James Wetzel – “Comparative Philosophy of Religion: The Tao and the Inner Teacher”

James Wetzel is Professor of Philosophy and Augustinian Chair at Villanova University. He also directs Villanova’s Augustinian Institute. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When I teach Villanova’s foundation course in philosophy—a course ambitiously named “Knowledge, Reality, Self”—I usually venture a bit of comparative philosophy of religion (though the “of religion” part is perhaps redundant in so heady a stew). For the last couple of tries, I have ventured a juxtaposition of Augustine’s dialogue on the teacher, De magistro, with Lao Tzu’s enigmatic wisdom teaching, the Tao Te Ching.

Augustine wrote De magistro not long after his return to Africa from Italy in 388 and not long before the death of his only child, his son Adeodatus, in 390. De magistro takes the form of a dialogue between father and son, and in the Confessions (conf. 9.6.14) Augustine swears that he doesn’t invent his son’s part. The boy’s voice, unforeseeably memorialized in De magistro, remains his own.

The Tao Te Ching comes out of the Warring States Period in ancient China—a time of great violence and volatility. Its authorship is generally attributed to Lao Tzu, but “Lao Tzu” likely just means “old man” or “old master”; it is not a proper name. The text is about a way that cannot be named, but, then again, there is an awful lot of talk there about The Tao.

It is tempting to compare the two works along the lines of a similar problematic, say the problem of communicability. At the start of De magistro, Augustine asks his adolescent son a potentially provocative question: “What do you think we want to accomplish when we talk?” (mag. 1.1). That could be a question about a difficult history. The father has, a couple of years prior, sent the boy’s mother away for the prospect of a better, more socially advantageous match. I wonder whether Augustine and Adeodatus ever talked about this, and if so, what would they have been hoping to accomplish? The same thing? But Adeodatus opts for the long view and answers for the ages. What we do, what any of us would want to do, is twofold: learn (discere) and teach (docere). For his part Augustine insists on the chasm between those two desiderata. He has us much preferring to be teachers of our own desire to being students of someone else’s. Maybe we have no real choice about this (natural?) preference, but then the divine teacher slips inside our solipsism and teaches us otherness. This is Augustine’s Christ, “the interior light of truth” (mag. 12.40).

If there is a problem of communicability in the Tao Te Ching, it doubtless has something to do with the Tao, or the intelligibility that seems so resistant to mapping. It isn’t by following the Tao that one gets from here to there; it is not that kind of guidance, if it is guidance at all. Here is how Stephen Mitchell, the great impresario of religious and poetic texts, translates the first four verses of the Tao Te Ching, the ones that declare, indirectly (sort of), what the Tao is:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Notice Mitchell’s contrast between small “t” tao, able to be named (pegged), and big “T” parent tao, or the tao that preempts naming as much as it grounds it. It is hard for me not to conclude, despite my best resistance, that big T tao is being set up as the superior tao.

Now compare Mitchell’s rendition with that of Ursula K. Le Guin, a literary figure of enormous verve. Same lines:

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

It is possible, no doubt, to read Mitchell’s rendition as a clarification of Le Guin’s folksier language. “The way you can go”: ah, yes, that is a tao, not the Tao. For the really real way, we will need to have access to something eternal as well as a purely intuitive grasp of what a name names. Buckle up.

But there is a cost to having Mitchell devour Le Guin. We lose the possibility that a way is not the real way simply because there is more than one way to go. Naming the real need not be an exclusionary practice. Name things, by all means, but keep your mind open to other practices of naming—until naming starts to ebb and flow, and the sea is calm.

My aim here is not to defend Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching against Mitchell’s, despite how it may be sounding. What interests me is the vivid contrast of their poetic sensibilities. Neither of them is a translator of the Tao Te Ching in the strict sense: neither knows ancient Chinese, and both are heavily dependent on Paul Carus’s 1898 mapping of the Tao’s ideograms onto English words and phrases. That makes Mitchell and Le Guin translators of translation.

As are most of us. I read Augustine in Latin; I read Lao Tzu in English. My knowledge of Latin is an advantage provided that I don’t confuse philosophy with literalization. For there is an irreducibly aesthetic component to philosophical reading and reception. This is what Mitchell and Le Guin, in their comparative brilliance, remind me of.

Comparative philosophy of religion is not then just a matter of aiming foreign resources at a familiar problematic. It is also about the question that shows up between the lines.

So what happens when the divine meets you from within, wrecks your distinction between inner and outer, greens your knowledge, and leaves you, for a time, at peace with your desires?

Maybe nothing. Maybe that is the point.


Augustine, De magistro, ed. Klaus-Detlef Daur, CCSL 29, Turnholt: Brepols, 1970.

Stephen Mitchell, tao te ching, New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2019.

Leah Kalmanson – “Diversification is not Decolonization”

University of North Texas portrait of Leah Kalmanson, Philosophy and Religion, Associate Professor. Photographed on 15, December 2021 in Denton, Texas. (Sky Allen/UNT Photo).

Leah Kalmanson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion and the Bhagwan Adinath Professor of Jain Studies at the University of North Texas. She is the author of the 2020 book Cross-Cultural Existentialism and co-author with Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach of the 2021 A Practical Guide to World Philosophies. Her essays appear in various academic journals as well as the digital magazine Aeon. We invited her to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Diversification is not decolonization. By this, I mean that we can diversify the content of our research while not necessarily altering the Eurocentric structures that define academic disciplines. These structures may include scholarly methodologies, pedagogies, curricular requirements, and canonized texts. In terms of philosophy of religion, I understand the “comparative” dimension to refer, at the least, to the project of diversification. Accordingly, I presume this project is motivated in part by a desire to expand the discourse beyond the European monotheism that has traditionally set the agenda for research in this area and to engage multiple religious traditions across diverse cultural contexts. However, as I am suggesting here, bringing more religions to the table may accomplish the task of diversification without thereby altering the Eurocentric methodological practices of philosophy in general or shifting the theocentric focus of philosophy of religion in particular.

Even at the level of diversification, the philosopher of religion must broach the question of methodology. In the case at hand, what method guides the comparative approach? For example, in Doing Philosophy Comparatively, Tim Connolly identifies four methodological frameworks that might shape our basic understanding of the function and practice of comparison: universalism, pluralism, consensus, and global philosophy. The universalist approach assumes that, at one level or another, the work of comparison will reveal shared truths that transcend particular cultures. Pluralism, in contrast, accepts the possible incommensurability of diverse traditions and makes space for differing perspective that may prove irreducible to one another. The consensus approach, like pluralism, accepts the possible incommensurability of diverse sources but nonetheless seeks to build a common philosophical ground. The last framework, global philosophy, sets aside the practice of comparison per se and cultivates instead a diverse set of philosophical tools, taken from any number of traditions, which might then be employed to address specific questions and issues.

Connolly’s work invites us to take a meta-level perspective, as it were, on the question of methodology in general. What are the disciplinary practices that are definitive of philosophy, and do such practices have cross-cultural scope? For example, how do we separate the liberal arts from the social sciences and the “hard” sciences, and do these divisions map onto similar categories in the intellectual histories of other cultural traditions? Or, how do we distinguish a “method” from a “practice” or a “ritual,” and can these distinctions be made in other languages? In short, how do we “do” whatever it is we do that constitutes our professional identities, and do other people elsewhere do things similarly? For those who identify as philosophers, what we do might include dialogue, analysis, phenomenological bracketing, deconstruction, and so forth. Both the analytic and phenomenological methods are prominent in philosophy of religion today, and so a comparative philosopher of religion might bring either approach to the study of a diverse array of religious traditions. But do these methodologies themselves have cross-cultural scope, or are they rooted in Euro-American intellectual history?

Digging deeper, a scholar might attempt to set aside assumptions about philosophy as a discipline or religion as a tradition and instead ask: What methods were employed at famous Buddhist monastic universities such as Nālandā, founded in 427? What methodological interventions is Zhu Xi credited with introducing into Ruist or “Confucian” academies in the Song dynasty (960–1279)? Given that neither a Buddhist monk nor a Confucian scholar would have seen themselves as belonging to some larger category such as “philosophy” or “religion,” then what theories and methods allowed them to separate the Buddha-dharma, as its own discipline or category, from Ruist scholarship? And, perhaps, most crucially, can we still learn and practice these methodologies as researchers today?

A scholar who digs deeper in this way may find some methods that remind her of phenomenology, such as the xinxue 心學 or “heart-mind studies” of Ruism (i.e., “Confucianism”) or the vijñapti-mātra or “representation-only” thesis of Yogācāra Buddhism. She may likewise find many methods that remind her of analysis or that employ dialogue and various systems of formal logic. But nothing will add up neatly or map point-for-point onto contemporary academic categories such as “philosophy” or “religious studies.” In other words, in reflecting on her methodologies, she challenges her own scholarly and professional identity.

Posing such a challenge is part of the “world philosophies” approach that I take in my work with Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach and others at the Bloomsbury book series Introductions to World Philosophies. Our goal is not only diversification of content but decolonization of the disciplinary methods that establish a Eurocentric framework around what it means to “do” philosophy at the basic level. It occurs to me, only in writing this blog post, that, despite its reputation for overt Eurocentrism and theocentrism, perhaps philosophy of religion is in fact uniquely positioned to do innovative work in its pursuit of “comparison.” Let me contextualize this.

One encounters the oft-repeated truism that Asian traditions such as Buddhism or Ruism cannot be adequately categorized as either philosophies or religions. However, comparative philosophers can quickly move past this point to continue operating as philosophers when engaging diverse traditions, just as scholars of comparative religion can conveniently move ahead with the various methods—perhaps hermeneutic, historical, or ethnographic—that reflect their particular disciplinary approach to the study of religion. However, the philosopher of religion immediately faces the quandary of categorization: If, when studied comparatively, certain traditions cannot be adequately categorized as philosophies or religions, then what in the world is the comparative philosopher of religion doing? The entire enterprise “comparative philosophy of religion” thus can and should take us directly to the deepest and most difficult questions about who we are as scholars, who we are as people, and who we are as practitioners of various philosophical, religious, and spiritual paths.


Connolly, Tim. Doing Philosophy Comparatively: Foundations, Problems, and Methods of Cross-Cultural Inquiry. Second edition. London: Bloomsbury, 2023.

Kirloskar-Steinbach, Monika, and Leah Kalmanson. A Practical Guide to World Philosophies: Selves, Worlds, and Ways of Knowing. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.