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chad hansen



Gongsun Long’s dialogues pose an instructive test case for discuss-

ing and evaluating rival theories of interpretation.1 It is distant
enough in cultural terms to illustrate the appeal of a “radical trans-
lation” orientation yet, differs in instructive ways from Quine’s
‘Gavagai’ example. It is prima facie not observational but provides
more philosophical than empirical context for theorizing. Attempts
to explain it philosophically must confront Quine’s methodological
challenge—What counts as evidence for meaning? A successful
solution would directly challenge Quine’s indeterminacy example.
Reflecting on this case helps both to motivate different formulations
of the rival principles used along with radical translation: charity
versus humanity. I will argue that solutions should not rely on the
principle of charity.2

I. MA and GAVAGAI: Radical Translation

The role translation plays in normal sinological discourse is different

from the role it plays in Quine.Translators take the meanings as given,
and then treat translating as the art of expressing the text’s meaning
well in another language. Quine uses translation to construct an argu-
ment for skepticism about meaning. That multiple translations
account equally well for a corpus shows that there is no fact of the
matter about what that text means. He considers a pair of translation
systems as rivals in an evidence-based comparison. So he rules out
taking claims about meaning to be evidence as well as anything that
presupposes meaning.
Sinologists routinely cite such things as evidence. They trace the
history of a character’s meanings, or the frequency with which it is
used with this meaning elsewhere, or the meaning of similar sounding
or shaped characters or of other characters frequently used with it.

CHAD HANSEN, chair professor of Chinese Philosophy, Department of Philosophy,

University of Hong Kong. Specialties: Chinese philosophy, comparative philosophy,
Chinese theory of language and mind. E-mail:
© 2007 Journal of Chinese Philosophy
474 chad hansen

The evidence base typically is a translated passage. Equally circular is

explaining the meaning of a passage by making claims about, for
example, “what Gongsun Long was trying to say” or “believed” or
“wanted us to see,” etc.
Quine’s account of what can count as noncircular evidence for
meaning claims is empirical. The researcher looks at the empirical
stimulus that triggers the utterances. Quine calls this “stimulus
meaning” famously illustrated by his example of a native uttering
“gavagai” just as the researcher observes a rabbit darting into view.
Quine argues that from that empirical base, we cannot prove which
of several possibilities is the correct translation of ‘gavagai’. His
examples of alternate “translations” equally compatible with the
stimulus coincide suggestively with the range of familiar proposals for
translating Gongsun Long’s paradox. ‘Gavagai’ might be translated
Platonically “instantiation of the Platonic form of rabbit” or idealis-
tically (Yogacara variety) “time slice of consciousness of rabbit” or
mereologically “corporeal bit of rabbit stuff.”
Quine seemed to want philosophers of language to give up the
concept of “meaning.” That has not happened. He also wanted us to
be puzzled about what we think we are talking about when we make
meaning claims. That has happened.
Dummett explains the philosophical situation this way:

By contrast, while most of us, myself included, would agree that the
concept of meaning is a fundamental and indispensable one, we are
unclear even about the surface structure of statements involving that
concept. . . . As is well known, some, pre-eminently Quine, have pre-
ferred to circumvent this difficulty by investigating the principles
underlying the construction not of a theory of meaning for a lan-
guage, but of a translation manual from it into some known language.
The advantage is that we know exactly what form a translation
manual has to take, namely an effective set of rules for mapping
sentences of the translated language into sentences of the language
into which the translation is being made: we can therefore concen-
trate entirely upon the questions how we are to arrive at a system of
translation as embodied in such a manual, and what conditions must
be satisfied for such a system to be acceptable.3

In other words, the role of radical translation has shifted from under-
mining the concept of meaning to seeming to give us a way to inves-
tigate it. In this case, we can use Quine’s method to demystify claims
about the meaning of baima fei ma in favor of recasting the question
as how we should translate baima fei ma. We translate it into a sen-
tence of our home language in several ways and then address instead
what standards we should use in selecting from among these alternate
justice, not charity, for white-horse 475

Quine introduces radical translation in a way that makes it seem

irrelevant to our situation: “What is relevant rather to our purposes is
radical translation, i.e., translation of the language of a hitherto
untouched people.”4 In this century, we are obviously no longer in
such a position relative to Chinese. When we study the language we
rely on “knowledge” generated by centuries of Chinese–Western
contact. However, Quine also links “radical translation” with the
absence of cognates, being from different language family and lacking
a shared cultural history. And, he adds: “But the problem is the more
nearly approximated the poorer the hints available from interpret-
ers . . . I shall imagine that all help of interpreters is excluded.”
Our position relative to baiwhite mahorse feinot mahorse is not that we
ignore interpreters, but that interpreters disagree. Our task is deciding
which interpreter is correct. Appeal to interpreters as authorities is
clearly of “no help” since our question is a prior one. Which inter-
preter should we rely on for help? Which should we take as author-
ity?5 Quine’s radical translation suggestion is a way to approach6 the
question of what the puzzling phrase means.
The terms in question are of strikingly similar type to those Quine
considers when he reflects on the “radical translator.” The familiar
mammal changes from rabbit/gavagai to horse/ma, the usual color
discussed from red to white, and marks of assent and dissent from
“evet” and “yok” to shithis:right and feinot-this:wrong.7
We are struck first by the fact that our puzzle is about such simple,
elementary characters. Normally, when we come on a character about
whose meaning we are in doubt, we would open a character dictio-
nary. But one could hardly be reading Chinese without already having
learned the characters ma, bai, and fei.
Another striking feature of the overlapping concepts in Quine’s
and Gongsun Long’s example is that they are more like place markers
for discussing the roles of fundamental functions of terms in a
language—general nouns, modifiers/adjectives, negations––used in
commonplace descriptive assertions. It is unlikely that the issue rests
on the difference, say, between mahorse and niuox or between baiwhite
and hongred. Mastering the rudiments of a language involves operating
such word functions which, presumably, are systematic.8 The White
Horse, like Quine’s ‘Gavagai,’ invites us to reflect on issues at the core
of philosophy of language. Given the paradoxical structure of
Gongsun Long’s paradox along with this “ordinary” content, we natu-
rally suspect it plays some role in his theory of language which is
puzzlingly different from our own.
Most attempts to interpret rest on claims about the meaning of ma
or fei. However, they seem deceptively like Quine’s proposal because
the form claims about meaning take is simply alternative translations
476 chad hansen

of the core sentence. These parallels with Quine suggest that we

should now address the philosophical question of how to choose
among these proffered “translation manuals.” How should we decide
which is correct and what requirements should we place on a candi-
date translation.

II. Theory and Meaning

Sinological practice is to present the theory of the meaning of the key

terms in the White Horse via translation. The classic suggestion, which
launches modern interest, is Fung Yu-lan’s “realist” hypothesis: ma
“means” something like horseness and baima white-horseness.9
Others have proposed alternative theories of its meaning such as the
class of horses, the word “horse,” merelogical horse-stuff, the collec-
tion of horses and so on.
Quine, as we noted above, used radical translation explicitly to
undermine the very notion of meaning. He was arguing famously that
there is no thing that is the meaning, no fact of the matter about which
translation is correct. And, if there is no such fact, a translation cannot
be right or wrong. This, he observes, is because
. . . two men could be just alike in all their dispositions to verbal
behavior under all possible sensory stimulations, and yet the mean-
ings or ideas expressed in their identically triggered and identically
sounded utterances could diverge radically, for the two men, in a
wide range of cases. . . . Sentences without number can diverge dras-
tically from their respective correlates, yet the divergences can sys-
tematically so offset one another that the overall pattern of
associations of sentences with one another and with non-verbal
stimulation is preserved. (W&O, 26–27)

The various theories cannot explain anything empirical because all

equally fit the same verbal behavior—baima fei ma. All theories of its
meaning can be rendered compatible with “the totality” of Gongsun
Long’s verbal dispositions.10 Quine’s argument limits us to explaining
empirical behavior and “nonverbal stimulation” via dispositions.
Many accounts of meaning can be compatible with this verificationist
restriction on the combinations of verbal behavior and observable
“goings on.”This we do easily by making what Quine calls “offsetting”
assumptions—for example, about his beliefs or desires. We can do so
as well by removing the explanation from the realm of reasons and
instead have recourse to some noncognitive explanation like his
having Tourett’s syndrome giving him a tendency to say feinot ran-
domly or by speculating that he was merely a verbal jester who made
his living uttering silly things.11
justice, not charity, for white-horse 477

Quine focuses on the cognitive adjustments which allow us to

accommodate various translations by correspondingly altering the
beliefs we attribute to Gongsun Long. These can themselves be ortho-
dox or bizarre—for example, Gongsun Long believes that white
horses belong to a different species—say pigs. Or we could attribute
some random passing belief or ad hoc fancy and then “explain” the
utterance by giving it the meaning that makes it express that momen-
tary (and soon discarded) belief.
More orthodox cognitive appeals, however, attribute some system-
atic belief or theory to Gongsun Long, for example, in Platonic forms,
sets, merelogical individuals, etc. We also assume that he has not
departed so radically from ordinary use that his thesis loses its para-
doxical relevance—that is, the belief must be one that is related
enough to ordinary assertions to make it really puzzling and not just
Any such account should address Quine’s skepticism about lan-
guage meaning. Quine’s challenge was buttressed by his argument
that we attribute meaning and belief together. To attribute a different
meaning to his words is to attribute a different belief and vice versa.
That’s why the use of claims about his belief in an account of baiwhite
mahorse feinot mahorse is circular. We need a way to break out of the circle
of meaning and belief.12
Quine’s challenge now becomes: What reason can we give for pre-
ferring one system of meaning-belief assignment to another given that
many such systems account for the text or in Quine’s terms “fit the
linguistic behavior”? The challenge is to say what kind of noncircular
evidence can be offered here to narrow the range of offsetting
hypotheses available to a verificationalist.13
As we saw, Quine restricted evidence to overt verbal behavior and
“stimulus meaning.” The evidence for attributing a meaning-belief
scheme should include the obvious physical goings-on that form the
context of utterances together with linguistic behavior. This makes
Quine’s project importantly different from ours in looking at
Gongsun Long’s paradoxes. First, Quine was focusing on what he calls
“occasional utterances” and we are addressing one that he would class
as a “standing utterance” (or, in this paradoxical case, the denial of a
standing utterance “a white horse is a horse”). An occasional utter-
ance is triggered sometimes by some occurrence, but a standing utter-
ance is known to everyone but almost never formulated except in the
context of teaching language, logic, or philosophy.
The contrast reminds us, also, that unlike Quine’s imagined anthro-
pologist, we have no native speakers to observe or consult nor any
physical context to observe alongside their linguistic behavior.We have
a corpus of texts passed down over two odd millennia and construct our
478 chad hansen

“context” via theories of these texts and their relationships (and

information of history derived from them via an interpretation).
However, another contrast also reminds us of Quine’s distinction
between words which can be learned in isolation and words that can
only be learned “in context.” The isolation in question is from other
words so, he argues, ‘gavagai’ (or ma) could be learned as something
like one-word sentences where we can learn propositions and con-
junctions only as parts of sentences learned as wholes.
The learning of words . . . partakes of a contrast correlative to that
between learning sentences as wholes and building them of parts. In
the case of words it is a contrast between learning a word in
isolation—i.e., in effect, as a one-word sentence—and learning it
contextually, or by abstraction, as a fragment of sentences learned as
wholes. Prepositions, conjunctions, and many other words are bound
to have been learned only contextually; we get on to using them by
analogy with the ways in which they have been seen to turn up in past
sentences. It is mostly just substantives, adjectives, and verbs that will
occasionally have been learned in isolation. Which of them are
learned thus, and which only contextually, will vary from person to
person. . . .
The same would seem plausible for terms like “molecule” which,
unlike “red,” “square,” and “tile,” do not refer to things that can be
distinctively pointed out. Such terms can, however, be inculcated also
by yet a third method: description of the intended objects. This
method could be grouped under the head of the contextual, but it
deserves separate notice. (W&O, 14–15)

“Not,” like prepositions and conjunctions, must be learned by its use in

sentences, but we can hardly have mastered anything about language
without having mastered it. Neither “white” nor “horse” should be
theoretical terms in this sense, so Gongsun Long’s rejection of what
should be a trivial standing utterance constructed of these three words
invites us to assume there is some theory behind it. It is not a simple
matter of learning the ordinary use of such familiar terms.
Quine further divides this latter class of terms, those learned in
context, into those that are learned partly by analogical descriptions,
like molecule, and partly by mastering molecular theory and others
where analogy is of little use, like “wavicle.” “Our coming to under-
stand what the objects are is for the most part just our mastery of what
the theory says about them. We do not learn first what to talk about
and then what to say about it” (W&O, 16).
Popular books about Daoism aside, sinologists are seldom tempted
to attribute knowledge of molecules, atoms, etc., to ancient Chinese.14
However, other terms which fall into Quine’s context category should
raise alarm signals for our interpretive practice when doing ancient
Chinese philosophy (e.g., metaphysical terms). Since philosophy
yielded study of empirical matters to science, many of its focal terms
justice, not charity, for white-horse 479

are learned along with other terms via learning a theory. Quine men-
tions here “attribute” and “class” and these help generate his skepti-
cism about even his stimulus meaning. While we can be relatively
certain that a language contains a word that overlaps the stimulus
conditions of our “horse” and “rabbit,” the evidence of stimulus
meaning could never show whether the target language concept has
the same metaphysical meaning––a substance with attributes, set with
members. Quine lists things like “time slices,” “undetached rabbit
parts,” “rabbit stages” along with:
A further alternative likewise compatible with the same old stimulus
meaning is to take “gavagai” as a singular term naming the fusion, in
Goodman’s sense, of all rabbits: that single though discontinuous
portion of the spatiotemporal world that consists of rabbits.15 Thus
even the distinction between general and singular terms is independent
of stimulus meaning. . . . And a still further alternative in the case of
“gavagai” is to take it as a singular term naming a recurring universal,
rabbithood. The distinction between concrete and abstract object, as
well as that between general and singular term, is independent of
stimulus meaning. (W&O, 52–53, emphasis added)

Although Quine’s list included an interesting Yogacara Buddhist pos-

sibility (time slices), obviously the Goodman analogy inspired my
interpretation.16 Quine’s skepticism of meaning rested on the claim
that we could not find any evidence that would distinguish which one
of these was the native’s ontology.17 Each is equally compatible with
the stimulus meanings available to both the linguist and the native
together with all the linguistic dispositions.18
When from the sameness of stimulus meanings of “Gavagai” and
“Rabbit” the linguist leaps to the conclusion that a gavagai is a whole
enduring rabbit, he is just taking for granted that the native is enough
like us to have a brief general term for rabbits19 and no brief general
term for rabbit stages or parts. (W&O, 52)

Given Quine’s deconstruction of verificationism in science, he should

not intend linguistic indeterminacy to be grounded on verificationism.
If it were, then he should also deny that there is any fact of the matter
about whether the earth revolves. His “equally compatible” is not
mere logical consistency, but something like equally well confirmed by
all the native’s linguistic dispositions. If that is right, then Quine’s
argument for indeterminacy seems hostage to a limited imaginative
scheme: a field linguist listening to the observation reports of herds-
men. His use of “natives” has a primitivist ring. He seem not to ask
himself if there are any native philosophers or metaphysicians, using
something like semantic ascent and debating about their alterna-
tive ontologies—between, for example, substance–attribute, class–
member, part–whole, idea–instantiation, etc. Imagine what a linguist
480 chad hansen

might learn if he could interview one of the community’s semanticists

or metaphysicians or attend a debate on the topic: “borand gavagai
yok gavagai.” That could, it seems, give us a reason to doubt that the
“naïve” ontology characterizes the tribe’s beliefs in favor of one of
Quine’s alternatives.
I used Quine in that context in order to cast doubt on the ordinary
circular conception of “evidence” for meaning claims that consists in
citing phrases of text using one’s preferred translation!20 My proposal
was rather to answer Quine’s skepticism by showing how the concep-
tion of evidence that operates in Quine’s “network of beliefs” revision
of scientific method could be brought to bear on this special Chinese
case. Thus, we could say that there is a “matter of fact” about what the
term meant in the sense that there is a matter of fact about the origin
of species. We include in “linguistic behavior” philosophical discus-
sions about language and accept a “best explanatory theory” concep-
tion of evidence. One translation manual counterpart of ma could
then explain the whole body of self-conscious philosophy of language
of the linguistic community in question better than another.
To take that lesson to the White Horse dialogue, I reasoned, I
would have to reconstruct the discussion in Classical China about
language, to formulate the issues in the philosophical agenda and the
rival accounts (and shared assumptions) about these basic elements of
language use—ordinary words and the implications of composition.
Following Graham, I noticed the parallels between this paradox and
the Mohist discussions of compounding and the use of “ox-horse” and
“hard-white” as paradigms, to the use of keassertible in doing theory of
language, the use of mingnames for nearly all recognized language roles.
That theory of how language works had a complex account of the
conception of shireality and wuthing-kind and the role of “picking out,”
“choosing,” and “distinction.” These, I reasoned, would set the back-
ground beliefs against which we should be able to motivate Gongsun
Long’s false but explainable assertion.

III. Charity versus Humanity

This brings us to the next issue in radical translation. What standard

do we use in comparative evaluation of the translation output (the
body of translated sentences) of the “translation manuals” that stand
in lieu of theories of meaning?
Broadly, there are two—charity and humanity. They correspond to
two meaning-related features of sententials (beliefs, assertions,
desires, intentions)—truth and warrant. Charity represents the norm
that says to choose the interpretation that makes the assertions true.
justice, not charity, for white-horse 481

Simplistically measured,21 it would prefer the set of translated sen-

tences with the highest percentage of assertions that are true. The
rival principle, simplistically measured, would select the set with the
most utterances explainable as warranted for the community—
somewhat misleadingly, the set that is most coherent. Quine’s “stimu-
lus meaning” neatly balances between the two.The native’s utterances
of “gavagai” are both true and warranted for him each time Quine
imagines him saying it.
What I was implicitly applying in my explanatory project using
“explainable error” illustrated the importance of a more careful for-
mulation of the principle of humanity. It relies on warrant because
that is a familiar, naturalistic cognitive route to philosophical asser-
tions. However, ordinary humans routinely depart from normatively
ideal epistemology. Some errors are more humanly explainable than
others. Philosophical error is often motivated by commitment to a
principle even when it leads to counterintuitive conclusions. That was
the explanatory model I offered for Gongsun Long’s reasoning about
White Horse.
I have always found that the White Horse issue is one of the
clearest ways to motivate this choice between the two principles for
use with radical translation. Yet what I find persistently in all the
subsequent attempts to deal with Gongsun Long’s paradox is an
overcommitment to using the principle of charity to favor Gongsun
Long. My prolegomena to any future attempt is this warning against
reliance on the principle of charity in interpretation. Any interpreta-
tion strictly charitable to Gongsun Long is beating a dead white horse
because “baima fei ma” is false in Chinese.

IV. The Problems with Charity

The dominant interpretive theory when I addressed this question was

Fung Yu-lan’s abstract interpretation. It gives us several ways to illus-
trate a textbook objections to a strict truth version of the principle of
charity—using “maximally true” as the standard for judging which
translation outcome counts in favor of a translation manual. “White
horseness is not horseness” is true. The sense one has that this trans-
lation succeeds depends on appreciating a philosophical insight into
Platonic forms, abstractions, and their kin. An untutored English
speaker might be tempted to accept “White horseness is horseness.”
So the truth-success comes with an additional component of philo-
sophical respect for Gongsun Long’s seeing this subtle point about
abstract ontologies.
The problems, however, arise because the Chinese string is, in fact,
false in Chinese. If we use Quine’s stimulus meaning, then we will
482 chad hansen

discover, obviously, that in Chinese, whatever observable stimulus

triggers an isolated utterance of “bai ma” will also trigger an utterance
of “ma.” Anyone who assents to “bai ma” will assent to “ma,” and so
forth. So translating the Chinese sentence so it comes out true in
English is mistranslating it.
We can escape temporarily by two means. One is to insist that the
utterance has a theoretical meaning here. To take that escape,
however, a translation manual needs to give us a rule of Chinese that
marks the theoretical use. It looks, on its face, like a positive counter-
part of the Mohist contradictory passage, which is the simple state-
ment of the standing truth—baima ma ye.
Further, we need some independent source of access to the theory
subtle insight into which reveals the truth of the translated sentence.
Merely citing this sentence as evidence leaves us with Quine’s inde-
terminacy. The second is to deny that the passage is in Chinese! That
is, its meaning is to be explained only in Gongsun Long’s idiolect.22
This allows us to explain the appearance of disagreement with
ordinary Chinese evidenced by the Mohist’s standing utterance, but if
pursued holistically, it comes at the cost of making all conversation
meaningless. There were no disputes in ancient China, only failures of
communication. Each philosopher is uttering an analytic sentence of
his own idiolect. The costs of making it true in either of these ways
illustrate some theoretical problems with charity.
The most common objection is that the principle confuses under-
standing with agreeing. The familiar worries about “linguistic deter-
minism” reflect a related assumption.23 The accusation assumes that
the radical translator takes universals to exist and then gives a causal
explanation of why Chinese speakers could not express that truth.The
interpreter’s belief or nonbelief in universals is irrelevant to the plau-
sibility of attributing it to Chinese thinkers.
Part of the modern skepticism of universals was dawning awareness
of how the Platonic reasons for that metaphysics drew on a theory of
language we now reject. We come to see Greek theory as motivated
by trying to explain features of the Indo-European family of lan-
guages. No parallel explanation24 justifies or motivates such a theory
for Chinese speakers. A causal argument of this sort is not a modal
claim that a given language cannot express some empirical fact. It is
an argument about access to and motivations for philosophical
accounts of how language functions. The absence of the motivation to
develop such a theory need not entail the inability to express the
theory if one held it.25
My argument, of course, was that the warrant Plato (and Russell)
had for postulating forms or universals would not warrant a Chinese
theorist of language in postulating them. Thus, explaining why a
justice, not charity, for white-horse 483

Chinese theorist makes Plato’s assertion becomes difficult. It is pos-

sible, if one can show not merely that the philosophical theory is true,
but further establish the modal claim that belief in repeatable univer-
sals is causally necessary—for example, an instinctive or unavoidable
belief or any cognitively normal human. But this is to abandon truth
as the standard of choice in favor of a version of the explanatory
principle of humanity—albeit accompanied by a dubious account of
normal human cognition.
The second objection is that a truth standard leaves Quine’s skep-
ticism about meaning intact. There are indeterminately many ways to
make the passage true and add compensating beliefs to make all the
arguments consistent with its truth so interpreted. We do not have to
detach Gongsun Long’s idiolect from the context of Chinese. We can
make the same claims and then allege that Gongsun Long is the only
theorist to believe this claim about the common semantics of Chinese.
Making such offsetting assumptions allows us to “solve” the paradox
in many ways—all motivated to render the few sentences in this
dialogue as expressions of the chosen theory. The abstract universal
translation is only one of these. Other options include translating it as
a mention rather than a use, for example, “‘White horse’ is not
‘horse.’” My proposal to translate it as a singular mass object “The
mereological White-horse object is not the mereological horse object”
is a third. Another is using the language of sets, species, etc. “The set
of white horses is not the set of horses.”
Third, a linked objection arguably maximizing truth fails to estab-
lish a fact of the matter about meaning because truth is more meta-
physical than epistemological or explanatory. We instinctively know
that not to use an assertion’s truth to justify attributing it when we are
unwilling to argue the truth is accessible to the speaker(s). Quine’s
stimulus truth, for example, can explain because we implicitly have a
causal explanation of how the natives can know about medium-sized
mammals in their field of vision. However, in the case of Quine’s
philosophical truths, explanation seems to require some mysterious
“power” of Plato’s Truth to compel beliefs.
Finally, I include a nonphilosophical criticism, but one highly rel-
evant in sinology. The principle of charity (translating so as to make
the sentence true) tempts translators to ad hoc meaning assignments.
This is not an objection to Quine and Davidson because they consis-
tently insist on holism––the construction of the translation manual so
truths emerge from systematic, compositional, and translation rules.
So Davidson would rule out the kinds of translation rules typically
used to explain the White Horse dialogue.
The holism constraint can be seen as required by the project of
radical translation. Since we are going to evaluate our translation
484 chad hansen

rules by their ability to generate a holistic translation set that is true

(i.e., agrees with what we now think), we cannot, on pain of trivializing
the project, allow rules which postulate meaning changes triggered
only by our judgment of that truth. We can have rules that are sensi-
tive to context, but the context must be one that is available to the
speaking community, such as the grammatical context or situation of
utterance.Again, any plausible application of a contextual rule involv-
ing judgments of truth would have to work through an implicit appeal
to the principle of humanity—the claim that the speaker had natural-
istic, cognitive access to its truth.
A couple of examples can illustrate this point. For example, a
familiar claim about ma is that it can be translated as “a horse” or
“some horses” or “horses” or “all horses” or “horseness” or “the
horse” depending on the context. Some contexts would clearly be
acceptable in a holistic account, for example, if the context, for
example, is “modified by a number larger than 1” or following the use
of a horse’s proper name, etc. We should rule out reading “depending
on context” that allows “whichever makes the assertion true.” If
applying the translation rule change requires the translator’s judging
whether an abstract or concrete reading would make it true and no
grammatical information or features of the situation of the speaker
could guide that judgment, then the principle of charity becomes
Consider this argument partially translated from the dialogue,
“seeking ma, yellow ma suffices, seeking white ma, yellow ma does not
suffice.” To make these assertions come out true using one of the
alternatives, we have to render ma as “a horse.” But did anything in
the passage tell us which disjunct to apply? Harbsmeier, to his credit,
does try to tackle this challenge.
Why does the sophist change the example from “having a white
horse” to “seeking a white horse”? Here again, it looks as if some-
thing logically quite subtle may be going on. For “have an X” counts
as what analytical philosophers call an extensional context, whereas
“seek an X” creates an intensional context in the relevant sense. . . .
“Looking for white horses” is no more “looking for horses” than
“looking for black swans” is “looking for swans.” On the other hand
it is perfectly true that “having a white swan” is indeed “having a

Harbsmeier’s caveats (e.g., “in the relevant sense”) do all the work
because there is also a relevant sense in which looking for a white
horse is looking for a horse. That I am looking for a white horse
certainly entails that I am looking for a horse.
Similarly, if I choose to read it “intensionally,” there seems to be a
parallel sense in which “having a black swan” is not equivalent to
justice, not charity, for white-horse 485

“having a swan.” The two “havings” entail differences in normative

status. “Seeking” and “having” can both be interpreted intensionally
or extensionally. I make such distinctions explicit in English, by using
grammatical features like quotation marks, gerunds, definite descrip-
tors, modifiers, and abstraction inflections to mark opaque contexts.
Aristotle, as Graham argues,27 did not have a word for “essence,” and
Europeans borrowed the concepts from the Arabian Aristotelians.
However, we can see the devices Aristotle employs to mark this
distinction in his Greek. Harbsmeier has not managed to show us a
similar device here in Gongsun Long’s Chinese. The only reason to
treat the Chinese context as intensional is Harbsmeier’s judgment
that it would make the sentence true.
Harbsmeier discusses another familiar way to deal with the
paradox. I suggest it also illustrates the danger of this familiar kind of
rule in sinology. The Chinese structure X Y ye (negated by X fei Y)
sometimes asserts (denies) identity and sometime class inclusion. Har-
bsmeier argues that the same is true of English.28 We have the “is” of
identity and of class inclusion.
However, the rule for use in English is simple and available to
native speakers. It does not depend simply on a judgment of what is
true, but on the grammatical category (singular or general) of the
linked terms. We can tell in English when identity statements are false
and when class inclusions have been mistaken for identities. “White
horseness is not horseness” is true in English because abstract terms
are logically singular, so we read the “is” as “equal to.” But notice, that
we would also read “White horseness is horseness” as false! It is not
that in English we “read” ambiguous assertions charitably.
The parallel between English and Chinese is apt in this sense. A
Chinese speaker is no more (or less) free to utter a truth while saying
“baima fei ma” than an English speaker while saying “white horses
are not horses.” The rules of Chinese and English, respectively, make
both de facto falsehoods.29
The application of the disjunctive meanings rule requires the trans-
lator to settle first what is true and then decide which translation
alternative to choose. The Quine–Davidson goal should be to specify
grammatically compositional rules that settle the matter of meaning
on compositional grounds prior to the translator’s judgment of what
statements are true and have it turn out that systematic application of
those judgment-independent rules result in more sentences being true
than a similarly systematic rival.
We know that native speakers normally use knowledge of the
world in parsing and interpreting expressions and that even for a
coherent single meaning, different translations must be chosen in
different statement contexts. Advocates of charity have to find a way
486 chad hansen

for translation to reflect context without making the truth test of an

interpretative translation manual trivial. It seems that any satisfactory
restriction would be one that incorporates the explanatory insight of
the principle of humanity; that is, it explains the speaker’s access to
that truth.
Harbsmeier’s own attempt to interpret the dialogue starts cor-
rectly. He gives a truly explanatory, noncharitable argument. He first
allows that the thesis sentence is “plainly outrageous.”30 He then
explains Gongsun Long’s paradoxical utterances of this absurdity on
the relatively normal human explanation of saying something for its
entertainment value—like a joke, but then falls back on the principle
of charity in trying to salvage Gongsun Long’s philosophical honor
and make baiwhite mahorse feinot mahorse the conclusion of a sound logical
argument “in Chinese.”
The joke claim only begins an explanation—it merely allows the
utterance of the falsehood but does not yet motivate it. We need
further to explain or understand why it is funny—at least funny
enough to earn a living. Harbsmeier sets out to characterize Gongsun
Long as an intellectual entertainer with a marketable trick. His ploy
was to use arguments to “appear to demonstrate an outrageously
untrue sentence, a paradox, to be true.”31 This gets the starting point
Completing the explanation, however, Harbsmeier chooses not to
make the entertainment value lie in its marketable humor, but in the
spectacle of an accomplished and competent logical defense of an
absurd claim. “Saying that the White Horse Dialogue belongs to a
tradition of light-hearted entertainment is not to imply that it is
devoid of serious logical interest.”32 He explains the entertainment
value as lying in the logical quality of his defense.
Consequently, Harbsmeier applies the principle of charity to each
of the arguments for the outrageously false conclusion. As we saw
above, they rely on the translator’s question-begging use of the prin-
ciple of charity. His goal gets warped into the paradoxical one of
presenting the dialogue as a serious and competent logical/semantic
demonstration of the thesis. He finds each a sound argument and
because Harbsmeier is committed, as Boltz observes in his review, to
the principle that “logic is logic, irrespective of the language in which
it operates,”33 he is constrained to acknowledge that the conclusion of
a sound argument is true. So contrary to his starting point, he con-
cludes that baiwhite mahorse feinot mahorse is true! Chinese, as he argued
above, semantically allows that construal of the sentence. So, he must
conclude, the sentence in Chinese is both trivially true and outra-
geously false! What finally must he conclude two pages later? The
falsity is appearance and the truth is reality. Gongsun Long’s argu-
justice, not charity, for white-horse 487

ments “have the effect of proving as clearly true something that

appears to be clearly untrue.”34
An explanation that takes the dialogue out of the realm of reason-
ing and proof can succeed, but to do so, one still has to motivate or
explain uttering this particular line—even if it is a joke. What explains
the choice of “white horse” rather than “black goat”? If it is a joke,
what makes it funny? The problem of taking it out of the realm of
reasoning with such a hypothesis is that Gongsun Long seems to be
rather less entertaining than is, say, Harbsmeier. The challenge to such
an explanation is to render the dialogue funny, not the interpreter’s
defense of it.

V. Conclusion: The Cost of Charity

In conclusion, while I suspect there may be better explanations of

the dialogue than I was able to offer, I still think that the method-
ological principles so well illustrated by the paradox should be fol-
lowed in justifying any proposed interpretive explanation. This is
important in all of our interpretations, but particularly in dealing
with this dialogue since it so effectively illustrates the use of radical
translation and the reasons for combining it with the principle of
humanity rather than the principle of charity. A solution should rest
on principles, semantic theories, background beliefs, and norms of
use accessible to the Chinese readers of the time. It must render
neither the conclusion true nor the arguments for it sound. The con-
clusion can be motivated or made tempting, but its de facto falsity
must survive the construed arguments for the sophistry. The argu-
ments may be clever and their “trick” effective, but they must be
logically flawed—either invalid or unsound.35 Failing to explain that
is failing to explain the dialogue.36


Hong Kong SAR, China


1. This article developed out of a conference discussion at the Eastern Division of the
APA in December 2004. I proposed an interpretive theory of Gongsun Long’s “White
Horse” three decades ago. My thanks to Professor Bo Mou for soliciting my response
to the many alternatives published since then. I am also motivated by seeing advance
copies of Professor Manyul Im’s excellent treatment (forthcoming in Dao: A Journal
of Comparative Philosophy).
This affords the opportunity to reflect the enriched understanding I myself gained since
of the philosophical issues surrounding radical translation in the philosophy of lan-
488 chad hansen

guage and to clarify and correct my original application of it. I thus concentrate here
mainly on the paradox itself rather than its detailed elaboration. My goal is to show how
Gongsun Long’s paradox motivates using Quine’s radical translation approach and
what constraints consideration of Quine’s arguments puts on viable solutions.
2. These points are my main response to the many worthy alternative translations I have
encountered in the interim. They rely on being charitable without considering either
the challenge Quine poses for the usual sinological conception of “evidence for
meaning” or the alternative principle.
3. Michael Dummett, “What Is a Theory of Meaning,” in Readings in the Philosophy
of Language, ed. Peter Ludlow (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), 130. Note that
Dummett expresses skepticism that Quine’s work-around can provide a way to
understand meaning.
4. W. V. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge: MIT press, 1960), 28. The following
quotations from the same book will be cited as W&O with page number(s) in paren-
thetical reference.
5. Sinology typically offers authority as an answer here—it ranks translators as superior/
inferior in general and then uses that ranking to answer more “local” questions.
6. Or, as Dummett suggests above, to circumvent the question of meaning.
7. In this context, however, the terms in which the debate is cast is keassertible as discussed
below in endnote 10.We could be said, instead to be discussing if claiming the paradox
is assertible is shi or fei.
8. This rests on the familiar observation that we are capable of constructing and under-
standing denumerably many new utterances that are both grammatical and
meaningful—the key premise in the argument that human languages are systemati-
cally compositional.
9. The English version of the translation claim derives from Feng Yu-lan’s translator,
Derk Bodde. It renders Gongsun Long’s “main thesis” in English mentioning the
word “universals” then claims Gongsun Long’s “difficulty in proving” the thesis is
heightened by the inability to express the thesis in Chinese (Fung Yu-lan, A History
of Chinese Philosophy (Derk Bodde, trans.) (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1952–3), 203). This is a version of the shibboleth that “Chinese words have many
meanings” which implicitly continues “that cannot be distinguished lexically or gram-
matically.” Here the crucial translation rule is “for ma, translate using either the
English term ‘horse,’ ‘horses,’ or ‘horseness.’” The question is “how does the rule
continue?” Is it “depending on what yields a true sentence”? Feng’s own formulation
uses the Chinese term zhifinger for which a dictionary’s list of possible translations
includes: finger, point to, indicate, name, designate, insert, put into, fill, pour into, drop
into, hold up, wear, offer, play, rise, flow, be tinged with, point to, proceed to, fix, measure,
and make. Feng says “that which the name ma zhipoints to is limited to the nature-stuff
shared by all horses.” This claim, itself, is a candidate for radical translation.
10. As I noted above, I address here mainly the string “bai ma fei ma,” but the inter-
pretation will be of the “totality”––e.g., the passage actually says the string in ques-
tion is keassertible and a theory of meaning will have to include assumptions about
meaning and belief to account for that—say as opposed to saying the string is true
or plausible or . . . Clearly the making an attribution of meaning “fit” with the
totality takes more detail and imagination, but Quine’s point that many such fits are
possible remains.
11. See Christoph Harbsmeier’s account in Science and Civilization in China: Volume 7
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 303, for the popular story of using
the paradox to try and avoid customs duty.
12. The most common kind of error in alternative accounts is to present a combination of
an interpretation of “baima fei ma” and a belief or theory to Gongsun Long and then
blithely conclude that rival interpretations are wrong. Conversely, they may read rival
interpretations as “linguistic determinism” as if in offering a rival explanation, they
are implying that no other interpretation is possible (in the sense of being fully
compatible with overt linguistic behavior and verifiable facts). Quine’s challenge
requires showing how, from the many possible interpretive theories, one could give an
objective reason for preferring a single one.
justice, not charity, for white-horse 489

13. I encourage my own students to avoid the word “evidence” in favor or “argument”
and think of evidence as premises in an argument that validly concludes “we should
translate this passage as ____.”
14. Part of Harbsmeier’s case against my mass noun hypothesis is the accusation that it is
“anachronistic.” He sets up the charge by expressing his admiration for Lesniewski
and his “very abstract and complex theory of mereology” then linking it somewhat
mysteriously to Einsteinian claims about the relativity of space and time. Russell
Lesniewski, Goodman, and White’s mereology is tailored precisely to avoid commit-
ment to abstractions like Platonic types, biological species, or mathematical classes/
sets. It seeks to replace these abstractions with constructions out of “naturalistic” parts
and wholes.The metaphysics requires no special reliance on relativity claims.A theory
of mereology would only occur where there was a prior commitment to such abstract
one–many metaphysics with which to contrast it. The reference to “space–time” is not
Einsteinian, but the way a naturalistic part–whole system would deal with the distri-
bution of horses or white stuff across. It is this confusion and the question-begging
assumption that Chinese thinkers did operate with an implicit one–many abstract
metaphysics thatfuels Harbsmeir’s puzzling distinction between a part–whole and a
mereological analysis. “Mereology” is a general term for part–whole ontologies in
contrast to those relying on particulars and abstractions. Graham was originally
correct to link them.
15. Much of Harbsmeier’s objection to my “mass noun hypothesis” appears to come from
mistaking this reference to “fusion” as if it were some kind of physical fusion. Good-
man’s sense, referred to here, is logical, not physical—notice the qualification “though
16. Responses to my theories over the years have often focused on my observations of the
mass-like grammar of modern Chinese and assumed that the claim that classical
grammar was mass-like was my “evidence” for the hypothesis (see endnote 13). It is not
a premise in my argument for the hypothesis, but for dealing with a worry that one may
have about the hypothesis (that all intelligent humans must think in one–many and
abstract terms). But Goodman was arguing that we can so construe all common nouns
of English, thus avoiding the need for a universals (hence the characterization of a
Goodman system as nominalism). The hypothesis was attributing to Chinese theorists
of language an assumption that common nouns work as traditional Western ontologies
would have said mass nouns of English do—as singular terms referring a logical fusion
of concreta. That’s why Quine cites Goodman in support of his indeterminacy claim!
For the historical record: The grammar of Chinese was not my motivation for my mass
noun interpretative hypothesis! My motivation was this passage in Quine and Good-
man’s version of mereology—and not pace Harbsmeier by studying a Polish logician!
Notice that Quine refers here to Goodman’s proposed ontology for rabbits! I was
obviously not under the impression that the English term “rabbit” was a grammatical
mass noun!
The argument was for the explanatory power of attributing part–whole assumptions
rather than one–many in explaining many other features of Mohist and Confucian and
Daoist theories of language in combination with other attributed beliefs I detailed in
Chad Hansen, Language and Logic in Ancient China (Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press, 1983). I further speculated that the hypothesis could also explain why
Han reforms would have chosen explicitly to require sortals when counting common
nouns, that is, dividing reference rather than eliminating their occasional post-
head-noun use characteristic of pre-Han writings. My speculative explanation actually
started from my observation that pre-Han Chinese common nouns were not grammati-
cal mass nouns. I have no charitable explanation for why so many writers since have
concluded that Harbsmeier knew better than I did what I was thinking!
17. Why does Quine assume that these ontologies are part of the “meaning”? One
suggestion is that he is still assuming, pre-twin earth, that the meaning determines the
extension. And, as he argues here, the actual extension of these different translations
are dissimilar; for example, one refers to time slices and the other to enduring parts.
It would be preferable to follow Scanlon in distinguishing between meaning of a term
and the range of possible views about the ultimate nature of the subject matter.
490 chad hansen

(Thomas Scanlon in Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton, Moral
Discourse and Practice [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], 270.) Presumably
Berkeley and Goodman, equally competent in English, both know the meaning of
“rabbit” and disagree about its ultimate nature while having fully competent mastery
of its use in English.
18. Harbsmeier’s early criticism cited my reference to Quine, then simply ignored the
issue Quine raises. He simply goes on talking of “evidence” for meaning claims while
pointing to linguistic behavior—patterns or terms or strings of text—and providing a
translation. If he had understood Quine, he would have seen that this pattern of
argument is circular. Instead, he says: “However, I find nothing in all of traditional
Chinese literature that even remotely suggests that the ancient Chinese ever thought
of anything like mereology, or of apples and evening skies as one object scattered
through time and space” (Christoph Harbsmeier, “The Mass Noun Hypothesis,” in
Chinese Texts and Philosophical Contexts, ed. Henry Rosemont, Jr. [La Salle: Open
Court, 1991], 50.) His discussion of my similarly argued case for denying my parallel
argument for urging translators not to use “true” as a translation for any single word
of Classical Chinese is similarly circular, that is, consists of supplying a long list of
passages of classical texts with his question begging translations.
19. Reflect again on Harbsmeier’s objection that he “finds no evidence that Ancient
Chinese” thought of objects mereologically. He also cites no evidence they thought of
them as instantiations of eternal forms or that they thought of them as particulars with
universal, repeatable attributes. But then Harbsmeier blithely attributes the last to
them, illustrating Quine’s point. This assertion is followed by a long discussion in
which he regularly translates all general nouns as English (singular or plural) common
nouns. So his failure to “find any evidence” is his “taking for granted” that the
Chinese, like us, must have “a brief general term for” horses but no brief general term
for horse-stuff.
20. I note a small shift in Harbsmeier’s recent formulations. He now insists only that I had
not shown that he could not translate the words in his preferred way or that my
argument was not deductive. “I find nothing in traditional Chinese literature that
remotely suggests that the ancient Chinese ever thought of anything like Lesniewski’s
mereology, or of apples and evening skies as one object scattered through time and
space. In any case, Hansen does not provide any of the necessary detailed philological
evidence to prove that the Chinese did think in this way” (Harbsmeier, Science and
Civilization in China, 312). In addition to an account of what role “philological
evidence” has in the face of Quine’s skepticism, he owes us an argument that deductive
necessity is the only standard to apply to arguments for meaning (as well as that his
meaning hypotheses are justified merely by not being analytically false. Strangely this
comes just one page after he construes Quine’s skepticism thus: “. . . in some ways we
may attribute to others different and mutually contradictory structure of thought
without risking ever being refuted by any evidence from their speech” (emphasis added).
21. This is simplistic partly because Davidson came to state his principle using both truth
and coherence. The counterpart simplification, of which I was frequently guilty, is to
treat the principle of charity as a maximizing coherence. Coherence among beliefs is
one of the naturalistic cognitive ways humans arrive at beliefs. Others include author-
ity and experience.
22. The usual sign of an interpreter’s taking this route is claiming that “the objector
doesn’t understand Gongsun Long’s point.”
23. Graham enunciates a relatively sophisticated version of this worry in A. C. Graham,
Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (La Salle: Open Court,
1989), 414.
24. Remember that the framework of the principle of humanity is explanation via reasons
and reasoning.
25. Professor Chung-ying Cheng’s objections to my interpretation of the White Horse
Dialogue has typically taken this form.
26. See Harbsmeier, Science and Civilization in China, 306. I cannot help citing Harbs-
meier’s justification of this interpretive hypothesis: “When the sophist changes the
example from ‘having a white horse’ to ‘seeking a white horse,’ I cannot help feeling
justice, not charity, for white-horse 491

that he had a perception of this subtle logical difference between ‘having’ and
‘seeking.’” This is perhaps our crucial clue to his conception of “philological evi-
dence.” See endnote 20.
27. A. C. Graham, Unreason within Reason: Essays on the Outskirts of Rationality
(La Salle: Open Court, 1992), 79.
28. His example, however, does not illustrate the counterpart rule of English. “We note
that the English ‘White horses are not horses’ and ‘A white horse is not a horse’ are
similarly open to two such opposing interpretations.” In English, both express the
same logical relation (x) [(Wx & Hx)→|~Hx] and both are false. Neither, as they stand
in English, is open to the interpretation X = Y. His claim about the ambiguity in
Chinese relies on the point I make below—the “is” is disambiguated by the gram-
matical singularity of the items related. Harbsmeier gives as possible translations: “A.
‘White horse’ is not (the same as) ‘horse.’ B. A white horse is not (a case of) a horse.”
(Christoph Harbsmeier, Science and Civilization in China: Volume 7 Part 1: Language
and Logic [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 301.) Harbsmeier’s
attempt to help the reader with his parentheses seem just to confuse things. It is
perfectly clear to an English reader that “white horse” is not “horse” and that a white
horse is not a horse. No “case of” is implied. One cannot help wondering, given his
appeal to Quine, why he does not entertain the theory that Gongsun Long is confus-
ing to use and mention.
29. Notice that if one wanted to explain how an interesting sophistry could emerge from
a false statement of Chinese, one could observe that common nouns of Chinese
function more like singular terms.“Mass nouns, unlike count nouns, play the same role
in sentences that proper nouns do. This makes it natural to regard mass nouns as
logically singular terms—as names” (Hansen, Language and Logic, 35). Harbsmeier
substitutes ellipses for this aspect of my argument in his rebuttal.
30. Ibid., 300.
31. Ibid., 303.
32. Harbsmeier, Science and Civilization in China, 301.
33. William G. Boltz, “Logic, Language and Grammar in Early China,” The Journal of the
American Oriental Society 12, no. 2 (2000): 218–29.
34. Harbsmeier, Science and Civilization in China, 305.
35. My interpretation treated the interlocutor as correct. That is not required of any
adequate interpretation. However, an adequate interpretation should acknowledge
that the interlocutor is correctly rejecting a falsehood.
36. Note that a defense of Gongsun Long could seek to make his larger claim valid—
namely that the paradoxical phrase is keassertible. I suspect that this line of defense is
rarely taken because of resistance to my theory that ancient Chinese philosophers
debated these issues in terms of pragmatic “assertability” rather than semantic truth.