Comparative Philosophy Seminar

I’m working up a syllabus for a seminar in  Comparative Philosophy for a new M.A. program that we are starting at E.M.U. (not official yet, but almost there).  Below is what I have come up with for my first draft.  If you have taught a course in Comparative Philosophy, or have contemplated doing so, I’d appreciate any feedback you can offer with regard to readings and topics.

As for the readings that have been included, you can see that I construe the overall subject matter fairly broadly (or do I?).

The course is divided roughly into two halves.  The first half covers issues in comparative philosophy.  The second half is broken further into two sections, the first of which covers actual examples of doing comparative philosophy; and the second of which covers classic texts that provide good opportunities for comparative analysis–to give the students an opportunity to practice and thereby realize first hand the many issues and difficulties involved.  The last few weeks are devoted to readings that propose how to use comparative methods to make advances in current philosophy.  I’ll probably swap those readings out for readings from an anthology that I am working on at the moment–the theme of which is using the resources of the Chinese tradition to advance issues in current philosophy.


Philosophy 590 – Comparative Philosophy

Professor: Brian Bruya

Course Description

Philosophy 590 is a course on the methods and methodology of comparative philosophy.  Methodology is the study of the possibilities, uses, and limits of methods.  Insofar as we will be studying the methodology of comparative philosophy, we will be focusing on the possibility and the limitations of adopting and comparing complex ideas across languages and cultures.  As such, we will consider in detail cultural and linguistic commensurability, hermeneutics, and relativism.  With regard to method, we will be learning how to engage and interpret complex philosophical ideas that originate outside of the contemporary idiom.  We will consider their conceptual and linguistic genealogies and learn profitable ways of comparing them to similar ideas of different origin.

Required Texts

Larson, Gerald James and Eliot Deutsch (eds.). Interpreting Across Boundaries: New Essays in Comparative Philosophy.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Kuhn, Thomas S..  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970





Week 1  What is Comparative Philosophy?

Staal, Fritz.  “Is There Philosophy in Asia?” In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries. 27 pgs

Nakamura, Hajime. “The Meaning of the Terms ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Religion’ in Various Traditions.” In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries.  15 pgs

Krishna, Daya.  “Comparative Philosophy: What It Is and What It Ought to Be.”  In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries.  13 pages

Cua, A. S. “Reflections on Moral Theory and Understanding Moral Traditions.” In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries.  14 pages

Weeks 2-3 Commensurability

Whorf, Benjamin, “The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language.” In Language, Thought, and Reality. 18 pages

Quine, W.V.  “Main Trends in Recent Philosophy: Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” 23 pages

Davidson, Donald. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” 15 pages

Potter, Karl. “Metaphor as Key to Understanding the Thought of Other Speech Communities.” In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries. 18 pages

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 210 pages

Radiolab, “Words.”

Weeks  4-5  Hermeneutics

Von Uexkull, Jakob.  “A Stroll through the World of Animals and Men.” In Schiller, Instinctive Behavior. 75 pages

Dilthey, Wilhelm. “The Rise of Hermeneutics.” In Hermeneutics and the Study of History. 14 pages

Gadamer, Hans-Georg.  “On the Universality of the Hermeneutic Problem” in Philosophical Hermeneutics. 15 pages

Deutsch, Eliot. “Knowledge and the Tradition Text in Indian Philosophy.” In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries. 9 pages

Smart, Ninian. The Analogy of Meaning and the Tasks of Comparative Philosophy.” In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries.  10 pages

Chan, Wing-tsit. “Chu Hsi and World Philosophy.” In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries. 35 pages

Week 6  Relativism

Plato: Theatetus, selection.

Feyerabend, “Notes on Relativism.”  In Farewell to Reason. 12 pages

Rorty, Richard, “Pragmatism, Relativism, and Irrationality.” 22 pages

Rosemont, Henry, Jr.  “Against Relativism.”  In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries. 35 pages

Scharfstein, Ben-Ami. “The Contextual Fallacy.” In Larson, Interpreting Across Boundaries.  14 pages


Weeks 7-8  Examples

Preston, Beth. “Biological and Cultural Proper Functions in Comparative Perspective.” In Krohs,  Functions in Biological and Artificial Worlds: Comparative Perspectives.  13 pages

Burik, Steven. “Thinking, Philosophy, and Language: Comparing Heidegger, Derrida, and Classical Daoism.” In The End of Comparative Philosophy and the Task of Comparative Thinking: Heidegger, Derrida, and Daoism. 53 pages

Loy, David. “The Deconstruction of Dualism.” In Non-Duality: A Study in Comparative Philosophy.  59 pages

Shaner, David Edward. “Science and Comparative Philosophy.” In Shaner, et. al., Science and Comparative Philosophy: Introducing the Philosophy of Yuasa Yasuo.  76 pages

Yuasa, Yasuo, “Contemporary Science and an Eastern Body-Mind Theory.” In Shaner, et. al., Science and Comparative Philosophy: Introducing the Philosophy of Yuasa Yasuo  47 pages

Yuasa Yasuo, “A Cultural Background for Traditional Japanese Self-Cultivation Philosophy.” In Shaner, et. al., Science and Comparative Philosophy: Introducing the Philosophy of Yuasa Yasuo  36 pages

Week 9 Practice: Philosophy in General

Plato, Last Days of Socrates, selections

Confucius, Analects, selections

Week 10 Practice: Idealism

Berkeley, Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous, selections

Shankara, Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, selections

Week 11 Practice: Skepticism

Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, selections

Zhuangzi, Inner Chapters, selections

Weeks 12-14  Non-Western Philosophy as an Avenue to Better Contemporary Philosophy

Bruya, “Rehabilitation of Spontaneity”  43 pages

Jullien, Detour and Access, selections

Jullien, The Propensity of Things, selections

15 replies on “Comparative Philosophy Seminar”

  1. Hi Brian,

    You might have the information already, but Eliot taught a graduate seminar during my first year, entitled ‘Comparative Philosophy’. I have the syllabus and all the readings, and I’d be happy to pass them on if required.


  2. Brian, lots of food for thought here, thanks. I’m glad you’re including “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” one of the seminal articles for me back in graduate school. I don’t know the Shaner book, nor the work of Yuasa Yasuo. Can you tell us a little about them?

  3. Wish I could take this course, Bryan!

    One thing is that on the “What is CP?” topic, I like Steve’s paper on “The Minimal Definition and Methodology of CP.” Another is that I’ve found the “Tradition and Translation” chapter of MacIntyre’s “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?” makes a nice balance to the Davidson conceptual scheme paper.

    I have not heard of the Shaner/Yuasa Yasuo book either (and apparently, no libraries in the PA inter-library loan system have a copy!). I’d be interested in hearing more about it as well.

  4. Tim–Was going to suggest MacIntyre as well.

    Brian–Thanks for sharing. Always fascinating and edifying to see what others are doing. For the commensurability section, you might consider adding a short piece by Boroditsky, whose (admittedly controversial) studies of linguistic relativism might help to make the notion vivid to students. Do you know her stuff?

    Here is a short write-up of her research on Edge:

    Hope you find it of interest.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Steve & Tim, I don’t have a great background in Japanese philosophy, but I wanted to include some in the course, and this book fits perfectly. Yasua is a pretty large figure in the field (here is a retrospective of his work:, and Shaner is a professor of Philosophy at Furman, who specializes in Japanese philosophy.

    Tim and Hagop, thanks very much for your recommendations. I looked at the Boroditsky one just now, and her work seems like a great fit.


  6. To what extent does it fall within the purview of “Comparative Philosophy” to look at ancient interactions (e.g. the influence of India/Persia on Greece and China), at current interactions, and at the range of actual and possible institutions and opportunities for continuing discussion across the borders? I mean discussion of issues.

    • If I understand your question, I think this would fall under the rubric of hermeneutics–but what you are getting at seems to involve more of the basic yeoman’s labor, rather than conceptual issues involved. That is why you wouldn’t see it explicitly on the syllabus. It will certainly come up in discussions of the process, however.

    • Thanks Brian. I am a bit out of things and may be quite wrong about the term.

      I’ve been supposing that CP is a kind of hermeneutics; and that the course is mainly in the philosophy of CP, not in CP. My question was about CP itself, or ‘CP’; about what’s done by this thing the course describes, not (directly) what’s done by the course.

      I suppose most terms operate by way of oversimple core images, and I’ve supposed that the oversimple core image expressed by the term ‘CP’ is that there are separate philosophies, or philosophical traditions or communities, in different places, and CP is the comparative study of them: at a minimum the interpretive surveying of them, showing where they differ or don’t. That is, it seems clear that the term’s intent is to suggest an analogy with ‘Comparative Literature’ and e.g. ‘Comparative Political Traditions’.

      My worry is that while the practice of CP is likely overall to promote discussion across borders – both because it can help people understand each other and because A is much more interesting to B when A is talking about B – on the other hand the oversimple image/term itself might in a variety of different ways push in the opposite direction – particularly if it comes to do duty also as a comprehensive term for all the east-west stuff that philosophers qua philosophers do or should do. For then it would tend to suppress attention to the part of that stuff that jars with the image, such as past and future cross-border influence and conversation.

      Is this worry wholly misplaced?

    • Can teaching a class in Comparative Philosophy suppress attention to past and future cross-border influence and conversation? No, I think it is just the opposite. The purpose of the course is to give students the tools to work comparatively in philosophy, not just look at philosophical traditions as museum pieces.

    • I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be asking about the course, nor about the overall effects of discussing or doing Comparative Philosophy under that name as opposed to not doing or discussing it. Again, the course looks wonderful, and again (separately), I think doing Comparative Philosophy promotes cross-border discussion overall.

      I fear I’ve imposed on you too much already, so I’ll stop here. I apologize.

    • No need to apologize, Bill. I must have misunderstood your question, so the fault is mine. It looks like Steve has a better feel for what you are getting at.

    • Hi Bill–Just noticed this, and I think that what you have to say here (about the ways in which the self-conception of “comparative philosophy” might reinforce divisions between distinct philosophical traditions/communities, even while it calls for their comparison) certainly resonates with other conversations we’ve had in the past about “comparative philosophy.” I think you’re right that there is such a danger, but also that we are not in a position in which we can forget about the existence of distinct traditions and just “do philosophy” (I’m sure you agree with that, too!).

    • Thanks guys. I invited misunderstanding by putting my query in this thread, where it didn’t belong. I’ll try to work up a separate post in a few days – after reviewing the earlier discussions Steve mentions – if my worries and questions survive that therapy.

      I hereby gush on about the attractiveness of the course and the impressiveness of the syllabus.

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