Volume 1.2 (Fall 2017)
In some ways, the question of the status of knowledge in the field of literary studies is a very old one, at least in the West. In its most extreme form, this is the question Socrates poses to literature, that is, whether it conveys any knowledge at all. From a Socratic perspective, to know about literature is an ironic undertaking at best, a kind of self-canceling knowledge, or even, perhaps, the beginnings of a Socratic knowledge of one’s ignorance. The historical irony is that, even for those of us who take the study of literature seriously more than two millennia after Socrates, the field is still—and perhaps has always been--defined by this uncertainty about its subject matter, and its claims to knowledge.
Biography as a genre, though immensely popular in the public arena, finds little favor in the academy. For some, it assumes that intellectual or cultural accomplishments have sprung from the mind of an isolated genius; and no historian will admit succumbing to a great man theory of history. In some intellectual quarters, however, the very opposite attitude reigns: some historians explore scientific works by placing them in sublime isolation from their personal and cultural surroundings.
The continent of South America occupies a unique position globally when it comes to the matter of “knowing,” at least with respect to indigenous expressions of knowledge. Sometimes referred to as “the least known continent” (e.g., Lyon 2004), South America stands alone as the only continent (excluding Antartica) on which no civilization invented a system of writing during the long time span from the peopling of the continent (ca., 13,000 BCE) to the arrival of Europeans, in the 1530s CE.
Near the start of Plato’s famous work Republic, as the characters quarrel about how to define justice, Socrates reminds them: “Remember: it is no chance matter we are discussing, but how one should live.” Political philosophy, as practiced in the Western tradition and also in the traditions of East Asia, South Asia, and Africa, has always been a practical discipline, seeking to construct a theoretical blueprint for just and decent lives in a world full of division, competition, fear, and uncontrolled catastrophes. In this article I hope to provide some reasons for thinking that philosophy continues to play an important role as we work together for a better world.
My befuddlement with comparison is primarily methodological and epistemological in nature. But I’m also befuddled by its stunted presence in our disciplinary discourses—the ﬁrst of several conundrums I want to share here. This is palpably the case in comparative literature, which seems embarrassed and annoyed by the category bakedintoitsacademicidentity.
It has proven hard to insert literature, the post-Renaissance West’s praxis of usually-written figurative thinking, symbolic imagination (which takes other forms and meanings in other times and cultures), or indeed other media of the fictive imagination, into their material context and environs without interdicting, impeding or curtailing the close reading of those media, or ruinously reducing contextual abundance to shape it either to wieldy order or to seeming analytical need of the textual, pictural, philosophical, musical or other medium.
There is a strange doubleness to experiencing an historic moment while being a historian one’s self. I feel the same shock, fear, overload, and emotional exhaustion that so many feel right now, but at the same time another self is analyzing, dredging up historical examples, bigger crises, smaller crises, more surprising votes, votes that set the fuse to powder-kegs, votes that changed nothing.
In the spring of 2016 the eminent medical anthropologist Arthur Kleinman (who like me has spent much of his career in contact with China) convened a day-long meeting at the American Academy to address the crisis in area studies and foreign language learning. Thirty or so concerned professionals showed up: language teachers; historians; professors of literatures both Anglophone and other, both ancient and modern; linguists; political scientists; anthropologists; sociologists; specialists in public health—and we could easily have drawn on the population of natural scientists, engineers, and computer scientists, whose labs are as multinational as any place on earth.
In ancient times, before some point in the second half of the 19th century, if you were uncertain how to investigate a topic, epistemologists — philosophers concerned with knowledge and rational belief — would be among the people you would first think of reading and consulting. They had played a large role in the early years of the scientific revolution, mediating the delicate tension between scientific discovery and traditional belief. The last such figure with this kind of influence was John Stuart Mill. But all that has changed. For at least the past hundred years your first port of call would be a statistician.