- Reply to Steven Burik
Important objections are raised by Steven Burik in his comment on Rui Zhu's response to Rorty and MacIntyre. We will try to address them without proceeding in an eristic, point-by-point manner. In general, it seems that at least some of Burik's objections are based on his misreading of Zhu's response. Burik is not to blame, however. Zhu's response was short and many of the points made there were not sufficiently explained or developed. By way of his generous commentary Burik has provided us a much needed opportunity to offer some remedies.
A key distinction in Zhu's response was its reference to comparative philosophy as a form of intercultural studies and as philosophy. The former compares philosophies and the latter does philosophy. It goes without saying that the two are difficult to separate. Nevertheless, the distinction is real and can be felt by any comparative philosopher through the tension between scholarly expositions and creative philosophizing. In this reply to Burik we will recalibrate the distinction in terms of that between understanding and thinking, even though the profile drawn here might be a bit too sharp for our comfort. But such is the risk we have to bear for the sake of heuristics.
As said, the distinction will be recalibrated here as that between understanding and thinking. It seems to us that a lot of works in comparative philosophy, including Zhu's, have fallen into the trap of the well-intentioned desire to seek understanding and dialogue across different philosophical traditions. What is sacrificed as a result is the boldness to think and philosophize.
Understanding is a hermeneutic enterprise that requires an interpreter, a person more properly called an "understander," as far as comparative philosophy is concerned. The understander must suspend her own cultural standards and listen to what the other culture has to say on a subject matter. In understanding the other, one must embed oneself in the narrative tradition(s) of the other and employ the standards and logic informed by the other in judging issues that are otherwise differently judged by one's own culture. One key hermeneutic virtue lies in the understander's sensibility and respect toward the other culture premised upon her rejecting any essentialist, absolutist, or universalist attitude sanctioned by her own consciousness. An understander, [End Page 271] in a word, must be vigilant against her own parochialism and cultural imperialism. Any idea or concept, however tempting it might be, may not be siphoned off from its own context and treated as ready to use, to be assimilated or assailed. Tradition, in other words, constitutes the premise of understanding—one cannot truly understand a thing if the tradition whence the thing has emerged is ignored. In this sense, all hermeneutic enterprises have a conservative core—it limits the possibility of a word, utterance, or proposition to possess meaning outside its context.
Thinking, on the other hand, is necessarily iconoclastic, despite its link to understanding. A thinker, no matter how well she understands and how much respect she holds with regard to a tradition, must seek to break free from it. She is wary of traditions exactly because they are traditions, due to their powerful hold on human consciousness and the essentialist, absolutist ideologies they tend to foster. Certainly, such a task of self-liberation is difficult. It may even be impossible. If it is impossible, however, the impossibility shall not constitute the impossibility of thinking per se. At its worst, a thinker would be a Sisyphean figure chained to an impossible task, trying to un-think something that has enabled her to think in the first place.
In contrast to an understander, a thinker's business is not to understand the other, or even one's self through the other, but to address some of the inevitably essentialist questions that have emerged through the evolution of human consciousness, questions such as "What is the ultimate truth?" and "Is there a God?" and "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Such questions are expressed in different languages, dressed in different concepts and ideas, but are universal. Many such questions...