June Researcher of the Month – Dr. Simon Kow

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Meet Dr. Simon Kow, Associate Professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College, Halifax.


1. What is your current place of research?

I am currently Associate Professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I have been teaching at King’s since 2001. My home programme is the Early Modern Studies Programme, jointly offered by King’s and its sister university Dalhousie, in which I principally teach political and social topics in the early modern period (16th to early 19th centuries). My teaching has informed my current research, particularly my course (crosslisted between Early Modern Studies, Contemporary Studies, and the History of Science & Technology at King’s, as well as Chinese Studies at Dalhousie University) on ‘Asia and the West: Centuries of Dialogue’, which examines the interaction between western and Asian thought from the early modern to contemporary periods. We focus on classical Chinese, Japanese, and Indian thought; early modern European encounters with Chinese, Japanese, and Indian traditions; and modern Chinese, Japanese, and Indian perspectives on the west. The purpose of the course, which has been central to my current work, is to show how western thought has been influenced by its encounters with Asia, and in turn how modern Asian thought has been shaped by the west. Contrary to some contemporary scholarship, the encounters between Asia and the west have not been wholly negative, though of course cultural chauvinism and imperialism are important aspects of this story. These themes are also present in a course I teach at King’s & Dalhousie on ‘East Meets West in Popular Culture’, which surveys Asian influences on western popular culture, western influences on Asian popular culture, and modern hybrid popular culture from the 18th century to the present. Teaching at a small, interdisciplinary liberal arts university in association with a larger research university has enabled me to explore areas of research and scholarship outside of my disciplinary training in graduate school.

2. Could you give us some details about your education background?

Like many young people, I attended university intending to become a lawyer. During my undergraduate degree in political science at Carleton University, Ottawa, I became increasingly interested in political theory and philosophy, as well as history. I attended the University of Toronto for my Master’s and Doctoral Studies in political theory through the Department of Political Science. The Political Science Department at the U of T remains one of Canada’s largest, and I was exposed to a diversity of approaches particularly to the study of political theory. In my graduate course-work, I came to specialise in the history of political thought. Eventually, I wrote a doctoral thesis on religious conflict and the state in the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Milton.

My supervisor, Edward Andrew, influenced my approach to the study of political thought: examining texts closely and within their historical and intellectual contexts. His suggestion that I study Hobbes in the context of the English civil war and in comparison with his contemporary Milton was pivotal to my interdisciplinary research and teaching interests, bridging philosophy, history, and literature, for example. Although Prof. Andrew and the Department stressed the study of canonical political thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau, he encouraged me to explore connections with their contemporaries and even across cultures. For example, I acted as Teaching Assistant in a course he taught on politics and literature, which included such works as Aeschylus’s Eumenides, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Wu Cheng’en’s Monkey (an abridgement of Wu’s sixteenth-century epic, Journey to the West). Although I was—like all children of Chinese descent—familiar with the latter novel, a comic allegory based on the journey of a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim to India to fetch scriptures, his thoughtful approach to analysing the work inspired me to think about integrating Asian content in my teaching, and as it turned out, in my research as well.

3. What projects are you currently working on and what are some projects you’ve worked on in the past?

I am about to present a conference paper on human nature and cultural diversity in Enlightenment political thought, as well as an article on debates surrounding ethical nominalism and their relevance to early Enlightenment thought on China. These projects stem from my overall work on Enlightenment views of China. My recent book, China in Early Enlightenment Political Thought, published by Routledge in 2016, examined the ideas of China in three important early Enlightenment thinkers: Pierre Bayle, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and the Baron de Montesquieu. They respectively depicted China in three divergent ways: as a tolerant and atheistic monarchy; as an exemplar of human and divine justice; and as an exceptional but nonetheless despotic state and society.

Prior to the chapters on Bayle, Leibniz, and Montesquieu, I lay out some of the contemporary debates surrounding how to interpret Enlightenment thought and the call for ‘comparative political theory’, i.e., a branch of philosophy which compares thinkers and texts from different cultural traditions. I see my work as contributing to these debates: I seek to show how Enlightenment political thought was influenced by and shaped ideas of China, and the ways in which ideas of China often diverged. There was no ‘single’ interpretation of China in this period, even though Chinese society and government, for example, was posed by all three thinkers as a foil to the aggressive regime in France under Louis XIV and his successors. Nor can we easily dismiss their accounts of China as simply caricatures of the reality of China (whatever that might be).

I argue, in fact, that while Bayle’s interest in China was somewhat fragmentary and instrumental (i.e., to justify his positions on comprehensive religious toleration and the possibility of a society of rational atheists), his sceptical approach constituted an effective counter to European presumptions concerning the wider world and can serve today as an instructive lesson in avoiding some of the pitfalls of cross-cultural interpretation. Thus, much as I admire Leibniz’s well-meaning and often sophisticated engagement with Chinese thought and culture (championed by such interpreters as Donald Mungello and Franklin Perkins), I emphasise how Leibniz’s project of cultural exchange with China is framed within his own philosophical system and linked to problematic aspects of his political and religious thought (such as his advocacy of a form of Christian imperialism and the need for the Chinese to convert to Christianity). Finally, Montesquieu’s depiction of China as essentially despotic should give his admirers pause, and raise questions about how much his liberal constitutionalism depended on a largely negative view of the world outside Europe. Overall, my analyses of these three thinkers complicates simple associations of the European Enlightenment with imperialism or anti-imperialism, especially with respect to China. For example, there is an imperialist strain in the thought of Leibniz, the most celebrated early modern Sinophile; while Montesquieu himself was a critic of European imperialism but was a key formative thinker in the denigration of China in the 18th century and beyond. As my conclusion argues, however, modern Chinese reformers and thinkers in the late 19th to early 20th centuries were often strongly attracted to Montesquieu’s thought, despite his negative depiction of China. Nevertheless, even as modern Chinese thinkers were inspired by western ideas in their projects of reform and revolution, they adapted and modified such ideas in often radical ways to suit the context of a weakened China relative to the western powers at the time.

My main future project is a sequel volume on China in Later Enlightenment Political Thought. I seek to trace, in the shadow of Bayle, Leibniz, and Montesquieu, European reflections on China from the mid-eighteenth to the end of the century. Thus I plan to examine the work of Wolff (whose discussions of China predate Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws but influences Voltaire’s writings), Voltaire, Diderot & the Encylopaedists, Quesnay & the Physiocrats, Herder, and possibly Hegel; as well as briefer but important references to China by Hume, Rousseau, Kant, etc. Because both positive and negative accounts of China in this period tended to be more superficial than those of Bayle, Leibniz, and even Montesquieu, the scope of the book will be wider than its predecessor. The central thesis of the book will be concerned with how the more superficial engagement with China in later Enlightenment thought is linked to greater European self-confidence relative to the wider world, the prominence of republican political thinking in this period, and developments in conceptions of history.

4. What’s one thing you particularly enjoy about working in your field?

I particularly enjoy the freedom to examine western thinkers in a broader, global context and in dialogue with Asian thought and culture. There is excellent work being done in this area, but there is also much to explore. I do not feel limited by requirements to engage in orthodox and well-trod lines of investigation of certain philosophers and ideas; and the very exercise of thinking about western and Asian thought in dialogue is of contemporary relevance. Furthermore, such a dialogic approach has encouraged me and my students to explore ideas in the Asian traditions in their own lights.

5. How do you relate your work to the broader topic of ‘cosmopolitanism and the local’?

I am generally interested in the exchange of knowledge as well as comparison between Asian & western ideas and cultures. More specifically, I have been struck by how historical encounters between westerners and Asians—in the early modern context, Jesuit missionaries and other travellers—were foundational sources of cross-cultural knowledge but also substantially modified and reconstructed in light of philosophical, social, and political projects by thinkers who never left Europe. Thus, one might frame this phenomenon in terms of ‘local knowledge’ gathered about China; filtered through various ideological and historical concerns; and transmitted to European thinkers who then applied and re-framed this knowledge to local European matters. It is easy to identify the distortions and caricatures at play in such transmission of local and cosmopolitan knowledge; but it is fruitful, too, to think about how global cultural exchange is older than conventionally thought, and about how modern-day attempts at cross-cultural interpretation are rarely significantly advanced over those in the past. Furthermore, while the Asian interest in western knowledge was usually much lower in the early modern period than western interest in Asia, there were nevertheless some fascinating Asian encounters with the west in that period (e.g., the Japanese interest in ‘Dutch learning’); and, of course, later modern Asian thinkers were preoccupied with absorbing, adapting, and/or rejecting western ideas and technology in the context of imperial and colonial domination in various forms. Finally, I have benefited from colleagues working on ‘Cosmopolitanism and the Local’ in terms of learning about their work and inviting them to give guest lectures, e.g., on the Hortus Malabaricus, J.B.S. Haldane on Darwinism in India, and on Buddhist views on pharmaceutical cognitive enhancements.

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