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Historiography and Comparison

This selection of readings proposes some interesting questions about comparison, history, and the construction of knowledge within and across various academic fields (e.g. rhetorical studies, philosophy, history, etc.) that can be, or have been, naturalized to the point of invisibility. These articles attempt to tease apart and make visible the hidden assumptions within methodologies and epistemologies, as well as demonstrating the reciprocal relationship between these two sites where one arises from, and subsequently reproduces, the other. The relationship between ways of knowing and methodologies, as well as the implications of these activities to dynamics of power, are explored in a constellation of ways within the articles by Rorty, Radhakrishnan, Friedman, Wang, and Powell, supplying an array of heuristics and challenges to consider upon taking up any act of comparative analysis.

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects

Richard Rorty, in his discussion of the various ways of approaching philosophy historically, offers examples of useful and not so useful means, methods, and motivations for the ongoing “conversation” within the Western philosophical canon, questioning the way in which that canon is conventionally or traditionally constructed. For Rorty, the least useful method is what he refers to as “doxography,” whose “roots are in the past—in the forgotten combination of transcended cultural needs and outdated intellectual history which produced the canon it enshrines” (71). Unlike scientific or mathematic fields that are free to discount the findings or beliefs of scientists and mathematicians from centuries ago, philosophers still often feel the need to engage “anachronistic reconstructions of great dead philosophers” as a part of their professional and intellectual endeavors (56). Unlike their colleagues in the sciences, philosophers are expected to entertain what past thinkers would have said or believed if only they had lived in a different time. He offers the term “intellectual history” as a way of disentangling these past conventions, offering four genres, three of which “are indispensible and do not compete with one another” as ways of approaching these historic philosophical issues in the present, as well as for grappling with more present challenges (67). Instead of preserving the canon as it is, he also calls for more examination of lesser-known but sometimes highly influential thinkers (such as “all those unfamiliar people…who turn up in the footnotes to Foucault’s books” (69)) to disrupt a singular, seamless notion of what philosophy is or should be. This discussion complicates the traditional view of how philosophy is “done” and what its history “means.” This highlights how the methodology utilized in approaching philosophy and/or its history, is influenced by, and thus continues to influence, the beliefs about our current and/or past social constructions, institutions, and beliefs.

Radhakrishnan’s article, “Why Compare?” begins with an anecdote about discussing cross-cultural driving habits with a person in India, which was interesting to me as I have engaged in a very similar conversation with people who live in India (e.g. Tibetan refugees) and how the driving conditions are very different. Unlike Radhakrishnan, I did not find these comparisons to be “inevitably tendentious, didactic, competitive, and prescriptive” at all, and while the comparison of two anecdotes does not make a very compelling or convincing body of data, I found myself at the outset somewhat resistant to the argument, specifically because it was apparent that “the aggression of a thesis” was held as an inevitable precondition for the entire discussion (454). At the same time, I found much of the rest of the article very useful, and do understand what is being said regarding the “unevenness” (457) of many comparative undertakings and Radhakrishnan  raises many pertinent. While I found myself sometimes writing things like “No, it isn’t” in response to the implied assumptions about the performance of empathy (463) I did particularly appreciate the sentiment, near the end of the article that “there is a way to simultaneously celebrate the world as one, and honor the world as the ongoing effect of heterogeneous and relational worldings” and the idea that “comparisons, to be educative, need to happen in a site that belongs to no one” (470). Thus, while I found myself resistant to the argument as it was unfolding, I later found myself in agreement or resonance with the place that it arrived. Either way, Radhakrishnan also shows how methodologies in comparison arise from within epistemologies and can, if they are not closely attended and critically interrogated, serve to further inscribe the “unevenness” of already unequal power relations.


Susan Stanford Friedman addresses the opposite (and same) question as Radhakrishnan, asking instead “Why Not Compare?” Friedman specifically links epistemologies and methodologies at the outset of her piece, noting how these sites are embedded in the very question of comparing or not and what is meant by that (np). While she notes that “the reasons not to compare are legion,” she still arrives at a claim that “for all the problems of comparison, in the end it is worse not to compare than to compare” (np). She further claims that “comparison is rudimentary for human cognition, identity, and culture,” then goes on to support these claims with inter-disciplinary research, including cognitive psychology. Having studied some of these areas myself, as well as practicing modalities and ways of being that specifically ask or require one to “set aside” the act of comparing, I am not wholly convinced by this argument. The act of differentiation/generalization necessary to learning is not the same as comparison, and especially in the discussion of cognitive development, Friedman seems to conflate the two. However, I did appreciate the idea of juxtaposing that she suggests, using collision, defamiliarization, and collage as models. Her hope is that these methods might offer “strategies for comparison that potentially avoid the problems of epistemological hierarchy, instrumentalism, and stasis” (np). Friedman postulates that these methods may inform and potentially alter the link between epistemology and methodology that can, inadvertently, reinscribe unequal power dynamics in sites of comparison, hoping to reclaim “comparison’s utopian potential” that arises from an ability “to cohabitate with, listen to, and consider alternative stories of those who are different” as envisioned by Mary Layoun.

Bo Wang, in her article examining early twentieth century Chinese women’s rhetoric, employs “some major methods of feminist historiography – recovering, rereading, recuperation, and extrapolation” in her examination of two particular Chinese women rhetors at this time. Rather than subsuming these women’s voices in the male rhetorics of that era, or viewing them as strictly imitative of Western rhetorical practices, Wang seeks “to look at the ways in which Chen’s and Yang’s use of the essay and redefinition exemplifies a Chinese feminist rhetoric” (390). These women altered and appropriated rhetorical strategies and genres to challenge conservative gender norms situated within the socio-historic context of both the women’s movement and the anti-imperialist movements, making this a particularly rich and unique site of inquiry. This study compares women’s writing in China during this time period alongside cultural events specific to that time and place while simultaneously taking into account the possible effects of Western influences and liberal feminism, while at the same time highlighting the specific rhetorical situation of Chen and Yang within that. This is an example of a comparative analysis, I think, that would be supported by authors such as Radhakrishnan and Friedman where the methods undertaken in the analysis support an epistemic stance that does not privilege discourses of power, but instead allows voices to emerge which may have been otherwise unnoticed.

Charles Eastman

Charles Eastman

Malea Powell, in her chapter describing her experiences as an archive researcher and Native American, poignantly highlights the position and voice of one who seeks to write, study, and potentially compare rhetorical practices across cultures, but from a place where one’s own discourses are not those of the privileged. Just as Wang hoped to employ elements of feminist historiography, Powell, in examining archival documents written about Native Americans for imperial purposes more so than by them for their own ends, examines the possibility that maybe she can “tell different stories about them with them, through them” recognizing that “the fact of empire doesn’t relieve me of my human obligation to their continued existence” (121).  By presenting her self-reflexive perspective as an archival researcher within and outside of a system of domination and imperialism, Powell enacts or resists a “war of words” by arranging and presenting her views in a non (Western) conventional manner, choosing instead to tell stories meant to be read out loud alongside and as part of her scholarship. This juxtaposition (to borrow a phrase from Friedman) works to bring forth a different type of rhetorical tradition, serving as “comparison” insofar as the side-by-side meshing of codes[1] (Native American/poetry/storytelling/Western academic discourse) allows for a new ground to be created wherein perspectives can be shared that may not have a place to stand otherwise. This methodology belies an epistemic stance that both challenges and expands notions of academic discourse, language, convention, and genre allowing for the educative possibilities suggested by Friedman in her article.

In all cases, whether at the meta/philosophic or the practical/case study level, all of these articles have something to say about the relationship between epistemology and methodology. Though there are (always) places in the arguments of others where I would have reason for debate, overall every one of these investigations offers something to consider, places to be careful, and quandaries to ponder. On the one hand, the problems and potential pitfalls of comparative work might lead to possible paralysis where fear of moving forward unethically, or at the least inadequately, could lead one to give up the exercise entirely. At the same time, to do so is to lose the possibility of larger dialogs, of the potential celebrations of the world seen as both one and utterly heterogeneous like Radhakrishnan imagines, where both similarities and differences can be honored, recognized, and explored. Perhaps through careful and considered methodologies we might, as researchers, explorers, and co-habitants of the world, make steps toward creating and/or supporting epistemologies that further the cause of this celebration in the world and that help to create more reasons to celebrate.

Works Cited:

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Why Not Compare?” PMLA 126.3 (2011): 753-762.

Powell, Malea. “Dreaming Charles Eastman: Cultural Memory, Autobiography, and Geography in Indigenous Rhetorical Histories.” Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008.

Radhakrishnan, R. “Why Compare?” New Literary History 40 (2009): 453-71.

Rorty, Richard. “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres.” 49-75.

Wang, Bo. “Engaging Nuquanzhuyi: The Making of a Chinese Feminist Rhetoric.” College English 72.4 (2010): 385-405.

[1] This idea is further inspired and articulated by the work of Vershawn Ashanti Young in his work on code meshing.


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