The Department of East Asian Studies is delighted to introduce our newly arrived faculty member, Chris Fraser. He joined us from the University of Hong Kong in 2021, as Richard Charles and Esther Yewpick Lee Chair in Chinese Thought and Culture. As a specialist in Chinese philosophy, Professor Fraser is jointly appointed in both the Department of East Asian Studies and the Department of Philosophy.
Professor Fraser has obtained degrees from Yale University, National Taiwan University, and the University of Hong Kong. Prior to joining our faculty, he was Professor and Chair in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, which he joined as an associate professor in 2009. Before then, he was appointed as an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 2001 till 2009. He completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, Academia Sinica, Taipei, in 2000.
With a wide range of philosophical interests, Professor Fraser’s research focuses on theories of mind, knowledge, and language in pre-Qin China, and how these fields intersect with contemporary epistemology, action theory, and ethics. His recent publications include The Philosophy of Mozi: The First Consequentialists (Columbia, 2016) and The Essential Mozi: Ethical, Political, and Dialectical Writing (Oxford, 2020). Currently, he is finishing up a book on Daoist thought and also working on a new annotated translation of Zhuangzi 《莊子》.
We asked Professor Fraser some questions in order to gain some insight into his career, work, and life.
Thank you, Professor Fraser for taking the time for this dialogue:
EAS: Could you please tell us what led you to your interest in Chinese philosophy? When did you decide to pursue a career in Chinese philosophy?
CF: As a teenager, I became curious about Chinese thought through connections some writers were drawing at that time between Daoism and Zen Buddhism and sports psychology. I was an athlete and had become interested in performance psychology. This initial curiosity developed into a full-blown interest somewhat later. As an undergraduate, I studied Chinese history and literature. After working in a different field for a few years, I returned to academia to do a Master’s degree concentrating on mainstream analytic philosophy and recent German philosophy. Since I could speak, read, and write Chinese, however, one of my mentors advised me to specialize in Chinese thought, which had remained one of my interests. I took his very wise advice.
EAS: We learned that you have been a faculty member in several universities across Asia. Could you please tell us a little more about your professional experiences?
CF: When I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I was living in Taiwan. The handful of specialists I considered working with in North America had all recently retired, so I stayed in Asia and completed my graduate work at the University of Hong Kong. I was then fortunate to find a series of positions in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I held a postdoc at Academia Sinica in 2000 and was then hired as Assistant Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2001. In 2009 I joined the University of Hong Kong as Associate Professor, and later I was promoted to full Professor.
EAS: Could you please tell us what are your current research interests?
CF: I have a wide range of interests. Most of my publications are in pre-Han philosophy, covering ethics, politics, language, logic, and epistemology and pretty much every school of thought. I have a forthcoming book entitled Late Classical Chinese Thought that covers a range of texts and topics, including neglected texts such as Guanzi 《管子》 and Lv’s Annals 《呂氏春秋》and seldom-treated topics such as early Chinese epistemology. I am now also beginning to do quite a bit of work on later thinkers, especially the history of Chinese political philosophy and the Qing dynasty polymath Dai Zhen 戴震.
EAS: Besides the two most-discussed traditions, Confucianism and Daoism, many of your publications focus on the study of Mohism, a lesser-known ancient tradition in current academic study. What led you to your interests in Mohism? In your opinion, what can the Mohist philosophy teach us today?
CF: I initially started to work on Mohism because I thought we could not understand Xunzi and Zhuangzi thoroughly without first understanding Mohism, and it seemed to me that the secondary literature about twenty years ago was full of serious misunderstandings of Mohism.
Mozi and his followers were fascinating thinkers responsible for many “firsts” in the history of Chinese thought—the first argumentative essays, the first systematic ethical theory, the world’s first version of consequentialism, the first well developed political theory, and the first treatment of early Chinese logic and epistemology. Mohist thought has much to teach us about the strengths and limitations of the sort of clear, standardized, systematic account of the dao that they attempted.
EAS: You have joined UofT last July, what makes you most excited about UofT and Toronto?
CF: That’s easy to answer: the most exciting aspect of my work here so far has been the many wonderful students I’ve encountered in my courses in East Asian Studies and Philosophy. It has been deeply rewarding to work with them.
Random Rapid-Fire Questions
1. What have you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed or were inspired by?
Freedom: How We Lose It and How We Fight Back, by Nathan Law and Evan Fowler.
2. What is your go-to lazy dinner?
Frozen dumplings from the T&T supermarket chain.
3. What is a fun fact about you?
For years, I was practically a part-time academic, as I spent about half my time either sailing or skiing. I seriously considered leaving academia to become a backcountry ski guide in Hokkaido.
4. What is the first thing you want to do after the pandemic?
Return to Hokkaido!
Thank you again, Professor Fraser, for sharing with us these stories about your personal and professional life.
To learn more about Professor Fraser’s work and publications, please visit his academic website: http://cjfraser.net