Sunday, October 14, 2018

Senkrecht von Ohba

I just learned that 大庭健 Takeshi Ohba has died. He was seventy-two.

Takeshi Ohba was a brilliant moral philosopher, a man of great intellectual charisma and true integrity. I last saw him and his wife not quite four years ago in Tokyo, but by that time we had already been friends for several decades. I met Takeshi (I was inclined to call him Ohba sensei but he wanted to be called Takeshi) when he was visiting Princeton for a year and gave a talk about modern Japanese thought (in East Asian Studies, not his host the Philosophy department) and I was a wide-eyed graduate student trying to find a way to go back to Japan as part of my dissertation research. A graduate of the Ethics Department at Tokyo University, Takeshi speedily got people there to answer my letters. I spent 1992-93 at Todai but even more rewarding was getting to know the exciting world of committed moral philosophers around Takeshi. For many year after that, I went to Japan each January, in part to hang out with his 現代倫理学研究会 Contemporary Ethics Research Group and to spend time with Takeshi and his family.

Takeshi was an analytic philosopher, but a convert. He came out of the continental tradition dominant in Japanese philosophy, and had tremendous breadth and depth of knowledge in the history of philosophy - and theology and religion, too, eastern and western. I was thinking of him just a week ago when Karl Barth came up in a conversation and I remembered - physically - Takeshi acting out the Barthian senkrecht von oben! (vertically from above) with his whole body. Takeshi wrote one of the first introductions to analytic philosophy in Japan not because he accepted Anglo Saxon philosophy's narrowed horizons and scientism, but because philosophical discussion in Japan was stymied by the lack of a shared philosophical language. Most philosophers worked on just one figure, whom they read in the original and for whose key terms they had their own working Japanese renderings. This seems to have suited many people just fine, safe in their silos.

One learned that Takeshi Obha wasn't like most Japanese philosophers when people introduced themselves at a seminar. I'm Suzuki, one would say, I do Kant. I'm Kaneda, the next would say, I do Hegel. (Actually it might be abbreviated: I'm Suzuki, Kant, etc.) Ohba was different, he did his own philosophizing. No silo, no special vocabulary, no authority borrowed from some past great: not philology but philosophy! He demanded as much of others, inspiring many younger thinkers too.

What inspired him was a love of argument not for argument's sake but because life, including collective life, demands self-awareness and responsibility. He wrote books (my Japanese was never good enough to read them) with deceptively simple colloquial titles like What is Responsibility? 『「責任」ってなに?』, Who(se) is the Other? 『他者とは誰のことか』, Why am I Me? 『私はどうして私なのか』and What Kind of Power is Authority?『権力とはどんな力か』 along with introductions to analytic philosophy and ethics, including a work called Why Shouldn't We Do Bad Things?『なぜ悪いことをしてはいけないのか―Why be moral?』. He also translated works of Jürgen Moltmann, Ernst Cassirer, Gilbert Harman, Amartya Sen and Niklas Luhmann - what a range! I proofread a piece he wrote in English once, but I fear he is not appreciated here.

I don't generally think of myself as a philosopher, but when I do it is with someone like Takeshi in mind, a public-minded intellectual passionately committed to the power of careful reading, reflection, conceptual clarity and open debate to make the world a safer place for human being - not that I could ever inhabit this role as as he did.

We saw each other many times over many years, in Japan and back in the US. (One of the first things I did when I got to the New School was plan the above symposium so I could invite him here.) He was a great host, loving to cook for people - his seared tuna was especially delicious - even as he claimed that one should not spoil the enjoyment of fine 地酒 jizake with food. The little house he lived in with his wonderfully grounded wife Mizuho had more bookcases nested in it than I imagined possible. I saw his children grow up, find their own voice, marry and have children too. Takeshi was delighted to be a grandfather. I didn't see the last place he lived, an apartment near where their son and grandchildren lived, many books purged but more work still being done.

I think of Takeshi Ohba whenever senkrecht von oben happens (the Christian theological underpinnings of his vocation were something I never quite plumbed). And, a more frequent thing, whenever a kindred concept comes up: the irreducible value, the irreplaceability of each individual. He thought this the core of ethics, and something ill served by the history of Japanese thought and politics. (Western thought took it for granted too quickly, but at least knew what it was.) Takeshi Ohba's life demonstrated the value of this awareness, and our sacred duty to articulate and defend it.

Irreplaceable as all are, may Ohba Takeshi, sensei, friend, rest in peace.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Spirituality of Islamic geometric design

A journalist friend (through my late uncle Don) has been posting pictures from a trip to Iran. He's got a great eye. This shows "repair work on the cupola of the [17th century] Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, the private mosque of the shah on Naqsh-e Jahan square in Isfahan."

Friday, October 12, 2018

Rest in Peace

Can it have been twenty years since Matthew Shepard was murdered? Twenty years that his parents didn't bury him for fear his grave would be desecrated, carrying his ashes with them wherever they went? May he rest in peace, at last, among the better angels of this troubled land.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

New School Histories!

And now my co-conspirator J's first article is up, too! Read them here!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


Extra, extra, read all about it! The first article in our "vertical" series on New School histories in the university's online journal Public Seminar was published today! The formatting leaves a little to be desired (I'd really hoped the whole clipping would be shown, not just a slice), but at least the Thomas Hart Benton room is seen again as New School's own.


Talking to a student about the identification of Guanyin and Jesus in Chinese American Catholic Gene Luen Yang's Boxers and Saints the other day, I was reminded somehow of a statue I always loved in the Stephansdom in Vienna, of the Virgin Mary protecting all kinds of people under her cloak. The web helped me find a nice image, though not to learn more about the particular statue. (But the cathedral apparently has three representations of the Schutzmantelmadonna!). Lovely!

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Scrapbook Motherwell

The first time we assigned the New School publicity scrapbooks (digitized, of course) to students to peruse, one of my students - a communications design major - praised them for their composition. It's hard not to see them as constructed with an intention beyond including as many clipping as possible (since pay was per clipping) in as few pages as possible, and to read them like a story is unfolding - perhaps a detective story, where clues and connections are revealed in apparently accidental ways to the truly attentive. Odd juxtapositions, crumbling originals and the shadows of clippings long lost make the mystery that much more exciting to follow. And sometimes, as for this part of a page from the Dramatic Workshop scrapbooks (I.59), they just look like art!

Monday, October 08, 2018

Religious Studies

In Theorizing Religion today, trying to refer back to our Cone discussion, engage students' papers on the problematic discourse of "world religions," and set the stage for Hume's Natural History of Religion, I tried something new. Several things. Not sure they worked quite.

From the Cone discussion I had us explore the differences between theology and religious studies on the question of who's Christian. Is it enough to take people's self-ascription for it? Cone, like most theologians, is making normative claims about who's really Christian - as is his job, as a theologian. Building on his understanding of the Gospel he can reject the self-ascription of white supremacist Christians. (Some of them would, no doubt, return the favor.) Politically, personally, religiously I want to draw the line where Cone does - but can I as a scholar? I will inevitably need to make some sort of claims about what makes someone an X, but I can't base it in theology, though some theological categories and distinctions will inevitably be used. Difficult. In any case, I should let my little Jonathan Z. Smith daemon nag me every time I exclude something or someone from my field of study. Am I not just making things easy for myself by ignoring the hard cases?

Of course, there are more options than "Christians" and "scholars of religion" defining and interpreting "Christians." Christians have ways of understanding other religious traditions, too - and, if they're operating as theologians, legitimately so. That's a whole other kind of study of religions! Could you imagine, I asked the class, a Buddhist religious studies? An Islamic one? My Islamic example was al-Shahrastani, my Buddhist David Loy, though students imagined others - a prophet for each society, bodhisattvas manifesting in all sorts of traditions.

The segue to Hume was his resolute rejection of the biblical study of religions which asserts that the first human beings were monotheists (as is revealed to us in Genesis), and that the story since then (also narrated in Scripture) has been a sad tale of idolatry and superstition leading generations to lose sight of that truth, until God speaks again to call his people back to the truth, which they or their progeny proceed to lose sight of... Hume's view that polytheism arose organically from primitive human ignorance and fear, eventually building up into a sort of monotheism before falling back into polytheism, knocks the biblical view on its side, the wheels still spinning but going nowhere.

What I was getting at, a little fumblingly, was that there is no one stance for "religious studies," detached from views of the human story (or absence of story), theological or otherwise. I might have invoke my mantra - that religious studies is the discipline that reminds us there is no consensus on the real. We can't just study religion (or anything else) without some assumptions about what we're studying. How can we determine what's religious, or who's Christian then? With fear and trembling. And awareness of the different accounts to which human religious history lends itself. We can start with self-ascription, including our own. What kind of study of religions are we committed to?

One might capitalize here on the vagueness of the name "religious studies" (not present in Religiouswissenschaft but I think quite present in sciences religieuses). Is it studies (of various sorts) of religion? Or is it religiously-informed studies of something - religion, even!?

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Tom Toles...

Saturday, October 06, 2018


Snapshots from a dark day.

One friend responded: If he were that person we would not be in it.

Another: Don't retreat to fantasyland. Hit the phones, hit your checkbook and VOTE. And organize, write, it's still got to be all out.

Another: Fantasies can shine light on the gap between our professed values and those that dominate present life. Not a retreat but a sharpening of focus.

And one more: Those are much nicer than my fantasies.

I am thankful for friends. I think we'll need all these modes of response and engagement to prevail over the unscrupulousness of those who feel so entitled to rule that they think they can bend the rules to get there.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Autumn left its calling cards today...