Discussion Group: Hocking and Comparative Philosophy

William Ernest Hocking and comparative philosophy

Helen Slaney reports:

Participants: Rosie Lavan (St Anne’s/English), Kasia Szymanska (St Hugh’s/MML); Thea Bradbury (St Hugh’s/German); Yin Yin Lu (Lincoln/English); Helen Slaney (St Hilda’s/Classics); Xiaofan Amy Li (St Anne’s/English); Dom Davies (St Anne’s/English); Kaitlin Staudt (Brasenose/Oriental Studies); Lianjiang Yu (English); Anita Paz (St Hugh’s/History of Art); Asha Rogers (St Anne’s/English).

Reading: Robert Smid, ‘Comparative Philosophy for the “emerging world culture”’

Summary, from Xiaofan Amy Li:

Comparatism comes up in many disciplines – literature, linguistics, philosophy, history – but this apparent similarity can be misleading, as the aim of comparative study differs in each field. There is debate, for instance, over whether comparative literature is a useful way of conceptualising the interactions between texts from different cultures. Hocking began his career in comparative religion around the turn of the 19th -20th centuries. He maintained that a Eurocentric view of Christianity was no longer feasible in a diverse cultural marketplace, arguing that different systems of thought can cross-fertilize or complement each other, and that they can highlight problems (and/or suggest solutions) in one’s own paradigm. He later moved into comparative philosophy, in particular concerned with the work of 12th -century Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi. Historical method suggests that works from different periods shouldn’t be decontextualised for comparative purposes, but Hocking’s approach was predicated on the universalist idea that all philosophy shares fundamentally common properties and aims. But is comparatism necessarily based on seeking similarities? Comparative literature oscillates between identifying points of contact and points of divergence; there are theoretical objections to absolute decontextualisation.


- Is commonality a sine qua non of comparatism? Is contact necessary between the cultures in question, or do you need to establish a direct line of influence between given authors? Why would one compare texts, cultures, or ideas with no overlap?

- The criteria or grounds for comparison don’t have to be temporal. Sure, you have to pick a perspective; you don’t operate in a critical vacuum. But criteria can be based on common content, for instance, or a referential meaning explicit in neither text but located behind both. Choosing such a context as a starting point for comparison would avoid arbitrariness.

- Hocking was influenced by Kant, and believed that human brain structure was universal. He attempted to combine pragmatism and idealism.

- There is a problem with his contention that the verb “to be” is peculiar to European or Western languages.

- Language structure is not universal, but Hocking would argue that the ideas behind linguistic signification are transcendent, positing an inclusive unity of thought to which particular languages accommodate their means of representation.

- His taxonomy of cultural / colonial contact as passing through the stages of ‘avoid, investigate, learn from’ resembles that put forward by Tzvetan Todorov in The conquest of America: the question of the Other (1984).

- Hocking’s decision to pursue Chinese philosophy in this light may have been influenced by contemporary US foreign policy, such as the diplomatic agreements currently being brokered with China; cross-cultural communication was very much a practical concern. His idea of a single “world culture” was likewise informed by the League of Nations project; he had an idealistic vision of synthesis for the greater good of mankind.

- But he problematically wants it both ways: to enrich his own culture while at the same time assimilating it to others in the pursuit of a better version.

- The article is an apologia for Hocking’s thought, but Smid subjects it to cherry-picking in order to prove his point. Hocking is doing to the Chinese philosophers what Smid is doing to Hocking.

- US philosophers put a lot of emphasis on Confucianism, whereas there is no such representative consensus in China itself. Is it a problem that Hocking did not know Chinese?

- And is it ethical to use (versions of) other cultures’ ideas to solve your own problems? Contemporary US comparative philosophy steers away from postcolonial issues.

- This may be compared to eighteenth-century models of cultural acquisition, such as personal Bildung through openness to the foreign. In some cases, there is no problem with appropriating external ideas to plug the gaps in existing thought; the ethics of borrowing need to be contextualised. For example, there is no problem with using them for learning and improvement, but there may be a moral problem with using them as a means of selfjustification.

- What about if intellectual material is conceived of as property, either cultural or disciplinary? Smid/Hocking may be right that we are no further from appreciating 12th -C Chinese philosophy than we are from Plato or Kant, but it could be argued that we are quite a long way from these thinkers as well: temporally, culturally, and linguistically. Classicists read Plato differently from philosophers.

- It should be possible to acknowledge the contingency of one’s own position and also productively recontextualise the material. Interpretation of an extant piece of writing is always somewhat decontextualised, as your individual horizons of expectation determine your hermeneutic position.