Matters of Fact: Language, Science, and the Status of Truth in Late Colonial Korea

Christopher P. Hanscom, University of California, Los Angeles
Cover detail. Inmun p'yŏngnon (Liberal Arts Review, Aug. 1940), a colonial-era journal in which Sŏ Insik frequently published.
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This article addresses the status of the fact in literary and historical discourses in late colonial Korea, focusing on the elaboration of the relationship between scientific and literary truths primarily in the work of philosopher and critic Sŏ Insik (1906–?). It points to a growing tendency in late 1930s and early 1940s Korea to question the veracity of the fact (or of empiricism more broadly) in an environment where the enunciation of the colonial subject had been rendered problematic and objective statements had arguably lost their connection with social reality. In a period when the relationship between signifier and referent had come into question, how did this major critic understand the relationship between science and literature, or between truth and subjectivity? Sŏ warns against a simplistic apprehension of the notion of truth as unilaterally equivalent with what he calls “scientific truth” (kwahakchŏk chilli)—a nomological truth based on objective observation and confirmation by universal principles—and argues that a necessary complement to apparently objective truth is “literary truth” (munhakchŏk chinsil). Against the fixed, conceptual form of scientific thought, literary truth presents itself as an experiential truth that returns to the sensory world of the sociolinguistic subject (chuch’e) as a source of credibility.

Keywords: literary history, colonial discourse, colonial modernity, factuality, science, scientific truth, Sŏ Insik, late colonial Korea