Title: Subject to Taste Proposal

Subject to Taste Proposal

I see the purpose of a proposal as creating a sort of outline that can be grasped by someone other than the author of the outline. Accordingly, this proposal contains many fragmentary and rushed arguments. My hope is that this proposal gives the reader some sense of how I will attempt to flesh each of them out in paper proper.


The problem

In the introduction to the dissertation, I will first lay out the problem of taste. There are two parallel pitfalls in addressing the source of taste. The first is to treat taste as solely subjective or individualistic. If this were the case, then it would not be possible to have disputes about good taste and bad taste. The second pitfall is to treat taste as solely objective or collectivistic. If taste were fully external from us, then it is unclear why it would be able to compel anyone’s assent.

Introducing Watsuji

Then I will explain that the philosophy of Watsuji Tetsurō provides us with a means of overcoming this dichotomy using his philosophy of human beings as nin-gen. By changing our understanding of what it is to be a human being we can understand how it is possible for tastes to vary from individual to individual yet possess a collective subjectivity and normativity.

The introduction will also contain a brief biographical sketch of Watsuji.

Clarifying the meaning of taste and aesthetics

Next, we must clarify what is meant by “taste” and by “aesthetics,” such that Watsuji is able to sharpen our view of them. 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 alone.) Another translation of aesthetics in 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. 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.


Finally, I will provide some remarks on my methodology.


Human beings as ningen

In this chapter, I will explain Watsuji’s anthropology of ningen 人間 by drawing on his explanation in Ethics. For Watsuji, as 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, 人, can also be read as hito and means a person. The second, 間, can also be read as aida or ma 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 or 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. At the heart of this approach was a non-dualistic appreciation of the role of the body in consciousness. Watsuji also visited Japanese temples and began to write about various forms of Buddhism. Aesthetically, this impressed upon Watsuji 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.

Comparison to Heidegger’s Dasein

Another major influence on Watsuji’s anthropology that must be mentioned is that of Heidegger. Watsuji eagerly read Heidegger’s Being and Time when it came out (at the time, Watsuji was studying in Europe), but he rejected what he saw as an over-temporalizing of Dasein. Watsuji felt that because in Heidegger’s philosophy all relationships in 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. I will base my explanation of Watsuji critique of the anthropology of Dasein on both Ethics and Climate and Culture, in which Watsuji explicitly positions his thinking as an antidote to the one side temporal emphasis of Being and Time.

Non-dualistic, non-Cartesian conception of the body

Finally, 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.

Taste and Internality

The subject in Japan

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. That the post-war way of writing tai as 体 existed as variant also reflects the view that the body is the root of the person. 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.

Subjectivity in Watsuji’s thinking

Watsuji follows Nishida’s lead in this 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, 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 that society and what is praised are actions that reinforce 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.

Mencius and internality

To clarify what Watsuji means by this, we may draw an analogy to an argument made by Mencius. In a debate with Gaozi on human nature, Mencius claims that yi 義 (what is appropriate and our sense of it) is nei 内 (internal) not wai 外 (external). 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. Said in another way, it is concerned with attuning our ear to the faint call of conscience within us.

Expression and subjectivity

Taste and Externality

Having explored the role of “subjectivity” and internality in the thought of Mencius and Watsuji, we must also explore the means by which we interact with and are influenced by what is external to us.

Perceiving climate

Watsuji begins his 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.

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.

Heidegger points out 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 denial of 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.

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 divide 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.

This is the basic nature of Watsuji’s hermeneutic of cleavage. A basic unity of subject-object is cleaved apart into subject and object and then cleaved together into the subject’s recognition of the object. Hence, the subject has a negative structure. The subject is a denial of the original unity and consciousness is a negation of that negation as the unity is reconstituted in awareness.

Taste and Ethics

Social and subjective double negation without elimination

While Watsuji deals explicitly with the question of conscience in his Ethics, a mature work, his earlier work also contains some intriguing insights on the relationship between individual taste and the call of conscience. Revival of the Idols, a collection which marked a turn in Watsuji’s thinking from Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to Japanese culture, 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 Greek and Roman statuary, which was once appreciated as numinous but is now appreciated as art. The statues contain 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 another part of Revival of the Idols, 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 emphasize in his Ethics. In this earlier work, Watsuji is clear about the connection between the individual, subjective aesthetic experience and social upheavals in taste and values.

Differentiating values

Is it permissible to treat aesthetic taste as having the same source as the call of conscience in this way? Contemporary Western thinking typically argues that it is not. 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 personal efficacy (in Chinese li 禮).

At the same time, there are dangers in treating different kinds of values commensurately, and critics of Watsuji have been quick to seize on one of them in particular. This is 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 be detailed below, but it is a criticism worth taking seriously. Another major danger is the danger 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.


changed January 4, 2011