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I have often found myself somewhat bewildered by the philosophy of the early- to mid-20th century, associated above all with the names of Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein. These two thinkers cast their shadow widely over the traditions of philosophy that followed – Heidegger over “continental” philosophy, Wittgenstein over analytic. (The split between the two traditions was not nearly as pronounced in their day; in many respects they helped create it.) They are far apart in many respects, but they do share at least two tendencies I have strongly disliked – an indifference to ethics and concerns about the good life, on one hand, and a rejection of the bulk of philosophy that came before them on the other. I have tended to view these two tendencies as going hand in hand – but do they?

I’ve been thinking anew about Heidegger and Wittgenstein from perhaps an unusual angle: Chad Hansen’s fascinating A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. I don’t yet know early Chinese thought well enough to assess whether Hansen’s account of it is accurate. But I can at least say that Hansen, like Nietzsche, is more interesting and thought-provoking even when he’s wrong than most people are when they’re right.

Hansen argues that early Chinese thought is close in its approach to 20th-century philosophy from Wittgenstein onward: with its lack of focus on the thinking conscious interior self or on metaphysical truth, the best Western analogies are to behaviourism and pragmatism. If this is true, I don’t think it implies that the early Chinese had considered arguments for such a subjectless view. Within a few hundred years the Chinese would take to inward-facing and metaphysical Buddhism with an enthusiasm that suggests they perceived their lack of attention to consciousness and metaphysics as very much a lack. They may have been naïvely Wittgensteinian; they were not considered Wittgensteinians.

But then from Heidegger’s point of view, being naïvely Wittgensteinian may have been a plus. Heidegger knew about East Asian thought and thought highly of it. He was friends with Nishitani Keiji, one of Japan’s most eminent modern philosophers; he wrote of Zen popularizer D.T. Suzuki that “If I understand this man correctly, this is what I have been trying to say in all my writings”; he even translated the Daodejing. And yet he did not join Suzuki and his colleagues in proclaiming that Zen and Daoism had the answer to the problems of the modernized, Westernized world. Why not? Heidegger answered this question in a 1966 interview with the newspaper Der Spiegel:

I am convinced that a change can only be prepared from the same place in the world where the modern technological world originated. It cannot come about by the adoption of Zen Buddhism or other Eastern experiences of the world. The help of the European tradition and a new appropriation of that tradition are needed for a change in thinking. Thinking will only be transformed by a thinking that has the same origin and destiny. [The technological world] … must be superseded (aufgehoben) in the Hegelian sense, not removed, superseded, but not by human beings alone.

This quote comes courtesy of the interesting online reflection on Heidegger and East Asia by Taylor Carman and Bryan Van Norden. The approach Heidegger takes here is one of the reasons I have tended to think Heidegger is a more profound and interesting thinker than Wittgenstein. What both of them have in common – or so my reading of Hansen has led me to suspect – is above all an attempt to overthrow 2500 years of Indo-European tradition. But where Wittgenstein often seems to think we can utter a few snide epigrams and be done with it, Heidegger acknowledges that our past weighs on our thinking whether we like it or not. What we think of as common sense is that which was hard-won with centuries of detailed philosophical (and theological) argument in the past, slowly absorbed into the wider culture and shaping our thoughts whether or not we are aware of it. Heidegger has this in common with Hegel: both see the history of philosophy as crucial to serious philosophical reflection, so that the way to philosophy’s future is through its past. But where Hegel thinks we need to know the philosophy of the past in order to build on it – to stand on the shoulders of giants, as Newton would put it – Heidegger thinks we need to know it in order to tear it down.

So for Heidegger, even if East Asians had a far more profound understanding than the West did, simply trying to adopt East Asian thought will not save us. We will just unthinkingly reproduce our preexisting understanding and think that we are reading East Asia – and as the history of Yavanayāna Buddhism has shown us, Heidegger’s concern here was wise! It is a similar concern, I think, which animates the pioneering work of Wilhelm Halbfass on South Asia: as a student of Gadamer (and therefore a grandpupil of Heidegger), Halbfass tried to unearth the history of Western approaches to South Asia in order to recognize the weight of the presuppositions we bring to it.

But for all that, it nevertheless seems clear that Heidegger did envy “the East”, the Chinese and Japanese who had come this far in history without the subject-focused, technological attitude that he claimed characterized the West. Getting rid of Indo-European tradition would require going back to the roots of that tradition in order to uproot them; but once enough of that work had been completed, East Asian tradition might at least provide us with some hints of where we could go.

All of this helps me return to a question I addressed two years ago, about the online philosophical movement of Speculative Realism. I suggested that the Speculative Realists want philosophy to become less Indian and more Chinese. And while there is much they reject in Heidegger, I think in many respects it’s because they think he didn’t go far enough: his emphasis on Dasein, which is something like human subjectivity, still leaves him too wedded to the Indo-European subjective self. The overall project of trying to make Western philosophy less Indian and more Chinese seems to come from him – with perhaps a dash of Wittgenstein for good measure.

And to return to the question I began with: these reflections also make me have more appreciation, if not for Heidegger and Wittgenstein themselves, then for the kind of worldview they advocate. For while ethics seems to be a gaping hole in the thought of the 20th-century thinkers, it is anything but this in the thought of the early Chinese who appear to share their way of thinking. Say what you will about Confucius and Mozi, you cannot say they paid no attention to the question of how we should live. And it may turn out – even if only by default – that the ethical world of Heidegger and Wittgenstein winds up looking significantly like theirs.