Philosophy:School of Names

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Short description: Ancient Chinese philosophical school

The School of Names (Chinese: 名家; pinyin: Míngjiā), sometimes called the School of Forms and Names (Chinese: 形名家; pinyin: Xíngmíngjiā; Wade–Giles: Hsing2-ming2-chia1),[1] was a school of Chinese philosophy that grew out of Mohism during the Warring States period in 479–221 BCE. The followers of the Xingmingjia School of Names were sometimes called the Logicians or Disputers. Sima Tan is the earliest to term them Mingjia. Amongst others, figures associated with it include Deng Xi, Yin Wen, Hui Shi, and Gongsun Long.[2] A contemporary of Confucius and the younger Mozi, Deng Xi, associated with litigation, is cited by Liu Xiang as the originator of the school of names principle of xíngmíng (刑名), or ensuring that ministers' deeds (xing) harmonized with their words (ming).[3]

Birth places of notable Chinese philosophers from Hundred Schools of Thought in Zhou Dynasty. Philosophers of Logicianism are marked by circles in blue.


The earliest literary occurrence for Xing-Ming, in the Zhan Guo Ce, is in reference to the school of names.[4]

The philosophy of the Logicians is often considered to be akin to those of the sophists or of the dialecticians. Joseph Needham notes that their works have been lost, except for the partially preserved Gongsun Longzi, and the paradoxes of Chapter 33 of the Zhuangzi.[5] Needham considers the disappearance of the greater part of Gongsun Longzi one of the worst losses in the ancient Chinese books, as what remains is said to reach the highest point of ancient Chinese philosophical writing.[1]

One of the few surviving lines from the school, "a one-foot stick, every day take away half of it, in a myriad ages it will not be exhausted", resembles Zeno's paradoxes. However, some of their other aphorisms seem contradictory or unclear when taken out of context, for example, "Dogs are not hounds."[6]

They were opposed by the Later Mohists for their paradoxes.[7]

"Legalists" and villification

Often taken in the west as simply amoral, Chinese scholar Peng He positively associates Deng Xi with Chinese Legalism, which he defends in connection with the Chinese legal tradition. The primary categorical difference is that the Fajia or Legalists, initially employed as a Han dynasty slur, are a posthumous category invented by Sima Qian, who does not name anyone under the schools. Originally classed xingming, Shen Buhai and Han Fei are named Fajia in the Hanshu; Deng Xi is not. Shen Buhai uses the earlier School of Names Ming-shi, or word and substance, while Han Fei uses Xing-Ming. However, as a matter of differentiation, John Makeham does consider Han Fei to represent an unprecedented mechanical advancement.[8]

Although the Hanshu would not be without contemporary gloss, with the office designations a posthumous invention, as with the Fajia, Sinologist Kidder Smith highlights the similarly mixed posthumous reception received by the school of names, who, despite the term sophists, were also administrators.

The tradition of the Mingjia probably derives from the Office of Rites. In antiquity titles (ming) and ranks were not the same, and the rites also differed in their regulations. Confucius said: "It is necessary that words(ming) be rectified! If words are not rectified, then speech will not be in order. If speech is not in order, then state projects will not be completed. This is the Mingjia strength. But when it is employed for over fine distinctions, then it is only destructive and divisive."
Gongsun Long wrote the discourse "Hard and White." It splits words and dissects phrases in the service of twisty words. It adds nothing to dao-principles, it is without benefit to governance. Wang Chong (c.e. 27-ca.100)

Shen Buhai

In the Han Dynasty secretaries of government who had charge of the records of decisions in criminal matters would come to be called called Xing-Ming. Han dynasty Sima Qian (145 or 135 – 86 BC) and Liu Xiang (77–6 BC) attribute it to the "Chinese Legalist" doctrine of Shen Buhai (400 – c. 337 BC)[9]:72,80,103–104[10][11] Shen actually used the older, more philosophically common equivalent, ming-shi, or name and reality, linking the "Legalist doctrine of names" with the debates of the school of names.[12][13] Such discussions are also prominent in the Han Feizi.[14]

Ming ("name") sometimes has the sense of speech – so as to compare the statements of an aspiring officer with the reality of his actions – or reputation, again compared with real conduct (xing "form" or shi "reality").[9]:83[15][16] Two anecdotes by Han Fei provide examples: The Logician Ni Yue argued that a white horse is not a horse, and defeated all debaters, but was still tolled at the gate. In another, the chief minister of Yan pretended to see a white horse dash out the gate. All of his subordinates denied having seen anything, save one, who ran out after it and returned claiming to have seen it, and was thereby identified as a flatterer.[16]

Shen Buhai's personnel control, or rectification of names (such as titles) worked thereby for "strict performance control" correlating claims, performances and posts.[17] It would become a central tenet of both Legalist statecraft[4] and its Huang-Lao derivatives. Rather than having to look for "good" men, ming-shi or xing-ming can seek the right man for a particular post, though doing so implies a total organizational knowledge of the regime.[18]:57 More simply though, it can allow ministers to "name" themselves through accounts of specific cost and time frame, leaving their definition to competing ministers. Claims or utterances "bind the speaker to the realization a job (Makeham)." This was the doctrine, with subtle differences, favoured by Han Fei. Favoring exactness, it combats the tendency to promise too much.[19][16][20] The correct articulation of Ming is considered crucial to the realization of projects.[19][4]

See also



  1. 1.0 1.1 Needham 1956, p. 185
  2. Fraser, Chris, "School of Names", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  3. * Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy. p492
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Makeham, John (1994-07-22) (in en). Name and Actuality in Early Chinese Thought. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0-7914-1984-7. 
  5. Needham 1956, p. 697
  6. "School of Names > Miscellaneous Paradoxes". 
  7. Van Norden 2011, p. 111
  9. 9.0 9.1 Creel, Herrlee Glessner (September 15, 1982). What Is Taoism?: And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226120478. 
  10. Creel, 1959 pp. 199–200. The Meaning of Hsing-Ming. Studia Serica: Sinological studies dedicated to Bernhard Kalgren
  11. Makeham, J. (1990) pp. 91–92. The Legalist Concept of Hsing-Ming: An Example of the Contribution of Archaeological Evidence to the Re-Interpretation of Transmitted Texts. Monumenta Serica, 39, 87–114. JSTOR 40726902
  12. Makeham, J. (1990) pp. 87, 89. The Legalist Concept of Hsing-Ming: An Example of the Contribution of Archaeological Evidence to the Re-Interpretation of Transmitted Texts. Monumenta Serica, 39, 87–114. JSTOR 40726902
  13. Burton Watson. Han Feizi
  14. Mark Czikszentmihalyi p. 54. Chia I's "Techniques of the Tao" and the Han Confucian Appropriation of Technical Discourse. Asia Major, Third Series, Vol. 10, No. 1/2 (1997), pp. 49–67 JSTOR 41645528
  15. Creel, 1959 p. 203. The Meaning of Hsing-Ming. Studia Serica: Sinological studies dedicated to Bernhard Kalgren
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Mark Edward Lewis, 1999 p. 33, Writing and Authority in Early China
  17. Hansen, Chad (August 17, 2000). A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195350760. </re:359
  18. Creel, 1974. Shen Pu-hai: A Chinese Political Philosopher of the Fourth Century B.C.
  19. 19.0 19.1 Makeham, J. (1990) p. 91. The Legalist Concept of Hsing-Ming: An Example of the Contribution of Archaeological Evidence to the Re-Interpretation of Transmitted Texts. Monumenta Serica, 39, 87–114. JSTOR 40726902
  20. Paul R. Goldin 2013. p. 9. Introduction: Han Fei and the Han Feizi.



  • Ian Johnston; Wang Ping, The Mingjia and Related Texts: Bilingual edition, Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2019.

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