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Heidegger and the im/possibility of intercultural dialogue

Heidegger articulated in his 1937 essay “Ways of Speaking” (“Wege zur Aussprache”) the interpretive confrontation (verstehende Auseinandersetzung) occurring in the relationship between self and other in the context of a discussion of the possibility of mutual understanding between French and Germans.134 Heidegger elucidates in this short text the notion of verstehende

Auseinandersetzung that is simultaneously a coming-to-mutual-understanding (verstehen) of one another as well as a differentiating setting-apart-from-each- other (Auseinandersetzung).

Heidegger focuses in this context on the question of the encounter with and recognition and understanding of the other, an encounter that in its mutuality cannot subsume or repress the difference between self and other. Thus the encounter is interpreted as a kind of conflict (Streit) and differentiation of self and other in which, as with Husserl’s interpretation of the Western encounter with Buddhism, the self comes to an understanding of its ownness. It is portrayed as strife not for the sake of strife or violence but, Heidegger claimed, precisely for the sake of understanding the other as an another to myself and for understanding and becoming myself.

Heidegger’s “A Dialogue on Language: Between a Japanese and an Inquirer” (1959) enacts what is described in “Ways of Speaking.” It reports of a conversation that occurs between a German thinker (Heidegger) and a Japanese visitor about intercultural understanding. In particular, it focuses on the translatability of the Japanese word “iki” ( or Й0 into Western languages. The expression iki was explored by Kuki Shuzo in his 1930 work The Structure of “Iki” (

[G §_| “Iki” no kozo). Kuki was an important figure for Heidegger. He was his student in Freiburg and published one of the first book lengths studies of Heidegger in 1933: The Philosophy of Heidegger (Haidegga. no tetsugaku

This literary dialogue modifies factual details and the structure of the conversation between Heidegger and Tezuka Tomio ^ЩЖШ (1903-1983), a professor of German literature at Tokyo University, on which the dialogue was loosely based. Tezuka indicated in his essay “An Hour with Heidegger” that Heidegger’s dialogue did not represent him well and that he found it one-sided and forced. Tezuka was, he reported, more interested in discussing German literature and the relationship between Christianity and European civilization than in the encounter between the Occident and the Orient.135

The dialogue has been portrayed as expressing Heidegger’s humility, hesitation, and respect in Asian philosophies. He shows a healthy suspicion and reluctance to use Western concepts to clarify or explain Eastern and Japanese experiences and expressions. It has been accordingly maintained that this dialogue reveals possibilities for genuine encounter and dialogue between thinkers from East and West.

One must consider, however, whether this hesitation is in fact humility and deference or is it in fact a denial and distancing of the claims that Eastern thought can make upon Western thinkers. According to Heidegger, iki cannot be translated into Western languages. Heidegger criticizes Kuki for being untrue to the Japanese experience by employing Western phenomenology and aesthetics to clarify iki, thereby reducing it to an aesthetic phenomenon: “The name ‘aesthetics’ and what it names grow out of European thinking, out of philosophy. Consequently, aesthetic consideration must ultimately remain alien to East Asian thinking"136 While Kuki’s work involves the recognition of the intercultural and intertextual “hybrid” character of contemporary philosophizing, in which phenomenology and Zen Buddhism are already discursively and intertextually intertwined, Heidegger insists on their distinctiveness and incommensurability, presupposing an underlying essence or identity that refuses to be communicated and transformed through communicative encounters and exchange.

There are three questions that should be posed to Heidegger’s dialogue that point toward its tensions: (1) Why insist on the untranslatability of basic words such as Chinese dao Ж, Japanese iki, Greek logos? Is Heidegger not in fact already translating them into his own discourse when he leaves them “untranslated”? (2) Why ask if it is necessary and rightful for East Asians to apply Western concepts to Japanese experience given his own account of how the global planetary character of the West has been imposed upon the East? What is left of Eastern origins outside of planetary modernity? (3) Why call for anticipating and preparing for a dialogue between East and West while hesitating before the task of engaging in and undertaking it and intimating the fact of its impossibility? Does this open toward or turn away from encountering and engaging in dialogue with the other?

Basic fundamental world-disclosing words such as dao, iki, logos, and no doubt Heidegger’s own primordial words such as Ereignis and Sein are in some sense untranslatable. Heidegger reveals in the course of the dialogue with his Japanese interlocutor not only the incapacity of the West to interpret the East, but the East to interpret the West. Genuine dialogue is “anticipated” in the dialogue; it does not and in principle cannot occur. There is accordingly an implicit difference in essence or kind between the West and the East that prevents genuine mutual dialogue, exchange, and understanding from happening as ongoing communicative interaction and mutual transformation.

Do Heidegger’s essays about dialogue from 1937 and 1959 offer an exemplar or model for intercultural dialogue and interpreting the relationship between East and West? The answer is both yes and no: (1) yes, insofar as Heidegger opens up ways of speaking together; (2) no, to the extent that Heidegger’s accounts of the history of philosophy and the idea of philosophy limit possibilities of encounter and dialogue; (3) yes, to the degree that Heidegger calls for hesitation and care in entering into dialogue with others and coercively presupposing that all others can be understood and comprehended from one’s own perspective and all discourses translated into one’s own purportedly universal discourse; (4) no, insofar as this hesitancy and the reduction of intercultural dialogue to an anticipated point in a distant future can prevent encounters and dialogical communication from occurring, and by reifying difference by presupposing a difference in essence or kind between the East and the West that blocks genuine communication. This yes and no indicates both the promise and the danger of Heidegger’s thinking. Heidegger’s dialogue with a Japanese visitor is a dialogue that is not primarily about communication in the end; it is about silence, the mystery of language through which being addresses mortal humans, and an intrinsic ineffability that communication, including intercultural dialogue, cannot cross.

The text of the Zhuangzi, as proposed in Chapter 5, has already intimated an alternative strategy for interpreting as well as potentially transforming and transerversing such fixed perspectives and horizons through its elucidation of radical alterity and non-identity.

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