Humanities research in times of great changes

By ZHANG JIANG / 09-01-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Each generation has its own generation of scholarship. Times of great social changes are often times of great academic and intellectual development. The world today is undergoing great changes unseen in a century. This is a change in the world political pattern, a change in the international governance order, and this is also a critical period for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. From the cultural perspective, the great changes mean that various civilizations exchange and learn from each other, getting inspired by multitudes of thoughts. It also means that the humanities are facing new practical challenges and development opportunities. It is the purpose and mission of the humanities in the era of great changes to look at the world and look into the future based on China’s reality, further promote theoretical innovation, advance the construction of the “disciplinary system, academic system, and discourse system,” and provide theoretical support for the great practice of the new era. At this moment, I would like to share a few of my observations on several relationships. 

My first observation is regarding subjectivity, which focuses on the relationship between nativity and cosmopolitanism. The biggest change of all is the rise of developing countries including China, which are moving closer to the center of the world stage. Socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era. The CPC has led the Chinese people to embark on the uniquely Chinese path to modernization and created a new model of human advancement. China is in the historical intersection of the “Two Centenary Goals” and in a critical period of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. China is inseparable from the world, and the world is inseparable from China. Chinese culture is both local and global; Chinese scholarship is both local and global. If we don’t base ourselves on our own country and study China’s issues, Chinese scholarship will lose its foundation, characteristics, and subjectivity; if we do not regard the world and observe China in the pattern and trend of world scholarship, Chinese scholarship will be isolated from the main trend of world scholarship and lack innovation, vitality, and universal significance. Since the reform and opening up, the disciplinary system of philosophy and social sciences in China is constantly improving, the research team is growing, and the research level and innovation ability are constantly increasing. In the new era, Chinese cases, literature, experience, wisdom, and even programs must and will become the direction and focus of academic research. In the face of the profound changes in the world unseen in a century, it is necessary to strengthen subjectivity. We should not only break the superstition about the Western ideological system, but also promote the construction of a community with a shared future for mankind. This is a fundamental and prerequisite judgment. 
My second observation concerns value, which stresses the relationship between basic research and applied research. In Karl Marx’s words, the value of academic research is “to change the world.” The social changes in contemporary China are extensive and profound, and the practices and innovations in contemporary China are magnificent and unique. Profound changes in social life and the people’s new expectations for a better life have put forward new and higher requirements for the humanities. New topics of the times are becoming a powerful driving force for theoretical innovation. The only path to academic prosperity in the era of great changes is to concern “the top priorities of the country,” strengthen problem-oriented awareness, center on national overall situations, major affairs, and major plans, constantly discover, analyze, and solve problems, organically integrate basic research and applied research, and mutually reinforce basic research and applied research. Basic research focuses on explaining the world with innovation theory, and applied research focuses on transforming the world with research results. Basic research provides theoretical support and knowledge reserves for applied research, and applied research provides a starting point and practical path for basic research. Basic research must be the theoretical refinement of the questions of the times in order to be deeply rooted in the hearts of the people, and applied research must be the practical response to the questions of the times in order to realize its value. Based on the development of practice, it is the mission and responsibility of the humanities to respond to the concerns of the times, conduct research for our country and our people, and sublimate the fresh experience created by the people in practice into theoretical achievements and practical wisdom. 
Path of academic research
My third observation is about the path of academic research, which focuses on the relationship of disciplinary subjects and disciplinary integration. The significance of academic research lies not only in academics itself, but more in social development. Disciplinary differentiation is one of the most important achievements in the development of human civilization. Without disciplinary differentiation, there would be no modern science, and without modern science, there would be no modern civilization. Disciplinary integration is a realistic requirement of social development in the past century, especially in the era of great changes. Its essence is to break down the barriers of disciplinary differentiation, and confront directly the world itself, things themselves, and problems themselves as far as possible. The whole of academic history is not only a process of continuous differentiation and specialization of disciplines, but also a process of continuous intersection and re-integration of disciplines. These two aspects blend and permeate each other. The rapid development of Chinese academia in the past 40-odd years is a process in which emerging disciplines and interdisciplinary sciences continue to emerge and provide new theoretical perspectives and knowledge growth points for various majors. In essence, cross-interdisciplinary integration is the trend of development, a path for innovation, and an unavoidable practical need. Of course, we must also emphasize that disciplinary integration is by no means the dissolution and elimination of disciplines. Its premise is based on the disciplinary subject. Its purpose is still to highlight the discipline characteristics of the main disciplines, underscore their value, and strengthen their advantages. 
My fourth observation regards methodology, which touches on the relationship between big data and down-to-earth research. In recent years, the “big data method” has become a hot topic in academic circles, and “digital humanities” are on the rise. In the field of the humanities and social sciences, research results obtained using big data methods are also emerging one after another. This is the result of technological development and disciplinary integration, and its development prospect cannot be underestimated. However, it must be recognized that big data methods and digital humanities are neither the whole nor the destination of academic research. Quantitative research must be combined with qualitative research in order to penetrate the fog of phenomena and reach the essence of things. Big data research must be combined with grounded research in order to break through technical thinking and understand phenomena and their social essence. Chinese anthropologist and sociologist Fei Xiaotong was committed to fieldwork, went deep into the primary level of society, interpreted reality and society, and read life and people. His Economy of Jiang Cun is praised as a “milestone” in anthropological research, because he walked out of the study, went beyond books, really rooted academic research in the land of China and in society and people’s hearts. Fei’s academic path, just like his academic achievements, still has profound practical value and historical significance even in the era of information and big data. 
In the era of great changes, the practice of socialism with Chinese characteristics provides a broad stage for highlighting the “Chinese characteristics” of philosophy and social sciences, and also raises new tasks and requirements for philosophers and social scientists. According to General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping, “we must develop our philosophy and social sciences that are grounded in Chinese conditions, learn from other countries, show humanistic care, research into history, focus on the present, and look into the future. They should display salient Chinese features and style in such areas as guiding principles, range of disciplines, academic system, and discourse system.” Socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era. Philosophers and social scientists can be worthy of this great age only by consciously answering the questions of China, the world, the people, and the times, and taking on the important missions of responding to the call of the times and solving the problems of the times. 
Zhang Jiang is director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Hermeneutics at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This article was edited from his paper submitted to the forum.