Minimal Definition and Methodology of Comparative Philosophy

(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.

23 replies on “Minimal Definition and Methodology of Comparative Philosophy”

  1. Hi Steve & Manyul,

    Because of its components, the term ‘comparative philosophy’ seems to mean and tends to suggest:

    A3. The effort to compare (e.g. contrast) the contents of different philosophies.

    (Worry C2 above seems to reflect the slightly different idea that the term ‘comparative philosophy’ means “comparison of what philosophy is” in different traditions.) So I’m inclined to think that proper respect and concern for language recommend that we understand “comparative philosophy” as A3. A1 sounds like a sort of limit case of A3, insofar as A1 suggests simply using rather than discussing the interpreting vocabulary. That isn’t a criticism of A1 so understood. I think A1 and A3 can be good servants of proper end A2.

    That’s why I don’t like the term ‘comparative philosophy’. I characteristically forget who said it at which May 2008 conference in Hong Kong, but someone said something like this: that it would be good if Westerners stopped thinking of their engagement with Chinese philosophy mainly as “comparative philosophy.” I agree. I think it’s a mistake for Western departments to identify jobs with the term “comparative philosophy.” “Comparative philosophy” holds the foreign ideas or traditions at arm’s length and talks ABOUT them. That’s very often worthwhile, but it shouldn’t be our paradigm. We shouldn’t honor a name that tends to suggest that paradigm.

    It seems to me the phrase ‘comparative philosophy’ tends to institutionalize the idea of discontinuity — like the approach discussed in Steve’s last paragraph. We can instead speak simply of e.g. “Chinese Philosophy” as we speak of “Greek Philosophy,” and not look to the name for further guidance.

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thanks. I believe that neither A1 nor A2 would be possible without some comparison or contrast, but the general feeling at the conference was that sticking with something like A3 doesn’t advance any conversation that we were interested in. X and Y are different. (Or similar.) So what? Thus while A3 can be seen as a necessary part of either dimension A1 or A2, we didn’t want to see it as an end in itself. D4 is related to this same idea.

    I am partly sympathetic to the concern you express in your penultimate paragraph, and certainly do not think that “comparative philosophy” is a perfect term. (One of its limitations is that it most immediately suggests exactly what you have labelled as A3.) However, I think that when it is understood as persuing A1 and/or A2, comparative philosophy is something at least potentially different from “Chinese philosophy” or “Greek Philosophy.” As we understood it, “comparative philosophy” necessarily crosses traditions in pursuit of its goals. The study of Chinese or Greek philosophy need not do that, though it might.

    In other words, the general opinion at the conference was not to equate “comparative philosophy” with “Chinese philosophy.” In fact, I don’t think that’s so often done. (It occurs to me, for instance, that I have long listed BOTH “Chinese philosophy” and “Comparative Philosophy” as areas of specialization on my CV.) That said, let me reiterate the idea, mentioned in the summary, that there was some sympathy for the idea that “comparative philosophy” as a category could be abandoned because what we’d described was simply doing good “philosophy.” NOT “Chinese philosophy” or “Greek philosophy,” but simply “philosophy.” My own view on this subject is that IF IT WERE THE CASE that in general, philosophers (no matter what their home tradition[s]) evinced an openness to doing cross-tradition work then indeed we could do away with the term “comparative philosophy.” Until then, however, I think we need it.

  3. Should A1 perhaps be modified by adding “conscious” to the sentence: “The conscious usage of terms…”? Otherwise it would seem that Neo-Confucians would count as comparative philosophers, yet I suspect they would hardly see themselves in such terms (at least not primarily). Also, I suppose I fall on the side of ‘comparative philosophy’ as ‘philosophy’, but who is not borrowing terms from one tradition to interpret another? Obviously Plato doesn’t borrow from Confucius; but is Aquinas’ borrowing from Aristotle to interpret Christianity then ‘comparative’? And if it is, what isn’t?

    Using ‘comparative’ in the sense of A1 and A2 also strikes me as an awkward usage of the word ‘compare’. Perhaps another term would be more fitting (cross-cultural/cross-tradition philosophy?).

  4. I have a general comment that I think is relevant to the A list (dimensions) and the B list (success conditions) items. I’m concerned with the implications of at least one way of understanding how philosophical inquiry (analysis or “construction” ) could plausibly be carried on. What I, and I suspect most people both in the West and the East, would consider to be philosophical engagement with a text or issue is informed entirely through ways of thinking that have come to be identified as philosophical in the West. This seems to me an issue of the very identity of “philosophical thought.” Let me hazard a quick account:

    (P) For something to count as philosophical thought, there has to be some indication of reflective response to some puzzle or problems (that includes poltical/moral/social problems as well as epistemological/linguistic/metaphysical), some critical questioning of commonly held assumptions, and some semblance of valid logical reasoning.

    But something like P comes from the historical development and self-identification of Western philosophy. This has an enormous effect on analytic or constructive engagement across traditions. For example, what is likely even to be included as a “philosophical” text, figure, or tradition has to be determined, at least initially, through an accounting of how much a text or tradition answers to P. There’s at least a trivial reason for this: “philosophy” is a concept that originates and is fine-tuned (to varying degrees through its history) in the West. To that extent, there’s no self-identification among the Chinese thinkers that have been labelled “philosophers”–up until the Chinese encounter with that concept–that matches up very well. So, we have to do the identification ourselves, using the Western concept “philosopher.”

    I suspect this is part of the reason for someone holding the view that there is no comparative philosophy–it’s all just philosophy. There’s at least a version of that claim in my comments, I think.

  5. Agui, your term ‘cross-tradition philosophy’ strikes me as less problematic. I wonder how much of my worry is just an excessive dislike of the assumption of alienness (inscrutability), or of giving quasi-institutional endorsement to a distinction among “traditions.” That might be false consciousness on my part, because much of what has drawn me to Chinese philosophy is the hope of finding something really different.

    Manyul, I see how the point you raise might support the view that there is no nontrivial inquiry comparing what-philosophy-essentially-is in two traditions. But I don’t see how it could support the view that there is no nontrivial inquiry A3 comparing aspects of philosophy as pursued in two traditions: comparing specific terms, specific practices, or aspirations for the enterprise or for parts of it. (Or A1 or A2.) What it is for this dog and that dog to be a dog is the same, but we can still compare and contrast dogs.

    Steve, thanks for the reply! I take it that ‘comparative philosophy’ and 比较哲学 are in a way the same term, so that we’re talking about both. But I feel too ignorant to try to think about the rhetorical import of the latter in China. (I’d be very interested to hear about that.) Despite this potential problem for my argument, I’ll just plow ahead with English mainly in mind.

    I like your idea of listing both Chinese Philosophy and Comparative Philosophy, partly because I think that one can usefully do so while using the latter term to mean A3. My worry is largely about what I gather is a growing practice of using the term ‘Comparative Philosophy’ as the main rubric for work with Asian philosophy in the West.

    I’ve been assuming that the “engagement” mentioned in A2 includes seeking interlocutors in history; and so I’ve been thinking of A2 as the main end, and A1 and A3 as means to that end. Maybe A2 was meant more narrowly, but I’ll continue to write as though it was meant in my broad way.

    I have the impression that we’re approaching the matter with different background assumptions on whether it’s settled that the essence or end of our cross-tradition work is going to be called “comparative philosophy.” My overall aim in this string has been to argue against the name, on the assumption that the matter is not settled. Maybe the assumption is unrealistic.

    You write, “the general feeling at the conference was that sticking with something like A3 doesn’t advance any conversation that we were interested in,” If you mean sticking with A3 as an understanding of the phrase, then I think maybe the consensus is mistaken, for two reasons. First, I think A3 is often an important sort of project. Having a name for an important kind of project helps advance worthwhile conversations; for example, having a name for this kind of project should advance the kind of conversation your memo reports. Second, trying to define ‘comparative philosophy’ to mean something very different from A3 will interfere with important conversations by being misleading; for as you say, the phrase most immediately suggests exactly A3.

    But even if using the phrase in its primary meaning doesn’t directly advance interesting conversations, that point seems to me inconclusive about how the phrase should be used; the point has to be weighed against a general respect and concern for language.

    You write, “X and Y are different. (Or similar.) So what?” Right, but A3 isn’t about whether things are different or similar, it’s about how they’re different or similar. I think the latter sort of question is prima facie important, not prima facie unimportant. But the phrase “comparative philosophy” might indeed evoke the reaction “So what?” (in mentalese) among those who are not interested in Chinese philosophy or (therefore) in our redefining efforts. That might be a PR problem. (What do people think ‘comparative literature’ means?)

    (a) “Thus … we didn’t want to see [A3] as an end in itself.” I gather your implicit argument from this point is: “… But (b) it’s already settled that one of our leading projects is called ‘comparative philosophy’. Therefore (c) we should not use ‘comparative philosophy’ to mean A3.” The argument is valid, but I’ve been assuming that (b) is false.

    My sense is that in Anglophonia, it goes largely without saying that as between any two bodies of work that one respects as philosophically interesting (hence not between all strands of the Western tradition), project A2 is prima facie valuable and all the norms D are right. Hence when a department honors “Greek Philosophy” with a course or position, the associated A2 and D tend to be assumed. One uses “Greek Philosophy” as a main filing term for courses and job descriptions rather than e.g. “Greek/Scottish Cross-Fertilization” because of assumptions about how the requisite knowledge and skills clump.

    I suppose that insofar as anglophone opinion comes to regard Chinese philosophy as philosophically interesting, the valuing of A and D will follow immediately and without fuss. So I tend think efforts to promote the former in abstraction from the latter aren’t very useful (unless perhaps the main audience is funders rather than colleagues), and that such effort might be more effectively spent on more projects that have the effect of demonstrating the philosophical value of bits of Chinese philosophy to the satisfaction of our colleagues.

    (I think A2 between cultural traditions is philosophically valuable independently of the inherent philosophical interest of the traditions: it’s valuable not necessarily because of the internal philosophical quality of what the Others have said so far, but because of the philosophical value of bring more and diverser kinds of people into philosophical conversation. But I’m unsure what implications this point should have for the design of our tiny little departments and course offerings.)

    I take it your position is that stretching the general term ‘comparative philosophy’ can make a significant difference in our colleagues’ respect for A2 specifically between China and the West. That is, the point in favor of the use of the English term to refer to A2 is mainly about how the term will be heard by people who pay little or no attention to our redefining efforts. It will move them toward respect for the cross-tradition work independently of moving them to respect the other tradition.

    I’m worried that rhetorical force of the phrase is to allude vaguely to something like the relativistic neutrality mentioned in your memo’s last paragraph. It vaguely suggests, “Never mind whether Chinese philosophy is any good by any standards you hold …” It suggests the familiar assumption that Western philosophers (Plato, Leibniz, Angle) lack Eastern roots and veins. “Chinese philosophy is Not One of Us, but ….” I’m not happy about making such allusions or suggestions to colleagues or students. But I’m not sure how unhappy I am.

    You have vastly more experience than I do regarding the power of the name to garner respect for Chinese philosophers as interlocutors in the West (real interlocutors and interlocutors “in history”), or at least to attract funding for people who want to work with Chinese philosophy in the West. And maybe so much is already invested in this name that switching to a more accurate one would be too costly. At the end of your comment, are you thinking that no better name can be found or made?

  6. Agui, I meant less than ‘comparative philosophy’. Maybe the term ‘cross-cultural’ philosophy would be even better because it more easily seems relevant to, say, Greece v. France.

  7. Hi Bill;

    Re: “I see how the point you raise might support the view that there is no nontrivial inquiry comparing what-philosophy-essentially-is in two traditions. But I don’t see how it could support the view that there is no nontrivial inquiry A3 comparing aspects of philosophy as pursued in two traditions: comparing specific terms, specific practices, or aspirations for the enterprise or for parts of it. (Or A1 or A2.) What it is for this dog and that dog to be a dog is the same, but we can still compare and contrast dogs.”

    You’re quite right; we could compare Western and Eastern philosophical positions in just the way we compare Spinoza’s and Leibniz’s systems of metaphysics, or Lewis’s and Kripke’s for that matter. I think what I have in mind as slightly problematic is that identifying philosophy with the sort of philosophical method as I tried to generalize in P can easily lead to the following (at least apparent) asymmetry. It may seem as if much more charity (in the loose philosophical sense) and emendation of Chinese philosophical positions will be required than of Western ones. I don’t deny that we do those things with Western philosophical views, but the asymmetry seems very stark, say, when someone offers a comparison between (oh, just for example) Aquinas and Mencius. Other examples abound: comparisons of Confucius and Aristotle, Mencius and Aristotle, Rorty and all of pre-Qin Chinese philosophy, etc. It’s often said that this is because of literary genre or prose convention differences. Fine; but the asymmetry still exists.

    Why is this problematic? My thought here is that if we do enough emendation of arguments that, say, Mencius *might* have given in favor of his positions, though there aren’t such arguments in the text, then it looks like we’re building the proverbial “Mencius-Im-stein” monster–to take my own work as an example. That might be interesting, but why call it anything other than “philosophy” simpliciter? On the other hand, someone’s exegesis of Mencius might not emend very much and Mencius will seem relatively uninteresting as a philosopher. Again, I’m not saying this range of emendation doesn’t also take place with study of Western philosophical figures, but when it does happen, we aren’t so much tempted to call it “comparative” philosophy. Take Aristotle; we’ll either say that McDowell has an Aristotelian view or that he has an interpretation of Aristotle as an historian of philosophy. McDowell does, or at least has done, both kinds of study.

    In the case of Chinese philosophy, I think there are two ways to go about studying it. We can abide more closely methodologically to “less emendation is better” exegesis; that seems to me best described as: philosophers doing history. Or, we could “do philosophy” by engaging emended constructions of Chinese philosophy as real philosophical options or as philosophically filled-out positions with which to engage comparison, contrast, or hybridization with other philosophical views such as some systematic version of virtue ethics. But that’s again, just doing philosophy. To persist in calling it “comparative philosophy,” or even “Chinese philosophy,” seems misleading at best. At worst, it presents our interpretations as either sloppy history, anthropology, or literary criticism; or it makes us seem slightly desperate to make Chinese philosophy seem “relevant.”

    Let me say, to avoid being served with an inconsistency notice, that my own work has probably teetered close to attributing too much emendation and that the current comment is as much reflective of my own soul-searching as anything else.

  8. Lots of food for thought! Let me respond for now to one of the last paragraphs above. Manyul wrote:

    …Or, we could “do philosophy” by engaging emended constructions of Chinese philosophy as real philosophical options or as philosophically filled-out positions with which to engage comparison, contrast, or hybridization with other philosophical views such as some systematic version of virtue ethics. But that’s again, just doing philosophy. To persist in calling it “comparative philosophy,” or even “Chinese philosophy,” seems misleading at best. At worst, it presents our interpretations as either sloppy history, anthropology, or literary criticism; or it makes us seem slightly desperate to make Chinese philosophy seem “relevant.”

    Two points about this. First, it seems to me to be rather different whether we call this sort of activity “comparative philosophy” or “Chinese philosophy.” I understand the grumbles about whether “comparative philosophy” is exactly the best term. In various contexts I have used the phrase “cross-tradition” when possible to explain what I’m understanding “comparative” to mean. But I think “Comparative philosophy” is not so terrible, and it is lodged in the collective vocabulary. So I say we use it, keep in mind what we mean, and get on with things. In any event, what Manyul has described is precisely “comparative philosophy.” PERHAPS philosophy is very often a tradition-crossing enterprise. Depends on how fine-grained we individuate our traditions. But this certainly isn’t how most people typically think of it. In particular, most people don’t actively seek the goods that come from crossing major tradition boundaries. Those who do are doing comparative philosophy.

    Are they doing “Chinese philosophy”? Well…that brings me to my second point. Who is the “we” in question? Was Wang Yangming doing Chinese philosophy? At both implicit and explicit levels, he was crossing traditions. Now I don’t mean to imply that the special thing about Wang, which makes it the case that he was doing Chinese philosophy (and comparative philosophy!), was that he was Chinese. Rather, he was working out of a particular, live philosophical tradition. A Chinese one. I rather think that non-Chinese people can do Chinese philosophy in this sense, whether or not what they’re doing is also comparative.

    I said I had two points, and so I won’t make this third one very carefully — trying to sneak it in under the radar :-). But I need to respond to what Manyul says about “philosophy.” In brief, I think that what we today should count as philosophy is NOT simply defined by what has been called “philosophy” in recent centuries. That’s very different from what the Greeks had in mind, for starters. (Philosophy as a way of life, and all that.) Plus we are now engaged in broader conversations across traditions, which can lead us to enlarge/revise our notion of philosophy. Just as Chinese intellectuals are currently grappling with what categories make sense as ways of understanding their traditions, so we should be doing the same. Perhaps “philosophy” as it was understood historically in Europe overlaps rather significantly with “learning 學” in China? Etc.

    More anon.

  9. Let me try to respond to some of Bill’s concerns. He writes:

    My worry is largely about what I gather is a growing practice of using the term ‘Comparative Philosophy’ as the main rubric for work with Asian philosophy in the West.

    Many things you say about this, Bill, I agree with. Here are some reasons, notwithstanding the dangers you point out, for persisting in using a term like “comparative philosophy.”

    Even if we don’t use the term “comparative philosophy” to mark the distinction, I think we do recognize clear cases of “Greek philosophy” and clear cases of “Philosophy with the Greeks [and others].” Much of what’s done occupies a space somewhere between the greatest extremes. And certainly there’s a lot of room between the extremes for Chinese work, too. I think we’re better off noting these differences and learning from one another, which is facilitated by having more than one term.

    Nor is just saying “it’s all philosophy” good enough, at least in the present context. Work that crosses traditions is particularly challenging, and needs special kinds of encouragement and support. It is VERY MUCH a minority approach both in the US and in China. So we need to call attention to our needs, and to the benefits of doing what we’re doing. I believe that what we’re doing belongs within departments of philosophy, so in another way I’m agreeing that it’s all philosophy. But we need to say more than that.

    Finally, I agree with the point that A3 can be done in a valuable way. Absolutely. But I believe that much of that value comes from the ways in which it enables A1 or A2. Differences prompt questions. Reading Mencius, and noting differences with Aristotle, can prompt us to ask “What would Aristotle have said about that?” Sometimes our efforts develop in an A1 direction; sometimes in an A2 direction.

    And now my efforts are going to be directed toward getting my hair cut. I’ll check back in later.

  10. Steve,

    Your third and “under the radar” point seems interesting:

    “…I think that what we today should count as philosophy is NOT simply defined by what has been called “philosophy” in recent centuries. That’s very different from what the Greeks had in mind, for starters. (Philosophy as a way of life, and all that.) Plus we are now engaged in broader conversations across traditions, which can lead us to enlarge/revise our notion of philosophy. Just as Chinese intellectuals are currently grappling with what categories make sense as ways of understanding their traditions, so we should be doing the same.”

    I wonder, however, from something like my crass “professional philosopher” perspective, whether broadening the notion of philosophy (or perhaps, more easily, converting to the existing broad notion of philosophy in which, say, baseball managers “have a philosophy” and some song-writers or musicians are more philosophical than others) threatens to change the topic enough so that we (those doing philosophy across traditions) risk losing the bulk of the philosophical audience who might think that “serious” philosophy requires a certain type of questioning. For example, “What does that really mean?” “Why should anyone believe that?” “Isn’t that really an empirical question?” “What are the metaphysical assumptions in that and how could they be supported?” etc. And that it requires a certain type of answer: an extended argument intended to persuade a moderate to emphatic skeptic. Partly, I’m just trying to describe again, as in P (comment 5 above), my own inclinations when I’m asked to regard something philosophically. But also, I’m giving my sense of how those in the larger philosophical community to which I personally/professionally answer, view things. This isn’t a worry that can simply be dismissed, can it (“Damn the analytic philosophers; full speed ahead!”), given the sorts of institutional support goals that we’re all interested in?

  11. Hi Steve,

    Based on your latest comment I no longer see any difference between what I mean by A3 and what you mean by A1. But while I’ve been saying that the main value of A3 is in its contribution to A2, I gather you don’t think the main value of A1 is in its contribution to A2.

    Maybe by A2 you meant mainly engagement between living representatives of both traditions, rather than (more broadly) engagement between ideas from both traditions. (For example, the broader reading of A2 includes engagement with early Chinese ideas independently of whether they are appreciated by current Chinese philosophers.) To me A2 suggests the broader thing, because that’s more of an end and because A1 doesn’t seem to include it, and because the bulk of current cross-tradition work in the West seems to focus on ancient texts.

    To your third point to me: Sorry! I didn’t mean to suggest that you think comparison is unimportant. I meant to suggest a parallel between the way you at least momentarily took my phrase A3 (as describing something trivial) and the way I worry people will tend to take the phrase ‘comparative philosophy’. Not long ago, when my linguistic intuitions were marginally closer to those of the target audience than they are now, I argued (in a meeting to write a job ad) that ‘comparative philosophy’ strongly suggests a familiar sort of shallow paper we warn our students not to write. Maybe ‘comparative’ inherently suggests “just comparing,” which in turn inherently suggests “shallowly comparing.”

    Fair point about ‘Greek Philosophy’. I meant to be talking only about associated assumptions, but I agree that the current work called “Greek Philosophy” doesn’t most centrally A2. (‘Comparative philosophy’ doesn’t include it at all, except in the proposed and predictably esoteric sense.)

    I agree about the value of having language to draw many distinctions among things we do with the Greeks’ work in modern terms: exegesis, evaluation, elaboration, use, further development, etc. As you point out, we have such language without the problematic new usage of ‘comparative philosophy’, though such language doesn’t take the form of standard labels for divisions of the field. But we need something further, you say: something like a flag, a snappy term for a certain division of the field that can remind and help convince our colleagues of the value specifically of East-West cross-tradition work (independently of convincing them of the inherent interest of Chinese philosophy).

    Are you saying there’s a special need for Western philosophy depts to give attention to broad A2 as opposed to: intepreting and evaluating Chinese philosophy (in Western terms, as one typically does)? So that we need a flag that puts cross-tradition work into a different compartment from the associated exegesis (i.e. of tradition X in tradition Y’s language)? I’m not sure why we need a flag that draws that particular distinction. Hence maybe one point in favor of the term ‘cross-tradition’ as a flag is that it does not stress the distinction: that we can without much stretching include under that head the exegesis of Confucius in English to a Western philosophical audience (which is what the official account of A1 seems to me to describe).

    I think that if our flag is to be a new arcane sense of ‘comparative philosophy’ whose exoteric suggestions to our target audience go counter to several of our purposes, we have a responsibility to grumble now and then to our target audience about how the term is unsatisfactory (as I think you are saying you sometimes do).

    I think a problematic flag undermines the boosters’ authority, working against its purpose in that way too. And I worry about the influence of the phrase on our own conception of what we do. We might have to keep scratching that itch. Alas if the problem is too entrenched to be scratched out!

    I’m curious to know what special needs are in your view most pressing. Here are two conceptions of China/West cross tradition work. Conception (1) says: “Cross-tradition work means current conversation. Chinese philosophy is a living tradition, and our aim should be to bring current philosophers East and West into conversation. We need funding for faculty exchanges, international conferences, and translations of currrent Chinese work into English, in all topics of philosophy. (Translation of Western work into Chinese is already proceeding as quickly as one could wish.)” Conception (2) says: “Living Chinese philosophy is an uneasy mix of strands from all over the east and west, looking for a voice. Insofar as it’s really an Other Tradition, that’s mainly by way of its reflecting or respecting much earlier Chinese work. So the bulk of Western cross-tradition effort should be on exploring earlier Chinese work (presumably in Western terms) and trying to learn everything we can from it, and on bringing current Chinese scholars into the discussion, mainly by funding good ongoing translation of good current work on early Chinese philosophy from each language into the other (e.g. whole journals). That’s the shortest path toward the aims even of conception (1).”

    Also one might try to persuade Beijing to lift the block on this blog and its close kin.

  12. In Beijing around July 6 one couldn’t access this blog or Chris Panza’s “A Gu Indeed” (WordPress) or Alexus McLeod’s “Unpolished Jade” (Blogger).

  13. My suspicion is that it’s platform-wide (blogger and wordpress), though I could be wrong. My blog has been political (in the sense of being negatively disposed towards the PRC), but I don’t make such posts often. I also don’t remember seeing any such posts here at this blog. Similarly for Alexus, I think his blog has been politically tame (can’t say the same about his facebook account, though, he’s an attack dog there!). That said, I _could_ completely understand why Sam Crane’s particular blog (The Useless Tree) is blocked (it is) — he is critical of the PRC on an almost daily basis.

  14. Here’s what the WordPress response to my query suggests. It could be useful for anyone planning travel to China. (Also, I’m going to COPY the past few comments and this bit of info to the Question Board so that if anyone wants to continue the string, we can do it there):

    Due to the free speech policies of China, and their nation-wide internet control is blocked in most regions. There are some easy ways around this – as most Chinese have figured out.

    There are some very easy ways for your friend to access freely the outside world from China. The most popular 2 ways used by most of the people inside China today are by email and by installing client side proxy softwares.

    For your friend, by installing client side proxy softwares should be the best choice.

    Quite a few of this kind of softwares available, best of all, for free, and are the most popular among Chinese, developed by overseas Chinese experts and hi-tech organizations to help people inside China to get through the China firewall.

    You can try the following 2 at least:

    1. UltraSurf
    Software download and User Guide are available at:

    2. Gpass:
    Software download and User Guide are available at

    3. Add to the domain name portion of the URL, like:

    Automattic |

  15. I’m a bit skeptical that it’s not political. What about It’s pretty funny–I read an article on blocking of websites the other day and wondered if “Unpolished Jade” was blocked (I did a post on Falun Gong a while back, although it was pretty critical of the movement). I guess it is! My guess is that they’re blocking sites containing particular no-no terms, like ‘Falun Gong’, etc. And I guess then I haven’t helped Manyul any by adding those words now to this blog. Sorry!

  16. One more thing–Unpolished Jade isn’t published through, but my own domain name, (I use Blogger’s templates and system, though). So now I’m convinced it must be the “key words” block.

  17. Manyul’s #12 and Bill’s #13 are both very thought-provoking. Alas, I’m packing up for a week away from a computer, and can’t do justice to either. Let me just say, vis-a-vis the two conceptions of cross-tradition work that Bill offers, that perhaps (1) is too optimistic but (2) too pessimistic and/or narrow. At least, there is much more to the Confucian tradition than the classical texts (and especially, than the three biggies), and the creative Confucian philosophers in the 20th century drew on all of it. I think we should engage a la (1) to a great degree, hoping for and helping to nourish precisely the kind of cross-tradition work that (1) envisions. To be sure, we should avoid falling into the trap of thinking that Chinese philosophers can only think within the Confucian tradition. We should also avoid thinking that the New Confucians have laid out the only possible paths through which Confucianism can develop in a contemporary context. Still, in many ways their models are constructive, and we should recognize that.

  18. Hi Steve,

    I want to know what to read, or at least what to add to my reading list. I’d be grateful if you’d say what, in your opinion, are two or three of the most philosophically interesting works (preferably short works!) in the Chinese philosophical tradition in the last few decades or the last century. (In case you happen to see this comment!)

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