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When I use concepts like intimacy and integrity and ascent and descent on this blog, I very often refer to them as ideal types. So far I have explained what that means mostly in passing, and it’s time to provide a bit more detail.

Credit for the concept of an ideal type must go to Max Weber, the early twentieth-century German historian who is now retroactively regarded as one of the founders of sociology. Weber identifies the concept in his long and thoughtful piece “‘Objectivity’ in social science and social policy”; its English translation (by Edward Shils and Henry Finch) is easily found in the short collection The Methodology of the Social Sciences, available free online. Weber’s point is to argue for theoretical constructs that – much like Platonic forms – allow us to understand empirical reality even if they are never instantiated in that reality. He takes as an example the abstract mathematical constructs that characterize twentieth-century economic theory:

It offers us an ideal picture of events on the commodity-market under conditions of a society organized on the principles of an exchange economy, free competition and rigorously rational conduct. This conceptual pattern brings together certain relationships and events of historical life into a complex, which is conceived as an internally consistent system. Substantively, this construct in itself is like a utopia which has been arrived at by the analytical accentuation of certain elements of reality. Its relationship to the empirical data consists solely in the fact that where market-conditioned relationships of the type referred to by the abstract construct are discovered or suspected to exist in reality to some extent, we can make the characteristic features of this relationship pragmatically clear and understandable by reference to an ideal-type. (pp. 89-90, emphases in original)

Weber develops the method in contrast to a more strictly empiricist or positivist social science, which would seek to stick much closer to empirically observed data. The point of the ideal type (German Idealtypus) is to allow us a deeper understanding, through abstraction, of the empirical data we do find. “The ideal typical concept will help to develop our skill in imputation in research: it is no ‘hypothesis’ but it offers guidance to the construction of hypotheses. It is not a description of reality but it aims to give unambiguous means of expression to such a description.” (90) And then the task of the empirical social scientist is to ascertain the extent to which a given and observed social phenomenon fits the ideal-typical description: not “whether or not” it fits, but how much it fits.

That’s the idea of ideal types in social science. Now why talk about them in philosophy? Philosophy is not a social science and does not deal primarily in empirical observation, or even in the interpretation of empirical observation. So why should we care? Indeed ideal types are not especially useful for philosophy in the scholastic mode, such as the 20th-century analytic tradition or the Buddhism of Nālandā. Such an approach begins with the presuppositions of its own cultural context (liberalism and natural science, in the case of analytic philosophy), the presuppositions that its practitioners would take for granted as true in a nonphilosophical context. It then reasons out from those presuppositions about any given matter in an attempt to discover the truth about that matter – often revising the presuppositions slightly in the process. In such an approach, observations about other cultures’ beliefs are not usually taken as generally relevant. The philosophers of Nālandā would have not taken the ideas of 20th-century Cambridge as serious candidates for truth, and the philosophers of 20th-century Cambridge would have returned the favour.

But the cross-cultural philosopher, qua cross-cultural philosopher, must take an approach at least somewhat different from this. There is little point in doing cross-cultural philosophy unless we presume that there is some truth in other cultures’ thought that is not found, or not as easily found, in our own. And once one starts to study the philosophies of other traditions in earnest, the number of available positions quickly begins to multiply into a bewildering array. Just the number of philosophical options that has been explored in the history of the West is daunting enough, let alone in South and East Asia.

This is where ideal types come in. It is not primarily an empirical question which philosophies are true, but it is an empirical question which philosophies have exist and have existed – and an extremely complex and difficult one. Ideal types help bring some order to the descriptive chaos. They help us identify not only perennial questions – philosophical questions asked in multiple places with widely varying answers – but the connections and relations between the answers offered. To my mind at least, that is how one judges the usefulness of an ideal type: how well does it articulate logical connections between otherwise apparently disparate phenomena? And that is why I keep turning back to the concepts of ascent and descent and intimacy and integrity. They help one see a reason behind patterns in the philosophies one observes: why a metaphysics of ideal universals often appears with an ethic of renunciation, or why a holistic metaphysic is often tied to a communitarian politics. It seems to me that such an understanding is essential to the task of the comparative philosopher. One needs to know what questions keep showing up in philosophy, what answers keep showing up with them, and why. I think it is much more difficult to do that without the help of ideal types.