Hannah Pang detail
[Guest Blogger, Timothy Connolly, provides us with our first featured post. Please address replies directly to Tim.]
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?


  1. Hi Tim! Roger Ames certainly falls into the category of scholars supporting the use of cultural and traditional generalizations [as well as cultural and traditional reductionism]:

    “While it is always dangerous to make generalizations about complex cultural epochs and traditions, it is even more dangerous not to. In pursuit of understanding, we have no choice but to attempt to identify and excavate these uncommon assumptions, and to factor them into our understanding of the Chinese tradition broadly” (Ames 1993).

    “Encountering the unsummed richness of the original texts themselves, we as interpreters are always people of a specific place and time. As such, any cross-cultural interface will in itself be a formula for an inescapable cultural reductionism” (Ames 2011, p. 25).

    I’m currently comparing Ames and Hall’s use of generalizations for understanding the Daodejing [i.e., the so-called “four presuppositions of Daoist cosmology”] with Hans-Georg Moeller’s reading of the text. Instead of implementing externally derived generalizations, Moeller focuses on reoccurring images throughout the text [e.g., the wheel, water, the female, the root, etc.].

    If shown that one can understand a text [in this case the Daodejing] without the use of generalizations, then, at the very least, Ame’s preceding claims regarding generalizations are false. I think Moeller’s thematic reading opens the door to doing just that.

    Ames, Roger. Sun-Tzu: The Art of Warfare. Ballantine Books: New York, 2010 (print edition 1993). Kindle eBook.

    Ames, Roger, and David Hall. Dao De Jing “Making this Life Significant”: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Print.

    • Sebastian,
      I don’t see how these two projects (Ames’ cross-cultural generalizations and Moeller’s indigenous reading of the Laozi) are in conflict. Ames’ whole point, if I understand him correctly, is that if you try to read the Laozi without taking stock of your own cultural assumptions (e.g., what do we read into the term “mystery”? what do we assume about the “female”?), you cannot accomplish what Moeller is trying to accomplish. The two projects are complementary: first take stock of your own cultural assumptions so that you do not carelessly read them into an indigenous text, then attempt to understand the indigenous text on its own terms. If you put the cart before the horse, texts from other cultures will seem very familiar–which is comforting to some.

    • Dear Brian,

      If I may follow up on your comment–

      One of the main arguments of the anti-generalization crowd is that taking stock of one’s cultural assumptions and then striving not to project them onto another culture’s philosophy easily turns into its own kind of projection. We understand indigenous texts not on their own terms, but rather as a “myth of the Other, a symbol of difference, the imaginary foil to whatever the West is supposed to be” (Longzi Zhang, Mighty Opposites, 16-17).

      In your view (or in your understanding of Ames’ view), how do we avoid this kind of reverse projection?

      Also, what does it mean to take stock of one’s own cultural assumptions? Who do I ask if I want to know what my culture thinks about, say, animal rights? (Michele Moody-Adams has a good discussion of this example in her book *Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture, and Philosophy*.) What counts as a representative view of a particular culture? These are questions that, as far I’ve read, the pro-generalization crowd does not have good answers to.

    • I’m trying to understand how being cautious about projecting assumptions entails projecting “one of its own kind.” I understand the warning against creating a myth of the Other, but I don’t see how being cautious about one’s own assumptions necessarily leads to that.

      As for taking stock of one’s own assumptions, it’s not all that difficult. Consider the notion of a triangle. We understand it naively as a three-sided figure. Surely the early Chinese had a notion of a triangle that did not differ substantially from this naive view. Now consider the genesis of the concept represented by the term “triangle” and how it maps onto the material world. Suddenly, all kinds of assumptions come into play regarding what a concept is, what reality is, and how concepts map onto reality. If one wishes to take stock of one’s inventory, simply consider what you mean by these and look at what you consider to be representative texts from your own tradition to which you would look for answers (from which you may have been influenced in your upbringing or education). If Parmenides is representative of a Western view, his influence may bleed into one’s own view (even if one has never even heard of Parmenides, per se (perhaps via Plato)). Projecting that view onto the early Chinese would very likely be a mistake.

    • Tim wrote
      One of the main arguments of the anti-generalization crowd is that taking stock of one’s cultural assumptions and then striving not to project them onto another culture’s philosophy easily turns into its own kind of projection. We understand indigenous texts not on their own terms, but rather as a “myth of the Other, a symbol of difference, the imaginary foil to whatever the West is supposed to be”

      Brian asked in response:
      I’m trying to understand how being cautious about projecting assumptions entails projecting “one of its own kind.” I understand the warning against creating a myth of the Other, but I don’t see how being cautious about one’s own assumptions necessarily leads to that.

      Here’s an attempt at a purely speculative answer:

      Assumptions that can be called cultural in that for each of them some group may not share it, are necessary for thought and communication. If too much is held open, too much signal is needed to communicate even a little. So it would seem that the effort to hold a great deal open leads either to paralysis or the reliance on unnoticed assumptions – i.e. presumably some combination of (a) one’s own culture’s views only this time not noticed, and (b) an idea that there is a default picture: a set of views one would have in default of cultural assumptions, or in default of (say) the West’s cultural assumptions (e.g. without Cartesian Dualism, we’d all be noble savages sharing property).

    • Dear Bill,

      Thanks for this very thoughtful comment.

      I guess what I am interested in is what grounds these cultural generalizations in the first place? You say that we can’t communicate without them– so it seems that they couldn’t be derived from prior communication. So where do we get them?

    • Thanks Tim! It seems to me that in this discussion the term “cultural assumptions” is being used in two ways:

      (a) assumptions about a culture (one’s own or another’s)
      (b) assumptions or views (about anything) that are part of a culture.

      For example, you write above: “Also, what does it mean to take stock of one’s own cultural assumptions? Who do I ask if I want to know what my culture thinks about, say, animal rights?” Here “one’s own cultural assumptions” has to mean “one’s own culture’s assumptions” — i.e., sense (b).

      In my comment I was using the phrase in sense (b), because that’s how it was used in what I was answering.

    • Hi Brian,
      Ames and Hall offer up the so-called “four presuppositions of Daoist cosmology,” which are the following:

      “[i] The reality of time, novelty, and change; [ii] the persistence of particularity; [iii] the intrinsic, constitutive nature of relationships; [iv] the perspectival nature of experience – taken together, these several presuppositions that ground the Daoist worldview and provide Daoism with its interpretive context set the terms for optimizing experience” (Ames and Hall 2003, pp. 21-22).

      They argue that these traditional generalizations are necessary to understand the text, even if they themselves are not explicated within the text itself. Ames and Hall maintain the Daodejing presents us with wu-forms [e.g., wuwei 無為, wuzhi 無知, and wuyu 無欲] that allow us to maximize our “creative potential” in such a world as that expressed in the four presuppositions of Daoist cosmology (Ames and Hall 2003, pp. 36-48). If we can understand the four presuppositions of Daoist cosmology, then we can understand the regimen of self-cultivation found in the Daodejing.

      The problem, however, is that the four presuppositions [presented on pages 13-22] are created by Ames and Hall. They are, in effect, creating an Other [as defined by Tim in his preceding post].

      [By extension, Ames elsewhere, in the essay “Knowing in the Zhuangzi,” explicitly applies these presuppositions of Daoist cosmology to the Zhuangzi, to provide an interpretive framework to the happy fish passage from the “Autumn Floods” 秋水 chapter (Ames 1998, pp. 219-228).]

      While Ames appears to have good intentions, he is implementing generalizations without first proving their veracity. If he could somehow prove their veracity, then he was able to understand the sources from which he is deriving the generalizations without such generalizations. If the latter is possible, then he can understand these sources on their own terms. If he can understand these sources on their own terms, then why can’t he understand the Daodejing [or, by extension, the Zhuangzi] on its own terms?

      Stated somewhat differently: If the generalizations aren’t made up by the culture doing the examining, then they are coming from a source within the culture under examination. If we can understand this source without generalizations, then Ames is wrong to universally state that we cannot understand conduct cross culture analysis with traditional and cultural generalizations (see Ames 2011, p. 25).

      Ames, Roger. Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011. Print.

      Ames, Roger. “Knowing in the Zhuangzi.” Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi. Roger Ames, ed. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Print.

      Ames, Roger, and David Hall. Dao De Jing “Making this Life Significant”: A Philosophical Translation. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Print.

    • Oops, I botched my last sentence. It should read: “If we can understand this source without generalizations, then Ames is wrong to universally state that we cannot conduct cross-cultural analysis without traditional and cultural generalizations.

    • I’m sorry to disappoint you, Sebastian, but I am not an apologist or proxy for Roger Ames. He is more than able to speak for himself. If you want me to respond regarding my own comments, I’m more than happy to.

    • Sebastian, just to be clear, I can speak in general terms about how I understand Ames’ methodology–mostly insofar as I agree with it. I don’t feel comfortable, however, defending his actual writings or specific claims. If you can put your problems in more general terms, I’m happy to take them up.

      For example, below you talk about getting out of the hermeneutic circle. My understanding of hermeneutics is that the hermeneutic circle is not something we can ever escape. The process is one of constant self-monitoring, humility, and discovery. Absolute certainty is not an option.

      You seem to be suggesting that because Hall and Ames are able to characterize Daoism on its own terms, they have escaped the bugaboo of cultural presuppositions and that if they can do it, then anyone else can, so why worry about cultural presuppositions in the first place? Do I have your complaint correct?

    • I apologize for my lack of clarity, because I thought I was responding to your comment. You made a positive claim about Ames’ methodology, and I tried to show that Ames is not merely taking stock of our own cultural assumptions.

      Be that as it may, I guess the clearest way to state my concern is as follows: Generalizations used to reveal our own cultural assumptions are themselves tainted by our own [typically pre-reflective] assumptions. If the generalizations are as tainted by our own assumptions as simply reading the texts without postulating the generalizations, then why postulate the assumptions in the first place?

      Ultimately, if the generalizations are being derived from the texts, then at some point someone is just reading the texts. Why can’t everyone just read the texts? So, it seems you have my complaint right to an extent.

    • “Generalizations used to reveal our own cultural assumptions are themselves tainted by our own [typically pre-reflective] assumptions.”

      It all depends on what you mean by “tainted” and how much weight you give to it. You seem to be saying: we can never escape even our grossest biases, so why even bother trying? Is that what you mean?

      My understanding of the basic hermeneutic process (I’m thinking primarily of Gadamer, or even Nagel) is that one interrogates one’s biases (including cultural assumptions) in order to free oneself, as much as possible, from their effects. While the ultimate goal may be to achieve a sort of “view from nowhere,” this final goal is generally understood as unachievable. But that does not make the attempt, itself, worthless.

      There has been some talk recently about implicit bias in the profession of philosophy (e.g., Some philosophers and even programs have begun to act on this information (e.g., or This, to me, is analogous to the hermeneutic process.

      Cultural assumptions may infect my pursuit of self-understanding, and perhaps some of these are resistant to discovery, but not all of them are. Perhaps, you are a cynic in this respect and believe that even though I can discover some of my own biases, or assumptions, that doesn’t mean that the ones that really matter don’t remain hidden. That is possible, but the belief that it is actually the case is as unfalsifiable as the belief that it is not the case. If I have to choose between the two, the second alternative–that I can excavate some of my biases and that the realization of them will have some kind of positive effect–seems the more likely to be true.

    • Dear Sebastian,

      Thanks for these comments. Here is one thing I am unclear on:

      “If shown that one can understand a text [in this case the Daodejing] without the use of generalizations, then, at the very least, Ame’s preceding claims regarding generalizations are false.” How will we know if we have understood the text in this case? Can’t the proponent of generalizations argue that however much we think we have understood it, we are missing something crucial?

    • Hi Tim,
      That is certainly how a sympathetic supporter of generalizations would respond. We cannot know that we have properly understood the texts, because we are stuck within [something like] the hermeneutic circle. However, postulating generalizations doesn’t get us out of the circle, either. That is because the opponent of generalizations would respond by asking: How would we know we properly understood the generalizations, and, additionally, how would we even prove the veracity of the generalizations [see my preceding response to Brian]?

    • Thanks for these responses, Sebastian. Perhaps a moderate position in regard to generalizations is to use them when necessary but admit that they are provisional?

    • Could you give an example of a generalization that is (a) necessary [even if it is merely provisional], and (b) not itself tainted by our own cultural assumptions?

  2. Oops, the second quote came from the following source:

    Ames, Roger. Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011. Print.

  3. Timothy, this is an interesting post. I read comments from the link you provided, and Carl seems on the mark.

    1 (&4). Here is the basis, as I understand it, of the fear of generalizations, and you bring it up in #4 in reference to cultural essentialism: when we essentialize, we risk stereotyping or trivializing, and either of these two can result in the dehumanization of the members of other cultures. This is an important worry and one of which historians seem acutely aware. Both of the positions you give in #1 are, in my opinion, legitimate and not necessarily in conflict. Scholar A makes generalizations in order to make point P. Scholar B comes along with a different angle, sees gaps in Scholar A’s generalizations and notes the inadequacy of generalizations in order to make point Q. We now have points P and Q in the literature and are richer for having them (assuming the arguments are well made).

    2. This is a great question and one that is not easily answered. From what I understand about historians’ qualms with philosophers engaged in historical discussions, the gripe is that philosophers are quick to discount pesky details. For instance, a philosopher may note the inherent tolerance of Confucianism. Then a historian comes along and says: what about the suppressions of Buddhism that occurred in both China and Korea that were fueled in part by rhetoric from hard-line Confucians? I think what we forget is that this tension between generalizations and the chronicling of detailed facts is with us even in current events. For instance, consider the seemingly intuitive claim that Obama’s governing philosophy is liberal. A political scientist may come along and provide a litany of counterexamples (Guantanamo, drones, surveillance…). There is no easy way out of this conundrum except to proceed with caution and humility. Make your case. And be prepared for further discussion.

    3. Your descriptive/normative distinction is interesting. On the descriptive side, the level of detail is important. One can make generalizations about Daoism, about pre-Qin Daoism, about pre-Qin positions that may be associated with what was later to be known as Daoism, about the Zhuangzi, about the Inner Chapters of the Zhuangzi, about Chapter one of the Zhuangzi, about Zhuangzi’s use of homophones bearing the ancient equivalent of the sound “yi” in Chapter 1, and so on. The level of detail one uses will be a function of the point one is trying to make. As for the normative side, I’m not sure that “normative” is necessarily the best term. If I state that Xunzi was correct in describing human nature as malleable, is my claim normative? If I state that Zhuangzi was correct in viewing human action as ontologically consistent with other kinds of motion in nature, is that a normative claim?

    • Thanks for these very helpful comments, Brian. I especially appreciate the part about being humble, proceeding with caution, and being ready for debate.

      You are right that the tension between generalizations and detailed facts appears in all sorts of places. I think in cross-cultural philosophy, this tension is more extreme, because the phrase “culture” encompasses so much on the one hand and yet on the other there is a widespread tendency to cast cultural values in very broad terms.

      I take the idea of normative cultural generalizations from Polycarp Ikuenobe’s book “Philosophical Perspectives on Community and Morality in African Traditions.” (I found in my research that there is the same debate about generalizations in regard to African philosophy.) As he uses the term, it means extrapolating a position that has been associated with some cultural tradition (though is not necessarily representative of the whole tradition) and then defending that position– “African communalism” is one such position. If you were defending something like a “Chinese philosophical view of action” this might fit the bill.

  4. I thought it might be helpful to sum up the main arguments against cultural generalizations that I’ve encountered thus far (some of them overlap). Are some of these more persuasive than others? Which?

    (1) Generalizations prevent our understanding of individual texts, since they make us miss what made those texts unique at the time they were composed.

    (2) There are no clear standards of evidence to which generalizations can be held accountable.

    (3) Generalizations tend to be self-fulfilling. They cause us to focus on passages which confirm them and ignore those that don’t.

    (4) Arguments on behalf of generalizations fail. One such argument is that they prevent us from imposing our own presuppositions on the text. But the process of exposing our presuppositions is itself laden with presuppositions. (Thanks for this to Sebastian above.)

    (5) Generalizations easily slide into cultural essentialism.

    (6) Generalizations tend to dominate the discourse, spreading very rapidly to specialists and non-specialists alike. More subtle analysis gets lost.

    (7) Generalizations project our own conflicts onto other cultures. The other culture becomes a kind of mirror in which we see what we want to. E.g. if there is some tendency of our philosophy we object to, we see the other culture as possessing precisely the opposite tendency.

    • (8) Generalizations are often based on non-representative samples. E.g. statements made by philosophers are taken to represent the outlooks of entire cultures, or statements from one time-period are taken to represent millennia.

    • These are important methodological questions. Thank you for raising them. I have a few cents to add.

      I think most of these 8 objections are aimed at bad generalizations, but need not impugn responsible scholarship making informed generalizations. Here are 8 replies:

      1. Generalizations do not prevent us from looking at individual texts; rather they give us an entry into those texts. This is a mistake about the role of generalizations in hermeneutics. Instead of trying to escape the hermeneutic circle, as Sebastian suggests, we move around and around the circle, from specific details to generalizations, back to the details, on to better generalizations, then to further details, etc. Generalizations are never the starting point or the ending point. They are an indispensible part of an ongoing process. Just because we have some provisional generalizations in hand is no reason not to look critically at particular texts for signs that our generalizations are obsolete. Often the very first thing that happens in Phil 101 is that even before the students are handed a Platonic dialog, the instructor gives them some generalizations about the form of a dialog, about ancient Greek politics, about the characters involved, and about the field of Philosophy. Only with this general and provisional idea of the context can the students start to make sense of the details of the particular text. This general introduction is no reason to skip looking at the particular text.

      2. The standards of generalization are the materials generalized from and the plausibility of the reasons given for settling on the generalization. These are not mathematical proofs. Those who insist on “clear” standards forget Aristotle’s point at the beginning of Nichomachean Ethics that some subjects are more amenable to precision that others. Interpreting ancient foreign texts is not geometry. The standards for generalization are whether one has consulted “sufficient” source materials and offered “plausible” reasons. While perhaps not “clear” standards, these are some of our best options. And whether someone has fulfilled them always remains open for argument.

      3. Well that’s just lazy scholarship. Ignoring counter-examples is bad practice for people who advocate “informed” generalizations, just as it is for people who avoid generalizations. Can’t blame that on the method.

      4. This is not the only argument for generalizing, but Sebastian’s reply to it misses the point of philosophical hermeneutics. Of course we will continue to read foreign texts from within our own set of presuppositions. Nobody escapes their horizons; we can only hope to extend those horizons, to remove the most glaring obstructions, and to keep removing the new obstructions revealed by our earlier efforts. Roger Ames has never claimed to have escaped all of his own cultural presuppositions and achieved a view from nowhere. Instead, he and his collaborators have helped us attend to some frequent mistakes made in overwriting Chinese texts with Greek metaphysics and Christian religion. That’s helpful. It is up to others to overcome the inevitable presuppositions that Ames has as a historically and socially located thinker. That would be more helpful than complaining that, woe-is-me, we haven’t achieved absolute objectivity.

      5. Again, lazy scholarship. If you don’t want generalizations to slide into essentialism, then don’t slide them there. An “essence” is one thing; a “generalization” is another. Don’t forget it.

      6. Then let those who have a prominent forum, like the incomparable Warp Weft and Way, promote good and responsible scholarship so that both specialists and non-specialists have access to subtle analysis. If you think that people need to be better educated about the roots and limitations of certain generalizations, please educate them. Again, nobody is advocating that we make some gross generalizations and then go home.

      7. Projecting our fantasies onto a foreign culture is indeed a problem. We are indebted to Said for raising this issue to explicit consciousness in Orientalism, and later scholars have warned us against Reverse-Orientalism and other such cultural imperialisms. Post-Colonial studies is now a whole academic field, and as informed scholars we should appropriate the best of its contributions to help us avoid such projection of our own hopes and fears. Again, “responsible” scholarship can overcome this objection, and it does not prove that we should jettison generalizations.

      8. If you think a generalization is being made on insufficient evidence or non-representative samples, then call it out. In point (2) above I said that one standard is “sufficient” source materials. Just what counts as sufficient is open to argument, so go ahead and argue it. And if you have a richer and deeper pile of sources which shows plausible reasons to overturn a generalization, please make the case for the benefit of the rest of us. That is part of the point of calling for “informed” generalizations and not just willy-nilly generalizations.

      Finally, I will point out that generalizations are not sacred and eternal; they are useful. Don’t expect them to provide you with automatic objectivity or Absolute Knowledge and you won’t be disappointed. Ditch them when they cause more confusion than clarity. Use them wisely for the purposes they are useful for, and as scholars we will all be better off for it.

    • Nice! Point 1: we need to try to generalize in order to develop understanding. Point 7: understanding blocks projective fantasy.

      Hence Bertrand Russell’s joke in A History of Western Philosophy. He says that according to Hegel, “the time-process has an intimate relation to the purely logical process of the dialectic. World history, in fact, has advanced through the categories, from Pure Being in China (of which Hegel knew nothing except that it was)…”

    • Dear Josh,

      Thanks for these very helpful and thoughtful remarks.

      Here are responses:

      (1) I think the main problem here is that cultural-philosophical generalizations are not often treated this way, i.e. as purely provisional statements that we can get rid of upon further examination of the text. Nor are they present only in introductory settings. If they were, you are right that this objection would be a moot point.

      (2) and (3). Having “clear” standards does not mean having the rigor of geometry. Rather, it is that these standards offer a means, available to all, by which we can advance our understanding of texts. Regarding counterexamples, here are a couple of statements on behalf of cultural generalizations which seem to rule out a priori the use of counterexamples to refute them:

      “. . . , comparativists will be prevented from making sense of a culture if they do not diligently avoid the Fallacy of the Counterexample. After all, generalizations concerning cultural importances are often vindicated, not falsified, by resort to counterexamples precisely to the extent that such examples suggest the relative absence of a particular belief or doctrine.”

      “. . . a generalization cannot be refuted by a simple counterexample. A generalization, by its very nature, always has exceptions.

      (4) The point here, as I understand it, has little to do with attaining absolute objectivity. It is rather that if the argument for making generalizations is that it helps us to avoid projecting our presuppositions onto the text, then this argument fails on its own terms.

      (5), (6), (7). I think you are right that these merely point out tendencies to which certain generalizations are susceptible, rather than giving arguments against all cultural generalizations. I agree further that it’s a good thing to promote widespread awareness of these tendencies.

      (8) The point here was about making a generalization regarding a whole culture based on a non-representative sample: e.g. arguing that a feature that is found in one philosopher is true of a whole culture, that something found to be true of students in Hong Kong is true of all East Asians, etc. These asserts a methodological flaw rather than a substantive one, and is not the sort of thing that could be refuted by looking at more source-material. However, I think we could respond here as well that this is only a feature of certain generalizations, not all of them.

      By the way, none of the critics I have read expects generalizations to provide us with absolute knowledge (much less the dreaded “Absolute Knowledge”!).


    • Hi Josh. Could you provide an example of a meaningful or “informed” traditional or cultural generalization? How do you determine a given traditional or cultural generalization was in fact meaningful or “useful”?

      I understand there isn’t an exact method for determining the veracity or reliability of any given generalization, but presumably there is at least some method or criteria.

      Without such a method, how could we determine that, say, Chad Hansen’s reading of the Laozi is “better” than Hall and Ames’ reading? I’m not asking for “mathematical” standards, I’m just asking for any standards. In the absence of any such standard, then saying, “Hall and Ames’ reading of the Laozi is better than, say, Hansen’s reading,” means very little.

      To use Moeller’s Kuhnian-esque argument against moral progress [just substitute “interpretive paradigm” for “ethical paradigm” and “society” for “Hall, Ames, and sympathetic defenders thereof”]:

      “Any ethical paradigm that is generally accepted in society is accepted simply because it is a generally accepted paradigm. If one believes in the correctness of a generally accepted ethical paradigm, one cannot but believe that it is more advanced than any of the paradigms that have preceded it. Very much in line with Thomas Kuhn’s argument on paradigm shifts in the sciences, I would say that there is a history of paradigm shifts in ethics. That a narrative of progress is attached to both histories is rhetorically and logically inevitable, but progress is not an objective fact. Not to believe in the superiority of one’s ethical paradigm is impossible. If one did, it would not be one’s paradigm. My argument is not, to make this as explicit as possible, that condemning slavery is not better than approving of it. In fact, I personally think that it is better because I share the antislavery paradigm. But I would say that it is still problematic to infer a theory of moral progress from this” (Moeller, pgs. 90-91).

      Hall and Ames – and, by extension, their sympathetic defenders -, who claim there are “good” and “responsible” generalizations that can be used to inform their interpretations, need some way of substantiating the purported “responsibleness” of these generalizations. Unfortunately, Ames fails to provide any such method in the relevant pages of his [more or less] recent book, ‘Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary’ [especially pages 20-40].

      Just to be clear, I have a tremendous amount of respect for the work of both Hall and Ames, but I take this to be a serious problem for the field as a whole. Also, I am not naively saying a generalization is only worthwhile if it can get us out of the hermeneutic circle; rather, I am saying there is no way of determining the generalizations are improving our understanding in any meaningful sense in the absence of a method or criteria for determining what constitutes “improvement” in our understanding. You claim generalizations are useful, but how do you determine that without already presupposing their usefulness?

      Also, if it is really so obvious that cultural and traditional generalizations are useful, then why aren’t all of the top scholars in the field in agreement? For instance, Paul Goldin’s essay, “The Myth That China Has No Creation Myth,” takes a different stance on the issue of cultural generalizations. Ames’ unfortunately brushes off Goldin’s counter position in ‘Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary’ [pg. 21].

      Ames, Roger. Confucian Role Ethics: A Vocabulary. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011. Print.

      Goldin, Paul. “The Myth That China Has No Creation Myth.” Monumenta Serica (2008), 56(1).

      Moeller, Hans-Georg. The Moral Fool: A Case For Amorality. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Print.

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