The History of Cross-Cultural Comparatism


The aim of this project is to compare the comparative cultures of different periods and to reconsider the specificities of modern comparative approaches within the variety of comparative moments. Four moments will be investigated through papers on themes  and key individual authors: the comparatisms of ancient Greece, 17th century Humanism, 19th century England, and post-modern approaches. The great variety  of comparative approaches found in each moment will provide plenty of opportunity for original investigations into particulars and details, and even more material for the systematic, comparative assessment of the cultures they embody.

Two sets of interrelated questions will run through the entire seminar.  1) The interaction of religion, power, and translation at play in the classifications of cultural comparison. So, how do the different areas of comparison – law, religion, customs, political systems and so forth – change the practices of comparison? At what points and how do cultural comparisons become part of a narrative of political, religious or imperial power? What is the relation between translatio imperii and other forms of translation inherent in comparison? How do different forms of comparison interrelate and contest each other?   2) The differential roles of past and present cultures in the analysis of cultural difference: what are the consequences of adopting a practice of synchronic or diachronic comparison? When and for what purposes does it become critical to compare the contemporary with the past? Or with other contemporary cultures? Special attention here will be given to the exceptional role of Athens and Jerusalem in shaping the Western understanding of cultural difference. The link between the first and second thematic strands are evident: the choice for religious, political, social (etc) comparisons and the agendas such choices embody, find specific form in the construction of comparisons with the great traditions of religious, political, and intellectual pasts summed up in the classical and biblical traditions.

One running thread will be followed through the vast and open-ended history of Western cultural comparisons: Greek religion. The representations of Greek religious thought and practice, so prominent in classical art and literature, continued to offer the Christian West a powerful image of difference at the heart of its shared cultural memory. The reception of Greek religion is a key component in the development of cultural comparison in the West, and it has a long and complex history. The Cambridge Sawyer Seminars looked at four moments in that evolution: the imperial and late antique reconfigurations of a comparative Hellenism, the theological comparatisms of the early modern period, and the development of a science of imperial comparison in the 19th century. Modernity, our fourth area, can – we maintained and set out to demonstrate – only be fully appreciated within this historical perspective, not least since so much of modernity defines itself in hostile or longing contrast to these pasts. Most of the invited participants were scholars who not only have an interest in the history of cultural comparison, but also worked actively in comparative research of their own. Contributors were asked to discuss the specificities of individual approaches, and to contrast them to other approaches from the same moment, so as to uncover the ideological faultlines involved in the works in question, the stakes at play, as well as the debates, conflicts, and disagreements provoked by the idea of comparison itself.  Please click on the tab on this page for more information about the  Sawyer. Seminars.





Professor Simon Goldhill (CRASSH/Classics, University of Cambridge)
Professor Sir Geoffrey Lloyd (Needham Research Institute)
Dr Renaud Gagné (Classics, University of Cambridge)

Research Fellow

Dr Dmitri Levitin was appointed to a three year fellowship in 2014,  jointly between the Sawyer Seminar and the Needham Institute. In the first year of the appointment Dr Levitin assisted with the organisation and work of the Sawyer Seminars.


Sawyer Seminars

Sawyer Seminars  2014-15

Seminar 1: 18-19 September 2014
Comparative Cultures of Ancient Greece

Papers and Respondents

Johannes Haubold (University of Durham)
Babel, Bible and the Greeks: comparative entanglements in the study of ancient Mesopotamia
Respondent: Tom Harrison (University of Liverpool)

Tim Whitmarsh (University of Oxford)
Can syncritics live their syncrisis? Cultural comparatism in the high Roman Empire
Respondent: Guy Stroumsa (University of Oxford)

Philippe Borgeaud (University of Geneva)
Réaction et imitation: Moïse et le diable inventeurs de religions
Responden: Giovanna Ceserani (Stanford University)

Renaud Gagné (University of Cambridge)
The Road to Hyperborea: Centre and Periphery in early Greece
Respondent: Corinne Bonnet (SFR,  France)

Claude Calame (University of Lausanne)
Sappho, Goethe and Steff la Cheffe: an impertient comparison in "lyric" forms and ethnopoetics
Respondent: Simon Goldhill (University of Cambridge)

Geoffrey Lloyd (Needham Reserch Institute)
The multiple valences of comparatisms and the problem of mutual (un)intelligibility
Respondent: Glenn Most (SNS, Italy)

Seminar 2: 12-13 December 2014
The Theological Comparatism of 17th Century Humanism

Papers and Respondents

Tony Grafton (Princeton)
Comparison in the Study of Late Jews and Early Christians, 1498-1742
Respondent: Bruce Lincoln (Chicago)

Guy Stroumsa (Oxford)
The Scholarly Discovery of Religion in Early Modern Times
Respondent: Claude Calame (University of Lausanne)

Richard Serjeantson (Cambridge)
Comparativism against Christianity? Edward Herbert and Pagan Religion
Respondent: Dmitri Levitin (Cambridge)

Jonathan Sheehan (Berkeley)
Jesus and the Cretan Zeus: Dead Gods and the Comparative Project of  Christian Apologetics
Respondent: Philippe Descola (College de France)

Giovanna Cesarani (Stanford)
The Athenian and the Jewish Republic in the 16th Century: A Tale of Two Men and (at least) Three Cities
Respondent: Tim Whitmarsh (University of Oxford)

Debora Shuger (UCLA) :
Lancelot Andrewes, "A Discourse of ceremonies retained and used in Christian churches"
Respondent: Philippe Borgeaud (University of Geneva)

Seminar 3: 20-21 February 2015
Towards a Science of Cultural Comparisons in the 19th Century

Papers  and Respondents

Theodor Dungelgrun (CRASSH, Cambridge)
The Key to the Key to all Mythologies: Collation, Conversion and the Hebrew Bible in the 19th Century
Respondent: Tony Grafton (Princeton)

Simon Goldhill (Cambridge)
What has Alexandria to do with Jerusalem? Writing the History of the Jews in the 19th Century
Respondent: Francois Hartog (EHESS)

Tom Harrison (Liverpool)
Herodotean Comparativisms
Respondent: Dobora Shuger (UCLA)

Corinne Bonnet (SFR, France)
On ne fait pas l’histoire en dehors de l’histoire: Quelques réflexions sur le comparatisme d’Ernest Renan
Respondent: Carlo Severi (EHESS)

Miriam Leonard (University College London)
Gods in Exile: Greek/Jew/Christian Comparisons amongst the Young Hegelians
Respondent: Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge)

Peter Mandler (Cambridge)
Looking around the World
Respondent: Anthony Grafton (Princeton)

Seminar 4: 23-24 April 2015
Modern Doubts and New Beginnings

Papers and Respondents

Philippe Descola (College de France)
Anthropological comparatisms: generalisation, symmetrisation, bifurcation
Respondent: Miriam Leonard (UCL)

Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge)
Friends and relations: comparisons and comparatism
Respondent: Geoffrey Lloyd (Needham Research Institute)

Carlo Severi (EHESS)
Tools, Ornaments and the Human Mind
Respondent: Renaud Gagne (Cambridge)

Caroline Humphrey (Cambridge)
Dealing with Kinds: An 18th Century History of the Mongols
Respondent: Johannes Haubold (Durham)

Bruce Lincoln (Chicago)
The Perils of Comparison: Ancient and Modern Interpretations of the Scythian *A-naryas
Respondent: Philippe Borgeaud (Geneva)

Final Seminar: 24 and 25 September 2015

Papers and Respondents

Bruce Lincoln (Chicago)
What are the roles that the history of cultural comparatism can play in the practice of it?
Respondent: Guy Stroumsa (Oxford)

Philippe Borgeaud (Geneva)
Is the mirage of ancient Greek religion a determining factor in the constitution of modern cultural comparatism?
Respondent: Phiroze Vasunia (UCL)

Anthony Grafton (Princeton)
Do nineteenth-century Western sciences of cultural comparison constitute a break with early modern practices of comparison?
Respondent: Miriam Leonard (UCL)

Matt Candea (Cambridge)
The elision of lateral comparison in anthropology
Respondent: Dmitri Levitin (Cambridge)

Marilyn Strathern (Cambridge)
What turns comparison into comparatism?
Respondent: Jonathan Sheehan (Berkeley)

Philippe Descola (College de France)
What is incomparability?
Respondent: Brooke Holmes (Princeton)

Early Career Workshop Series

Comparatism 1: Practices and theories of writing. Wednesdays 2.00-4.00pm, 8 meetings starting on 24 January  2018.

Every society uses comparison. When comparison becomes a self-conscious and theoretically self-reflective practice, we have comparatism. Many academics are concerned with the practice and methods of comparison; and the need for a cognitively robust relativism is an integral part of a mature historical self-placement.

Course directors:
Michael Puett (Professor of Chinese, Harvard),
Caroline Humphrey (Professor of Anthropology, Cambridge)

This course will look at how different theories and practices of writing and interpretation have developed at different times in different cultures. Michael Puett is currently working on a book on writing and interpretation in early China, Carrie Humphrey has worked on writing systems and theories of interpretation in Mongolia – but this is a course setting such detailed analyses in a global comparative frame to explore the social, intellectual and political contexts and consequences of practices of interpretation.

Comparatism II: Territory and Cosmology.Tuesdays 12.00-2.00pm, starting on 9 October 2018.

Course Directors
Philippe Descola (Professor of Anthropology, Collège de France)
Renaud Gagné (Reader in Classics, Cambridge)

This course will look at how representations and experiences of local bounded space interact with conceptions of the world as a whole in different cultures at different times. Texts, images, rituals, architecture and/or topographical configurations from specific case studies will be used to open various perspectives on this question. The course will set such individual analyses in a broader comparative frame to explore the social, cultural and political contexts and consequences of constructing territory with cosmology. Early career scholars are invited to apply to participate in what will be eight weekly seminars of two hours each. Participants will be expected to present material for discussion. Early career academics are defined as graduates who are in their third year and beyond, post-docs, junior research fellows, or any academic within seven years of their PhD. Applicants are welcome from any department or faculty in the university, especially from those with an interest in the problems of comparative methodology.

To see the course schedule please click here.