- Engaging Japanese Philosophy: A Short History by Thomas P. Kasulis
When I first opened my copy of Thomas Kasulis's Engaging Japanese Philosophy: A Short History, I had planned to skip around, as one might do when reading an edited volume. Initially, I was most interested in how I might excerpt various chapters for classroom use. And I have indeed come away with many ideas for reading this book with students (a point that I will return to in the end). But, after making it through just the first few pages of Kasulis's highly informative and entertaining history of Japanese philosophy, I found that the book demands to be read in the order in which it was written. In addition to his role as philosopher and historian, in this book Kasulis is a storyteller. And so, as when enjoying a story, I read the book from cover to cover.
The book is organized into four sections—ancient, medieval, Edo, and modern—each containing two chapters on an individual philosopher and a third chapter on general historical context, not always in that order. The philosophers included are Prince Shōtoku, Kūkai, Shinran, Dōgen, Ogyū Sorai, Motoori Norinaga, Nishida Kitarō, and Watsuji Tetsurō. The historical chapters focus on the Heian and Kamakura periods, Muromachi and Warring Domains, Edo, and the modern period, respectively. Throughout the text, Kasulis's narrative is synced to the 2011 collection Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook1 via marginal page citations, so that readers can cross-reference all texts and thinkers that he mentions with the primary source material available in the Sourcebook, making the two books together an impressively comprehensive course in Japanese philosophers, from famous to infamous to obscure.
In his Preface, Kasulis explains why his project is not an intellectual history or a history of ideas but rather a history of philosophy, and that, as such, he writes with a philosopher's methodologies. Though the book is far-reaching in both breadth and depth, the thread that ties the content together is Kasulis's engagement with methods of philosophical argumentation and analysis that developed in Japan as a result of scholarly interactions within and across the major intellectual lineages comprising Confucianism, Buddhism, and nativist studies. More than an intellectual history of such developments, Kasulis's text also serves as an [End Page 1] introduction to these methodologies and an invitation to use them as tools for philosophical scholarship today.
In particular, he identifies four key strategies for philosophical engagement relevant to his project: refutation, allocation, hybridization, and relegation (pp. 35–39). Refutation is the methodology most familiar in the Western context, resting on the basic logic of contradiction: if a given proposition is refuted as false, then the negation of that proposition is affirmed as true. As Kasulis points out, this method is not only seen as characteristic of Western philosophy but often as essential to doing any philosophy at all. Nonetheless, he claims, it is not the dominant mode of philosophical argumentation in Japan, where intellectual discourses often looked to achieve various modes of co-existence, compromise, and, at times, synergy.
Argument by allocation, for example, looks to restrict competing claims within separate areas of discourse, to reveal that the competition is only apparent and that all claims carry weight in the contexts in which they are applicable. Relegation achieves a similar end but ranks various areas of discourse hierarchically, showing that some are more limited in scope than others, thereby upholding the supremacy of claims that are seen to be applicable in the most all-encompassing sense. In turn, hybridization does not restrict claims to separate areas of discourse but rather aims for a fusion that, at times, results in a third position altogether. All four strategies can be seen across both Western and Japanese traditions, Kasulis says, but the latter three strategies are particularly important for understanding philosophy in Japan.
The chapters on the eight philosophers featured in the book alternate between Kasulis's engagement with the...