Saturday, August 23, 2014

Inoue Enryo's 1887 Position Statement on Philosophical Studies in Japan by Michiko Yusa

Journal of Philosophy (哲学雑誌)

Inoue Enryō’s intellectual life was characterized by a plethora of academic pursuits, made all the more distinguished because, in various ways, they all left a mark on the cultural environment of the Meiji period. In spite of this, in the laboratory of feverish modernity that was Meiji-Japan, intellectual projects such as those undertaken by Inoue were regarded as highly suspicious if not entirely unnecessary. The needs and concerns of a budding, modern nation (and an emerging empire) were considerably materialistic, more focused on the economic system, on modes of production, financial advancement and militarization. These priorities were contained in the national slogan of the era fukoku kyōhei (‘enrich the country, strengthen the military’). Based on this mantra, the government managed to attain its political and economic goals but, in doing so, it relegated culture to a secondary position. 

Individuals steeped in humanistic considerations like Inoue decried this undisguised cluelessness towards all forms of aesthetic refinement and intellectual activity. He regarded the snub to culture as a non-modern residue of Japan’s feudal past and a great obstacle to ‘civilization’ - not in the classical sense of the term, but as in ‘catching up’ with Western standards of civilization which, in addition to a strong military and industry, it also meant education and academic studies. 

Fighting this sense of antagonism towards cultural life, especially in the area of philosophy, informs much of Inoue’s work. In his Position Statement: “The Essential Importance of Philosophy and the Establishment of the Society of Philosophy” (originally published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1887 and freely available in Japanese and English translation here), Inoue gives a nuanced and ambitious defense of philosophical studies. His interrogations are clear in tone and he uses a lot of simple language to drive on his point. The use of the simple language has the radical objective of bringing the rather difficult concept of philosophy to the masses. But more on this point later.

In this Introductory Remark Inoue attests to the importance of philosophy on scientific and social disciplines:

If we delve deeply into the bottom of these disciplines, we realize that what forms the foundation of natural, humanistic, and political sciences, and what defines their scope and secures their place within the world of learning, is philosophy.

His rationale for this is nothing but foresighted. As the English translator of this piece, prof. Michiko Yusa, points out, the interdisciplinary aspect of philosophy studies along a wide-ranging spectrum of subjects has only been a recent development in Western academia — if one doesn’t take into consideration philosophy studies as complementary to both religious and secular education and the basis of learning in all European academic institutions from the beginning of 17th century until the late 19th century, a period of time which saw the birth of such scientific, social and political luminaries like Spinoza, Locke and Newton among many others. In any event, what makes Inoue’s thought so compelling and original (in Meiji-period Japan, at least) is his attempt to give philosophy an all-inclusive, ‘totalizing’ character, especially in the area of scientific investigation: 

…natural sciences need philosophy. Indeed, since times of old, philosophy has been regarded as the discipline that unifies the laws of the natural sciences and lays out their fundamental principles and laws.

To this extension of the importance of philosophy from a sedate, peripheral position in the wholeness of social activity to an active, primary project, Inoue makes another extraordinary addition: he compares philosophy to a central government. For me this is the most significant aspect of his work.

Describing various disciplines of scholarship, I once likened them to the organization of the government and said that the various natural sciences correspond to local government, while philosophy corresponds to the central government. Also I stated that while various philosophical fields are the ministries and bureaus of the central government, metaphysics corresponds to the cabinet… The central government in the world of learning is philosophy.

In Inoue’s eyes, philosophy is not a secondary, subjugated feature — it is the underlying operating structure of all autonomous disciplines, from science to politics to art. Separated from a seemingly-passive, redundant condition, philosophy brings together under its umbrella all existing categories of learning into which it naturally intrudes: this includes the study of military, economy, industry, arts ,etc. The destination for modernity — for civilization — is philosophy. It is no wonder then that Inoue sneers at those individuals who hold opposing views:

This is no different from how uninformed people perceive philosophy. Among them, those who are least erudite, do not even know that philosophy can actually benefit the lives of the people. Therefore they claim that civilization consists in nurturing national strength and expanding its military capability, and if scholars do not contribute to augmenting national strength, they are merely professing politics and law. Such is in fact the prevailing opinion of the day and scarcely a soul has seen that philosophy is actually the central government of the academic disciplines, and that it can actually benefit the nation.

Here, one should be cautiously aware that Inoue’s perceived resistance against the Meiji-era politicization of all social activity for the benefit of national unity was not an unpatriotic gesture. In fact, it wasn’t even resistance. Far from it, it was rather both a warning call and an appeal to the elites for educational reform in order to close in on the same level of ‘civilized,’ modern achievements in the social, economic and cultural fields known in the West. National prosperity was part of his impassioned plea. He reveals his obvious dedication to his nation by stating the following:

I beg you to think about the following: consider the reason why European civilization arose and developed into what it is today. The reason why their national powers rose in the recent period is not merely due to the progress of their politics, law, natural sciences, and arts. It is due to the robust presence of philosophy that inquires into the principles and laws of those other disciplines. This ought to be obvious to everyone. Today, European scholars vie to engage in the study of philosophical principles and apply their understanding to the day-to-day lives of the people, and thereby develop their civilization to benefit society. With the deep implication of this fact eluding us, we are left merely to admire how robust their efforts have been.

Now, I’m not going to offer a too-detailed critical interpretation to my reading of Inoue’s statements. Rather, I want to sketch an analysis on the ‘hidden’ political vocabulary employed in his passionate defense of philosophy. In view of the historical fact that the overall organization of private and public life during the Meiji period was in the service of the political establishment, for the creation and sustainment of a sovereign nation-state (what soon became an intricate, ideologically-imbued new social order called the kokutai), one can make the bold assumption that Inoue’s writings were indeed political. Socio-political background is a sufficient requirement for intellectual determinism; I’m aware that it isn’t a necessary one. But Inoue was writing in support of modernization, not against it. Although he had witnessed firsthand the tremors of social displacement (created by the catastrophic reorganization of the entire nation in the name of modernity), he probably viewed them as necessary. 

He certainly saw the role of government as immutably superior to individual efforts of organization. I want to offer a quote in support of my statement:

Now, among the inhabitants of local regions and especially among those who are least educated, there are people who have no idea that the local politics depends on the policies of the central government above. A few of them may know that a local government exists, but they have no knowledge of the central government that oversees local governments. Naturally, they believe that it is their own efforts that enable them to lead their daily lives in a self-sufficient manner, and consequently they believe that they do not need the assistance of a central government.

Scholars might interpret this statement as proof of Inoue’s concern with the lack of enthusiasm among the lower classes to become more aware about their environment. It might also be interpreted as an observation on the deleterious lack of access to education and, as a consequence, to the well-known fact that the central government coordinates all societal changes. This might be a stretch, but I cannot shrug off the tone of the last sentence in which, at least for me, the dismissal of individual struggles foreshadows the nationalistic quality contained in the Imperial Rescript on Education. There is no denial that the central Meiji government was involved in almost every aspect of social and cultural development, even before the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution on February 11, 1889. But it is also true that in places where its activities resulted in more hardship and economic misery, it was the people themselves who found the strength to overcome environmental limitations and to bring their lot to a higher, better standard. In places like Aizu for example, where regional identity ruled supreme, the involvement of the central government in local affairs was received with indignation and outright hostility (and, as I will try to show in a future book review, this was not necessarily due to a lack in education). And who can forget the failed struggles of Jiyū Minken Undo (Freedom and People’s Rights Movement) to establish a democratic society, when the prospect for this ideal was still fresh and possible?

But moving beyond stylistic interpretations, I want to argue that Inoue’s notion of philosophy comparable to central government was inspired and modeled on the Meiji government of his era. No other model could substitute his foundational idea. Due to his superior education, Inoue was probably able to discern the ‘movements’ of the Meiji government (or the Chōshū-Satsuma oligarchy) towards ‘totalization’ or towards a place beyond politics from where it was finally able to manipulate the construction and dissemination of ideas favorable to its preservation. This dominating place from where the Meiji political sphere eventually controlled (with brutal determination from time to time) all other spheres, including the public and private lives of citizens, was homogenous with Inoue’s idea of a Philosophy underlying — dominating even — all other scholarly disciplines. Bearing in mind the totalitarian character of the Meiji era, I ask myself this: is Inoue’s philosophy a philosophy of totalitarianism or, at least, in support of totalitarianism, of the sort that was subtly contained in its infant stage by the ideas and praxis of the early Meiji government? 

Now bear in mind that I haven’t read enough of Inoue’s work to offer a conclusive remark about his socio-political allegiances. However, I can safely add that, in spite of the openly conservative intellectual environment of the Meiji period, one can sense a new form of consciousness in Inoue’s work, one that can transcend rigid ideological articulations. Moreover, unlike some of his other intellectual peers who were distrustful and hostile towards Western encroachments upon their culture, Inoue nurtured what can only be called a cosmopolitan attitude, which can be observed in the following quote:

…in the East we have various traditions of native philosophical thought, which Westerners have yet to explore. I find fresh ideas contained in the Eastern thought. If we study these points, and compare and contrast our findings with Western philosophy, and if in due course we select good points from both traditions and formulate a new philosophical thought, not only would it gratify us, but it would also be a great honor to the entire country of Japan.

Works cited and picture source:

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