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  • Traditions and Tendencies:A Reply to Carine Defoort
  • Rein Raud

In 1899 William Aston, a British diplomat, published the first overall history of Japanese literature in English. In it, Japanese poetry is characterized as follows:

Narrow in its scope and resources, it is chiefly remarkable for its limitations-for what it has not, rather than what it has. . . . Indeed, narrative poems of any kind are short and very few, the only ones which I have met with being two or three ballads of a sentimental cast. Didactic, philosophical, political and satirical poems are also conspicuously absent. The Japanese muse does not meddle with such subjects, and it is doubtful whether, if it did, the native Pegasus possesses sufficient staying power for them to be dealt with adequately.

([1899] 1977, p. 24)

Nevertheless, Aston took it for granted that Japan had a literature and that one part of it was poetry, even if it did not quite live up to his expectations. Timothy Reiss, writing a century later, was not so generous: he argued that literature in the proper (i.e., his) sense of the word appeared in Europe in the seventeenth century "as part of a social solution to a crisis viewed explicitly at the time as at once logico-linguistic and sociopolitical" (1992, p. 5). As was fashionable at the time, Reiss' voluminous study also set out to prove that, once the crisis had been resolved, literature would also cease to exist.

These two approaches can certainly be seen in the treatment of non-Western philosophical traditions as well. We might say that Aston's assessment of Japanese literature ("ingenious and inventive, but hardly capable of high intellectual achievement" [1899] 1977, p. 4) could perhaps be compared to the views of Christian missionaries and other early mediators of non-Western traditions, while the position of Reiss is similar to the position of those contemporary Western scholars who would like to reserve the right to define philosophy as narrowly as possible. In my comment earlier in this issue I tried to argue that neither of these positions, nor their derivates, is really satisfactory in the contemporary intellectual environment.

In her thorough response, Carine Defoort has clarified most issues that provoked me in her initial article on this topic, particularly in emphasizing that her "family model" of philosophy is meant to be descriptive and not prescriptive. Nevertheless, I do find it a bit too pessimistic even as a description of the present situation, and I am also inclined to disagree with her certainty that "a world philosophy has not arisen and is not on the rise." Of course, a lot remains to be done in this area, but there is a clear tendency to the contrary, although this is perhaps due more to the contribution of Japanese rather than Chinese thinkers. A brief internet search reveals a considerable number of scholars who occupy professorial positions in philosophy (not Asian studies) departments at various universities around the world who list, for example, the Kyoto school philosophers or Dōgen in their research interests. Defoort as well does not have too high hopes of the Chinese tradition entering the field on a [End Page 661] more permanent setting because of the complexity of the language; on the other hand, not so many Western philosophers are proficient in Greek, either, but this is not perceived to be a major obstacle in their work. Moreover, although articles and books on Japanese thinkers sometimes appear that are on the naive side, relying on translations as they do, this situation does not necessarily have to stay the way it is.

Nevertheless, Defoort is most certainly right in that the opposite number of philosophy departments, where Asian traditions are not considered to be proper philosophy, is, for the time being, much bigger. And some of them are in the most respectable institutions. However, when thinkers such as Jacques Derrida deny the status of philosophy to Chinese thought, one should remember that in many of these respectable institutions the label of "philosophy" is denied to the work of Derrida himself as well. If we refer to taijiquan not as taijiquan, period, but as "shadow-boxing," we have already granted...