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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 244-248

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Book Review

The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism

The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism. By Steve Odin. SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought. Albany: SUNY, 1996. xvi + 482 pp.

Better late than never! As one of the few volumes—only two to date, actually—in the SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought to address a perennial philosophical problem by drawing seriously upon both the Eastern (Zen Buddhism) and Western (American pragmatism) philosophical traditions, this book should have been reviewed in the pages of this journal a long time ago. Odin's thesis is that both traditions evidence a paradigm shift during the twentieth century from a monological and subjectivistic concept of an individualized self toward a dialogical and intersubjective concept of social self. He explores this hypothesis in the three parts of the book devoted to the social self in modern Japanese philosophy, the social self in Mead and American pragmatism, and a comparative analysis.

Part 1 consists of three chapters focused on the philosophical thought of Watsuji Tetsuro (1885-1962) and Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945), and on the psychological investigations of Doi Takeo (dates not given, but whose primary works were published in the 1970s and 1980s). Watsuji's central idea is a Zen and Confucian ningenmodel of personhood whereby the self emerges in "the betweenness of person and person" as the individual (nin), understood primarily in temporal categories, and society (gen), understood primarily in the spatial categories of nature, community and family, mutually empty themselves into the other. (In a later chapter, Odin draws parallels between the yi-li—spontaneous, novel reaction-ritual action—dialectic of Confucianism and the I-me dialectic of George Herbert Mead.) This notion of self as ningen subsequently served, at least in part, the development of nihonjinron scholarship—"studies of Japanese identity"—as advanced by thinkers like Kimura Bin, Hamaguchi Eshun, and Kumon Shumpei. The goal has been to steer the middle way between individualistic (Western) and collectivistic (Confucian) conceptions of the self toward what Hamaguchi and Kumon call a contextualist (kanjin), and thereby truly Japanese, understanding.

Odin's exposition of Nishida focuses on his idea of the true self—the perennial quest of the Zen tradition—as a "social self" (shakaiteki jiko) that emerges from the I-thou, self-other, and individual-environment dialectics that take "place" in the absolutely empty spatial "field" of basho.(Here, Odin suggests that rather than drawing from Martin Buber's philosophy, both Nishida and Buber drew common inspiration from Ludwig Feuerbach's Principles of the Philosophy of the Future [Grundsatze der Philosophie der Zukunft, 1843]). The true self is therefore the no-self in the locus of absolute Nothingness. As such, the true self is also the empty self. This leads Nishida to draw analogies in his last few essays between the Buddhist idea of sunyata, or "emptiness," with the Christian notion of kenosis, or "self-emptiness." In [End Page 244] keeping with the Zen insistence against reifying emptiness, however, the true self is that which overcomes nihilism but yet resists eternalism. Buddhist sunyatais now symbolized by the bodhisattva's self-negating vow of compassion for all sentient beings, even as Christian kenosis is symbolized by Christ's self-emptying love for the world. This leads to the true self conceptualized as the intersubjective self. Odin suggests that this insight of Nishida is latent in the Chan/Zen tradition as captured in the famous Ten Oxherding Pictures. He also briefly portrays how later Kyoto school thinkers like Ueda Shizuteru, Nishitani Keiji, Abe Masao, Tanabe Hajime, and MutoKazuo have extended Nishida's insights and contributed to the Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

Meanwhile, Doi Takeo, a distinguished Japanese psychiatrist, has suggested that human intrapsychic drives are not limited to sexual and aggressive instincts as hypothesized by Freud. Rather, there is an amae or dependency drive that explains the human need for love, intimacy, warmth, protection, nurturing, and so forth. This other-reliance and relational aspect of the human being explains, at least from a psychoanalytical perspective, the...