Who can say that Christianity is false because it is supposedly not rational? What if it be rational to expect worldviews to proceed substantially form symbolic sources? What if it is rational to expect revelation from the Beyond if God is ever to address the world that she, having created other than herself, is hidden behind? And if it is not irrational to believe in God, why not the Qur’an, why not Islam? Can the Christian prove her revelation or the Muslim his, over against the other? So [perhaps] it is not rational to think there are clear rational answers to the question of the truth of worldviews. (From Smart's Religion and the Western Mind, 1987, pp. 12-13)
The philosopher Hilary Putnam puts Smart's point this way: "'Is our own way of life right or wrong?' is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular feature of our way of life is right or wrong, and 'Is our view of the world right or wrong?' is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular belief is right or wrong." In any case, and in many respects, sensitive, empathetic, reflective, and critical global worldview description and analysis is in its infancy, and thus it seems highly unlikely anyone is (at least today) sufficiently well-versed in all the planet's religious and philosophical worldviews to engage in such an enterprise. For we are only now beginning to appreciate the unique logic and forms of rationality found in non-Western worldviews. And we are still in the process of formulating the possible candidates for acceptable cross-cultural and comparative criteria for the analysis and evaluation of worldviews, especially if we grant that the assumptions and methods of modern Western philosophy are not necessarily privileged in such an enterprise, and in fact remain open to learning (about contemporary philosophy's own myths and presuppositions, for example) from this cross-cultural encounter. Another way to put this would be to concede that Western philosophy (or science for that matter) does not possess an a priori monopoly on, or privileged possession of, the truth in any absolute sense. This is not equivalent to denying we can or should strive to make rational and ethical assessments of particular beliefs or practices within worldviews (cf. Martha C. Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice, 1999, or think of Gandhi's critique of Hinduism and his belief that no religion should countenance in theory or practice the violation of fundamental ethical values and precepts), for we do and should. And this is all the more urgent if we happen to believe religions are first and foremost about "ways of life" and personal conduct, rather than dogmas, doctrine, or orthodoxy (i.e., more a question of orthopraxis). Smart himself argues, and I think persuasively, that it is through the comparative analysis of worldviews that we will generate the normative conceptual resources and categories for worldview evaluation, if only because the process itself will serve to “detribalize Westerners,” that is, enable us to overcome our dispositional tendency to “treat our tradition normatively, either explicitly or secretly.”
In some measure, of course, and particularly in the beginning, we unavoidably treat our own tradition(s) as normative in the comparative study of worldviews. (As Henry McDonald has argued, we 'see' or act and think on the basis of our own norms, rules and values, i.e., 'on the [normative] basis of our own concepts, because they are the logical space in which we move and without which we could see nothing at all.') Smart and others who have thought long and hard about the comparative examination of worldviews, being at the same time pioneers and trailblazers in this enterprise, believe that it will eventually allow if not encourage us to become more self-critical about our own worldviews, and that the result of such encounters and dialogues need not lead to either absolute relativism or radical scepticism.
So while we may be critical of specific worldview beliefs, practices, interests or themes (the latter in the sense perhaps of undue or misplaced emphasis), it is fruitless to make truth claims about worldviews as worldviews. With regard to this more modest critical endeavor, for example, we might assess the potential or capacity of a particular worldview to rationally, ethically, and creatively respond to various urgent issues and problems in our contemporary (and future) world: be it nationalism, uneven or unfettered technological development, public health and general welfare, various kinds of violence, ecological deterioration and devastation, the recognition of basic human rights, the commodification of values, global distributive justice, the awakening and exercise of functions and capacities thought essential for human flourishing or eudaimonia, and so forth and so on. This serves to remind us that, at bottom, our traditions and worldviews are the repositories of our normative conceptions of the good life, and only a clear and deep understanding of such conceptions will enable us to find the evaluative criteria essential to critically assessing ideologies and worldviews in the interests of our shared humanity or individual and collective flourishing.
How might we make ourselves structurally suited, so to speak, to a better appreciation of the worldviews of others? What reasons might we have, apart from the sheer facts of pluralism, for concluding that our own lifeworlds and worldviews can benefit from a comparative study of philosophies and religions (keeping in mind that in the Asian context these are not always or everywhere discrete categories)? To begin to answer the second question first, we might learn from history that cross-cultural cognitive fertilization, borrowing, lending, trading and raiding has been taking place since the time of the pre-Socratics, and that our traditions and worldviews have historically demonstrated a belief that they could benefit from an encounter with "foreign" traditions and worldviews, even if such learning was purchased at the price of exploitation and imperialism, or took place despite presumptuous, arrogant, or self-confident ideological claims to the contrary. And yet, at least when it comes to the traditions of "the Orient," there exists "an age-old ambivalence in the West’s attitude toward the East:"
On the one hand it has been a source inspiration, fount of an ancient wisdom, a culturally rich civilisation which is far superior to, and can use to reflect on the inadequacies of, our own. On the other, it is an alien region of looming threat and impenetrable mystery, long locked in its stagnant past until rudely awakened by the modernising impact of the West. It is a place which in which imaginative flights and exaggerations of all kinds. On the one hand, according to Voltaire, the East is the civilisation ‘to which the West owes everything,’ and for Arnold Toynbee the West’s encounter with the East is one of the most significant world events of our time. Others have been less enthusiastic: C.S. Peirce spoke contemptuously of ‘the monstrous mysticism of the East,’ and Arthur Koestler dismissed its religions as ‘a web of solemn absurdities.” For some, like Goethe, the relationship is deep and significant and, according to the sinologist Joseph Needham, there has been a dialogue going on for 3,000 years between the ‘two ends of the Old World’ in which East and West have greatly influenced each other. For others the relationship is peripheral and ephemeral, only really conspicuous in the brief neo-Romantic movement of the 1960s when young men and women went Eastwards in search of ‘pop nirvana.’ (J.J. Clarke, Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought, 1997, p. 3)
Thus any comparative study brings along with it a bevy of stereotypes and myths that express this historical ambivalence and which must be exorcised or excised lest it preclude any genuine existential and deep philosophical encounter between and among worldviews. Clarke is right to lament the fact that
…[T[here is still a reluctance in the academic world to take traditional Asian thought seriously. Even in times characterised by the globalisation of culture there still remains an endemic Eurocentrism, a persistent reluctance to accept that the West could ever have borrowed anything of significance from the East, or to see the place of Eastern thought within the Western tradition as much more than a recent manifestation, evanescent and intellectually lightweight, at best only a trivial part of a wider reaction against the modern world. For some the Orient is still associated with shady occultist flirtations, the unconscious rumblings of the repressed irrational urges of a culture that has put its faith in scientific rationalism. For others Eastern influences remain little more than the manifestation of the exotic but inconsequential extravagances of New Age mysticism. Many academics continue to feel a certain embarrassment about the whole subject of the East, and not only have histories of philosophy tended to exclude Eastern thought—‘Philosophy speaks Greek and only Greek’ as Simon Critchley ironically puts it—but the role of Eastern thought within the broad Western intellectual tradition has largely been ignored by historians of ideas. (p. 5)
How might we cultivate the possibility of becoming dispositionally suited to understanding and thereby learning from Asian worldviews like Buddhism? We could, with Hilary Putnam, consider an analogical lesson from the Copenhagen School in physics, specifically, Neils Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation, which enables us to appreciate the concept and possibility of complementarity, for "even 'the empirical world,' the would of our experience, cannot be adequately or completely described with just one picture, according to Bohr. Instead, we have to make a 'complementary' use of different classical pictures—wave pictures in some experimental situations, particle pictures in others—and give up the idea of a single picturable account to cover all situations." An appreciation of complementarity may require setting aside or rejecting the more robust versions (what Kitcher calls the 'grander doctrines') of metaphysical realism in science (as distinguished, say, from a more modest and minimal realism like Kitcher's), or we might even go so far as to argue for metaphysical pluralism, as Michael Lynch has done in Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity (1998). For Lynch, such metaphysical pluralism is in fact compatible with realism of a kind, for he argues that we need not be anti-realists in claiming that propositions and facts concerning the nature of reality are relative to conceptual schemes of worldviews. A comparable lesson concerning the value of metaphysical and epistemological modesty might be drawn from Kurt Gödel’s demonstration that one cannot definitively prove the formal consistency of an axiomatic system from within the principles of that system. At any rate, foundationalist epistemic projects and exclusively Euclidean approaches to cognitive systematization are no longer plausible in epistemology. We now realize the significance of categorial and conceptual mediation in our descriptions of the world, a realization that commits us to neither a thorough-going relativism nor a subectivist conception of truth. In the words of my dear friend and former teacher:
To affirm that there can be several different systems all giving us, at the same time, varying and yet legitimate ‘true’ metaphysical descriptions of the world does not…necessarily entail that there are many realities, that nothing is absolutely real, or, put less dramatically, that there is no such thing as a single, context neutral description or account of the world, that is, as the world really is. It only means that no metaphysical description of it can be outside every possible conceptual framework, but Reality itself is. Nor does it follow that any assertions about this ‘real’ or ‘true’ world beyond all conceptual frameworks, are nonsense. We need not accept a very different solution, such as that offered by Kant—that there is a world in which there exists the ‘thing-in-itself,’ but that we can never directly know this world. Indian classical philosophy, since it is always connected with religion, must and does believe with complete assurance in the possibility of human beings actually attaining to a perfect knowledge of Reality—a ‘scientia intuitiva’ that leads to the Divine or the Absolute Truth. The conceptual frameworks we build in the realm of rational thought are not useless just because they cannot describe Ultimate Reality. Serious examination of, reflection on, these explanatory and interpretive schemes, their differences and overlaps, are crucial to expanding and deepening our understanding of reality, even if these conceptual frameworks (any or all possible combinations and collections of them) cannot bring us the Absolute Truth. If nothing else, they enable us to understand the relativity of conceptual truths and structures, and make us see what Pascal meant when he said that the highest function of reason is to show us the limitations of reason. (Nandini Iyer, "It Ain't Necessarily So," in Knut A. Jacobsen, ed., Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honour of Gerald James Larson, 2005, p. 123)
A more circumspect expression of Iyer’s principal point is provided by Nicholas Rescher: "For all practical purposes—and for all implementable theoretical purposes as well—a plurality of beliefs about the truth (a plurality of visions) is a plurality of formulations of the true (a plurality of versions). And this fact is something we must somehow come to terms with." The various ways we might speak of pluralism that are distinguished by Rescher: conceptual, logical, ontological, axiological, and practical, for instance, are jointly germane to the study of worldviews. And we have hardly exhausted the possible ways we might come to uphold the virtues of pluralism: with B.K. Matilal, we could infer analogies from Quine’s thesis on the indeterminacy of "radical translation" or Goodman’s "radical relativism" (Matilal in Jonardon Ganeri, ed., The Collected Essays of Bimal Krishna Matilal, 2002: pp. 175-195 and 218-262); and with both Matilal and Ganeri, we might look to the Jaina doctrine of anekānta, which understands truth to be like a many-faceted gem, each facet possessing “a completeness and coherence of its own” (cf. Ganeri, Philosophy in Classical India, 2001: pp. 128-150).
The following websites I have found useful for explorations in Buddhism: Buddhanet.net, a "Buddhist education and information network;" Access to Insight: Readings in Theravada Buddhism; the Journal of Buddhist Ethics; and this page of links from the Buddhist Studies program at the Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Please note: The bulk of this bibliography was completed by 2005. I have only added titles sporadically since then, so if you know of any conspicuous omissions, by all means send them along to me so they can be included in the next edition.