Fairbank Center: China Humanities Seminar: How Should We Use the Chinese Past?: Non-Western Histories of Thought in a Global Age


Monday, May 2, 2016, 4:00pm to 6:00pm


CGIS Knafel, K354, 1737 Cambridge St.

Speaker: Leigh Jenco, Associate professor of political theory at the London School of Economics

Recent work in contemporary Confucian philosophy promises the holy grail of comparative philosophy: the elaboration of a globally compelling thought-system whose terms and practitioners are generally found outside of the Euro-American historical experiences that currently dominate global terms of knowledge-production.  I argue, however, that in styling their Confucianism as adapted “for the modern world” many of these attempts rehearse problematic relationships to the past that—far from broadening Confucianism’s appeal beyond its typical borders—end up enforcing its irrelevance and dramatically narrow its scope as a source of scholarly knowledge. The very attempt to revitalize or modernize Confucianism assumes a rupture with a past in which Confucianism was once alive and relevant, fixing its identity (if not its practice or values) to a static historical place disconnected from the present. As a result, these revivals often turn on evocations of an “essence” or “spirit” of Confucianism that can be adapted to contemporary institutions and norms (most prominently those of liberal democracy) that go largely uninterrogated, rather than on Confucian precedents for knowledge that might continue to discipline contemporary enquiry.  

I ask in this paper if there are alternative means of situating past thought to present inquiry that might enable Confucianism—and, by extension, other forms of culturally-marked, “non-Western” philosophy—to overcome these problematic relationships to the past while maintaining contemporary relevance.  True to this commitment to embody the relevance of past Chinese thought, I do so by examining some of the first discussions by Chinese intellectuals about how their past heritage might be identified and situated in the modern age. The particular discussions I examine here were carried on by a group of students and professors at Beijing University around the time of the May Fourth movement in 1919. They responded to a dilemma very similar to that articulated by Confucian revivalists: the dominant Chinese tradition, however understood, was widely agreed to be out of joint with the needs of the times, even as it was also recognized as a component of an enduring Chinese cultural and national distinctiveness worthy of preservation. Their diverse responses identify the constraints—but also illuminate new possibilities—of learning from pasts with seemingly no direct connection to the social or intellectual problems of the present. 

Leigh Jenco is associate professor of political theory at the London School of Economics. Her research focuses on how modern Chinese political thought can enrich and challenge existing discourses in contemporary political theory, and her work has been published in such journals as the American Political Science ReviewPolitical Theory, and the Journal of Asian Studies. Her most recent book, Changing Referents: Learning Across Space and Time (Oxford University Press, 2015) applies the methodology used by thinkers promoting “Western learning” in China in the 19th and 20th centuries to contemporary debates about cross-cultural engagement. She has also edited two books on East Asian thought: Republicanism in the Northeast Asian Context (with Jun-Hyeok Kwak; Routledge, 2014) and Chinese Thought as Global Theory: Diversifying Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences and the Humanities(SUNY Press, 2016).