Associate Professor Karyn Lai

Associate Professor
BA Hons, MA Hons (NUS), PhD, Philosophy (Sydney)
School of Humanities & Languages


9385 1194
Room 326, Morven Brown
Fields: History and Philosophy of Specific Fields, Philosophy, Environmental Philosophy
Tags: Expanding Knowledge in Philosophy and Religious Studies


Dr Karyn Lai is Associate Professor of Philosophy in the School of History and Philosophy. Karyn Lai’s primary research area is in early (pre-Qin) Confucian and Daoist philosophies. Her books include Learning from Chinese Philosophies (2006. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing) and Introduction to Chinese Philosophy (2008. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press). She is co-Editor (with Vincent Shen) of the “Chinese Comparative Philosophy” section of the journal, Philosophy Compass, published by Blackwell.

Her work is often of a comparative nature, drawing insights from Chinese philosophies to address issues in a number of philosophical areas including moral philosophy, environmental ethics, reasoning and argumentation and epistemology.

Current research project

Epistemology in Chinese philosophy. I am currently working on epistemology in the Confucian Analects. While ‘knowing’ in this text is often characterised as ‘knowing-how’ rather than propositional knowledge, I propose that this description is not sufficiently sensitive to the concerns of the early Confucians and their focus on self cultivation. I propose that a particular conception of knowing—knowing to act in the moment—is better suited to capturing the Analects’ emphasis on exemplary lives in actual contexts. These investigations might lead us to re-consider knowing-how in epistemology in western philosophy. In the longer term, I will extend these investigations to other traditions in pre-Qin philosophy.

Current research students and their projects

  • Yuzhou Yang (PhD, Philosophy): Practical Contextualism in Chinese Philosophy
  • Thomas McConochie (PhD, Philosophy): Zhuangzi's Great Thoroughfare
  • Theodore Brooks (PhD, Philosophy)
  • Mindy Xu (PhD, Philosophy): Comparative Bioethics

PhD Completions

  • Winnie Sung, PhD: Xunzi’s Concept of Xin (graduated in 2010; currently post-doc fellow at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore)
  • Ranie Villaver (PhD, Philosophy): Is there a Tension between the Zhuangzi’s Scepticism and its Normative Recommendations?: A Yangist Interpretation of the Neipian (graduated in 2012)
  • Wai Wai Chiu (PhD, Philosophy): Zhuangzi’s Concept of Zhi (knowledge, knowing, wisdom) (graduated in 2013)



    • Lai K, 2013, Learning from Chinese philosophies: Ethics of interdependent and contextualised self
    • Lai KL, 2008, An introduction to Chinese philosophy, 10.1017/CBO9780511800832
    • Lai KL, (ed.), 2007, New Interdisciplinary Perspectives in Chinese Philosophy, 1, Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts, USA,

    Book Chapters

    • Lai KL, 2016, 'Confucian Reliability and Epistemic Agency: Engagements with Feminist Epistemology', in Tan S; Foust M (ed.), Feminist Encounters with Confucius, Brill, Leiden, Boston, pp. 101 - 126,
    • Lai KL, 2016, 'Close Personal Relationships and the Situated Self: The Confucian Analects and Feminist Philosophy', in Pang-white A (ed.), The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Chinese Philosophy and Gender, edn. Bloomsbury Research Handbooks, Bloomsbury Publishing, London and New York, pp. 111 - 126,
    • Lai KL, 2016, 'Confucian Business Ethics: Reliability, Relationships, and Responsiveness', in Sison AJG (ed.), Handbook of Virtue Ethics in Business and Management, edn. 1, Springer, Netherlands, pp. 1 - 10, 10.1007/978-94-007-6729-4_23-1
    • Hetherington S; Lai KL, 2015, 'Knowing-how and knowing-to', in The Philosophical Challenge from China, pp. 279 - 302
    • Lai KL, 2015, 'Cosmology, Divinity and Self-Cultivation in Chinese Thought', in Oppy G (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, edn. 1st, Routledge, Oxon and New York, pp. 93 - 113,
    • Lai K, 2015, 'Daoism and Confucianism', in Dao Companion to Daoist Philosophy, pp. 489 - 511, 10.1007/978-90-481-2927-0_21
    • Lai KL, 2014, 'Dialogue and epistemological humility', in Seibt J; Garsdal J (ed.), How Is Global Dialogue Possible?, edn. Process Thought, vol 24, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, pp. 69 - 84,
    • Lai KL, 2014, 'When good relationships are not enough for business: understanding character in Confucian ethics', in Li C; Ni P (ed.), Moral Cultivation and Confucian Character, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, pp. 235 - 250,
    • Lai KL, 2014, 'Ren 仁: An Exemplary Life', in Olberding A (ed.), Dao Companion to the Analects, edn. 1st, Springer, Heidelberg, New York, London, pp. 83 - 94, 10.1007/978-94-007-7113-0
    • Lai K, 2013, 'Environmental concern: Can humans avoid being partial? Epistemological awareness in the Zhuangzi', in Nature, Environment and Culture in East Asia: The Challenge of Climate Change, pp. 69 - 82, 10.1163/9789004253049_005
    • Lai KL, 2007, 'Classical China', in A Companion to Environmental Philosophy, pp. 21 - 36, 10.1002/9780470751664.ch2
    • Lai KL, 2007, 'Understanding change: The interdependent self in its environment', in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, edn. SUPPL., pp. 81 - 99
    • Lai KL, 2003, 'Confucian Moral Cultivation: Some Parallels with Musical training', in Chong K-C; Tan S-H; Tan CL (ed.), The Moral Circle and the Self: Chinese and Western Approaches, edn. Original, Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, Illinois, pp. 107 - 139,

    Journal articles

    • Lai K, 2016, 'Perkins, Franklin, Heaven and Earth Are Not Humane: The Problem of Evil in Classical Chinese Philosophy', Dao, vol. 15, pp. 135 - 139, 10.1007/s11712-015-9480-8
    • Lai K, 2016, 'Response to Frank Perkins', Dao, pp. 1 - 2, 10.1007/s11712-015-9482-6
    • Lai KL; Chiu WW, 2013, 'Ming in the Zhuangzi Neipian: Enlightened engagement', Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 40, pp. 527 - 543, 10.1111/1540-6253.12052
    • Hetherington S; Lai K, 2012, 'Practising to know: Practicalism and confucian philosophy', Philosophy, vol. 87, pp. 375 - 393, 10.1017/S0031819112000289
    • Lai K, 2012, 'Assessing participation skills: Online discussions with peers', Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 37, pp. 933 - 947, 10.1080/02602938.2011.590878
    • Lai KL, 2012, 'Knowing to act in the moment: Examples from Confucius analects', Asian Philosophy, vol. 22, pp. 347 - 364, 10.1080/09552367.2012.729324
    • Lai KL, 2009, 'Ethics Without Principles', SOPHIA, vol. 48, pp. 77 - 84, 10.1007/s11841-008-0086-z
    • Lai KL, 2008, 'Learning from the Confucians: Learning from the past', Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 35, pp. 97 - 119
    • Lai K, 2007, 'Confucianism and women: A philosophical interpretation', CHINA JOURNAL, vol. 57, pp. 226 - 228,
    • Lai K, 2007, 'Ziran and Wuwei in the Daodejing: An ethical assessment', Dao, vol. 6, pp. 325 - 337, 10.1007/s11712-007-9019-8
    • Lai KL, 2007, 'Review of Antonio S. Cua's Human Nature, Ritual, and History: Studies in Xunzi and Chinese Philosophy', Sophia, vol. 45, pp. 203 - 205, 10.1007/s11841-007-0025-4
    • Lai KL, 2007, 'Understanding Confucian Ethics: reflections on moral development', Australian Journal of Professional and Applied Ethics, vol. 9, pp. 21 - 27
    • Lai K, 2006, 'Li in the Analects: Training in moral competence and the question of flexibility', Philosophy East and West, vol. 56, pp. 69 - 83
    • Lai KL, 2006, 'Philosophy and philosophical reasoning in the Zhuangzi: Dealing with plurality', Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 33, pp. 365 - 374, 10.1111/j.1540-6253.2006.00365.x
    • Lai K, 2003, 'Conceptual Foundations for Environmental Ethics', Environmental Ethics, vol. 25, pp. 247 - 266, 10.5840/enviroethics200325317
    • Lai K, 2003, 'Critical notice of Joel J. Kupperman, learning from Asian philosophy', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 81, pp. 126 - 133, 10.1080/715690945
    • Lai KL, 2003, 'Conceptual foundations for environmental ethics: A Daoist perspective', Environmental Ethics, vol. 25, pp. 247 - 266
    • Lai K, 2000, 'Introduction: Feminism and Chinese philosophy', Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 27, pp. 127 - 130
    • Lai K, 2000, 'The Daodejing: Resources for contemporary feminist thinking', Journal of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 27, pp. 131 - 153
    • LAI KL, 1995, 'CONFUCIAN MORAL THINKING', PHILOSOPHY EAST & WEST, vol. 45, pp. 249 - 272, 10.2307/1399567




Undergraduate courses

Chinese Philosophy


Philosophy of Religion

Reasoning and Argumentation


Graduate student completions

Jasim Uddin, PhD, Interconnectedness as the basis of environmental ethics. Graduated 2004.

Winnie Sung, PhD, Xin in the Xunzi. Graduated 2010.

Ranie Villaver, PhD, Zhuangzi’s Scepticism In Light Of Yangist Ideas. Graduated 2012.

Wai Wai Chiu, PhD, The Idea of zhi in the Zhuangzi. Graduated 2013.

Honours and prizes

Awards and Distinguished Lectures


Representative of the Australian Academy of Humanities (AAH) at the joint conference and MOU treaty with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China, June 2014.

Keynote speaker, Confucius World Consortium, University of Hawai’i, 8-12 October 2014.

Dean’s Award for the Best Contribution to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2011, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UNSW. (Lai, Karyn. 2011. Assessing participation skills: online discussions with peers. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education IFirst: 1-15. (26 Jul 2011) DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2011.590878.)

Keynote speaker. “Practical Reasoning and Ethics in pre-Qin Confucian Philosophy,” International Society for Chinese Philosophy Conference, National Taiwan University, 2009.

Plenary speaker. “Happiness East and West,” Faculty of Arts Strategic Research Theme (China-West Studies), School of Humanities, University of Hong Kong, 2009.

Plenary speaker. “Chinese Philosophy and Moral Psychology,” Division of Humanities, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 2007.

Presidential Address. “Chinese Philosophy and Human Well-Being: Change, Anticipation and Response,” Conference of the International Society for Chinese Philosophy, University of New South Wales, July 2005.

Public Lecture. “Philosophy and Philosophical Reasoning of Zhuangzi ― Dealing with Plurality,” University of Queensland, 2005.

Anthony Mason Fellow, UNSW. Fellowship awarded for international exchange at Beijing University. Feb-July 1999.

Professional contribution

Editor, Chinese Comparative Philosophy Section, Philosophy Compass, A Journal of Peer-reviewed survey articles from across the discipline. Wiley-Blackwell. ISSN: 1747-9991.

Associate Editor, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, ISSN: 0004-8402.

Assistant editor, Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics, Springer Publishing. ISSN: 0038-1527.

Subject Editor, Chinese Philosophy, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Book reviews editor (Asia and Europe) and Editorial Board member, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Wiley-Blackwell. ISSN: 0301-8121.

Advisory Board, Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy (CEACOP), Department of Public and Social Administration, City University of Hong Kong.

Editorial Board member, Frontiers of Philosophy in China. Brill Publishers. ISSN: 1673-3436.

Editorial Board member, Handbooks to Asian Philosophy (PDF), Bloomsbury Publishing.

Affiliations and membership

Membership of Professional Organisations

International Society for Chinese Philosophy (ISCP)

Regional Representative (Australia) (2005- ).

President (2003-2005).

Vice-President (2001-2003).


Australasian Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy

President (2013-)

Other information

Recent Administrative Roles


Elected Faculty Representative, Academic Board (UNSW) 2015 - ongoing

University Promotions Committee (UNSW) 2015 - ongoing

Chair, Bachelor of Arts Degree Program, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (UNSW) 2012-2014

Acting Director, Confucius Institute (UNSW) 2012

Chair, Philosophy Discipline (UNSW) 2009-2011