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.