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Regimes of Comparatism

Frameworks of Comparison in History, Religion and Anthropology


Edited by Renaud Gagné, Simon Goldhill and Geoffrey Lloyd

Historically, all societies have used comparison to analyze cultural difference through the interaction of religion, power, and translation. When comparison is a self-reflective practice, it can be seen as a form of comparatism. Many scholars are concerned in one way or another with the practice and methods of comparison, and the need for a cognitively robust relativism is an integral part of a mature historical self-placement. This volume looks at how different theories and practices of writing and interpretation have developed at different times in different cultures and reconsiders the specificities of modern comparative approaches within a variety of comparative moments. The idea is to reconsider the specificities, the obstacles, and the possibilities of modern comparative approaches in history and anthropology through a variety of earlier and parallel comparative horizons. Particular attention is given to the exceptional role of Athens and Jerusalem in shaping the Western understanding of cultural difference.


Phiroze Vasunia

Abstract:  “The Emperor Akbar”, writes Friedrich Max Müller, “may be considered the first who ventured on a comparative study of the religions of the world”. Akbar’s religious innovation is the subject of several treatments in the nineteenth century, in England and India. Tennyson, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and Ghalib are, along with Max Müller, a few of the intellectuals who write about the Mughal Emperor and his religious comparatism. This paper explores the reception of Akbar in nineteenth-century colonial contexts and looks in particular at the interest in the emperor’s comparatism.


Philippe Descola

Abstract: Anthropological comparison is not based upon inductive generalisations stemming out of ethnographic particulars; it is anchored in deductive generalisation, that is, in the detection within a number of ethnographic cases of features that can be arranged according to meaningful patterns. Comparing in that sense can only be legitimate if it strives for symmetry, if it endeavours to render comparable on an equal footing the cultural features of the observer and those of the observed. Different ways to accomplish this, each with deep philosophical implications, are examined and assessed.


Joan-Pau Rubiés

Abstract: Understanding why early modern Europeans transformed systematic cultural comparisons into an essential intellectual resource for their new, ‘modern’ narratives of world history is crucial to re-assessing the origins of the Enlightenment and its legacy. It also clarifies why the concepts of civilization and, eventually, culture, became central to the hierarchies underlying European self-understanding, replacing (but also subsuming) religious categories. This chapter offers a contextual reading of the early modern genealogy of ethnological comparatism, paying particular attention to various works produced between the 1550s and 1750s by authors such as Bartolomé de Las Casas, Alessandro Valignano, Athanasius Kircher, Hugo Grotius, François Bernier, La Créquinière, Jean-Frédéric Bernard and Lafitau. By doing so, it distinguishes three debates that clarify the logic underlying the interaction between ethnographic evidence, antiquarian erudition, and a variety of religious and philosophical concerns. The essay concludes by suggesting that the specific regime of comparatism that characterized the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment was defined by the connection between ethnological comparisons and a deep reconfiguration of ancient history, one that took non-European sources seriously.


Jonathan Sheehan

Abstract: This essay argues 1) that a key innovation in eighteenth century comparative methods lay in a shift from diachronic to synchronic approaches, which in turn opened up new possibilities of abstraction and theorization; 2) that this shift toward abstraction was accompanied by efforts to organize religious phenomena, to visualize them as interlocking and complex systems, and to find common structures of ritual and religious life; 3) that certain resources in Christianity were crucially mobilized to accomplish both of these; and finally, 4) that these two elements—abstraction and organization—defined the conceptual shape of a practice called “sacrifice” that the later human sciences took as essential to explain. Key authors considered include: Joseph-François Lafitau, Bernard Picard, Jean Frederic Bernard, Giambattista Vico, Johann Lomeier, Johann Zedler, and William Robertson Smith.


Anthony Grafton

Abstract: Histories of the modern regime of comparison—of systematic comparison of societies and cultures—often locate its origins in the European Enlightenment. Some argue that its underwent a crisis in the nineteenth-century heyday of comparison. This article argues that such regimes have taken many forms in historical and social thought. Some Renaissance comparatists did fasten on small details rather than larger structures, and some nineteenth-century savants insisted on the uniqueness of every culture and society. But a rich comparative literature of law flourished in the sixteenth century, and a rich comparative literature on language in the nineteenth century. The history of comparison remains to be written, and different domains of comparison await comparison with one another.


Marilyn Strathern

Abstract: This chapter investigates a fundamental question for any anthropological work, namely comparatism, with specific reference to the problem of the vernacular language of the anthropologist in interaction with the object of study. To explore this the chapter focuses on the interrelated languages of kin and friend (with which so much anthropology has been fixated). When kin and friends are compared within a society is this comparatism? How do such internal comparatisms inform comparatisms between different societies? Looking at the division between the object and method of analysis, to see how such a division is also a form of connection by keeping things in relation, the too easy assumption of a pattern of similarity and difference is questioned, in favour of a more complex dialectic where both dissimilarity and convergence can be negated in the enacted differentiations of social narratives.


Matei Candea

Abstract: Why, despite repeated critiques and self-critiques, do anthropologists persist in invoking radical distinctions between an exoticised ‘them’ and a familiar ‘us’? How can a form of comparatism which is so obviously ‘problematic’ in both epistemological and political terms, still be held up as fundamental by so many anthropologists, even as it is nevertheless eschewed by other parts of the discipline? This chapter argues that the key to this paradox lies in stepping back to see that such ‘frontal’ us-them comparisons are only one of a pair of comparative heuristics which anthropologists persistently deploy. The converse and complementary form – ‘lateral comparison’ – consists in laying cases side by side and making abstraction of the observer’s own position. The attraction and persistence of frontal comparison is thus explained by noting that it is only half of what anthropologists in fact do (however ‘fully frontal’ they may imagine themselves to be). Once we see it as one of two interlinked comparative heuristics, frontal comparison is cut back down to size: it is neither the ‘core’ of anthropology, nor its evil demon, but merely a technique with distinctive affordances, and distinctive limitations. It is neither frontal comparison alone, nor lateral comparison, but rather their complementary interplay, which gives anthropological comparatisms, despite their diversity, the allure of a shared regime.


Guy G. Stroumsa

Abstract: This chapter studies the birth and growth of the comparative approach to the study of religions in the second half of the nineteenth century. It seeks to understand better the intellectual revolution that permitted an essentially non-theological approach to the study of religion in an era of secularization. It also seeks to unveil some pitfalls of this comparative approach and the new taxonomy of religions highlighting what came to be called “world religions.” Those pitfalls are at the root of the eventual failure of the grand comparative approach to the study of religions in the twentieth century.