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Erber on Sakai's "Question of Japanese Thought"

By: Pedro Erber,  Associate Professor, Department of Romance Studies
April 11, 2016

I want to take this opportunity to talk about my encounter with a work that not only significantly influenced the course of my intellectual pursuits, but also directed my academic path toward the humanities at Cornell.

It was autumn of 2000, and I had recently arrived in Japan for a two-year research appointment at the University of Tokyo. I had just finished my M.A. degree in Brazil with a thesis on the political thought of Martin Heidegger and planned to continue this project by exploring, among other things, the wartime political philosophy of the second generation of thinkers of the Kyoto School.

Years earlier, I had been an exchange student in Freiburg, Germany; I often commuted across the French border to attend the seminars of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe at the University of Strasbourg. Two Japanese colleagues who intended to study abroad with Lacoue-Labarthe asked me for help with their application materials. As a token of gratitude, one of them gave me a book, whose author, she argued, was the most important Japanese philosopher alive. The book was The Question of Japanese Thought: Translation and Subjectivity (日本思想という問題−−翻訳と主体) by Naoki Sakai.

It was definitely not an easy read, and it took me much too long to get through the first few pages with my rather rudimentary Japanese. And so I put the book aside for some time in a pile of must-read books, which grew quickly as my linguistic skills improved at a slower pace.

Coincidentally, during those days I was also struggling through an essay by the political theorist Takahashi Tetsuya, which discussed Jean François Lyotard’s interpretation of the wartime philosophy of the Kyoto School in the preface to the Japanese edition of his Heidegger and the Jews. Takahashi remarked that, not being able to read Japanese, Lyotard’s only source of reference on the Kyoto School had been Naoki Sakai’s “Modernity and its Critique: The Problem of Universalism and Particularism.” This happened to be one of the essays included in the book I had received as a gift. As it turned out, the text had originally been written in English and first appeared in the 1988 special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly entitled Postmodernism and Japan, shortly after Sakai joined the Department of Asian Studies at Cornell.

To explain how decisive this text became for the further development of my own research, let me first mention that one of the core motifs of my project at that time consisted of examining Western philosophy, as I put it then, from its outside. More concretely, this took the form of a study of the work of a group of thinkers who had dedicated themselves to reinterpreting European philosophy from an explicitly Japanese standpoint, a philosophical and geopolitical discourse expressed in a number of articles, monographs, and roundtable discussions that they collectively termed the “philosophy of world history (世界史の哲学).”

It is worth noting that, even more clearly than in Heidegger’s case, the joint endeavor of this group of young thinkers during the late 1930s and early ’40s had an immediate and often explicit political agenda: providing a theoretical basis for Japan’s multiethnic empire, and thus philosophically justifying Japanese colonialism in East Asia.

However, aside from the obvious imperialistic implications of the Kyoto School’s wartime political discourse, which scholars had repeatedly pointed out, what began to appear to me as increasingly problematic and even outright impossible was the attempt to set Japan apart from the West as a secure standpoint for a true universalist thought. My realization of this impossibility eventually led to a questioning of the fundamental premises of my own project: namely, that an outside of Western metaphysics could be identified as a truly existing epistemological position, and more broadly, that the West itself could exist as something more than a putative unity within a constantly unstable and displaceable set of imaginary boundaries.

It is precisely this question of the putative and unstable character of the West as a geopolitical and philosophical concept that takes center stage in Sakai’s analysis of the Kyoto School. He demonstrates the impossibility of geographically locating the subject of philosophical knowledge on the fragile and heavily ideological opposition of West versus non-West. In doing so, his essay sets the stage for a thorough critique not only of Japanese prewar philosophy and postwar theories of Japanese exceptionalism but also, most significantly, for a critique of philosophical discourses on the unity and specificity of Western thought from Hegel to Heidegger and all the way through to Habermas and Derrida. The “dislocation of the West” is how Sakai often describes this theoretical endeavor.

At this point, it had become clear that there was no going back to my attempt at looking at Western metaphysics from the outside. Yet this new outlook also suggested new avenues for thinking beyond conventional divisions between East and West. It opened up the possibility of comparative approaches to philosophical, political, and artistic phenomena across national and regional boundaries, approaches that contradict the view of those boundaries as guarantors of cultural specificity and epistemological privilege.

There is no doubt that my present research is still deeply indebted to this fortuitous encounter with Sakai’s work. Among other things, this encounter is what first prompted me to come to Cornell in 2002 as a Ph.D. student in Asian Studies. But more broadly, the political and philosophical task of a dislocation of the West and the critique of area studies that it entails constituted one of the starting points of my comparative work on postwar art and criticism in Japan and Brazil and continues to inform my engagement with Brazilian literature, art, and intellectual history from a transnational, transdisciplinary perspective.

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