David Buckley’s recent post in Notes from the field raises a crucial methodological question. On what basis is comparative work to be done if the methods of comparison developed by the culture of reference (the analyst’s culture) are seen to be so deeply embedded in the ethos—that is, in many cases, a worldview with a clearly identifiable history of religion and secularization—of the culture of reference that these “methods of comparison” obviously fall under the umbrella of what is to be analyzed from the start, and hence to be differentiated from or likened to some other culture or cultures? If my perspective on what rational comparison amounts to cannot be shared by those in the situations I am comparing, then what does it mean to compare anything in such a context, since the “frame” I construct for the comparison could itself always already be just “my” frame, and hence something that would in turn require a larger “frame” (but whence would it come?) to be properly understood?
In the social sciences, this sort of issue has mostly been treated under the heading of relativism. As I have described it elsewhere, “our ability to be comfortable with relativism oddly depends on, or slides inexorably toward, a thin but broad universalism. But this universalism, this sense that through a less judgmental and more dispassionate gaze one has grasped the most truly general characteristics of human being, human civilization, even ‘human rights,’ as the Abbé Sieyès and others obviously thought they had [. . .] can be explained away [. . .] as a fiction embedded in certain kind of Judeo-Christian culture, that is, the kind that believes in the secularizing narrative that entails a latitudinarian tolerance based on individual rights rather than communal duties, on a putatively dispassionate separation of private and public beliefs,” and so forth. In the humanities, the dilemma of the “frame” or structure that always somehow needs a larger one that it can never do more then gesture to “off the stage,” so to speak, was captured for many by Jacques Derrida’s very influential essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences,” which he delivered as a lecture at The Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and which was basically an account of the failure of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s attempt at a universal method. (Niklas Luhmann refined the argument under the heading of “systems theory,” and I think mathematics discovered the problem rather early in the twentieth century.) The problem David Buckley is confronting, along with the skeptical gazes of those he interviews, is thus in many ways a problem that defines so much humanist reflection on method after 1945.
And yet, the fact that the problem is real—and I believe it is—should not be allowed to reduce intellectual work to an unending reiteration of the problem, as happened to “deconstruction” in the literary fields, or to the unending performance of the contradiction into which mise-en-abîme the Frankfurt School fell. It does seem to me, moreover, that the question of “religion” in a “post-secular” age raises this issue in a most intense way, since for modernity the most common way to deal with the comparison of religious systems is by methodologically stepping back (whatever one’s own beliefs may be) into a space that, in many cases, is hard to distinguish from the secular reason that dominates the Western academy (as Dipesh Chakrabarty has quite elegantly noted). In this sense, I think Buckley’s instincts are correct: to pursue the comparison on the widest possible historical grounds, though (I would add) with as much awareness of the “frame” dilemma I outlined above as possible. To do less would be to stop thinking altogether. But to ignore the dilemma would reduce thinking to the imposition of Procrustean beds, and we have enough of those already.