- Comment on "Comparative Philosophy:In Response to Rorty and Macintyre" by Rui Zhu
The brief response by Rui Zhu provides an interesting take on the (by now) perennial problem of what comparative philosophy is or should be. While Zhu makes some interesting observations about and suggestions for comparative philosophy, he chooses contributions to the thinking about the possibilities and methodologies of [End Page 266] comparative philosophy that are rather old, though, and my first wonder is: why these two papers, and not more recent contributions to the development of the methodology of comparative philosophy, as can be found in numerous recently published work? Such more recent publications tend to take a more nuanced approach to the idea of (in-)commensurability than the two essays from 1991, given the developments in comparative philosophy in the last twenty-five years.
Zhu first discusses Rorty, and claims that Rorty's ideas amount to "a dismissal of comparative philosophy." This is where my first disagreement arises. The fact that Rorty challenges the dominant style of doing philosophy in the West seems not so much to suggest that he wants to rid us of philosophy, but to me at least can be understood as a positive development for comparative philosophy. The term 'philosophy' has been, especially in the last twenty-five years, a hot topic for thinkers who see themselves as comparative, for multiple reasons. First of all, if one defines philosophers as Rorty does, then it is indeed clear that certain thinkers from non-Western traditions would not fit that bill. This is the reason why many thinkers have a problem with the term, as it is reflective and representative of a tradition of thinking that is indeed essentialist and dualist. Thinkers from other traditions may have put less emphasis on essentialism and dualism, and for some this is a reason to exclude those thinkers from the discourse of philosophy. So I think that Rorty does not want "comparison sans philosophy," as Zhu suggests; rather he wants comparative philosophy to not be dominated by the specifically Western understanding of the term, which is a very strict and narrow understanding, and by extension Rorty thinks the specifically Western problems and terminology that have been the concern of Western philosophers throughout the history of Western philosophy, examples being 'truth' and 'rationality', may not be the best candidates when attempting to do comparative philosophy. Many comparative thinkers have argued in the last twenty-five years that such concepts or notions may be absent from other cultures, or may not have had any prominence in the thought of those cultures as they did in Western philosophy.
In my view, it is a definite advancement that recent comparative philosophy is trying to step away from essentialism, the concept of 'essence' not even being prominent in other traditions such as the Chinese in the first place. This means that post-modern thinkers who have actively challenged the dominant Western tradition provide a more fruitful platform for comparison, since they display the kind of openness often lacking in the 'stricter' philosophers.
Second and following up on this, using the term 'philosophy' is problematic for comparative philosophers since by the very nature of our profession we would then have to widen the scope of philosophy, which would inevitably result in disagreements about the limits and boundaries of what philosophy is in general. Yet this does not necessarily mean we need to let go of the term. There is a different understanding of 'philosopher' that may be a bit more humble than Rorty's "ascetic priest." Culture and philosophy will never be considered the same, so we should not argue that any serious contributor to a culture would automatically count as a philosopher. But instead we could easily argue for some minimum criteria that an author or thinker [End Page 267] would need to display to count as a philosopher. One such criterion would be that the thinkers are able at least to distance themselves from their own culture. They are not purely cultural products or participants or even producers of culture, but analyze and criticize aspects of life that others take for granted. Such distancing need not be done...