Michel de Montaigne, comparative thinker?

I would gladly forgive my fellow countrymen that they take only their own mores and habits as the guide for what is perfect; because it is a general fault, not just with the common people but with almost anyone, not to see beyond the nest you are born in.” (I.49)

Most likely one can read Montaigne finding much that would characterize him as a forerunner of one or the other fashion of thought, but this is more due to his far-reaching intuitive insights and the level of detail with which he observes situations, fathoms and weighs them, rather than to a real philosophy. His multi-faceted, accessible manner of thought and the wide choice of recognizable, human themes and situations explain also his popularity to this time. Montaigne is ‘in’. He himself would probably not have expected to still draw attention after so many centuries (although maybe secretly hoping he might be).

If comparative philosophy consists of leaving the surface of incommensurable phenomena and descending to a level of depth where cultures, their world views and philosophies become debatable and comparable in a meaningful way, then we are in good company with Montaigne. Because who defends better than he does the need for scrutiny of the own passions, thoughts and feelings, and the questioning of the own habits and cultural paradigm, as he does in his
Essais? As a Renaissance humanist he puts man in the center (without renouncing faith), and like no other does he plead for restraint in judgments and to attempt to empathize with the viewpoints of others and learning from them.

Comparative philosophy starts from cultures in their surface structure, their visible characteristics. These are, however, the expression (“the outside”) of the philosophical currents manifesting in the universal deep, the answers to the questions of life that every man poses when confronted with the border situations of life. Comparative philosophy descends to that deep level to study culture where it becomes comparable with other cultures.

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.

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. It is exactly this continuous questioning that lies at the basis of Montaigne’s approach.

Complete text (with notes) will be online soon…