Philosopher Kings and Oriental Despots

Leibniz and the Enlightenment Debate Concerning China

Public lecture by Eric S. Nelson Associate Professor of Humanities, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

In this paper, I discuss the ethical-political and political theological contexts of Leibniz’s reception and interpretation of Chinese political culture and thought.

This study examines Leibniz’s political philosophy and “political theology” in order to clarify how he interpreted the Chinese political system and Confucian political thought as providing a model of benevolent enlightened kingship rooted in natural theology in the context of the early Enlightenment.

This approach - articulated with varying degrees of enthusiasm in thinkers such as Leibniz, Wolff, Bilfinger, Justi, Diderot, and Voltaire - would in the later and post-Enlightenment period - in thinkers such as Herder, Meiners, Kant, and Hegel - become an instance of the abuses of absolute power and represent the obedience and heteronomy of the ancien régime as much as of the “Orient.” The Western idea of China as an ahistorical and timeless regime of “Oriental despotism” and was subsequently shaped by disputes over the appropriate relationship between politics and religion and enlightened monarchy and popular self-determination during the long eighteenth-century.


Eric S. Nelson is Associate Professor of Humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. His areas of teaching and research include modern European, East Asian, and intercultural/comparative philosophy.

Nelson is the author of Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought (Bloomsbury, 2017) and is currently working on a funded project on the early modern German reception of Chinese philosophy.

He has published over seventy articles and book chapters on Chinese, German, and Jewish thought. He is the co-editor with François Raffoul of the Bloomsbury Companion to Heidegger (Bloomsbury, expanded paperback edition 2016) and Rethinking Facticity (SUNY Press, 2008). He has also co-edited with John Drabinski, Between Levinas and Heidegger (SUNY Press, 2014); with Giuseppe D’Anna and Helmut Johach, Anthropologie und Geschichte: Studien zu Wilhelm Dilthey aus Anlass seines 100. Todestages (Königshausen & Neumann, 2013); and with Antje Kapust and Kent Still, Addressing Levinas (Northwestern University Press, 2005). He has also edited special topic issues of the journals Frontiers of Philosophy in China and the Journal of Chinese Philosophy.