Interpreting across Boundaries: New Essays in Comparative Philosophy

Interpreting across Boundaries: New Essays in Comparative Philosophy


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This volume is a "state-of-the-art" assessment of comparative philosophy written by some of the leading practitioners of the field. While its primary focus is on gaining methodological clarity regarding the comparative enterprise of "interpreting across boundaries," the book also contains new substantive essays on Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and European thought. The contributors are Roger T. Ames, William Theodore de Bary, Wing-tsit Chan, A. S. Cua, Eliot Deutsch, Charles Hartshorne, Daya Krishna, Gerald James Larson, Sengaku Mayeda, Hajime Nakamura, Raimundo Panikkar, Karl H. Potter, Henry Rosemont, Jr., Ben-Ami Scharfstein, Ninian Smart, Fritz Staal, and Frederick J. Streng.

Comparative or cross-cultural philosophy can be seen as a relative newcomer to the field of philosophy. It has its antecedents in the emergence of comparative studies in nineteenth-century European intellectual history, as well as in the sequence of East-West Philosophers' Conferences at the University of Hawaii, which began in 1939. This book will prove to be of great significance in helping to define a field that is only now becoming fully self-conscious, methodologically and substantively, about its role and function in the larger enterprises of philosophy and comparative studies.

Originally published in 1988.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691606682
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #889
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Interpreting Across Boundaries

New Essays in Comparative Philosophy

By Gerald James Larson, Eliot Deutsch


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07319-4



Metaphor as Key to Understanding the Thought of Other Speech Communities

All sorts of people are continually attempting to interpret across boundaries. Whenever we go abroad we perforce get engaged in the enterprise. But likewise, we do so whenever we speculate on what an author we are reading meant. For that matter, we do so whenever we engage in conversation with one another, for the boundaries between what I intend and what you understand are just as much boundaries as the cultural and historical ones. And just as we know what it is to get clearer about what our neighbor is saying just now, we know what it is to get clearer about what people of other times and/ or other cultures were and are saying.

I make these banal remarks in anticipation of an argument that might appear to show that no interpretation across boundaries is possible. We know that such interpretation is possible; and yet there is a line of thought pioneered mainly by Quine that may seem to preclude any such knowledge. More precisely, it seems to refute the supposition that any methodology might be devised that would (beyond a certain point) enable us to interpret across boundaries in such a way as to achieve uniquely correct interpretations.

The argument I have in mind goes like this:

(1) Successful interpretation across boundaries requires that the meanings of sentences (utterances, speech acts) on one side of a boundary be uniquely equated with the meanings of sentences (utterances, speech acts) on the other side.

(2) Unique equation of meanings across boundaries requires the use of analytical hypotheses.

(3) Use of analytical hypotheses involves indeterminacy of translation. So,

(4) Unique equation of the meanings of sentences (utterances, speech acts) across boundaries requires determinacy of translation. So,

(5) Successful interpretation across boundaries requires what it precludes, viz., determinacy of translation. So,

(6) Successful interpretation across boundaries is impossible.

One could give the message of this argument by saying that if interpretation across boundaries is possible it is so only in an indeterminate way, that is, that one should not hope for any precise method of interpretation. This statement in turn leads to the conclusion that such enterprises as history of philosophy, cultural anthropology, and comparative philosophy, along with the enterprise of translation, must be viewed as at best creative rather than descriptive in nature, that viewing them as "scientific" in method is a mistake, that there is no generalizable procedure for achieving precision in these fields.

Such a conclusion, if left there, leaves us with no way to explain of what successful interpretation across boundaries consists. If any interpretation is as successful as any other, or if anything that relates items across boundaries in some way or another is going to count as a successful interpretation, we are left without any canons of criticism to apply to such interpretations, and one can have no reason to appeal to any one of them for any systematic purposes other than, perhaps, amusement. In short, if this argument is allowed to stand the activities of practitioners of a good many disciplines are going to have to be viewed in a far different way than they expect us to view them. We should not consult historians for understanding what people in the past actually meant; we should not consult anthropologists for understanding what people in other cultures actually intend; we should not consult comparative philosophers for understanding what philosophers writing in other languages mean or meant to say; and we must take translations as fantasies.

Quine's thesis is about translation. A segment P of an investigator's home language H is said to be a translation of a segment T of some language L when it is true to say that the behavior occasioned by the utterance of T in L is similar to the behavior occasioned by the utterance of P in H. An analytical hypothesis in H, to the effect that P translates T, has the form "the behavior occasioned by the utterance of T in L is similar to the behavior occasioned by the utterance of P in H." Quine's thesis of the indeterminacy of translation is that it is not generally the case that only one analytical hypothesis is the correct one. But Quine does not say that translation is impossible. Certain utterances — of observation sentences, truth functions, stimulus-analytic sentences — can be translated or at least "recognized" for what they are. Quine's point is rather that, though the meanings of these sorts of utterances can be uniquely correlated with their translations across boundaries, such utterances make up only a small part of our linguistic output, and the constraints their translations place upon the possible analytical hypotheses about the remainder of the utterances to be translated are insufficient to determine any particular hypothesis among its rivals as being the correct one.

Nothing in the foregoing formulations requires that the boundaries in question lie between different languages, different cultures, or different times. What Quine has in mind as boundaries are those between "conceptual schemes," a notion with a notoriously vague principle of individuation. You and I, both being speakers of English, share a conceptual scheme at one level of analysis, but at another level you, being a physicalist, and I, being a mentalist, differ in our conceptual schemes. The latter difference may constitute a boundary; that is, it may dictate that you and I mean different things by our talk about minds, just as the linguist and the native may mean different things by their talk about gavagais (the linguist, say, meaning rabbits and the native meaning rabbit parts). To the extent that two speakers share the same conceptual scheme, categorize the world in the same manner — to that extent the meanings of their utterances may be similar and known to be so. Indeterminacy of translation is relative to the extent to which translator and translated share the same conceptual scheme.

If that is true one may well wonder why linguistic boundaries in particular are supposed to thwart understanding. If one can successfully interpret utterances within a shared conceptual scheme (allowing it to be a relative sort of success, relative to the level at which the conceptual schemes are deemed shared), why is it impossible that two speakers of different languages should share a conceptual scheme at some level or other? The evidence for successful interpretation is similarity of behavior, including nonlinguistic as well as linguistic behavior. We have been, without realizing it, assuming that difference in language does not merely constitute a possible kind of boundary, but in fact necessarily indicates difference in conceptual scheme. Such an assumption explains why Quine finds translating a problem. But difference in language is only one way to characterize the possible differences between the conceptual schemes of Jones, a twentieth-century American, and Devadatta, a fifth-century Indian. Who decided that it is a relevant difference?

The Quinian argument I offered is now seen to be an instance of a more general argument. The Quinian argument had to do with translation across linguistic boundaries. The broader argument would have to specify that successful interpretation across any boundaries requires the equation of something or other with something else of the same kind, so that some sort of conceptual scheme is shared. What kind that is depends in a particular inquiry on which boundaries we have in mind. The question becomes: what are the boundaries we should be interested in, and what are the related categories or kinds, instances of which are going to be compared and contrasted?

Just as there is, in the Quinian view, no absolute distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, so there should be, in his view, no absolute distinction between any categories. No boundaries should necessarily determine boundaries between different conceptual schemes. The determining considerations that dictate relative judgments concerning greater or less similarity of conceptual systems must stem from practical considerations. It depends how much these or those categories or boundaries matter to me, or to you, or to me and you jointly. Still, despite this relativistic stance on categories and boundaries, the Quinian view still takes scientific method very seriously. There is no incompatibility between a relativism of categories and boundaries and a science involving those categories and boundaries.

The Quinian view, as is well known, is a species of holism. Indeterminacy of translation is only a difficulty if the wrong units of analysis of conceptual schemes are chosen, the wrong units of analysis for the purposes intended. What enables us to interpret across boundaries is the overlapping of entire conceptual systems. But that overlapping cannot be easily analyzed into the relationship among parts of the schemes, because the understanding — the mutual interpretability — arises from the relations between the wholes and is frustrated by assumed boundaries among the parts. The problem of dealing with the Quinian way of thinking is to know how to study the whole without studying the parts. A "scientific" method for the disciplines under consideration — history of thought, cultural anthropology, comparative philosophy — needs to be pitched in terms of entire schemes that are specifically not to be thought of as determined by their parts.

Historians of thought tend to assimilate or to distinguish the thought of persons of the past from the thought of those of the present on the basis of the meanings of what they said and wrote, meanings determined by the presumed meanings of the component segments — words and sentences — of their discourse. Cultural anthropologists compare and contrast the specific pieces of behavior elicited in one culture by determinate stimuli with pieces of behavior elicited in another culture by the same determinate stimuli. Comparative philosophers compare and contrast the specific categories used by one philosopher with the specific categories used by another. In each case difference in conceptual system is assumed by the investigator, and differences between persons, cultures, or philosophers is thus made to fit differences in meanings of segments, pieces of behavior, and specific categories. In truth, the choice of boundaries across which to compare is the same choice as that among categories of investigation; as we saw, it is the practical concerns of the investigator which ultimately dictate these boundaries, they are not absolutely there to be discovered in the material investigated. If the categories chosen are too precise — calling attention to the parts rather than the wholes, and so creating a priori boundaries and the resulting indeterminacy — the requisite methodology would seem to be one that moves to categories not so dependent on the precise values of their components. Precision is a valued requirement in mathematical sciences, where the very point is to draw as many distinctions as possible. Not all sciences, however, are mathematical. Comparative philosophy, along with translation, history of thought, and cultural anthropology, are nonmathematical sciences in which too much precision obscures rather than furthers the inquiry.

For a number of years I have been associated with an effort to understand clearly what the notion of Karma means in Indian thought. Assisted by the Joint Committee of the ACLS-SSRC on South Asia, a number of us gathered in October 1976 to lay out a research agenda for this project. Included in the group were a number of native speakers of Indian languages, who kept insisting that what the word karman means is "action." The trouble was that the rest of us were not sure what "action" meant, and furthermore we were not sure that our Indian colleagues were using the term in the ways we supposed they might be. We were, that is, making analytical hypotheses, and the indeterminacy of translation was evident enough to us.

The project wound its way over time. Panels were held, papers read and printed, entire volumes published. Lots of People had lots to say about Karma, much of it unconnected with what others had said and were saying. The project was sponsored by the joint committee as part of an entire research thrust oriented around the use of indigenous categories in the study of South Asian culture. Karma, we were sure, was such a category. But having decided that, nobody seemed able to or willing to figure out what category — what kind of category — it was.

The project has now worn down and dissipated. Just before it died, I had a sudden insight (I think it is an insight). Whereas the English word 'action' means various, though not all sorts of doings, it occurred to me that in context in Sanskrit philosophical works the use of words stemming from the root kr carries with it a series of expectations which are not the expectations we have when we hear the word 'act' or 'action' in English. They are much more like the expectations we have when we hear the word 'make'.

It came to seem to me that when a Sanskrit writer or speaker uses words stemming from kr expects his hearer to associate a certain range of things with what is being referred to. To "make," that is, to kr something is to construct something. Furthermore, it is to take up those materials with a desire, an intention to produce something that will serve a certain function. I make a cake to eat, make a house to live in, make noises to be heard. So making carries with it the implication of a result that is intended by the maker to be useful to someone for some purpose. Frequently, though not always, the someone for whom one's making is useful is just oneself; sometimes one makes things for others' consumption. Arguably, whenever one makes things, whether for one's own or for others' use, one aims for a benefit for oneself: the making is part of a sequence of purposive activity designed eventually to satisfy a drive.

My suggestion, then, is that when Sanskrit users say or hear the words based on the root kr they naturally — in other words, as a reflection of their conceptual scheme — expect that it will be possible to identify a maker (kartr), some materials out of which the making takes place, a beneficiary for whom the making is intended, a purpose or purposes (purusartha) being served by the making, an operation (vyapdra) by which the making is carried out, and of course a resulting thing made (karman), which will serve the purpose or at least perform a function conducive to the eventual satisfaction ultimately sought. AU this baggage, then, comes along with each use of a word in the kr family. So, for example, when in Indian thought we hear of something krta, we should understand that the reference is not only to some deed, something done, completed, but further that it refers to something made, produced from some materials by someone for somebody's purpose.


Excerpted from Interpreting Across Boundaries by Gerald James Larson, Eliot Deutsch. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. v
  • PREFACE, pg. vii
  • Introduction: The “Age-Old Distinction Between the Same and the Other”, pg. 1
  • Metaphor as Key to Understanding the Thought of Other Speech Communities, pg. 19
  • Against Relativism, pg. 36
  • Comparative Philosophy: What It Is and What It Ought to Be, pg. 71
  • The Contextual Fallacy, pg. 84
  • Śaṅkara, Nāgārjuna, and Fa Tsang, with Some Western Analogues, pg. 98
  • What Is Comparative Philosophy Comparing?, pg. 116
  • The Meaning of the Terms ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Religion’ in Various Traditions, pg. 137
  • Mechanisms of Self-Deception and True Awareness According to C. G. Jung and the Eight- Thousand-Line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, pg. 152
  • Knowledge and the Tradition Text in Indian Philosophy, pg. 165
  • The Analogy of Meaning and the Tasks of Comparative Philosophy, pg. 174
  • Śaṅkara and Nārāyana Guru, pg. 184
  • Is There Philosophy in Asia?, pg. 203
  • Chu Hsi and World Philosophy, pg. 230
  • Confucius and the Ontology of Knowing, pg. 265
  • Reflections on Moral Theory and Understanding Moral Traditions, pg. 280
  • Neoconfucianism as Traditional and Modern, pg. 294
  • CONTRIBUTORS, pg. 311
  • INDEX, pg. 313

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