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Georg Misch and the multiplicity of origins

One hermeneutical tendency understands interpretation as proceeding from the self to the other as it extends itself into the world, expanding the circles of its horizons, and eventually returning to itself in self-understanding. Another interpretive tendency finds the self confronted with misunderstandings, obstacles, and resistances that cannot be overcome and integrated into the presence and mastery of the self. Such encounters with alterity and difference lead the interpreter to recognize the irrevocable multiplicity, particularity, and perspectivality of things. For Misch, as for Dilthey earlier, intercultural interpretation enacts the model of all interpretation as an oscillation between the typical and the unique, the general and the singular: what appears alien and other is initially approached through the typical at the same time as the typical is reformulated through the experience of, reflection on, and responsiveness to what is singular.33 There is consequently no radical abyss between interpretation and intercultural interpretation, which faces the same challenges of the ineffability of radical alterity and that which is singular and unique.

Furthermore, an alternative conception of history allowed Misch to recognize the multiple beginnings of self-reflection across different cultures and epochs. The beginning of philosophy, according to Misch in his 1926 work Der Weg in die Philosophie (The Way into Philosophy), is not the self-certainty or self-presence of the origin to itself.34 Philosophy did not begin only once in Greece, it occurs as a unitary phenomenon in the ruptures of ordinary experience that provoke a reflective questioning and reconsideration of experience and one’s situation.35 Philosophy is an internal break with immediacy and entrance into selfreflection, which has no necessary or one culturally specific origin (Ursprung). Philosophy, according to Misch, is not bound to one particular form or one given question; in the breakthrough or cutting through (Durchbruch), “it strikes us like a message from another world"36 This assumption is both born within the European philosophical tradition, the initial horizon of Misch’s hermeneutical point of departure, and looks beyond the boundaries of this horizon.37 Misch’s account breaks through the limits of the enthnocentric a priori.

The very first illustration Misch provided for such a beginning of philosophy, the transition from one particular horizon to another horizon that characterizes the philosophical breakthrough, is the story of “Autumn Floods” (Qiushui in the Zhuangzi.38 The great river believes itself to be greater than the small tributaries and channels that lead into it until it encounters the great sea. In this encounter, the ordinary self-conception is placed in question as a one-sided, partial, and limited perspective in relation to another perspective. In Misch’s description of this Zhuangzian narrative, the limited and partial is confronted with the expansive. There is a breakthrough out of the everyday natural attitude of ordinary conventional life to reflection on that life. Life-reflections proceed through the “categories of life” or what his Gottingen colleague Plessner called “the material a priori.”39

The narrative from the Zhuangzi permits Misch to contest the ordinary onesided and limited conception of life and the relation of philosophy to it. The shifting multi-perspectivalism of Misch’s hermeneutical life-philosophy allows the play of perspectives in the Zhuangzi to come forth not only as a merely alien form of thought or poetic thinking but as a specific form of philosophical reflection in response to a question, which in its structural affinities, addresses the human condition.

In Misch’s second chapter on “breaking through,” which was discussed previously in the discussion of Misch in Chapter 1, the other beginnings of philosophy are located across divergent social-historical points inside and outside of Greece: for instance, in the Buddha’s experience of the fundamental reality of suffering, in Spinoza’s articulation of ethical decision and moral personality from the reality of the whole, and in Plato’s Socrates proceeding from the limited and qualified to the good as such in the allegory of the cave. As if preemptively responding to Heidegger’s subsequent critique, Misch argued that all four examples are:

not the primordial utterances of philosophy; they were rather revivals and recollections of an original knowledge which is anterior to them both logically and historically. And the echo they awoke in us may just be something that the natural course of human life awakes in every human, quite spontaneously, at one time or another.40

Philosophy begins in need, specifically what Misch described as a “metaphysical need” and in the cultivation and expression of a feeling of life: this need is echoed in manifest ways that hearken to the origins of self-reflection in the midst of ordinary life. Exemplary reflective-philosophical moments such as Zhuangzi’s autumn floods indicate and repeat in their own manner the reflective break with the natural customary and unreflective attitude. Misch identifies this break with the genuine beginning and way of philosophy.

Misch’s multiplicity of ontic-existential-reflective beginnings of philosophy cannot count as genuine origins of philosophy for Heidegger. He remained beholden by the bewitchment of the ethnocentric a priori, as much as Hegel was, and a commitment to the assumption that there can be only one origin and one historical transmission and lineage of philosophy, which does not include its Arabic and Middle Eastern history. Hegel claimed that “we” modern educated interpreters of world history can only begin to feel at home in history with Greece, since only here do we arrive at the origins of spirit.41 While Hegel—unlike many of his successors—did in fact use the word philosophy in non-Western contexts, he also explicitly stated that “genuine philosophy” arose only in the Occident with its freedom of “individual self-awareness” that he considered to be in principle contrary to the servitude of “Oriental spirit.”42

There are, according to Heidegger, a “few other great beginnings” that have been construed as the beginnings of other forms of philosophy, a topic which will be discussed more fully in Chapter 6. The referents of this phrase are unclear, and might only refer to the beginnings of poetry and the state as in “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Even though this passage referred to non-Western beginnings, and probably the beginnings of intellectual discourses in India and China, they cannot signify beginnings of Indian and Chinese philosophy. Heidegger stated repeatedly from the 1930s through the 1960s that these do not exist and philosophy has one beginning alone: its first (Greek) and its other (Greek-confronting) beginning. There is an essential difference in kind between the people with philosophy and the multiplicity of peoples who lack that history or only participate in it in a secondary manner through globalization. The historical closure of such lineage thinking relies on a teleological conception of history. It contravenes the openness of questioning, thinking, and the happening of philosophy through the question that places oneself in question that Heidegger describes elsewhere—and more satisfactorily in liberating it from one determinate lineage—in Introduction into Philosophy as the essence of philosophizing.

Misch’s nuanced approach to the multiplicity of origins is more appropriate and adequate for an intercultural hermeneutics and philosophy confronted with reifications of universalism and particularism. It does not require presupposing the enframed vision of one unitary world feared by anti-intercultural and antiglobalist readers of Heidegger, who conflate the intercultural and the global and resist what they perceive to be a reified universal identity by reifying a particular identity. Misch refused to identify the unity and necessity of philosophy with one unique and necessary historical experience of individual freedom in classical Greece (Hegel) or with an originary experience of being in the early Pre-Socratic philosophers of archaic Greece (Heidegger). To return to an important passage, previously discussed in Chapter 1, Misch claimed:

The assumption that Greek-born philosophy was the “natural” one, that the European way of philosophizing was the logically necessary way, betrayed that sort of self-confidence which comes from narrowness of vision. The assumption falls to the ground directly [when] you look beyond the confines of Europe. The Chinese beginning of philosophy, connected with the name of Confucius, was primarily concerned with those very matters which according to the traditional European formula were only included in philosophy as a result of the reorientation effected by Socrates, namely, life within the human, social, and historical world. The task of the early Confucians was to achieve a rational foundation for morality which should assure humans their dignity and provide an ethical attitude in politics.43

In an earlier essay published in 1911, after his return from a journey to India and China, Misch remarked that “the rational gestalt of personality,” which is encountered in and through history, is as much Chinese as it is Greek. “Rational moral personality” is a good discovered in the ancient Chinese Enlightenment movement of Confucianism as well as in the modern European Enlightenment and again in his own ethically oriented life-philosophy.44

This point is further supported by the ethical-political inspiration Confucian moral-political thought offered to the European Enlightenment, notably in the practical philosophies of Leibniz, Wolff, and Voltaire.45 Reflection and reason are not merely characteristics of Greek or Western humanity, as the classical Greek philosophers themselves knew unlike their modern interpreters. The early Confucian discourse has its own rationality in Misch’s depiction. Misch offers a situated account of rationality that liberates reason from the Eurocentric conception of reason and allows him to perceive how rationality is operative in diverse discourses and forms of life. Integrating rationality and the historical sensibility of concrete ethical life, a sense of ideal norms and practical affairs, reverence for humanity and particular local affective bonds, early Confucianism operates as a primary exemplar of and model for an enlightened “philosophy of life” operating between abstract universality and historical particularity. Misch accordingly portrayed the early Confucian movement as “the supreme example of a movement of thought grounded in life itself.”46

As we saw in Chapter 1, Confucius emerges in Misch’s writings as a figure evoking the immanent ethical and historical enlightenment (Aufklarung) and moral cultivation (Bildung) of life—which is the genuine vocation of philosophy in Misch’s estimation—in contrast to the powers of myth, mysticism, and nature, or, we should add, of being. The Confucian form of rationality disenchants and demystifies, yet it is not therefore purely atheistic according to Misch who is closer to Buber’s interpretation than to Rosenzweig’s. The passages concerning heaven (tian ^) in the Analects (Lunyu §й1и) reveal background mythic, metaphysical, and cosmological inspirations inherited from earlier Chinese religiosity as well as an ethical and philosophical form of monotheism, which Misch compares to the prioritization of the ethical height of the other person in the Hebrew prophets.47

It is noteworthy that the example of Chinese philosophy interculturally and intertextually became entangled in the early reception of Heidegger’s thinking. Misch would reformulate the point made in the passage quoted above in his 1931 critique of Heidegger Life-philosophy and Phenomenology: the Chinese origins of philosophy do not begin in the enchantment of the question of being and represent a counter-example to Heidegger’s construction of philosophy as exclusively being the thinking of being. The Chinese beginnings of philosophy arise from ethics rather than from ontology. They arise from ethical selfreflection, questions of proper governance and the appropriate way to live, and the anxious care for right action rather than for one’s own death. Using the argument that philosophy is primarily ethical through the exemplary model offered by its Confucian form, Misch concludes that Heidegger’s reductive identification of philosophy with the thinking of being one-sidedly constrains and consequently falsifies the idea and practice of philosophy.48 Misch offers a different interpretation of the Greek beginning. He contends that the Greek origin of philosophy received its necessity through the concrete self-reflexive moment of reflection (Besinnung) of life concerning itself. It is as inadvertent and provisional as other origins of self-reflective thinking emerging from the unreflective natural attitudes of ordinary life. Its significance, unity, and necessity arise through the moment of interpretive self-reflection (Selbstbesinnung) in relation to one’s own life-experiences (Lebenserfahrungen). This movement of a hermeneutically situated life understanding and interpreting itself from out of its myriad ontic conditions is what allows the plurality of thought with all of its varied contents of diverse provenance to come into view as a whole:

Despite this diversity, however, we can speak of the beginning of philosophy, using both words in the singular. Thus we approach the historical facts on the assumption that philosophy is a unity. This assumption comes from our European tradition; and with our modern view of history, which has learnt to look beyond the bounds of the European horizon, it might seem a mere prejudice. For we meet with a plurality of beginnings and first efforts regarding which one may well enquire whether the one name philosophy should be applied at all. The historical positivism of our time, which everywhere breaks down the universal into the particular, naturally seeks to do the same in respect of philosophy by resolving its ideal unity into a multiplicity of philosophies. And it is true that we do encounter such a multiplicity at the very outset. Nevertheless the historical facts, once their significance is properly understood, reinforce our conviction that philosophy is a unity.49

Ontic multiplicity is not the negation of the essence and dignity of philosophy, as Heidegger accused Misch via his teacher Dilthey in Introduction into Philosophy; it is the arena in which philosophy takes place as an event and enactment not of impersonal being and neutral Dasein—a formal neutrality that is derived “after the fact” of the partiality and perspectivality of historical life—but, following Dilthey’s interpretive individualism, of an individual and personal life.50 Misch extended Dilthey’s immanent and pluralistic personalism, challenging the conceptualization of the person as universally human and yet at the same time oddly particular (exclusively Occidental) that led European thinkers to denigrate non-Western peoples and cultures. This marginalizing perspective is expressed in Hegel’s contention in his philosophy of history that: “World history travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of world history, Asia the beginning.”51 The end of history, as the dynamic realization of free individual consciousness and spirit (Geist) as what guarantees the common life of such subjects, is an ultimately modern Western achievement prefigured in classical Greek culture.52 For Heidegger, in contrast to Hegel, Asia is not even at the borders of the beginning; it is outside of the beginning, as philosophy begins only in Greece.

The multifaceted concern with interpreting and cultivating an individual life is not solely a Western one, as Misch persuasively illustrated in his History of Autobiography, as autobiographical and biographical expressions and discourses from direct narrative to deeply personal self-reflection are evident throughout the world.53 Misch does not deny that Western modernity has produced a particular way of experiencing and conceptualizing the person nor does he posit an unchanging underlying “person” independent of the self’s contextual formation (Bildung). Individual personal life emerges immanently through the formative interpretive practices that address life as a life in the context of the contingency of historical conditions, a multiplicity of intersecting roles, and diverging and conflicting perspectives and worldviews.

The universality of philosophy does not appear directly then in the form of a concept, intuition, or originary experience of being in Misch’s works. Universalization can be indirectly achieved through processes of mediation as ideals, norms, and values are formed from the contents of concrete empirical existence. The center arises out of flux and creative formative individuality from Hume’s “bundle of instincts and feelings.”54 The universal emerges from a metaphysical need and urge—born from within immanent life—which motivates the struggle for the clarification, enlightenment, and self-understanding of life in the midst of the particularities of specific hermeneutical situation with its own linguistic, social-historical, and natural-environmental conditions.55

Philosophy happens in the interruption of the ordinary experiencing and thinking of the “natural attitude” and in the distancing that consequently occurs from one’s everyday absorption in one’s circumstances that allows life as a whole to become and be experienced as a question. Philosophy was once born in Greek wonder about physis and cosmos (коароО, yet it was not born there alone. Philosophy accordingly cannot be defined as one-determinate-fated destiny that compels to confront one origin. The Chinese beginnings of philosophy have significance for reflection as much as its Greek beginnings. Philosophy is repeatedly reborn anew from a “metaphysical need for transcendence—whether it is expressed in metaphysical, introspective, or ethical language—which pursues routes of self-questioning and reflection rather than the routes of religious mystical experience or of religious authority, devotion, and revelation. Misch distinguishes the philosophical from the religious while emphasizing how there are moments of each in the other; for example, the philosophical dimensions of the Jewish Torah or Persian Zoroastrianism.

Philosophy, myth, and religion share overlapping origins in human need. One elementary tendency of philosophizing is born from the metaphysical need and urge for transcendence that takes on a reflective form. This urge toward the beyond and a comprehensive metaphysical whole is countered and mediated in its conflict with the tendency toward self-clarification, enlightenment, and critique that is philosophy’s other fundamental tendency. There can be no one origin of philosophy, as philosophy is itself a mediated phenomenon. There is not one unique Greek origin of philosophy in wonder that prioritizes the experience of nature as physis and cosmos, which Misch identifies as a singular experience of nature that prepares the way for the natural sciences. There is in his account the Indian origin that turns the self reflexively inward upon itself to reflectively and meditatively examine the subjectivity and interiority of that self. There is a Chinese origin of philosophy from out of the practical lived- experience (Erlebnis) of the concrete bonds of social life and self-reflection (Selbstbesinnung) on the possibilities of cultivating moral personality within this situational ritually characterized life-context. Misch indicates in a life- philosophical way here the xing T character of classical Chinese thought in which knowledge is intrinsically bound up with practice and action.

The myriad origins of philosophy cannot persist within themselves as a fated destiny with a “cultural mindset” (such as the reified notion of “Confucian China”) or a determined historical outcome. Developing Dilthey’s conception of peoples, a people cannot be appropriately characterized through an unchanging essence or the collective identity of a substantial “soul of a people” (Volkseele). Following Dilthey’s conception of a socially mediated individualism, and in contrast to Heidegger’s metaphysical collectivist conception of a Volk, a people are generationally and historically constituted through the tensions and affinities of individuals and their diverse desires and interests; that is to say, through the differentiating responses of individuals, and the associations and institutions that they form, to shared questions and tasks and through the irresolvable conflict of worldviews and interpretations that resist totalization into one world-picture.

In Misch’s reading of Greek philosophy, there is not one defining essential Greek experience of being as physis. There are multiple divergent and incompatible experiences and conceptualizations of philosophy in ancient and Hellenistic Greece, some of which became more dominant than others during different generations. To speak schematically: while the Pre-Socratics focused their gaze on the natural world, Socrates marked a turn toward the ethical question of the self, the Socratic schools focused on issues of moral personality and the good life, and later Neo-Platonism and early Christianity shifted Greek thought toward the experience of the subjective interiority of the self.

The existence of multiplicity not only occurs between distinct cultures, as if each culture had one fixed and constant identity and domain of “ownness” (das Eigene) that needs to be retained through all exchanges and interactions with others and other cultures. Multiplicity also occurs within cultures as formational historical realities in Misch’s multi-vocal narrative. Chinese philosophy manifested a mode of expression in the Confucian cultivation of moral personality and concern for the health and vitality of ethical life. It is also expressed Daoist sensibilities about the natural world and subjective self, Mohist (Mojia ШШ) concerns with equality and fair social organization, and legalist fajia ШШ) conceptions of power, order, and stability. Chinese philosophy, in Misch, ought to be interpreted not so much as a reified monolithic unity, which led European thinkers to one-sidedly praise or condemn a reified image of “China,” but through the affinities, tensions, and disputes between interconnected yet competing and differentiated forms of life and reflection within a given hermeneutical context. Misch can be described as adjusting Dilthey’s thinking of the interpretive encounter and agonistic confrontation between worldviews for the sake of an intercultural art of philosophizing: the intercultural interpreter reflectively and responsively interprets a historical nexus from the typical to the particular in order to articulate its shared structures and the dynamics of their differentiation and conflict. It does this for the sake of that which is singular.

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