Assuming that there are several distinct philosophical traditions - say - Western, Chinese and Indian and that philosophers can actually compare the manner certain philosophical problems were handled by the different traditions I wonder:

Is doing such comparative philosophical work necessarily entails adopting cultural-relativism?

To further clarify my query: Within aesthetics and philosophy of art, it so seems that in order for a Western philosopher to avoid passing judgment over Chinese art she ought to adopt cultural relativism: if she does not and rather passes judgment, it can be argued that being Western she has no neutral framework of reference by which to judge Chinese aesthetics.

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    I'd agree with your conclusion but not all your statements. I would say the whole job of a philosopher is to pass judgement and if she has no view on whether Chinese and Indian philosophy is more or less successful than the Western kind she would just be poorly informed, not adopting some kind of relativism. As for aesthetics, it does not seem an issue for philosophers. Results are what count. The results of these different philosophies are what must be judged, and if we cannot judge them then we do not yet understand philosophy well enough to make the judgement.
    – user20253
    Dec 12, 2017 at 13:51

2 Answers 2


As someone who works in both Modern Western philosophy and Classical Confucianism, I don't think one is required to do so when doing comparative philosophy unless you're using a very nuanced definition of cultural relativism. In fact, I would say you cannot do comparative philosophy if you cannot assert non-culturally relative things on at least some level.

I take it the term cultural relativism is meant to be a denial of universal truth claims and the suggestion that the truth of something is wholly relative to culture. This is at least how the term gets thrown about at times and how I will use this term in the answer. (If you meant something else by it, then the results will be quite different).

Now, you pick an interesting example when you say "aesthetics" and the "philosophy of art." But at least when I read your question, there's some slippage there in that you're jumping from aesthetics / philosophy of art to aesthetics as in critique of art in the remainder of your last paragraph. Philosophy of art is not about judging art pieces but about the nature of aesthetic value -- as such it's at least a layer further abstract that critiquing individual paintings.

At the same time, you might mean something completely different by cultural relativism than the thrust of your question and some of the sentences seem to indicate. If you mean, do we need to realize that we come from limited perspectives and don't have a monopoly on good insights and ideas and moreover that the arguments and terms of thought are not identical from one thought tradition to another, then surely we need to do this. But this doesn't imply that we reject the belief there are better and worse ways to parse the world in which we live. We might call this approach cultural sensitivity or more broadly perspectivism.

To put it another way, doing comparative philosophy well (for those of us who believe it is possible) involves becoming "bilingual" in the philosophical vocabularies of multiple traditions. And if you are bilingual then you will recognize that some words better express what you want than other words across both languages. This doesn't mean you'll never find inadequacies in using on language or another.

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    Thank you very much for this elaborated answer - it is very helpful. Sorry I did not express the question more clearly: I indeed used the phrase 'cultural relativism' to mean denial of universal truth claims and that the truth of something is relative to culture. The example I gave as to aesthetics aroused from encountering controversy between James Cahill and Arthur Danto and Ernest Gombrich. The two last argued that between 13th century till the West entered China, Chinese art lacked creativity (comparing to Western art). It made me wonder how this sort of judgment is possible....
    – Jordan S
    Nov 24, 2015 at 22:50
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    I guess I would say several things in response to the specific prompt (absent from the question when I answered). First, seeing at least some thing as culturally relative does not require the "denial of universal truth claims." (E.g., the rightness of driving on the left vs. the right is relative to cultural but implies nothing about universal truth). Second, I don't know the specific contours of the debate but I would say it's also possible that the definition of "creativity" makes the claim potentially true (but possibly trivially so).
    – virmaior
    Nov 25, 2015 at 1:49
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    Thank you. (By the way, as to the controversy I mentioned in the comment (indeed not in the body of the question) - one disagreement between the debaters was voiced by James Cahill who claimed that definition of creativity as implied by Gombrich and Danto is limited to the West and that the Chinese art should be appreciated within the Chinese framework not within the Western one).
    – Jordan S
    Nov 25, 2015 at 2:21
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    Quite so. Chinese art does not usually indulge in the sort of rampant egoism of Western art and craftsmanship plays a more prominent role. One could read Gombrich as saying merely that Westerners are more egotistically self-indulgent. I'm not proposing that this is correct view but agreeing with Jordan that to compare these artistic traditions in this way is clumsy. This becomes obvious if we look at the Chinese attitude to copyright. (The question confuses art and philosophy and this seems to be an error).
    – user20253
    Dec 12, 2017 at 14:00

To pass judgement on the cultural practises of a different culture doesn't neccessarily imply that one should withhold judgement altogether but that one should learn a little, or more.

This, can be more or less difficult though; but there are certain routes.

For example, say one was interested in poetry - how then would pass judgement on how good or bad Chinese poetry actually is? For surely that requires fluency of the Chinese language, and this is difficult to acquire.

One could play a numbers game and say - a certain mass of people, over such and such a period of time and situated in geographical proximity, thus having a life in common cannot but help produce poetry - but this does not allow one to point to such and such a poet and say that she is a good poet, or such and such a work and say that this is a good poem.

If one is pressed for actual evidence rather than proof of existence what can one say?

One might suggest that they look at Chinese calligraphy - for a visual sense carries over more easily, is more easily translatable; and given that calligraphy is closer to words than most other visual work is or could be, this might get them to stop and think for a moment.

Elusive, allusive - like the play of light and shadow on water stilled for a moment - permenance out of impermenance; and the other, around.

Still, they might be hard-headed proofists; and their insistence might have consequences ...

So, one might finally point them to Cathay, by Ezra Pound; an American poet - a modernist but immodestly interested in archaic forms who translated Chinese poetry - and ask them to use their own sense of words there, or to judge that little books influence...

Whilst noting that Pound never learnt or knew Chinese, but worked from the work of another man - who knew some Chinese - Fennellosa - who having passed away, had passed on his work.

And so noting that the act of translation takes time, and that translation adds, subtracts and multiplies; that translation requires a translator - and not all translators are born or created alike - and thus again, to shone and polish a text takes time

And one ought to note that Western philosophy being centred on the Greek tradition, too took time to translate, explain and annotate; and that process is ongoing, for the senses of words were lost, for they were talking to each other, and had not an eye on posterity - though they might have.

And so the same will hold for Chinese philosophy, a great deal of work will need to be done before it's proper contours are understood.

One can see straight-away for example, the Dao is a significant philosophical text, in the way that Parmenides poem is or in the way that Pythagoras might have written

But we don't grasp the Parmenidian or Pythogorean influence merely by looking at their work - or lack, by being lost - and nor by hearsay; but by looking at their actual influence; and that influence is visible in Plato, whose influence begat Aristotle, and who ...

A chain of transmission, or isnad.

Then, one might note, that the canonical library of taoist works run to over a thousand volumes.

Then, one might ask, is the Tao that has been translated, the real and permanent Tao?

And this before writing, and after; or before questioning and after - or and again both - but not neither: and then address, the first words:

Can the Tao that can be written - the real and permenant Tao?

And/Or - Both

Can the Tao that can be judged, the real and permanent Tao?

  • I don't think it clarifies anything to confuse art and philosophy in this way, but the problem lies in the question. If I'd got here earlier I'd have suggested some edits.
    – user20253
    Dec 12, 2017 at 14:03
  • @peterj: I wrote this a couple of years ago; I wasn't confusing the two but taking a certain poetic license in writing this answer. I felt if I was contributing my time to this then I wanted to get something out of it myself - like improving my writing skills. Having said this, now that I look at it I might suggest some edits myself ;-). Dec 12, 2017 at 14:29
  • Oops. Pardon me Mozibur, I didn't notice the date.
    – user20253
    Dec 13, 2017 at 13:59

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