thus I say, “A white horse is not a horse.”

Zhě is a nominalizer, so if you see something like mǎ zhě you can take it as “horsiness”, or “being a horse”, or (as is probably meant here) “the concept ‘horse'”. You’ll notice  a lot here; it’s a factual evidential, but (I think) pretty weak in meaning.

Yǒu bái mǎ, bù kě wèi wú mǎ yě. Bù kě wèi wú mǎ zhě, fēi mǎ yě? Yǒu báimǎ wèi yǒu mǎ, bái zhī, fēi mǎ hé yě?
exist white horse / not can call not.exist horse PT / not can call not.exist horse NOM / not horse PT / exist white horse call exist horse / white SUB / not horse what PT
Having a white horse, that can’t be called having no horses. The state of not having no horses, is that not a horse? Having a white horse means having a horse; a white one, how is it not a horse?

Blue doesn’t bother to address Red’s first sally.  He makes the common-sense argument that having a white horse certainly means having a horse.

Qiú mǎ, huáng, hēi mǎ jiē kě zhì; qiú báimǎ, huáng hēi mǎ bù kě zhì.
request horse / yellow black horse each can send / ask white horse / yellow black horse not can send
If you ask for a horse, a yellow or black one can be sent; if you ask for a white horse, a yellow or black one cannot be sent.

Shǐ bái mǎ nǎi mǎ yě, shì suǒ qiú yī yě.
make white horse be horse PT / this number request one PT
Making “white horse” the same as “horse” makes both requests the same.

Suǒ qiú yī zhě, bái mǎ bù yì mǎ yě; suǒ qiú bù yì, rú huáng, hēi mǎ yǒu kě yǒu bù kě, hé yě?
number request one NOM / white horse not different horse PT / number request not different / if yellow black horse exist can exist not can / what PT
If the requests are the same, then a white horse is not different from a horse; if what is requested is no different, why is that a yellow or black horse is possible in one case but not the other?

Kě yǔ bù kě, qí xiāng fēi míng.
can and not can / it together not clear
Possible and not possible, clearly these are different!

Gù huáng, hēi mǎ yī yě, ér kěyǐ yīng yǒu mǎ, ér bù kěyǐ yīng yǒu bái mǎ.
thus yellow black horse one PT / and can should exist horse / and not can should exist white horse
Thus yellow and black horses are the same, in that one can say that there is a horse, but not that there is a white horse.

Shì bái mǎ zhī fēi mǎ, shěn yǐ!
correct white horse it not horse / indeed PFV
Indeed we have shown that a white horse is not a horse!

The quickest route to success is to show that “horse” and “white horse” are not the same thing. And they’re not; Red gives a real-world example where the two are not equivalent at all.  They refer to different sets.  In one sense she’s won: she’s shown that “white horse” is not identical to “horse”.

Yǐ mǎ zhī yǒu sè wéi fēi mǎ, tiānxià fēi yǒu wú sè zhī mǎ yě. Tiānxià wú mǎ kě hū?
so horse it exist color make not horse / heaven-under not exist not color it horse PT / heaven-under not horse can Q
If a colored horse is not a horse, then since the world has no colorless horses, do you say that the world has no horses?

Mǎ gù yǒu sè, gù yǒu báimǎ.
horse firm exist color / thus exist white horse
Horses definitely have colors; thus there are white horses.

Shǐ mǎ wú sè, yǒu mǎ rú yǐ ěr, ān qǔ bái mǎ?
correct horse no color / exist horse if stop only / safe seek white horse
If horses had no color, then only “horses” exist; how could you look for a white horse?

Gù bái zhě fēi mǎ yě.
then white NOM not horse PT
Thus a white one is not a horse.

Bái mǎ zhě, mǎ yǔ bái yě; mǎ yǔ bái mǎ yě, gù yuē: Bái mǎ fēi mǎ yě.
white horse NOM / horse give white PT / horse give white horse PT / thus say / white horse not horse PT
A white horse is horse-and-white, horse-and-white-horse. Thus I say, a white horse is not a horse.

Blue doesn’t seem to understand (or just ignores) Red’s point. He keeps insisting on the point that if you have a white horse, you have a horse.  But that doesn’t prove much— you could equally say that if you have a white horse, you have a mammal.  A horse is-a (is a member of the category) mammal, but “horse” and “mammal” are different concepts.  Red says as much in the last line— “white-horse” and “horse” are two different concepts.

Neat word derivation: Tiānxià “(what is) under heaven” = “the earth”.

Translators: always remember OC is trying to play gotcha with you. In this case it uses 耳 ěr which is usually ‘ear’, but in this case means ‘only’. Similarly 足 zú is normally ‘foot’ but sometimes means ‘enough’.

Mǎ wèi yǔ bái wéi mǎ, bái wèi yǔ mǎ wèi bái.
horse not.yet with white make horse / white not.yet with horse make white.
A ‘horse’ not yet with ‘white’ makes a horse; ‘white’ not yet with a ‘horse’ makes white.

Hé mǎ yǔ bái, fù míng bái mǎ.
join horse with white / double name white horse
Combining horse and white is the compound name “white horse”.

Shì xiāng yǔ yǐ bù xiāng yǔ wéi míng, wèi kě.
this appear and with not appear with make name / not can
(This is to use an uncombined name for a combined thing, and is inadmissible.)

Gù yuē: Bái mǎ fēi mǎ wèi kě.
thus say / white horse not horse not can
Thus I say, “A white horse is not a horse” cannot be.

I give Sturgeon’s translation for one sentence as I couldn’t figure it out.  I’m also not sure what Blue is saying, except that he’s trying to point out that “white horse” is a combination of concepts.  What we’d like him to say is that A^B implies A, but he still wants to deny Red’s contention.

Yǐ “yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ”, wèi yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu huáng mǎ, kě hū?
with “exist white horse make exist horse” / mean exist white horse make exist yellow horse / can Q
Given “having a white horse is having a horse”, does that mean having a white horse is having a yellow horse?

Wèi kě
not can.
It isn’t.

Yǐ yǒu mǎ wèi yì yǒu huáng mǎ, shì yì huáng mǎ yú mǎ yě; yì huáng mǎ yú mǎ, shì yǐ huáng mǎ wéi fēi mǎ.
use exist horse make use exist yellow horse / this different yellow horse to horse PT / different yellow horse with horse / this with yellow horse make not horse
Given “having a horse is having a yellow horse”, then a yellow horse is different from a horse; if a yellow horse is different from a horse, then a yellow horse doesn’t serve as a horse.

Yǐ huáng mǎ wéi fēi mǎ, ér yǐ bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ, cǐ fēi zhě rù chí ér guān guǒ yì chù, cǐ tiānxià zhī bèi yán luàn cí yě.
use yellow horse make not horse / and use white horse make exist horse / this fly NOM enter pond and coffin outer.coffin different place / this heaven-under it perverse speak disorderly phrasing PT
To take yellow horses as not horses, and yet take white horses as being horses, is to have flying things in the water and the inner and outer coffins in different places; this is perverse and random speaking.

To be honest I’m kind of tired of Red and her horses.  She is perfectly willing to make deductions about horses and colored horses like a normal person (note that she never says that yellow and brown horses are not horses).  It’s clear that the classes are different, but let’s move on and understand how they’re related. (To put it another way: if you point out that there are problems with ‘(not) be’, you’re probably right, and the solution is to be more precise.)

Yǒu bái mǎ, bù kě wèi wú mǎ zhě, lí bái zhī wèi yě.
exist white horse / not can name not horse NOM / leave white it call PT
Having a white horse cannot be called having no horses; this is called separating out whiteness.

Bù lí zhě yǒu bái mǎ bù kě wèi yǒu mǎ yě.
not leave NOM exist white horse not can call exist horse PT
Without separating it, having a white horse can’t be called having a horse.

Gù suǒyǐ wéi yǒu mǎ zhě, dú yǐ mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ ěr, fēi yǒu bái mǎ wèi yǒu mǎ.
thus thereby make exist horse NOM / alone with horse make exist horse only / wrong exist white horse make exist horse
Thus why it’s taken as having horses, it’s only because horses make for having horses, and it’s incorrect to say that having a white horse makes for having horses.

Gù qí wèi yǒu mǎ yě, bù kěyǐ wèi mǎ mǎ yě.
thus it make exist horse PT / not can make horse horse PT
Thus if it’s taking as having horses, you can’t call a horse a horse.

Not sure I follow Blue’s point, but let me point out the interesting word 为 wéi. The root meaning is “make, do”; in Dàoism they highly value 无为 “not-doing”.  You can also use it in the sense of “act as, fulfill a role”, which is how I think it’s being used here.  And that in turn is not far from being a copula “be”.  Though in fact that’s not where Mandarin’s copula comes from… it comes from 是 shì ‘this’.

Bái zhě bù dìng suǒ bái, wàng zhī ér kě yě.
white NOM not settle SUB white / forget it and can PT
Whiteness does not determine what is white— this can be neglected.

Bái mǎ zhě, yán bái dìng suǒ bái yě.
white horse NOM / speak white settle SUB white PT
“White horse” speaks of whiteness determining what is white.

Dìng suǒ bái zhě, fēi bái yě.
settle SUB white NOM / not white PT
What determines what is white, is not whiteness.

Mǎ zhě, wú qù qǔ yú sè, gù huáng, hēi jiē suǒyǐ yīng.
horse NOM / not go take to color / thus yellow black all therefore accept
“Horse” does not specify a color; thus a yellow or black horse is acceptable.

Bái mǎ zhě, yǒu qù qǔ yú sè, huáng, hēimǎ jiē suǒyǐ sè qù, gù wéi bái mǎ dú kěyǐ yīng ěr.
white horse NOM / exist go take to color / yellow black all therefore color leave / therefore only white horse alone can accept only
“White horse” does specify a color; thus yellow and black are removed by their color; only a white horse can be accepted.

Wú qù zhě fēi yǒu qù yě; gù yuē:“Bái mǎ fēi mǎ”.
not go NOM not exist go PT / therefore say / white horse not horse
What is not excluded is not what is excluded; therefore I say “A white horse is not a horse.”

Again pointing out differences in behavior or implication between “white horse” and “horse”.  I thought we’d established that a few bamboo strips ago, but you can never have enough supporting arguments in philosophy.  Blue apparently backs away slowly at this point— we never learn if he was convinced.