PART 1 (compiled by Elisa Freschi)

It might be because we started so well in advance, or perhaps because we are getting more serious with our project, but during the first meeting of the CB project open group working on the 2015 CBC (to be held in Venice) we started discussing about the common topic of the whole conference. And when Giovanni suggested to organise a panel on Methodology of Comparison we started playing with the idea of having the whole conference oriented around the topic ``Methodology of Comparison''. Although methodology has always been one of the strongholds of the CB project, we never picked up a methodological topic as the topic of a CBC. This time, in other words (and borrowing Giovanni's expression) we could have panels which are more methodology-driven and less topic-driven.
Several objections have been raised against the idea of comparison as our methodology.

1) Elisa Freschi recalled a previous conversation with a senior colleague (BK) who objected that our ideal targets when we do comparisons are the scholars of ``dominant'' disciplines (e.g., scholars of Christianity in the case of Religious Studies, of Western Philosophy in the case of philosophy, and so on), who are not interested in listening to comparisons with, e.g., Buddhist case studies. Thus, why should we bother to try to make comparisons available to them?

2) Ann-Kathrin noted that while doing comparative work it is difficult to avoid misunderstandings, due to the use of methods or metalanguage which may look similar but are in fact far away from being such. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to develop joint methods and metalanguage in order to make it possible to speak more or less on one level. But then one discipline or scholars of a certain tradition will try to be the dominant part in this building of joint methods and metalanguage, thinking that only they know "how the game is played". And this is an insolvable problem for us I think.


3) Elisa Freschi and Marco Lauri suggested that comparison'' presupposes the existence of two distinct objects, whereas they both share the view that there is no such thing as an Islamic thought" or Indian thought'' which need to be compared to (Western) Philosophy'', thus suggesting the idea that there is one philosophy which is the standard against which the others can only be compared. Rather, they are both interested in an open philosophical or theological dialogue in which ideas which happen to have been written down by a scholar working in Paris do not need to stop their validity at Königsberg, and vice versa.

4) Andrew has noted that comparison often ends up being the methodology of minority disciplines (such as, typically, all studies focusing on non-Western materials).


Still, we are all aware of the fact that in some sense comparison is unavoidable, partly for the political reasons mentioned above (how else could one reach the distracted and Western-centric audience of scholars?) and partly because of the fact that we ourselves are mainly Western-informed scholars working on non-Western materials and becoming aware of our inner comparative procedures is crucial for the avoidance of implicit biases, misconceptions and the like.

Thus, Elisa Freschi suggested to phrase our general topic in a more problematic way, e.g., "Do we (still) need comparison?", or "Is comparison bringing us forward?"

PART 2 (Andrew)


here i will continue my brainstorming of aspects of comparison that we might want to discuss in venice, either in panels specifically devoted to these individual aspects, or otherwise:

COMPARISON AS SCHOLARLY METHODOLOGY. this has met with the most resistance. i think we could talk about comparison's place in various configurations of knowledge, whether those are disciplines (such as philology, which was once defined by "the comparative method") or more nebulous entities such as "comparative literature," either historically or in the present day. we must also discuss this idea of "implicit" comparison (the kind that elisa says is unavoidable) versus "explicit" comparison (the kind that elisa appears to take issue with), since i think they are qualitatively different things. finally, we must also discuss comparative scholarship that actually reflects upon its methodological foundations. all of this is to lead us away from "naive comparison" toward a more robust idea.

THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF COMPARISON. elisa and marco pointed out some of these issues: what are we actually comparing? what ontic status do these things have? it strikes me that we want to discuss a set of issues that are defined conceptually (e.g., "philosophy") by discussing comparanda that belong to different traditions, but we don't want to reify or essentialize those traditions (e.g., "indian philosophy"). i suggest "epistemology" because there is a tension between the things that are "more knowable to us" (the particular cases that we work on) and the things that are "more knowable in themselves" (the broader conceptual categories that these cases fall under). this might also include the problem of arbitrariness (why compare x and y when there is also a, b, c, d, e, etc.? is comparison supposed to be representative?)

FRAMEWORKS AND METALANGUAGE. this is another "inescapable comparison" topic: we all work within larger fields that have their own keywords and "big questions." these are in some sense the necessary preconditions of comparison, since before we can relate what we do to what our colleagues in different areas do, we often need to relate it to a shared vocabulary (this is easier the closer one is to the sciences, for example in linguistics). i find that this vocabulary has a profound influence on the questions that we ask ourselves as scholars, even if we don't intend to do comparative scholarship. building and reflecting on this shared vocabulary is (or ought to be) a shared effort, and if people feel marginalized from this process, this is a major problem (see "politics of comparison" below).

TRANSLATION AS COMPARISON. for example, when i translate a sanskrit philosophical text, i have to map its concepts and categories onto those that are available to me (either through my own limited philosophical training or in a more general sense). if i don't do this, i just can't make sense of the text. there are dangers here---false analogies, etc.---but this is one of the areas in which comparison is indispensible. this topic could also include the translations as a product and not just as a process of scholarship: the use of translations for teaching or presenting ideas to colleagues, creating audiences and publics, guidelines and principles for translation (which can be more or less "comparative").

THE POLITICS OF COMPARISON. this could mean a lot of things. i was thinking of the reproduction of power-relations (i know the phrase is a little passé) in academic departments, the tokenization of everything non-western, and---there is no avoiding this question---the current "extinction level event" in higher education, which is already claiming non-modern and non-western fields as its first victims. BK (through elisa) brings up a perfectly valid point, but we should consider two points: first, scholars of "less commonly taught languages" or "minority disciplines" or whatever the euphemism is do not have the luxury of NOT doing comparison, unless they want university administrators to make their fields disappear; second, these scholars often turn necessity into a virtue by showing how comparison can lead to critique, and hence lead to better ways of understanding the world.