Comparative Philosophy

According to Daya Krishna in “Comparative Philosophy: What it Is and What it Ought to Be,” as a result of their rise in political and economic power over the last three hundred years, Western European countries have come to dictate the conceptual framework and methodological orientations of comparative studies on their own terms. As Kirshna explains, “the so-called comparative studies were primarily a search for facts or a reporting of data in terms of a conceptual structure already formulated in the West. The questions to which answers were being sought were already predetermined in the light of the relationships that were regarded as significant or the theories that were to be tested” (72). Due to these political and economic factors, “it is only the West that has arrogated itself the status of subjecthood in the cognitive enterprise, reducing all others to the status of objects” (78). Furthermore, the intellectuals of these observed cultures “have themselves internalized the western categories and standards of intelligibility so that they observe, understand, and compare their own cultures in terms given to them by the West” (77). Finally, Krishna concedes that in any case “the problem of the self-identity of an intellectual tradition within a cultural area runs against the claim to universality that all truth professes” (79), but counters that “the cognitive enterprise is as unending as any other enterprise, and that though the truth claim must inevitably be made, it is equally certain that it shall remain unresolved in time” (81).

Krishna’s point about the effect of power relations favoring the West within the cognitive enterprise is well taken. With Krishna and other Foucauldian thinkers there tends to be an easy conflation between a) the West as an economic and political entity, and b) the methods privileged by Western research, but Krishna is careful to point out that this Western intellectual domination takes place discreetly deep within the conceptual structures themselves, not via some brute, forceful imposition of predetermined Western notions and ideas onto non-Western cultures. Still, Krishna suggests that the existence of a deep Western methodological bias performs a fundamental disservice to non-Western cultures by effectively concealing or invalidating alternative theories or explanations. While the domination of Western scientific thinking in the human and social sciences may not be the result of a plot purposely conceived by a group of like-minded Westerners to repress non-Westerners, the language used by Krishna suggests that the effect of this domination still consists of a sort of implicit political repression of non-Westerners by intellectual means. A proper genealogical analysis of any specific discipline or realm of inquiry should expose the force relations involved in the production of knowledge in that particular realm as well as the movement or evolution of those force relations over a specific historical period. Krishna is right to point out the discrepancy between the claim to universality that all truths profess and the inability of any particular truth claim to ultimately stand the test of time, but still the large task of actually dissecting the force relations at work, some but not all of which involving Western conceptual structures, remains before us. Krishna affirms, reasonably, that the Western scientific framework inherently legitimizes certain types of explanations at the expense of other, less conventional ones, but mere affirmations of this kind will lack any degree of real substance until the related genealogical analysis is actually undertaken, including a carefully delimitation of the specific area of focus and the historical period under review, followed by a detailed analysis of the available recorded data. Furthermore, what ensues from this is not a clear-cut proof of one cultural group’s interests being undercut by another’s in every conceivable way, but rather the unveiling of a complex system of force relations involving individuals and institutions of all kinds, each with their own specific interests and agendas within a larger scheme.

Krishna cites the relegation of Indian philosophy to departments of Indology and “its effective segregation from all active philosophical concerns of the day” (74) as an instance of the current domination of Western conceptual structures. Indian philosophy, it seems, with its “questionable” relationship to moksa, finds itself on the losing end of the force relations governing the production of knowledge within modern Western philosophy. Ben-Ami Scharfstein in “The Three Philosophical Traditions” elaborates on the fundamental differences between Eastern and Western philosophy, explaining that “Eastern philosophy is spiritual and integral with life, while Western philosophy is abstract, materialistic or positivistic, and split off from life” (42). Then, seemingly taking position with Krishna, he continues to explain that “modern Western philosophy … represents the triumph of the objective or outward attitude, which, however helpful morally and politically, must be balanced by truly religious consciousness, which is the deeper, inward, Indian one” (42). In genealogical terms, Krishna and Scharfstein are both essentially pointing out the unfavorable present configuration of force relations affecting Indian philosophy resulting from the persistent exclusion of inward, religious perspectives from Western philosophy over time. Still in genealogical terms, what has come to define modern Western philosophy is precisely its opposition to matters of religious consciousness. Yet the cognitive enterprise continues along its unending path, inevitable making truth claims that “shall remain unresolved in time.”

Works Cited:

Krishna, D., Bhushan, N., Garfield, J. L., & Raveh, D. (2011). Contrary thinking: selected essays of Daya Krishna. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scharfstein, B. (1998). A comparative history of world philosophy: from the Upanishads to Kant. Albany: State University of New York Press.