Stephen R. L. Clark – “Comparative Philosophy: Right Reason?”

Stephen R. L. Clark is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Liverpool. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

“Religion” names a collection of rituals, stories, idols and icons, hierarchies, texts, credal statements, and philosophies of a roughly familiar sort that are encountered almost everywhere within the human species (and perhaps in the past, in other hominin species). Dictionary definitions often identify “religion” with “a belief in supernatural entities,” but without any clear account either of “belief” or “supernatural.” The definitions owe more to modern, Western assumptions about “religion” than any detailed investigation: not all religious traditions distinguish “nature” and “supernature”; not all acknowledge or invoke – let alone worship – supposedly “supernatural” entities; very few, from a global perspective, make “belief” a central requirement of “religious” life. Anthropologists, most often, prefer to speak of “religious” practices as devices to strengthen social cohesion, especially by distinguishing one gender, caste, tribe, or nation from another. Psychologists may rather attend to divisions within a single person, marking off successive stages of life, potentially conflicting motives and ideals. A tribe’s mythology – which may or may not incorporate clear credal statements – puts that tribe’s motives, ideals, and problems on display.

So what role might suit “philosophy” in regard to such “religion”? Some religious forms allow a few people to speculate, more or less cogently and clearly, about the real nature of the world or our real duties in it. Some even make room for radical criticism of prevailing social norms, whether or not those critics actually opt out of the duties to which they were born: Socrates continued to serve as a soldier and a citizen within the city whose norms he questioned; Gautama left his family and palace behind to seek a cure for what was wrong with the world (but still took on a recognizable social role – the wandering ascetic). Must “philosophers” always speak and think from within the worlds and tribes where they were born and reared? Or may they, sometimes, opt to surrender citizenship in any existing tribe or class, and seek out a “truth” that is more than a social norm? “The philosopher,” said Wittgenstein, “is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him into a philosopher.”1 And do the latter kind of “philosophers” reach anything like the same conclusions about life, the world, and everything? Or are they self-deceived about the manifold sources of their convictions?

What shall we seek to compare, if we hope to practice a “comparative” philosophy? On the one hand, anthropological and psychological enquiry can identify both amazing differences and amazing similarities between disparate tribes and ages. Human beings don’t all behave in exactly the same ways, or tell exactly the same stories – but we do all seem to appreciate song and dance and feasting, and all of us listen to stories, both to learn what is expected of us and to have shared plots and characters to gossip about. Maybe we invent spirits and gods and heroes precisely so that whole communities have characters and plots for gossip: soap operas, blockbusters, competitive sports, and even (nowadays) popularised scientific theories fill a similar set of needs. Philosophers may wonder whether these shared games and stories serve only to disguise a darker truth: that we are chance-bred hominins on an accidental rock, with no good reason either to know what is really happening, or to suppose we could. The thought may come especially to those who consider ancient or alien rituals, stories, and “sacred” texts or objects. If most of those stories are now considered fictions, and most of the supposed revelations mere delusions, why exactly are our own stories and easy rituals exempt? How can it be reasonable to think that we alone are happily born into a “religion,” a shared world-view (including in that category current popular Western dogmas2) which is, it happens, right? In Kipling’s words:

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!3

Or else, more optimistically, philosophers might wonder instead whether there might really be some way of identifying the truth in ancient, alien or modern ways of thinking and living.4 Is it enough to judge them by the standards that we happen to have ourselves, or should we at least consider whether there might be other standards at least as sound as ours, or whether there are shared truths, hidden beneath the outward dissimilarities? Is it so clear, for example, that a “belief in supernatural entities” is entirely alien to our own thought, even the most “modern” and “scientific”? Do we have sound reason to think that there is a “natural order” which is closed against intrusion? Do we have sound reason to know what counts as a “natural entity” at all? When we compare stories, rituals, hierarchies, and creeds, what motivates our own easy rejection of anything that disturbs our habits?

“Philosophers,” perhaps, have reason of some sort to suppose that there are ways of identifying errors, ways of securing some reliable conclusion, which transcend any particular inherited ways of thinking. Is that the power of abstract, “Cartesian,” reasoning? Or must it require a more empirical enquiry? In the words of Thomas Sprat, in his proleptic history of the Royal Society:

The poets of old to make all things look more venerable than they were devised a thousand false Chimaeras; on every Field, River, Grove and Cave they bestowed a Fantasm of their own making: With these they amazed the world. … And in the modern Ages these Fantastical Forms were reviv’d and possessed Christendom. … All which abuses if those acute Philosophers did not promote, yet they were never able to overcome; nay, not even so much as King Oberon and his invisible Army. But from the time in which the Real Philosophy has appear’d there is scarce any whisper remaining of such horrors. … The cours of things goes quietly along, in its own true channel of Natural Causes and Effects. For this we are beholden to Experiments; which though they have not yet completed the discovery of the true world, yet they have already vanquished those wild inhabitants of the false world, that us’d to astonish the minds of men.5

That “experimental philosophy” has since led in directions that Sprat would have found disturbing: standard axioms of common sense and Enlightenment metaphysics (objectivity, locality, uniformity) are themselves now contested in ways that are more astonishing than Oberon! The assumptions that lie behind the elevation of “experiment,” and the rejection of personal testimony, once noticed as the axioms of a very particular age and place, are no longer so compelling. What seems most rational is often only what is most familiar – and an honest comparison of creeds and intellectual explorations across the world still has power to unsettle those familiar themes.

“Comparative Philosophy of Religion,” in short, may sometimes be an excuse to criticise ancient and alien ideas and habits in the name of a supposedly higher and more realistic insight, a “Real Philosophy” into how things are and should be. But it may also be a humbler endeavour: an attempt to understand those ancient and alien ways, and join together in a continuing exploration of the human psyche and the world around us. Maybe our ancestors, and our present neighbours, are right after all to think that there are “supernatural powers”—though they wouldn’t call them “supernatural”—with a real influence on our thoughts and habits, as well as on the wider world we hope to imagine clearly. Maybe we are more than chance-bred hominins ourselves, and therefore do indeed have some possible way to discover the meaning of things: maybe, as most of our own philosophical ancestors suggested, there is after all some congruence between the powers of human reason and the world’s reason. We have room in our hearts and minds for a true vision of the universe because our spirit is a fragment of the divine, and there are other spirits around us. Conversely, if we have no such standing, and have only those powers that our sort of primates could have in a merely “naturalistic,” Darwinian universe, then we have little reason to suppose that any of our dreams and practices are more than currently convenient; and good reason (if any reason of ours is good) to suspect that ancient and alien ways, being ancient, are at least as good as ours.


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, edds., G.E.M. Anscombe & G.H. Von Wright (Oxford: Blackwell 1967).

2. Cf. Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (London: Penguin, 2020).

3. Rudyard Kipling, Debits and Credits (Macmillan: London, 1926).

4. Cf. Marshall Sahlins, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity (Princeton University Press: New Jersey), p.11: “It should be clear enough that, though I have not always succeeded, I try to explicate the cultures at issue by their own immanentist premises—what used to be known as ‘the natives’ point of view’ and sometimes now as ‘reverse anthropology’. I try to unfold the peoples’ cultural practices by means of their own onto-logics.”

5. Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society (New York: Elibron 2005 [1722]), p.340.

Fritz Detwiler – “Native American Philosophy and Unified Knowledge”

Fritz Detwiler is a retired professor who taught philosophy and religion for the last 39 years at Adrian College in Michigan. His specialty is Native American philosophy with a subspecialty in Tlingit, Navajo, and Lakota lifeways and worldviews. You can contact him at We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Unified Knowledge

Vine Deloria, Jr., one of the most highly respected Native philosophers and critics of Western metaphysics, spent his life’s work pursuing commonality between Native and Western philosophy. His goal was “understanding the unifying reality underlying all existence”.1 His critique of the West was their belief in the superiority of Western thought and their unwillingness to take alternative perspectives seriously.

Following Deloria’s lead, the purpose of this essay is not to critique Western philosophy but to open Western philosophers to alternative worldviews to enrich their own perspectives. Following Western ways of thinking, the article divides Indigenous thought into categories familiar to Western thought. The goal, however, is to show how all these pieces fit together in a unified whole.

In the following essay, I use “Indigenous” as a blanket term for Native Americans and the First Nations people of Canada. While much of what follows extends to Indigenous peoples beyond North America, I will let others with more expertise in those areas draw their conclusions. The unified knowledge to which the title refers does not mean that all Indigenous peoples have the same conceptions of the universe. The opposite is more accurate. Indigenous peoples honor multiple viewpoints even within their communities. The argument here is that they share many of the conceptualizations developed below. Unified knowledge here refers to how all aspects of their worldviews flow into each other in contrast to many Western approaches that segment knowledge into various domains.2

Indigenous Worldviews

Metaphysics: The most distinguishing aspect of Indigenous metaphysics is “life force.”3 Life force is a power that wills the well-being of all types of persons and aims for harmony among beings. Like a woven tapestry, life force animates everything and flows through and connects everything. While present in all beings, life force is unique to every type of being and every member of different classes. Bears have bear life force, corn has corn force, and individual bears or corn plants have their unique life force. Some bears are stronger than others, for example. The uniqueness of bears or corn plants arises from their particular interactions with other life forces; just as two people may share a dog, a dog’s life force flows to and through us differently. Separate nations call life force by various names: manitou (Ojibwa), orenda (Haudenosaunee), takuskanskan (Lakota), niłch’i (Navajo), among others.

Cosmology: Indigenous cosmologies are relational and moral.4 Every being through whom life force flows connects to everything else with a dynamic and fluid intersubjective cosmos.5 The intersubjective cosmos is based on “the responsible actions of creative living beings acting collectively.”6 The moral force of the cosmos is discussed below. Relationality acts in two ways to connect beings with each other. First, all beings derive from a single source, and second, as mentioned above, life force flows through everything and interpenetrates the other beings by directly interacting with them. The cosmos is in a constant process of relationality where beings continuously exchange life force, and relationships are continually changing and reconstituting.

Ontology: The cosmological scope of the above claim becomes more evident through Indigenous ontologies. To this point, I have used the term “beings.” The better ontological term is “persons.” The category extends to all phenomena who are animate or potentially animate. All persons are sentient, active, volitional, have interests, and act intentionally.7 In a relational world, potentiality becomes actuality through encountering other persons. As a Lakota elder once remarked when asked, “Are all stone alive?” He answered, “No, but some are.”8 Those who are alive become animate to him when he enters into a direct relationship with them. In an interrelated world, everything is animate in relation to something else. Depending on the Indigenous culture, persons include animals, plants, lunar and solar phenomena, water, mountains, and in some cases, prayers, songs, glaciers, looms, and moccasins. In most traditions, persons share their power with others. Persons have inherent moral worth and are deserving of moral respect. The wording here is intentional. Moral worth is not an attribute of persons that can be separated from persons, and it is inherent in all beings.

Epistemology: Indigenous epistemologies are experiential, individual, empirical, practical, and flexible. Knowledge arises through interactions with other persons. It is personal, and relations with others create a shared knowledge community. Because knowledge is individual, Native peoples tend to be humble and avoid universal claims. Solutions for life’s problems drive knowledge acquisition and reflect the group’s interests, but their physical and theoretical environment limits the range of solutions available.9 The particular strategies employed or discarded depend on what works. If some acquired knowledge no longer has practical value, it can be discarded. Indigenous unified knowledge brings together theory and practice.

Ethics: For Indigenous people, the relational cosmos is moral, driven by life force. The main ethical principle is reciprocal responsibility.10 Persons have an obligation to respect the interests of others and find ways of interacting that promote mutual growth. Thus, the fundamental ethical problem relates to the need to survive, and survival requires food: “Who gets to eat whom, and under what circumstances?” If life force promotes growth, then the interests of the hunter and the hunted conflict. Neither’s interests outweigh the other’s. What matters is the survival of the group, not necessarily any individual. Often, moral covenants establish the proper etiquette and protocols required for maintaining appropriate relationships of respect.
Philosophy as a Moral Enterprise

From Indigenous perspectives, philosophy is a moral endeavor in three ways. First, it constructs a cognitive conception of the world. Second, as a unified approach to knowledge, it integrates all aspects of philosophy toward practical solutions. It places a moral responsibility on the philosopher to take Indigenous worldviews and lifeways seriously in a spirit of mutual respect and to broaden their own understandings of the world. To view their philosophies as curiosities and not take them seriously, the philosopher contributes to the difficulties Native peoples experience in their struggle to protect their sovereignty and land.

Final Comment

The essay attempts to open new avenues of thought among Western philosophers unfamiliar with Indigenous worldviews. The approach is to give a general overview. Space limits the detailed information necessary to provide specific applications of the theoretical notions described herein. But “one size does not fit all.” Navajo conceptions of reality are strikingly different from those of Tlingit, Lakota, or Iroquois. All, however, share aspects of the theoretical points developed above. All emphasize praxis. And all reflect a drive toward a unified theory of knowledge which integrates all aspects of philosophy. In sum, life force creates a relational cosmos through which persons come to know their world and act in ways that promote mutual care for others’ interests and well-being.


1. Jefferey D. Anderson, “Space, Time and Unified Knowledge: Following the Path of Vine Deloria, Jr,” in Indigenous Philosophies and Critical Education, ed. George Dei (New York: Peter Lang, 2011), 95.

2. Anderson, “Space, Time and Unified Knowledge,” 101.

3. Gregory Cajete, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, foreword by Leroy Little Bear (Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light Publishers, 2000), 216.

4. For a detailed discussion of the moral nature of the cosmos, see Fritz Detwiler, “Moral Foundations of Tlingit Cosmology,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, ed. Graham Harvey (Durham: Acumen Pub., 2013), 167–80.

5. Kenneth M. Morrison, “Animism and a Proposal for a Post-Carteian Anthropology,” in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism [Electronic Resource], in The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, ed. Graham Harvey (Durham, UK: Acumen, 2013), 49.

6. John Fulbright, “Hopi and Zuni Prayer-Sticks: Magic, Symbolic Texts, Barter, or Self-Sacrifice,” Religion 22, no. July 1992 (1992): 223.

7. Fritz Detwiler, “All My Relatives: Persons in Oglala Religion,” Religion 22, no. 3 (1992): 239.

8. Thomas M. Norton-Smith, The Dance of Person and Place: One Interpretation of American Indian Philosophy, SUNY Series in Living Indigenous Philosophies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), 88.

9. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds, Special Collections in Ethnographic Theory (Chicago: Hau Books, 2015), 16–18.

10. Eva Marie Garroutte, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 118.

Gregory W. Dawes “Immanentist Religiosity: Broadening the Scope of Comparative Studies”

Gregory Dawes gained his first graduate degree at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome (1988) before completing PhDs in Biblical Studies (1995) and Philosophy (2007). His earlier work examined the challenges to belief that arose from the historical study of Christian origins. This led him to the study of the relations between science and religion and, more generally, of the various ‘modes of thought’ found across cultures. His recent books include Galileo and the Conflict between Religion and Science (Routledge, 2016), Religion, Philosophy and Knowledge (Palgrave Pivot, 2016), and Deprovincializing Science and Religion (Cambridge Elements, 2021). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When hearing the phrase ‘comparative philosophy of religion’, you may think of a comparison of major religious traditions, in particular the ‘big five’: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Such comparisons are surely valuable. But in the context of the longue durée of human history, religions of this kind are in the minority. They resemble each other insofar as each has been reshaped (in varying degrees) by the ‘axial age’ revolutions in human thought. These revolutions led to a distinction between divinity and what came to be known as the ‘natural world,’ coupled with a strong focus on individual ethical behavior with a view to an otherworldly salvation or liberation. For most of their history, human beings have lived in communities whose religious practices had a very different character. We can understand this difference by way of a distinction that has recently become influential in the study of religion. It is that between transcendentalist and immanentist forms of religiosity.

This distinction has been popularized by the work of Alan Strathern and Marshall Sahlins. But its earliest use appears to have been in the work of Iwao Munakata, a scholar of Japanese ‘folk religion.’ For Munakata, the indigenous religious practices of Japan were characterized by a conviction that ‘although the gods reside in the world of souls, they have ready access to this world’, engaging in ‘continual intercourse with village life.’ Divinity is represented by such practices as immanent in the world.

Strathern’s development of this idea generalizes it, setting out ten characteristics of immanentist religion. These include a ‘promiscuous attribution of personhood,’ a pragmatic orientation towards collective flourishing in the here and now, gods (or ‘metapersons’) whose activities are characterized by power rather than ethics, and little interest in questions of ‘belief.’ In all these respects, immanentist religions can be contrasted with ‘transcendentalist’ ones (like the ‘big five’). Transcendalist religions restrict the range of entities to whom personhood is attributed, are oriented towards ‘otherworldly’ and individual rather than collective goals, have a strong ethical component, and develop of bodies of doctrine.

Strathern’s important insight is that even transcendentalist religions retain significant elements of immanentist practice. In medieval Europe, for example ‘people continued to populate their environment with a multitude of sprites, ghosts, goblins, witches, demons, [and] tree spirits,’ while Roman Catholic practices became merged with ideas that their opponents regarded as magical. Foremost among those opponents were the Protestant Reformers, whose movement can be regarded as an effort to purge Christianity of its immanentism, an effort that seems doomed to failure. Pentecostal Christianity, for instance, has returned to forms of religious practice that bear some of the marks of immanentism.

My suggestion is that a comparative philosophy of religion should broaden its scope to include the more purely immanentist forms of religiosity. There are already a few examples of this, such as the recent volume on Animism and Philosophy of Religion, edited by Tiddy Smith. But as Smith himself notes, this is an outlier in the field. So we need more works of this kind. Including immanentist forms of religiosity in the scope of our work would enrich the philosophy of religion in a number of ways.

A first is that such ‘religions’ – the term is not helpful here, since these forms of religiosity are neither institutionalized nor set apart from everyday life – have little interest in matters of belief, and even less in systems of theology. To ask of practitioners what they ‘believe’ is unlikely to yield a consistent picture. So a study of immanentist religiosity will involve abandoning the conception of religion that thinks of its defining feature as belief. Immanentist religiosity is primarily a matter of practice, with ‘beliefs’ (in the sense of ways in which practices are understood) being varying and context-dependent. To understand such ‘religions’ philosophically, we will need to reflect on their practices. What do such practices do? What effect do they seek to have? What is their value?

A second important feature of such religions is that they are (in Strathern’s words) ‘empirical, pragmatic, and experimental.’ Philosophers are fond of saying that religious beliefs have a low degree of empirical content, being largely unfalsifiable. But because the focus of immanentist religious practices is well-being in the ‘here and now,’ practitioners can assess the efficacy of those practices. If they are apparently failing – if children die, crops do not grow, or animals do not flourish – the practice (and the ‘beliefs’ that go with it) may be abandoned. The anthropologist Joel Robbins cites a story from Papua New Guinea in which the arrival of Christianity resulted in elders putting the new religion to the test. They planted two gardens, treating one with Christian prayer and the other with traditional incantations. Some Polynesian peoples even had rituals for getting rid of gods that were judged to be no longer useful.

Finally, a focus on immanentist ‘religions’ can remind us of the separability of religion and ethics. The gods of immanentist societies are not particularly ethical, even by the standards of the society that interacts with them. Plato, for example, proposed censoring Homer and Hesiod because of the ways in which they depicted the behaviour of the gods. Gods of this kind are characterized primarily in terms of their power to bring about certain effects. Nor are immanentist notions of the afterlife associated with morality. While practically all peoples assume that humans continue to exist (for a period, at least) after their death, immanentist societies do not link this assumption with the idea of post-mortem reward or punishment.

It was not uncommon for Christian missionaries, when encountering immanentist religious practice, to deny that these peoples had a religion at all, so different was it from the religions with which they were familiar. My fellow philosophers may not be pleased by the suggestion, but their focus on the ‘big five’ religions (or, more commonly, just one of these) suggests they may share this missionary prejudice.