Understanding Comparative Philosophy

Understanding Comparative Philosophy

As a branch or subfield of philosophy, comparative philosophy is quite young and is still in its early stage of development. Its aim is to work on problems and compare various philosophies by taking into account all sources regardless of culture, language or philosophical stream. It differs from area studies philosophy in that area studies philosophy focuses its study on a single region or area. For instance, it may compare the various forms of Confucianism within China or compare Chinese Philosophy with Indian Philosophy. Comparative philosophy differs in that it goes beyond the boundaries of culture and language as it seeks to find a basis for comparing philosophical traditions.


In this sense, comparative philosophy can be regarded as an extension of world philosophy because world philosophy brings together philosophical writings and traditions that exist among all human cultures with the end in view of coming up with a unified global stand. It differs from comparative philosophy, however, in that the latter does not really strive to become a world philosophy but only to gain a better understanding of the differences in beliefs of one culture with another from a different region.


The Hurdles of Comparative Philosophy


Certain problems stand in the way of comparative philosophy that prevents it from totally achieving its goals. First of this is descriptive chauvinism or the tendency of philosophers to regard his own tradition as the only correct tradition and other traditions that differ from his as erroneous or false.


Another is skepticism or the tendency to narrate or discuss various traditions and attitudes of other philosophers while suspending belief or judgment of their adequacy and veracity.


Incommensurability is another obstacle of comparative philosophy that refers to the extreme diversity of traditions that may make it impossible to reach a common ground on which to base comparisons. Perennialism or the failure to recognize that traditions and beliefs evolve and thus the basis for a dialogue today may change tomorrow is another major obstacle that comparative philosophy needs to overcome.


And finally there’s the lack of acceptance by other philosophers of comparative philosophy itself as a subfield of philosophy. There are those that contend that there is no such thing as comparative philosophy because all philosophical work is comparative. When you try and find the common ground among different versions of one religion, you are actually comparing them. When you study the principles that one philosopher espouses and test these principles with that of another, you are comparing them.

Truth be told, the strong tendency for incommensurability that results from the excessively diverse scope of subjects embraced by comparative philosophy results in the failure to create a synthesis of traditions. What comparative philosophy creates is not a new belief or understanding but a new method or process by which one can try to understand.

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