This week’s philosophical read delves into the ethics and ideas of Tetsuro Watsuji, whose extensive background in Western philosophy as well as his effort to bring old Japanese ethics out of obscurity led him to become a major philosopher in recent history.
As always, I look to the extensive compilation of information found in “The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” and I unfortunately water down the material for you to drink in slowly. Please excuse the inevitable lack of important historical and biographical information about Watsuji.
He professes that “climate,” used very broadly in the moral, physical, and metaphysical senses, shapes who we are as people. The environment we grow up in, the literal climate we are in depending on region of the world, and the interconnectedness of how a climate of influence affects all humans globally.
This idea should be a little striking, since it takes away from our (American) sense of individuality. He argues that despite individuality, the climate we are a part of really makes the difference as to who and what we are. The S.E.P. states very concisely: “Climate is the entire interconnected network of influences that together create an entire people’s attitudes and values.”
Watsuji was quite an avid and literary scholar (despite eventually giving up writing novels and going straight to teaching philosophy), and he used his knowledge of Japanese myths, stories, literature and poems to eventually discuss the main idea of the Kyoto School, which was the concept of nothingness.
The Kyoto School, to be brief, was a group of Japanese philosophers and scholars who found Watsuji’s first talks of formlessness and nothingness to be the basis for future ethical and moral development, despite Watsuji actually teaching in Tokyo.
Experience has a place in his philosophy too, as he argues that the cultural climate of past experiences still informs the present. The objective and subjective experiences go hand in hand, and Watsuji gives the example of being cold. For instance, we might be in the cold weather for some time, but only realize it’s cold after we feel it.
In terms of climate, we feel this coldness within our own community, and it affects everything from the coldness of the Earth to the coldness in ourselves. In this climate, we must prepare and defend ourselves against the cold, therefore we “reveal ourselves as both social and historical beings.”
Climate objectifies us as merely part of a network, and the subjective and objective characteristics of ourselves are as connected as our history and culture.
His ethics, to be too frank for my own good, deals with the balance between the social and individualistic aspects of us. Humans are social but also individuals and not either-or. Thus, our ethics will be developed if we have a balance between our individual and social pursuits, and people will act with good ethics if their dual natures are in balance with others.
Nothingness, then, in a very Buddhist sense, is the destruction of the Self, and the ability to reach nothingness will lead us to a balance between our individual and social pursuits.
To our displeasure, there is neither the time nor the space in this column to give a complete rendering of Tetsuro Watsuji’s views and philosophy, but this breakdown will hopefully spark a desire to learn more about him! I hope you all achieve balance in this crazy climate! Just think about nothing!
Benjamin Sylvester is the president of the Drexel Animal Welfare Group. He can be contacted at [email protected].
“Mull On That” publishes biweekly.