If you are interested in any of my articles, please email me at eirik.harris (at) colostate.edu and I’ll send you a copy.
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.
- “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
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.
ARTICLES & BOOK CHAPTERS
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.
(In Amber Griffioen and Marius Backmann, eds., Pluralizing Philosophy’s Past: New Reflections in the History of Philosophy. New York: Palgrave, 2023.)
(In Adventures in Chinese Realism)
(In Adventures in Chinese Realism)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ 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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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)