Perspectives on Change

In different places and times, people use and operate with different concepts, even though they might use the same terminology. In the international workshop “Concepts in Transition” (September 2015, 9–11) held at the URPP Asia and Europe, scholars from various disciplines came together to approach this phenomenon. As could be seen in various contributions as well as in the unfolding discussions, this topic is a demanding one, but also provides great insights if properly approached.

Christoph Mittmann

Theories of concepts are being developed by several academic disciplines, reflecting the plurality of views on mind, language, and philosophy. Focusing on these developments, the workshop “Concepts of Concept” was organized in 2014 by members of the research group “Comparative Conceptual Research” of the URPP Asia and Europe. It addressed the issue of how “concepts” are defined in analytic philosophy, history, linguistics, and psychology. The aim of the 2015 workshop—organized by Wolfgang Behr, Thomas Hüllein, Polina Lukicheva, Christoph Mittmann, and Philipp Hetmanczyk—was to take some of the results from the former workshop as the point of departure and to analyze how fundamental concepts like space, time or practice are defined and applied in different disciplines.

To provide common ground for the participating scholars, concepts were defined as means by which research domains can impact each other: changes in domains can occur as a result of a concept transition from one domain to another. For example, the conceptual input from cognitive sciences, semiotics, and phenomenology into “classical” art history has turned art history into a more broadly defined discipline when it comes to studying images per se. In recent years, an interdisciplinary understanding of concepts that focuses on the crossing of boundaries between research domains has gathered momentum in cultural studies. How concepts move from one domain of knowledge to another, and what changes then occur both to the concepts and the involved domains, are being investigated with the aim of revealing hitherto unnoticed properties and functions of concepts and of understanding more fully how they contribute to change in various domains.

Questions of this type are even more relevant for scholars involved in cultural or regional studies, since ambiguity may arise in the process of comparing language use in various cultural and pragmatic settings. If, for example, the Chinese term wèi 位 (customarily translated as “place”) is analyzed by scholars trained in “Western” paradigms, European notions of “space” are involuntarily superimposed on the Chinese term and may interfere with the indigenous epistemic context. The latter problem revolves around the applicability of pre-established European concepts and categorizations of knowledge for other regions of the world.

Concepts influenced by subjects

After the opening remarks of Mareile Flitsch (University of Zurich), Ralph Weber (University of Basel) gave a short summary of some of the questions and results from the previous workshop “Concepts of Concept” and introduced Raji C. Steineck (University of Zurich), who delivered the keynote lecture.

Focusing on Africa, Phillipp Seitz (University of Leipzig) proposed in the first panel to use Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms as an adequate means both to limit and expand the concept of culture itself. Oleg Benesch (University of York) turned to Japan and specific conceptions of Individualism that were formed and used in Modern Japan. He highlighted the different notions of the terms Nation and Identity and how their application helped to define different concepts of Individualism. Rebecca Pates (University of Leipzig) addressed the issue of how the term “human trafficking” is defined and used on different administrative and juristic levels. She showed how the same person can be considered a victim of human trafficking or not, depending on how institutions (NGOs, the police, legal courts, etc.) perceive and manage each case. One conclusion from the final discussion was that subjects who operate with concepts play a crucial role in the process of defining them. However, in many cases this fact is not properly addressed in the course of research.

Additional difficulties in translation

The second panel focused on how the Outside is conceptualized. Juljan Biontino (University of Seoul) showed in a case study how imperial rule influenced discourses on burial practice on the Korean peninsula under Japanese rule. In this period, various discourses made those practices explicit and in many cases the positions of the subjects often were influenced by conflicting opinions and social influence. Belief was also the central issue in Zhu Li’s (University of Konstanz) case study of Chinese translations of the Passion story. She pointed out that, depending on textual and historical contexts, translations themselves lead to different meanings and connotations that are highly influenced by Chinese terminology since they bear their own meanings already. Accordingly, the message of the same story differs from case to case. A Christian topic was also addressed by Jens Rüffer (University of Bern) in his study of the concept of space within a monastery. He pointed out that even though the building’s architect(s) and the clerics that use it afterwards plan and work on the same ensemble of buildings, they seem to have a different concept of space. Thus, liturgical space and architectural space are not synchronized, which subsequently affects the liturgy. Brian Baumann (University of California, Berkeley) closed this panel by his talk about emptiness as the starting point for making sense out of this world. He argued that an alternative way of world making would be to embrace this emptiness as the beginning for our intellectual endeavors. In that sense, the subject can be more creative in the process of making sense of the world.

Concepts in different scientific disciplines

The third panel followed concepts across the boundaries of scientific disciplines. Space was the main topic in this panel, featuring Steven Savitt’s (University of British Columbia) elaboration on the concept of “space-time” and how space and time, traditionally thought of two separate dimensions, are in fact intrinsically connected to each other. Because of this link, it is possible to “see the past” if telescopes take pictures of galaxies and stars that are thousands lightyears away from earth. Although it is possible to understand that what we see when we look at the sun at a given moment is not the sun in its most current state, but the sun as it looked a few minutes before due to the delay with which its light reaches our eyes, it is difficult to perceive the movement of the sun as delayed. This led to the question of whether information that is scientifically true and meaningful to certain areas of human activity (e.g., exploring deep space with large-scale telescopes) might impact how we perceive the world on a level that is not driven mainly by rational thought.

Catherine Stuer (Denison University) addressed landmarks in China and how certain geographical spots evolve into spaces represented in poetry and history, as well as how these locations and their representations mutually impact each other. An important driving force in these processes is the link between geographic locations and identity as it is constructed in a given area. Sacred mountains and holy ponds might legitimize a whole dynasty and inspire generations of poets, which in turn might impact the location. These locations turn into reference points to legitimize, but also to challenge identity and power, which was strikingly similar to the importance attributed to Korean burial sites discussed earlier by Biontino.

Rainer Schützeichel (ETH Zurich) analyzed the history of “space” as a design element in city planning. For a long time in Western European city planning, space was what was left over after houses, churches, wells and monuments were built, though it became a design element in the 19th century. Streets, squares, and spaces between houses did play a role prior to this moment, but a significant shift occurred when psychological aspects such as the perception of individuals walking through the streets of a town or city center were deliberately integrated into the planning process. In this case, studies addressing mechanisms of human perception led to a different perspective on city planning methods and, ultimately, made city planners aware of space as an important tool in their work.

Manifold transformations

Andrea Bréard (University of Heidelberg) followed up on the links between different fields of knowledge by elaborating on how authors and artists integrated mathematical tools and methods into their work. Her talk offered insight into the creative potential of applying rigorous mathematical processes in literary composition, explaining how an almost mythical belief in mathematical precision and logic made artists try to unlock the cosmic order. Bréard contributed an important element to the ongoing discussions by drawing attention to “operational” and “structural” features of concepts. While “operational” aspects allow certain things to be done to and with concepts, the structural aspects define the concept itself. It is important to understand that, depending on the circumstances, sometimes the operational and sometimes the structural elements of a concept might be more influential, leading to transitions of concepts between cultural, geographic or epistemic domains or changing concepts themselves over the course of time.

During a young scholars’ panel, doctoral and postdoctoral students from the University of Zurich introduced their ongoing research projects. Helena Wu shed light on the Lion Rock in Hong Kong that is described and depicted in various forms of art, and is therefore in constant flux. Aymon Kreill’s presentation was about contemporary Cairo. Based on his fieldwork, he described the social and political change that contemporary society witnesses. Daphne Jung closed this panel with her studies in art history.

In the last panel, Kwan Tze-wan (University of Hong Kong) concentrated on the issue of translating philosophical classics from one language into another. Whereas Chinese academia focuses on issues that deal with different philosophical conceptions, Kwan shifted his attention towards the linguistic structure of those translations. For this purpose, he incorporated lexical field theory. During his talk, he addressed the issues of the translation’s readability, problems caused by the syntactic-typological distance of source and target language and, last but not least, issues of consistency in the translation of terms. In his conclusion, he noted the importance of the complete understanding of the source language for a successful translation.

Friedrich Wolfzettel (Goethe-University Frankfurt) closed the workshop with a study of the transformations the sublime underwent leading to the category that we still use today. Initially, the sublime had a core function for social conventions and only became a critical category in the works of Boileau. Those French translations influenced Winckelmann’s ideal of sublime simplicity. Later on, Kant redefined it as man’s inner response to outer impressions and his awareness of his own autonomy against social constraints. Thus, it formed the counterpart to social values as such. Lyotard made the final step towards the modern definition of the sublime that is still used today.

Overall, the workshop reached its goal by further intensifying the discussion about concepts and their transition in an interdisciplinary manner. To make the results accessible to a broader audience the organizers of the workshop are now working together with the participants in order to publish the contributions and the insights gained. Hopefully the discussion can be continued in the future on the occasion of a similar event.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, pp. 17–19)