The Challenge

The Western tradition of critical theory aims not only to reflect upon the world but also to change it through a commitment to social justice. A major challenge facing this tradition is that it has drawn chiefly on Western thought and does not sufficiently reflect the globalized nature of contemporary society. This research project begins to address this problem by bringing critical theory into dialogue with Chinese thought in three areas: the body, society, and nature. It will do so through a threefold process of “decentering,” in which no one tradition or disciplinary framework dominates.

  1. The project decenters the normative Western framework in which critical theory has operated by bringing it into dialogue with Chinese cultural traditions.
  2. It decenters a single normative model of Chinese culture by emphasizing Daoist philosophy and culture as a counterweight to the more dominant narrative of Confucianism.
  3. It decenters traditional disciplinary approaches by considering the three themes of body, society and nature always in relation to each other.

The project anticipates the challenges of the coming generation, as the world’s population reaches over 9 billion, China becomes a dominant global power, and climate change exacerbates environmental, social and cultural tensions. Such a context will demand a multicultural and interdisciplinary approach to thinking through ethical questions of gender and the body, the rights and responsibilities of individuals and societies, and the foundations for ecological sustainability.

Specifically the project will investigate:

  1. How can we theorize gender and the body cross-culturally and interdisciplinarily with a view to producing new concepts and ethics of equality and diversity?
  2. How can we theorize human dignity and political plurality cross-culturally and interdisciplinarily with a view to producing new concepts and ethics of governance?
  3. How can we theorize the natural environment cross-culturally and interdisciplinarily with a view to producing new concepts and ethics of ecological sustainability?

To do so the project will develop and refine a method for conducting interdisciplinary, cross-cultural research that involves six scholars working in two traditions and three disciplines. It will conduct this research in the context of a series of bicultural, interdisciplinary and intergenerational summer institutes. Senior scholars, younger faculty and graduate students will work together in a research and training program that will function as an incubator lab for a new generation of talent with fluency in multiple philosophical and cultural traditions. Students will be trained in textual analysis, transnational theory, and cross-cultural ethical reflection.

Finally, by reflecting on experience, this research and training model will be continuously refined, and can be extended in future to other cultural traditions and related research questions.