CFP Techniques for Teaching Comparatively


Society for Teaching Comparative Philosophy
Call for Papers for a Panel at the American Association of Philosophy Teachers
Saginaw Valley State University
Saginaw, Michigan
July 27–31, 2016

One of the founding goals of the Society for Teaching Comparative Philosophy is to help non-
specialists integrate comparative resources into their classrooms. To help further this goal, we’d like to
organize a panel at this summer’s American Association of Philosophy Teachers’ Workshop/Conference
at Saginaw Valley State University, July 27th -31st. We’re looking for your help in sharing the importance
of comparative resources in the introductory classroom!

We are looking for proposals involving a unit from your introductory courses that is comparative. In
addition, to speak to all of our colleagues, we would like a panel that represents the breadth of
philosophical activity across analytic, continental, and historical methodologies. These approaches can be
text-based, problem-based, and involve any pedagogical styles you are currently using.

Please send your abstract (350 word max), including name, affiliation, a brief description of the unit, and
the methodologies it fits in to by February 10th . The conference website and
information can be found at and information
about the Society for Teaching Comparative Philosophy can be found at

5 replies on “CFP Techniques for Teaching Comparatively”

  1. By “a unit that is comparative” does this CFP really mean a unit that looks at philosophy that is not European/Anglo?

    The particular question is new. My longstanding peeve, which I think hasn’t really been addressed, is that the main use of the term ‘comparative philosophy’ is in phrases in which it is basically code for non-Western philosophy, a code that is inherently greatly disparaging to non-Western work – as though the main thing one would do in studying Xunzi is compare him: an activity that is at best quite peripheral in university attention to Aristotle or Descartes, however alien their ideas may be, because we aim to take them seriously. I mean, I think mainstream anglo philosophers would readily oppose a comparative approach to taking a text seriously, giving it the kind of respect that is the default attitude in reading old Euro/Anglo philosophy in (or out of) the classroom. A good philosophy teacher, I think, discourages or forbids papers that are primarily comparative.

    What and whether non-Western stuff is worth studying as [we study] philosophy is an open question, and I don’t mean to address it here. I just don’t think the terminology should embody the most pessimistic view.

    • Hi Bill, I am moved to reply because I’m just finishing reading Tim Connolly’s excellent _Doing Philosophy Comparatively_, which will be one of the readings in a class called “Comparative Philosophy” that I am teaching this semester. Tim’s objective is to highlight the values (and challenges) of doing philosophical across traditions. This requires more than one tradition, and (as we all know) often involves some sort of East vs West contrast, though of course it doesn’t have to (e.g., Chinese vs. Indian comparisons).

      As Tim emphasizes in Part III of the book, there are different ways to do comparative philosophy in this sense. But nowhere is “comparison” simply code for studying non-Western philosophy in its own right.

      I agree that that is one way to read the CFP. But there are two others. (1) Perhaps a unit that is comparative is, well, a unit that is comparative. I.e., includes multiple traditions, and explicitly thematizes the issues surrounding comparison. (2) Perhaps the idea is that by including a non-Western unit, that renders the whole course “comparative” — which would be real comparison if there is some thematization of what’s involve din comparison, or might be another way of simply saying “pluralist.”

      Fundamentally, I agree with you that we need to use “comparison” to mean (one of the varieties of) comparison, and not as code for non-Western. But this is not to say that we can’t still legitimately talk about comparison.

  2. Thanks, Steve!

    If I understand you, Tim’s “doing philosophy comparatively” doesn’t mean doing comparison. Yes? As I distinguish the doing from the studying of philosophy (sc. other people’s), I’m not sure what it means to “do philosophy across traditions.” If it means doing philosophy addressed to, and thus arguing in a way that speaks to the relevantly very disparate standpoints of, audiences in at least two traditions, then – well I’m not sure offhand what to think of it. We wouldn’t be talking about radically separate traditions; we’d be talking about traditions already engaging. I love the idea of engagement across the borders, but I’d worry about the ratio of philosophy to rhetoric here. Better to engage actual individuals in actual published exchanges, I would think. And I imagine it would be much easier for non-straddling work than for broadly straddling work to be judged first-rate (or at least second-rate) on both sides of the divide. But if one has ideas that can do the trick, then hurrah! Still I think good philosophy work tends to be driven by the abstract appeal of super-elegant ideas. The ideas would have to have two roots.

    Maybe I’m right that ‘comparative philosophy’ often doesn’t mean the comparative study of philosophies, and I’ve just drawn the wrong inference about what it’s actually code for?


    I think Steve and I are not disagreeing on his main points:

    I haven’t thought that ‘comparison’ is ever used as code for the study of non-Western philosophy. I was talking about the phrase ‘comparative philosophy’ (and ‘comparative’ as an abbreviation for that).

    Of course the CFP admits of a non-code reading (in theory); that’s why my question makes sense. (I’m still hoping for an answer.)

    I didn’t mean to give the impression that I thought the anglo philosophical mainstream would oppose the doing of comparative work, or that I do. But my words would give anyone that impression (speaking of impressions given by words).

    I think those were Steve’s points.

    More crabby meditation on those three areas below.


    I’d like to add a couple of questions to (一) my original question about ‘comparative unit’.

    (二) When the CFP speaks of “comparative resources” does it mean resources for the teaching of comparisons (or else teaching about comparing)? Or does it instead mean aids for teaching of non-Western philosophy, or for teaching philosophy with non-Western texts (the main proper use for such texts in an intro phil course, I think)?

    (三) Is the panel described in the CFP’s second paragraph supposed to be a panel whose overall concern is comparison, or a panel whose overall concern is using some non-Western texts in the classroom?

    Of course CFPs in general aim at vagueness; I have no complaint about that.



    Again, I worry that in discussions of curriculum and related issues, ‘comparative philosophy’ (and ‘comparative’ understood as referring to “comparative philosophy”) is in significant part code for the study of non-Western philosophy.

    That’s not a claim about ‘comparison’, and it’s not so much a claim about how people would use the adjective ‘comparative’ in a book of real comparison, or in a book about real comparison in general.

    There’s the question whether it is often (or even usually) such a code, and there’s the question whether that would be a bad thing.

    I can imagine someone favoring such a code in the hope that it will give some legitimacy to work on non-Western philosophy in the university. First, the phrase sounds analogous to ‘comparative literature’, an established curricular heading. Second, it gives a name to the study of Non-Western Phil that seems to stake a claim to a place in the university independent of whether people think the NWP is sufficiently worthy of philosophical engagement in the main curriculum (a test that only a handful of dead Westerners pass).

    ‘Comparative Literature’ – this too is in significant part code, yes? I mean, I suppose a university won’t have both a department of comp lit and a department of world lit or lit simpliciter. Granted, there is really such a thing as the comparative study of literature. People sometimes do it–I don’t know how much. (Even if such a term were introduced as pure code, one would expect it to influence dissertation topics, grant proposals, journal policies, etc., partly because a scholar assumes an administrator would take it literally.) In the study of literature, how much of comparison’s place has been taken by the notorious thing called simply “Theory”?

    One of the reasons for thinking ‘comparative philosophy’ is in significant part code is that its form signals an allusion to ‘comparative literature’. Another reason is that I think of serious comparison as a pretty uncommon sort of enterprise (unless we stretch ‘comparison’ farther than I think we should, to encompass all explication of non-Western philosophy published with Western audiences in mind, and/or serial presentations of different kinds of philosophy as a survey, and/or defenses of non-Western based on badly mistaken characterizations of Western).

    Here is how the code (if it exists) might tend to disparage non-Western philosophy in mainstream eyes.

    To use ‘comparative philosophy’ as the main name for the study of non-Western philosophy can suggest that in the eyes of non-Western’s best Western friends, the two enterprises largely coincide: comparing different kinds of philosophy and studying non-Western. That is, it can suggest that both (a) comparison is the main thing to do with non-Western philosophy, and (b) in the eyes of the friends of non-Western, the main kind of philosophical comparison to do focuses especially on non-Western philosophy.

    How (a) is disparaging should be obvious. Maybe it’s the main problem.

    How (b) is disparaging is that:

    First, (b) suggests that non-Western is the other philosophy, not the main philosophy. Of course, that is already the impression the mainstream has, and it is arguably correct now; but the code would suggest that the friends of non-Western assume that ranking and want to institutionalize it.

    More importantly, (b) suggests that in the eyes of the friends of non-Western, the legitimate issues and concerns of philosophical comparison—the comparison of profoundly different philosophical outlooks and processes, the difficulty of establishing mutual intelligibility—don’t much arise between parts of Western philosophy old and new—from Thomas to Moore, from Anaximander to Zeno. Whereas the fact is that of course they do. They arise daily, profoundly, between departmental hallmates, as the anglo mainstream has constant occasion to notice. In the typical anglo philosophical conversation, much of the discussion and even the tight philosophical argument is really an effort to get the parties’ conceptual gears to begin to mesh, and failure is recognized as ordinary. One imagines—I imagine that the anglo mainstream imagines—that the same would be true in any place where people are really attempting philosophy. Thus in suggesting (b), the code would be suggesting that on the whole, the friends of non-Western are out of touch with what philosophy is, as Westerners or at least anglos understand it.

    Maybe MacIntyre would say the problems of communication aren’t inherent to philosophy, they’re inherent to the use of an essentially contested basic vocabulary, a special historical predicament of modern Western secular ethics. But that’s not plausible, or it’s at least as plausible about ‘ren’ and ‘yi’ as it is about ‘wrong’ or ‘good’. Anyway it only applies to one branch of philosophy.


    Steve writes,

    I agree that that is one way to read the CFP. But there are two others. (1) Perhaps a unit that is comparative is, well, a unit that is comparative. I.e., includes multiple traditions, and explicitly thematizes the issues surrounding comparison. (2) Perhaps the idea is that by including a non-Western unit, that renders the whole course “comparative” — which would be real comparison if there is some thematization of what’s involved in comparison, or might be another way of simply saying “pluralist.”

    Perhaps. But (2) seems to me not very far different from the code reading.

    As for (1) – well, there’s comparison cast as comparison of the ideas and approaches of individual thinkers or texts, and comparison cast as comparison between cultures or peoples. The former sort of comparison is normally sprinkled through an intro course, no matter where its texts come from. Maybe my list of two sorts or castings is too unimaginative. As for the latter, I’m inclined to think that in an intro philosophy course, the latter is not a great way to cast one’s presentation of a non-Western text, especially if comparison is mainly considered within that unit as (1) suggests.

    Well — — “… explicitly thematizes the issues surrounding comparison” – that sounds like a unit in the philosophy of comparison of philosophy, not so much a unit in comparison? We’re talking now about just a few weeks in an intro course. I suppose one of the main standard tasks of any intro phil course is to get students to spend at least some of their course-related time not philosophizing about comparison of philosophies, as that is their main defense against the teacher’s philosophical challenges. This point inclines me to reject that reading of the CFP.

    Intermediate between the possible use of ‘comparative philosophy’ as code for the study of non-Western and the possible use of ‘comparative philosophy’ as a term for the comparison of different kinds of philosophy, is a third possible use, to mean the comparison of different kinds of philosophy on the assumption that “Western” is taken to be just one kind, so that all “comparative” work must be of, or with, non-Western philosophy. Steve seems to be attributing such a usage to the CFP in the indented quote just above.

    What could justify such a usage? The differences internal to the West are vast, over space and over time, separating some of the Western texts that might be used in an intro course. (Irwin’s half of Cornell’s yearlong Western Phil survey started with the whole Iliad and some plays, because of the relevant cultural differences.) There is a kind of a myth that communication between East and West has not yet been achieved; but India had plenty of indirect influence on the early Greek philosophers, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there was some Greek influence behind the development of philosophy in India after Alexander. China certainly tapped the Indian root early on. I suspect some of Locke’s work was directly influenced by his own reading of the Analects, and there were other Chinese influences on enlightenment European philosophy. India had some influence in 19th Century Europe – yes? China and India have been full of the West for a long time now. Etc. Old news to anyone who is prepared to compare among these traditions.

    Someone might be attracted to the Intermediate Usage as, in practice, a version of the code.


    In my first comment in this string I wrote,

    [comparison is] an activity that is at best quite peripheral in university attention to Aristotle or Descartes, however alien their ideas may be, because we aim to take them seriously. I mean, I think mainstream anglo philosophers would readily oppose a comparative approach to taking a text seriously, giving it the kind of respect that is the default attitude in reading old Euro/Anglo philosophy in (or out of) the classroom. A good philosophy teacher, I think, discourages or forbids papers that are primarily comparative.

    Alas. I should explain, or backpedal.

    By ‘oppose’ I meant contrast.
    ‘Default’ doesn’t mean sole legitimate.

    Here, like the CFP, I was thinking mainly of the context of teaching, in a philosophy department, where the primary purpose is to train the students in doing philosophy and (especially at the intro level, which the CFP is about) train the students in the associated basic general thinking skills, leaning against kneejerk relativism.

    By “doing philosophy” I mean (A) working toward answers to philosophical questions, not (B) studying or interpreting other people’s philosophical products or processes. (A) is the main mainstream conception of the core defining activity of a philosophy department; (B) is not a live candidate for the core defining activity. (In that way, ‘philosophy department’ is analogous to ‘physics department’ and disanalogous to ‘literature department’, so that ‘comparative philosophy’ understood as alluding to ‘comparative literature’ has the initial feel of a beginner’s gaffe.) Philosophy departments do lots of (B), as a subordinate tool. And (A) in turn is an essential tool for (B).

    Comparison is perhaps largely a tool toward (B).

    A common concern for Intro Phil teachers is a kind of beginner’s paper that simply compares the views of e.g. Locke and Descartes. This is the analog of a plot summary paper in a literature course: a paper that’s easy to write and that (except in rare cases) entirely mistakes the assignment and the point of the course. This common case is what I had in mind in speaking of the forbidding of papers. This kind of paper is the primary phenomenon I would expect anglo philosophy teachers to associate casually and immediately with the term ‘comparative philosophy’ in a teaching context. Which is not to say that they would make the mistake of confusing the two projects – but it starts on the wrong foot. Think of the intriguing topic that is abstract plot structures, and imagine its friends naming their field “plot summary studies” not as a joke. Think of the impression this would give to a mainstream that did not pay attention.

    Comments that compare are common in mainstream Western professional interpretive and even philosophical work, for reasons given earlier, which reasons are in no way unique to cross-“tradition” comparison. But these reasons have not spawned a literature dedicated to comparing e.g. Aristotle to Kant or to current work. Perhaps the reason is the same as the reason why there isn’t (I imagine there isn’t) much of a literature on comparative geography: understanding the different geographies themselves is necessary first and leaves not so much more to be said. Granted, interpreting is arguably always implicitly comparing to us; but we already file that under interpreting.

    If there’s a significant literature of east-west or cross-Himalaya comparison, maybe its leading concern is to explicate for no narrow “us”: that is, the literature’s envisioned audience straddles the traditions under comparison. Is that how it is? But that concern would make sense only insofar as both traditions are alive, which is not really true of Chinese philosophy if we’re talking specifically about traditions conceived as radically separate (which looks like the premise of Steve’s proposed readings of the CFP). Of course there are people today who simply ignore most Western work. But that’s not an easy way to be worthy of attention. Still, it worked for Wittgenstein.

    Comparative geology involves interesting generalizations.
    Theory belongs in comp lit because there can be generalizations in comparison. Does the Society think of comparative philosophy as aiming at generalizations in philosophical comparison?

  3. I’m still trying to get a handle on what ‘comparative philosophy’ means as a technical term, a name for a field. Steve, in all but the first paragraph here you seem to take it to mean comparison, comparison of philosophical views (and/or practices), while in the first paragraph you seem to say that for Tim (and you?) it’s a kind of doing of philosophy.

    Here’s Ronnie Littlejohn’s account in the IEP.

    Comparative philosophy—sometimes called “cross-cultural philosophy”—is a subfield of philosophy in which philosophers work on problems by intentionally setting into dialogue sources from across cultural, linguistic, and philosophical streams.

    This is not comparison; indeed it seems to exclude mere comparison. The alternate term ‘cross-cultural philosophy’ seems to fit Littlejohn’s definition much better, because (a) the alternate term suggests that it is a kind of doing of philosophy (while ‘comparative philosophy’ suggests the opposite, by analogy with ‘comp lit’), and (b) whereas ‘comparative philosophy’ suggests that the things don’t have to be from different shores, ‘cross-cultural philosophy’ highlights the idea that specific assumptions of radical difference may be in play.

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