If you are interested in any of my articles, please email me at elharris (@) and I’ll send you a copy.


The Shenzi Fragments: A Philosophical Analysis and Translation
New York: Columbia University Press, 2016

This volume is divided into two parts: a translation of and brief commentary on the Shenzi Fragments and a philosophical analysis of Shen Dao’s thought. The analysis is further broken into two chapters, with the first looking at Shen Dao’s political philosophy and the second working to situate Shen Dao in the early Chinese intellectual milieu and upon the philosophical landscape.

In the first chapter, I build up a picture of Shen Dao’s political philosophy. In particular, I focus on the source, nature, and justification of Shen Dao’s ideas about political organization and order. I argue that it is only possible to understand his political philosophy if we first come to understand his conception of the natural realm and how and why he believes that it is essential to model the social and political realm on the natural realm. I show that Shan Dao focuses in on the objective qualities of the natural world, arguing that it is essential both to replicate the objectivity and patterned quality of the natural world in the social and political realm and to replicate certain of the actual natural patterns of the natural world in the social and political realm.

This only gets us so far, however. Coming to a deeper understanding of the natural world will allow us to better utilize it for our benefit. However, this understanding of nature must be augmented by a deeper understanding of human beings. Shen Dao believes that a successful social and political order requires a deep understanding of human dispositions and characteristics. In particular, he believes that there are three psychological aspects of human beings that must be understood and dealt with in order to effectively organize any population: 1) people act based on their own private interests, 2) people’s strengths and abilities vary, and 3) feelings of resentment and expectation arise when decisions are regarded as subjective.

Analyzing these traits of human beings and examining the appropriate political response to them is one of the key concerns of the Shenzi Fragments. Given his contention that the human characteristics described above are, for the most part unchangeable, it is impossible for him to rely either on the moral cultivation that characterizes Confucian political thought or the plasticity of human nature that the Mohists rely upon. Therefore, Shen Dao holds up the law as an objective, unbiased foundation upon which social order can be built. This law, however, cannot simply be whatever the ruler happens to desire – if it is to be effective, that is. Rather, he holds that if laws are to be effective at ordering the state, they must bear a necessary relationship to facts about the world and the people in it. Coming to better understand this relationship, then, gives us a clearer grasp on Shen Dao’s political philosophy and its goals.

In the second chapter I situate Shen Dao in the early Chinese intellectual milieu and upon the philosophical landscape. In particular, I argue that he grapples with a range of important issues that concerned a wide array of important intellectuals in early China. Furthermore, his arguments indicate both that he is deeply steeped in the ideas and arguments of his time and that he provides his own unique contributions to these debates. Perhaps not surprising, given what we learn by examining Shen Dao’s political philosophy, many of these arguments deal with the characteristics of the natural world and their implications for the social one.

The goal of this chapter is not merely to demonstrate that Shen Dao was deeply tied into the intellectual milieu of his time and addressing similar issues as his contemporaries, however. It endeavors to demonstrate how he actually influenced a range of early Chinese thinkers, including Xunzi, Han Fei, and the compilers of the Lüshi Chunqiu and Huainanzi. All of these texts either attribute certain views to Shen Dao or quote passages from the Shenzi and utilize these views to further their own goals – either by opposing them, as in the case of Xunzi, developing them in a particular direction, as in the case of Han Fei, or merely drawing bits and pieces into their own heterogeneous political outlook, as in the case of the Lüshi Chunqiu.


The Dao of Han Fei
in Justin Tiwald, ed., Oxford Handbook of Chinese Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2018.

Xunzi on the Role of the Military in a Well-Ordered State
in Journal of Military Ethics, forthcoming 2018.

Which Teacher Should I Choose? A Xunzian Approach to Distinguishing Moral Experts from Fanatics
in Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 45, issue 3, September 2017.

This essay examines whether an invocation of an epistemological privilege on the part of supposed moral experts prevents potential students from being able to evaluate among potential candidates for the role of plausible moral teacher. Throughout, it works to demonstrate that it is possible for even the untutored student to distinguish between a fanatic and a moral expert. In particular, this essay focuses on the version of virtue ethics espoused by the early Chinese philosopher Xunzi. It argues that by reflecting on the attributes of fanatics, as well as Xunzi’s ideas and arguments about students and teachers, it is possible to arrive at a general set of principles that provide beginners with the tools necessary to distinguish dangerous fanatics from plausible moral teachers, even given the fact that both claim for themselves an epistemological privilege.

Xunzi's Political Philosophy
in Eric L. Hutton, ed., Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Xunzi, New York: Springer, 2016.

This chapter lays out fundamental aspects of Xunzi’s political philosophy, arguing that his political thought is best understood as a virtue-based theory naturally extending from his virtue-based moral theory. In developing this interpretation, this chapter looks at the arguments that Xunzi uses in constructing his vision of political order, in particular analyzing why Xunzi believes humans need to live in society, the features of both human nature and the external world that make this challenging, and how to overcome them. By examining the differences between the hegemon and the true king, the essay lays out and analyzes Xunzi’s arguments for why his political theory is more effective than any alternative not grounded on virtue.

Aspects of Shen Dao's Political Philosophy
in History of Philosophy Quarterly, vol.32, issue 3, July 2015, pp. 217-234.

Even among those who work in the field of early Chinese philosophy,the name Shen Dao (慎到, ca. 360–285 BCE) rarely calls to mind much of interest, and what it does call up are often simply depictions of him in several of the more famous texts of the time: in the Han Feizi as an advocate of positional power; in the Xunzi as being blinded by a focus on laws; or in the Zhuangzi as one who wished to discard knowledge. Few through the centuries have attempted to examine his philosophical thought in detail, in part because no complete edition of his work has existed since at least the tenth century. Fragments of the work attributed to Shen Dao do, however, still exist, and by examining them we can begin to piece together an understanding of his political philosophy. In doing so, we come to the realization that Shen Dao’s ideas are important not only historically but also merit attention from those engaged in constructive political philosophy. In his historical context, Shen Dao was one of the first political thinkers openly to question the tight connection between ethics and politics that was assumed by a range of thinkers in the Confucian and Mohist traditions. In particular, he provides a range of arguments against the state relying on the moral cultivation of even some of its members, focusing not on changing or developing the innate tendencies of human beings but rather on working with the natures humans initially have.

Legalism: Introducing a Concept and Analyzing Aspects of Han Fei's Political Philosophy
in Philosophy Compass, vol.9, issue 3, March 2014, pp. 155-164.

‘Legalism’ is a term that has long been used to categorize a group of early Chinese philosophers including, but not limited to, Han Fei (Han Feizi), Shen Dao, Shen Buhai, and Shang Yang.  However, the usefulness of this term has been contested for nearly as long.  This essay is the first of two that have the goal of introducing the idea of ‘Legalism’ and laying out aspects of the political thought of the above-mentioned philosophers who have often been called Legalists.  In this essay, I first lay out how the term Legalism could be useful, and what would be necessary in order for it to serve that use.  I then turn to an investigation of certain aspects of the most prominent Legalist philosopher, Han Fei, that are quite important for understanding his philosophy and situating him in the context of the early Chinese philosophical milieu.  In particular, I focus on an analysis of Han Fei’s conception of the Way (dao), arguing that features of his philosophy most often discussed, namely his advocacy of law (fa), administrative techniques (shu), and positional power (shi), arise out of his conception of a cosmic Way.  I then turn to Han Fei’s understanding of the role of history, demonstrating how it differs radically from the views of his contemporaries, raising serious challenges to Confucian, Daoist, and Mohist conceptions of history.

The Role of Virtue in Xunzi's Political Philosophy,
in Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, vol. 12, no. 1, March 2013, pp. 93-110.

As most working in classical Chinese philosophy are aware, there has recently both been a revival of virtue ethics in the Western tradition and an increasingly vast body of literature arguing that Confucianism is a form of virtue ethics. However, there has been little work that examines how this virtue ethics (in either tradition) translates into the political sphere. What I endeavor to do here is to demonstrate that the Confucian thinker Xunzi, offers a model of virtue politics that is interesting in its own right while also being potentially useful for scholars attempting to develop virtue ethics into virtue politics. I present Xunzi’s version of virtue politics and discuss challenges to this version of virtue politics that are raised by the anti-Confucian, Legalist thinker Han Fei. In examining how Xunzi can respond to these challenges, I lay out how we can use John Rawls’s ideas on ideal and non ideal theory as a framework within which to better understand Xunzi’s vision of virtue politics. This allows us to untangle the various threads of Xunzi’s political philosophy and see the directions in which it pushes us. I argue that not only is Xunzi’s virtue politics capable of surviving the challenges raised by his contemporary, he offers an account that is in many ways both attractive and plausible, one that may usefully be brought into conversation with contemporary visions of virtue politics.

Constraining the Ruler: On Escaping Han Fei's Criticism of Confucian Virtue Politics,
in Asian Philosophy, vol. 23, no. 1, February 2013, pp. 43-61.

One of Han Fei’s most trenchant criticisms against the early Confucian political tradition is that, insofar as its decision-making process revolves around the ruler, rather than a codified set of laws, this process is the arbitrary rule of a single individual. Han Fei argues that there will be disastrous results due to ad hoc decision-making, relationship-based decision-making, and decision-making based on prior moral commitments. I lay out Han Fei’s arguments while demonstrating how Xunzi can successfully counter them. In doing so, I argue that Xunzi lays out a political theory restricting the actions of the ruler through both the use of ritual and law, which allows him to develop a theory that legitimizes government while at the same time constraining itself. Xunzi’s political theory makes important strides in its attempt to recognize the importance of the ruler as a moral exemplar while also restricting his control in the political process.

Han Fei on the Role of Morality in Political Philosophy
in Paul R. Goldin, ed., Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Han Fei. New York: Springer, 2013, pp. 107-131.

In much of pre-Qin political philosophy, including those thinkers usually labeled Confucian, Daoist, or Mohist, at least part of the justification of the political state comes from their views on morality, and the vision of the good ruler was quite closely tied to the vision of the good person. In an important sense, for these thinkers, political philosophy is an exercise in applied ethics. Han Fei, however, offers an interesting break from this tradition, arguing that, given the vastly different goals of moral theory and political theory, it would be disastrous to rely upon the former to undergird the latter. He develops a distinctly amoral political philosophy that avoids many of the problems he sees as arising from a reliance on particular virtues on the part of the ruler or others within the state. In this paper, I analyze the source of normativity in Han Fei’s political philosophy, arguing that he demonstrates a keen understanding of the problems inherent in any system that relies upon moral standards to develop a strong, stable, and prosperous state. Rather, he demonstrates how an understanding of human nature, along with a recognition of facts about the natural world, allows for the development of a non-moral political philosophy that relies on a systematic bureaucracy and an inviolate system of law, one which will be much more successful, he believes, than anything his competitors can construct.

Is the Law in the Way? On The Source of Han Fei's Laws
in the Journal of Chinese Philosophy March 2011, vol. 38, no. 1, pp. 73-87.

 In this paper, I analyze the ‘Da ti’ chapter of the Han Feizi 韓非子. This chapter is often read as one of the so-called Daoist Chapters of text. However, a deeper study of this chapter allows us to see that, while Daoist terminology is employed, it is done so in a way that is certainly not reminiscent of either the Zhuangzi 莊子 or the Laozi 老子. Neither, though, does it have quite the flavor of other chapters in the Han Feizi where scholars have often read Han Fei s advocating a system of government based on laws promulgated by the ruler, the content of which is left solely to the ruler’s discretion.

Throughout, I work to demonstrate that a reading of the ‘Da ti’ chapter allows us to understand that Han Fei is not simply advocating a system of government based on laws promulgated by the ruler, the content of which is left solely to the ruler’s discretion. This chapter can help us begin to understand that Han Fei has a much more nuanced system and that he advocates law that accords with the overarching pattern of the universe. In doing this, I will show that the idea of fa 法 (standard, law) that we see utilized by Han Fei, both in these chapters do not fall neatly into Western conceptions of law, and thus previous scholars who have worked based on these conceptions have missed important aspects of Han Fei’s thought. I also attempt to demonstrate that this interpretation of law is consistent with the way that it is used in the rest of the Han Feizi.

The Nature of the Virtues in Light of the Early Confucian Tradition
in Julia Tao, Philip J. Ivanhoe, and Kam-por Yu eds., Taking Confucian Ethics Seriously: Contemporary Theories and Applications, Albany: SUNY Press, 2010, 163-182.

 Here, I take a prominent and plausible conception of virtues from the Western tradition, apply it to some early Confucian texts, and see where it succeeds and fails. In this way, I hope to be able to show how this conception of virtues needs to be revised. The particular conception of virtues I am starting with is one of virtues as correctives that was made prominent by Philippa Foot in her paper “Virtues and Vices.” On Foot’s account, “the virtues are corrective, each one standing at a point at which there is some temptation to be resisted or deficiency of motivation to be made good.” This conception captures certain aspects of the virtues. However, I demonstrate that virtues that are often thought of as correctives are not best characterized in this way, at least on the general understanding of correctives. I do this in two ways. First I show that being a corrective is only a contingent feature of these virtues. Second, I demonstrate that ‘self-love’, which carries many similarities to other so-called corrective virtues, is a plausible candidate for the status of virtue while not being a corrective, even in a contingent way. This claim about the plausibility of ‘self-love’ as a virtue is one that Foot explicitly denies. In addition, I show that there is another class of virtues that the idea of virtues as correctives completely misses. I will call this class of virtues ‘inclinational virtues.’ Finally, I explain why expecting the notion of a corrective to accommodate the idea of inclinational virtues is unwise.