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Alterity and Cross-Cultural Studies

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: May 5, 2001
Latest update: May 5, 2001

Temporality and Alterity: Dimensions of Hermeneutic Distance

by by Jay L Garfield
Department of Philosophy, Smith College
and School of Philosophy, University of Tasmania.

Review and Teaching Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, May 2001. Fair use "encouraged."

Smith philosophy paper on hermeneutics and cross cultural studies - was looking for alterity

These are just notes for our discussion, but the paper is up on the Internet for those of you who don't want to wait for me. Prof. Garfield is approaching alterity from the perspective of cross-cultural thought and philosophy. I want to transfer some of his thoughts into the realm of cross-cultural and non-structurally violent academic discourse in our higher education endeavors. For example, where Prof. Garfield speaks of the collegial expectations held by the cross-cultural groups, I want to speak of the collegeial expectations held by students and professors, of how they misinterpret and misunderstand one another through some of the same problems of alterity that Garfield discusses. I especially want to take the last section of his paper, How to Hold a Productive Conversation, and discuss it in terms of how we, members of the academy, students and professionals, might hold a productive conversation.

I haven't had time to cut the passages below. So if you want to read now, you're on your own. But I'll try to get it done soon, because I think this goes to directly to all we've been discussing. I'd like to set up a sociodrama on this, if you are interested. jeanne

quote from the article "In general, hermeneutic context is provided by the history of calls and responses which together constitute a tradition." " This is because understanding as a hermeneutic notion has been most clearly explicated as having an essentially temporal structure, involving a historical orientation of the reader with respect to the text read and with respect to the tradition comprising both text and reader. This linear structure imputed by such theorists as Heidegger and Gadamer to reading and to understanding is neither arbitrary nor parochial. The Bud dhist hermeneutic tradition, for instance despite the fact that in detail it is quite different from European hermeneutic theory, agree about this fundamentally temporal structure of the hermeneutic task. "

This section is little more than an inch down the file.

"But finally, this hermeneutic standpoint presupposes that in reading we can know in which tradition(s) we and the text we read is (are) to be located, and that that fact is determinate. For otherwise there would be no ability to access the relevant tradition in interpretation."

Two inches down: "For a text to be understood is, however, for the horizon of the reader to be altered thereby, and for her attendant prejudices, questions, and sensibilities to change. That is, in understanding a text, the reader becomes a different reader."

" One then thinks of the tradition itself as a collection of texts, and the hermeneutic practice as merely a means by which those texts are read and extended. I want to reverse figure and ground here, and urge that we attend to the act of interpretation, and to the act of discussion as central constitutive components of traditions, and to focus on texts not as independent objects of study, but rather as texts-being-read; and to consider our interactions with our colleagues and students as at the center of our intellectu al life. Only by taking this radically pragmatic turn can we understand the possibility of intercultural dialogue. "

A little more than half-way down: "The fact that it is possible to have productiv e encounters across cultural boundaries, and that texts are successfully translated, read, and discussed by persons at some cultural remove should alert us to deficiencies of this approach to the hermeneutic task. The problem once again is simply that on this model any such success is miraculous, or at least mysterious. If, however, instead of focusing on the discovery of meaning in a text by a reader, we focus on the productive use of a text at a time by a reader or a possibly quite internally diverse community of colleagues and students and if we de-center the act of reading and interpretation of written texts, broadening our view to encompass discussion, commentary and other forms of interchange, the mystery vanishes. The range of material available to such groups is far broader. Inevitable intersections facilitate conversation and learning. Texts can be productively used in a multiplicity of ways. Insurmountable barriers become merely challenging hurdles."

" Given a powerful scholarly tradition practiced by the members of a politically and economically powerful group, it is indeed possible to come to know another culture by bringing it as object under the lens of oneís own intellectual microscope. In doing so, however, one transforms that body of knowledge in fundamental ways. Indeed the transformation is so complete that if it is successful, the alien culture becomes relegated to a merely historical phenomenon. The authority as readers and interpreters of its texts is shifted from those within the tradition to the alien experts. Alien commentaries gain ascendancy over traditional commentaries. The hermeneutic method of the conqueror becomes the standard means of reading the vanquished, and the vanquished tradition becomes, as one Tibetan colleague puts it, "the domain of curators." To the extent that we value a culturally distant set of texts and practice s sufficiently to seriously consider active engagement with members of the community whose texts and practices they are, this is no option." The empire of texts.

Two thirds of way down file: " Daya Krishna is particularly eloquent on this point: Across the boundaries defined by the "we" and the "they," the world of comparative studies is inevitably an attempt to look at what, by definition, is "another reality" from the viewpoint of that which is not itself.... [It implies an] appeal to the universalism of the knowledge and the identification of the knowledge with the privileged "us" from whose viewpoint all "other" societies and cultures are judged and evaluated. The roots of the privileged position have generally lain in the political and economic powers of the society of which the viewer happened to be a member. ...[C]omparative studies ... were, by and large, an appendage of the extension of some Western European countriesí political and economic powers over the globe... As this expansion was accompanied not only by phenomenal growth in some of the traditional fields of knowledge but also by demarcation and consolidation of new areas designating new fields of knowledge, the feeling that the claim that all "knowledge" discovered by the West held universal validity was justified. It was seen, therefore, as a universal standard by which to judge all other societies and cultures anywhere in the world... Comparative studies, thus, meant in effect the comparison of all other societies and cultures in terms of the standard provided by the Western societies and cultures... The scholars who belonged to these other societies or cultures, instead of looking at Western society and culture from their own perspective, accepted the norms provided by the Western scholars and tried to show that the achievements in various fields within their cultures paralleled those in the West, so they could not be reg arded inferior in any way. This acceptance of bias hindered the emergence of what may be called "comparative Ďcomparative studiesí," which might have led to more balanced perspectives in these fields. Further, the so-called comparative studies were primarily a search for facts or the reporting of data in terms of conceptual structure already formulated in the West. The questions to which answer were being sought were already predetermined in the light of the relationships that were regarded as significant or the theories that were to be tested. [Krishna 1989, pp. 72-73]"

"There is no privileged epistemic moment." There is no knowingness. Knowledge continues to grow, and with that growth there must be change. Cite Jonathan Lear. "The case should be even more clear with respect to cultural space. It is hard to seriously entertain the thought that Western music is the tradition that gets aural beauty right, or that Japanese Buddhist philosophy is the standpoint from which to investigate the fundamental nature of reality, or that German hermeneutic theory is the uniquely adequate framework for interpretation and criticism. Given the availability o f distinct positions in this cultural space, it then becomes something of an epistemic imperative to view matters from several rather than from one of them, just as a survey of physical terrain requires triangulation."

Crux of it all:

"The imperative is moral and political as well. For the failure to take other standpoints seriously by those in powerful or prestigious positions stigmatizes those positions. The failure to admit those from other cultural positions into our dialogues makes a clear statement about the conditions of club membership. To the extent that these messages are not the ones we wish to send, we should think twice about cultural complacency. These concerns are even more compelling when raised in the contemporary post-colonial context. For from many of the traditions with which we are concerned legitimate complaints about exploitation on the one hand or marginalization on the other can be raised. Whether one approaches this from the standpoint of intellectual reparations or from that of remedial multiculturalism a strong case can be made for a moral obligation on the part of Western intellectuals to engage seriously with the traditions of others. The bottom line, I think is that cross-cultural interaction is not only possible, but imperative. But how does one achieve this in a way that avoids the pitfalls of Orientalism?

"The first thing to say is a kind of boring commonplace: Collegiality is terribly important. This is of epistemological as well as political significance. The point is this: In encountering an alien tradition, we encounter not a fossilized sequence of texts but an active form of intellectual life. This requires genuine interaction with living scholars on terms of equality. They can be treated neither as "informants" nor as oracles. To interact as colleagues is to presume that in interchange we and our interlocutors come with questions, information, each with a legitimate purpose and inte rest. It is to be prepared to question, to answer and to correct, and to be questioned, to be answered and to be corrected. It sounds easy.

"One of the reasons that it isnít is that in any such encounter, each party brings his or her own background of prejudices regarding the other. These require a certain degree of articulation and problematizing. (Many of my Western colleagues regard, antecedent to reading them, Buddhist philosophical texts as just so much religious mysticism without any philosophical merit, in contradistinction to the secular rigor of Augustine, Aquinas and Descartes. But among the most instructive experiences I had in this regard occurred when an eminent Tibetan scholar, responding to my offer to lecture on Western philosophy at the institute he directs replied, "I can understand why you have come to India to study Buddhist philosophy. For our tradition is indeed deep and vast. But I frankly donít see what we have to learn from you. For Western philosophy is very superficial and addresses no important questions.") Genuine dialogue requires that we begin by examining, questioning, and when necessary revising our own views of each other, and that we develop, rather than presuppose, the basis of our collegiality. [16]"

"8. How to Hold a Productive Conversation

"How are we to approach our alien colleague? There is always the possibility of doing it the good old-fashioned way: We call him an "informant," and duly pump him for his views of the text and tradition, which then enter the field of knowledge when translated, indexed, analyzed, systematized and reported as data within our own research. Not much needs to be said at this point regarding the odious character of this colonial approach to scholarship. On the other hand, we could do it in the (paradoxically denominated) new-age way: We can become disciples, accepting all that our new-found and suitably exotic guru says without criticism, and with the greatest reverence. He is, after all, infallible. And even if he is not, who are we to question? (One does have to ask at some point just why alien cultures are so proficient at generating such oracular figures.)

"One is tempted here to yet another truism: Be collegial Neither more nor less. But if that requires either a common model of collegiality or a transcendent one, we would then be back to square one. Even collegial relations must be negotiated with due regard to the demands and presuppositions of each culture. [17] Matters are not simple here. For common purposes cannot be presupposed. Our goals in the discussion may not be the same, nor our presuppositions about what is possible or proper. A Tibetan colleague for instance points out that in reading Western texts he does so with the understanding that they, unlike Buddhist texts, do not reflect a lineage grounded in an infallible canonical ground, and that they will contain a mixture of truth and error. Moreover, when reading them he defers to Western interpretations, and presumes neither his own "authority" to read these texts independently nor the "authenticity" of any reading he may develop. Authenticity and authority, from his standpoint and from that of the culture he represents, demand that one hold an appropriate lineage, and that one regard the text on which one is commenting as canonically expounded by oneís lineage. The goal of commentary on his view is never to develop any original philosophical idea or interpretation, but rather to recover authorial intent. Debates in secondary literature are always debates about authorial intent, and the only criterion of interpretive success is the recovery of that intent. Hence when he reads the work of Western commentators on Buddhist philosophy, the first question he asks is "Who was this personís teacher?" Then, "Is this person commenting from the perspective of that lineage?" Only if the answers to these questions are satisfactory can the commentary be taken seriously. That is not to say that there might not be ideas to be drawn from a non-authoritative text. But oneís relation to that text will be very different from that one would bear to an authoritative text. Tibetan scholars often find it odd and somewhat amusing that Western philosophers treat both their own texts and the work of Buddhist philosophers so differently, and that we give such autonomy to the text as opposed to the author, and so much latitude to interpreters. My colleague compares our view of the relation of author to text to the relation of a miner to gold: Once he has dug it, it up to others to make something out of it, and the miner is forgotten by the goldsmith. An apt metaphor.

"Note then, that it may often be that when a Western and a Tibetan scholar collaborate, different agendas are brought to the table: The Western scholar may feel quite comfortable importing a Buddhist text into her philosophical canon and repertoire: Plato, the Buddha, Aristotle, Nagarjuna, Berkeley, Vasubandhu, Kant, Candrakirti.... The traveler brings home souvenirs. The Tibetan scholar on the other hand may read the Western texts for insights into his own, but leaves them where he found them. They remain alien. In this kind of intellectual tourism the sights one sees remain abroad though the lessons they teach may be valuable once one reaches home. This difference is no bar to collaboration. But failure to attend to the differences may lead to misunderstanding. A productive conversation requires awareness of these differences, and a productive engagement with the literature of either culture by one who comes from a distance requires this same awareness. This, we might say, is a second-order hermeneutic distance--a distance of method superimposed on a distance of primary textual concern.

"This indicates the necessity to read extensively in the tradition with which one hopes to interact, to learn its language(s) and to liste n patiently and quietly to insiders as they expound their tradition. No matter what the attitude is in America to lineage, my understanding of the Buddhist texts I read is enhanced by appreciating that role in the Buddhist tradition, and my willingness to enter into a transmission lineage gives me an access to interactions otherwise unavailable, as well as new interpretive perspectives. Tibetans who interact extensively with us and our texts develop the ability to engage more productively in discussions of our texts, and in comparative interchange when they come to appreciate the difference in our interpretive practices. Just as Davidson has emphasized the illusory character of the scheme/content distinction, we must bear in mind that hermeneutic method and philosophical content are in the end parts of a seamless whole. To begin to negotiate a strategy for co-operation in hermeneutics, mutual methodological understanding is a prerequisite.

"Do not be content to be a student of an alien tradition. Teach your own as well. For all of the demands of familiarity with the other that you face are faced by your interlocutors as well. Collegial interaction demands this kind of symmetry. Good manners demands that one contribute as well as learn. But moreover, in teaching, and hence in facing the difficulties involved in making oneís own tradition clear to another, one attains a glimpse of its contours, and a deeper insight into the prejudices of the other. Nothing has changed my appreciation of Western political philosophy as much as teaching it at a Tibetan university. Reflective teaching not only gives one better colleagues, but presents unique opportunities for understanding.

"In this kind of genuine interchange between colleagues, the advantages of alterity emerge, and its differences from temporality as a dimension of hermeneutic distance. For in this arena the possibility of interactively placing one 46;s own texts and concerns against another horizon, and of watching new texts and concerns emerge in outline as they interact with oneís own is realized. The dynamic character of scholarly interchange is not incidental to this process, or merely facilitative. It is essential. For again, understanding is actualized in the interaction of historically situated readers with texts and of interlocutors with one another. This is no less true of inter-traditional understanding than it is of intra-traditional understanding. Only by engaging in such actual interactions can we hope to benefit from the special kind of distance alterity provides. For there we see how we as recipients of our tradition and our interlocutor as a recipient of his each come to understand the work of the other. And in dialogue the dynamic interplay of our horizons can yield a perspective genuinely responsive to the presuppositions and insights of each.

"Finally, and maybe most importantly, presume that anything of value must be transactionally obtained. To come to the task as a pirate, or as a distributor of intellectual charity, is to preclude understanding by precluding interaction. Only through a genuine openness can the flowering of two traditions, distant enough to permit perspective, yet close enough to talk, yield the fruits of cross-fertilization and render difference not a barrier to, but a facilitator of, understanding." backup