Book Review: Methodologies of Comparative Philosophy-Smid

I’ve just finished reading Robert Smid’s book Methodologies of Comparative Philosophy: The Pragmatist and Process Traditions.  First, I should say that I am glad to see that comparative method is finally being tackled head on in studies of this length.  I’ve long thought that we need to get clear on method, and that comparative philosophers are not often up front in their work about how they conceive of comparative philosophy, which sometimes can lead to misunderstandings between philosophers.  Laying out and appraising different comparative options is something I have been very interested in for some time.  The first chapter of my dissertation, for example, is on this issue, which needs much more attention, and which I applaud Smid for dealing with in this book.

Smid discusses four particular conceptions of comparative philosophy in this book, those of William Hocking, Filmer Northrop, David Hall and Roger Ames, and Robert Neville.  Each chapter consists of an outline of the comparative method in question, followed by Smid’s appraisal of the method.  Each of the methods he discusses here fall within the pragmatist or process traditions, although it seems to me that pragmatism is much better represented in this selection of comparative thinkers than any other method.

As a historical account of four different comparative methods and how these methods might be used by comparative scholars today, I found this book excellent.  Smid does a commendable job of outlining the main features of each of the comparative methods, and pointing out where they show promise and where they fall short.  One theme running through the book (of course) concerns the difference of Chinese philosophy and Western philosophy–to what extent there is such a difference, and what we can take from this.  Although this subject is dealt with fairly well, I was very disappointed that issues of the commensurability of traditions as discussed by many important comparative philosophers (including David Wong, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Bryan Van Norden, just to name a few) did not come up at any point in the book (although Smid did tackle commensurability as it comes up in the work of Robert Neville).  This issue seems to me central to the comparative project as a whole (even the possibility of comparison relies on it), and requires much more discussion than it was given in Smid’s book.

My main problems with this book are 1) its scope, and 2) its methodology.

First, its scope is limited to mainly pragmatist conceptions of comparative philosophy, and non-pragmatists (like myself) will find this of limited interest.  I think there are far better methodological stances in comparative philosophy than any relying on pragmatism, which I find very problematic in its own right, and thus I find most of the methodology Smid discusses to have deep flaws.  I appreciate that Smid, in his introduction, is forthright about his exclusion of a number of other conceptions of comparative philosophy–he says, on p. 10:

“…the analytic and Continental philosophical traditions both have their own traditions of comparison, as do a number of non-Western traditions; any one of these could have served as the subject matter for this text; they have been excluded simply because they do not conform as quickly to my own background and expertise.”

Although I appreciate this caveat, I still think that the scope of a work on comparative methods should be broader, simply because when it is as narrow as Smid has drawn it, we don’t get a sense of the real options available in comparative methodology, nor can we adequately appraise the pragmatist methodologies Smid discusses in his book.  If there is no alternative to pragmatism considered, how can we assess whether pragmatist comparative methodology really does do the best job of “getting on with” the business of comparison in a responsible way, a goal of the methodology of Hall and Ames that Smid discusses (and appraises) in the third chapter?  Also, I’m not sure I would distinguish the comparative methodologies of established “traditions”, such as the continental and analytic.  Much of the work of philosophers engaged in comparative issues today does not easily fit within a single tradition, and to identify some comparative methods as “analytic”, others as “continental” complicates things in a field in which it is already difficult to parse the differences between comparative methods.

Second–the methodology of the book seems to be itself pragmatist, which comes out most clearly in the final chapter, in which Smid appraises the four methodologies discussed in the book and considers the way forward for comparative philosophy in general.  In this chapter, Smid contrasts comparative philosophy and “professionalized philosophy,” which he defines as philosophical work making relatively narrow contributions in narrowly defined areas and largely building on the work of others rather than presenting one’s own unique position.  On the other hand, he says, “those who engage in comparative philosophy have a much greater propensity to form broad philosophical views that enable their own personalities and social concerns to shine through” (p. 225).  This seems wrong to me, as it takes comparative philosophy as something with pragmatist roots, which would only be true if the four comparative methodologies Smid discusses in his book are exhaustive, within the field.  But of course they are not.  The methodologies he discusses do not even make up a very large part of those used by comparativists.  Arguably, Hall and Ames’ method has had the largest influence, of all four discussed in the book, but even this is nowhere near dominant in the field today.

Also, it strikes me as odd to think that we should want to our unique personalities and social concerns to shine through in our philosophical work.  My own conception of what the comparativist should aim to do, which I don’t think is very controversial within the field, is 1) to remain faithful to each of the traditions compared, saying true things about them and offering interpretations justified by plausible readings of source texts, and 2) to reveal positions that might be mutually illuminating for each tradition.  One’s personality and social concerns need not (and should not, as far as I’m concerned) play any role in the justification of his or her comparative theory (although these will always of course play an explanatory role).  What this basically boils down to is a disagreement with pragmatism.  One of the key features of the Rortian pragmatism that Hall and Ames adopt (according to Smid) is that it eschews the notion of truth as justifying a certain position, instead accepting that a position is justified insofar as it “contributes novel ideas that are edifying to the current cultural milieu.”  One problem with this Rortian view is that it is flatly inconsistent.  There can be no conception of and edification of a certain cultural milieu without truth playing a central role, and thus insofar as this goal can be met, truth as a key normative concept has to be part of the picture.

Taking it as a good thing for one’s personality and social concerns to manifest themselves in one’s comparative work seems to me based on acceptance of something like the pragmatist (and specifically Rortian?) position that Hall and Ames adopt.  If we are after truth primarily, that is, why should personality and one’s social concerns play any role?

In addition, Smid argues that the failure of comparative philosophy to become firmly part of the “mainstream” up until this point is due to the fundamental difference between comparative philosophy and professionalized philosophy mentioned above.  I do not think this is the case.  Many comparative philosophers (including myself) produce work which could be considered well within the tradition of “professionalized philosophy,” and (also including myself) heartily endorse the professionalization of philosophy (as Smid defines it–see above).  One way of understanding my disagreement with Smid here is the following.  He sees comparative philosophy’s failure to break into the mainstream (at least so far) as due to the narrowness and professionalization of academic philosophy, and thus seems to think philosophy should change so as to accomodate comparative philosophy.  I, on the other hand, see comparative philosophy’s failure to break into the mainstream as due to the relative youth of comparative philosophy, as well as the fact that historically there have not been many philosophers in the west engaged in the study of the history of non-western philosophy (a task mainly left to sinologists, indologists, etc.).  Thus, I think that it is comparative philosophy that needs to change (and is changing!) in order to fit within “professionalized” philosophy.  One might dismiss my gripe here as simply the result of my influence by the so called “analytic” tradition (an influence I don’t deny), but I suspect this is a view not limited to analytically minded philosophers.

All this being said, I hope I have not left the impression that I thought Smid’s book was wrongheaded or useless.  I applaud Smid for engaging in this extremely necessary project of thinking about comparative methodologies, which illuminated the methodological positions and presuppositions of some important philosophers, and I hope to see (as well as write) much more work in this area in the future.

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