Title: Subject to Taste proposal body-class: unnumbered

Proposal for Subject to Taste

  • Carl M. Johnson


The cultivation of taste cannot be understood from the perspective of subjectivism or objectivism as traditionally understood. To get beyond these approaches I will advance a novel anthropology based on classical Confucianism and the work of Watsuji Tetsurō. According to this anthropology, since our authentic selves are relationally constituted, it is possible for taste to be both “subjective” and importantly related to the beliefs of others in a community and responsive to environmental conditions. Aesthetic appreciation relies on the device of imaginatively perceiving and acting from the perspective of an “authoritative connoisseur,” and I will show how it is possible for such perspectives to emerge out of the cultural fabric of particular, historically- and spatially-located societies.

Estimated page lengths

  • Preface (5 pages)
  • 1. The problem of subjectivity and objectivity in taste (10 pages)
  • 2. Subjective universals and indeterminate concepts
    • Kant’s aesthetics (10 pages)
    • Xunzi’s indeterminate appropriateness (10 pages)
    • Mencius on the internality of appropriateness (10 pages)
  • 3. Watsuji’s anthropology of ningen
    • Human beings as ningen (10 pages)
    • Individualism and collectivism in Taishō Japan (10 pages)
    • Translating the “subject” (10 pages)
    • Conscience and subjectivity (10 pages)
    • Perceiving climate (10 pages)
    • Public spheres (10 pages)
  • 4. Taste from the perspective of ningen anthropology
    • Taste and the authoritative connoisseur (15 pages)
    • Genius: overturning and decontextualizing values (15 pages)
  • 5. Taste and Ethics
    • Differences and similarities between ethics and taste (10 pages)
    • Dangers of treating ethics and taste together (10 pages)
  • Concluding remarks (5 pages)
  • Total: 160 pages

Section summaries


The central goal of my dissertation is to describe how the cultivation of taste is possible with the ancillary goal of describing how the cultivation of taste can be culturally specific without thereby being unmoored from any external considerations. The introduction of my dissertation will explain this goal in further detail and makes some remarks about my methodology and the meaning of my terminology as I employ it.

The topic of this paper is, broadly speaking, “taste” or “aesthetics,” but some clarification of these terms is needed, since this is comparative dissertation that will examine Japanese, Classical Chinese, and Western concepts. Aesthetics in particular has a certain ambiguity that is reflected by the fact that it can be translated into Japanese in at least two distinct manners. One translation of aesthetics, bigaku 美学, is a Sino-Japanese compound meaning literally “the study of the beautiful.” (That it is bi which is studied is particularly noteworthy because it means the beautiful adjectivally rather than a Greek conception of Beauty as a freestanding noun. This has the effect of relating Japanese bigaku always to the context of the beautiful rather than an abstracted study of beauty divorced from contextuality.) Another translation of aesthetics into Japanese is as kansei 感性, which might also be rendered into English as “sensibility.” This second translation is perhaps closer to the root Greek word αἰσθάνομαι, “I perceive.” Unlike the neutral “sense” or “perception,” however, the kan part of kansei strongly implies the feeling of emotion or value, not merely valueless sense data. For the purposes of this study, the question is how it is possible for something like kansei, our individual value feelings, to be the basis of bigaku, what is felt to be beautiful as such. “Taste” is the name we give to that ability which converts from the one aesthetic order to the other: kansei to bigaku. By refining our taste, we widen our sensibilities in order to make sharper judgments of the values inherent in the world around us. At the same time, we must also resolve the question of whether taste as an appreciation of the beautiful can be separated from other forms of value judgment, such as the ethical and the political.

1. The problem of subjectivity and objectivity in taste

In the first full chapter of my dissertation, I will outline the core of the problem, which is a dilemma that results from seeing taste as either a subjective matter or an objective matter. If we approach taste as a wholly subjective or individualistic matter (the perspective of kansei), at least two problems result. First, without any common object shared by different participants in a discussion, it is not possible for any discussion of taste or taste objects to take place. This is contradicted by our experience, in which taste is sometimes fruitfully discussed. Second, in the limit, there will be no ability for one to cultivate one’s taste, since the cultivation of taste relies on the comparison of different experiences at different times but those experiences may also be taken to be atomic and individual, even across one lifetime.

If, on the other hand, we take taste to be a matter of wholly objective or collectivistic canons of taste (the perspective of bigaku), we also encounter at least two problems. First, that no canon of taste has been universally accepted, though there are of course many historically and regionally specific canons of taste. This may be a merely epistemological difficulty on our part, but such a difficulty points to a second problem, which is that a wholly objective canon will be disconnected from the experience of assent or appreciation. It seems impossible that something could be an objectively good as an object of taste yet disagreeable to all possible perceivers of the object, yet without some link to the subject, such a possibility cannot be ruled out.

2. Subjective universals and indeterminate concepts

Kant’s aesthetics

Kant was aware of these difficulties and attempted to resolve them in his Critique of Judgment by classifying the beautiful and sublime as “subjective universals.” Kant claims that they are subjective because they are based on indeterminate concepts. Since they lack determined boundaries, the presentation of these concepts will inevitably vary from subject to subject, individual to individual. On the other hand, they are universals, since we are able to appreciate them together as rational beings via our sensus communis. (As Hannah Arendt and others have noted, this idea of a sensus communis could have been used by Kant to create a new anthropology in which community played a larger role, but this opportunity was not fully realized.) While there are interpretative controversies about Kant’s explanation of why subjective universals do not collapse into objectivity, his approach does suggest several avenues for exploration. First, Kant participates in the shift of the meaning of “sensus communis” away from being a sense that allows one individual to unify different senses into a coherent experience of a single object towards being a sense that allows different individuals to unify their experiences into a common ideal. Second, his proposal of “indeterminate concepts” allows for the introduction of historical progress into what would otherwise be a static aesthetic ideal (an opening which Hegel and others took advantage of).

Xunzi’s indeterminate appropriateness

To clarify the meaning of Kant’s “subjective universal” aesthetics, it is helpful to compare his thinking to resonating debates engaged in by Warring States-era Confucians. (Because these debates, unlike the debates about Chinese religion, are not directly historically connected to the debates engaged in by Kant, any overlap we see in the two arenas will be more suggestive of a lasting result.) The subjectivity of Kant’s subjective universal concepts arises from the indeterminacy of the concepts behind them. The concept of yi 義, or appropriateness, plays a similar role in thought of Xunzi. According to Antonio Cua, in Xunzi’s Legalist-influenced Confucianism, li 禮, or ritual propriety, takes on more of the flavor of a determinate rule for right actions than it does for other Confucian thinkers. To counterbalance this, Xunzi uses the term yi to signify the ability to know how and when to follow the rules. That is, if the rites specify how to act in given situations, we nevertheless need a concept of appropriateness in order to know when the application of the rules is appropriate. This concept of appropriateness cannot be a determinate concept of what is appropriate for a given situation, since if it were it would not solve the problem that it is meant to solve. We see a similar argument from Ryle, who explains that “know how” cannot be reducible to “know that,” since we run into a regress in which if knowledge-that N1 is needed to know the way to do something, then knowledge-that N2 is needed to know the way to apply N1, and knowledge N3 is needed to know the way to apply N2, etc. Xunzi’s argument is somewhat different from Ryle’s in that li is already a kind of embodied know how, as is yi, but the core point--that we need something like indeterminate concepts as well as determinate ones--is the same.

The application of Xunzi’s “ethical” theory of yi to the “aesthetic” field of taste is more straightforward than it would appear on the surface, since in the Chinese no strict distinction is made between the rules of taste and etiquette on the one hand and morality and ethics on the other. All of these values are instead included as gradations within an overarching “aesthetic order.” Nevertheless, there are some questions to be raised about the dangers of such a total ordering of values, and these questions will be addressed in the chapter on the totality and taste, described below.

Where the concept of yi becomes very useful for this study as more than just a possible historical parallel is the extensive commentary made by the early Confucians about the processes by which our sense of both yi and li may be cultivated. For the Confucians, cultivation of one’s sense of the appropriate begins with the embodied person and extends gradually outward towards political involvement in the larger community. Their methodology in moral cultivation clearly has implications for our understanding of the cultivation of taste.

Mencius on the internality of appropriateness

To the question of how aesthetics can be universal yet subjective, the Warring States Confucians again bring interesting arguments to bear. In the Warring States period, there was a debate about whether yi was “internal” (nei 内) or “external” (wai 外). Xunzi’s rival within the still developing Confucian lineage, Mencius, argues cogently that our sense of the appropriate must be internal even as it responds to external conditions. There have been a variety of interpretations of what Mencius meant in claiming that yi is internal, but I will argue that what Mencius means is not that morality is subjective in the sense of being determined only by the individual, but that morality is internal in the sense that it originates in our most inner and authentic self. Mencius and his interlocutors take as paradigmatic example of nei literal taste -- savoring a roast or wanting a drink. Mencius points out that these tastes, while paradigmatically internal, are nevertheless respondent to external conditions. On a hot day, I would like a cold drink, but on a cold day, I would like a hot drink. My wanting a particular kind of drink on the basis of these external circumstances cannot be the result of some coercive education in inauthenticity. If these sorts of desires are not authentic, then there are no authentic desires. In the same way, argues Mencius, our sense of what is appropriate must respond to external circumstances (and should it fail to respond it would be an error, just as it is an error to desire salt water in a desert), but it nevertheless the internality of the sense of appropriateness which gives it jurisdiction with which to compel us. The rest of the Mencius is concerned with how we can sharpen our moral taste so as to better perceive what is appropriate for the given circumstances.

To press such a view of internality into further use will require the explication of a anthropology that significantly differs from the standard view of humans as individuals common in Western philosophical accounts. To see how it can be the case that the “authentic subject” in itself can be relationally constituted I will employ the philosophical anthropology of Watsuji Tetsurō.

3. Watsuji’s anthropology of ningen

In this, the most extensive chapter of my dissertation, I will use the philosophy of Watsuji as the basis for a subjective conception of taste that is nevertheless not incommensurable among individuals but emergent from the social fabric.

Human beings as ningen

I will begin with an explanation of Watsuji’s anthropology of ningen 人間 that draws on his explanation in Ethics. For Watsuji (and as we have seen for other philosophers in the Confucian vein), philosophy begins with the question of ethics. To this Watsuji further adds that ethics is the study of human beings or ningen. Ningen is the Japanese word used in translation of the English “human” or “human being.” It is composed of two characters. The first, nin 人, can also be read as hito and means another person. The second, gen 間, can also be read as aida, ma, or ken and means a spatial or temporal interval. The term ningen was originally a Buddhist term meaning “human realm” as distinct from the other realms of rebirth, such as the animal world or the various hells and heavens. Watsuji finds it telling that over time this term could change in its meaning from a realm to humans collectively to humans individually. One might think that this is merely an artifact of the fact that neither Japanese nor Chinese grammatically require a distinction between singular and plural, but according to Watsuji, its significance is much greater. For him, the multiple usages of ningen are a linguistic expression of an underlying truth about humankind as both individuals and collective. In his ethics, the fundamental law of humanity (his replacement for Kant’s categorical imperative) is that individuals must negate the totality to which they belong in order to individuate themselves but they must negate that negation in order to return to the totality. The human individual and the human collective are both fundamentally empty in the Buddhist sense, since both derive from the more fundamental field of human relationality. The pattern of double negation in human existence can be subsumed under a more general pattern of hermeneutic cleavage: first there is an undifferentiated whole, then its division, and finally the reunion of the parts without a reversion to the origin. But to understand just what this means, further exploration of Watsuji’s background is required.

Individualism and collectivism in Taishō Japan

I will show that throughout his life, Watsuji struggled to resolve the question of “Western individualism” versus “Eastern collectivism” that he inherited from his surroundings. In particular, his mentor, the Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki had a great effect on his thinking. In a lecture delivered in 1907, Sōseki claimed,

If we set aside our daily common sense, when we look at the world of selves and things, we realize that we cannot claim that objects exist independently of the self, nor that the self exists independent of its objects. To put it another way, without the self there are no objects, and likewise without objects there can be no self. “Objects” and “self” necessarily appear in tandem.

Such writings of Sōseki’s were among the causes of Watsuji’s turn away from individualism. As a young person Watsuji had been deeply impressed by English Romantic poetry, and at university, he embraced of proto-existentialists like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but after coming into the orbit of Sōseki and the White Birch literary society, Watsuji turned his attention toward a more “Japanese” aesthetic and moral approach. Watsuji also visited Japanese temples and began to write about various forms of Buddhism. Aesthetically, this impressed upon him the importance of art in guiding the ethics of a community. Anthropologically, it caused him to embrace the Mahāyāna concept of emptiness as the core of the human personality.

Translating the “subject”

With the basics of Watsuji’s mature anthropology explained, I can begin relating it to the problem of taste, starting with the question of internality. Like “aesthetics,” “the subject” is a term which affords multiple possible translations into Japanese. Of particular note for the period in which Watsuji was writing was the transition from the consideration of the subject as shukan 主観 to the subject as shutai 主体. In both compounds shukan and shutai, the shu represents the host or ruler as opposed to a “guest” or one with an objective view kyakkan 客観. The change from kan to tai represents a shift from the “observer” to the “body.” That is, in the early years of modern Japanese philosophy, the Western subject was considered to be a transcendental observer (shukan) but under the direction Nishida Kitarō, with influence from Marx and other sources, the subject was seen as the transcendental agent of action (shutai). The character for tai in shutai was written as 體 in the pre-war orthography, which reflects the importance of the flesh as a means of ritual interaction in Chinese-influenced cultures. It also reflects the close connection between the body and Confucian li 禮 (ritual propriety). That the post-war way of writing tai as 体 existed as variant also reflects the view that the body is the root (本) of the person (人). That Nishida influenced a change in the translation of “subject” in this way shows the importance to his philosophy of thinking of the body as the ground of the human being.

No discussion of Watsuji’s anthropology could be complete without a special emphasis on the role of the body in human existence. Watsuji was quite explicit in his rejection of Cartesian dualism (and Cartesian epistemology for that matter), and his student Yuasa Yasuo has done an excellent job of further developing these insights. This non-dualistic conception of the body coheres with the Confucian concept of li previously mentioned: as a site of knowledge, the body is our means of expressing our personalities in the world and this expression is inevitably filtered through cultural channels, since without a culturally provided form, there can be no content to communicate with others. The shift from a subject of consciousness that passively adds “I think” to each of the representations it receives (a shukan) to an active subject that engages in the world through what Watsuji calls its “practical act connections” (a shutai) is one of the core contributions Watsuji’s philosophical anthropology can give us. By better understanding the non-dualism of the body and subject, we are better positioned to overcome the problem of the subjectivity/objectivity of taste, since we can move beyond the rigid dichotomy of the two, which creates the problem in the first place.

Watsuji follows Nishida’s lead in his view of the subject, but as John Maraldo notes in “Between Individual and Communal, Subject and Object, Self and Other,” this leads to a certain incongruity in his hermeneutics. Watsuji’s hermeneutic method was directly appropriate from Dilthey and the other German hermeneutists (as taught to him by Raphael von Koeber at Tokyo University), but Watsuji criticizes them for trying to interpret expression as an objectivization of the self. He insists instead that the study of ethics as a hermeneutic method must always retain its subjectivity, its nature as an expression of the shutai, the self as embodied agent. According to Maraldo, this seems almost to be a deliberate misunderstanding of the aim of Dilthey. However, I will argue that this shift from hermeneutics as a process of making objective to hermeneutics as a process of making subjective is essential to Watsuji’s aesthetic of intersubjectivity.

Conscience and subjectivity

As Watsuji explains in his Ethics though there is regional variation in morality--for example, one society may approve of human sacrifice while another condemns it--this does not undermine the universality of the basis of ethics. In all societies what is condemned are actions that undermine the trust basis of that society and what is praised are actions that reinforce the trust basis of that society. But if this is the case, how is it that we as individual members of society feel the call of conscience? If these values are being imposed on us from without in order to preserve society, then it is not clear why as individuals we should feel an inner impulse towards morality. In that case, moral education is a kind of deformation of the person by which the individual is trained to ignore her authentic desires and interests and produce within herself a feeling of subordination to the order outside of her. Yet in spite of this when we truly feel the call of conscience it does not feel to us as something coming from without but it feels as though it was coming from our inmost personality.

This may be understood by analogy to fashion: if the fashion choices we make are imposed on us from outside--and they certainly are, otherwise it would not just so happen that men in the West wear shirts and pants, whereas men in other cultures have worn robes, etc.--then why do we feel as though when I dress I put on clothes that reflect my taste in clothing? Has the outside force of fashion education deformed my authentic sartorial feelings? By analogy, can our call of conscience really be the result of a super-ego that is essential alien to us?

Watsuji answers no. In the determination of guilt by a court of law, the one who accuses me stands in for society as whole, but in an affliction of conscience, the one who accuses me is the very emptiness at the heart of my self. Society may help shape my taste in fashion, but it is still my taste.

Watsuji explicitly links his discussion of conscience to Mencius, who coined the term 良心, which evolved eventually into the term ryōshin in Japanese and liangxin in Modern Standard Mandarin and is used to translate the English word “conscience.” If we return to Mencius’ discussion of why yi is internal we see that Watsuji has completed our picture of the subjectivity of the appropriate by expanding our concept of the subject to encompass the social fabric itself.

It should be noted that this is a serious departure from Kant, for whom aesthetics was subjective but morality was objective. Again, this shows the Confucian tendency to treat aesthetics and morality as continuous.

Perceiving climate

Although Watsuji has given use picture of the subjective origin of our ethical and aesthetic values, we nevertheless cannot neglect a consideration of the historical, cultural, and environmental forces which construct our subjectivity. Watsuji begins his Fūdo 風土, or Climate and Culture, with an exploration of the everyday climatic phenomena of cold. There are two mainstream approaches by which understand the experience of perceiving the cold. In the first, we might say that the cold is something outside of us, which we experience through our senses. The difficulty with this view, as was noted by Berkeley, is that strictly speaking, we do not perceive the cold outside of us, but we perceive our idea of the cold, which is inside of us. If the cold is some object that is truly independent of any of our perceptions of it, then what we perceive cannot be the cold but some faint impression created through a mysterious process by that unknowable external entity. Should we then turn to the solution of something like Berkeley’s idealism, we are faced with a new problem. When I am outside, I experience my idea of cold. If you are outside with me, you may experience your idea of cold. But it is impossible for us to experience the same idea of cold, since coldness is the idea of the individual. In other words, under the first model of perception, cold is something external and thus unknowable, and under the second model, the cold is something internal and thus unsharable. (Notice that this problem is parallel to the problem of subjectivity/objectivity in taste.)

Watsuji rejects both of these models and notes that they both contain the assumption of a sharp subject-object dichotomy. In the externalist view, cold is objective, and under the internalist view, cold is subjective, but in neither view can there be any mixing of what pertains to a subject and what is outside of that subject. To overcome this subject-object dichotomy, Watsuji advances an earlier form of his anthropology of ningen. If we understand individuals as being only individuals and not also at the same time constituents of a community, then we can never understand how it is possible for the cold to be something shared by different persons.

Watsuji takes from Heidegger’s suggestion another difficulty in Berkeley’s idealism: how can we explain the continuity of the subject over time? The cold that I experience today is one idea, and the cold that I experienced yesterday is another idea. How can I make the claim that they are the same idea? For that matter, how can I make the claim that I am the same subject, since yesterday’s subject was doing one thing (experiencing yesterday’s cold) and today’s subject is doing another thing (experiencing today’s cold). So, something like Berkeley’s idealism must give rise to Hume’s fragmentation of the self unless we have some mechanism for saying that the self can exist projected through time. For Heidegger, such projection through time was called “standing outside” or ex-sistere. Throughout our lifetime as individuals, we are always projected forward to the moment of our deaths, and this self projection is what makes possible our identity over time.

But for Watsuji, the same sort of standing outside must also exist in the perception of the cold outside of us. It is as though we look outside of us and find the cold and see that it has in it something of us, which is what allows us to take it and bring it inside of us. We go out and find ourselves beyond ourselves. Such a theory seems inverted and backwards, but it seems to be the only way we can explain how perception is possible. Watsuji, however, offers us another method for understanding this. Suppose that it is not the case that there is first a subject and an object which are independent an opposed to one another, but originally, there is a field of subject-object unity, which is then divided into a subject portion and an object portion. In that case, we should not be surprised that the subject recognizes the object, or that the object seems to contain some quality that makes it possible for it to relate to the subject, since the subject and object were originally one. We might say that the two are holographically mutually containing but perspectivally structured.

This is the basic nature of Watsuji’s hermeneutic of cleavage. The basic unity of subject-object is first cleaved apart into subject and object and then cleaved together into the subject’s recognition of the object. (In Japanese, the relationship between understanding and cleavage is reflected by the etymology of the terms wakaru わかる, wake 訳, and wakeru 分ける.) Hence, the individual has a negative structure. The individual is a denial of the original unity and consciousness is a negation of that negation as the unity is reconstituted in self-awareness.

Hence those climatic/cultural features of the world that seem to be outside of the subject are in some sense holographically contained within it. A major purpose for Watsuji in writing Climate and Culture was to challenge Heidegger’s metaphysical anthropology of Dasein, which Watsuji felt placed too much emphasis on the temporality and historicality of human beings and not enough on their spatiality and climaticity. Watsuji had eagerly read Heidegger’s Being and Time when it came out (at the time, Watsuji was studying in Europe). Its influence on the work of Watsuji is clear but often revealed through what Watsuji denies and refutes. Watsuji felt that because in Heidegger’s philosophy all relationships of Dasein must connect vertically to Being, there is no room from authenticity in horizontal relations with others. Indeed, our relations with others are a source of inauthenticity for Heidegger, since we become absorbed in the They and lose awareness of our being-toward-death. For Watsuji, however, even our temporal relationship with death is subordinate to our spatial relationships with others. When there is the death of an individual, the remaining members of the individual’s community will hold a funeral ceremony. The end of the individual’s life is not the complete annihilation of the individual, but a major transition point that marks the gradual diminution of the individual within the field of human relations over time.

In relation to taste, Watsuji’s philosophy of climate helps us understand how the taste of groups varies not only over time (an observation made by Hume, Hegel, and many others) but also from community to community without implying a lack of refinement in other cultures. In a Hegelian paradigm, we might think of the ancestors of our community as rational individuals but limited in their tastes by what artistic media and objects had developed up to that point in time. Watsuji gives us a way of understanding the distinctiveness of other cultures without denying their rationality or dismissing their differences as the product of their “savageness.” Since taste emerges out of the perspectives of the community, it must be grounded in climate as well as history.

Public spheres

Important to understanding Watsuji’s anthropology is the concept of the public or seken 世間. As in ningen, 間 conveys a spatial or temporal interval, but what is interesting is that 世 (read yo when written singly) is likewise both spatial and temporal. Yo indicates either the world (spatial) or a generation (temporal). Seken seems to play a role like the They in Heidegger, but unlike Heidegger’s the They, Watsuji’s public is not an alienating force that divorces us from our authenticity but the ground out which our authenticity emerges. Taste then can be read as the judgment of the public without it thereby becoming divorced from the judgment of the subject or simply reducible to the private judgments of so many individuals. (Recall that the public is not identical to the collective, since the collective is, like the individual, a negation of the more fundamental human betweenness.) In his various writings, Watsuji proposes various means by which can better understand the character of the public and his aesthetic writings for example aim at the explication of various publics in the history of Japanese thought.

One criticism that has been raised of Watsuji’s system is that in it these publics are hierarchically structured from the male-female couple at the lowest level to the state at the highest level. The downside of such a rigid hierarchy is that, especially in his war era writings, he may make it seem that the state is synonymous with the totality out of which individuals and collectives emerge, and that the individual must in all cases return to a national totality. One major aspect of this section of my dissertation will be describing some correctives for this failure within Watsuji’s larger project. Even from his own perspective, it must be emphasized that the collective is as empty as the individual, hence it would be wrong from the nation to be given an absolute priority. That Watsuji himself seems to do so in some of his writings should be seen as a warning to us of the importance of describing the structure of ningen correctly.

4. Taste from the perspective of ningen anthropology

Having thoroughly examined Watsuji’s anthropology of ningen, we are now positioned to examine concretely how such an anthropology would contribute to an analysis of taste and its cultivation.

Taste and the authoritative connoisseur

One approach to talking about the cultivation of taste has been to couch claims about what constitutes good and bad taste in terms of the reactions of a hypothetical “suitable spectator” or an “ideal observer.” In this framework, taste is that judgment posed by an ideal observer and when faced with the question of rendering a judgment about a particular aesthetic object or event, the correct judgment to render is one that agrees with that of the ideal observer. With Watsuji’s anthropology as a tool, we will be better able to flesh out what is meant by such an ideal observer, in terms of where such ideals originate and how we are to discover them. From the perspective of ningen anthropology, rather than thinking in terms of an ideal observer or spectator (shukan 主観), we should think in terms of ideal embodied agents or actors (shutai 主体). Furthermore, this ideal embodied agent is not an abstracted individual but a reality contained in the fabric of a particular public. These individuals have certain patterns of behavior that reflect their ideals (or in Confucian terms li 體) that can be hermeneutically studied.

To give a concrete example, take this incident in the life of the Japanese poet Bashō (芭蕉). One time a dispute arose about the proper interpretation of his disciple Kyorai’s poem, “On the edge of this rock, / Here is one more / Moon-viewer”:

Kyorai said, “Shadō asserted that this must be a monkey, but what I intend is another person.” Bashō retorted, “A monkey! What does he mean? What were you thinking when you composed the poem?” Kyorai answered, “As I was walking over the fields and mountains, singing under the light of the full moon, I found, on the edge of a rock, another man filled with poetical excitement.” Bashō said, “In the phrase, ‘There is one more person,” you announce yourself; in this there is poetry. […] My poetical taste is below the highest, but in Bashō’s interpretation, there is something fantastic, I think.

About this incident, the translator R.H. Blyth remarks, “we have here the entertaining picture of Bashō telling Kyorai, not what he ought to have said, but what he ought to have meant by what he said.” Why is Bashō’s interpretation preferred over Kyorai’s? Because as the master of Kyorai, Bashō is in a position to offer an authoritative interpretation of Kyorai’s work. Through a lifetime of training, Bashō has made himself able to instantly size up the merits of a haiku. At the same time, one of the reasons that it is Bashō and not someone else who is in that position is that Kyorai as the author had always intended for the poem to be evaluated for someone with the degree of insight that he considered his master to have. Thus, as an author, Kyorai has the authority to invest Bashō with a claim to the authoritative interpretation. Bashō is the “ideal observer” or “suitable spectator” for the poem because he has cultivated his taste to its utmost. But notice that the judgment that Bashō achieved came not through passive contemplation or reflection but through a lifetime of embodied engagement in the poetic arts. Perhaps a better way to describe such an “ideal observer” might be in terms of “authoritative taste.” The connoisseur must be in some sense an accomplished creator.

To give another example, Watsuji’s contemporary Kuki Shūzō described in detail an ideal of Tokugawa-era Japan, iki 粋. What made iki an aesthetic ideal is that it was the expression of life in Edo at that time. To judge whether something conforms to the canons of iki or not, we must become able to see from the perspective of a member of that society. Really understanding iki means living the life of a Edoite.

Good taste arises from a shared way of life; to study it, however, it is indispensable to have at our disposal examples of individual lives that best embodied the cultural practices surrounding them. To give another example, think of the tenth book of the Analects in which the character of Confucius is described in detail (some scholars think this text was originally just part of a work on right ritual behavior). If we are going to judge whether the Confucian life as described in the Analects is a good way of life or not, we must carefully examine this chapter of the Analects and judge for ourselves whether this is truly an aim that is achievable and desirable.

Such a look at the lives of those with authoritative taste actually fits well with Watsuji’s hermeneutic method, since his forebears like Dilthey and Schleiermacher also emphasized the importance of understanding a way of life to gain hermeneutic insight, although their aim was an objective understanding rather than a subjective one.

For his part, Watsuji was not afraid to examine his own life to see how well he lived up to the ideals he had set. In his Tenkō 転向, or Turning Point, Watsuji examined his own life as an example of the struggle between one’s ethical and aesthetic impulses and as an expression of the tumult of life in Japan’s Taishō period.

Finally, it should be clear from the preceding discussion that to really understand an ideal of taste, it is not enough to study it from a distance; we must at some level also put it into practice. But as soon as we begin to speak about practice, the question of ethics unavoidably intrudes, since we are no longer speaking merely about our theoretical attitudes towards some prospect but also action. Hence the ideals of a connoisseur with “authoritative taste” must be ethical as well as aesthetic.

Genius: overturning and decontextualizing values

If the individual is primarily a negation of the subjective field of the public out of which we emerge, then it follows in Watsuji’s thinking that the most powerful expressions of our subjectivity will not be those that aim at producing some positive content but those that aim at negatively realizing the possibilities of the personality. In his essay Mask and Persona, Watsuji gives an example of this in the Noh mask, which is most active and dynamic because it is static and blank. In Japanese aesthetics in general, we find a special sensitivity to the importance of 間 (in this case read as ma) for relating elements in such a way as to bring out the interplay of their context. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, for example, emphasizes the role of shadows and other expressions of ma in Japanese aesthetics.

However, it seems as though the greatest works of art are those that function even beyond their original contexts (think of the Venus de Milo, which was originally a religious artifact) and the greatest artists are those who create new standards for art (think of Picasso). Kant writes that, “Genius […] gives the rule to art.” On Kant’s theory, genius is the talent of the individual to create new rules of taste to match our indeterminate concept of beauty, rather than any communal capacity. However, if we examine the concept of genius more closely, we find that genius must express “the spirit of the times.” For one to paint like Picasso in the Renaissance would not have gotten one far, and to paint like Picasso today is merely to be an imitator. Rather than seeing genius as the possession of an individual, we should see it as the ability to crystallize the historical and climactic conditions of the public in a never before seen expression that gives rise to a new space of possibilities to project.

Similarly, those great works of art like the Venus de Milo are great because they bring their ideals with them when they travel and instantly reconfigure the cultures into which they are introduced. Watsuji gives an example of something like this in his Revival of the Idols when he talks about the introduction of Buddhism to Japan. In Watsuji’s telling, at first, the native Japanese did not understand Buddhism as an intellectual or religious system. They knew only that they saw the temples and statues of the Buddha and that these were beautiful. From this starting point, the mindset of the ancient Japanese was revolutionized and a whole new way of life took root. Revival of the Idols marked a turn in Watsuji’s thinking from Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to Japanese culture and shows a deep concern with investigating the process by which the values of society are subject to conversion and reversion through the agency of individual subjectivities. In it (still heavily under the influence of Nietzsche), he posits that over time there is a tendency for our values to scleroticize into “idols” that must be smashed for the development of society. Nevertheless, there also comes a point in time at which it is possible for those values to be restored, no longer as idols but with a new and more expressive authority. He gives the example of Venus de Milo’s transition from religious object to art object. The statue contains the same power to move the individual observer, but by detaching that power from a religious significance, we now have the ability to appreciate its beauty as beauty apart from mythologizing. In its essay Turning Point (mentioned above), Watsuji explains his own life experiences as a period of iconoclasm followed by return. In other words, in this early work, we can see Watsuji beginning to work out the structure of the double negation that he would later clarify in his Ethics. In this earlier work, Watsuji is already beginning to explore the connection between individual, subjective aesthetic experience and social upheavals in taste and values.

In later writings Watsuji emphasizes that this historical process by which one set of ideals supplants another is not eliminative--old ideals are not erased--but additive. New layers of culture are deposited without wholly destroying the old. Because of this, a quest for a return to cultural purity is inevitably folly. Each culture is always engaged in a process of taking in influences and remaking itself. To try to reach into the past and restore some old ideal inevitably involves the creation of another new ideal rather than a true restoration. Past values can only be restored by being made new and given life, which inevitably causes them to change as they are brought forth in a new context. Such values show their greatness by being able to adapt to a new field of betweenness (ma), but inevitably the difference of the field causes a difference in the value as well.

5. Taste and Ethics

Throughout this proposal, the issues of ethics and aesthetics have been treated as being tightly coupled. However, there appear to be many arenas in which our moral and aesthetic instincts diverge. Contemporary Western thinking typically argues that it is not permissible to treat aesthetic taste as having the same source in our subjectivity, both because of the differences between the two and because there are dangers inherent in conflating them. Judgments of taste are merely opinions and not truth-apt, whereas considered moral judgments aspire to the status of knowledge and are accordingly truth-apt. The Confucian tradition, however, does not make any such firm distinction between the personal, ethical, political, or aesthetic cultivation of good taste. The tradition holds that achievement of political efficacy is dependent on the achievement of ethical efficacy, which in turn rests on the foundation of good form in the cultivation of the person through li 禮. In this chapter of the dissertation, I will argue that the differences between ethics and taste that exist are quantitative rather than qualitative and that the dangers of conflating the two can be lessened.

Differences and similarities between ethics and taste

Hume observes that when we look at old paintings we can forgive those depicted their outdated fashions but when we read an old story, we are hard pressed to forgive what we see as the moral shortcomings of the past. Why should there be such a difference in our attitudes? Did not past morality emerge out of the same field of subjectivity as past tastes in fashion?

We can explain this seeming difference by recalling the nature of authoritative connoisseur: to develop taste requires cultivation through action. Cultivating a love for past fashions risks perhaps causing one to pick up an anachronistic personal style; cultivating a love for past moralities risks ethical disaster. There is some asymmetry here, but the asymmetry is more quantitative than qualitative. We find it easier to shed our inhibitions about imaginatively engaging in past tastes than engaging past ethics, but it is the potential consequences of such engagement that causes the degree of difference between the two.

Kant in the Critique of Judgment allows that beauty can be a symbol of morality but nevertheless maintains that they are and must be distinct. We have already dealt with some of his objections (locating aesthetics in the universal subjective and ethics in objective), but one which has not yet been take up in this proposal is that beauty is apart from all interest whereas morality depends on a certain kind of interest. It is easy to see the basic point of Kant’s claim that aesthetics must be disinterested. Suppose for example one looks at nude with a certain kind of interest. In that case, the nude is no longer art but pornography. The stars for Kant are the aesthetic objects par excellence exactly because we can never hope to possess them.

However, Kant’s disinterested interest is not the only way that we can properly separate the aesthetic gaze from a merely instrumental gaze. Another approach is to look towards the object with sympathy for the way it exists from its own perspective. In other words, to see things with “compassion.” Such a stance is preeminently ethical and, I will argue, aesthetic as well. (“Compassion” is a Buddhist name for this stance, but other traditions contain similar accepting perspectives, such as Confucianism’s shu 恕 or Christianity’s αγάπη.) By looking on an object with compassion, we are able to appreciate what is good for the object apart from how the object could be instrumentally good for us.

In the case of human beings, it clear how compassion can arise within a ningen anthropology--the I and the Thou who face each other both arise out of the same human betweenness and so have a common basis that allows them to share feelings without collapsing into one entity. But what about non-human entities? Here Watsuji seems to depart from his Buddhist influences in deference to his Western ones, because he seems to mark a great divide between human beings and non-human entities. While not meaning to slight the important differences between humans and non-humans, I feel that Watsuji’s philosophy would be corrected here by recalling that in the Buddhist tradition everything is empty, not only human beings. Because of this, and because of our microcosmic similarity to things in this world, we are able to have compassion (literally, to feel together with) for non-human entities as well as human ones, and in doing so, we are able to aesthetically appreciate them while also properly ethically comporting ourselves to them.

Dangers of treating ethics and taste together

While we have seen important continuities between ethics and aesthetics, at the same time, we must also recognize the dangers in treating different kinds of values commensurately. In particular, critics of Watsuji have been quick to seize on his falling prey to the danger of “totalizing” or reducing all individual to its function to the totalitarian collective. I believe this criticism misses its mark when targeting Watsuji for reasons to previously mentioned (human collectives are just as empty as individuals are), but it is a criticism worth examining seriously given Watsuji’s role in supporting Japan’s emperor system and wartime propaganda. While I believe that some of the worst charges against Watsuji are overblown, nevertheless, we must be careful not to whitewash his complicity in Japanese imperialism.

Even apart from whatever Watsuji’s personal faults were, some might say that linking ethics and aesthetics risks creating a rigid, univocal standard of taste that abrogates the individual prerogative. As negative historical examples, one thinks of the Nazis destroying “degenerate” and “Jewish” artwork or the Soviets imposing the use of “Socialist Realism” on all artists. If these are socially emergent canons of taste, why shouldn’t they be enforced in this manner? However, we have already seen that the anthropology of ningen resists this kind of global homogenization. In the first place, we recognize that taste must respond to historical and climactic conditions, and as such it cannot be reduced to a single global standard, as the twentieth century totalitarian regimes sought to do. Second, the discussion of genius and the overturning of values should make clear that sometimes the introduction of new aesthetic objects is able to create a new context in which art is to be understood. Because of this, any attempt to impose a uniform style will inevitably cause the disconnection of taste from the subjectivities of those imposed upon. Throughout this proposal we have argued that taste must be subjective, hence, as Watsuji explains in Revival of the Idols, any attempt to create determinate concept out of aesthetics will inevitably result in a once vital force “scleroticizing” into an “idol” of society that must be smashed in order for it to someday regain its authority.

On the other side, some might argue that there is an inherent danger in linking taste to ethics by rooting both in subjectivity. In doing so, we make morality “subjective” not in Watsuji’s sense (something emerging out the common ground which individuals must negate to exist) but in the conventional sense--something individual, fickle, unaccountable, emotional, irrational, etc. The claim is that ethics will become as malleable as fashion and unaccountable to anything higher or “transcendent” of social norms. When we look more closely at these claims, however, we find that their cogency depends on the presumed frivolity of aesthetic, whereas I have argued that aesthetic feeling depends on a kind of “compassion” that lets us peer into the context of the object without thereby losing our own position. If we see aesthetics as rooted in compassion and fellow feeling, then this criticism no longer holds as much bite. Furthermore, even Watsuji emphasized the universality of the fundamental law of ningen, though he also sought to demonstrate the diversity with which this law finds its expression.

A final danger to be addressed is that of commodification. The great utility of money comes from the fact that through it the disparate interests and values of various members of society can be quantified and efficiently allocated, but the same time, we have a strong intuition that, for example, relations within the household must not be conducted on a commercial basis. In uniting our aesthetic and ethical values under a common sphere of subjectivity, can it be long until these values are united with the more individual value of personal pecuniary interest? The ancient Confucians certainly were worried about such a danger. In the very first section of the Mencius, Mencius berates King Hui for thinking in terms of personal profit (li 利, not to be confused with li 禮). From the perspective of ningen anthropology, the problem with thinking in terms of personal profit is that it reifies the individual in a way that ignores our fundamental emptiness. Because we emerge from our relationships with others, to place personal profit above those relationships requires a fundamental mistake about where our benefit lies. While money is a useful tool of exchange, it cannot be used as a final arbiter of taste, since it works by creating an objective framework of quantified prices out of individual desires, whereas taste must always remain rooted in the common subjectivity of aesthetic communities.

changed January 16, 2011