2 comments 16 December 2008

China, 16th century engraving. The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) 
and the Chinese scholar who had converted to Christianity, Xu Guangqi (1562-1633).

Xiaosui Xiao wrote a interesting article on the contribution of Intercultural Communication to the topic of Exchange of Knowledge. He noticed the following problem: Historians would tend to be mainly concerned with the interaction between two cultural systems of thought (bodies of knowledge), rather than with the interaction between the speakers and listeners. He felt that historians were rather impersonal, meaning that the agency in communication of thought was rather neglected. Although I do not fully agree with his observation, I can see that Xiao, coming from a communication background, would like to see more detailed analyses of actual communication processes between people in history. Besides the historical approach, there is the communicative approach, specifically looking at the communication between people and on the use of various technologies in this communication. The topic of how knowledge is/was communicated is rather neglected in this social science discipline.

Having observed this problem, Xiao therefore proposed the following study: Intercultural Communication. The focus in this study would be on the intellectual dimension of intercultural transaction; the communication involved with cross-cultural exchange of ideas and thoughts.

Xiao made a theoretical framework based on historical examples since the Opium Wars. After the Opium Wars (1839-1861), the "assimilation of Western Learning" can be said to refer to the introduction and popularisation of Western ideas in China, which reached its heights during the Reform Movement (1890s) and the May Fourth Movement (1915-1925).

Xiao’s theoretical framework is as follows:
1. The assimilation of Western learning is a process of signification (meaning-building). For example, the concept of rén, having the connotation of hierarchy in Confucianism, was given a new meaning by Tan Sitong, namely the principle that all people are equal.
2. Signification is a site of social struggle. 
The new meaning of rén created a struggle between the new interpretation and Confucianism.
3. Signification inevitably involves the critical role of rhetoric.
 In the same example, rhetoric was applied by Tan Sitong to make his case stronger, namely the argumentation around the interconnectivity of rén in Neo-Confucianism.
4. The role of native interpreters and advocates of a foreign practice of signification.
 Tan Sitong’s initiative and effort was crucial in the assimilation of Western learning and the discussion that followed.

In short: Foreign knowledge was interpreted in China and trough translation and advocated within a long-standing tradition by means of rhetoric and by assigning new meanings to words. This causes strong responses and social struggles.

Although Xiao's examples seem to rule out any 'exchange,' rather suggesting an one-way assimilation of Western learning by Chinese initiative, the idea a signification, use of rhetoric, and the focus on agency can really provide a more comprehensive view on the the phenomenon of circulation of knowledge in history.

0 comments 03 December 2008

I introduce to you: Alan Sokal. A physicist who hoaxed the cultural studies journal Social Text by submitting a parody of postmodern science criticism. It aimed at some relativist positions held by sociologists of science. Sokal states that the sociological study of science can claim some things and that he's no arrogant physicist that 'rejects all sociological intrusion on our "turf," as he calls it. There are three propositions on which he thinks science and its critics can agree: 1)science is a human endeavour 2)there are some external factors to science (f.e. the prevailing attitudes of mind which arise in part from deepseated historical factors) 3)the outcome of science is in part due to external factors to science like politics. So science is done by people, who can be researched sociologically and historically, as can the content and outcome of their work. From the Sokal hoax there can be deduced that some cultural study of science is nonsense, but not all. Its content are for the most part direct quotes from postmodern Masters, whom he 'showers with mock praise.' The article was structured around some of the silliest remarks that were made about mathematics and physics. In two ways postmodernists went wrong; 1) meaningless and absurd statements, name-dropping, and a display of false erudtion were made, and 2) sloppy thinking and bad philosophy made glib relativism. 

Examples: In Science in Action Latour introduces his so-called Third Rule of Method which reads as follows: 'Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature's representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome - Nature - to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.' Latour slips here, without comment or argument, from "Nature's representation" to "Nature". Sokal finds it hard to make sense of the statement, unless applying the First Rule of Interpretation of Postmodern Academic Writing: 'no sentence means what it says.' His conclusion is that Latour has no competence in the field of physics and sociologists like him employ methods that enable them to fathom both the 'inner workings' and the 'outer character' of science without having to be expert in the fields they study. The method used is to achieve by definition what one could not achieve by logic. Old words are used in a new sense which results in conflating concepts. 

The basis of Sokal's argument is that scientists generally don't listen to relativist claims about reality by science studies. And these studies should not waste their time trespassing on the expertise of sciences, ridiculing themselves by thinking they are experts in (quantum) physics and mathematics. 
As for myself; I would much rather sleep in a house built by science. But then again, I would also rather read less bricks and stones statements than more historical relativist stories. It remains interesting and informative to read what someone from the science perspective has to say about those who study science sociologically and historically. Although I am in the confident conviction that I am less interesting than the subjects I study.