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Ritual and Deference: Extending Chinese Philosophy in a Comparative Context (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 62, Number 1, January 2012
pp. 131-134 | 10.1353/pew.2012.0000

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The twelve elegant essays in this slim volume by Robert Cummings Neville, Ritual and Deference: Extending Chinese Philosophy in a Comparative Context, originating in lectures and projects of varying purposes, crystallize Neville’s “Confucian program” of comparative philosophy, which has been taking shape in his earlier works. More accessible than his other monographs, its apparent simplicity is deceptive. While it would inspire and benefit even the novice, only those who have traveled some distance on the same arduous journey would fully appreciate the depth of its understanding and the clarity achieved through struggle with the perennial identity crisis and methodological problems of comparative philosophy.

Neville writes as both a philosopher and a theologian, seeing no satisfactory or useful distinction between philosophy and religion. The two chapters “The Contemporary Mutual Development of Confucianism and Christianity” and “The Personal and Impersonal in Conceptions of Divinity” may appear to be about religion, but they still have something to offer the reader whose interest is solely philosophical. The former draws attention to the connection between personal moral cultivation (“correcting the heart”) and one’s moral relation to the world. The latter’s exploration of the diversity with which the divine or the ultimate has been represented in various cultures offers hypotheses that also indicate how one might go about comparing key philosophical concepts.

The intentional focus of the longest chapter, “On Comparison,” is comparative theology (p. 127), but it moves seamlessly into comparative philosophy. Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s caution against trusting one’s own understanding of another religion “unless a theologically astute practitioner of that religion recognizes himself or herself in the expression of that understanding” (p. 131) is also instructive for the comparative philosopher worried about misrepresenting other cultures or traditions. Neville’s suggested extension of this into collaborative comparison could be fruitful for philosophical comparisons. Such collaboration involves developing comparative categories without biasing the comparison against any of the philosophies being compared; articulating the philosophies to be compared as “ways of specifying the comparative category or respect in which they are to be compared”; and surveying the results of such articulations and forming hypotheses of how the various positions compare (p. 132). This suggestion is important in light of Neville’s assertion of the need for contemporary philosophy to address a global philosophic public and the daunting challenge posed by the paideia required for such a task (p. 142): given the improbability of any single individual having such paideia, collaboration is our best hope.

Neville turns his attention to comparative philosophy itself when he identifies the two fundamental approaches to comparison that now dominate the field: “objectivist” and “normative.” In Neville’s survey, contemporary objectivist comparative philosophy includes classificatory comparison (an Aristotelian heritage), the social science causal approach, and the philosophy of culture. Building on his critical assessment of these approaches, he suggests a fourth type of objectivist comparison, the core text and motif analysis, which traces the historical developments and branching of responses to core texts and motifs, expressing the conceptual relationship between philosophic positions “in terms of a complicated history, noting continuities as well as irrelevancies and incommensurabilities” (p. 140).

Among the advantages of core text and motif analysis is the suggestion “that a living philosopher can make a reconstructive retrieval of just about any position in the history that suggests itself, because that is exactly what philosophers in that history did. [It] invites normative comparison as a further move” (p. 140). Normative comparison “centers, first, on contemporary philosophical problems and looks to the historical positions as resources for contemporary thinking, bringing them into comparative perspective against the contemporary background” (p. 133). Objectivist and normative approaches are interrelated and need each other. The conclusions of objectivist analysis are not just useful, but should always be respected in normative comparison. Neville argues that the objectivist approach also needs the normative because the former employs norms that derive “from contemporary concerns that guide the selection of respects in which comparisons are made” (p. 134). While I am personally sympathetic to this position, it should be noted that some comparativists have begun to argue that it is time for the problems, categories, and methods to be set not by contemporary concerns (especially if...

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