Today’s virtual colloquium is “Resolving Disagreements across Philosophical Traditions: an Aristotelian-Historicist Methodology” by Amod Lele. Dr. Lele received his PhD in religion from Harvard University in 2007. Currently, he is Senior Educational Technologist and Lecturer in Philosophy at Boston University, as well as a Visiting Researcher at BU’s Center for the Study of Asia. His papers, focused primarily on the Indian Buddhist philosopher Santideva, have appeared in journals including the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice.
Resolving Disagreements across Philosophical Traditions
An Aristotelian-Historicist Methodology
Can comparative religious ethics do more than compare? Once we have found similarities and differences between different traditions – including similarities within differences and differences within similarities (Yearley 1990) – what then? Mencius was not content to compare Yang Zhu, Mozi and Xunzi; he wanted to form an account of human virtue more adequate than theirs. Likewise, Aquinas’s integration of Augustinian Christianity and Muslim Aristotelianism was no mere articulation of similarities and differences; he aimed to provide a true account of the world and human flourishing, drawing on the wisdom of his two very different teachers. Given our awareness today of the wide-ranging differences across traditions, can we now aim to complete a project like Aquinas’s and Mencius’s own, one that attempts to resolve differences across traditions?
This paper will argue that we can. It will articulate and develop an Aristotelian-historicist methodology for cross-cultural ethics: one rooted in Aristotelian dialectic, maintaining the deeper awareness of cultural difference stemming from the German historicist tradition. It will take particular inspiration from the Aristotelian and historicist works of Alasdair MacIntyre (as articulated in a wide variety of works and especially MacIntyre 1991), but will also articulate a critique of MacIntyre’s method in important respects.
From Aristotle the methodology accepts the idea of dialectic: starting from established beliefs and resolving apparent contradictions among them by showing that the contradictions were only apparent or showing why one side was wrong but appeared right. Drawing on historicist philosophy of science – Kuhn, Lakatos and the Duhem-Quine thesis – it acknowledges that claims can rarely be refuted piecemeal and need to be understood within the context of a wider theoretical system, thus aligning itself with a “holist” or “historian’s” approach to comparative ethics rather than a “formalist” or “ethicist’s” approach. (See Sizemore 1990, 87; Stalnaker 2006, 16.) Further, it accepts that traditions may be incommensurable – that is, having no neutral or common standard by which their claims may be judged.
Unlike some formulations of the holist approach, however, the proposed methodology does not take incommensurability as final. With MacIntyre, it argues that traditions can become commensurable (and thereby supersede or be superseded) by learning the history of each other’s characteristic anomalies in their own terms and becoming able to explain another tradition’s anomalies better than they could themselves.
The project diverges from MacIntyre in refusing the ideal of situating ourselves within one single tradition. It argues that membership in multiple traditions of inquiry is necessary, across disciplines at a minimum (a properly informed scientific inquirer should be both a Darwinian and Mendelian biologist, and an Einsteinian and quantum physicist). Moreover the general condition of being (sometimes incoherently) “betwixt and between” traditions is not merely a modern problem, as MacIntyre (e.g. 1988, 397–8) implies it is, but a feature shared by Muslims who pray to local gods and Buddhists in Thailand who make offerings to Ganesh. So the methodology suggests that a joint process of synthesis is likely to be more fruitful than one-sided supersession.
A key question for any such project is reflexivity: how does it apply to itself? Since the methodology claims to be situated in Aristotelian-historicist tradition rather than tradition-neutral, one can well ask whether the methodology should be of interest to anyone who is not already Aristotelian or historicist. I claim that the methodology is, in MacIntyre’s words, “the best theory so far” – for everyone, not merely for those who are already Aristotelians or historicists. It is not that I advocate this methodology because I am an Aristotelian; rather, I am an Aristotelian because I believe it to be the most helpful methodology. But the methodology also draws from historicism a humility that recognizes that those involved in other traditions will start from very different places; insofar as this method rests on Aristotelian or historicist presuppositions that they cannot accept, it invites them to develop an alternative from which the dialogue can begin. “We have to begin by disagreeing even on how to characterize that about which we disagree, if we are to make any movement, even a stumbling and halting one, in the direction of rational agreement.” (MacIntyre 1991, 122–3)
MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1988. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1991. Incommensurability, Truth, and the Conversations Between Confucians and Aristotelians About the Virtues. In Culture and Modernity, edited by Eliot Deutsch. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 104–22.
Sizemore, Russell F. 1990. Comparative Religious Ethics as a Field: Faith, Culture and Reason in Ethics. In Ethics, Wealth and Salvation: A Study in Buddhist Social Ethics, edited by Russell F. Sizemore and Donald K. Swearer. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
Stalnaker, Aaron. 2006. Overcoming Our Evil: Human Nature and Spiritual Exercises in Xunzi and Augustine. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Yearley, Lee H. 1990. Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
The complete paper is available here. Comments welcome below!