Currently, I am writing about cultural generalizations in comparative philosophy (a topic which came up previously here). Here are a few issues that have come up in my research so far, which I’d be thrilled to have your thoughts on:
1. On the whole, there appears to be no consensus about the proper role for generalizations about culture or cultural philosophies in comparative philosophy: some authors find them to be helpful, necessary, and/or inevitable; others think that they are barriers to cultural understanding, or even that the aim of comparative philosophy should be to challenge and dismantle them. Does this seem like a fair characterization? If so, what explains the lack of agreement?
2. In the review linked to above, Nichols and Ihara raise the issue of evidentiary standards for generalizations about China. From what I’ve read, however, those who engage in cultural generalizations tend not to discuss how their claims might be falsified, or employ mechanisms to correct for interpretive biases that might lead to inadequately founded generalizations. Some authors even argue that counterexamples to cultural generalizations are pointless, since generalizations by their very nature concede that there are counterexamples. Given such arguments, what is the best way to challenge a cultural generalization? What are the basic standards of evidence these claims should be held to?
3. Different kinds of generalizations are relevant to comparative philosophers. For instance, we can generalize about entire cultures (China, the West, Africa, etc.) or about those cultures’ philosophies (Chinese philosophy, etc.). We can make descriptive generalizations which attempt to help us understand another culture or cultural philosophy or normative generalizations which try to defend a certain philosophical position traditionally associated with one culture or another (say, an African communalism). Are there any other relevant distinctions you can think of?
4. Some authors claim that there is an important difference between cultural generalization and cultural essentialism, in that the former practice concedes that there are important exceptions, subtleties, complexities, and so on with respect to the culture in question. However, given how quickly generalizations come to dominate cultural discourse—they are “infectious,” as one critic puts it—is this a meaningful distinction?