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CULTURE, SOCIETY AND REVOLUTION: A CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF AMERICAN STUDIES OF MODERN CHINESE THOUGHT by Arif Dirlik Intellectual history has been out of favor with American historians of modern China in recent years. Intellectual historians continue to produce stimulating, high quality studies, but their work does not seem to carry the conviction that it once did. The nature of the work suggests a lack of purpose; it addresses questions raised by historians in the past, but does not point to new directions for the future. The "crisis" of intellectual history is not exclusive to American studies of China, but is part of an overall crisis in American historiography. Some of the reasons for the crisis are beyond the control of intellectual historians. The recent preoccupation with social and economic history has been accompanied by a belief among some historians that ideas, if not trivial, are at beat of secondary importance in explaining history. This has been reinforced by the rising influence of Marxism which, in ita more vulgar materialistic form, holds ideas to be epiphenomenal. Radical historians in particular have been prone over the last decade to a mistrust of intellectuals both as producers of ideas in history and as historians of ideas. This mistrust of intellectuals, which rests in a confounding of intellectualism with elitism, is somewhat ironic since the critics of intellectualism are themselves intellectuals or engaged in intellectual work. It points to a deeper conflict among intellectuals over their role in society as producers of consciousness, based on different notions of the intellectual's relationship to society. On the other hand~ intellectual historians must carry some of the: responsibility for this state of affairs. In their preoccupation with formal ideas, they have indeed tended to stress the producers of ideas, the intellectual elite, who have been closely associated with power. Consequently, they have ignored the consciousness of those outside of the circles of power. They have shown leas concern for the intellectuals' relationship to society at large or to power than for their relationship to ideas or to other intellectuals like themselves, a crucial distinction to understanding the role of intellectuals not merely as producers of ideas but also as producers of ideologies. And since they have chosen to deal mostly with intellectuals and ideas commonly accepted as important or influential, they have assumed, rather than explained, the significance of those intellectuals and ideas: to the extent that intellectual historians address the question of significance, it is for the most part the question of intellectual significance or significance within an intellectual tradition, that has drawn their 22 attention. The question of the social significance of ideas, of the cultural and political implications of ideas for different groups in society, has on the whole been marginal to the study of ideas in history. The deepening of our understanding of history, of the social and economic forces that go into its making, of the contradictory implications of ideas to different social groups and within different social contexts, indeed challenges intellectual historians to relate their work more closely to the social and political context. It is the intellectual historians' appreciation of this problem, I think, that accounts for their own uneasiness about the meaning of intellectual history. Intellectual historians of China share in the problems of all intellectual historians. aut they also have problema peculiar to their own fleld. The ~entral problem is how to study thought across cultural and political boundaries; in other words, how intellectuals nurtured--and functioning--in one intellectual tradition, in this case the Western intellectual tradition, study the thinking of intellectuals nurtured ln a tradition alien to their own. The problem imposes a burden on American historians of Chinese thought that does not exist, or exists marginally, for their counterparts in American or European history: in addition to their role as interpreters of past thinking, they must also assume the role of cultural ·interpreters. This role has shaped American historians' discourse on Chinese thought. American studies of European, and even Russian, thought presuppose unity within one cultural and intellectual tradition. This is not the case with studies of Chinese thought which reveal a deep preoccupation with the cultural and intellectual gap that separates the Chinese...


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pp. 22-33
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