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Chinese Literature and Philosophy
Mingjia 名家 "Sophists" or "Dialecticians"


The Mingjia 名家 "Sophists" or "Dialecticians" is one of the so-called "one hundred" philosophical schools of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). The Chinese term mingjia means "schools of the designations" because the relation between object and name was one of their main topics of discourse. The term "sophists" is often used by Western scholars because the mingjia philosophers were often attaced for what their contemporaries felt as hair-splitting arguments. The dialecticians were actually not a systematic school but the designation for half a dozen of philosophers engaging in debates on various topics, especially the formation of thought, processes of thinking and the difference between linguistic designations and reality (ming shi 名實). Some of the philosophers of this school, especially Deng Xi 鄧析, had the tendency towards legalism. The school is also called xingmingjia 形名家 "the school of the shape and the name". Their representants are also shortly called bianzhe 辯者 "the disputers". The most important representants of this school are Deng Xi, Yin Wen 尹文, Hui Shi 惠施, and Gongsun Long 公孫龍. The imperial bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志 in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 lists the following books written by the school of the disputers: Dengxizi 鄧析子, Yinwenzi 尹文子, Huizi 惠子 and Gongsun Longzi 公孫龍子. Of all these writings, only fragments are preserved. The ideas and thoughts of the sophists are dispersed in various stories of the books Zhuangzi 莊子, Xunzi 荀子, Hanfeizi 韓非子, Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋, the history Shiji 史記 and the anthology Shuoyuan 說苑.
Deng Xi is the oldest representant of this school. He is famous for his handling a strange situation: A man had stolen the corpse of a another persons's father and claimed a ransom. Deng Xi, as a judge, appeased the robber that the son of the dead would not buy back another body, and eased the son of the dead that nobody else would buy the corpse. This is the argumentation of the two possibilities (liang ke zhi shuo 兩可之說) assembled in each of the two persons: The deal could easily be concluded because both of them wanted the business to be done, but at the same time could not be easy because the corpse would soon decay. Deng Xi stressed that reality has to follow the designation, this means, in the legalist sense, that a state official has to act according to the prescribed tasks of the office he occupies.
Later on the relationship between designation and reality lost this practical sphere and won space in the philosophical sphere. The adherents of this philosophical school divided into two directions, firstly the tradition "unifying the common [aspects] of different [things]" (he tong yi 合同異), and secondly the tradition "separating [the association of] solid [stone] from that of white [stone]" (li jian bai 離堅白). The first direction, with Hui Shi as the most important representant, investigated the relation between objects and came to the conclusion that everything on earth is composed of two related opposites that on the one hand contradict each other but on the other hand belong together. The common ground of all things is much stronger than its differences. The second direction is represented by Gongsun Long, the more famous of the two. Gongsun Long found out that designations and real objects have actually nothing to do with each other but are only connected in a process of common concepts of thinking and only within this framework. His two most famous statements are:
  • "(A) white horse is not (a) horse." (bai ma fei ma 白馬非馬) This is because "horse" is the concept of an animal, while "white" is the concept of a colour. The term "white horse" is therefore not the concept of a "horse".
  • "(A) white hard stone are two different things." (jian bai shi er 堅白石二). This is because the hardness of a stone can not be assessed by the eyes, which only assess the stone as white.
Both, perception by visual and by haptic senses, can not be unified in one concept.
While the former tradition unifed different appearings in our minds and thus had a concept of oppositeness, the latter traditon separated attributes that seen to be unified in our minds and had a concept of absoluteness. Both thus deeply contributed to the develepment of logic in early Chinese philosophy.


Sources:
Pang Pu 龐朴 (1987). "Mingjia 名家", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhexue 哲學, vol. 1, p. 621. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Tang Shaojie 唐少杰 (1996). "Mingjia 名家", in: Zhuzi baijia da cidian 諸子百家大辭典, ed. by Feng Kezheng 馮克正, Fu Qingsheng 傅慶升, p. 964. Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe.
Zhou Yunzhi 周云之 (1987). "Deng Xi 鄧析", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhexue 哲學, vol. 1, p. 147. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.

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July 18, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail