Home Psychology Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in early Twentieth-Century German Thought
One: Daoism and German Philosophy Daoism in modern German philosophy
The dominant tendency in the German reception of Chinese thought from Kant and Hegel to Weber and Rosenzweig has interpreted the classical “Lao- Zhuang” Daoism, associated with the names Laozi and Zhuangzi, as a form of mysticism in which the practitioner is absorbed in the sensuous elemental forces of natural existence while, at the same time, being lost in the fantastic and the imaginary. Classical Daoism is perceived in this reception as simultaneously overly materialistic and mystical, subordinating the individual person—and thus ethical personhood—to nature and the feeling of its elemental forces. Kant described Daoism according to the aesthetic-ethical category of the “grotesque,” while Rosenzweig identified Daoism a hundred years later with a deficient lack of character and particularity in what he described as the “impersonality of feeling.” Accordingly, for Kant, describing what he understood to be the Chinese aesthetic:
What ridiculous grotesqueries do the verbose and studied complements of the Chinese not contain; even their paintings are grotesque and represent marvelous and unnatural shapes, the likes of which are nowhere to be found in the world. They also have venerable grotesqueries, for the reason that they are of ancient usage, and no people in the world has more of them than this one.2
The loss of the person and the human in nature and the religious, which Kant perceives in Eastern wisdom, is an issue to which he and the subsequent tradition from Hegel to Rosenzweig repeatedly returned. Unlike Leibniz and Buber, and akin to Malebranche and Rosenzweig who condemned Asian philosophies for being Spinozist, Asian forms of thought are identified with the mystical experience of nature and assimilated to Spinoza in Kant’s lectures on religion from the mid-1780s. Kant claimed:
To expect this [e.g., divine participation] in the present life is the business of mystics and theosophists. Thus arises the mystical self-annihilation of China, Tibet, and India, in which one deludes oneself that one is finally dissolved into the Godhead. Fundamentally one might just as well call Spinozism a great enthusiasm as a form of atheism.3
Such an atheistic mysticism or enthusiastic naturalism is incoherent according to Kant, as it breaches the transcendental separation between immanence and transcendence, the sensible and its conditions and the supersensible about which nothing cognitively meaningful can be stated. Kant’s depiction in this passage not only targets Buddhism, given his interpretation of Daoism and its identification with the monstrous and grotesque in “The End of All Things.” In language that partly evokes the ru M or Confucian disapproval of Buddhism and Daoism that informed the Jesuit transmission of Neo-Confucian interpretations, Kant identified Laozi, and generalizes it to all “Oriental” peoples, in the Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764) with the moral-aesthetic category of the “grotesque”:
From this [improper dabbling in the transcendent] comes the monstrous system of Lao-kiun [i.e., Laozi] concerning the highest good, that it consists in nothing, i.e., in the consciousness of feeling oneself swallowed up in the abyss of the Godhead by flowing together with it, and hence by the annihilation of one’s personality; in order to have a presentiment of this state Chinese philosophers, sitting in dark rooms with their eyes closed, exert themselves to think and sense their own nothingness. Hence the pantheism (of the Tibetans and other oriental peoples); and in consequence from its philosophical sublimation Spinozism is begotten...4
In line with the Western ontotheological transmission, and its interpretation of the nothing will be at issue in the final chapter of the present work, Kant interpreted the nothing and nothingness as primarily negative and derivative of being. “Daoist pantheism” signifies for Kant the celebration of the nothing in the world rather than as an affirmation of the myriad things in their self-so-ness and life in its immanent significance.
The German philosophical reception of Daoism is much less developed compared to the reception of Confucianism and Buddhism. It is characteristic that in more recent history Karl Jaspers included Confucius as one of the four great paradigmatic thinkers in the first volume of The Great Philosophers and Laozi appeared only in a later volume as a metaphysical thinker of the origin.5
The early European interpretations of Daoism advanced diverse and contradictory views of Laozi and his teaching. A 1769 edition of collections of travel descriptions translated into German depicted Laozi as an atheistic materialist and leader of a sect consisting of “nothing but a confused fabric of all sorts of excuses and godlessness” (“nichts anders als ein verwirrtes Gewebe von allerhand Aus schweifungen und Gottlosigkeiten”).6 The philosopher, historian, and geographer Karl Hammerdorfer, interpreting dao as God, portrayed Laozi in a popular book on world history from 1789 as a complete religious dreamer or enthusiast (“vollendeter Schwarmer”), whose teaching was incompatible with rational religion and pure Deism.7 Laozi was interpreted in the early European reception of Daoism as a religious fanatic, an otherworldly mystic, a cosmic metaphysician of dao construed as reason or the absolute, a personal political advisor and strategist to kings, or as a materialist philosopher of private tranquility akin to Epicurus. Such expositions typically distinguished the “private” and “speculative” orientation of Daoism with the public and practical orientation of Confucianism.
In contrast to the dismissive evaluation of Daoism of his predecessors, such as Kant and Hegel, and his own negative assessment of Confucius as anti- Socrates examined in Chapter 1, the mature Schelling has a brief but thought- provoking account of Laozi in his Philosophy of Mythology. He rejected the previous elucidation of dao as reason (Vernunft), which Hegel had also used. Schelling interpreted dao instead as gateway (Pforte), a gateway between the unknowing of finite being and the genuine knowing of actual being (das wirkliche Seyn).8 Dao, construed as real being as potency (Konnen, erste Potenz, which comprises both all and nothing), requires an art or wisdom of practical knowing and living through the play of polarities, of not-being and being.9 The Daodejing is for Schelling “purely philosophical,” rather than mythological, and of the “highest interest.” It does not develop a systematic account of nature, but rather exhibits the confrontation of a principle (Auseinandersetzung eines Princips) with myriad forms.10 In the second half of the nineteenth-century, a number of authors inside and outside Germany would compare Laozi’s thinking with that of Schelling as examples of speculative or transcendental systems of reason and the absolute in nature.11
The German reception of Daoism underwent a transformation in the early twentieth century that is evident in the difference between Rosenzweig, whose opinions about Daoism and China are closely aligned to those of Kant and Hegel, and Buber, who actively engaged with Chinese sources in translation as well as Sinological research.
Rosenzweig’s vision of Daoism is of a philosophy of the all-absorbing impersonal “it” (es) in which it would be better to not even use the word “I” (ich)}2 He classified Daoism and Buddhism in his Star of Redemption as primitive forms of atheism, as all pantheism in fact must be in the end in his account. The pantheist can no longer celebrate and be intoxicated by the mythic pagan gods, who are still “living” and not merely nothing.13 Ascending only “half-way” from the gods to God by misconstruing nothingness as divine, Rosenzweig contends that Daoism and Buddhism cannot recognize and reach toward the monotheistic essence of God.14 Devoid ofall essence and substance, and embracing characterless nonaction rather than the active and engaged ethical personality, the teachings of nirvana and the dao flee from the “voice of the true God” into the negativity and lack that is nothingness, while the trace of the divine voice is lost in the echoes of the “empty room of non-thought.”15
As already noted in Chapter 1 on Confucianism, and as considered further in Chapter 7 on his encounter with Zen Buddhism, Buber had a remarkably different hermeneutical approach toward Buddhist and Chinese philosophy than that of his friend and colleague Rosenzweig, with whom he shares many common concerns as well as the project of developing an ethical dialogical personalism. While Confucianism had a long if mixed reception in modern German philosophy, Daoism was on the whole ignored and dismissed and had to wait until the twentieth-century to enter into a more substantial philosophically fruitful dialogue with German philosophy.
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