On Comparing Cultural Forms

Andrei Cornea


The paper intends to study the possibility of evading the relativist dilemma: when you compare cultural forms belonging to different traditions, you either impose the result from outside, or you give up comparisons altogether as dependent on the arbiter’s parochial choices. In this paper one argues that, apart from this kind of comparison, which is called extrinsic, there is another type, called intrinsic, which is not dependent on arbiter’s choices. The essence of the intrinsic comparison is the role played by the “second option” of the representatives of different traditions: it is decisive what these representatives prefer in the second place, when their first options have to be abandoned. Two old stories provide the historical paradigm of the intrinsic comparison: how Volga Khazarians are said to have converted to Judaism in the 8th century, and how the Athenian general Themistocles was voted the best general by the confederate Greek representatives. An example of contemporary intrinsic comparison between three contemporary trends – relativism, fundamentalism, rationalism – is also presented. Contrary to what Ernest Gellner believes, these trends are not incommensurable; rationalism takes precedence while being the second option of the other two trends, as soon as they want to enter a public debate.


intrinsic comparison; second option; relativism; Khazarians; Themistocles; fundamentalism; rationalism

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