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.
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.