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  • A Few Thoughts on the Possibility of Intercultural Thinking in a Global Age
  • Kai Marchal (bio)


Until recently, most humanities scholars (including philosophers) in North America and Europe lived in a world where China was notable for its absence. In the great debates of the 1990s and early 2000s on postmodernism, the end of history, the legacy of Marxism, and the future of liberalism, no Chinese contributions were heard, nor were they in the more recent debates on the relationship between Islam and the West, the post-secular age, genetic engineering, the digital age, or Speculative Realism. Only most recently, with the changed geopolitical situation, are Chinese thinkers starting to receive more attention. In this context, Eric S. Nelson’s book Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought makes an important contribution to further opening up the West to Chinese discourses. Nelson’s book is a historical study about the reception of Chinese philosophy by German-speaking philosophers in the early twentieth century. However, it quickly becomes clear that his book is actually much more ambitious; spanning more than three hundred pages, it covers vast periods of Chinese philosophy (from Confucius and Laozi to the late Heidegger), but also seeks to bridge immense historical and cultural differences. The real thrust of Nelson’s book, however, may be found in the implicit claim that the adherents of Western philosophy, as the French Sinologist and philosopher François Jullien has famously asserted, do not need to appropriate Chinese thinking through a form of historical-transcendental self-criticism; rather, the Other has long been embedded in the history of Western (especially German-speaking) philosophy and can thus be brought into effect at any time. The history of Western philosophy, Nelson writes programmatically in his introduction, “is historically already interculturally and intertextually bound up with non-Western philosophy” (p. 3).

Philosophers are seldom good historians. Since Plato first elevated the death of Socrates to an almost mythical narrative about the birth of philosophy, many Western thinkers have engaged in writing historical narratives about the development of philosophy with the intent of educating other people on the basis of their philosophical perspective. The way philosophers write histories of philosophy reveals hidden philosophical [End Page 238] commitments and reflects particular commitments that, with hindsight, often appear quite arbitrary. As Nelson demonstrates convincingly, the exclusive identification of philosophy with Europe, argued for most famously by G.W.F. Hegel, is itself a result of cultural interaction, or, as Nelson puts it, “a relatively recent modern invention” (p. 13). In the age of globalization, Nelson’s case studies on how different philosophers in the German tradition (Edmund Husserl, Rudolf Eucken, Hans Driesch, Martin Buber, Martin Heidegger, and others) interacted with Chinese thought undermine the still widespread idea that philosophy is of Greek origin and can be practiced only in European languages. Particularly convincing is Nelson when he detects “constellations” of intercultural philosophizing that have long since been forgotten, such as the exchanges between Carsun Chang (Zhang Junmai 張君勱) and Eucken and Driesch in the 1920s or Georg Misch’s further development of Dilthey’s hermeneutics in the form of a historical-critical reflection regarding the global origins of philosophy (chapters 2 and 5).

Reviewers have already highlighted the numerous strengths of this volume. It is a landmark study in intercultural philosophy that will shape the research field for years to come. In my essay, I would like to describe a few difficulties that, in my understanding, still hamper a project like Nelson’s. I want to focus on two aspects: (1) the relationship between philosophy and its history and (2) Heidegger and the “hermeneutic primacy of interpretation.”

The Relationship between Philosophy and Its History

There can be no doubt that philosophy has a highly problematic relationship with its own historicity. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that historical approaches in philosophy often run counter to problem-oriented ones. Students who take seriously the claims to knowledge of the natural sciences will not necessarily feel the desire to work through the doctrines of philosophers like Plato, Rousseau, Kant, or even Husserl, but rather engage with the ongoing debates among contemporary thinkers and neuroscientists.



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pp. 238-246
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