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Why an Advanced Institute for Historical and Social Research?

Philip C. C. Huang


By "advanced research," we mean to be grounded in the existing disciplines but also to go beyond them. To be sure, the existing social science disciplines are mainly modern Western in origin and inspiration, not Chinese, but a large body of empirical and theoretical studies has been accumulated and, given the reality of our globalized world, Chinese scholars and students must acquire control over the major works of their chosen disciplines. In this respect, our approach is no different from the existing departments.


But we are asking for more. Many young students tend to look to their disciplines for a single "true" theory; others, wary of ideology, fall back on just empirical research or method. We believe that theorizing is a necessary part of all research, but that there is no single theory with a monopoly on truth. Otherwise, one lapses unwittingly into mere ideology. Advanced study to us means to place all theories into their historical contexts, to adopt a multi-theoretical perspective, and to use theory more for questions than for answers.


The first step is to historicize theory and to develop familiarity with multiple theoretical traditions. The present "mainstream" perspective in China in economics, for example, is that of neoclassical economics, in part because it had gained predominance in the United States along with the rise of Neo-Conservatism, and came to be accepted in China as the latest and the best. Yet, a historical perspective teaches us that the dominance of Neo-Conservatism is a transient phenomenon, arising only in the 1970s and after, and is on the wane today. An economics oriented much more toward state intervention and social welfare had been predominant before it and is on the rise again today.


In law, similarly, the recent decades had seen the rise in the U.S. of a conservatism based mainly on the tradition of "legal formalism." Like neoclassical economics, legal formalism sees itself as a science of absolute and universal applicability, regardless of time and place. But a historical perspective teaches us that legal pragmatism and realism, much more oriented toward change and toward social concerns, had been predominant before it, and is becoming again the more influential theory.


American economics and jurisprudence are in fact made up not of a singular theoretical tradition, but a long-term tug of war and mutual influence between two mainstream traditions. Each by itself is only a one-sided representation of American historical experience. The U.S. economy is not the product of any single theory, but a combination both of free-market capitalism and state intervention. American law, similarly, is a combination both of formalist and pragmatist lawmaking. Such an understanding helps us rise above simple attachment to one theory / ideology. The same applies to the other social sciences, which have also undergone theoretical shifts along with larger ideological changes.


A historical perspective also teaches us that, in addition to the twin mainstream traditions referred to above, there have been multiple "alternative" traditions worthy of our attention. Marxist theory is one such alternative tradition. It has been in many ways a more vibrant source of creative thinking in the West than in socialist countries, in part because it has long been an oppositional and critical tradition rather than a ruling ideology. Postmodernism is another such alternative tradition. Despite its epistemological excesses, it has been a provocative and influential challenge to Western modernist and positivist assumptions. There is also a broad range of other empirical and theoretical perspectives that might be broadly categorized as "progressive" and or "centrist," intermediate between the right and the left, Neo-Conservatism and Marxism. The substantivist tradition of theory and scholarship, for example, is something of a "third choice" between neo-liberalism and Marxism. These alternative traditions of the modern West offer not just thoughtful critiques of mainstream views of the past and the present, but also different visions for the future: in liberal or democratic socialism, for example, as well as social-democratic or communitarian political systems. All can be important resources in our search for new theoretical perspectives.


How do we choose among the different theoretical perspectives? We believe that China's own historical experience should be the final arbiter. Coming from a long and complex historical tradition, China defies any simple constructions of "irrational," "traditional," or "pre-modern," juxtaposed against modern Western civilization. Coming from a semi-colonial past of subjugation, it defies any simple equation with the West, which was the dominator and not the dominated. With a modern revolutionary tradition powered by an alternative socialist vision, it cannot be simply boxed into a capitalist and liberal-democratic Western model. "Transitioning" from a socialist past and not from a simple "pre-industrial" society into the market economy of the present, it cannot be understood simply by theories of market-driven capitalist development.  It is, in short, a past and a present of great and continuing paradoxes from the point of view of Western theoretical expectations. Properly studied and conceptualized, Chinese experience / practice can form the basis for unique contributions to human knowledge.


One good approach, we believe, is a back and forth dialogue between the social science disciplines and Chinese past and present experience. The theoretical models of the social sciences can be an aid in formulating new concepts more appropriate to Chinese experience. But we must not be satisfied just with "testing" Western-derived theory against Chinese reality, for the simplistic purpose of either demonstrating its validity or proving Chinese uniqueness. Instead, we need to look toward formulating original theoretical concepts on the basis of Chinese experience. In attempting to formulate new concepts, comparisons and dialogues between Western and Chinese categories of thought can be very useful. Contrastive analyses of the two can help us historicize each and guard against absolutist presumptions. A dialogue between the two can help us see beyond both and look to new directions.


Advanced study means also to draw on the strengths of both the social sciences and history. The social sciences tend to be highly compartmentalized, which allows for sharper focus, cross-national comparisons, and use of quantitative methods. But the holistic perspective of history can help us see culture, economy, society, polity and law for their interconnectedness rather than separateness. It is perhaps the most appropriate discipline for the larger task before us: not just the development of individual social sciences and humanistic disciplines, but a renewed understanding of the past and present, and also future, of Chinese civilization.


Within historical studies, many have emphasized the importance of maintaining and developing China's long tradition of textual studies and empirical research. With that we agree wholeheartedly. The recent post-modernist inspired fads in historical research have greatly undermined the respect for empirical research in much of the Western world but in China, historical research has largely withstood that onslaught. That is something to be applauded. We are asking for well-grounded studies that make fresh empirical contributions.


But we must do more. Despite the intention to do purely empirical research, many historians have in fact been greatly influenced by ideological schemes, in the past by the formula of development from feudalism to capitalism to socialism, and today by the formulas of marketism and modernization. We believe that only familiarity and dialogues with multiple traditions of social science theory can help us go beyond such ideological influences and create new concepts more appropriate for Chinese reality.


Some historians have adopted a museum curator-like attitude toward historical research -- as a great tradition to be studied for its own sake, but one that is of no practical relevance to present-day realities. This particular characteristic of Chinese historical research is perhaps nowhere more evident than in legal history studies, in which it is taken for granted by most that true modern law can only be Western-imported law and that China's own legal history can have no role in current lawmaking. We believe historical research must break out of such an indigenous "Orientalism" point of view. The past and the present are interconnected. To make Chinese history relevant to the present requires that we maintain a continuing dialogue between the past and the present, and the empirical and the theoretical. We must strive for a new understanding of Chinese history in the light of the modern challenges of imperialism, revolution, reform, globalization, social stratification, and China's resurgence. That is why we have adopted the name "Advanced Institute for Historical and Social Research."


Institutes of advanced study in the West, like those at Princeton or in Berlin, have been animated by a problem-oriented and cross-disciplinary and transnational approach, grounded at the same time in the established disciplines. With that tradition of "advanced study" we identify fully. Where we differ, however, is in our sense of mission and of urgency: we are not speaking from a presumption of Chinese predominance in the world of knowledge as have those in the West; we are talking instead about searching for and establishing autonomous creativity after a century of subordination. And we are talking here not only about the fate of scholarship, but about our understanding of the very nature and future direction of Chinese civilization in a globalized context. That lends our project a special urgency for which there can be no equivalent in the advanced institutes of the West. This center is a declaration of intent toward such "advanced studies." At the same time, we will be very much on our guard against breadth without substance. In addition to our own substantive individual and group research, and the lecture series, seminars, writing workshop and study group, our permanent and visiting faculty will each be asked to offer a course representing his/her own most important and basic learning. The purpose is to help young scholars develop, in addition to the standard training in their chosen disciplines, trans-disciplinary, cross-civilizational and past-present perspectives that are at once broad and yet sharply focused.  This institute can only be a small beginning in a world of overwhelming intellectual crosscurrents and whirlpools, but perhaps it is the more important for that reason.