On Comparing Cultural Forms

By Cornea, Andrei | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

On Comparing Cultural Forms


Cornea, Andrei, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


The paper intends to study the possibility of evading the relativist dilemma: when you compare cultural forms belonging to different traditions, you either impose the result from outside, or you give up comparisons altogether as dependent on the arbiter's parochial choices. In this paper one argues that, apart from this kind of comparison, which is called extrinsic, there is another type, called intrinsic, which is not dependent on arbiter's choices. The essence of the intrinsic comparison is the role played by the "second option" of the representatives of different traditions: it is decisive what these representatives prefer in the second place, when their first options have to be abandoned. Two old stories provide the historical paradigm of the intrinsic comparison: how Volga Khazarians are said to have converted to Judaism in the 8th century, and how the Athenian general Themistocles was voted the best general by the confederate Greek representatives. An example of contemporary intrinsic comparison between three contemporary trends - relativism, fundamentalism, rationalism - is also presented. Contrary to what Ernest Gellner believes, these trends are not incommensurable; rationalism takes precedence while being the second option of the other two trends, as soon as they want to enter a public debate.

Key Words:

intrinsic comparison, second option, relativism, Khazarians, Themistocles, fundamentalism, rationalism

1. Can we validly compare forms and ideologies belonging to different cultures, traditions and Weltanschauungs? 1 The conventional answer is that we can only to the extent that we are in possession of universal, rational standards, enabling us to assess cultural forms and values in a nonparochial way. In fact, the very existence of such standards has been called into question times and again and some philosophers claim that one has to reject it altogether. Cultural comparisons are neither objectively valid, nor morally legitimate, they argue. What comparisons amount to is to covertly impose the standards of those who initiated them in the name of some allegedly universal rule or principle. As no such rule or principle, independent of one's own community and tradition, really exists, they say, most, if not all cultural comparisons lead to an unfair game, forced by the powerful on the weak: the former extract the benefits from the comparison, while the latter are always harmed and wronged.

For instance, this is what Jean-François Lyotard, like many postmodern thinkers, believes to be the case, as we learn from his "différend" theory:

"A case of différend takes place between two parties when the settlement of the conflict which opposes them is done in the idiom of one of them, while the wrong suffered by the other party cannot be signified in this idiom" - he writes2.

However, the decision to wholly give up comparing and judging different cultures and traditions, in order to avoid causing harm to any of them, is also very questionable.

Take for instance this radical statement of Paul Feyerabend: "Traditions are neither good, nor bad: they simply exist. Speaking objectively, i.e. independently of taking part in a tradition, one almost cannot choose between humanitarianism and antisemitism.3

Now, so defiant a statement is not just another innocuous, scholastic formula, restricted to universities walls. For, as Barbara Lipstadt, a researcher of the Holocaust denial, once noticed:

"In academic circles some scholars spoke of relative truths, rejecting the notion that there was one version of the world that was necessary right, while another was wrong? Because deconstructionism argued that experience was relative and nothing was fixed, it created an atmosphere of permissiveness toward questioning the meaning of historical events and made it hard for its proponents to assert that there was anything "off limits" for this skeptical approach." 4

A few years after she wrote these words, she was sued by David Irving, a well-known denier of the Holocaust. …

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