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MC7.2 Languages of Political Legitimation

Languages of Political Legitimation in Early Modern East Asia

Coordination: David Mervart, Hans Martin Krämer


This project is an attempt to clarify some conceptual difficulties regarding the category of ‘political legitimacy’ applied to the relevant material from major non-western traditions, like those of the pre-modern moral and political discourse of Japan and China.

Since the terms of the discourse on government in these different intellectual environments did not produce tendencies which might register as liberal, and since the legal and moral idiom of liberal regard for individual rights and freedom represents the central theoretical and normative framework for modern politics, the overwhelming impression is that their notions of society and polity are not just pre-modern, but also anti-modern, not just non-liberal, but illiberal. In the course of the global modernity, the legal intuition of concern for rights and liberties has raised claim to the universal relevance and validity independent of cultural and historical context. Therefore, a simple absence of such liberal agenda tends to be implicitly taken for an opposition to it. As a result, scholars tend to phrase their general grasp on the Tokugawa or Qing statecraft discourse in terms tainted with teleologies of liberal modernity.

But to write such Whig histories of non-western political thought is not only to write bad history, it is also to display a considerable poverty of conceptual imagination. The modern liberal democratic state may be a uniquely successful contender for the global trophy of political legitimacy. But before it emerged, along with its theoretical justification, from the troubled western history of recent centuries, and even since then, outside of the scope of the Occidental world, there existed other terms of political self-understanding, other sets of articulations of the basic legitimation demand. These other discourses need to be engaged in a way that takes them seriously as past candidates for coherent accounts of legitimating principles and goals of political societies, not as more or less successful approximations of the favoured values of liberal modernity.

To achieve that, we need to proceed along the dual track of critical historical and philological analysis on one hand, and a methodological revision of the tools of that very analysis on the other. The result should be not an ‘Asian studies’ enquiry into some peculiar, area-specific mode of political experience, but rather an incorporation of overlooked articulations and conceptualisations of political experience into the range of intuitions and historical examples that inform the disciplinary culture of mainstream political theory and political science in general.