White horses and pink elephants

Editorial note: If you have not yet read our mission statement above, please do so in order that you can put our blogs in context. 

6 December 2013

The white horse you see in the park could be a zebra synchronised with the railings.

Anne Jellicoe (b. 1927), English actress, theatre director and playwright.

It all depends how you look at things.

As it happens, the ancient Chinese, too, had a problem with white horses.

A dialogue attributed to the sophist Gongsun Long 公孫龍 (also transliterated as Kung-sun Lung), who lived from 325 to 250 BC, postulates that


a white horse is not a horse”.

On page 39 of the Legacy of China, published in 1964 by Oxford University Press, A.C. Graham maintains that this is piece of pure sophistry based on the assumption that the statement affirms identity and not membership of a class.

However, Wikipedia gives a more sympathetic explanation:

The argument …. plays upon an ambiguity in Chinese (which happens to also exist in English). The expression “X is not Y” (XY) can mean


“X is not a member (or subset) of set Y”


“X is not identical to Y”.


Normally, in Chinese and English, it is clear from context which sense is intended, so we do not notice the ambiguity. So the sentence “White horses are not horses” would normally be taken to assert the obviously false claim that white horses are not part of the group of horses. However, the sophist in the dialogue defends the statement under the interpretation, “White horses are not identical with horses.” The latter statement is actually true, since — as the sophist explains — “horses” includes horses that are white, yellow, brown, etc., while “white horses” includes only white horses, and excludes the others.

Now, when you start seeing pink elephants, well that’s something quite different!


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Partitocracy v. Democracy (20 July 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Capitalism in practice  (4 July 2012) 

5.Ladder  (21 June 2012)

 6. A tale of two cities (1)  (6 June 2012)

 7. A tale of two cities (2)  (7 June 2012)

 8. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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