Research Projects

Traditional Non-Confucian Political Philosophy in East Asia

Although the bulk of the research in traditional East Asian political theory over the past century has focused on various strands of the Confucian tradition, this tradition by no means had a monopoly on political thought in East Asia. Rather, there was a wide range of political thinkers and views expressed, elaborated on, and argued for, including those who traditionally have been divided into the schools of Legalism, Daoism, and Mohism, as well as the more syncretic writings found in texts such as the Guanzi, Lushi Chunqiu, and Huainanzi.

Within these various thinkers we find a range of critiques of Confucian political philosophy, some devastating to certain aspects of this tradition, critiques that must be taken seriously by those assessing the contemporary value and future prospects of the Confucian political tradition. However, the value of these various traditions is not to be found solely in their negative role as critics. Rather, they have a variety of positive roles to play as well, providing a variety of visions not only of what was wrong in the political realm as it existed in their times and why Confucian political thought (and their various other competitors) could not remedy these problems, but also what was necessary to achieve stable and flourishing communities and states.

The Daoist tradition, for example, emphasized, among other things, the role that naturalness must play in any effective political theory. It also not only provided a critique of the insatiable desires for wealth and power of those in control but also a therapeutic method for attempting to alleviate these ‘unnatural’ desires. Further, while self-cultivation plays an important role in Daoist political thought, the form that this cultivation takes and its implication for the realm of politics is importantly different from what is seen in the Confucian tradition.

The Legalist tradition included a group of thinkers who based their political theories not on some abstract ideal but rather on the world as it actually was, attempting, in some cases in a fairly social scientific fashion, to create strong and stable states that did not require the vast cultivation of the populace that Confucian (and Daoist) political theory desired. Further, they developed and advocated not only an extensive legal system but also a highly complex bureaucracy, recognizing that the success of any political model rested not upon a single ruler but rather upon a stable system that could be implemented regardless of who was in charge.

The Mohist tradition as well offers much that is worth study,not the least of which is its model of state consequentialism that had no place for favoritism within the government. Furthermore, while we may believe that the moral psychology underlying his vision of how to unify the wills of the population is too simplistic, his insights on the importance of such unification and the role of various levels of bureaucracy at developing this unification bear our continued consideration.

The aim of this project is to support research into a wide range of traditional non-Confucian political thinkers in East Asia, describing their views, evaluating the plausibility of these views, and exploring the implications of these views for contemporary East Asian political thought.

Project Components:

Conference on Traditional Non-Confucian Perspectives on Social and Political Organization and Order

In March 2014, this project brought together range of eminent scholars from the fields of philosophy, intellectual history, and sinology who have interests in the political thought of pre-Qin through Han Dynasty China and provided us all with an opportunity to dig more deeply into these texts, to come to a better understanding of their meaning and intent, and to trace various currents of political thought through this time period. Not only did the conference provide us with an opportunity to more fully understand and evaluate the political thought of a range of important Chinese political theorists, it also supplied a platform upon which to base subsequent research into how these thinkers may profitably be brought into conversation with contemporary political theory and philosophy. Check out the conference poster here.

Workshop on Political Theory and Theorizing East and West
This workshop, organized with Dr. Sungmoon Kim, was held from 27 February-1 March 2015.

The past decade has seen a proliferation of research into various areas of East Asian political thought, with a variety of interpretations of Confucianism leading the way. In addition to Confucianism, however, there have been a variety of other sophisticated political theories developed in East Asia that have also begun to receive attention from political theorists and historians of political thought. This workshop will bring together a group of eight scholars who wish to develop a deeper understanding of the full resources of the political ideas to be found in the rich intellectual world of East Asia and how they may profitably be brought into discussion with Western political theory. To this end, our group of scholars will include four working primarily within the Western tradition and four working primarily within the East Asian tradition, and both groups will be split between those working primarily in contemporary political theory and those working in the history of their respective traditions.

Our three-day workshop format will allow us to spend 2-3 hours discussing the work of each of the attending scholars, investigating ways that it can be related to the work being done by others, particularly those working within a different tradition, creating a stimulating opportunity for a much richer dialogue, more probing and revealing examinations, and much deeper and enduring insight.

The Shenzi Fragments: A Philosophical Analysis and Translation
(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.

Han Fei’s Political Philosophy

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Confucian political philosophy and numerous attempts to analyze ways in which it may contribute to a political philosophy for East Asia, how it may need to be modified to suit the contemporary context, and how it can contribute to a dialogue with Western political theories. However, Confucianism is only one school of thought from China’s long philosophical history, and there are numerous other political theories from China’s past that have the potential to make important contributions to contemporary debates.

Furthermore, while it is acknowledged that Confucianism faces important challenges that must be overcome in order to profitably come into dialogue with Western political philosophy, there has been little recognition or analysis of the strong challenges it faces from Han Fei. Furthermore, far from merely being a critic of Confucianism, Han Fei advances his own unique positive vision of political organization.

However, his system has rarely been engaged with in an attempt to learn from it. As such, a deeper understanding of Han Fei’s political philosophy can lead to challenges to both Western political theories and Confucian political thought. By reconstructing Han Fei’s philosophy, I demonstrate that it has much to offer those interested in political theory, in Asia as well as in the world at large. He offers us a strong defense of the value of engaging in the history of political philosophy, a claim that is often questioned today. Furthermore, while he does not directly tackle many of the issues that are the central concerns of contemporary political philosophers, often we can, by reconstructing his philosophy and analyzing what his principles commit him to, determine how he would address numerous issues of contemporary interest.

This project certainly does not advocate a return to Han Fei’s political philosophy in its entirety. There are many areas in which Han Fei gets it wrong, and he seems to be blind to certain effective and appealing alternatives. However, by constructively engaging first with Han Fei himself and subsequently with important issues in contemporary political philosophy, this work will demonstrate not only that two vastly different political traditions can profitably be brought into dialogue but that regardless of our final analysis of the viability of Han Fei’s political philosophy, his arguments provide challenges that must be taken seriously by contemporary political philosophers.

This project has recently been funded by a 3-year General Research Fund Grant from Hong Kong’s Research Grant’s Council.