Friday, December 26, 2014


Had a delightful reunion with an old professor friend this evening. It was with his help that I was able to wangle a visit to Tokyo University's 倫理学研究室 Ethics Department half a lifetime ago (well, in 1992-93). That year, with the questions and intellectual friendships it opened up for me in the ensuing years, is the template for this year's Shanghai expedition.

T is one of the leading ethicists in Japan (author of a half-dozen books and editor of the Japanese Encyclopedia of Ethics), and deeply committed to educating people in all walks of life about ethics. He gave me a copy of an introductory text for popular readers which he recently published. Its main chapter headings are breathtaking:



I can loosely translate some, but not all of them: "Better not to have been born," "Living, something nobody can do for you," "Is my life my own?" "Sympathy for suffering," "The trap of 'privatization'," "The decline of sharing," "In the interconnectedness of life"... What a great way into ethics! (Makes me want to return to Japanese for a bit.)

Ever the mentor he brought along a bright young philosopher (took me a while to remember what 形而上学 is: metaphysics!) who's thinking of studying abroad for my advice. I don't really know anything about what it would be like to study at St. Andrews, but I suppose I did read philosophy in the UK (and St Andrews is still UK!). And I'm a reliable cheerleader for study abroad in all its forms. And this young man seems interested in questions somewhat like those I was interested in at his age: the religious contexts and frameworks and resonances of philosophical arguments.

I invited him for coffee after my friend returned home, and learned that he's particularly interested in "relative identity," P. T. Geach's "solution" to the "problem of the Trinity." Why on earth is he interested in this? I didn't get a clear answer. But I insisted that the Trinity is a lot weirder and its implications farther-reaching than some might think, an excellent "problem." Still: channeling my own British philosopher teachers I asked how he knew it was a real problem at all ("since it's not in the Bible"), and suggested that an Augustinian phenomenology might provide a good answer. Might it be that everything, properly understood, has a trinitarian structure, is incompletely described in any other terms- starting with out quest for understanding?

After discussing a few other things - why the "new atheists" care what religious people think, and whether the problem of suffering includes the dead, what western folks think "Buddhism" is - he had me reminiscing about my time at Todai, and especially my discovery of Watsuji Tetsuro there. (This fit the larger theme of the benefits of study abroad, since Watsuji's thinking was decisively shaped by his responses to his journey to Europe.) What fun to be talking about 間柄 and 人と人との間 again after all these years, and reflecting on the ways in which Watsuji's larger project still fits my understanding of what I'm doing in/as religious studies: how to live in the spaces defined by and constituting our relationships with manifold others, including culture and nature. I'm not sure I've made the connection between virtue ethics' recovery of rich moral vocabularies and Watsuji's attention to Japanese language as disclosing a distinctive understanding of ethics which I found myself making before, but it makes sense, too.

I've let my relationship with Japanese academia slide these last few years. Nice to reconnect to it, however cursorily. Thanks, T!

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