Thursday, 15 November 2018

My German Adventures with the Japanese Philosophers of Nothingness

If you ever fancy having a truly disorientating experience that will challenge you and provide a mental adventure like no other, rather than travelling to some remote corner of the globe, you might try doing what I did last September and attend a 4-day philosophy conference. On Japanese philosophy. In Germany.

Surrounded by the golden autumnal fields of a pretty, historic and rustic campus on the edge of the small town of Hildesheim, near Hanover, I felt like I had arrived in some strange parallel universe where I did not speak the language but could discern that everyone greeted each other with the word “Hei..degger” ever five minutes.

Was I a Neo-Kantian or a Heideggerian? I dunno, truth to tell I don’t really understand the question. Many years ago, I dimly recall listening to a Japanese audio book called “Dare de mo wakaru Haidegaa” (“The Heidegger Anyone Can Understand”) but contrary to the title, I didn’t understand it or simply forgot what it had to say.

My knowledge of Western philosophy is patchy. I’m all over Plato, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Sartre, Bentham, and good old J. S. Mill. But I’m pretty clueless about Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Bergson and many others.

Further, this conference (run by ENOJP, the European Network of Japanese Philosophy, a friendly group of international scholars), was going to be all about the connections between Japanese philosophy and European philosophy. And about Japanese philosophy I am almost completely ignorant. If Heidegger was terribly important to all the aspiring philosophers from around the world gathered in Hildesheim, then I soon discovered that his super-revered Japanese philosopher counterpart was Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945, pictured top), founder of the Kyoto School (referred to in a 2007 book by James Heisig as the “Philosophers of Nothingness”).

Slightly below Nishida in the Japanese philosophy pantheon, are his follower Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990) and other philosophers such as Hajime Tanabe (1885-1962), Teturo Watsuji (1889-1960) and Kiyoshi Miki (1897-1945). I found I was initially at sea with Nothingness and could not easily get a grip on the paddles.

As someone noted to me though, conferences like this - many of which are open to people with only a tangential interest in the subject - are a great way to travel and make interesting new friends. Previous ENOJP conferences have taken place in Barcelona, Brussels and Paris, with Nagoya planned for next year, and talk of Brazil after that. Not only was it taking me to areas of the brain I had never visited before, it was also taking me to strangely beguiling places: Hildesheim is an alluring picturesque town I would have never come to on my own. Staying at the well-appointed Bergholzchen Hotel on a hill overlooking the town, I breathed in the fine vistas of wooded parks and splendidly historic church spires and asked myself again: what exactly was I doing here?

The conference started with some earnest but largely impenetrable papers by PhD students and recent postdocs. There were keynote talks on connections between Japanese philosophy and feminism, gender, identity politics, Islam, linguistics, even sports studies and my brain soon entered into the philosophy zeitgeist and started racing with thoughts on the connections between philosophy and lots of other subjects. How for example was philosophy connected to literature (a subject I tend to be on far safer ground with than philosophy)? I always think of philosophy as coming up with some interesting theories, which literature then attempts to put into practical experiment.

On Day Two at the conference I attended a session on the philosopher Tetsuro Watsuji and learnt that one of his key concepts was “Between-ness” (“aidagara”). If I’ve understood it correctly, the idea is that none of us are just individuals but exist in a state of inter-dependence and “becoming” with other things that give us a sense of self, and that this is particular characteristic of Japan. Watsuji apparently gave some examples from the “Hagakure”, a classic work celebrating what would become known as “the way of the warrior”, as well as the acting theory of the Noh dramatist Zeami (c.1363 - c.1443) and the theology of the great Buddhist preacher Shinran (1173 - 1263).

A professor of philosophy however raised his hand and objected to a continued discussion on the “history of ideas”, rather than the concept of “between-ness” itself. A few times during the conference I discovered that a pet peeve of certain philosophers is “history of ideas”. Philosophical concepts are supposed to be “eternal truths”, analogous to scientific truths or mathematical equations, so in that sense the background from which they sprang is irrelevant. The only thing that really matters, they think, is whether the ideas work as a coherent system.

If philosophers have issues with “history of ideas”, I soon discovered that an even greater bugbear of many philosophers is psychology, which is in many ways its arch-rival. When I hear that Watsuji concocted his theory of “between-ness”, rather than see it as “eternal truth”, I’m inclined to consider what was going on in Watsuji’s inner mind and private experience to make him think in such a way. But to some philosophers, such psychoanalysis is a loathsome, existential threat to their whole endeavour, frequently denounced as being reductive and irrelevant.

While mulling these deep concepts, I was most pleased to observe that the philosophers conformed to their Monty Python stereotype of drinking like fish and laughing uproariously at the social events laid on each evening. Between the tea and lunch breaks, and the night-time carousing, I managed to meet and chat with just about everyone of the dozens of people attending.

The philosophers gathered one evening for a panel discussing the potential for engagement between Western philosophy and Zen. One philosophy professor argued that while philosophy was the “logical reflection on existence”, it could yet communicate with Zen and either exert logic on it or receive from it a kind of critique of itself.

It seemed to me that his definition of philosophy was not quite correct, that philosophy was surely not just “logical reflections on existence” and that thinkers like Nietzsche had kicked down the door to the irrational but academic philosophy had not really followed him there and it was art, not academic philosophy, that had truly explored the potential of this. Indeed, many artists had immediately grasped the connection between Nietzsche’s philosophy of the irrational and Zen.

At the final plenary session of the conference, a philosopher - who was like many others impressively fluent in English, German and Japanese - gave a talk on the Japanese star figure, Kitaro Nishida. There was a lot of talk of “first first person” and “eternal present”. I drowsed through most of it. An American turned to me afterwards and pronounced it brilliant. “I’m glad you got something out of it”, I said groggily.

After four days of listening to many hours of talks, I must confess that not a single philosophical concept made a strong impression on me. Yet I had learnt a lot of things. For one, I’d gained a roadmap of where Western and Japanese philosophy is up to at the moment and who I need to go off and read (Heidegger! Nishida!).

I’d also closely observed the world of academic philosophy. On the evening of the final day, I sat at a cafe in the main town square next to the professor at Hildesheim who had given the best talk, an inspiring, inter-disciplinary vision for the future of philosophy (10/10 on my mental scoresheet).

“Have you ever written any articles for newspapers?” I enquired.

This question was so left-field for the philosopher that I had to repeat it two more times before he understood it. I explained that many of the concepts and ideas of Japanese philosophy might be of interest to a wider audience if communicated effectively.

“I never read newspapers”, he responded. “I have not time.” It seemed as though he thought reading newspapers a very peculiar and frivolous thing to do. As as for writing newspaper articles how would that advance his academic career?

I can’t say I returned from my four day adventure with the philosophers enlightened, but I did have my sense of values thoroughly challenged and shook up. I bought a book on Kitaro Nishida by his famous disciple Keiji Nishitani and started reading it. Will I too become a neo-Nishida-ian? Only time and some moment in the eternal present will tell.

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