The unavoidability of comparisons

What to do with comparisons? They are always risky, insofar as one risks to style oneself as an impartial observer while being in fact part of the discussion. Hence, should not one avoid them altogether?

As tempting as this suggestion might be, I do not think it is viable. As I see them, comparisons are hardly avoidable. In fact, learning and understanding are —in my eyes— not different from reducing the unknown to the known, and therefore necessarily involve the comparison of what we know already with what we come to encounter, so as to make place for the latter within the former. This is also the reason which makes it extremely difficult to learn something altogether new, for instance a sentence in a language completely unknown or the way a certain technical procedure works within an engine one knows nothing about. In other words, we learn by means of (implicit) comparisons. However, implicit assumptions are dangerous, exactly because we are not aware of them. Would it not be better to be straightforwardly aware of what we are doing when learning about, e.g. a new theological approach to the problem of theodicy?

If I am right and comparisons are not really avoidable, should one not rather become aware of the risks involved in them? What can these risks be? The main problem regards the asymmetry of comparisons. If I compare language A with language B while being myself a native speaker of language C and knowing A and B equally well, I might be in the ideal situation for making a comparison. However, this ideal situation is hardly the case. Usually, we compare something we know less with something we know better or, even worse, with something we identify with. That is, the tertium comparationis collapses with one of the two comparanda. This risk is even bigger in case of the process of learning through implicit comparisons. Explicit comparisons force one to at least be explicit as for the two (or more) comparanda and the tertium comparationis.

What do readers think? Can you avoid comparisons?

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

10 thoughts on “The unavoidability of comparisons

  1. The idea of avoiding comparison seems unfathomable to me. Every translation is a comparison.

    Nor can we avoid assumptions. I follow Gadamer on this kind of point: assumptions are just how knowledge works. Taking implicit assumptions and making them explicit is a big help, though: the more aware we (and our readers) are of what our assumptions are, the easier it is to make the assumptions enabling rather than imprisoning – and the easier it is to move to different, better, assumptions that we develop with the help of the texts we’re reading and learning from.

    How to do that? I had some thoughts in some old posts.

    • Thank you, Amod, especially for your link to your posts on the problems linked with “assumptions”.
      Since comments are closed there, I will add here that I agree about the fact that “intuitions” as used in contemporary Analytic philosophy is a misleading term. In fact, it suggests that something is inborn, which is however what one needs to demonstrate and cannot assume at the beginning (otherwise one is akin to the missionaries you mention in the blogpost, who try to convert people by telling them that Jesus is the son of God because this is written in the Bible).

      • Agreed. We do need the sorts of assumptions that analytic philosophers refer to as “intuitions”, but we need to recognize that these come from our social and historical positioning. Gadamer’s term “prejudices” (Vorurteilen) makes that clear, I think.

  2. I like your characterization of learning and understanding always involving a comparison. This could be an argument for upamāna as a pramāṇa (possibly the main pramāṇa).

  3. What Joerg Tuske says about upamāna (as he perhaps knows, given his work on upamāna) echoes some arguments in contemporary philosophy of mind/cognition about analogy being, as Douglas Hofstader puts it, “the core of cognition.” Of course, analogy in his sense and upamāna in any of the Indian philosophical approaches themselves require some careful comparison, making this a kind of mobius strip of comparison!

    Beyond that, I think that looking to, e.g. upamāna, but also other kinds of comparison in the Indian intellectual tradition (atideśa, upamā, etc.) would be fruitful for answering some of these questions. While they may not explicitly thematize cross-cultural comparison in the way that maps onto our interests, Indian thinkers inquired into the conditions for comparison of various kinds, and their epistemic functions. I think these inquiries could be fruitful for methodological reflection on comparison such as what Elisa raises, and not just topics for first-order comparison (such as between Hofstader and one’s favorite Indian philosopher).

  4. Thank you, Malcolm and Joerg. To be honest, I could understand Joerg’s point only after Malcolm’s gloss (my first reaction was to think about the extreme limitations imposed on upamāna by epistemologists, so that it is basically confined to one–two examples).
    Now I agree that first-order comparison is only a specific case of a much broader applicability of comparison. In this sense, I agree that atideśa (and perhaps also pratinidhi and sāmīpya as a basis for lakṣaṇā?) could yield further insights.

  5. Pingback: The unavoidability of comparisons | elisa freschi

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