Dao Article Discussion – Ralph Weber on Comparison in Comparative Philosophy

We continue our collaboration with the journal Dao to present featured discussions of a newly published article, available for free download here (link has been fixed). For this edition, Ruth Chang (Rutgers University) has graciously agreed to introduce and share her thoughts about “Comparative Philosophy and the Tertium: Comparing What with What, and in What Respect?” by Ralph Weber (University of Zurich). Ruth Chang’s discussion — and discussion-starter we hope — is here, below. Please feel welcome to join in.

I want to start off by thanking Steve and Manyul for inviting me to jot down a few thoughts about Ralph Weber’s very interesting paper ‘Comparative Philosophy and the Tertium: Comparing What with What, and in What Respect?’ I thoroughly enjoyed the paper and learned much from it.

Weber’s paper begins with a cri de coeur, one with which I couldn’t agree with more: “Comparison is fundamental to the practice and subject-matter of philosophy, but has received scant attention by philosophers.” Most of my research to date explores the nature of comparability in the context of axiology and practical reason, but I have often felt as if I’m whistling in the wind. Understanding the nature of comparison, I believe, is critical for understanding rationality, rational agency, the nature of values, action, and normativity in general. Weber’s paper helps demonstrate how attention to comparison is also important for what’s called ‘comparative philosophy’. It’s gratifying to come across a kindred whistler – especially, since it turns out, we’re whistling much the same tune.

We should distinguish two ‘sorts’ of comparability. One is the sort that ethicists such as myself find most intriguing, what we might call ‘ranking comparability’ – the comparability of items, perhaps reasons or alternatives for choice, with respect to some value or normative criteria that yields a ranking of those items. We might, for instance, rank-compare the act of saving five people as morally better than the act of saving one. Ranking comparability is important for thinking about the grounds of objectively justified choice and action since, it might naturally be thought, you’re morally justified in saving the five over the one in virtue of the fact that saving the give is morally better. Ranking comparability, then, is a precondition for the possibility of justified choice. (This is not to say, of course, that in arriving at a justified choice we must make any comparisons).

Then there is the sort that Weber and probably anyone reading this blog is most interested in, what we might call ‘contrastive’ comparability – the comparability of items where the point of the comparison is not to determine which item is better in a ranking sense but to draw out similarities or differences between items in various respects that help illuminate each or something else to which each or both are related. We might, for example, compare and contrast the Aristotelian and Confucian views of human nature. Contrastive comparability, then, is important as the precondition of a methodology for achieving a deeper understanding of something or of the ways in which two things are similar to or different from one another.

An example of a domain of thought that involves both kinds of comparison is legal adjudication. A judge’s ruling is justified in virtue of being backed by the stronger case (perhaps in light of default rules). And in making her ruling, the judge must engage in contrastive comparison of the present case with prior ones. That’s the analogical reasoning required by the constraint of precedent.

In these short remarks, I want to engage in a bit comparative philosophy – comparing what Weber says about comparison in the context of comparative philosophy, on the one hand, with what I believe holds for comparison in the context of practical or axiological philosophy, on the other. So I’ll be doing a compare and contrast of a view of ranking comparison and of Weber’s view of contrastive comparison. It would be grand if we could unify both sorts of comparison with a single shared structure. Weber’s paper leads the way to thinking that we can.

Weber’s paper defends four main claims:

  1. Contrastive comparisons require a respect in terms of which they are compared.
  2. They also require a ‘pre-comparative’ respect in terms of which the things compared can be brought together which may be distinct from the respect in terms of which they are compared.
  3. Everything is comparable with everything else.
  4. In doing ‘comparative philosophy’, we should be more reflective about which respects in terms of which we are drawing out similarities and differences so that we can evaluate whether appeal to those respects, such as ‘culture’, are problematic in some way and whether we should explore new respects.

I wholeheartedly endorse 4, about which I will say nothing, though I suspect that is the claim that will be of most interest to readers of this blog. I want to endorse 1 too, and just to break up the monotony of agreement quibble a bit with 2 and 3. They really are just quibbles. My aim is to see if we can maintain a parallel between the structure of contrastive comparisons and ranking ones. I think we can.

As Weber puts it, his leading question is whether a ‘tertium comparationis’ – a third of comparison – is required for contrastive comparison. The tertium comparationis is the respect in terms of which the comparison proceeds.

I’ve argued that a ranking comparison cannot proceed without a respect in terms of which the items are being compared. I call this respect a ‘covering consideration’ and conclude that all ranking comparisons must be three-place relations, such as, x is better than y with respect to the covering consideration, ‘V’. We express an incomplete thought if we say: ‘This bowl of pudding is greater than that shoe’. We need to specify the respect in which it is greater – length? mass? utility as something to throw at someone to show displeasure? I won’t repeat my arguments here because they would take us too far afield. But I’ll continue to talk in terms of a ‘covering consideration’ instead of a ‘tertium comparationis’ for reasons that will become apparent in due course (but also because I made it to only three of my 8 a.m. Latin classes while in grad school…).

Weber’s arguments for the analogous conclusion for contrastive comparison are short, sweet, and to my mind utterly persuasive. Here’s the bottom line:

1) the claim that, e.g., Aristotelian virtue is similar to Confucian virtue, presupposes some specification, if only implicit, of the respect in terms of which they are similar;

2) the claim that those views of virtue share a family resemblance presupposes a variety of points of commonality and so a variety of respects in which they are similar; and

3) the claim that one view of virtue is analogous to the other proceeds either by appeal to a general principle under which the respects of analogy are subsumed, and so rely on a point of commonality for comparison, or, a la David Wong, by case-by-case comparison of ‘sufficient similarity’, thus also requiring a third of comparison.

Thus when we compare and contrast two traditions, we need some respect in terms of which we draw out similarities and differences. Claims of similarity, family resemblance, and analogy all assert claims of commonality and thus rely on a covering consideration.

This all seems right to me. So far, so good. The parallel b/t contrastive and ranking comparability is holding so far.

Weber then goes on to say (moving to 2.) that “it is a mistake to locate the third of comparison only in the tertium comparationis as that in which respect the comparata are to be compared. There is a tertium already required to determine the comparata, and insofar as that determination precedes the comparison that tertium may be thought of as ‘precomparative’. (154) The idea here is that even before we select two comparata we must already have fixed a pre-comparative covering consideration in order for it make sense to bring those very comparata together. For example, we could take the Mengzi and the Xunzi to be two different schools of Confucianism, or we could take them to be two expressions of a single Chinese philosophical tradition (in contrast to a Western tradition). This pre-comparative covering consideration “predetermine[s] whether or not a comparison in respect of the notion of human nature will even be among the considered options.” (163). Crucially, it needn’t be the same covering consideration in terms of which the contrastive comparison proceeds.

This idea of a pre-comparative covering value, however, seems a little strange. Do we really need it? Can we just do all the work that Weber wants done by appeal to a comparative covering consideration – a tertium comparationis? I’ve argued in the case of ranking comparisons that we can. Instead of proliferating respects in terms of which a comparison proceeds – first a pre-comparative respect that allows us to bring together two items, and then a comparative respect in terms of which we compare them – we can instead simplify the domain by distinguishing the ways in which comparison might fail.

In the case of ranking comparability, sometimes items being compared with respect to a covering value are ‘noncomparable’ rather than comparable or incomparable. Two items are noncomparable with respect to a covering consideration if they don’t fall within the domain of application of the covering consideration. (Strictly, the point should be put in terms of predicates, but we can be loose without loss here). Which is better, the number four or a table lamp with respect to justice? Noncomparability holds when the items being compared with respect to a covering consideration don’t fall within the domain of application of that covering consideration. ‘Justice’ doesn’t have within its domain of application abstract numbers or table lamps; that is, the covering consideration, ‘justice’ doesn’t ‘cover’ the items being compared.

Noncomparability isn’t important for ranking comparability because practical reason doesn’t present us with practical puzzles concerning noncomparables. Similarly, it seems to me, noncomparability isn’t important for contrastive comparability because there is nothing illuminating to be gained by trying to compare and contrast two traditions with respect to a covering consideration that fails to ‘cover’ them. So instead of appealing to a “pre-comparative” covering consideration before we even attempt to compare and contrast two traditions, all we need to do is to fix on the covering consideration that matters to us in our contrastive inquiry – what’s the respect in terms of which we want to compare and contrast two traditions? – and then proceed from there. If we are conceptually confused, we’ll get it wrong and attempt to compare noncomparables. But we don’t have to appeal to a pre-comparative tertium to discover this. We can discover this conceptually, by realizing that the covering consideration of interest doesn’t ‘cover’ the items we are trying to compare. (There is an issue about whether the covering consideration needs to cover only one or all of the items being compared, but I leave that aside).

Folding in the work done by a pre-comparative tertium into the work done by the covering value just makes things simpler and allows for a nice parallel with ranking comparability, for which a pre-comparative tertium is otiose. This isn’t a real criticism of Weber but just a suggestion for how to allow the tertium comparationis do all the required work while maintaining a nice parallel with ranking comparisons.

I’ll end with a quick, again small, remark about Weber’s claim 3., viz., that everything is comparable with everything else. This claim is, I think, strictly an equivocation on the term ‘comparable’ Weber uses earlier in the paper. What Weber shows, convincingly to my mind, in the earlier part of the paper is that comparability is a relativized notion, that is, that it makes no sense to talk of one thing being comparable fullstop with another. Comparability only makes sense relative to a specific covering consideration, a respect in terms of which the items are compared. In ranking comparability, I’ve argued, it makes no sense to talk of one thing being comparable, fullstop with another. The upshot is that our very notion of comparability is three-place; it’s not that x is comparable with y, but that x is comparable with y with respect to V. Comparability is itself three-placed. So if we say ‘everything is comparable with everything else’, there is no sensible notion of ‘comparable’ we are using.

Of course, what Weber means to say is that between any two items, there is always some covering value in terms of which they can be compared. I’ve argued that the same goes for ranking comparability. You can compare the number four and a lamp with respect to any instrumental – what Weber calls ‘external’ – covering consideration, such as ‘the contemplation of which brings me greater pleasure’. (I can report that with respect to this covering consideration, the number four is better than a lamp.) Similarly, Weber notes that any two comparata in comparative philosophy can be related by being ‘of interest to me’. As he points out, in contrastive comparison, determining the right covering consideration is of the utmost importance. That takes a kind of philosophical judgment or ‘nose’ for ferreting out the respect in terms of which comparing and contrasting two traditions or theories might yield the most illumination. We shouldn’t, Weber cautions, simply assume that ‘culture’ is always the best tertium over other possibilities, like “gender, age, profession, class…philosophical position…coloniz[ed]” and so on. (pp. 167-8).

So, in sum. There is common, unified structure of comparisons in the sense of ‘ranking’ comparisons – this is better than that – and of comparisons in the sense of ‘contrastive’ comparisons – this is similar to that in such-and-such ways. Both require a covering consideration that ‘covers’ the items being compared. Weber’s excellent article helps illustrate this structure with careful and persuasive arguments.

Ruth Chang, Rutgers University

Hannah Pang detail





13 thoughts on “Dao Article Discussion – Ralph Weber on Comparison in Comparative Philosophy

  1. First of all, let me thank Steve and Manyul for featuring a discussion of my article on the blog and also Huang Yong (and the press) for providing free access to its published version. That Ruth Chang has agreed to comment on it is a great privilege for me. That her comments have turned out to be largely sympathetic to my claims and arguments gives me great satisfaction and is a source of joy (almost beyond compare, I am tempted to say).

    There are two issues that I should like to address in reaction to Chang’s comments. The first concerns the possibility of giving a unified account of ranking and contrastive comparison. I offer a rough-and-ready thought how the two ‘sorts’ of comparability could be brought together. The second turns on Chang’s suggestion that the distinction between the tertium comparationis and the pre-comparative tertium might be of little use since an appeal to a single comparative covering consideration might do all that is required. The distinction, I shall emphasize, is important for scrutinizing the comparative claims advanced in comparative philosophy and is also most helpful for formulating a dynamic account of comparison. Whether or not a dynamic account is of any interest to the nature of comparability in the context of axiology and practical reason, I do not know. But if ranking and contrastive comparison can indeed be fruitfully unified with a single shared structure, then the importance of a dynamic account of comparison might serve as an interesting point for starting the discussion.

    Ranking and Contrastive Comparison: One way of trying to unify ranking and contrastive comparison is to dispute the distinction itself. Ranking comparison, it might then be said, presupposes contrastive comparison, and perhaps the inverse is also true. The first I take for granted (could you rank something without having compared it for its differences?). The second I want to investigate in what follows. Of course, I do not mean to imply that the distinction is without its use, quite to the contrary. It is only with the benefit of Chang presenting the distinction to me in such a clear fashion that I now see my failure of taking my own characterization of comparison seriously enough. Here is the problem. The standard characterization of comparison that I regularly refer to distinguishes four aspects: (1) a comparison is always done by someone, (2) at least two relata (comparata) are compared, (3) the comparata are compared in some respect (tertium comparationis), and (4) the result of a comparison is a relation between the comparata on the basis of the chosen respect. Up until now, I have much stressed the importance of (3), have engaged with (1) and (2) sporadically, and have added a fifth aspect (concerning the mentioned pre-comparative tertium), but I have more or less ignored (4). In the literature, (4) is most often exemplified by relations such as “better than”, “equally good”, etc. In other words, according to standard characterizations of comparison, “ranking” is the very outcome of (contrastive) comparison. Chang’s own work on these ranking relations (and her powerful argument for adding the relation “on a par”) bears direct relevance and could prove to be most instructive for comparison in comparative philosophy. But, why have I failed to take (4) seriously enough? Why was I so much at ease to ignore (4), i.e. to consider only a part of what I have claimed is a standard characterization of comparison? I think it has to do with the presupposition that comparative philosophy is about drawing out commonalities and differences and not about determining which comparata is better in a ranking sense. It would be better to say that comparative philosophy is “not so much” or “should not be” about a ranking sense. In many ways and certainly in actual practice, it is either surreptitiously or manifestly about ranking, too. Say, if the result of a comparison between X and Y for the style of argument is that X is rational and Y full of contradictions, then this often translates into saying that X is “better than” Y, since rational argument is to be preferred over contradictions. A concern for such ranking has certainly motivated the criticisms of comparisons that were perceived as feeding into a deficit discourse (e.g. early China lacked concern for logic, had no notion of freedom, etc.). Obviously, most if not all ranking is highly dependent on factors far and beyond the comparison itself. If I happen generally to think that contradictions are so wonderfully inspiring and rational arguments just dead boring, then my ranking in the above example would turn out to be different. It would still be a ranking, though. It is precisely such factors beyond the comparison at hand that (knowingly or unknowingly) inform the understanding of the comparata and it is this aspect I have sought to highlight elsewhere when pointing to what I call the politics of comparative philosophy. My hunch is that Chang’s argument [cf. “Incommensurability (and Incomparability)”, 2013] against a “bare covering concept” and for the importance of “substantive conceptions of value” in “concrete choice situations” takes up a similar problématique. In any case, the relevance of these factors brings me directly to the importance of distinguishing the pre-comparative tertium from the tertium comparationis.

    The Added Value of the Pre-Comparative Tertium (I): Distinguishing between the pre-comparative tertium and the tertium comparationis is especially important for scrutinizing the comparative claims advanced in comparative philosophy. For one thing, many a comparative study starts out with some general remarks, say, about Greek and Chinese philosophy, then proceeds to examine two specific texts for their view of human nature, and concludes, if it comes to the worst, with comparative remarks about Greek and Chinese philosophy. The comparison, strictly speaking, has been about the two texts in respect of their view of human nature. But how do the two texts relate to Greek and Chinese philosophy, respectively? It seems to me that the comparer presupposes that there is philosophy here and there, that “Greek” and “Chinese” is a meaningful way to divide up philosophy, that philosophy comes with texts, and that some texts can represent a philosophy. All these issues, I would contend, are more likely to be ignored if we simply focus on the tertium comparationis (the view of human nature in both texts). Admittedly, thorough emphasis on a single “covering consideration” could also bring out all of these presuppositions. Hence, my contention is merely that the distinction helps bringing it out and helps asking a set of questions about comparative claims that a comparer might rely on in his or her comparison, but that he or she does not put up for explicit comparison. For another thing, and more frequently than one might think, pre-comparative covering considerations are indicated with a great amount of vagueness. Hence, instead or in addition to Greek and Chinese philosophy, there will also be talk of “early Greece and China”, of “two traditions”, of “the Greeks… and their Axial Age counterparts in East Asia”, of “China’s intellectual foundations” and “those of the Eastern Mediterranean”, of “two cultural traditions”, of “early Chinese and Greek moral philosophy”, of “different intellectual traditions”, or of “two civilizations”. How all of that hangs together is left to the reader to find out. It is not that some vagueness regarding the pre-comparative tertia might be unwarranted (some might even necessary), but often it simply leaves the concrete findings of a comparison dangling in the air – even if the tertium comparationis has been made as explicit as one might wish for.

    The Added Value of the Pre-Comparative Tertium (II): Beyond comparative philosophy, there is another sense in which I would suggest that the distinction of a pre-comparative tertium is important, namely for a dynamic account of comparison. Such an account might be required for understanding comparison as a mode of inquiry. I cannot go into much detail, but the idea is that by virtue of comparing, my understanding or knowledge of that which I compare changes. That which I set out to compare (what I now refer to as comparanda) is different from that which my comparison ends up having compared (the comparata). The same would be true for the pre-comparative tertium, i.e. the commonalities underlying or informing the choice of the comparanda. For all it is worth (and that might not be much), the distinctions help formulate some interesting limits of comparison, turning on what I take to be one of the fundamental philosophical puzzles in comparison, namely how two ‘things’ can be the same and different. Here is an example: It seems that the resulting comparata are still in some important sense the same as the initial comparanda. In some sense, but not in another; for they are the same and they are different. Were they not the same in any sense, but just different, then the comparison would not have been about what it was supposed (and perhaps announced) to be about. Were they just the same and no different, then no inquiry and no comparison would have taken place. Problems like this make comparison fascinating to me. I am pretty sure that comparative philosophy would profit from having a dynamic account of comparison (or, better, several competing accounts).

  2. Since no one else is chiming in, let me say a few quick things about Ralph’s very useful and illuminating post.

    1) His post helps to underscore a further difference of interest between my work on comparability and comparisons and his. Ralph is, sensibly as a comparative philosopher, focused on the activity of making a comparison, and less on the structure of comparisons and comparability, which is where my work focuses. So appeal to a pre-comparative covering value – a way of marking off things being compared as being similar enough to be covered by the covering value of the comparison is surely useful in ensuring that philosophers, engaged in the activity of making comparisons between, say, Greek and Chinese view of human nature, are comparing things that are covered by the covering value ‘human nature’. Similarly, I think that a ‘dynamic’ conception of comparison, that is, some account of how we should in fact go about making comparisons is crucially important. But I also think that we need to understand the structure of comparability and comparisons before we will be in a position to know what the right way to go about making comparisons is.

    2) I also agree with Ralph that ranking comparisons might presuppose contrastive comparisons and that contrastive comparisons might sometimes involve ranking comparisons. But the relation between X and Y with respect to V need not be a ranking relation in contrastive comparisons.

    3) As an interloper into the realm of Chinese philosophy and comparative philosophy more generally, I wonder what philosophers in this area think of Ralph’s insistence that you need to pay more attention to the activity of making and structure of (either ranking or) contrastive comparisons? Do you think paying this sort of attention to what you’re doing can help illuminate the substance of what you say in contrasting, say, the Greek and Confucian views of X? Do you think it’s important to pay some meta-attention to your methodology as Ralph suggests? Or do you think that everyone pretty much has a grip on the covering considerations sometimes implicit in the comparisons made between traditions, etc., and so all this is fuss about nothing? Or do you think Ralph gets the methodology of comparative philosophy the wrong way ‘round? (More on this last worry below).

    4) As a bit of indirect defense of Ralph (and me) on this cluster of challenges: In the realm of ranking comparisons, paying attention to the covering consideration yields big dividends because the covering consideration actually does a lot of substantive work. If we saving 5 is better than saving 1 with respect to morality, in explaining why that comparison is true, we have to say something about morality that makes this true. So the direction of explanation on my view – and I suspect Ralph’s — is: from covering consideration to comparison. That is, we the covering consideration determines which comparisons are true and which are false. This means we really need to understand our covering considerations in order to understand our comparisons. The question is whether this is also true for contrastive comparisons in comparative philosophy. The opposing view holds that we move from comparisons to covering considerations. That is, we determine the contours and substance of a covering consideration by making the comparisons, which are explanatorily prior. We just see that morally speaking saving 5 is better than saving 1. That then tells us something about morality – maybe that saving morality can be aggregative. Over in practical reason and axiology, there are folks who think this against whom I have argued. I don’t think, however, my arguments would really translate for contrastive comparisons insofar as they don’t yield ranking relations.

    5) Applied to comparative philosophy: comparative philosophers might find Ralph’s view unattractive because they think that he gets the explanatory direction of the method of comparison wrong; you make the contrastive comparisons between Greek and Confucian views of human nature first, and then slowly, as you make more and more of these comparisons, a fuller understanding of the covering consideration – human nature – comes into view. So the comparisons are explanatorily prior to the covering consideration in terms of which they are made. If this is right, then a bunch of hullabaloo about covering considerations isn’t all that helpful.

    • Thank you for this comment, Ruth. It has taken me some time to understand the issue of directionality that you are raising. Indeed, on my current understanding, I do think (and hence I agree with you) that the direction of explanation generally has to be from covering consideration to comparison – also with regard to your ranking-comparison-example about ‘saving 5 is better than saving 1 with respect to morality’. I am not much familiar with the debates about this issue in practical reason and axiology, but here is what I think (for what it is worth…). In your words, the opposing view holds that “we determine the contours and substance of a covering consideration by making the comparisons, which are explanatorily prior. We just see that morally speaking saving 5 is better than saving 1. That then tells us something about morality – maybe that saving morality can be aggregative.”

      I would argue: JUST SEEING that morally speaking saving 5 is better than saving 1 is not “making a comparison” at all, it is simply a comparative claim (perhaps based on an intuition; as it happens, Tao Jiang, writing below, mentions the possibility of a saver with a Confucian sensibility who just sees it differently). Not much is thereby explained. It is like saying that ‘Mengzi and Xunzi hold different views on human nature’ without actually having compared the two views. Of course, one is free to claim whatever. Yet, if the truth of the claim were to be established, one would still have to compare the views of Mengzi and Xunzi on human nature and that comparison would have to involve some understanding or concept of human nature functioning as a tertium comparationis. This is so regardless of whether the truth that we see that this is morally speaking the case or the truth that morality demands that this is the case is to be established.

      Furthermore, it might be worthwhile to note that the understanding of morality in the opposing view appears to undergo a change, as it is admitted that the claim tells something about morality that could not be seen prior to the comparative claim (i.e. something new that was not intuited about morality before). It is here where the opposing view seems to offer an explanation (“saving morality can be aggregative”). I must confess that I fail to see the basis for the explanation, since the proposed insight about morality was at the core of the intuition that motivated the claim in the first place. The understanding of morality only changes (and hence perhaps offers explanation) in terms of making explicit what was implicit before. The thing that gets explained is the understanding of morality that the person uttering the comparative claim already held before uttering the claim. The comparative claim turns out to be one-sidedly instrumental for the better understanding of morality. The role of the comparative elements in the claim is unclear. Crucially, it is not the comparison of these elements that sponsor the new insight. It is for this reason that I would reject the idea that any comparison has taken place. In contrast, making a comparison would (at least partly) make the understanding of morality instrumental for the better understanding of the comparanda. I am confident there would be nice examples from comparative philosophy. But can we relate that to a better understanding of ‘saving 5’ and ‘saving 1? What in fact is it that is to be explained?

      What makes the example tricky is that morality somehow serves both as its pre-comparative tertium and its tertium comparationis. The question boils down to the relation between the comparanda and the tertium comparationis AND the pre-comparative tertium, as I shall argue. When comparing x and y for z, it seems to me that z is fixed and new light is shed on x and y. The opposing view would hold that x and y are fixed and new light is shed on z. At first glance, both views might seem equally valid. The second is in my view however wrong, even impossible, if z is meant to refer to the tertium comparationis. Here the distinction between the tertium comparationis and the pre-comparative tertium is crucial. Even if someone just sees that morally speaking saving 5 is better than saving 1, then there is an understanding or a concept of morality at work here to which the person is committed. Surely, it would be permitted to ask what the person means by ‘morally speaking’ (over against ‘legally speaking’, ‘economically speaking’ etc.). The person would give some answer, perhaps a vague answer, but still an answer. That is my pre-comparative tertium. Prior to comparison, both comparanda are thought to be covered by this vague understanding of morality. Then, the comparison proceeds as the comparer applies a more definite understanding of morality to each comparanda. This is my tertium comparationis. Often there is a difference (and perhaps there must be a difference) between the a more definite tertium comparationis and a vaguer pre-comparative tertium since a comparison makes more sense if the comparer does not yet know for sure that the comparanda are fruitfully related to the tertium comparationis. It might turn out that one of them is not. But even if there is no difference between the pre-comparative tertium and the tertium comparationis at the beginning of the comparison, there should be one after the comparison. The point is that the tertium comparationis is of necessity fixed. It cannot change in the act of comparison. If it could change then there would be no basis for claiming that the comparanda are compared/the comparata have been compared IN ONE AND THE SAME respect. The tertium comparationis is what holds the entire comparison together. It is the only variable that cannot change. The pre-comparative tertium can and I would hope it does change by virtue of applying a tertium comparationis that one has not yet applied to the comparanda. If one had applied it already, then the result of that comparison would simply be part of what informs the pre-comparative tertium.

      In any case, the above perhaps opens up a way of translating the issue of what is instrumental to what into the theory and practice of comparative philosophy, where one might compare Mengzi and Xunzi for their views on human nature (1) because one is interested in human nature over and beyond Mengzi and Xunzi or (2) because one is interested in the views of these two thinkers on human nature particularly and exclusively. [Note that calling them ‘thinkers’ and not, say, ‘philosophers’ or ‘scholars’ is an interesting piece of information that would be part of what I call the pre-comparative tertium of this specific comparison. It is distinct from the tertium comparationis, which is the respect along which I compare them, i.e. some understanding of human nature. I don’t compare them how exactly they are both justly called ‘thinkers’. Yet, my finding with regard to human nature might influence my understanding of them being thinkers or something else, hence change the pre-comparative tertium.] In practice, of course, we might have several purposes attached to one and the same comparison, such as learning about Mengzi’s and Xunzi’s views on human nature and learning about human nature in general. But these are still two distinct purposes. More importantly, both purposes can only be meaningfully pursued in comparative approaches based on the fact that the tertium comparationis in the specific act of comparison is fixed.

  3. Before commenting I would like to extend our gratitude to Ralph Weber and Ruth Chang for their contributions to this blog and the excellent conversation. We are very fortunate to have such excellent conversation in this forum and we all appreciate your work here.

    (Unfortunately I am unable to connect to Weber’s article via the link above – I am receiving an error 403 – I wonder if anyone else has experienced this – thus my comments are based on the conversation here).

    I have a few thoughts from the discussion. I would like first to discuss the dynamic flow of comparative conversation and the role of the covering term. In Ruth Chang’s second comment she supplies two models for directionality of comparison and the relationship to the covering term: (1) “from covering consideration to comparison,” and (2) “…comparisons are explanatorily prior to the covering consideration in terms of which they are made.” Chang suggests she and Weber share the same view, that comparative conversations are best made from the first direction, from covering consideration to comparison. I find this helpful as well, and have some thoughts on what I have seen in comparative work.

    In terms of comparative scholarship I find practices vary. I have seen comparative work that introduces a specfic, narrow focus between two thinkers and then provides a tight conversation between those two thinkers regarding the topic in question; and I have seen comparative work (usually in longer book form) that makes broad characterizations between viewpoints and then demonstrates how the broad differences in worldviews result in concrete differences for specific topic areas.

    Even in the first approach (where the introduction of the covering topic serves as the conversational wedge) there are different conversational pathways: some comparative scholarship gives equal discussion to both parties, while other comparative scholarship discusses one thinker predominantly but appeals to another for various reasons. In my own experience I have used either of these methods. I think much depends on what is being compared and for what purpose. One method involves a full comparison between each thinker for the sake of elucidating a common theme; and a second dynamic involves appealing to a second thinker to help elucidate a concept found in the thought of the primary thinker.

    Regarding the first, the “shared topic comparison,” I usually find myself following this approach: (1) introduction of common theme between two thinkers (3) presentation of each thinker’s view on that theme, including important similarities as well as important differences; (3) discussion of how differences point towards improved understanding of initial topic; (4) consequences of improved understanding of new topic. This may be (a) to help understand or clarify issues in one of the initial traditions; (b) to illuminate new possibilities in one or either tradition; or (c ) to illuminate new possibilities with the shared topic itself and demonstrate how it reaches into a wide range of new areas.

    Changing direction slightly, I would like to discuss Weber’s interest in the pre-comparative tertium. In his response Weber discusses the pre-comparative tertium’s value in relation to one form of conversation commonly found in philosophical discourse, the discussion emerging from general observation:

    “For one thing, many a comparative study starts out with some general remarks, say, about Greek and Chinese philosophy, then proceeds to examine two specific texts for their view of human nature, and concludes, if it comes to the worst, with comparative remarks about Greek and Chinese philosophy”

    In this type of conversation (which really occurs quite frequently, especially in informal settings) we see broad cultural comparisons leading to discussions about particular thinkers and then circling right back to broad cultural comparisons. Many of these conversations occur when thinkers from vastly different traditions are beginning dialogue and are working to establish grounds of familiarity. This process actually feels like a very awkward dance in which different interlocutors are trying figure out exactly where the other is going.

    In this context I can clearly see the value of having a discussion about what, exactly is being compared and what the grounds of such comparison are. These moments in comparative philosophy actually occur quite often, especially in informal discussion. These moments also occur in scholarly work, especially in lengthy discussions. It is often useful to step back from the direct comparison between X and Y and discuss how our understanding of cover V changes in light of different context – this can be anything from a different text to a different focus (such as when the shared element, the cover, spans ethics, logic, and cosmology).

    In terms of the history of hermeneutics and comparative philosophy I feel that Weber’s interest with the pre-comparative tertium shares some of Gadamer’s concerns with interpretation and prejudice: for Gadamer the process of interpretation requires revelation of interests and biases; since a purely “objective” interpretation (one in which pre and post-translation thought completely and perfectly correspond in some magical metaphysical sense) is impossible, good interpretation involves revealing the prejudices and biases that direct or drive the process of interpretation. Prejudice in this sense is not necessarily negative, but rather a part of human nature that must be taken into account. This at least allows for a more honest discussion of how interpretation alters the course of understanding.

    In this respect I see one (admittedly mostly theoretical) question regarding the concept of the pre-comparative tertium and its relation to a dynamic model of comparison: given the nature of conversation is it possible to introduce the pre-comparative tertium prior to articulating an initial tertium? Can one make a clear articulation of a pre-comparative tertium without having first made some form of comparison? From the standpoint of strict logic the problem seems to be something of an impossibility – one cannot fully disclose the boundaries of the problem without having first explored the problem, at least in some minimal degree.

    Fortunately, as implied above, this problem may be overly conceptualized. Using the pre-comparative tertium to help frame a conversation can certainly help reign in overly ambituous comparisons. Certainly in terms of pedagogy I have found it extremely useful to discuss the context surrounding a topic of comparison. I also suspect (in Weber’s growing model) that the pre-comparative tertium can occur at different points in the conversation, and may serve as a useful way to frame or introduce a conversation. In any case I certainly appreciate Weber’s attempt to formalize the issue and bring new vocabulary to the table.

    • Thank you for these comments, which I find very interesting. I hope my reply to Ruth and the issue of directionality above sheds some light on your points, too. I certainly would deny the possibility of a clear articulation of a pre-comparative tertium in the absence of any prior comparison. The pre-comparative tertium is in my view to a large extent precisely the result of such comparison. Some of it might however also be based on, say, knowledge from testimony. My teacher told me that there is a Western and a Chinese philosophical tradition, which thereafter I come to compare for their respective views on ritual, but I might do so without questioning (let alone comparing) both comparanda for constituting a tradition, one that is philosophical and that might somehow meaningfully be divided up as Western and Chinese. It is of course not easy to say what it would mean to have compared the Western and Chinese philosophical traditions. But to some however small degree some such comparison between them has taken place when someone decides to throw one next to the other and compare them in yet another respect.

  4. Thanks to all for the in-depth discussions about comparison and comparability. I wonder whether saving one is necessarily morally inferior to saving five: should the relationship between the saver and the saved come into the consideration of the saver when s/he makes the decision about whom to save? If the one is one’s child, parent or other close family members and the five are total strangers, does that make any difference or should it make any difference when it comes to moral reasoning? What about if the one person is the sitting president and the savor is his bodyguard? In other words, should the relationship and roles between the savor/saved make any difference in our moral deliberations? Why or why not? Here is precisely where the nebulous concept of “culture” (or “sub-culture”) might come into play. I imagine a saver with a Confucian sensibility (maybe just the vast majority of regular people) would start with the family although there are also resources within the Chinese traditions that would advocate starting with the greater number. I can also imagine that even for a Confucian thinker the actual number of the strangers at risk makes a difference within a given circumstance. I imagine philosophical systems informed by other value systems like Christianity or Buddhism might argue differently (or maybe not, given the inner diversity of the traditions involved). In the case of saving the sitting president versus others, there might actually be some convergence, but that also depends on the circumstances. So it is not quite axiomatic that saving one is necessarily morally inferior to saving more. It seems to be much more complicated when many other factors are involved. If the saved are all strangers to the saver, the number can become the deciding factor (but other contingent factors might come into play as well). The fact that the abstract comparison between five versus one becomes somewhat axiomatic might be indicative of certain ways of philosophizing we are privileging.

    I am obviously simplifying things here, but I wonder whether there is anyway to stand outside a given value system and on a “neutral” ground when one is engaged in comparative philosophy. One of the values for doing comparative philosophy, for me at least, is precisely to reveal the often implicit underlying value commitments of the philosophies involved (contrastive comparison). Ranking comparison seems to be rather tricky, unless the parties involved all share similar value systems AND agree what elements are worth considering philosophically.

  5. This is a great and important discussion, thanks Ralph for continuing this line of inquiry! I agree with Ralph (and Ruth) that this is an important matter which many scholars working in the fields of Chinese or Asian philosophy neglect at their own peril. And yes, it might be that such a discussion is, for many comparative philosophers, “unattractive” (to use Ruth’s term); however,that is also one of the reasons why so many comparative approaches fail to convince other, non-comparative philosophers (that is, for lack of self-reflectiveness). In my understanding, many comparative philosophers somehow presuppose that merely “comparing” different approaches is already a philosophically meaningful activity. And, maybe following Wittgenstein (but also more recent thinkers like Stanley Cavell or Michael Hampe), comparing and describing various values, approaches, systems of thought can indeed make us more sensitive to otherness and, thereby, is, eo ipso, a meaningful and valuable activity. Nevertheless, I have often been puzzled by a certain well-meaning naivity in comparative philosophy: for there are, indeed, quite a few philosophical roads that lead nowhere or might even have harmed many people. In other words, we need to be critical not only of our own tradition, but also of other traditions. Merely comparing and appreciating other approaches might not suffice. Thus, and here is my question finally, how do we prevent that, by comparing say A and B, we impose a wrong idea of synchronicity (implying that A and B belong to the same present)? For example, the thought of Mencius and Kant can certainly be compared and ranked against each other. But isn’t there a danger that, through the very act of comparing, we impose some sort of synchronicity which, strictly speaking, isn’t there? For Mencius and Kant belong not only to different cultures, but to different historical contexts. In sum, what do you make of the different temporalities of arguments, values and approaches? Or can we just ignore this dimension, in order to concentrate on the arguments per se? But then, how to find the arguments which are meaningful, for there have been so many of them in the history of humanity?!

  6. I’m sorry for being so agreeable, but I don’t find myself wanting to quarrel with the main line of argument about the importance of the pre-comparative covering value. My nit-pick against the pre-comparative covering value was just to say that I didn’t think it did any analytic work that wasn’t already done by the covering value of the comparison, which I still don’t think. This is not to say that it can’t do all the important work that Ralph points out – namely, helping us comparers in the act of making a comparison. So there’s the dynamic act of making comparisons. Then there are the determinants of a comparative fact. My point was just that the pre-comparative covering value didn’t do any extra analytic work in the determination of the comparative facts, because all the subtle stuff that Ralph, Tao, Carl and Kai point out is taken care of by other determinants – the comparative covering value and the specification of the things being compared. So we should distinguish two interests: one in how we make comparisons and one in how the comparative facts are determined.

    The other point Ralph raises, about not really being able to make sense of the direction of explanation that he and I both think is wrong, is a big issue. But I do want to say that I think our opponents have a perfectly intelligible view, and it is in fact the dominant view in practical reason. I think it might be even dominant in comparative philosophy given Carl’s illuminating post. The idea is that you start with your intuition about why saving five strangers is better than saving one stranger (and do the dance of detail that Tao rightly points out so you know what you’re talking about) and then give reasons that support that intuition. Those reasons will be things like ‘life is really valuable’, ‘the lives of strangers are, ceteris paribus, of equal value’, ‘valuable things like lives can be aggregated’, etc., etc. It’s those justifications of your intuitions that then go into shaping and giving further content to the idea of morality, which eventually we agree is the thing we’re comparing with respect to. But the contours and content of that covering value is determined by our comparisons. Many people think this is how we make philosophy appointments. We compare and contrast – candidate A is a better teacher; candidate B is someone who would be fun to have around in the department; candidate A has more publications that are more wide-ranging but some of are a low quality while candidate B has fewer publications but all of a higher quality. We can agree on the particular comparisons without agreeing on what it is we are comparing with respect to. If I say we’re comparing the candidates with respect to ‘philosophical talent’, some of my colleagues will disagree. Some think there is no such thing as ‘philosophical talent’. If we say we are comparing with respect to ‘who is the best person to appoint’, that doesn’t have sufficient content for us to be able to fix on it first and then compare the candidates. We determine what it is to be the best person to appoint through piecemeal comparisons.

    So the challenge Ralph poses to comparative philosophy as I see it, is one that comparative philosophers might find seriously misguided (as Ralph knows, I’m on his side here but just playing devil’s advocate). Is Ralph telling comparative philosophers that they need to figure out what they mean by ‘human nature’ first before they can engage in fruitful contrastive comparisons b/t Aristotle and the Xunzi on human nature? That fixing on a fairly determinate conception of human nature is needed for comparative philosophers to talk to noncomparative philosophers, as Kai nicely suggests? Isn’t Ralph telling the discipline to come to a standstill – I mean, it’s hard enough making contrastive claims that are illuminating without filling the tall order of having a good grip on the covering value in terms of which the contrastive claims proceed. Is Ralph telling comparative philosophers to stop doing comparative philosophy and start thinking about covering values first? Why can’t we do perfectly good comparative philosophy without having a good idea of the covering value in terms of which we are making our contrastive claims? We seem to be able to do it when we are choosing b/t colleagues to appoint. Why can’t we do it when we are illuminating the similarities and differences b/t Aristotle and the Xunzi?

    Maybe, as Ralph maybe suggests, he is saying that we need to have a fix on a covering value, however vague and indeterminate. But then is this in any way controversial? Would any comparative philosopher disagree that we need to know when we are engaging in contrastive comparisons of Aristotle and Xunzi that such-and-such claim is one about their respective views about human nature, and that so-and-so claim is about their views about virtue, etc etc? Is the claim, then, simply a call to be more aware of the vague, indeterminate, murky covering value in terms of which the contrastive claims are being made? And then we leave open the question of the direction of explanation?

    • Ruth is certainly right that it is helpful to distinguish between how we make comparisons on the one hand and how the comparative facts are determined on the other hand. The determination of the comparative fact probably offers a more clearly defined and more easily workable area of inquiry, whereas a dynamic view on the comparative act involves more variables and extends the area of inquiry considerably beyond the borders of the single comparison in question. I think that both aspects of comparison (the act and the fact, so to say) deserve much more attention in philosophy (comparative and non-comparative), to be sure, but also in the humanities and social sciences more generally.

      The example that Ruth offers on how we make philosophy appointments strikes me as highly relevant. I would understand it as a typical comparison based on family resemblance. In my article (pp. 159-160), I argue that comparison based on family resemblance can do without a single tertium comparationis (that’s the entire point!), but replaces that absence with the presence of a series of tertia comparationis. So, in Ruth’s example, this in my view is exactly what is happening. We want to compare for ‘who is the best person to appoint’, but cannot simply compare in that regard. We therefore compare for a series of other regards (quantity of publications, quality of publications, fun potential, being a good teacher, etc.) – perhaps again on the basis of further family resemblances, perhaps also (and eventually surely) by turning to a clearly fixed tertium comparationis. I have no problem with piecemeal comparisons, and think that the plural (comparisons) is just the right way to describe what we often and perhaps rightly do when we compare for ‘who is the best person to appoint’. I wonder whether Wittgenstein’s insistence on ‘look and see!’ as that what we do when we recognise a commonality on the basis of a family resemblance and the possibility of an ex-post rationalization of this process as based on eventually identifiable tertia comparationis does not somehow nicely delineate the disputed realm between the intuitionists of the opposing camp and what I and (I think also) Ruth want to emphasize.

      With regard to my ‘challenge’ to comparative philosophy, I do actually want to say that “comparative philosophers … need to figure out what they mean by ‘human nature’ first before they can engage in fruitful contrastive comparisons b/t Aristotle and the Xunzi on human nature” (but, of course, our understanding of ‘human nature’ should and actually does change by comparing with a fixed notion of ‘human nature’). I wouldn’t say that this is needed primarily for comparative philosophers to talk to noncomparative philosophers, although it certainly would not do any harm (and I agree with Kai that this might be a reason for the failure to convince). It is also needed for comparative philosophers to talk to other comparative philosophers and (as Kai also points out) it is needed primarily for ourselves to know what we do when we compare (self-reflectiveness). Rather than me telling the discipline to come to a standstill, I believe that the discipline is in some sense already in a standstill. Think how cultures are so entrenched as conventional tertium that we simply more often than not forget to justify that choice as the particularly relevant tertium for the goals of our comparative inquiry. That comparative philosophy should be about the philosophies of different cultures is itself related to the specific historical situation that we live in. Comparative philosophy is a product of its time and if we fail to self-reflect why we follow the flow of our time, and there might be good reason to do so, we end up standing little chance to be just critical enough of our own doing and that of others. Reflecting on the covering consideration of one’s comparison as a standard thing to do in a work of comparative philosophy, I argue, is one of several ways helping to push the discipline forward (and yes, I think, it is frequently not reflected). There are other ways, too. To my knowledge, there is no monograph-length history of comparative philosophy (even the culturalist version has a history of several hundred years waiting to be written…). Why is that so?

  7. I am sorry to come late to this party! I have been traveling with my family and out of the professional loop. After reading Ralph’s excellent article and the fascinating discussion here, I find myself wondering whether Aaron Stalnaker’s notion of the “bridge concept” might help to articulate the dynamic relation between a pre-comparative tertium and the ultimate tertium? Here’s a bit on “bridge concepts” (for convenience, and because I’m still in an airport, I quote from Sagehood, p. 51):

    A bridge concept is a “general idea…which can be given enough content to be meaningful and guide comparative inquiry yet [is] still open to greater specifica- tion in particular cases” [Stalnaker 2006, 17]. Bridge concepts are not “hypotheses about transcultural universals,” nor do they project a set of predetermined questions (and answers) onto their subjects. Used cautiously, bridge concepts allow us to put two authors, texts, or traditions into dialogue, but careful “analysis of each thinker’s vocabulary…safeguards each side’s uniqueness within the comparison” [Ibid., 18].

    I have to board my plane now…but any thoughts on this suggestion would be welcome! Thanks to Ralph, Ruth, and the rest of the commentators for an engaging discussion!

    • Thank you, Steve, for pointing my attention to Aaron Stalnaker’s idea of ‘bridge concepts’. From what you quote I can easily see its relevance for my concerns and I look forward to reading more about it. As the quote stands, however, it seems to rule out all influence of the comparer, given that bridge concepts are said not to “project a set of predetermined questions (and answers) onto their subjects” and to “safeguar[d] each side’s uniqueness within the comparison”. I would tend to think such a state of affairs impossible. But before writing more, I should first do some reading. I see that a colleague of Stalnaker in comparative religious ethics, Thomas A. Lewis, uses ‘ad hoc frames’, which also strikes me as interesting. There is much to learn out there…

    • Hi Ralph, I see what you mean, but I think that with a fuller presentation, Aaron’s view doesn’t mean what you’re worrying it does. His emphasis is on the idea that the bridge concepts are purposely vague rather than rigidly predetermined, but they still are consciously chosen and even constructed by the comparer. One level at which a comparison via bridge concepts can be criticized is at the level of the bridge concept: choosing such-and-such bridge concept is not fruitful, or reflects a biased, colonial agenda, or what have you. In fact, one dimension of Jack Kline’s review of Aaron’s book is to criticize some of his bridge concept choices in just this way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.