Work in Progress

Books in Progress:

Dai Zhen

I am working on a book-length study of the ethics of the Qing dynasty master philosopher and philologist (and mathematician, and astronomer...) Dai Zhen (1724-1777). There is no book in English devoted solely to Dai’s philosophy, so much of this manuscript is just the legwork and exegesis required to understand his basic project. But my particular focus is Dai’s understanding of the relationship between desire and moral deliberation. Dai is somewhat distinctive among Chinese thinkers in holding that robust, self-interested desires are essential constituents of virtuous character traits and behavior. I explicate the arguments for this view and show how they divide the work of moral deliberation between different faculties of cognition, emotional simulation, and moral perception.

Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction, with Stephen C. Angle

This book introduces readers to a broad range of Confucian philosophers who wrote after the rise of Buddhism in China. Almost all of them saw their work as defending Confucianism against the pernicious ethical implications of Buddhist spirituality and theories of salvation. In spite of their overt opposition to these facets of Buddhism, most of them quietly adopted Buddhist ideas in other areas of philosophical thought, especially metaphysics and moral psychology. The result was China’s most prolific and wide-ranging philosophical tradition, which dominated the philosophical scenes from the 13th Century to the fall of imperial China. The best-known Neo-Confucians were highly sophisticated, but, like many of the highly sophisticated medieval and contemporary philosophers in the West, readers must have a certain amount of background and proficiency with technical terms in order to understand them. Our book attempts to provide readers with these, and also with a sense of what motivated the Neo-Confucians to argue about the particular topics they found so important. We focus on points of dispute more than points of agreement, on the assumption that the tradition is unified in large part by the topics that they considered worthy of philosophical debate, rather than merely by shared views or assumptions.

Papers in Progress:

Xunzi among the Chinese Neo-Confucians

A 59-page study of the Neo-Confucian response to Xunzi, the great classical Confucian philosopher that most Neo-Confucians saw as an unorthodox spokesperson for the tradition, in large part because he thought human beings morally bad by nature. I survey the major Neo-Confucian philosophers, reconstructing their evolving critique of Xunzi and highlighting some noteworthy points of agreement, particularly in matters of political philosophy. I then argue that the Neo-Confucians erred by accepting the debate about human nature on Xunzi’s terms, assuming that for it to be morally good the basic powers of ethical perception and motivation must be fully formed by nature. I also unearth and then unpack some forgotten critiques of Xunzi's moral psychology, particularly his views about the epistemic virtue of “stillness of mind” (jing o), which they thought psychologically impossible without positing that morally good drives have a distinctive source, feel and motivational power that are more or less hard wired. This paper has been accepted for publication in The Dao Companion to Xunzi, edited by Eric Hutton.

Rights as a fallback apparatus

A contribution to the ongoing debate about Confucian precedents for modern rights talk. Most sides of the debate agree on what I call a “fallback apparatus” account of would-be Confucian rights, where rights become a part of moral discourse only when preferred mechanisms (familial love, neighborly concern, tradition, etc.) have failed. I show that rights in this sense are understood as grounds for a particular kind of claiming practice, where rights are claimed as such and claimed primarily by their rights-holders. I argue that rights so understood are inconsistent with the basic doctrines of classical Confucianism. I also observe that liberal rights thinkers often hold fallback accounts of their own, and note salient differences between some of these and their Confucian alternative.


On the back or middle burner is a translation of and commentary on Dai Zhen’s Evidential Analysis of the Meanings of Terms in the Mengzi (Mengzi Ziyi Shuzheng xC), the book that came to define him.

Finished works:

My only finished works are the essays and books under cover, which can be found on my cv.