Chinese Studies School of Names
by
Donald Sturgeon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0056

Introduction

The School of Names (mingjia 名家) is one term traditionally used to refer to a group of thinkers from the Warring States period that shared interests in language and disputation. The term and the particular grouping it defines are a later Han dynasty construction based on thematic similarity in the concerns of these thinkers and the essays attributed to them; of those mentioned in the Book of Han (Han Shu 漢書), contemporary textual evidence provides relevant information about only Gongsun Long, Hui Shi, Deng Xi, and Yin Wen. Of these four thinkers, to each of whom the Book of Han attributes a similarly named text extant during the Han dynasty, only parts of Gongsun Long’s text titled Gongsun Longzi 孫龍子 (master Gongsun Long, also transliterated as Kung-sun Lung Tsu; see Primary Sources and Translations) are generally agreed to have survived as independent works, with information about the views of the others surviving only in citations and dialogues within other early texts. Though extant texts attributed to Deng Xi and Yin Wen exist, these are now generally thought to be forgeries of a much later date. Different commentators offer a variety of stances on the interpretation of some or all chapters of the received text of the Gongsun Longzi, ranging from interpreting the texts as being logical or metaphysical treatises expressing principled philosophical positions, elaborate sophistry intended primarily for the entertainment of rulers of the day, or forgeries of lost texts written by those mimicking the style and content of the originals while misunderstanding their terminology and context. Though no texts attributed to him survive, scholarly interest also focuses on Hui Shi, partly due to the list of curious statements attributed to him in the Zhuangzi (see Primary Sources and Translations) and elsewhere and the fact that he also appears as a character taking part in various debates within this and other early texts. Though many early sources accuse those belonging to the School of Names of engaging in hair-splitting and pointless debate, earning them comparisons to the Greek sophists, many modern scholars see them as sophisticated thinkers interested in philosophically interesting questions of language, ontology, and logic.

General Overviews

Due to the greater volume of textual evidence available for the writings of Gongsun Long, many authors focus on these in isolation from the remainder of the school. Of those works that address the school as a whole, Fraser 2009 gives a concise but thorough overview of the group of thinkers and the main philosophical issues associated with them and is a solid introduction to the topic; Hansen 1992 will be extremely valuable to those with some background but is longer, more technical, and at times somewhat controversial. Graham 1993 will be a useful starting point for anyone wishing to deal with the primary sources. Fung 2009 will be of particular use to those interested in the topic from a comparative perspective, while Fung 1983 offers a realist interpretation of the text and classification of the theses attributed to the debaters which have been influential and widely criticized. Hansen 1992 includes a provocative account of the School of Names, and has been extremely influential for, among other reasons, arguing for the previously neglected importance of language as an important theme in pre-Qin thinking, seeing concerns about language as being central to many debaters of the time rather than merely a concern of those such as the School of Names and later Mohists.

  • Fraser, Chris. “School of Names.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2009.

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    Comprehensive introduction to the subject taking into account recent research. Supplementary documents on disputation (Deng Xi, Hui Shi) linked to from the entry are also highly relevant. Locates and discusses much of the early source material for those described as belonging to the School of Names.

  • Fung, Yiu Ming. “The School of Names.” In History of Chinese Philosophy. Edited by Bo Mou, 164–188. Routledge History of World Philosophies 3. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    Concentrates on the philosophical issues raised by the school, relating many of these to issues in Western philosophy. Includes discussion of each of the many theses attributed to Hui Shi and other debaters in the Zhuangzi.

  • Fung Yu-lan. “Hui Shih, Kung-Sun Lung and the other Dialecticians.” In A History of Chinese Philosophy. Vol. 1, The Period of the Philosophers. By Fung Yu-lan. Translated by Derk Bodde, 192–220. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

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    English translation of the Hui Shi Gongsun Long ji qita bianzhe (惠施公孫龍及其他辯者) chapter of Fung’s Zhongguo zhexue shi (中國哲學史), first published in 1931 (Shanghai: Shen Chou). Influential introduction that interprets the Gongsun Longzi primarily as a logical treatise rather than as a piece of elaborate sophistry, associating many of his arguments with ideas in contemporary philosophy.

  • Graham, A. C. “Kung-Sun Lung Tzu (公孫龍子).” In Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide. Edited by Michael Loewe, 252–257. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1993.

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    Concise introduction to the contents and history of the text, and discussion of the authenticity of its sections (a more detailed account of which appears in Graham 1956, cited under Textual Analysis of the Gongsun Longzi). Includes a list of modern Chinese editions and foreign-language translations.

  • Hansen, Chad. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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    As well as including a chapter devoted to discussing the School of Names, this book as a whole is relevant to the topic as it explains how the ideas focused on by the school can be framed within the broader context of pre-Qin thought.

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