COMPARATIVE PHILOSOPHY AND MODEL OF ULRICH LIBBRECHT

Surface and deep structure

Comparative philosophy has as its starting point the cultures in their surface structure, their visible characteristics. These are the expression (the ‘outside’) of the philosophical undercurrent that manifests from the universal depth, the answers to the questions of life that every man poses when confronted with the border situations of life. Comparative philosophy aims to descend to that deeper level, to study a culture there were it becomes comparable to others.
When we compare cultures in their surface structure, at the very most we can achieve a juxtaposition or inventory of their visible differences. This would become a long list of contradictions: one culture maintains a ‘god’ concept, the other does not; or a ‘soul’, but the other culture does not; belief in life after death or not … etc. Cultures cannot be compared in their entirety anyway, in the same way two persons cannot be compared: they would never be completely the same, nor would we be able to create an exhaustive list of all their characteristics. We would quickly come to the conclusion of incommensurability and, in as far as culture is concerned, either take one culture as the norm – and here starts the bickering about which one it should be – or just abandon the comparison. Neither conclusion brings cultures closer together. On the contrary, they both offer the excuse to stop any efforts at taking the other seriously and conduct a dialogue based on equality. In the surface structure of cultures, therefore, we will not find the criteria that allow comparison.
Cultural behavior patterns are taught (nurture); they are not genetically inherited (nature). In most cases we know only one culture through and through, and that is our own. Although we can be critical about it, we are unable to detach ourselves completely from the cultural framework in which we grew up. But we can use other cultures to hold a mirror up to our face, to make use aware of our own paradigms and stereotypes so that we do not (sub)consciously use these as criterion or even norm for the rest of the world..
We can compare if we descend to the deep structure, free of cultural paradigms. Against all appearances, the cleaning out of all paradigms is not an impossible task. It can succeed if we continue to consider whether the other may be right and we wrong (Popper), all the time scrutinizing our own intuitions in this light.

Why a philosophical model and not a theory?

Libbrecht’s purpose was to visualize comparative philosophical thought in a model. Such a comparative method is not a philosophy, and most certainly not a theory. It aims to “
overcome the ’universalist’ as well as the ‘relativist’ positions world cultures take in today’s global field”, (Libbrecht, 1999:13). The comparative philosophical method refrains from succumbing to value judgments when comparing cultures. On the contrary, its aim is to give every culture – whatever its era – a place, with preservation of its self-esteem and self-respect. It sees every culture as a response to the primordial questions of life that are the same for all mankind. These answers are formulated in very different ways, they are surface structure: they differ so widely that sometimes nearly no similarities are to be found. But by refraining from value judgments, the comparative philosophical method avoids to be deadlocked. All answers to life’s questions are “equally (un)true”. In order leave the observable surface structure into the deep structure, where cultures converge (namely in their questions of life), we need to apply a process of active reduction, i.e. remove the complexity of phenomena from the surface structure in a non-arbitrary way, and translate them into descriptive, but universal, patterns.
A comparative philosophical model must be simple and coherent, i.e. guarantee internal cohesion. It must provide a place for every culture, i.e. be paradigm-free to such an extent that no culture is excluded. This means that it should also be able to harbor contradictions (for example: there are cultures with a god-concept, while others are atheist). Here lies the difference between a model and a theory, which poses an idea up front. Also, the comparative philosopher must remain aware of his own culture background and how it interferes with the way in which he looks at other cultures. He must be able to take off his colored glasses, or at least know when the color influences his observations.

Comparative philosophical model according to Libbrecht

The below graph and explanation can hardly do justice to the power of the model as it has been explicated in detail in his multi-volume book “Introduction to Comparative Philosophy” (in Dutch, see reference below). Furthermore, in the below representation, Libbrecht’s core principles ‘Energy’ (left side of the diagram) and the informative functions (his actual triangle model) have been combined.


01. Model English

The human function of information: knowledge and experience

In Libbrecht’s comparative model the starting point is always the world of the phenomena, nature, i.e. the cosmos. Here two key concepts rule:
energy and information. Energy, which in its (cosmic) entirety always remains constant (physical law of conservation of energy) knows grades ranging from completely bound (immanent, focused on survival) and completely free (transcendent). Living nature can be described in levels of free energy; this is energy which is not reinvested in keeping the bodily functions operations, or in the survival of the species.

Information about the world comes to us via two functions, present in man: a function of reason (rational function), and a function of experience (mystical function). Both are rooted in nature, i.e. they disappear when the body dies. The rational function objectifies the world that is observed and explains it in logical schemes; it tries to exclude the subjectivity of the observer (SO, cf. scientific method), but as a result it also excludes and disables that other, significant source of information, namely that of experience. The function of experience provides us with information of the world by looking at how we experience it. Here, the subjectivity of the observer becomes significant. The limit of this function does not at all lie in the exclusion of the object (in analogy with the rational function, which excludes the subject). On the contrary, here the subject and object coincide (S=O), and as a result all distinction between them disappears. Also on the experience axis there are different grades: for instance, we can speak about ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ feelings, which, in the comparative philosophical model of Libbrecht, are represented as an orientation towards or away from the subject (ego-, resp. alter-intentionality). In the former case we draw the world onto ourselves (SO), in the latter this orientation is reversed and we turn ourselves to the world (SO). Magic is a good example of an ego-intentional way to survive in the world: we offer libation to appease the gods and so that they take care of us. On a higher level, in the reversal towards alter-intentionality, we are moved to kindness and compassion, open to the Mystery of life.

Ideally, man looks at the world from the center of the model, i.e. balanced between the three corners of perspective (each corner is a limit situation that does not exist or is not achievable in practice). We move, as observer and actor in the world, between the three corners, i.e. sometimes more from the rational perspective, sometimes from the experiential perspective, or from the purely natural side, but always in a continuously changing mix (represented by the moving circle in the center of the triangle).

The three angles of the model

The corners of the triangle are limit situations, extremes that do not occur in the real world. Man will never be able to completely place himself outside the world (S
O), nor completely coincide with it (S=O), nor regress completely into a state of full inclusion in an environment (Umwelt, natural habitat), as are animals (SO). But the advantage of speaking in terms of extremes is that it is easier to do than to unravel the grey zones in between where aspects are more muddled.

The bottom corner of the triangle represents nature, immanence, where everything ‘happens of itself in a natural way’. This is the corner of BECOMING, of perpetual, cyclical transformation (seasons, life and death), best expressed in Taoism, but just as representative for various other cultures past and present, namely those that rely/relied on nature for their survival (Indians, Aboriginals, Polynesians…) and also the fundamentally agrarian cultures (Inca, Egyptians…).

At the other end of the triangle, along the knowledge axis, we end up in the limit situation of Pure Reason, the Ratio. At this level, energy is fully free (transcendence), and all information is known, this means: it is a situation of omniscience. This is the corner of BEING, there is nothing further to know – a situation of full insight. Here we recognize the side of western rationalism. Remember e.g. the scientific urge for objectivity (to exclude the observer’s influence).

However, if we move to the limit of the experience axis, we arrive in a situation of full experience, a coinciding with the entire cosmos, i.e. a situation where there is nothing further to be said because there is no distinction. (Remember the incapacity of mystics to find words to describe their experiences). This is the corner of NON-BEING, of Pure Experience, of conceptual Void – a situation of Illumination, pre-eminently represented by the Buddhist philosophy.

Other cultures

Taoism, Buddhism and western rationalism are the three philosophies chosen to represent the corners of the triangle model. But any culture can be reduced (through active reduction) to its core thoughts and be placed in the model. Libbrecht provides the following (non-exhaustive) example:

02. Model with cultures

It is evident that such a placement is subject to changes, depending on the progress made in the cultural sciences (e.g. archeological discoveries) or on evolutions over time under the influence of modern factors (e.g. technology, globalization, etc.). But the power of the comparative philosophical model lies exactly in the fact that it can deal with such changes: it is not a theory, but a handy and useful tool for understanding the world.


Read more:

Libbrecht, U.: Within the Four Seas..., Peeters, Leuven, 2007