Report on University of Tokyo Studentship

Between June 26th and August 14th I have the privilege of working as a visiting research student at the University of Tokyo, with the generous support of the Dalai Lama Centre. I have been hosted by Professor Otabe Tanehisa of the Faculty of Letters, and am pursuing research on the relationship between the philosophical anthropology and the ethical and aesthetic theories of Nishida Kitarō and Watsuji Tetsurō, as well as trying to give myself a grounding in the Japanese philosophical tradition more generally. My studentship has three central objectives from the perspective of the Centre, on each of which I can report very encouraging progress.

First, it is hoped that my studentship will enable the Centre to develop ties to Japanese universities, and in particular to Japanese philosophy faculties. Contact between British and Japanese philosophy faculties is at present minimal, and since a central aim of the Centre is to become a forum for critical engagement between different intellectual traditions, my stay at the University of Tokyo’s Faculty constitutes an important opportunity to create links between two centres of their respective traditions.

I have been received with great kindness and enthusiasm here, and find myself frequently invited to dinners and events with faculty and students. A party of students and professors from leading Tokyo universities visits Oxford in August for a summer school, and we hope this may provide an opportunity to introduce them to the DLCC, as well as looking at further links in the future. We may also invite several Tokyo philosophers to become Fellows of the DLCC, opening up the possibility of our disseminating their work to academic or non-academic audiences in Oxford, or of further exchanges or visits in the future.

Second, it was intended that my work in Japan provide the basis for a number of essays on issues in comparative ethics, intended for a multi-disciplinary and non-academic audience, to be published by the DLCC as part of its efforts to promote the understanding of human values across disciplinary and academic boundaries. I am currently preparing three such essays, of which I provide details below. What I am trying to do in each of them is to show how ethical concepts that initially seem radically mutually incommensurate actually relate to vital shared concerns, and to do this without negating the genuine differences between these ideas or reducing one tradition to the terms of the other. I am particularly interested in drawing out connections between the ethical thought of the Kyoto School and that of the Western Kantian tradition, in which my own work belongs.

Pluralism in Japanese Ethics: Watsuji Tetsuro, often regarded as Japan’s greatest ethicist, offered an account of ethical life in his great work, Rinrigaku, claiming that involves an initial negation of the individual by the community whereby the individual establishes himself as a free subject, and then a second self-negation by the individual, in which he subordinates that freedom [to] his relationships with other people. He took this structure to be universal, present in all human societies. However, he argued that the particular injunctions and prohibitions in which this universal pattern is instantiated vary from community to community, with no universal code of rules applying in all times and places. This pluralism is not unique to Watsuji, but is often found in Japanese ethics. Drawing on the work of Otabe Tanehisa, I explore some of the historical sources of this ethical pluralism; I then proceed to offer some tentative reasons to think that, although this attitude is superficially in tension with the supposed universalism of Western ethics, philosophers in a number of different strands of the Western ethical tradition might actually have reason to find it interesting and plausible.

Status, Shame and Dignity: No comparison of Western and Japanese ethics has been more influential than that offered by Ruth Benedict in her celebrated work, The Sword and the Chrysanthemum, which has been widely read in the West, and, interestingly, even more so in Japan. Benedict characterizes Japan as a shame society, in which people are concerned primarily with their status in the eyes of others, and the Western countries as guilt societies, in which people are concerned primarily with whether their actions conform with moral standards in which one believes. In this essay, I examine the conceptions of guilt and shame with which Benedict works, and on the basis of which she characterizes Japanese society as one in which moral sanctions are primarily ‘external’, that is, based on the opinion of others rather than on one’s own moral beliefs. Drawing upon the work of Sakuta Keiichi, I suggest that Benedict’s characterization of shame in particular is partial or simplistic.   Shame does involve the idea of a divergence between a condition of high status that one had felt oneself to possess, and how one sees oneself in the present. This divergence, however, is not necessarily caused by the way the community perceives one, and it is not necessarily insensitive to considerations of right and wrong. Once we understand shame in this way, I suggest, it becomes clear that it plays an important role in the ethics of that supposedly most Western of Western philosophers, Kant—far from being an essentially non-western or premodern emotion.

Personhood and relationship: One idea that has been central in the ethics of philosophers like Nishida and Watsuji was that the person is relational, that is, that the personhood of an individual human organism is conceptually dependent upon that organism’s being related socially to other organisms. In this they were of course consciously influenced by Mādhyamika Buddhism and the doctrines of anātman and dependent origination, and they are often seen as staking out a view of ethics and personhood that is radically different from those found in the Western tradition, being fundamentally communitarian rather than individualist. Interestingly, however, there is an important strand of Western ethics that does understand personhood in relational terms, namely the neo-Kantian accounts of personhood in terms of the second-person relation, the relation between ‘I and Thou’. I consider in detail the account of the most prominent representative of this school in contemporary analytical philosophy, Stephen Darwall, and draw out some of the striking similarities between his account and that of Watsuji.

Third, it is hoped that the research I do in the course of my studentship will provide a source for future scholarly work on human values, in keeping with the Centre’s aspiration to foster rigorous professional scholarship on these subjects. It is my hope that each of these three essays will ultimately form the germs of academic papers, treating the same subjects but in greater detail and with greater rigour. My scholarly research at present, however, is concerned especially with the issues that I will be discussing in the second of these essays, that is, with the ideas of shame, dignity and honour in Kantian ethics. One strand that I wish to draw out in my work is how far ‘modern’ Kantian ethics is related and indebted to ‘premodern’ sources, and how, accordingly, it may be enriched by drawing upon these. My ideas on these areas have already evolved greatly under the influence of what I have learnt in Tokyo, and I have no doubt that it continue to be profoundly useful to me in the future.

One of the features of learning about a philosophical tradition in which one had no prior training is that it can prove fruitful in ways one did not expect. I have already found this with my work on the Kyoto School. In the course of my work on modern Japanese ethics, I encountered Nishida’s account of ‘pure experience’ in his early work, An Inquiry into the Good, in which the self is experienced as dissolved or unified with external reality. Although this lies outside my main research interests, I have found this extremely interesting, and am in the process of preparing a paper on how we might understand the experience of dissolution of self that Nishida describes in An Inquiry in terms of the account of selfhood recently developed by the neo-Kantian philosopher, Richard Moran. I will present this paper at an international conference in Skopje in September. Of course I cannot predict the other respects in which what I have learnt in Tokyo will prove unexpectedly helpful, but I have no doubt that they will be numerous.

In concluding, I should also like to say what a rare pleasure it has been for me to live in an Asian society for the first time, and how valuable it has been for my own understanding of Japanese culture, beyond its academic philosophical tradition. I am very grateful to the Centre for making this possible, and I hope my work over the coming days and months will justify its generosity.

Samuel Hughes

Tokyo, July 2015