Review of Stalnaker: Overcoming Our Evil
Aaron Stalnaker’s Overcoming Our Evil makes compelling reading for several different audiences. To begin with, it offers a good deal to scholars of Xunzi and of Augustine, thanks both to the many careful evaluations of others’ interpretations and, more importantly, to the new light that Stalnaker is able to shed on each thinker, because of the ways that comparative study reveals previously “overlooked details or themes” . In particular, Stalnaker employs a device he calls the “bridge concept” in order to focus his comparison and reveal previously obscured significance in his authors. He defines bridge concepts as “general ideas, such as ‘virtue’ and ‘human nature,’ which can be given enough content to be meaningful and guide comparative inquiry yet are open to still greater specification in particular cases” . They are not generalized “thin concepts” because they are developed inductively, with the goal of making specific comparisons fruitful. Neither are they hypotheses about transcultural universals. Rather, they derive from a patient triangulation of three factors: a scholar’s antecedent interests deriving from contemporary contexts (e.g., the questions of “virtue ethics”); issues that are obviously salient in one half of a comparison, which lead one to look for ideas doing corresponding work in the other (e.g., the prominence of will/voluntas in Augustine leads Stalnaker to ask about “will” in Xunzi); and scrupulous attention to each individual thinker’s distinctive vocabulary and concerns. A putative bridge concept must avoid being given too much specific content, so that it does not “move beyond guiding inquiry to determining it” [ibid.]. The book revolves around four bridge concepts — human nature, spiritual exercise, person, and will — and for each of these, Stalnaker provides a nuanced discussion, balancing the three factors just listed, explaining how he arrived at the specific formulations he uses.