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Comparative Philosophy

The Western Blindness to Non-Western Philosophies

Ben-Ami Scharfstein
Tel-Aviv University

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ABSTRACT: Western philosophers still tend to think that philosophy, in a sense that they can take with professional interest, does not exist in non-Western traditions. To persuade them otherwise would require them to make an effort that they prefer to evade. I attempt to begin to persuade them by closely paraphrasing a few arguments by the early Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu and a few by the Indian skeptic and mystic Shriharsha (about 1150 CE). One of Chuang Tzu's arguments has some resemblance to Plato's Third-Man argument, another with the impossibility of distinguishing between waking reality and dream, and a third with the impossibility of objective victories in debates. The skeptic Shriharsha, in a way that can be taken to parallel Wittgenstein's attack on conventional philosophy, shows that philosophical definitions cannot be rigorous enough to fulfill the task that philosophers set for them. The rest of this paper is devoted to the problem of commensurability. I contend that philosophies are either commensurable or incommensurable depending on the light in which one prefers to see them. Each way of seeing them involves a loss of a possibility that may be considered precious, but the Westerner who continues to insist on the full incommensurability of non-Western philosophies with his or her own is losing a great deal that might be intellectually helpful.

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We have always been and remain insular. The insularity I am referring to is our professional blindness to any but Western philosophy, which fills our whole professional horizon. Insularity tempts us by its overestimation of whatever we have learned wherever we happen to have grown up, but it is no intellectual birthright. There have been more than a few great thinkers who have done their best to resist it. Kant and Hegel, both conscientious, omnivorous scholars, took the trouble to learn what they could of Indian and Chinese thought, even though, as has become clear, they were not informed well enough to allow them to make plausible judgments. Schopenhauer was extraordinarily favorable to Indian thought but wildly subjective (or egotistical) in his use of it. Wilhelm von Humboldt, eager to understand the nature of languages, made an often painstakingly detailed study of a great number of them-Greek, Latin, Basque, the languages of Central America, Sanskrit, North-American Indian, Chinese, Polynesia, and Malaysia. (1) What Humboldt learned convinced him that the Indo-European languages — the Sanskritic ones, as he called them — were the best for methodical reasoning. This judgment is now likely to appear prejudiced, but Humboldt made and enormous effort to learn what he took to be the creative act embodied in each of the diverse languages spoken by human beings. To him, the language of each people and each individual was a unique imprint, the particular set of particular hieroglyphs of a particular view of the world.

The desire of Kant, Hegel, Humboldt, and their likes to philosophize out of a truly comprehensive knowledge is rare among contemporary philosophers. No doubt, so much is now known that the effort to be comprehensive appears foolhardy. But the impossibility of learning everything is a poor justification for remaining stubbornly insular. Is it plausible for a philosopher of language to base his thought on no more than his native language, or for an analytic philosopher to assume that what he thinks is true for ordinary English must be true for all languages, or for all that prove their naturalness by conforming to familiar English practices? Or is it plausible that a hermeneutical philosopher should engage in the strenuous expansion of horizons but never try to expand one far enough to encounter anything not Western?

Given the depths of our Western insularity and the limits of my essay, I have had to ask myself how I could best convey that our ignorance keeps us isolated and small-minded. I played for a while with the idea of confronting the best-known thinkers who have recited confident phrases such as "only in Greece," "only in Europe," and "only in the West" — or recited, with a contrary intent, "only in China," "only in India," and "only in the East." (2) I have given up this idea of confrontation because it does not seem useful, at least here, to show how otherwise intellectually respectable contemporaries retain an ill-informed bias in favor of Western or, sometimes, Eastern thought. An attack on individual philosophers would be too personal for my tastes and , what is intellectually worse, would risk stirring up the philosophers' defensive pride and postponing their recognition that they are simply wrong.

Having resisted the desire to begin with an attack on biased philosophers, I have played with the less invidious possibility of setting my argument in an autobiographical framework and explaining how, by chance and curiosity, I became involved in writing about comparative culture, especially philosophy. But I am too involved in the work to begin reminiscing, so all that is left of my autobiographical impulse is the desire to tell you that, after some years of work, I have finished a comparative history of world philosophy up to Kant. (3) The examples I will use are taken verbatim or nearly so from this history, where they are spelled out in what I hope is much more convincing detail.

Given what I prefer not to do, I have decided to base my beginning of an attempt at persuasion on two examples of non-Western philosophizing. Instead of trying and probably failing to persuade anyone by my own, Western argument, I will rely on the arguments of the very philosophers whose study I am recommending. Here, I say to you, are specimens of Chinese or Indian philosophy worth studying. Don't they impress you as philosophical, and, what is more important, as philosophically significant? A large part of this essay will therefore consist of two examples, which I wish I had the time to extend. One of the examples is a close paraphrase of the early Chinese philosopher

Chinese philosopher Chuang-tzu, and the other a close paraphrase of passages from a relatively late Indian philosopher, the mystical Shriharsha. There isn't time to explain much, so I have freed the Indian example of its technical phraseology. I rely quite willingly on the reader's intuitive completion of what I have left unfinished.

I begin with a text from Chuang-tzu, the earlier of the two philosophers. The historian of ancient China, Ssu-ma Ch'ien, tells us that Chuang-tzu was a native of Meng, that his personal name was Chou, and that he was employed in Lacquer Garden (either a garden or the city given its name). "His chief doctrines," the historian tells us, perhaps mistakenly, "were founded upon the sayings of Lao Tzu...His literary and dialectical skill was such that the best scholars of his age were unable to refute his destructive criticism of the Confucian and Mohist schools." (4)

A mystic and a relativist, Chuang-tzu argues that the distinctions made by reason and morality are all misleading, as their paradoxical character shows. In the famous second chapter of the book that goes under his name, he at one point argues in the following way: Try to think of the unity of things. It has been said (by the sophist Hui Shih) that heaven and earth count as one unity. True, the myriads of things and I together make one. Now that I have called them one, have I not said something? But by calling them one, have I not added the word one to the total of things? And the one and the one make two, and the two and the first one make three: and so on, beyond what a skilled calculator, let alone an ordinary person, is able to sum up. (5) Altogether, those who distinguish between alternatives leave out what is not included in either alternative. The sage embraces them all without distinction; most people make the distinctions. And so I say that to make distinctions is to fail to see something. (6)

A little further on, Chuang-tzu gives a well-known answer to the question "Are we arguing?" He goes on: Arguments cannot really be settled. Suppose I argue with you and you win, are you really right and am I really wrong? And if I win, am I really right and you really wrong? Or is one of us right and one of us wrong? Or are both of right or both of us wrong? And if I and you can't settle the argument between us, others will be equally in the dark. Who can tell us what is right? If the judge share your opinion, how can he decide which is right? And if he shares both our opinions, how can he decide who is right? And if I, you, and another man can't arrive at a mutual understanding, can we find anyone else? (7)

Then Chuang-tzu says that he cannot distinguish between himself dreaming a butterfly, conscious of being only a butterfly, and himself awakened from the butterfly dream. Did he dream the butterfly, he asks, or did the butterfly dream him, Chuang-tzu? As Chuang-tzu, he cannot make the final separation, which is also perhaps one between the genuineness or solidity of waking experience and the illusiveness or nothingness of dreaming. (8) The conclusion is not that the distinctions should be disregarded but that they should be accepted as inevitable, as part of the creative bounty of nature. The fact that only waking human beings are reflective does not tilt the balance in favor of being human and wake, because it is just this condition that raises the problem of identity and shows it to be insoluble. Chuang-tzu's solution is to accept everything without prejudice — varying identities, varying states, and reflective doubts — so that in the end, he believes, there are only the many distinctions and spontaneous mutual transformations.

This Chinese example represents Chinese philosophy with exuberant humor and imagination. In contrast, my two Indian examples are specimens of more sober, more technically developed philosophy. The first is from Shriharsha, who flourished about 1150 C.E. (9) A court poet as well as a philosopher, he undertakes to destroy the pretensions of reason in order to defend his mystical faith in Brahman. Like preceding Indian skeptics, Shriharsha attacks philosophical systems from within, on their own terms. As is natural, his attack is aimed mostly at the school of Nyaya, which emphasizes logic and the technique of argument. The world Nyaya envisages is one of real, independent beings known by reliable perception and tested inference, that is, by the accepted means or criteria of knowledge, the Indian word for which is pramanas. As usual in Indian philosophy, he first puts the argument of his opponent or opponents, refutes the argument, and only then states his own position. One of the crucial tactics he uses is to attack philosophical definitions. Philosophical definitions are all too broad or too narrow, he finds, or suffers from circularity, infinite regress, or incompatibility with the opponent's other concepts. In other words, philosophical definitions always turn out to be useless for their declared purposes.

Beginning with the concept of valid knowledge (prama), Shriharsha analyzes seven of its competing definitions. They propose that valid knowledge is either: (1) experience of the thatness of an object; or (2) experience that corresponds with its object; or (3) complete experience; or (4) unfaltering experience; or (5) undisputed experience (a Jain and Buddhist definition); or (6) uncontradicted experience; or (7) experience of a particular kind of power. (10)

A simple example of Shriharsha's method is his first analysis of valid experience as the experience of thatness (meaning, roughly, essence). Shriharsha's overall tactic is to make a critical examination of the meanings philosophers propose for the two concepts central to the definition, thatness (tattva) and experience (anubhuti). He points out that in the exact words of the definition, the that part of word thatness has no referent and therefore no meaning. Maybe, he says, is refers to anything of which the speaker is thinking, such as the natural form of an object the speaker perceives. But perceptual illusion makes it impossible to accept the definition when thatness is given such a sense: If a shell is mistaken for silver, the object of cognition is the shell, not the natural form of silver. The proposed definition does not allow the invalid perception to be excluded from it, so the definition is inadequate. Shriharsha then asks if the definition can be modified to as to make is viable, but the opponent's efforts, though ingeniously complicated, all fail.

Shriharsha goes on to ask how the opponent defines the term experience and faults whatever is suggested; and he does the same with the term inference. After finishing with the means of knowledge, he makes a calmly ruthless attempt to prove the incoherence of every key term in the accepted lexicon of philosophical definitions. He repeats the questions, "How do you defined...?" and "What is meant by...?" and always finds that the term he asks about is unexplained or incoherent. As terms are disabled by him from use, their inadequacy disables the other terms in whose definitions they appear. No satisfactory answer is given to the question what the opponent means by cause, or by the terms before, after, and time that the opponent invoked in trying to explain what cause means. To the protest that Shriharsha has shown only that the exact nature of time is doubtful, he answers, "You cannot explain the exact nature of doubt, either." And so on, in technical detail.

Shriharsha destroys so much in order to shield Brahman against destructive criticism. It is to make the shield impenetrable that the leaves the perceived world an unexplained, enigmatic fact. It is at this point that I reluctantly leave my examples and go on to add a word on the problem of translatability or commensurability. (11) This problem is usually raised to emphasize the difficulty of translating a distant language or interpreting a distant culture. But it is easier to grasp in its full extent when one applies it to a braid range of possibilities. This is because, seen most broadly, it is the problem of uniqueness — inexplicability of untranslatability — as against that of generality — explicability or translatability.

Assume, for the sake of argument, the equation I have made of uniqueness, inexplicability, and untranslatability, on the one hand, and of generality, explicability, and translatability, on the other. Since words refer to the experiences they are intended to convey, it is impossible or extremely difficult to convey to someone else and experience or quality of experience that is unique, meaning, ,of course, never undergone by the person with whom one is communicating. But because much and perhaps all of our experience is to some degree unique or unshared and to some degree general or shared, it is more accurate to consider all of our experiences as having different degrees of uniqueness and generality.

The point I now want to make is that uniqueness or (so to speak) a degree or fraction of uniqueness can be ascribed to all kinds or levels of experience, and to the expressions or expressive media in which we communicate these kinds or levels. The levels or kinds range from the most limited, which are the single experiences of single persons, to increasingly broad, collective ones. If we go from the least to the most inclusive level, uniqueness can be ascribed to: a certain person at a certain time; a certain person without reference to time or occasion; a certain dialect, argot, jargon, or technical language (for example, of one or another school or field of philosophy; a certain subschool or school of thought; a certain group of languages (Indo-European, for example); and — the most inclusive level that I suggest — a certain culture or civilization. I do not want to discuss each of these kinds or levels. My point is only that each is to some degree unique with respect to every other. To go still further: No expression of any of these kinds or levels of experience can be repeated on different occasions, even in what appear to be the same words, or put into different words or logical symbols without loss of its uniqueness. Strictly speaking, at every particular time, every expression of every person, jargon, school, language, language group, or culture is unique. And if one disregards the uniqueness of every particular occasion, one is left with an atemporal-seeming uniqueness of individuals, jargons, schools, languages, language groups, and cultures.

To continue with the theme of uniqueness, we know that the experience of the writing or reading of one poem is not identical with that of writing another, nor is the reader's experience of reading the same poem at different times. And if every word, line, auditory quality, and rhythmic feature of the poem affects every other, does one not denature the poem intolerably in extracting its meter from it and comparing this meter with the meter of some other poem? Is the meter of the one poem the same as the abstractly similar one of the other? Although clear enough, the question has no exclusively correct answer because, as one wants, the answer is either "yes," "no," or, "it depends."

Suppose we change our line of questioning and ask, somewhat analogously, about the history of philosophy: Does Plato represent Socrates accurately, Plotinus represent Plato accurately, and Alfarabi all four of them and Aristotle too? Does each of these thinkers, in attempting, as he says, to be essentially accurate to the intentions of his predecessor or predecessors reveal himself as a betrayer? Again, the answer is yes, or not, or, it depends — as one wants, or, rather, as one sees and intends to bring out either the uniqueness, the resemblance, or the uniqueness in resemblance of the doctrines compared.

If there is a great cultural distance between the thinkers or ideas we want to compare, the problem, though exacerbated, remains the same. We can ask: When Chuang-tzu talks (in Chinese) about the relativity of tastes, is he making the same point as Protagoras (in Greek) or, perhaps, as Hume (in English)? Or, when Chuang-tzu points out that the idea of the complete oneness of everything is self-refuting or paradoxical because even to mention to oneness is to create a duality, ,is Chuang-tzu saying something that can be translated into Plato's third-man argument, which Plato directs against his own theory of Ideas? Or is Chuang-tzu developing only an infinite regress argument? As is he saying or is he not saying something similar to Shriharsha when Shriharsha points out, as he does, that the gathering of evidence to support evidence can lead to an infinite regress that leaves all evidence only fallible if at all supported? Furthermore: When Shriharsha tries to show that all the abstract definitions and abstract terms used for philosophy are so inaccurate and misleading that they have no valid application, is his attempt analogous to that of Wittgenstein to show that all metaphysical terms are misleading?

As I have said, my point is that every one of the questions can be plausibly answered either yes, not, or, it depends. The no rests on the attribution of decisive importance to the details and context of the subject of comparison. Every detail is taken to be as indispensable as the exact sound of one's lover's voice is to the other lover. The yes reflects the opposite feeling, need, or decision, to disregard certain details as inessential. This is like the scientist's decision to disregard as "noise" the variations in data that make it too difficult to formulate the generalization being sought. The scientist knows in advance that if details of all kinds are considered essential, generalization will be either impossible or uselessly vague.

It should not be supposed that the choice of the yes or the no is no more than a matter of personal taste. On the contrary, the choice may be empirically absurd or dangerous. It is empirically absurd to identify as one's lover someone who does not have the lover's exact voice or nose. Love ordinarily requires particularity. But to think that an object is a different one every time it appears different because it is looked at from a different angle is also absurd. Objects change far less often than their appearances. And to think that an objects of a certain kind — a pen, for example — is altogether different from others of the kind is to deny the function that makes them all similarly useful. Likewise, to insist that one instance of yes is totally different from another because spoken in a different voice or pronounced differently is to make the common meaning impossible to grasp and human interaction too confusing. And though it may be true that every person who has a disease has it in distinctly personal way, an extreme emphasis on the uniqueness of each instance of the "same" disease would make the profession of medicine impossible.

All this, although argued and reargued interminably in the history of philosophy, is philosophical common sense, and I am not sure that it needs to be said. But following the same (or is it different?) line of thought, how do we in practice decide that Aristotle when translated into Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic and often from one of these languages into another — was still Aristotle, or that Buddhist philosophy translated from Sanskrit or Pali into Chines or Tibetan or retranslated from one of the latter languages into another remained recognizably the same? Again, the answer is commonsensical: The translations were never prefect reproductions of the originals in a different linguistic medium. This can be shown in detail. But it can also be shown in detail that translations eventually transferred a great deal that was generally accurate. The result was that genuinely Aristotelian ideas played a very effective role in Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic philosophy and led in time to powerfully original works that stemmed from a recognizably Aristotelian kind of thinking. Something analogous can be said of the transference and creative use of Buddhist ideas in Tibet and China.

It is perfectly true that if we make a restrictive enough definition of philosopher and philosophy, we find that there was nothing of the kind in India and China. That is, there were no exactly equivalent terms or functions: the Sanskrit terms anvikshiki and darshana were not, to begin with, equivalent to philosophy. But the Greek terms and the comparable ones in India and China came to be used with such latitude of meaning that there is little intellectual difficulty in finding philosophy and philosophers in a recognizably Western sense both in India and China. Indian "syllogisms" are not Greek or medieval ones (are even the Greek and medieval the same?), but they look and sometimes function much the same, and they are all formal mechanisms to establish the accuracy of inferences, so that anyone interested in logic, willing to give up some of the less easily translated characteristics, and willing to make the necessary technical adjustments can work out the formal relations between them. And though the Sanskrit tarkika is not exactly the same as logician, there is not much difficulty in establishing the basic equivalence of tarka with Western logical forms.

In considering the relation of Western to non-Western philosophies, the yes alone and the no alone are too intellectually confining. "It depends" is better because it is far more instructive to use both the yes and the no in order to specify the relations of the kinds of thought being compared. Contemporary philosophers of every Western sort stand to gain in the variety of perspectives they can share, in the store of their ideas and nuances of ideas, and in their conceptual precision if they study on-Western philosophies just as seriously (and, after they know them generally) just as seriously as they study their own. When it will no longer be possible to maintain the old, exclusive habits of mind, philosophers will wonder how their predecessors could once have been so blind to what has become so plainly true. The sociology of the profession creates difficulties for a Western philosopher who ventures outside the limits of Western thought. But there are good philosophical reasons to be beyond our usual Western selves and begin to philosophize in a more adequately human spirit.

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(1) I take this list from Hans Aarsleff's introduction to Humboldt, On Language, trans. P. Health, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. ix-x.

(2) For the bias of near contemporary and contemporary philosophers and historians of philosophy against Indian philosophy see W. Halbfass, India and Europe, Albany: State University of New York Press, chaps. 9, 10 (mostly on Gadamer and Heidegger). On the complementary bias of Indian thinkers against Western philosophy, see chaps. 13, 14.

(3) A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

(4) For a translation of Ssu-ma Ch'ien's life of Chuang-Tzu, see Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 1, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952, p. 221 (Shih Chi, chap. 63).

(5) Chuang-tzu, chap. 2, lines 154-160. See translations by A. C. Graham (1981), J. Legge (1891), B. Watson (1968), Kuang-ming Wu (1990), V. H. Mair (1994), and M. Palmer and E. Breuilly (1996).

(6) Ibid., chap. 2, lines 177-81.

(7) Ibid., chap. 2, lines 273-79.

(8) Ibid., chap. 2, lines 295-305.

(9) See P. Granoff, Philosophy and Argument in Late Vedanta, Dordrecht: Reidel, 1978 (preface and commented translation).

(10) Ibid., pp. 5-31.

(11) This and related problems are discussed in B.-A. Scharfstein, The Dilemma of Context, New York: New York University Press, 1989, chaps. 2,3 (especially pp. 78-137); and in B.-A Scharfstein, Ineffability, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

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