Paradoxes in Chinese Philosophy

The following is a contribution to the forthcoming Dao Companion to Chinese Philosophy of Logic, edited by my colleague Yiu-ming Fung, Professor Emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The article surveys the role of paradoxes in classical Chinese thought.

For a collection of articles on early Chinese philosophy of language and logic, see this page.

Paradoxes in the School of Names

In the Western philosophical tradition, the earliest recognized paradoxes are attributed to Zeno of Elea and to Eubulides of Miletus. In the Chinese tradition, the earliest and most well-known paradoxes are ascribed to figures associated with the “School of Names” (ming jia 名家), a diverse group of Warring States thinkers who shared an interest in language, logic, and metaphysics. Their investigations led some of these thinkers to propound puzzling, paradoxical statements such as “Today go to Yue but arrive yesterday,” “White horses are not horses,” and “Mountains and gorges are level.” Such paradoxes seem to have been intended to highlight fundamental features of reality or subtleties in semantic relations between words and things.

Why were thinkers who advanced paradoxes categorized as a school of “names”? In ancient China, philosophical inquiry concerning language and logic focused on the use of “names” (ming 名, also terms, labels, or reputation) and their semantic relations to “stuff” (shi 實, also objects, features, events, or situations). Hence for classificatory purposes, second-century B.C.E. Han-dynasty archivists grouped together assorted pre-Han figures whose most prominent ideas seemed to concern the relation between names and stuff—or at least strange, unorthodox uses of names—and dubbed them a school or lineage (jia 家) devoted to the study of names. Unfortunately, both the label and the grouping are misleading. Historically, the school was a retrospective, taxonomical fiction. The figures classified under the “School of Names” never formed a distinct circle, movement, tradition, or line of influence devoted to any particular doctrine, theme, method, or way of life. Their intellectual interests overlapped at most only partly, while also overlapping extensively with those of texts associated with other schools or traditions, such as the Mohist “Dialectics” 墨辯, the Zhuangzi 莊子, the Xunzi 荀子, and the Annals of Lü Buwei 呂氏春秋. What perhaps does set the School of Names apart is that some (though not all) of the figures associated with it apparently delighted in propounding paradoxical or preposterous sayings, while the other texts just mentioned generally (though not exclusively) seek to explain and debunk such utterances.

Download full draft of “Paradoxes in the School of Names”

Keywords: Chinese logic, paradox, School of Names, Ming Jia 名家, Chinese metaphysics, Chinese semantic theory, Chinese philosophy of logic