Rational Choice Analysis in Classical Chinese Political Thought: The Han Feizi

Polity 40 (1):95-119 (2008)
Area specialists and others have criticized the rational choice approach to political analysis as culture-bound, reflecting a modern western ethnocentric perspective. A study of the Han Feizi, the main text of the classic Chinese Legalist school, shows that the approach applies in cultural contexts greatly different from the contemporary west, and that it can be used to analyze not simply democratic politics but also the politics of despotism. The Han Feizi also makes clear, however, that rationality cannot be understood in the abstract, but only in the context of what the text calls the shi (roughly, “circumstances”). The more useful forms of political analysis are not restricted to a reconstruction of what is rational, but trace out the characteristics of the shi—the political, historical, cultural, and psychological context conditioning action and defining, at least in part, what constitutes rationality.
Keywords Han Fei  Chinese Legalism  Rational Choice
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