Asymmetries of Knowledge

International workshop organized by the projects C08 “Teaching Early Modern Routines of Everyday Communication“ (Head: Horst Simon) and C09 “Knowledge Transfer in in the 16th and 17th-century Korea“ (Head: Eun-Jeung Lee), 15.–16.04.2019


Jacob Rodrigue Péreire teaches a deaf child

Jacob Rodrigue Péreire teaches a deaf child

Bericht von Julia Hübner und Martin Gehlmann

The international workshop “Asymmetries of Knowledge” focused on the asymmetries of knowledge within premodern cultures in Europe and East Asia. Two projects, C08 and C09, of the Collaborative Research Centre “Episteme in Motion” came together to invite scholars from various fields to present and give comments on the concept of knowledge asymmetries based on several key questions: In which fields do knowledge asymmetries exist? How does the re-evaluation of knowledge lead to the emergence of knowledge asymmetries? How does the process of knowledge transfer produce or obstruct the dissolution of knowledge asymmetries? What social, political, and pedagogical strategies exist to overcome or legitimize knowledge asymmetries? How do knowledge asymmetries influence the communication between experts and novices of a certain subject?

Perspectives presented within the workshop ranged from the spread of illustrated broadsheets in premodern Europe to ancient Chinese chapters on persuasion, as well as the authority of Jewish religious experts, and showed that knowledge asymmetries could be defined as existing on a qualitative and a quantitative level. The interest of the workshop focused on asymmetries of a quantitative level, or in other words on situations in which a substantial quantitative difference in knowledge that has the same claim to validity exist. If a knowledge asymmetry attained an objectively quantifiable status, the need to overcome the asymmetry through a range of diverse methods and processes can arise. This is reflected in the educational focus of both projects. However, other constellations in which the asymmetry is prolonged or maintained were also of interest for the organizers of the workshop. Therefore, knowledge asymmetries were not only to be viewed from a pedagogical perspective, but also with explicit references to other factors, such as social correlatives (age, power, money, etc.)

The workshop was opened by Horst Simon, who after a short welcome proceeded to introduce the work of the CRC and of the project C08 to the participants of the workshop. Afterwards, Eun-Jeung Lee continued with a presentation on the work of project C09 as well as with some general comments on the origin and concept of the workshop.

In the first presentation Kerstin te Heesen (Université du Luxembourg) talked about visual depictions of knowledge in illustrated broadsheets and elaborated on the meaning of images in culture and education during early modern times. Even though a transfer of knowledge occurred in the spread of the broadsheets, they served to reinforce the existing order and with it an asymmetry of knowledge by reducing larger contexts. Te Heesenalso talked about the framing of the broadsheets, which could focus the transferred knowledge but could also limit its extent. Therefore, any reading of images should always be done in respect to the time of their emergence and in the context of related norms and knowledge reservoirs.

Scott Cook (Yale-SNU) spoke on the “Difficulties of Persuasion” (shuo nan) chapter in the works of Chinese political philosopher Han Fei. In Cook’s opinion, Han Fei was one of the first to recognize and present an asymmetry between knowledge and power in his writing. In an inherently asymmetrical persuader-persuadee relationship—that of minister to ruler—Han Fei sought to comprehend the ways in which the persuader could reconfigure the balance of those asymmetries and turn them to his advantage. At the danger of his own life, the minister thus strove to prove the validity of his knowledge while at the same time not question the power of the ruler.

Another case of knowledge asymmetry based on and maintained by state power intervention was presented by Song Jaeyoon (McMaster University), who spoke on the prohibition for Korean scholars and emissaries to purchase Chinese histories. Drawing parallels to other forms of censorship, Song spoke about the reasons of the Chinese government from the 10th century onward to limit Korean access to Chinese historical works. By denying access to essential works on Chinese history, the Chinese government strived to prevent a tributary state from gaining a detailed knowledge on the state and development of Chinese political and cultural power. To deal with the situation, Korean scholars and state circumvented the ban on imports either by illegal purchase of materials or by shifting their own focus towards older historical works. Preventing the spread of knowledge from the Chinese side thus led to the creation of a specific alternative pool of knowledge on the Korean side, which also redefined Korean discourse on East Asian history.

After giving a historical overview of perspectives on deaf education, Josef Fulka (Charles University Prague) showed how attitudes towards the deaf were mostly driven by subjectively constructed ideas of a knowledge asymmetry. Starting with the French enlightenment deafness and deaf people became subject of an intellectual discourse, which was fascinated by their nature as a prime example of a knowledge asymmetry. Debates on the relation of language and thought, the natural state of human beings, and the state of society, crystallized in the question on how to deal with deaf individuals and communities. Viewing deafness as a deficiency, educators long sought to overcome this absence by endowing deaf subjects with the capacity for spoken language while ignoring natural modes of expression—sign language. Fulka showed how only with emergence of an understanding of forms of manual-visual communication as a genuine language per se, the concept of knowledge asymmetry between the deaf and the hearing majority slowly started to change.

Vladimir Glomb (FU Berlin) spoke on the Tongmong Sŏnsŭp (First Exercise for the Uneducated Youth), a Korean educational primer of classical Chinese. Unlike most of the classical Chinese teaching materials which were developed in China and then spread to neighboring countries like Korea, Vietnam, and Japan, the Tongmong Sŏnsŭp was since its very beginning designed as a textbook targeting a particular Korean audience. Actively working with contrasts of language, writing systems, or different cultural and historical backgrounds the primer sought to make the Chinese text as much accessible to young students as possible. Yet, most of these attempts, like bilingual editions, etc., were not successful because of established notions of an asymmetry between classical texts and their vernacular editions.

Oleg Rusakovskiy (Higher School of Economics, Moscow) offered a case study on tsar Peter I and the asymmetry of knowledge in Russia in the 17th century due to problematic access conditions and language barriers. Until the late 17th century there was only rare academic and scientific exchange with Europe. Access to European knowledge was reserved for the social elite, mainly the tsars and their families and was often intermediated by hired foreign experts. An asymmetry in technical and military knowledge between Russia and Europe was the concern of young tsar Peter I, who pursued several strategies to deal with the problem. A rare example of a monarch personally involved in sciences and both practical and academic debates, Peter became a key figure of scientific and technological advancement. Rusakovskiy illustrated further how the powerful position of Peter shaped the particular influx of knowledge to Russia.

The topic of Hsien-hao Sebastian Liao (National Taiwan University/Gent University) was focused on Chinese schools of thought that created alternative temporalities and continued to engage Confucianism by transgressing, subverting, and eventually re-aligning and re-invigorating Chinese thinking and practice. He showed that such ideas reappeared during times of turmoil or national distress and thus provided alternative narratives on how to understand man’s position in relation to time. Daoism and Buddhism de-centered the dominant Confucian ideology by highlighting the need of the individual to confront the truth of the world and seek for his/her own redemption independently of societal achievements.

In her talk, Nicola Kramp-Seidel (Universität Münster) described the asymmetry of knowledge between respondent and inquirer in Jewish responsa. Kramp-Seidel used the example of Salomon Adret, one of the leading respondents of the Middle Ages, to illustrate different ways on how superior knowledge can be depicted. She also spoke on how rabbi experts provided knowledge on a wide area of subjects and therefore provoked a general discussion on the aspect of authority and the value of knowledge, which set the stage for the concluding discussion of the workshop.

Given the two CRC 980 projects focused on language and education, the final debate revolved around the topics of language hegemony, relations between language and thought, barriers in the transfer of knowledge, and interconnected topics on means to overcome knowledge asymmetries in European and non-European societies. However, through the discussions during and after the workshop different strategies of coping with asymmetries of knowledge were presented by the participants of the workshop in their individual case-studies. Especially agency on the side of those knowing quantitively less came much more into focus as such actors possessed more flexibility to shape the asymmetries than was originally suspected. Other aspects included constructed knowledge asymmetries or even asymmetries that from their beginning are impossible to overcome. All in all, the workshop provided some interesting insight into the interplay between knowledge and power as well as on other related aspects.