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  • Toleration in Comparative Perspective ed. by Vicki A. Spencer
  • Lara M. Mitias (bio)
Toleration in Comparative Perspective. Edited by Vicki A. Spencer. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018. Pp. xxii + 304. Hardcover $105.00, ISBN 978-1-4985-3017-0.


This book offers an examination of tolerance and toleration in pre-modern times and non-Western places. Part of the purpose of the book is to show that toleration is not a uniquely Western or modern concept. It is intended to "open a dialogue between various traditions of thought to explore precisely the ways in which overlap and distinctions exist" with practices and ideas of toleration in other cultures (p. ix). It is meant not only to "pluralize our understanding of the Western tradition" and "illuminate intersections between Western and non-Western traditions by critically exploring the points of commonality and difference in their varied approaches to cultural and religious diversity," but also to demonstrate that the way other traditions have approached difference and diversity in political theory and action can provide ideas we can use to deal with the increasing diversity and emphasis on difference characteristic of our modern states. This volume is successful in its aims and provides useful concepts and models for expanding our own ideas of toleration and tolerance, both philosophically and in practice.

The book is organized into loose geographical categories beginning with the West, which includes the Middle Ages and Medieval Europe, Indigenous pre-Modern American, and more modern European perspectives. It then moves to Southwest Asia, to the Ottoman Empire and a modernist Islamic perspective, and then into South and Southeast Asia, with Malla-Era Nepal, Medieval and Modern India, and a Theravada Buddhist perspective. The final category is East Asia, with a study of Early Modern Japan, and Confucian and Daoist Thought. This is truly an original and important study of toleration, which would be ideal for a comparative graduate seminar on toleration and is an essential contribution to discussions of toleration and tolerance.

In her introduction, Vicki A. Spencer begins defining 'toleration' and 'tolerance' as used in the chapters that follow. Positive attitudes towards difference like openness or broad-mindedness and appreciation of difference, are referred to as "tolerance," and this term covers those attitudes and behaviors that display a positive approach to difference at the individual and institutional [End Page 1] level. Tolerance entails belief in something positive like acceptance, the relinquishing of bigotry, and the understanding of another perspective that is potentially gained through interaction with the diverse beliefs and practices of others (p. xiv). In contrast, "toleration" refers to principled forbearance at both an institutional and individual level. The point of difference between toleration and tolerance, she notes, is that the objection component is lacking in tolerance. This distinction departs from the dominant philosophical and political uses of these terms, where tolerance is often criticized in the same way as toleration for having an inherently negative approach to difference.

A large part of this volume details the presence of such positive approaches to diversity, or personal and institutional tolerance, in other cultures and times. This book is timely, since the need for toleration arises, as Spencer says, in situations of diversity where disagreements about beliefs exist (p. xii), and, we may add, where conversation has broken down and interaction has seemingly become impossible. This volume successfully addresses toleration and tolerance as human social and political phenomena and looks at how we deal with difference in a multitude of contexts. Spencer notes that there is a common commitment by the authors presented here to "listen to the text or practices under investigation to see how they might correlate with or differ from the contemporary Western idea of toleration and/or the concept of tolerance employed in this volume" (p. xv). Although no directly translatable word may exist for toleration or tolerance in a given tradition, this doesn't mean that there are no comparable ideas or practices. The authors presented in this volume examine philosophical and/or institutional approaches to diversity of belief and practice, and the personal attitudes and institutional actions that have dealt with these differences, in order to develop a conversation among traditions.

Part I...


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