How should one do philosophy across cultures? This is not an easy question, though too many people treat it as if it is. Mid-twentieth-century answers leaned to a perennialism like Ken Wilber’s, where at some deep level all the traditions are basically the same. That perennialism does not stand up to critical scrutiny: philosophical traditions are quite different from each other, and disagree with each other (and within each other) on crucial points.
But once one acknowledges those differences, one is still left trying to figure out what to do with them. It will not do to take one’s starting standard as given and judge everything that one encounters according to it – an approach characteristic of analytic philosophers, but also taken by Martha Nussbaum in Upheavals of Thought. Once one does that, there is scarcely much point left to thinking cross-culturally at all, for one already knows the answers. Given human finitude and fallibility, such confidence seems more like gross arrogance. But no better is the converse approach – typically labelled relativist – which views all the different traditions as equally right. Such an approach is a logical absurdity, since very few traditions themselves hold such a view: by declaring them right it declares them wrong.
What approach then should one take? I have previously outlined a better approach that I described as dialectical synthesis. I think that view remains about right in its broad outlines, but there is a lot more to say, more that I hadn’t quite thought through when I wrote those posts, which I learned as I wrote my methodological paper on Alasdair MacIntyre. I am unlikely to attempt to publish that paper in its current form, because my thoughts keep evolving; it will probably be part of a larger project that could be two parallel articles or even a book. The paper is available for download in its current form on the Prosblogion site – but I think it’s valuable to spell out the ideas that I learned during the process of writing it, and have continued to develop since I wrote it, here on the blog.
The process was a process of life at least as much as writing. Friends and regular readers will know of the major event that shaped my life since 2013: my wife’s diagnosis with cancer, which led me to identify as a Buddhist – and made it urgent to practice accordingly. (She is doing fine, by the way.) Buddhism got me anew through one of the roughest periods of my life. Yet my long misgivings about Buddhism remained relevant – after all, I had proclaimed my distance from it most strongly when I decided to get married in the first place.
And one of the things that had made those years particularly hard is that during that time I had started to move in directions that were too comparative: spending most of my time exploring thinkers like Heidegger and Zhuangzi whom I knew I wouldn’t myself agree with. And there lies a big problem. It hit me more strongly that while one can love all wisdom, one can’t know all of it – and more importantly one can’t inhabit all of it. One must choose – or rather one must figure out where one belongs, declare which traditions one stands inside and will provide one with guidance. I needed advice I could actually believe. Heidegger and Zhuangzi didn’t provide that.
It was with that background that I began a project on method, figuring out where to stand, and did so with MacIntyre’s help. One of the key points that MacIntyre pushed me further on is the idea – shared by Gadamer – that one always starts philosophical inquiry where one is, in one’s own historical context, informed by tradition. Such a starting point makes it more challenging to engage in substantive debate with those whose starting points are different, as they will likely have their own internal standards of rationality and truth. So it matters that my previously proposed method of dialectical synthesis is deeply informed by Hegel and his presuppositions, presuppositions that Śāntideva or Buddhaghosa – or Zhuangzi or al-Ghazālī – would not share.
Now such a viewpoint already leads one perilously close to a slightly different form of relativism – one that does not quite say “all traditions are equally right”, but says that their standards are internal to themselves so there is no way to cross them. This is the relativism defended by Momin Malik, which I responded to in previous posts. I first responded to Momin with MacIntyre’s approach to superseding other traditions: effectively, one can do better than them by their own standards. But I also wanted to go further than MacIntyre to a position more like Hegel’s, where one could reach a standpoint that was universal though not neutral.
The first thing I tried to write in this methodological project, indeed, was an attempt to criticize MacIntyre on the grounds of a more Hegelian universalist position. The original idea, years ago, was just to write one blog post on that idea here: I was going to call it “MacIntyre vs. MacIntyre”. I was going to claim that MacIntyre’s methodological posistion falls apart on closer examination because he turns out to require more universalist presuppositions. But then a funny thing happened: as I read his methodological works through in order to reply to them, they actually seemed to hold up. For I hadn’t yet thought through the distinction between formal and substantive standards of rationality, which is essential to MacIntyre’s method. That is, one can have, and needs to have, formal (or thin or weak) standards of rationality that are indeed universal; it is the substantive (or thick or strong) standards that are tradition-dependent. And so the first version of the methodological project, a short paper that I presented at the American Comparative Literature Association meeting in March 2016, wound up expounding MacIntyre’s own methodological position. (But not his substantive position, which I’ve never been fully on board with.)
Since then I have moved back and forth regarding MacIntyre’s view. What has been helpful in that regard is recognizing how MacIntyre explicitly derives his account from the philosophies of science of Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos taken together. I am becoming increasingly skeptical of MacIntyre’s view that traditions are incommensurable with each other. The claim of incommensurability derives from Kuhn, and Lakatos explicitly rejects it; my own methodological view is starting to move away from MacIntyre and toward Lakatos. What that means for the practice of comparative philosophy, I am still working out – but I think it does mean that the barriers between traditions of inquiry are, and should be, a lot more porous than MacIntyre would like to admit.