Can Different Cultures Think the Same Thoughts?
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175 pages

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Kenneth Dorter’s Can Different Cultures Think the Same Thoughts? is a study of fundamental issues in metaphysics and ethics across major philosophical traditions of the world, including the way in which metaphysics can be a foundation for ethics, as well as the importance of metaphysics on its own terms. Dorter examines such questions through a detailed comparison of selected major thinkers and classic works in three global philosophical traditions, those of India, China, and the West.

In each chapter Dorter juxtaposes and compares two or more philosophers or classic works from different traditions, from Spinoza and Shankara, to Confucius and Plato, to Marcus Aurelius and the Bhagavad Gita. In doing so he explores different perspectives and reveals limitations and assumptions that might otherwise be obscure.

The goal of Dorter’s cross-cultural approach is to consider how far works from different cultures can be understood as holding comparable philosophical views. Although Dorter reveals commonalities across the different traditions, he makes no claim that there is such a thing as a universal philosophy. Clearly there are fundamental disagreements among the philosophers and works studied. Yet in each of the case studies of a particular chapter, we can discover a shared, or at least analogous, way of looking at issues across different cultures. All those interested in metaphysics, ethics, Indian philosophy, Chinese philosophy, and comparative philosophy will find much of interest in this book.



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Date de parution 30 avril 2018
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780268103569
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

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A Comparative Study in Metaphysics and Ethics

University of Notre Dame Press Notre Dame, Indiana
University of Notre Dame Press Notre Dame, Indiana 46556
Copyright © 2018 by the University of Notre Dame All Rights Reserved
Title page art: “Confucius, Shankara, and Socrates,” by Gloria Wang
Published in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Dorter, Kenneth, 1940–author.
Title: Can different cultures think the same thoughts? : a comparative study in metaphysics and ethics / Kenneth Dorter.
Description: Notre Dame : University of Notre Dame Press, 2018. | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017055853 (print) | LCCN 2018003386 (ebook) | ISBN 9780268103552 (pdf) | ISBN 9780268103569 (epub) | ISBN 9780268103538 (hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 0268103534 (hardcover : alk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Metaphysics—Comparative studies. | Ethics—Comparative studies.
Classification: LCC BD111 (ebook) | LCC BD111 .D67 2018 (print) | DDC 109—dc23
LC record available at
∞ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).
This e-Book was converted from the original source file by a third-party vendor. Readers who notice any formatting, textual, or readability issues are encouraged to contact the publisher at
To My Brother Ira
CHAPTER 1 Going beyond the Visible: Zhuangzi and the Upaniṣads
CHAPTER 2 Appearance and Reality: Parmenides, Shankara, and Spinoza
CHAPTER 3 Metaphysics and Morality: Zhu Xi, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus
CHAPTER 4 Indeterminacy and Moral Action: Laozi and Heraclitus
CHAPTER 5 Virtue Is Knowledge: Socrates and Wang Yangming
CHAPTER 6 The Ethical Mean: Confucius and Plato
CHAPTER 7 Nonviolent Warriors: The Bhagavad Gita and Marcus Aurelius
The project of this book has two aims. One is to explore issues in metaphysics and ethics, including the way metaphysics can be foundational for ethics. I approach these issues through the works of major thinkers in the three main philosophical traditions—India, China, and the West—comparing philosophers from two traditions in each chapter. An advantage of this approach is that examining a subject from different directions gives us different perspectives and allows us to see limitations and assumptions that may be inconspicuous otherwise. The comparison may also provide us with a perspective that is more than the sum of its parts. Each of the chapters addresses its theme through the work of a different pair or group of philosophers, while the Conclusion compensates for this diversity of voices with an overview of the book as a whole.
The cross-cultural approach provides the project with a further aim—to consider how far authors from different cultures can be said to have comparable views. At least since Hegel there is an influential view that not only is every culture unique, but the products of those cultures are ultimately incompatible—that the resemblances are superficial and the differences decisive. The issue of the validity of cross-cultural correspondences is addressed in some detail in the Introduction, while the subsequent chapters are devoted to the specific metaphysical and ethical issues. The comparisons that follow have convinced me that there are resemblances that are profound and important, but although the chapters point out commonalities in the different traditions, I make no claim that there is a universal philosophy. On the contrary, in places it is obvious that there are fundamental disagreements among the philosophers studied in different chapters. But within each chapter we see a shared or at least analogous way of looking at things in different cultures. Philosophers sometimes find it useful to distinguish between “morality” and “ethics,” but in what follows the terms are used interchangeably.
I would like to thank Ben-Ami Scharfstein, Lin Ma, and Cristina Ionescu for their very helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.
Earlier versions of chapters 4 and 6 were published, respectively, as “Metaphysics and Morality in Neoconfucianism and Greece: Zhu Xi, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus,” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 8 (2009): 255–76, and “The Concept of The Mean in Confucius and Plato,” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 29 (2002): 317–33.
Portions of other chapters were published as follows: “Virtue, Knowledge, and Wisdom: Bypassing Self-Control,” Review of Metaphysics 51 (1997): 313–43; “A Dialectical Interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita ,” Asian Philosophy 22 (2012): 307–26; “Being and Appearance in Parmenides,” in Metaphysics , ed. Mark Pestana (Rijeka, Croatia: In-Tech, 2012), 45–64; “The Problem of Evil in Heraclitus,” in Early Greek Philosophy: The Presocratics and the Emergence of Reason , ed. Joe McCoy (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 2013), 36–54; “Indeterminacy and Moral Action in Laozi,” Dao 13 (2014): 63–81; and “Thought and Expression in Spinoza and Shankara,” Symposium 18 (2014): 215–35. I would like to thank the respective editors and publishers for permission to reprint this material here.
I would also like to thank Hackett Publishing for permission to use, in Appendix 2 of chapter 3 , the contemporary illustration by Liz Wilson of Zhou Dunyi’s diagram. The illustration is taken from Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy: Han Dynasty to the 20th Century , ed. Justin Tiwald and Bryan W. Van Norden (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014).
Philosophers in all traditions have argued that our beliefs about how to behave are grounded in our conception of reality, which implies that ethics is ultimately grounded in metaphysics. That view is the connecting theme of the chapters of this book as they examine first the basic issues of metaphysics (the first three chapters) and the relation of metaphysics to ethics ( chapters 2 – 4 ), then basic theoretical issues of ethics ( chapters 5 and 6 ), and then a fundamental issue in applied ethics ( chapter 7 ). Since these issues are explored cross-culturally through comparisons of philosophers from different traditions, we must also consider the question of whether thinkers from different cultures are genuinely, and not just apparently, able to have comparable thoughts and points of view. Some interpreters believe that the resemblances among these philosophers point to shared experiences that underlie culturally differentiated formulations; 1 others believe that the resemblances are only superficial and that comparable experiences cannot in principle occur within radically different cultures. It is not possible to provide a definitive account of the relation between individual experience and cultural influence—that is, a conclusive demonstration either that all experience is inseparable from cultural factors or that some cognitive experiences transcend such factors—because much depends on the weight given to different elements of the texts. What we can do, however, is examine individual examples to see what the evidence is in each case, both for the role of culture and for the possibility of philosophical thinking that can transcend its cultural origins. Arguments from resemblance and analogy can show how strong the reasons are for believing in a correspondence between different formulations even if they cannot be logically conclusive.
Apart from providing case studies that serve as evidence for the roles of individual experience and cultural influence, cross-cultural comparisons have the value of enabling us to see the particular subjects in different lights: examining a subject from the perspective of more than one tradition enables us to see it from diverse points of view and become aware of alternatives and limitations that may remain hidden from us otherwise. We are led to ask different questions than we would otherwise be likely to do, and to notice by contrast aspects of a text or issue that otherwise may not be apparent. 2 The chapters address some of the major issues in metaphysics and ethics: If our “natural” point of view is practical rather than metaphysical, what can induce us to adopt a metaphysical point of view? If the reality of the world consists in its absolute unity, and the self-subsistence of individuals is only illusory, how is that compatible with the importance we attach to our lives, rather than leading to apathy and fatalism? What is the value of metaphysical models of reality, and how can they provide the basis for achieving a moral point of view? If no absolute point of view is possible, how can some actions be more moral than others? Does virtue follow from knowledge, and, if so, how is it possible to succumb to the temptation of doing something we know is wrong? Does virtuous action consist in finding a mean between extremes, and, if so, how can we locate it? Is nonviolence a realistic goal, and is it compatible with the use of deadly force?
The Problem of Comparative Philosophy
There are striking parallels among the three traditions, 3 such as the view expressed by Plato and Aristotle in Greek philosophy and Confucius in Chinese philosophy that moral goodness requires finding the mean between excess and deficiency, or the view expressed by Shankara in Indian philosophy and Spinoza in Western philosophy of the insubstantiality of individual existence. Even if it were only a question of mapping resemblances among the various traditions, there would still be historical value in such comparisons but not necessari

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