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What is Comparative Philosophy for?


KWAN Sui-chi(PhD Student, Humanities, HKUST; Tutor, OUHK)


Comparative philosophy is a distinguishable field of inquiry in philosophy. When interpreted as a branch of philosophy, it stands alongside with those which pertain to the philosophy of science, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of social science, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of art…The list can be much longer but it suffices to stop here to give a sense of what comparative philosophy is. Comparative philosophy has its own methods, presuppositions, activities and frameworks which set it apart from the others. When interpreted as a discipline which takes comparison as its central concern, however, it lapses into the whole itself of which it is supposed to be a part. For philosophy, the whole which comprises its parts, is an activity which is always involved in comparing different views about various issues. Socrates philosophized via dialogues in which views held by others were constantly scrutinized and compared with his own; Confucius began his work by refining wisdom previous to his time and in this transformation lies an implicit comparison.[1] This paper understands comparative philosophy in both the narrow and broad senses sketched above with a special focus on the perennial function it commissions itself, namely, seeking an understanding of the wonders[2] of the human predicament.[3] More specifically, I will first give a brief review of some the works done under the name of comparative philosophy for a critical assessment of the essentialistic color common among them in the next section. In the second section, I will take up some space to extracta tacit assumption behind most of these works, namely, essentialism. Then, I will sketch a tentative view of mine of what comparative philosophy should be doing as an enterprise to seek solutions for the persistent riddle of human life.

      Review of contemporary conception of comparative philosophy      

Of all the literature concerning the theorization and the practice of comparative philosophy that I have skimmed through, there are roughly three positions that worth mentioning. The first takes a pejorative attitude towards almost all ‘non-Western’ cultures and / or philosophies, characterizing the latter as first and foremost irrational, unscientific, mystical, illogical or even untutored. In defense of one’s own culture, the second and the third take different approaches. The second simply admits that non-Western cultures are downright irrational, and celebrates that this is what precisely constitutes their identity. Their value lies exactly in their heuristicism and illumination on human life. The third claims that they too have logic which is at least not less developed than that of the West and perhaps some of the non-Western philosophical traditions have close affinity to their Western counterparts.

The first view is perhaps best exemplified in Antony Flew’s An Introduction to Western Philosophy[4] in which he suggests that none of the philosophical systems east of Europe is worth investigating. This rings a bell with John Locke who mocks the irrationality of Chinese and Indian philosophies. Lucien Levy-Brhul, a French ethnologist, characterizes African thoughts as operating in concepts that are “typically learned in rites and rituals [which] involve intense affective and psychomotor experiences”.[5] Its main interest is in a supernatural reality the apprehension of which “requires participatory involvement” but not “logical understanding.”[6] All of them, along with others, assume that there is a ‘non-Western’ camp of thought which has no interest in a systematic way of thinking and is therefore incapable of being elucidated in explicit terms.

The second view, however, simply takes pride in the alleged irrationality of so-called non-Western thought. H. Odera Oruka, in his Sage Philosophy, a book that surveys African thought, remarks that ‘Sage-philosophy’,

“consists of the expressed thoughts of wise men and women in any given community and is a way of thinking explaining the world that fluctuates between popular wisdom (Oruka’s italics) and didactic wisdom, an expounded wisdom and a rational thought of some given individuals within a community.”[7]

The choice of the word ‘Sage’ itself is apparently self-explanatory enough to be representative of this view.

The third view can be typified as arguing that non-Western thinkers have developed logical systems on their own which are no less perfect than that which was first developed by Aristotle and further refined by modern logicians in the West. Ng Yu-Kwan (or Wu Rujun), a local Buddhist Scholar here in Hong Kong, has been propagating the idea that Buddhism has highly sophisticated logical systems that are comparable to those of the West.[8] Joseph Needham, along with his collaborators, in a chapter about Language and Logic in China, tries to defend against the charge that the Chinese have little development of logic by exploring those ancient Chinese texts which have an association, though sometimes in a fragmentary way, with either the theory or the practice, or both, of logic.[9] Bimal Matilal, in defense of the Anekanta philosophy of Jainism against the accusation that its seven-fold syat prediction boils down to nothing but self-contradiction, seeks to reconstruct the implicit logic of this ancient thought by drawing resources from modern logic.[10]

All these views on cross-cultural comparisons, divergent as they are in their views of the relative significance of all philosophies in various traditions, are based on one common presupposition, viz., that there is an alleged distinction between races and cultures in general, and a dichotomy between the West and the non-West in particular. To see this more clearly, perhaps we can look at one more culturalist as an example: Du Bois. He is one of the persons who have the strongest insistence on a colossal categorization of races and cultures.[11] The whole world, on his view, can be divided into eight groups of races. Instead of holding a unified global view of world culture, he advocates a revival of interest in cultivating ethnic identity, in his case, a Pan-African one. But what is a race? Is there really such thing as a “vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain …vividly conceived ideals of life”?[12] In what follows, we will look deeper into these views of comparative cultural studies and argue that underneath them is a presupposition that various so-called cultural and philosophical systems can be essentialized into distinctive groups such that the dichotomy between the West and the non-West can be made possible.

What is comparative philosophy for?

In this section, we will first look at what a race is supposed to be. We will point out that the concept of a race is a fabrication because it relies on an untenable notion of essence. If there is indeed no such thing as an essence, not only should comparative philosophy stop being an activity of imperialisation and counter-imperialisation, but should instead tap resources from an infinite variety of cultural and philosophical systems. Let’s take a look at the concept of a race first.

A. Race

In contradistinction to Du Bois’s conception of a race as mentioned above, Kwame A. Appiah argues that ‘race’ is never a scientific concept. There is no scientific evidence that supports the idea that, for example, a Caucasian is essentially different from a Chinese. Quite on the contrary, scientific studies show that the genetic difference between any two so-called races are so small that it is totally insignificant. He cites, “[T]he chances of two people who are both ‘Caucasoid’ differing in genetic constitution at one site on a given chromosome are about 14.3 per cent, while, for any two people taken at random from the human population, they are about 14.8 per cent.”[13] If the biology of different ‘races’ has no significant variation, the concept itself should be reckoned as totally groundless. So where does the concept of a race come from?

Now the bearing of the legitimacy of the concept of ‘race’ on the concept of cultural groups should be clear. Despite the fact that there are cultural groups or cultural identities in the world, it should be wholly unambiguous that this concept is itself unscientific. Both the concepts of race and cultural groups are not warranted by science. They are both unjustified and unjustifiable in terms of science. It is, as I see it, only a socio-historical construction. They arise only by virtue of some specific social or political arrangements and frameworks out of which they assume a ‘physical appearance’. It is because of this appearance that we are misled to believe that it is inherently true. These arrangements and frameworks are heavily colored with provincialism which reinforces a sense of hegemony of the West over the non-West world. The fact that the field of comparative philosophy is mainly dominated by studies respectively pertaining to the three views discussed in the first section should not go unnoticed. These views are either caricaturizing the non-West world or taking these caricatures seriously by defending one’s culture or philosophy. One can almost smell a sense of inferiority complex lurking behind. These views, be they hegemonic or defensive, share one thing in common, that is, the repeated reinforcement of the concept that there are genuine essential differences between different racial groups and philosophical systems. In one word, they are unconsciously perpetuating the notion of essentialism. In what follows, we will take up some space discussing the validity of essentialism and see that the concept itself is a misconceived one.

B. Essentialism: epistemological and political

Ernest Sosa has distinguished four grades of essentialism of which the first two might be interestingly relevant to our discussion.[14] The first grade is a “relativistic” one in the sense that “a thing x is allowed to have a property Φ essentially only relative to some other singled-out property that x has (or kind to which it belongs).”[15] An example can be if something is square then it has a shape. The second grade is an “absolute” one in the sense that “it is a necessary truth that any property possessed essentially by anything is possessed essentially by everything that possesses it.”[16] So, necessarily, if something is a body, then it is necessarily a body. This means that it has that property not contingently, but necessarily.[17]

Sosa’s discussion on essentialism focuses on the epistemological aspect of it. There is, however, a political aspect that should concern us here. Essentialism in this form refers to the attribution of fixity and limits definitionally imposed on different groups of people, be they ethnic races or people holding a set of specific doctrines. These attributions are meant to limit the possibilities of change and fix their traits once and for all.

All forms of essentialism do share one thing in common, viz., a distinction between essential and accidental properties. Essential properties are those which enter into the constitution of the object, otherwise it would not exist. Accidental properties, by contrast, refer to those that without which an object is still what it is. All forms of essentialism are committed to this distinction. Every corporeal and material thing changes. What changes is not the essential properties but the accidental ones. Thus, water can be turned into ice, but the constituents are still hydrogen and oxygen with the number of the first element doubling that of the latter. And in similar fashion, assimilations and concessions can be made on the part of a certain Western cultural system concerning some confrontation of ideas to a non-Western one, but what makes a non-Western culture non-Western still prevails regardless of the assimilations and concessions.

Those who believe in essentialism often rely on drawing support from Aristotle who originated metaphysics as the theory of being qua being (that is, of being as being). Aristotle’s theory is one of what each and every thing is essentially, qua itself. Many of the contemporary philosophers reject Aristotelian essentialism. They hold that to be is to have no property essentially, which means that there is no necessary connection between, for example, Chinese and any specific type of culture it may happen to have. An object can be said to have an essence only insofar as the so-called essence is relativized to a particular context in which the object is being represented or described under some aspect. The way that it is described, therefore, is context-specific and context-sensitive. This line of argument has actually already been anticipated in Protagoras who held the view that “Man is the measure” which implies, relevant to our discussion here, that all things exist only in relation to human perception, that there is nothing that has its properties in itself in an absolute way, that it can only have it relatively – relative to something or other.[18] This also applies to the construction of a cultural identity in that it is recognized as such only in relation to some sort of cultural interaction, and that there is literally no intrinsic properties which make a specific culture become what it is or what it is not. In other words, insofar as a so-called essence is something necessarily relative to a given situation, reality is, as I would venture to say, always a function of interpretation.

There is another line of argument against essentialism which we should consider before we end this part. It can be characterized as having a very strong linguistic tone. The question of essentialism for it is, What relationship holds between the essence of x and the use of the word x? or, What relation is the purported essence supposed to have to the current or past use of the term applied to it? As Wittgenstein says, “[when we employ some terms and] try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home? What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.”[19] Wittgenstein’s dictum that “Don’t think, but look,”[20] demands us to shun away from conjecturing and meditating the abstract, the so-called Universal, but to focus on the use of words in everyday life context.

In order to throw further light on the senselessness in searching for the essence of things, Wittgenstein introduces the notion of ‘family resemblance’, according to which there is nothing in common among all things that are brought together under the same name. Take the word ‘game’. Although we can find commonality in tennis and badminton, for example, that there is the indispensability of a racket, it is not as easy to find anything in common between tennis and chess. And what about a kid playing a game with himself? There are, for Wittgenstein, only “similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that”, so intricately subtle that it’s more like “a complicated network of similarities, overlapping and criss-crossing.”[21] In sum, as Wittgenstein cogently argues, the search for essence must go in vain.

C. The Commission of Comparative Philosophy

If there is a sense in saying that comparative philosophy is first and foremost philosophy itself,[22] the way we conceive of the function of the latter should be the way we do with that of the former. Aristotle says, philosophy begins with a sense of wonder.[23] For Wittgenstein, this wonder has always something to do with the existence of the world, which, for him, is the totality of facts.[24] As for Heidegger, his wonder is expressed as “Why is there something rather than nothing?”[25] Expressed in different terms, this wonder is always directed at the riddle of life. Yes, the perennial riddle of life. When we come to think of it, perhaps we might recall the more than well-known tragedy of King Oedipus who, on the road to the city of Thebes, solved the riddle as posed by Sphinx by answering that “the best thing for man is not to have been born at all.”[26] Rush Rhees takes this as a “protest against life”.[27] Indeed, the overwhelming abundance of pain and suffering in life makes it definitely difficult, if not impossible, for us to be thankful for life. The introduction of the concept of ‘pratityasamutpada’ or, in English, ‘dependent origination’ by Buddha is primarily supposed to explain the Canon of Suffering (duhkha).[28] Suffering has an existential dimension in the sense that life, from womb to tomb, is deeply entwined in and intricately bound up with it. It is so ubiquitous and pervasive that there is simply no way we can escape from it. For the great thinkers ever lived in human history, philosophy is that very tool devised by mankind to help us think through the perennial riddle of life. Notice that I did not say that philosophy can help solve the riddle. It always, so to speak, desperately hangs there. It is precisely because it hangs there without any clear-cut prospect of solution that we need to have philosophical insights drawn from every source available to help shed light on it.

Final Remarks

Provincialism as an offshoot of essentialism, especially of the political kind, is very dangerous. In is indeed in provincialism that we can see no future for comparative philosophy. If comparative philosophers engaged themselves in nothing other than stigmatizing non-Western cultures and thoughts by labeling them as, for example, irrational, or, conversely, spending their efforts in defending one’s own culture against such stigmatization, then the pay-off of their labor would be doomed. For only when comparative philosophers could develop a vision and a sense of mission of engineering a perspective that is world-wide, comprehensive and universal will there be light, though flickering and feeble at times, to illuminate our way to pass through the murky path of life. To achieve this, the first thing for comparative philosophers to do is abandon provincialism. As Paul Griffiths has it, philosophy has to be denaturalized in order for it to be universal and intelligible.[29] The next thing is tap resources from every cultural and philosophical system available in human history in order to guide us through the wonder of life without ceasing to think.[30]


Appiah, Kwame.  “The Illusions of Race”. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze ed. African Philosophy, an Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Aristotle. Metaphysics. London: Heinemann, 1933-35.

Benardete, Jose. Metaphysics: the Logical Approach. Oxford: O.U.P.

Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Conservation of Races”. Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (ed.) African Philosophy, an Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

Sosa, Ernest. “Essence”. Ted Honderich ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: O.U.P., 1995.

Flew, Antony. “Preface”, An Introduction to Western Philosophy. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971.

Heidegger, Being and Time, (London: SCM Press, 1962).

Griffiths, Paul. “Denaturalizing Discourse: Abhidharmikas, Propositionalists, and the Comparative Philosophy of Religion”. Frank Reynolds and David Tracy, eds. Myth and Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Levy-Bruhl, Lucien. “How Natives Think”, in Albert Mosley ed. African Philosophy: Selected Readings. Englewood Clifs: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. London: O.U.P., 1958.

Matilal, Bimal. The Central Philosophy of Jainism (Anekanta-Vada). Ahmedabad: L.D. Institute of Indology.

Mejor, Marek. “Buddhist views of origination of suffering”. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Mou Zhung-San, Fourteen Lectures on Chinese Philosophy, (Taipei: Xue Sheng, 1983).

Needham, Joseph and Christop Harbsmeier. Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge: CUP, 1954- .

Ng, Yu-Kwan. Methodology of Buddhist Studies. Taipei: Xue Sheng, 1983.

Oruka, H. Odera. Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990.

Rhees, Rush. “Where does the World come from?”. D. Z. Philips ed. Rush Rhees on Religion and Philosophy. Cambridge: C.U.P., 1997.

Sophocles, Oedipus: King of Thebes. Gilbert Murray trans. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1946.

Wisdom, John. Philosophy and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. London: Blackwell, 1966.



[1] According to the 20th century Confucianists, one of the things which is so great about Confucius is that he had injected a wholly novel spirit into the system of Rites (Li). See, for example, Mou Zhung-San, Fourteen Lectures on Chinese Philosophy, (Taipei: Xue Sheng, 1983).

[2] Both Aristotle and Wittgenstein are committed to the view that philosophy begins with the wonder of and at the world. See Aristotle, Metaphysics, (London: Heinemann, 1933-35); Wittgenstein, Tractatus, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955) or Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, (London: Blackwell, 1966). See also John Wisdom on ‘Philosophical Perplexity’, Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953).

[3] For Heidegger, the most important question we have to face arises out of this situation into which we were thrown. This situation, as I take it, refers to the critical existential predicament we, as human beings, are in. See Heidegger, Being and Time, (London: SCM Press, 1962).

[4] Antony Flew, “Preface”, An Introduction to Western Philosophy, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971).

[5] See the introductory remarks to Lucien Levy-Bruhl’s “How Natives Think”, in Albert Mosley (ed.), African Philosophy: Selected Readings, (Englewood Clifs: Prentice Hall, 1995), p. 40.

[6] Lucien Levy-Bruhl, Ibid., p.41.

[7] H. Odera Oruka, Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990), p.28.

[8] Ng Yu-Kwan, various works, esp. Methodology of Buddhist Studies, (Taipei: Xue Sheng, 1983).

[9] Joseph Needham and Christop Harbsmeier, Science and Civilization in China, (Cambridge: CUP, 1954- ) Vol. 7.

[10] Bimal K. Matilal, The Central Philosophy of Jainism (Anekanta-Vada), (Ahmedabad: L.D. Institute of Indology), pp.59-61.

[11] W.E.B.     Du Bois, “The Conservation of Races”, in Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (ed.) African Philosophy, an Anthology, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp.269-273.

[12] Du Bois, Ibid., p.270.

[13] Kwame A. Appiah, “The Illusions of Race”, in Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (ed.) Ibid., p.281.

[14] Ernest Sosa, “Essence”, in Ted Honderich ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford: O.U.P., 1995), p.250.

[15] Sosa, Ibid., p.250.

[16] Sosa, Ibid., p.250.

[17] The third kind is dubbed by Sosa as ‘particularistic essentialism’ which seems to mean that a thing which has its essence necessarily might not be necessarily constituted by its parts having the same essence (note that my formulation is different from his which might render mine incorrect). Thus snowball is round while its constituents are not. The fourth kind has to do with the notion of the possible world. It requires that each particular have a property that only it could possibly have had in any possible worlds. For details, see Sosa, Ibid., pp.250-1.

[18] Jose Benardete, Metaphysics: the Logical Approach, (Oxford: O.U.P.), p.16.

[19] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Section 116.

[20] Ibid., Section 66.

[21] Ibid., Sections 66-67.

[22] See introduction above.

[23] See note 2 above.

[24] See Wittgenstein’s treatment of the world in the first of the seven sections in Tractatus. See also Rush Rhees, an intimate follower of Wittgenstein, “Where does the World come from?”, Rush Rhees on Religion and Philosophy, D. Z. Philips (ed.), (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1997), pp.13-16.

[25] See note 3 above.

[26] Sophocles, Oedipus: King of Thebes, Gilbert Murray (trans.), (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1946).

[27] Rush Rhees, op. cit. p.160.

[28] Marek Mejor, “Buddhist views of origination of suffering”, Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (New York: Routledge, 1998).

[29] Paul J. Griffiths, “Denaturalizing Discourse: Abhidharmikas, Propositionalists, and the Comparative Philosophy of Religion,” in Frank Reynolds and David Tracy, (eds.) Myth and Philosophy, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).

[30] This might remind one of the advice Wittgenstein gave to Norman Malcolm before the latter went back America, “Whatever become of you, don’t stop thinking.” See N. Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, (London: O.U.P., 1958).