Intersecting Knowledge Communities: Oriental Cultures in Comparison (2015–2016)

This research strand (2015 - 2016) aimed at deepening the comparative understanding of knowledge communities, their constructions and intersections in Oriental cultures, with an emphasis on the pre-modern. The idea of flows and exchanges of different forms of knowledge has become increasingly important in recent research. For instance, in Oxford there is the 'Cultures of Knowledge 1550-1750' project, which focuses on systems and networks of transmitting knowledge, especially via the epistolary system; and at CRASSH Cambridge, the 'Crossroads of knowledge’ project explores the question of ‘epistemic transactions’ between literature and other epistemological forms. Nevertheless, these projects focus on Europe and emphasise writing; and although interdisciplinary, they do not have comparison as their foremost methodology and question. This research strand differed in that we considered Oriental cultures and their inter-relationships, and aimed to think comparatively across textual/writing traditions, visual cultures, religious practices and philosophical thought (not only textual but also ritualistic and oral). We would also emphasised the pre-modern because of its relatively marginal status in comparative studies of this kind.

The significance and necessity of this research theme lies in that firstly, methodologically speaking, we aimed to challenge the way knowledge communities have so far been categorised: namely, in terms of one commonly-shared language or way of discourse, religious practice, social class, or type of cultural production. Instead, we envisaged knowledge as a much more porous and fluid field that is constantly reshaped by agents of knowledge from different kinds of discourses, practices, and classes. Therefore, the methodological question that frames this research is how to understand epistemic cross-roads as community rather than simply the relationships between knowledge communities that are already formulated. We believe that the comparative approach is particularly pertinent to exploring and articulating this question, and we brought together researchers from diverse disciplines to discuss common themes. Secondly, although comparative studies are on the rise, so far the majority of existing comparisons focus on East-West relationships, whereas Oriental cultures and societies are very different from each other and inter-Asian comparisons, as well as North-South comparisons are also very necessary. Thirdly, the timescope of the ‘pre-modern’ shows our interest in exploring how inter-Asian comparisons may shed light on understanding the transformations of knowledge communities over time and across different temporalities (since different cultures do not necessarily share one temporality, even if they are contemporaneous to each other). Comparison does not only stride across geographical differences, but also across temporal disparities, thus even the different historical phases of one culture can reveal questions about cultural continuity and change.