(I had a chance yesterday to discuss “comparative philosophy” at Wesleyan University with Steve Angle, Michael Slote, and their NEH seminar participants. Steve had an interesting handout of a summary he wrote for a conference in Beijing. We agreed he should post it on this blog for comments and discussion. Here it is, with a little renumbering of items for ease of reference in our discussion.)
In June of 2008, the ISCWP convened its third Constructive Engagement conference, on the theme of “Comparative Philosophy Methodology.” During the opening speeches, Prof. Zhao Dunhua, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Peking University, challenged the conference’s participants to put forward a minimal definition of “comparative philosophy” and a statement of its methods. Based on the papers from the conference and the extensive discussion that ensued, during his closing reflections at the end of the conference, Prof. Stephen C. Angle offered the following ideas as a tentative synthesis of the conference’s conclusions:
It would be foolish to assert that we all agreed perfectly on what “comparative philosophy” is, and on how it should be done. However, we did discover that there was considerable agreement.
To begin with, comparative philosophy has two potential dimensions:
A1. Use terms, ideas, or concepts from one philosophical tradition to help understand or interpret another philosophical tradition. (Note: depending on how one defines “philosophy,” often the “traditions” in question will not be only philosophical. But one can still treat a tradition as philosophy for the purposes of comparative philosophy.)
A2. Through cross-tradition engagement, seek to advance or develop philosophy.
Not all participants agreed that comparative philosophy could successfully accomplish these goals; see below for some challenges that were articulated. In general, though, we thought that the goals could be met, and articulated some success conditions:
B1. Success comes in either of the above dimensions when the work is constructive
B2. Many of us agreed that success — and constructiveness — must be measured in context. That is, what counts as an “advance” will be determined from within a given philosophical tradition, rather than from a neutral standpoint above or between traditions.
B3. Some of us believed that it was possible to judge which idea or tradition was better overall, at least in some circumstances. None of us believed that one could readily judge which tradition was the absolute best.
We identified a series of challenges to comparative philosophy:
C1. Incommensurability. If it is impossible to compare or translate, then comparative philosophy cannot succeed. However, most of us believed that differences between concepts or languages or traditions did not make comparison impossible. Both theoretical reasons (e.g., Donald Davidson’s argument) and practical examples (of seemingly successful comparative philosophy) were offered as evidence that this challenge could be overcome.
C2. Some said that philosophy is simply one thing; there is no room for “comparison.” When philosophy is defined very narrowly, it may be that there is not enough room for the level of different development on which the possibility of comparative philosophy depends. Few of us were convinced that philosophy is such a narrow enterprise, however.
C3. A complementary worry is that different philosophical traditions lack adequate common concerns. Many of us argued in response that we (and others not present at the conference) have in fact found areas of common concern in our work across traditions, and were skeptical of any a priori argument that denied we could have done this. It was pointed out that “common concern” does not necessitate finding identical formulations of concepts or problems. Various specific examples were proposed to reinforce this idea.
C4. Research and teaching of comparative philosophy lacks adequate institutional support and potential students find it difficult to acquire the needed training. On this we were all in agreement.
Finally, on the basis of this understanding of comparative philosophy, what could we say about its methodology? There was quite general agreement on the following characteristics of a minimal methodology:
D1. Openness is fundamental, though so is the exercise of critical philosophical judgment.
D2. Traditions are not monolithic, but internally diverse; our specific methods should take advantage of this.
D3. The idea of family resemblance is very helpful.
D4. A focus on concepts or problems is often more constructive than the comparison of individual thinkers, though there are many exceptions — particularly if the figure studied was him or herself engaged in comparative work.
D5. Careful attention to issues of language and grammar is important.
D6. Adequate training and adequate institutional support is critical.
There is of course a great deal that could be said about many of these characteristics, but for now, this outline will have to suffice. Some suggested that there was no real difference between doing what is here characterized as “comparative philosophy” and simply doing philosophy well. This may be true: perhaps all philosophy is comparative philosophy.
Some argued for a more demanding method, which entailed constructing a kind of neutrality among traditions or a perspectiveless perspective. In general the conference participants were not sympathetic to such an approach, and noted that some of those who advocated such an understanding of comparative philosophy did so in order to argue that the enterprise was impossible. Most of us felt this was attacking a straw man.