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  • Contingency and the "Time of the Dream":Kuki Shūzō and French Prewar Philosophy
  • Thorsten Botz-Bornstein


Kuki between Germany and France

There are several reasons to examine aspects of work that was developed by the Japanese philosopher Kuki Shūzō "in the shade of German philosophy"—an aspect that represents what one could call Kuki's "French side." Kuki stayed in Europe from 1921 to 1929. He spent the first three years in Heidelberg, went to Paris in the autumn of 1924, then returned to Germany (Freiburg and Marburg) in the spring of 1927. Finally he came back to Paris in June 1928. Kuki thus found himself in the unique situation of being a Japanese philosopher divided "between" a German and a French intellectual environment. The impact that Heidegger had on Kuki has been examined extensively by philosophers in both the East and the West. On the other hand, the implications of the French influence on Kuki have not been so extensively analyzed.

This is curious because it is possible to argue that the philosophical enterprise that Kuki encountered in France, although clearly inscribed in a rationalist Western tradition, involved a special, although certainly largely unconscious, relationship with Eastern thought. This fact alone justifies a change in focus by shifting the emphasis in comparative studies from Germany to France. Kuki received direct influence from the philosophers Bergson, Boutroux, Guyau, and Brunschvicg as well as from the writer Alain. It was the twenty-three-year-old Jean-Paul Sartre who introduced him, in the context of what both called "French conversation lessons," to the world of these philosophers, whose ideas were then dominating France.1 Apart from classical French figures such as Descartes, Pascal, Comte, and Maine de Biran, a particularly French influence was present in the form of a certain atmosphere that had spread via French "dandyism" (in literature through Baudelaire and Barbey d'Aurevilly) and which must certainly have been decisive for the development of Kuki's famous work on the concept of iki.

In regard to parallels between Kuki and Heidegger, one may be inclined to invoke political motives that were not purely "spiritual" but were, to some extent, due to more "vitalistic" forces. The question imposes itself as to this "Heideggerian side" of Kuki, an aspect that seems, moreover, to fit rather well into the context provided by the political tendencies of the Kyoto School (with which Kuki is sometimes even identified) and to complement Kuki's fascination with French rationalism as well as with a certain French "esprit de finesse" that Kuki admitted to finding so attractive in French culture.2 [End Page 481]

In general, Kuki's "French side" has aroused relatively little interest. This is odd because one of the few works by Kuki that have been translated into European languages is his doctoral thesis on the subject of contingency, the Gūzensei no mondai, which Kuki finished in 1932. This thesis was published in Japanese in 1935 and in French translation as Le Problème de la contingence in 1953.3 As the title suggests, Gūzensei no mondai is directly influenced by two eminent books by French contemporaries with whom Kuki had become particularly well acquainted: Emile Boutroux's De la contingence des lois de la nature (1908)4 and Emile Borel's Le Hasard (1920).5

First, it seems that the French treatment of the phenomenon of contingency as well as of the questions of liberty and time had been absorbed by Kuki and elaborated in the context of Asian thought. In Gūzensei no mondai Kuki turns out to be a great specialist of French thought who is able to assimilate certain motives of French "spiritualism" with concepts of contingency as they appear in the Buddhist tradition. Kuki advances a rationalist philosophy for which contingency appears as a "reality of the real as real" () or as "simple reality" () (p. 213).

One of Kuki's main points is that this reality can be grasped only by means of philosophy and not by means of science: only the philosopher would be able to develop an analytical approach that is not based on the research of a "necessity of laws" or...


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