We look forward to Eirik Lang Harris, a specialist in Chinese philosophy and political philosophy, joining the department in January 2021. Chair Matt MacKenzie explains the significance of Harris’ hire, “As an accomplished expert in Chinese philosophy, he continues the department’s long tradition in global philosophies and East Asian Thought.” Harris follows in the footsteps of longtime CSU philosopher Grant Lee (at CSU from 1967-2009) and, most recently, Alexus McLeod.
Q&A with Dr. Eirik Lang Harris
How did you get interested in the philosophical traditions of China?
It was actually a fairly long and winding road for me. While I had long had an interest in China more generally, having spent the last two years of high school in Hong Kong while it was still a British colony, my interests in philosophy and China did not come together until much later. As an undergraduate, I majored in PPE (philosophy, politics & economics) while also studying modern Chinese and spent a semester abroad in Harbin and Beijing, China. I then went to graduate school expecting to write a dissertation contemporary Western political philosophy with a focus on individual rights.
However, for a variety of reasons, I became disillusioned by aspects of how philosophy was being done in my graduate seminars, many of which never connected back to the fundamental questions of how we should live our lives that had drawn me into philosophy in the first place. It was at this time that I happened across a slim volume by Philip J. Ivanhoe on Confucian Moral Self Cultivation. It conveyed to me the realization that the Confucian tradition was grappling with the same questions as I. And, while at times, their answers seemed familiar, at other times they seemed quite alien to me, though I soon began to see the force of their arguments.
I spent months reading secondary literature on Confucianism as well as a range of translations of early Confucian texts and soon realized that I needed to decide whether I would just dabble in this field or make a commitment to it. The latter would involve learning classical Chinese, improving my modern Chinese, and gaining training in Chinese history, culture, and literature as well as solid philosophical training. I ended up taking that route, earning an MA in Asian Languages & Cultures, spending a year in Beijing and another in Taipei, before finally returning to a philosophy department for my PhD. Perhaps paradoxically, my dissertation and subsequent research has focused on a set of anti-Confucian political theorists rather than the Confucians that had initially so intrigued me.
What is your primary research interest? What excites you about it?
Much of my work revolves around questions of the relationship between morality and politics, and in particular a debate in the early Chinese tradition about the relationship between political normativity and moral normativity. We see, for example, the early Confucian thinkers developing what may best be thought of as a “virtue politics” that was undergirded by their virtue-based ethical vision. On the other hand, thinkers like Han Feizi argued that developing a strong, stable, and flourishing state that best supported those within it required a special sort of normativity divorced from the ethical. And, looking more widely throughout the early Chinese tradition, we quickly discover that there are a variety of views on offer between these two extremes.
I find this early Chinese debate fascinating in its own right, but also believe that there are a range of exciting opportunities to apply insights gained from in-depth study of these traditions to a range of contemporary issues in political philosophy. In particular, I’m interested in ways in which these traditions can contribute to questions over the role that tradition, conceptions of the good life, and comprehensive understandings of the good ought to play in the political realm.
You’ve taught most of your career abroad. What was that like, and how has it informed your teaching?
My teaching so far has been primarily in Asia and the diversities that I have experienced through my career to date have not only given me amazing experiences, but also equipped me with a range of skills I can employ anywhere. While at Yonsei University in South Korea, I taught a particularly diverse group of students – a typical class for me included the son of the Iranian ambassador to Korea, the daughter of the owner of the only Korean restaurant in Kabul, Afghanistan, students from Vietnam steeped in communist ideology, Muslim students from Malaysia and Indonesia, Catholic students from the Philippines and Peru, and more. Class discussions had the potential to be extremely fruitful, but required that I come to understand each of my students and their backgrounds sufficiently to help prod them in the appropriate ways by encouraging them to engage with their classmates.
In Hong Kong, I began working with students that had quite a different set of diversities. Many of my students are local students from low income families and they are often the first members of their families to go to university. These factors, coupled with the fact that many of them have long commutes to and from university has led to its own unique set of challenges. Here, my work with students is often at the level of convincing them of the importance of their studies and how doing well at university can provide them with the sorts of opportunities they have long thought were not possible for them.
Perhaps the most important aspect of my this, then, is that it has provided me with the ability to recognize that each of my students is different, that they come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and that I cannot enter any classroom with preconceived and set ideas of what my students will be like or what will or will not work to engage their interests. As such, I am more able to take cues from my students, whatever their background, that enable me to increase my chances of reaching them and providing them with real opportunities to gain from my courses.
What kinds of classes will you be teaching at CSU? What do you most want students to learn through studying philosophy?
I will be teaching a range of courses that cover the non-Western world, from Introduction to World Philosophies to Philosophies of East Asia to more advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in Chinese philosophy. One of my primary goals throughout my courses at all levels is to help students gain a toolbox of skills that allow them to become more critical reasoners, better able to analyze evaluate evidence, analyze arguments, and develop arguments supporting their own world views while remaining (or increasing) their receptiveness to the possibility that their own views may need refining.
Indeed, one of the great things about teaching students about philosophical ideas and cultures far removed from their own is that it can be particularly effective at reaching this goal. I ask my students to confront traditions and philosophical ideas that take as their background a wide range of assumptions about the world and our place in it that can at times be radically different from our own. And by challenging my students to come to understand why these thinkers came up with the ideas, arguments, and philosophies that they did, I hope to shake them from a relatively common complacency and force them to step back and interrogate even their most closely held beliefs about what gives meaning to life and permits us to live in ways that allow for broader human flourishing.
How do you feel about moving back to the states, and joining the CSU faculty?
It has been a decade since I lived in the States, and I am really looking forward to it. In particular, the wide-open spaces of Colorado are quite appealing for a farm boy who has the past numerous years living in one of the most densely populated cities in the world! But even more attractive to me than this is the group of people I will be joining at CSU. The CSU philosophy department is one of the most diverse departments to be found anywhere in the world, and few if any can match its diversity in philosophical areas that have traditionally been under-valued and under-represented in the Western academy. And, to my mind, having this diversity not only provides amazing benefits for our students but also unparalleled opportunities for my own research. (If you ask my wife, however, she’ll tell you that we’re moving for the beer!)