Rethinking the Enlightenment with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

While the Spring Fling bands were heating up the Freeman Athletic Center, the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies began hosting a remarkable group of scholars from China and the United States to discuss a comparative approach to the Enlightenment. My Wesleyan teacher, Hayden White, the most important theorist of history of the last 50 years, helped to get things started with a talk that focuses on the intersection of history, science and aesthetics in the modern West. We also heard a provocative, important paper by Professor Gao Xiang on the the intersection of Chinese traditions with European Enlightenment thought. Both papers addressed the shadows produced by a systematic, rationalist approach to society and culture.


The seminars continue today and tomorrow with our distinguished group of scholars. We all have problems of translation, and one of the most interesting aspects of our exchanges with the the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is teasing out the subtle meanings in our different approaches to what at first seem like common research topics. At our first meeting in Beijing in the fall of 2011 we discussed the status and function of tradition, and the papers for this meeting are all the more interesting when seen in the context of the Enlightenment’s battle with an attachment to the past.

There are several scholars of great distinction presenting their work today and tomorrow, but I can’t help but single out our very own Vera Schwarcz, Freeman Professor of History & East Asian Studies, who has been working on the Chinese Enlightenment for decades. Her historical work has earned her international distinction, as her teaching has garnered her the lifelong appreciation of her students here at Wesleyan.

Speaking of students, one of the most impressive parts of the day yesterday was the performance of our student translators. Through their efforts, we all overcame the language barriers!