A review (or two) of comparative studies

Being a comparativist of ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, I thought I’d dedicate my first post to two review articles on Sino-Hellenic comparative studies that readers of the blog may or may not be aware of.

Back in 2009, the Journal of Hellenic Studies published a review article by Jeremy Tanner, reader in classical and comparative art at University College London, entitled ‘Ancient Greece, early China: Sino-Hellenic studies and comparative approaches to the classical world.’ (The Journal of Hellenic Studies , Vol. 129, (2009), pp. 89-109. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=6779876). Tanner memorably opens the article by addressing an all-too-realistic problem: ‘Classicists have long been weary of comparisons’ (2009:89). He proceeds to provide a useful summary of the developments in the different spheres of Sino-Hellenic comparative studies, including history of medicine, philosophy and literature. Tanner ends on the positive note that ‘there is every possibility that Sino-Hellenic studies will become one of the most stimulating disciplinary sub-field within both Classics and Sinology’ (2009:109). Being one of the first (if not the first) review article on Greek and Chinese comparative studies to be published in a major journal on Hellenic studies, it may be fair to say that the article was in some sense groundbreaking.

Earlier this year in March, the International Journal of the Classical Tradition has just published an article by Ralph Weber from the University of Zurich on comparative philosophy that responds to Tanner’s review and proposes to supplement it. The article entitled ‘A Stick Which may be Grabbed on Either Side: Sino-Hellenic Studies in the Mirror of Comparative Philosophy’ (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12138-013-0318-7) identifies four different approaches to comparative philosophy, addresses certain pitfalls, and ultimately focuses on the question of the close association between the subject-matter of comparisons and the political purposes that motivate them, being altogether a very different kind of review to Tanner’s.

It is always very interesting to take a step back from the work one is constantly preoccupied with and look at it in a broader context, in a sense rather like looking at a picture by ‘stepping outside the frame’. So what do you think of these two reviews?

6 thoughts on “A review (or two) of comparative studies

  1. I think it is a great thing to look at both traditions of thought, as they are in some ways opposites and also in some ways the same. I think also that both traditions have always been after the truth at their very core (a very important similarity). Thirdly, I think that China’s resurgence in the world (the Chinese Dream) is a cause of the West taking China and Chinese Thought seriously again. I hope it leads to good things. Great strength lies in both diversity and unity.

    My background: I’m an undergraduate at Princeton University.

    I’m about to graduate, so our class had a philosophy “last lecture” by two professors (one being Gideon Rosen, who was introduced to us as “working on everything”). After a long lecture on why ancient philosophy is important to the 21st century college graduate that strangely ignored ancient eastern philosophy, I posed the question: “Do you study ancient eastern philosophy?”

    The answer was: “No. Should I?”

    I said: “I think so.”

    • Thank you for your comments, Dean, it’s always delightful to find people taking interest in different traditions of thought. And you are right to point out the general neglect of ancient eastern philosophy across higher institutions in the ‘West’, which is a great pity. Let’s hope this will take a better turn in the near future.

      Perhaps I can share with you Jean-Paul Reding’s words here on broadening one’s horizons, which I think are very well put: “Just as a linguist cannot expect to explore the subject thoroughly through the study of only one language”, Reding writes, “the philosopher too hopes to broaden and deepen his knowledge about philosophy by examining the philosophical productions of other cultures”. (‘Comparative essays in early Greek and Chinese rational thinking’ 2004:7)

      I think your comment that ‘both traditions have always been after the truth at their very core (a very important similarity)’ is an interesting one, but probably not uncontested. As with any comparative remarks, I think we have to be careful here with generalisations….

  2. Welcome, Jenny! Juxtaposing these two reviews certainly brings out two different approaches one might take to Sino-Hellenic comparisons. (We had some discussion with Ralph here on the blog back in January, though not explicitly about the review you cite; see here.) One lesson that comes from comparing these comparisons, it seems to me, is that comparativists need to be good at learning from different methodologies–of learning how to enhance one’s own work by seeing resonances or constructive criticisms in the quite different work of others–because something like Sino-Hellenic comparison is inevitably going to be methodologically pluralistic.

    This idea of learning from different methodologies is at the heart of the conference we’re going to have here at Wesleyan next fall; if anyone has thoughts on what can help to make such conversations succeed, please speak up!

    • Thanks, Steve! You are completely right in pointing out the ‘methodologically pluralistic’ nature of cross-cultural comparisons. I think explorations with methodology and deep reflections on methodological concerns are part of what make comparative projects most exciting!

      Too bad I can’t be there for the conference at Wesleyan, but I look forward to hearing about the papers and discussions!

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