- Intercultural Encounter in the Age of Hybridity: A Response to Eric S. Nelson
In an age when the geopolitical dynamics are shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the reception of Asian sources in Europe could be seen as primarily of historical interest. At first sight, the interpretation of Chinese and Buddhist wisdom traditions in early twentieth-century Germany appears to bear little significance for contemporary concerns. In Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in Early Twentieth-Century German Thought, Eric Nelson proves this assumption wrong and demonstrates that the short-lived cosmopolitan glimmers in between the two world wars set a standard for intercultural dialogue. The Sino-German philosophical encounter presents an exception to the cultural provincialism that has plagued mainstream Western philosophy for too long. The recovery of largely forgotten—if not completely unknown—philosophers reflecting on China, and to a lesser extent India, that started during the Weimar [End Page 225] Republic is an impressive contribution to the history of intercultural philosophy. Nelson forces the reader to revise the assumption that Eurocentrism has been uncontested. Constructive intercultural engagement, as his eight chapters illustrate in remarkable detail, is not a new phenomenon, but continues a long, if often hidden and internally complex conversation. Nelson builds a rich case to demonstrate that the reception of Chinese and Buddhist philosophy in selected and largely forgotten intellectual circles offers “critical models for intercultural hermeneutics and intercultural philosophy” (p. 1).
The turn to Chinese and Buddhist sources was triggered by a radical self-reflection that resulted from the crisis of conceptions of human progress after the First World War. A rethinking of the spiritual foundations of Europe was felt to be necessary. Many of the protagonists covered in Nelson’s book (Eucken, Driesch, Misch, Popper-Lynkeus, and Graf Keyserling) are little-known intellectuals, even to experts of early twentieth-century German thought. Others like Buber, Scheler, Husserl, and Heidegger are more familiar. The book stages a dialogue with their Chinese counterparts. Zhang Junmai (Carsun Chang), an interlocutor of and collaborator with the life-philosopher Rudolf Eucken, plays a prominent role as does Liang Qichao, who was instrumental in inviting not only Bertrand Russell and John Dewey but also the neo-vitalist philosopher Hans Driesch and Rabindranath Tagore to lecture in China during the early 1920s.
This response to Nelson’s nuanced and often groundbreaking reconstruction of the hidden and multifaceted dialogue between Chinese and German thinkers will not focus on the details of the encounter between these largely forgotten figures. Nelson is engaged in more than bringing back to life the intellectual counter-history of a Sino-German philosophical romance, which, in itself, would already be an important achievement.1 For the purpose of this response, I will take the author seriously in his attempt at making a genuinely philosophical contribution.
According to Nelson’s self-understanding, the book develops a “situated critical model for social and individual self-reflection” that includes a “reflective, diagnostic and critical dimension” (pp. 40–41). This approach of engaging in a transcultural history of ideas that is committed to the Enlightenment virtue of self-reflective critique is distinguished from the false alternative of cultural relativism and a dogmatic universalism. The dialogical encounters serve as hermeneutic models in which potentials for acknowledging the claims of multiple modernities, East and West, including a diversity of lifeworlds, first become conceivable. Through the combination of an immanent “critique of a European reason” (p. 3) and an external critique that “provincializes” Europe via an exposure to the various East Asian others, Nelson sets up a methodological yardstick that avoids the Scylla of a one-sidedly contextualizing approach of philology-oriented area studies and the Charybdis of an abstract appeal to context-transcendent rationality. This methodological intervention combines and crucially extends insights [End Page 226] from Critical Theory and the Philosophy of Life. As Nelson puts it, “Habermas did not proceed far enough in his analysis by not liberating the concept of the lifeworld itself from the primacy of the paradigm of the modern rationalized European form of life” (p. 187). The book can be understood as a radicalization of the unfinished—some might say not yet started—Critical Theory project...