- Nothingness and Desire: An East-West Philosophical Antiphony by James W. Heisig
Nothingness and Desire: An East-West Philosophical Antiphony is the latest contribution to East-West dialogue from James W. Heisig, a specialist in the philosophy of religion. His reworking of the East-West discourse in this volume is worthy of the praise it has already received, evident in the glowing reviews on the back cover. This dialogue is perhaps out of fashion and in decline in contemporary academia, and Heisig goes a long way toward rethinking and thereby reinvigorating it in this book. I will endeavor to review this rich and sometimes dense text, although it is far too wide ranging for a brief review to do it justice. Therefore, I will remain within a general discussion of nothingness and desire and the “antiphony” that Heisig chooses, while also addressing some issues with the form and editing of the text. Further than this, I will only acknowledge some of the key missing aspects of the content from within Heisig’s self-imposed limits. Therefore, I ask in advance for clemency for my own choice of focus and for my own naive criticisms or misinterpretations of this otherwise impressive and very readable work.
The text is a series of six essays. The first elaborates the two “guiding fictions” that are the ideas of nothingness and desire. The next four essays place these two ideas in relation to the main themes of self and no-self, God, morality, and property. The final, sixth essay tackles the East-West divide. Space here does not allow for a thorough overview of each of the four themes and the corresponding essays, but depending on the reader’s own personal interest there are many worthwhile highlights here and there throughout each of them, and Heisig is certainly strongest when it comes to the main thrust of his final essay in reassessing the East-West divide. The essays are in fact the six Jordan lectures on comparative religion that were delivered at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, England, in March 2011. Unfortunately, Heisig actually misrepresents this as the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (p. 3), which is one of many noticeable errors and word misplacements strewn throughout this otherwise well-presented text.
The book was originally, then, a spoken work, and on the one hand this is helpful as the content comes across as both rich and accessible to the reader, but unfortunately, on the other hand, it suffers in its written form, in particular due to the liberal referencing system Heisig uses which hides much of his own academic rigor and limits the reader’s ability to gain access to his sources. Heisig acknowledges the weakness in his “notes” due to the danger of their getting “out of control” (p. 4). However, I cannot help but wonder how much better the text would have been with the inclusion of these notes in the main body, even if this doubled it in size. The final [End Page 349] work would then have been a more polished and rigorous exposition of his important rethinking of the East-West divide.
As to his intent, Heisig begins (in his prologue) by outlining the political and environmental motivations for his lectures. It is our civilization’s striving for certitude and wealth that has landed us in the precarious position we find ourselves in at the beginning of the twenty-first century: a discontented civilization. His philosophical antiphony—a term taken from a Japanese source—is a way toward rethinking our certitude and wealth to protect us against (an inevitable?) self-immolation. His motivations are commendable. He is aware of the environmental catastrophe that threatens and unites us globally (although I wonder if it does not divide ‘us’ globally, too). He is aware of the intellectual’s particular predicament in relation to the complicity of institutions in the threat to global society, as well as of the discourses that institutions...