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Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

Knowledge as Authentic Experience: Epistemology and Subjectivity in Medieval China and Europe
Curie Virág ( )
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University

What 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 what implications?

In 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.

The 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.

My 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.

Paradoxically, 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.

It 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.

Curie Virág is currently working on her dissertation on the ethics of self and knowledge in Song Neo-Confucian thought. Having studied medieval and early modern European cultural history and literature as an undergraduate, she began to study pre-modern Chinese thought and history in graduate school out of a conviction that the some of the most important questions could be best explored from a cross-cultural perspective. Her topics of interest include: aesthetics; ethical and political philosophy; the theory and practice of self-cultivation; interior landscapes; memory; hermeneutics; and the history of commentary.

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