Anyone Who Works in the Field of Area Studies knows from experience that cultures are different. Indeed, the effort to understand the distinctiveness of cultures in comparative perspective is a central undertaking of the modern humanities and social sciences, not only in Asian studies but in studies of other parts of the world. But works on the subject seldom discuss the conceptual and methodological issues involved. What do we mean by culture in the context of comparative statements? How can a culture's distinctiveness be conceptualized? What is required to demonstrate that such distinctiveness exists, what it consists of, and what influence it has on the performance of societies? In the case of Chinese studies, how far have we come in establishing that Chinese culture is distinctive, in what ways, and with what consequences?

It is helpful to discuss these issues in terms of two bodies of literature with different ways of conceptualizing culture and its distinctiveness, although I intend to blur the distinction at the end. Following Ying-shih Yü, I will label the two approaches hermeneutic and positivistic. I do not argue that one of the approaches is better than the other; each achieves goals that the other does not. The real problem is lack of clarity about the different logical statuses of the kinds of findings that typically emerge from the two approaches. This can lead to problems when insights are transposed from the hermeneutic approach into positivistic language or vice versa.

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