Historical Understanding in China and the West Zhang, Collingwood and Mink

This essay describes and compares three attempts to provide accounts of the nature of historical consciousness, along with accompanying explanations of how one comes to have historical knowledge. It explores, compares, and contrasts the views of the late Qing dynasty Chinese philosopher Zhang Xuecheng (1738-1801) and two Western philosophers - R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943) and Louis O. Mink (1921-83). These three thinkers all present historical understanding as a distinctive type of knowledge and share the aim of defending the discipline of history as a special, independent field of intellectual endeavor. Aside from analyzing these aspects of their respective theories, this essay aims to stimulate extensive and nuanced comparisons between Chinese and more recent Western forms of historical consciousness. While the comparison presented here is but one way forward, it not only seeks to offer specific insights generated by the comparative project but also to set forth a range of themes worthy of future study. For example, the analysis presented here shows that Zhang's reflections on how historians relate to the past can contribute to current discussions of epistemic virtues.