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Zhang, Eucken, and the Chinese and European cultivation of life

Zhang, his mentor, China’s leading intellectual of the time, Liang Qichao (1873-1929), and the military expert Jiang Baili ШНМ (Jiang Fangzhen Ш^Ш, 1882-1938) visited Eucken on a study tour of Europe organized by Liang from 1918 to 1920.5 They met Eucken in his home in Jena in late 1919 or on New Year’s Day in 1920, the date differs in different accounts, to arrange translations of his works into Chinese.6 In retrospect, Zhang noted in his account of this meeting how he found Eucken particularly moving because of his recurring gesture of holding his heart in his hands while addressing how spiritual life emerged from material life and how this encounter inspired him to study philosophy instead of international politics.7

Eucken already had an existing awareness of East Asia and Asian philosophy prior to his collaboration with Zhang. He had been invited and planned a trip to China and Japan in 1914, which was prevented by the outbreak of the First World War. He expressed hope in engaging in intellectual exchange with Eastern thinkers in his autobiography Lebenserinnerungen: Ein Stuck Deutschen Lebens, translated as Eucken, His Life, Work and Travels (both appeared in 1921).8 Eucken stressed his concern for the common problems of humanity and the human—rather than merely German—condition; presumably speaking in this way because of his activism on behalf of Germany during the war that he justified as a form of critical patriotism and that had negatively impacted his reputation in the Anglo-American world.

Eucken’s attention to Asian thought, he mentions his interest in Buddhism in particular in his autobiography, is depicted as part of a vision of the need for a spiritual renewal of inner life in face of “the danger of a merely active civilization”9 Eastern thinkers, such as the Buddha whose thought has affirmative redemptive tendencies for Eucken in addition to the pessimistic world-denying elements stressed by Schopenhauer and Weber, are perceived as exemplars and sources for spiritual transformation and renewal in his reflections on religion.10

Spiritual revitalization is a desirable response to the crisis of modernity that has weakened life and unleashed and intensified brutality and force in mass societies and mass wars.11 The modern situation does not require a return to the premodern in Eucken’s assessment, nor for cultural pessimism about the decline of Western civilization; rather it calls for inner renewal and spiritual revolution under modern conditions. “Spirit” (Geist) is understood in a Hegelian fashion as the media or mediated realities of language, law, science, and religion; the very forces that increasingly spiritualized and moralized animal human existence had fallen into crisis in modernity. The dehumanizing technological age unleashed humanity’s self-interested and competitive egoism and its coercive brutality against other humans.12

Eucken’s concern with the renewal of life under the material and spiritual crisis conditions of modernity is also visible in his coauthored work with Zhang, in which the Confucian way, along with the practically oriented “activist” idealism of Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, offers a point of departure for the present.13 It is the emphasis on morally oriented activity and its inherent rationality that distinguished Eucken’s “affirmative” life-philosophy, informed by an anti-dogmatic liberal Protestantism and emphasizing personal moral improvement and struggle, from the cultural pessimism and irrationalism of popularized or “vulgar” life-philosophy, associated with Ludwig Klages (18721956) and Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), which permeated German culture during the Weimar Republic. With the ruination of the modern shattering of tradition, which had served the reproduction of human life for generations, there will be—according to Eucken—either the destruction of humanity or a new spiritual transformation and advance that integrates spirit, technology, and nature. Eucken concludes in his late autobiographical work that reciprocal aid, communication, and exchange between and across peoples are required for the fullness and richness of life and its renewal.14 It is this elderly idealistic and liberal nationalist philosopher, described by the young Max Horkheimer in 1926 as an epigone and shadowy remainder of the classical idealist lineage, who is struck in the early Weimar Republic by the need for cross-cultural dialogue and interaction and pursues a mutual intellectual exchange with Zhang.15

Zhang portrays his meeting with Eucken—and with Henri Bergson—as inspiring his growing attentiveness to contemporary European life-philosophy and his collaboration with Eucken who he describes as a close philosophical mentor during their months together in Jena.16 Eucken noted in the same book that Zhang, who he calls a sympathetic professor from Beijing, remained with him for four months and that he was interested in classical German idealism, Eucken’s own activist idealism, and less so in his Christianity.17 They co-wrote The Problem of Life in China and Europe during this period. This work focuses— no doubt through Zhang’s contribution to the work—on Confucian rather than the Buddhist practical philosophy that Eucken mentioned in his memoirs.

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