- Reply to Xiao Ouyang
The recent upsurge of interest in discussions of methodology in comparative philosophy illustrates an increasing professionalization in the discipline. Only rarely do we see today the sort of general overview with rough and ready juxtaposition of different [End Page 256] philosophies, let alone distinct mindsets—Indian, Japanese, Chinese, et cetera—that characterized an earlier phase of the discipline. While the best of that work was tremendously important in pointing attention to non-European philosophy and introducing the various sources, debates, and historiographies, it seems to me that we are seeing in recent decades many more fine-grained studies that operate well under the radar of civilizational discourse. Also, today there are, of course, more scholars in the field and ever more Ph.D. and postdocs trying to build a career in comparative philosophy as their main field of specialization. This is a global reality, regardless of the many institutional obstacles that are still in place and the opposition of those who hold steadfastly to the view that only European philosophy is truly philosophy. Since civilizational discourse still often functions as a more or less articulated background assumption in specialized studies of comparative philosophy, it is a most welcome feature of discussions about methodology that they question the units of comparison and openly debate the manifold aims that comparative philosophers are pursuing.
I read Xiao Ouyang's comments on "Rethinking Comparative Philosophical Methodology" as a contribution to these important discussions in methodology and particularly regarding the aims of comparative philosophy. That he has chosen my work on comparison and criticism of comparative philosophy as a springboard to articulate these larger issues honors me, and I shall of course take the opportunity to clarify some of my views and respond to some of the criticism from Ouyang's side. Nonetheless, I should also like to engage with some of the more encompassing thoughts offered by Ouyang. There is much that he writes that I can agree with, and I am especially thankful for his revisiting the early methodological debates published in the first few volumes of Philosophy East and West. These earlier contributions to comparative philosophy are important not only in terms of what they have to say, but also in terms of raising awareness that there is a history to the discipline. Critical reflections on the history of comparative philosophy, as well as other aspects, are in my view still fundamentally lacking. Further professionalization of the discipline would mean that we start writing local and global histories of the discipline, posing questions pertaining to the sociology of comparative philosophy and investigating the broader intellectual and political contexts that have influenced the formation and development of the discipline. Many key figures featured in the first volumes of Philosophy East and West and writing about methodology spoke out firmly in favor of a plurality of approaches, which is as sound an intellectual position as it is necessary for the flourishing of any discipline.
Today, I think it is fair to say that there are many different and competing approaches pursued in the field. My own work on comparison is in no way meant to favor any one approach over all others. The purpose of my "analytical tool," for which Ouyang takes me to task, is simply to offer a way of questioning the resulting comparison of any given approach for its assumptions, units of comparison, level of abstraction, and political pretexts. Most of all, it helps us understand what comparison has actually been performed. Distinguishing different elements of a comparison makes this task much easier. Ouyang believes that "questioning what are the [End Page 257] elements that make a standard comparison" is a "reductionist perspective" and that "the benefits of these kinds of questions are limited" (endnote 13). I must submit that I tend to agree—but I would want to add that reductionism and limitedness are constitutive features, if not virtues, of any good analytical tool. This is exactly the reason why I prefer to speak of a "tool" and not of an "approach."
In fact, if I read Ouyang's argument correctly, then his central point revolves around the difficult question whether comparative philosophy...