IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 16 | Regions |East Asia


26-28 March 1998
Leiden, the Netherlands

Common Knowledge and Scientific Discourse: Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1614)

The three-day symposium entitled 'A medium for Common Knowledge and Scientific Discourse: the Case of Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1614)', organized by B.W. Ringger (Paris) and W.J. Boot (Leiden), brought together some twenty researchers from a number of different disciplines and countries. The issue was to understand how and from which sources knowledge is formed, to describe its modes of circulation, to draw up a list of principal vectors, be they human (literati, scientists, publishers, local politicians) or material (books, bookshops, institutions), and to examine what the end-users actually do with it.

By B.W. Ringger

Some people might be surprised about the choice of Kaibara Ekiken as the topic. Despite the production of over a hundred titles (not counting innumerable letters, notes, journals etc.) covering all manner of subjects (philosophy, education, health, pharmacopoeia, naturals sciences, geography, etc.), Ekiken has not generated much interest. At least, not in the way he has been studied up till now. Other than the odd exception proving the rule, the main endeavour has been to paint the picture of a philosophical profile that marked posterity, or to pinpoint an ontological or metaphysical (if possible original) form of thinking. Ultimately, however, the vocation of neither the man (profoundly moral) nor the work (indebted to its neo-Confucian heritage) was to stand apart from its intellectual heritage.
Why is it that some of his works, such as the Yjkun, a manual of day-to-day health precepts, are read and enjoyed even now (to the great displeasure of certain doctors who find it merely irrational)? Why is Ekiken considered one of the driving-forces behind the Japanese pre-scientific movement? Question such as these can only be understood by a dramatic change in scientific perspective. Examining the Yjkun (The Book of Life-nourishing Principles), we soon realize we are not dealing with an innovative work (in terms of content), but a composite work assimilating extant traditions (Taoist, neo-Confucian or even, albeit implicitly, Buddhist). And this is where the interest lies: his particular way of assimilating the classics. According to Mugitani Kunio (Kyoto Jinbunken): Ekiken explains his theories in the most minute detail and in simple Japanese () he constructed his own theories by picking and choosing from the Chinese corpus that which fitted the climate, society, and culture of Japan ().' For Tsujimoto Masashi (Kyoto University), the Yjkun contains a sort of purely pedagogical project: 'Ekiken wrote a kind of story on (Confucian) scholarship in which the main target was people; Ekiken's major contribution was without doubt the dissemination of his discourse on scholarship amongst people'. Here, we find two related mechanisms: on the one hand, a gradually increasing class of literate people, who studied Ekiken's published books on their own, and thereby stimulating Ekiken's writing, and on the other, the actual existence of Ekiken's texts invited a growing number of ordinary people to study, and hence contributed towards the diffusion of literacy and a kind of cultural awareness amongst laymen.
Thanks to the work of Yotoka Fuyuhiko (Tachibana Jochi University, Kyoto), we know even more about the reception that Ekiken's books were given. By studying the diaries and book catalogues in a stratum of village offcials and rural merchants in the village society of Ekiken's day (late 16th, early 18th century), Yokota showed that 'many of these people possessed collections of several hundred volumes on almost any subject'. Confucian medical books were present as both Chinese books (not different from the original) and in the form of annotated books, translations, commentaries, etc. To paraphrase Yokota, there could be said to have been an 'intellectual way of reading books' very similar to Ekiken's taste. 'The way in which Ekiken wrote books -- producing annotations and commentaries of Chinese books on Confucianism, medicine, yj (nourishing life), natural history, etc. -- corresponds very nicely with the intellectual temper of this time'. It is worth noting that Ekiken sometimes actively followed these trends by publishing in collaboration with publishers such as Ryshiken.
As a mediator within the literary world, and between this social group and the layman, Kaibara Ekiken was also partly responsible for what one could call the outcome of pre-scientific knowledge (mostly in the natural sciences, geography, etc.) This tendency can be illustrated by the Yamato Honz (Japanese Materia Medica). Based on an extensive analysis of some of its most textual aspects (language, rhetoric, drafts, etc.) and not overlooking its classification, George Mtaili (National Museum of Natural Sciences, Paris) underlined the differences between the Yamato Honz and its forerunners, especially the Bencao Gangmu by Li Shizhen (1518-1598): although there are many different forms of text () producing a progressive shift of interest from mainly materia medica towards natural products per se' Looking at the concept of common knowledge, a scientific discourse cannot be understood in abstracto, without paying full attention to printing equipment and book diffusion (Mayanagi Makoto, University of Ibaraki) or a serious study of some of the agents playing the role of knowledge-transmitter, such as Geertz for Japan (H. Beukers, Faculty of Medicine, Leiden) or Rousseau for Europe (R.P. Visser, Faculty of Sciences, Utrecht).

What thus comes over as the main goal of the symposium -- and one, we hope, which will generate further matter for debate -- is nothing less than the possibility of opening up new approaches to knowledge in the history of Japan and Europe. By merely switching the research perspective from isolated content analysis to a study of practical knowledge as process (of production, diffusion, and reception), we would like to think that the IIAS symposium will allow many of its participants to develop new interdisciplinary and international research in the field of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
:Dr B.W. Ringger (Paris) was a Senior Visiting Fellow with the IIAS in March 1998.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 16 | Regions |East Asia