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I’m currently at the 2010 SACP conference in Asilomar. I had the good fortune to be on a panel about emptiness with Bret Davis, who was presenting on the Kyoto School philosophy, especially Nishida Kitarō. Davis’s discussion of Nishida and Ueda pushed me to think further about the idea of irreducible encounter, which I’d recently examined in posting about Skholiast and Ken Wilber.

I’ll admit often feeling a certain impatience with philosophers of encounter like Lévinas (which probably makes me what Skholiast called an “ātmanist”). It has never been clear to me why, exactly, we’re supposed to be so limitlessly bound by “the Other” (usually with the capital letters). Lévinas’s philosophy strikes me as ruthlessly Abrahamic: at its core is a bowing and scraping before God, drastically opposed to any embrace of the divine with ourselves, parallel to Sirhindī‘s insistence on God’s distance from his creation. As I noted in the comments to that post, Sirhindī advocated not merely intolerance to, but subjugation of, indigenous Indian traditions. Likewise Davis, in our conversation after his talk, noted that Lévinas uses the term “pagan” in an extraordinarily negative sense; his Abrahamism reminds me of Tertullian asking rhetorically “What has Athens do to with Jerusalem?” And while I am somewhat uncomfortable with the lack of humility expressed in a humanist view, I’m even more uncomfortable with trusting an Abrahamic god.

Davis’s talk, however, helped me put many of these ideas in perspective. Nishida’s thought, it turns out, is close to Lévinas’s in a number of ways, though far removed from Abrahamic traditions. (Intriguingly, Nishida even wrote a book entitled I and Thou, while apparently entirely unaware of Buber‘s work of the same title.) Nishida tells us that “there is no universal that would subsume I and thou,” for that would deny the individuality and otherness of the two terms. The other must remain other. Nishida has a Zen take on the matter rather than an Abrahamic one: there must be something shared between the self and the other or no encounter can take place; but one must speak of this shared universal as emptying itself out, a “None” rather than a “One.”

But why should we think this way? A particularly evocative quote in Davis’s talk helped give me a clue in explanation: “I am truly myself by way of not being myself; I live by dying.” Now it seems like we are dealing with the paradoxes of hedonism: when all we seek is our own happiness, we don’t get it. We are most fulfilled when we live for something bigger than ourselves; a life centred entirely on the self will fail even on its own terms. Perhaps I’m getting more sympathetic to this sort of view as I approach marriage – realizing the fulfillment in a life choice that requires a certain self-overcoming, requires you to live for someone else as they live for you.