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? Continue reading