is knowledge? What are its proper objects? What does it mean for the
self to "know" something? How does knowledge mediate between us and
the world of "things" – in what sense does it unite the self with the
external world, and in what sense does it introduce a fissure between
the knower and the known? What is the relationship between knowledge
and perception? What kinds of concepts and images constitute the vocabulary
of cognition and understanding? How and why do the criteria of knowledge
vary among thinkers, as well as between cultures and periods, and with
my paper I will investigate the evolving notion of self in medieval
China, as considered from the standpoint of epistemology. I will begin
by analyzing conceptions and configurations of knowledge found in the
writings of crucial intellectual figures of the Tang and the Song periods,
including Kong Yingda, Zhou Dunyi and Zhang Zai. My task, however, will
involve not only tracing the evolution of the meaning of certain obvious
terms relating to the concepts of knowledge (zhi), wisdom (zhi),
and understanding/illumination (ming), but also a more holistic
inquiry into various related notions of perception, memory, visualization,
and inner self-cultivation.
issue of authenticity lies at the center of these investigations because
shifting paradigms of knowledge represent the fact that existing modes
of understanding the world and the self must invariably lose their immediacy
and relevance, and hence, their ability to connect the self to the realms
of truth and meaning. A reconceptualization of knowledge, itself accompanied
by a reconfiguration of the world, thus makes it possible to recover
the authenticity of experience that is presupposed in the act of uniting
with the world through the process of knowing it. If knowledge has a
history, then so, too, does the ground of authenticity, and the criteria
for determining what constitutes a true encounter between the self and
the "things" of this world, and between the self and its own self-image.
paper will explore the evolving discourse on knowledge and the self
in medieval China at one of its most critical historical junctures,
the period in which the language, logic and ethics of "Neo-Confucianism"
emerged to challenge existing modes of thinking about self, society,
culture, and cosmos, and eventually came to establish itself as orthodoxy.
I will examine this phenomenon alongside intellectual developments in
the medieval European tradition. The advantage to studying this period
(aside from chronological considerations), is the fact that it pre-dates
Cartesian epistemology, which means that prevailing ideas about knowledge
were not as radically different from what existed in pre-modern China
as they would be in the early modern period and later. Among the thinkers
I would like to examine in my study are Augustine, Anselm, and Nicholas
of Cusa, all of whom were crucial figures in the history of knowing
in the medieval west. This kind of cross-cultural perspective is necessary
not only for understanding the trajectory of development in each "tradition"
from a broader historical context, but also for making sense of the
changes that took place within China itself.
the need to approach past traditions from a critical, comparative framework
has become all the more pressing because an unstated cross-cultural
comparison is taking place all the time, one that seeks to understand
the rest of the world against the normative background of the Western
experience. Depending on whether this Western experience is assessed
positively or negatively, the narrative of Chinese intellectual history
has been, ever since the West's preoccupation with China as an object
of study, either a story of the failure and decadence of a civilization,
or a testimony to the remarkable precocity of early Chinese thinkers
– thinkers whose insights have, until now, remained unnoticed and unappreciated.
What little attention the comparative history of epistemology has received
has tended, therefore, to reify both the West and China, and to posit
a dichotomy between a western epistemology that opposes subject and
object, and a "holistic" Chinese one that transcends such absolute distinctions.
The very complexity of the phenomena and issues involved makes the appeal
of such extreme conceptions understandable, but the pervasiveness of
the post-modern critique of Cartesian metaphysics – and the accompanying
desire to demonstrate that China (or the relevant non-Western culture
in question) had already envisioned thousands of years ago what it has
taken the West modernity and post-modernity to achieve – has led to
the construction of an East/West opposition that tends to limit, rather
than expand, the possibilities for understanding.
is with these concerns in mind that I will attempt to conduct my investigation
of the history of knowledge in medieval China and in the West. It is
my hope that, by studying the intellectual history of the Chinese and
European traditions on their own terms, and regarding them in juxtaposition
to one another, we will be able to arrive at an understanding of the
past from the point of view of categories and values that were real
and immediate to the past thinkers themselves, and not simply from those
that are relevant to present-day agendas. This, surely, is the proper
starting point for an authentic engagement with those seekers of understanding
who danced beyond the periphery of sense and found new immediacy with
the world by reinventing themselves and the things around them.