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


Adventures in Chinese Realism: Classic Philosophy Applied to Contemporary Issues
Edited with Henrique Schneider. Forthcoming March 2022, SUNY Press.

What is Chinese Realism and how to update its research program? Realism analyses the world as it is – not as it should be. Realists, then, propose dealing with actual, real-world problems using actual, real-world instruments, such as incentives, rewards, and punishments. Once a major power in classical Chinese philosophy, Realism, or Legalism, fell out of favor early on in Chinese history. Its ideas, however, remain alive and powerful. This edited volume shows that many of the Legalist recipes for creating strength, security, and order can still be applied today.  Whether in international relations or corporate ethics, whether in the organization of the public sector or in the role that bureaucrats and politicians play, Realism offers unique ways of aligning these inherently particularistic actions with the broader common good.

Included Essays:

  • “Daoist Realism: The Challenge to the School of Law in the Radical Lao-Zhuang Tradition and Its Lessons for Realist Theories of International Relations,” John A. Rapp
  • “The Han Feizi and the Presidential Bubble,”  Gordon Mower
  • “Han Fei and Ethics in the Corporate Realm,” Eirik Lang Harris
  • “Applying Han Fei’s Critique of Confucianism to Contemporary Confucian Meritocracy,” Huang Zujie Jeremy
  • “The Legal Vocation of Chinese Scholar-officials: A Plan for Reform,” Kenneth Winston
  • “Hegemony: China’s Foreign Policy through Han Feizian Lenses,” Henrique Schneider
  • “Politics, Language, and Mind in Early Chinese Legalist Ideas: Focusing on the Comparison of Shen Buhai with Han Fei,” Soon-ja Yang
  • “Chinese Legalist Analysis of German Administrative Law – Tripolar Action Modes Re-Conceptualized Rulership,” Philipp Renninger
  • “Han Fei’s Genealogical Arguments,” Lee Wilson
  • “Amoral Desert? Han Fei’s Theory of Punishment,” Eirik Lang Harris
  • “Ideal Interpretation of Political Texts,” Al Martinich
The Shenzi Fragments: A Philosophical Analysis and Translation
New York: Columbia University Press, 2016

Available from Columbia University Press, Amazon, and BookDepository.

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.

Most investigations of the great pre-Qin political philosopher Han Fei begin their analysis of his thought by investigating three facets of his philosophy: law, positional power, and administrative techniques. While understanding these concepts is essential to understanding Han Fei’s thought, beginning with them and interpreting them in light Han Fei’s predecessors to whom their origin is often attributed may lead us to an inaccurate understanding of Han Fei’s thought as a whole. This chapter argues that in order to understand Han Fei’s political philosophy, it is essential to come to a deeper understanding of his conception of the dao (way) and how it undergirds this philosophy. In this preliminary attempt to understand Han Fei’s conception of the dao, I argue that he sees this dao as underlying all natural and human processes and that his advice to the ruler about the various methods, laws, and techniques that are appropriate are all aimed in ensuring that the members of the community act in the ways that will best ensure the community’s survival, particularly in instances in which the members would otherwise be disinclined to so act. Han Fei, then, uses his conception of the dao as the basis for constructing a mechanical bureaucratic and legal leviathan to which the ruler plays the role of the phantom oiler. Emulating the cosmic dao while at the same time tying all his tools back to this dao, the ruler remains a mysterious figure, one whose image is made all the more awesome by the inevitability of his reactions to those within the state whose actions do not accord with his conception of the dao.

Morality vs. Impartial Standards in the Shenzi Fragments

In Yuri Pines, ed. Dao Companion to China’s fa traditions: The Philosophy of Governance by Impartial Standards. New York: Springer, forthcoming 2024.

This chapter examines a variety of discussions in Shenzi Fragments that might lead one to think that there is some sort of morality undergirding its political philosophy including: 1) positive references to conventional virtues, 2) an advocacy of according with the overarching Way, and 3) the development of a form of state consequentialism. While it would be possible to construct moral reasons in support of each of these three positions, the Shenzi Fragments does not do so. Rather, as this chapter argues, the justification of each of these positions arises from practical considerations of political order. The normativity at work, then is political in nature, rather than moral.

Human Motivations in the fa Traditions
In Yuri Pines, ed. Dao Companion to China’s fa traditions: The Philosophy of Governance by Impartial Standards. New York: Springer, forthcoming 2024.

This chapter argues that the Shenzi Fragments, Shangjunshu, and Han Feizi all contend that, from the perspective of creating and maintaining political order, the most effective method is for the state to employ the already existing motivations of those over whom it rules. Once human motivations are understood, it becomes a relatively simple task to channel those motivations to get people to act in ways that the state wishes. Implicit in this claim are at least two other commitments: 1) whatever the content of human motivations, this content is sufficiently similar across all human beings that the methods employed to channel it need not vary person by person and 2) human motivations are fairly stable, and their content does not shift in any appreciable way over time. Whether these texts think it is possible to change such motivations, is less clear, though they all argue that attempts to do so at the political level will lead to disaster. While important differences arise amongst these three texts, they are most often differences in focus and detail.

Normativity of War and Peace: Thoughts from the Han Feizi
In Sumner B. Twiss, Ping-cheung Lo, and Benedict Chan, eds., Warfare Ethics in Comparative Perspective: China and the West, London: Routledge, 2024, 113-125.

Throughout the text of the Han Feizi, we see opposition to traditional (and often Confucian) perspectives on a wide range of state activities, both internally and externally. This antipathy towards the traditional morally-based criteria for justifying state actions extends to the questions of when, how, and if to wage war. In what we may today think of as reasoning akin to Western conceptions of political realism, Han Fei argues that considerations of morality have no place, either in questions of war and peace or, indeed, in broader questions of politics more generally.
This is not, though, to say that Han Fei is uninterested in broader questions of when ware and peace are justified. However, such justifications are based not to be justified by appeal to moral concerns. Rather, the fundamental question to be answered is how the strength, security, and flourishing of the state would be affected by warfare. By viewing questions of war and peace from the perspective of state consequentialism, Han Fei believes that we can ascertain the answers to questions not only about when and if to engage in warfare, but also to questions of what particular actions can be justified within the context of war.

Fanaticism in Classical Chinese Philosophy

In Paul Katsafanas, ed. Fanaticism and the History of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2023, 51-64.

In early Chinese philosophical discussions, a range of prominent philosophers developed conflicting moral and political philosophies and evinced, at times, a certitude of the correctness of their views that leave the reader with the strong impression that no evidence could be proffered that would lead to a chance of these views. Furthermore, in a wide variety of ways, acting on any of these views requires both substantial and comprehensive changes in one’s actions and values in both the personal and political spheres. These elements have led some to describe such philosophers as fanatics, and the political views espoused as fanatical. Without pre-judging the appropriateness of such descriptions, this paper works to examine the philosophical insights that may be gained by turning the lens of (Western) conceptions of fanaticism on a range of early Chinese philosophers.

Developing Political Realism: Some Ideas from Classical China

In Amber Griffioen and Marius Backmann, eds., Pluralizing Philosophy’s Past: New Reflections in the History of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave, 2023, 63-76.

While most discussions of political realism in the West draw their inspiration from thinkers such as Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes, they were far from the only political theorists developing such an approach. Rather, we see realist approaches to politics not only in a vast array of European thinkers throughout history, but also in in a diverse range of non-European traditions. From Kautilya’s 2nd c. BCE Sanskrit classic to the eponymously named Han Feizi from China, a variety of realist visions were developed alongside arguments detailing structural problems in the more idealist political visions of their rivals. One such thinker, whose ideas have largely been lost to the contemporary world was the Chinese philosopher Shen Dao (c. 350-275 BCE).

One of the most philosophical intriguing arguments Shen Dao develops focuses on the sources of political resentment and the necessity of eliminating them as a prerequisite to a strong and stable society and state. This essay develops Shen Dao’s argument that resentment arises not merely when people’s desires are not fulfilled but rather when there was an expectation that they could have been fulfilled and work to demonstrate how he envisions eliminating sources of resentment in the political sphere. In doing so, it engages with much more prevalent Confucian views, demonstrating that Shen Dao presents a trenchant criticism of one of the very bases of Confucian political philosophy and, indeed any political theory that develops itself from moral foundations.

This paper closes with an analysis of how Shen Dao’s ideas may be brought into conversation with those of political realists more familiar to a Western audience, with a goal of “pursuing the ideal of working with similarities in differences and differences in similarities.” In particular it raises the question for students of why the worries of resentment were not foregrounded in the West in the way that they were by Chinese realists. This provides students with entry into examining the ways in which different cultures approach very similar topics and allows us to more deeply reflect not only on why certain things were emphasized in a particular tradition but why others were de-emphasized or seemingly ignored.

Amoral Desert: Han Fei's Theory of Punishment

In Adventures in Chinese Realism

This paper argues that Han Fei provides us with a theory of punishment that needs not rely upon any sort of moral justification. Furthermore, feelings, including those of disgust, resentment, and anger, are completely irrelevant to the question of punishment. Rather, punishment is simply seen as a mechanistic tool that is employed when some aspect of the political system breaks down, such as when a minister’s proposals do not match their deeds or their deeds do not match their job description. These ideas are quite closely tied to his views on desert, a concept of desert quite different from what we see in the West. Not only does his view lack certain elements that Western desert theorists such as Joel Feinberg consider essential to the very concept of desert, he is quite conscious of this lack and provides a defense of his view. In particular, he offers a conception of desert that does not require that it be conceptually and morally prior to social institutions. As such, Han Fei provides us with a unique lens through which to analyze punishment and its justification that is importantly different from either retributivist or consequentialist justifications.

Han Fei and Ethics in the Corporate Realm

In Adventures in Chinese Realism

There is a wide array of contemporary arenas toward which the ideas of Han Fei may be directed. One of these is the arenas where Han Fei may potentially be of use is that of corporate and business ethics. Even if we disagree with Han Fei’s pessimistic assumptions about human dispositions and the plausibility of moral cultivation, we may find such a framework useful for analyzing how businesses, corporations, indeed any sort of bureaucracy can and should function. Milton Friedman was of course famous for his claim that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business―to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.” On this account, businesses not only do, but should act in a fashion which bears stark similarities to how Han Fei believes that human dispositions lead them to act at the individual level. He then draws a range of conclusions from this, and it is worth exploring the extent to which these conclusions are useful as we determine how to analyze, evaluate, organize, and limit corporate behavior.

Harmony and Nature - Thoughts from Laozi and Shen Dao

In Sai Hang Kwok, Dascha Düring, and Chenyang Li, eds., Harmony in Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Introduction. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021, 193-209.

The idea of harmony is valued in a wide variety of ways by a wide variety of thinkers in early China. It is certainly most prominent in Confucian texts, for which it is a clear and distinctive good both morally and politically. However, Daoist texts like the Laozi and Zhuangzi also have normative visions that can be conceptualized in terms of harmony. Indeed, harmony has an important role to play even in much more ‘realist’ texts such as the Shenzi Fragments and the Han Feizi.

This chapter shall juxtapose the ideas of harmony that can be drawn out of the Laozi with those found in the Shenzi Fragments in order to further our understanding of the roles that conceptions of harmony have played, and potentially provide us with insights valuable for the contemporary search for harmony. In brief, this chapter has two broad parts. Part 1 shows important similarities in the understandings of heaven, earth, and the natural world in the Laozi and the Shenzi. More importantly, the conceptions of harmony found in each text arise from seeing that understanding and according with the natural world is essential for achieving harmony. Part 2 argues that while these two texts share a similar conception of the natural world, they diverge in their understanding of what human beings are fundamentally like. The Laozi believes that it is possible to recover an unadulterated set of natural dispositions, that include quite limited desires. This allows it to argue that social harmony can be achieved through non-coercive means, that it is possible for people to ‘just get along.’ The Shenzi, on the other hand, will argue that a fundamental and substantive core of self-interest is to be found in human dispositions and this can never be eradicated.  It is not a social accretion but is rather what humans fundamentally are like. As such, on the Shenzi’s account, if a social harmony is to be achieved it must be externally imposed and maintained.

A Han Feizian Worry with Confucian Meritocracy – and a Non-Moral Alternative
In Culture and Dialogue, 8.2, 2020, 342-362.

The most prominent advocacy of political meritocracy in recent years has come from those who see themselves inspired by the Confucian philosophical tradition. Unfortunately, they often ignore competing Chinese visions of political meritocracy and direct challenges to the Confucian vision from within the Chinese tradition.

The Confucian conception of political merit is intertwined to its conception of morality and as such virtue is seen as an essential component. To defend such a position and its applicability, they need to show both that inculcation of virtue is possible and that these virtues are politically relevant. One prominent historic critic of Confucianism, Han Feizi, worries about both claims. While agreeing that political merit matters and that ministers and bureaucrats should be chosen on the basis of their merit, he has a vastly different conception of what constitutes politically relevant merit, one that is both is both task specific and amoral in nature.

What Confucians fail to grasp, thinks Han Feizi, is that what leads to virtue is non-identical to what leads to a well-ordered, flourishing state. At times, a choice must be made between following morality and securing the state. Insofar as Confucianism requires moral virtue as a core component of merit, it not only misidentifies what constitutes politically relevant merit, it focuses on and characterizes as meritorious traits that are actually detrimental to a well-ordered and flourishing state.

Mohist Naturalism
In The Philosophical Forum, Vol. 51, issue 1, Spring 2020, 17-31.

In this paper (available here), I examine the plausibility of two distinct but interrelated claims that might arise out of reading the Mozi . First, I want to examine the plausibility of understanding Mohist philosophy as quite naturalistic, notwithstanding the Mozi’s apparent discussion of a Heaven (tian 天) that has desires, likes, and dislikes and ghosts and spirits who do Heaven’s bidding. In this vein, I wonder if the Mohists think that it is simply a fact of the universe that Heaven cares for all humans impartially, in much the same way that certain other thinkers in the Chinese tradition understand Heaven as having a set of regularities that can be understood and acted upon. Arising from this may be the idea that the right thing to do, in a hypothetical rather than categorical sense, is to accord with Heaven.

This then leads to the second part of this paper – questioning the substantive moral normativity often ascribed to the Mozi. Once we remove the supra-natural understanding of Heaven from Mohist thought, we may understand the normativity within as a non-moral normativity. Perhaps it is not that we morally ought to accord with Heaven’s will and act impartially or morally ought to accord with the natural world and follow the Dao. Rather, these can simply be seen as success criteria. Insofar as we wish to have a strong, flourishing, and prosperous state – or, in the Mozi’s terms a wealthy, populous and well-ordered state – it is necessary to accord with how the world is actually structured.

Critiquing Heavily Normative Conceptions of Harmony - Thoughts from the Han Feizi
In the Journal of Confucian Culture and Philosophy, Vol. 33, February 2020, 155-179.

The idea of harmony is valued in a wide variety of ways by a wide variety of thinkers in early China. It is certainly most prominent in Confucian texts, for which it is a clear and distinctive good both morally and politically. However, texts like the Laozi and the Zhuangzi also have normative visions that can be conceptualized in terms of harmony. Furthermore, harmony has an important role to play even in much more ‘realist’ texts such as the Han Feizi.

This paper argues that it is possible to think through Han Fei’s political system from the perspective of a broader concept of harmony, and that in doing so, several important points may be revealed. First, insofar as harmony has a positive role to play, it must be systematized and turned into an objective standard. Second, this objective standard must be hooked up to the overarching cosmic dao, and third, this conception of harmony is necessarily stripped of any moral normativity.

Thinking through harmony in this way may have a range of benefits not only for understanding the concept in its original historical context, but also in thinking through ways in which it may be of value today. It will perhaps force us to realize that there are a range of incompatible conceptions of harmony. As such, there may be a need to evaluate the disputations over these various conceptions of harmony as we try to ascertain what, if anything, from them may profitably be brought into conversation with contemporary political philosophy. (Paper available here.)

Xunzi on the Role of the Military in a Well-Ordered State
In Journal of Military Ethics, vol. 18, issue 1, June 2019, 48-64.

This essay (available here) examines Xunzi’s analysis of the role of the military. Chapter 15 of the Xunzi stands as the most comprehensive account of the early Confucian analysis of warfare. Unlike a range of other early, non-Confucian discussions on warfare, particular strategies and tactics are taken to be of secondary importance. Thus, Xunzi refuses to discuss practical military strategy without framing it within a much broader ethical, social, and political context. On his account, a well-ordered, flourishing state necessarily rests upon a particular set of rituals and social norms in which people can cultivate themselves morally. Such a state has nothing to fear from any enemy, no matter how tactically sophisticated or militarily skilled.

To many, such a view seems overly. However, given that Xunzi is anything but Pollyannaish in other parts of the text and is quite pessimistic about human nature in general, it behooves us to dig a bit more deeply into his ideas about military affairs and examine whether they can be understood in a more plausible light. This article provides a reading of Xunzi’s views on military affairs that is internally consistent and corresponds with Xunzi’s broader ethical and political views, while also showing why someone of Xunzi’s obvious intellectual acumen might hold such a view.

Relating the Political to the Ethical - Thoughts on Early Confucian Political Theory
In Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, vol. 18, no. 2, June 2019.

This essay (available here) examines the role that the the ethical plays in early Confucian political philosophy. By focusing primarily on the political thought of Xunzi, I argue that there is a necessary relationship between ethical ideas and political ideas in texts such as the Analects, Mengzi, and Xunzi. In particular, I argue against a more ‘realist’ reading of the tradition which argues that for early Confucians political order was not only a goal independent of ethical goals but also one in which morality had no role to play. In doing so, I show that interpreting the early Confucians constructing their political thought on top of the scaffolding of their ethical views allows us to make more sense of the broader array of ideas on the political realm appearing throughout these texts.

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 (available here) 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 (available here) 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. (Available here)

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. (Available here)

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. (Available here)

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. (Available here)

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. (Available here)

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 (available here), 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. (Volume available here)


Han Feizi

In Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden (eds.), Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (3 ed., Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing), 323-81.

Here I offer a full translation of the following chapters of the Han Feizi:

  • Ch. 5 – The Way of the Ruler
  • Ch. 6 – Having Standards
  • Ch. 7 – The Two Handles
  • Ch 12 – The Difficulty of Persuasion
  • Ch 27 – Employing the People
  • Ch. 29 – The Great Whole
  • Ch. 40 – A Critique of the Doctrine of Positional Power
  • Ch. 43 – Establishing Methods of Government
  • Ch. 49 – The Five Vermin
  • Ch. 50 – On the Illustrious Schools of Thought

As well as a translation of short sections of the following chapters:

  • Ch. 32 – Collected Illustrations • Outer Part • Upper Left Section
  • Ch. 35 – Collected Illustrations • Outer Part • Lower Right Section
  • Ch. 47 – Eight Explanations
Manifesto on Behalf of Chinese Culture

This partial translation of Mou Zongsan, Xu Fuguan, Zhang Junmai, & Tang Junyi’s “Manifesto on Behalf of Chinese Culture Respectfully Announced to the People of the World” (selections), in Justin Tiwald and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds. Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014. (Due to inability to locate copyright holder, currently available only on Hackett’s website. Planned for inclusion in print version of 2nd edition).