Thursday, October 28, 2010

Natsume Sōseki on the Nature of Subjectivity

This just in from Mary Klecka:
Dear Beholdmyswarthyface,

Last week my Daddy told me I have neither a soul nor a self. Hearing this, I burst into a fit of tears, and haven't been able to sleep since. Is what he says true? And if so, what, then, am I?  -Mary Klecka
Well, Mary,  I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer this, so let me direct you to the following from Natsume Sōseki. The passage is taken from a lecture he gave in 1907 at Tokyo Art College, in which he explains what he sees as the fundamentally intersubjective nature of subjectivity. Hope this helps.
In this world there is supposed to exist an "I" and a "you," and we are located in a vast space, within which we each act out our roles in a drama that unfolds across time, an unfolding that is governed by the law of cause and effect--or something along those lines. We have to accept that there is an "I," a "you," something called "space," and something called "time," and that there exists a law of cause and effect that governs us. These are all self-evident to everyone--even to me.

And yet when we think about these things more carefully, they begin to appear doubtful. Quite doubtful, in fact. Ordinarily, of course, everyone accepts the above without question--as do I. But when we stand back from common sense and reflect more carefully, we begin to suspect that something is amiss here. Somehow this doesn't seem quite right. Why? Take the "I," for example: the I who stands before you in his frock coat and high collar, who seems to exist so solemnly, mustache and all, before you. In fact, the true nature of this "I" is quite problematic. You can see the frock coat and high collar with your eyes, you can touch them with your hands--and yet, of course, those are not me. These hands, these feet--the ones I scratch when they itch, that I rub when they hurt--in sum, is this body me? No, that doesn't seem quite right. There are feelings called "itchiness" and "pain." And there are sensations of scratching and patting. Other than those, we have nothing. What exists here is neither hand nor foot. What exists are phenomena of consciousness that, for convenience's sake, we call "hand" and "foot," just as we have phenomena of consciousness that we call "itchiness" and "pain." In sum, what exists is consciousness--and the activity that we call being conscious. Only this is certain. Anything beyond this we are unable to prove, but this much is clear, beyond dispute, and requires no proof. When you think about it this way, what we usually call "I" is not something that exists objectively out in the world. Rather, as a matter of convenience we give the name "I" to what is, in fact, a continuous stream of consciousness [ishiki no renzoku]. But why, then, you may ask, is it a convenience to go to all the trouble of positing this otherwise superfluous "I"? It is because once we posit this "I," then as its flip side we also posit the existence of something other than the self--the existence, that is, of "you." In sum, we establish the distinction between self and object. Despite the difficulty it entails, this is a necessary expediency.

In saying this I am denying not only the existence of the self (or what we commonly call the self) but also your existence. Despite the fact that there are a large number of you here listening today, you only seem to be here. I'm very sorry for you, but you don't actually exist. Perhaps you find this upsetting, but I'm laying down my fundamental arguments here, so please do me the favor of hearing them out as arguments. To put this in its most basic form, which may sound impertinent, apart from me you have no objective existence. I said apart from me. Yet this "me" also does not exist, at least not in the form of an "I"--and so how could you possibly exist? No matter how angry you may get about this, it won't change matters.  You sit there. You sit there thinking that you are sitting there. Even I think that you are sitting there. But to say you are there is merely to say that I happen to think you are there. No matter how much I may want to go beyond simply thinking you are there, I am unable to prove anything beyond that. Usually when we want to ascertain the existence of something, we first examine it with our eyes. Having seen it with our eyes, we touch it with our hands. Then, after touching it, we may try smelling or tasting it. We might not need to go through all these steps to ascertain your existence, but, as I said earlier, when I see with my eyes or hear with my ears, in the most fundamental sense what I am actually doing is experiencing the consciousness of sight or hearing, and this consciousness cannot somehow be transformed into an independently existing object of person. If I look at or touch you, the image of students in black school uniforms with gold buttons appears--but only as a phenomenon in my conscious mind. I have no means of ascertaining your existence beyond that. This being the case , we can only conclude that if I don't exist, then neither do you. Consciousness is the only thing that can be said to exist--to really exist. [...]

If we set aside our daily common sense, when we look at the world of selves and things, we realize that we cannot claim that objects exist independently of the self, nor that the self exists independent of its objects. To put it another way, without the self there are no objects, and likewise without objects there can be no self. "Objects" and "self" necessarily appear in tandem. We use two different words to express them only to make things easier to understand and as a matter of fundamental principles. Since the two cannot, in fact, be distinguished from one another, we don't really need a separate word to express their mutually indistinguishable status. Accordingly, the only thing that clearly exists is consciousness. And we ordinarily refer to this continuous stream of consciousness by the name "life."
(Translated by Michael K. Bourdaghs, in Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings (2009))


Carl said...

This is pretty clearly the basis for Watsuji Tetsuro's theory of ningen as continuum between individual and public.

Leighton Fenat said...


That is very helpful to know. Can you refer me to the work in which he discusses this "ningen as continuum" theory? Also, if you know of any other writers/thinkers who hold a similar view of subjectivity, please let me know.

Thank you.

Carl said...

In English, look for "Watsuji Tetsuro's Rinrigaku: Ethics in Japan." In Japanese, 人間学としての倫理学, the three volumes of 倫理学, etc. For a quick secondary source, try .

Watsuji was a student of Soseki's shortly before Soseki's death, and some have speculated that he's supposed to be the I character in Kokoro to the Sensei character, who represents Soseki himself.

Leighton Fenat said...

Thank you.

Mother Nessiona said...

Here's what Joanne Baldine has to say about Watsuji:

"Watsuji Tetsuro (1889-1960), an early twentieth-century Japanese
philosopher who studied briefly in Germany with Husserl and Heidegger,
developed a reputation in Japan as an ethicist and cultural historian. Watsuji is
known for his attempt to express Japanese ethics in western categories, much as
Nishida had attempted to do for Japanese metaphysics. In Watsuji's book,The
History of Japanese Ethical Thought (1952; see Piovesana, 1969), he castigated

PHIL & TECH 3:2 Winter 1997

western individualism as the consequence of bourgeois egoism and described
Japanese morality as essentially communitarian. He interpretedrin, the first
character of ethics (rinri), as meaning a communitarian relation with others,

Mother Nessiona said...

Ethics was essentially the relational connections (
aidagara) of a person
to his in-group, viz., his family, clan, society and state. Morality consisted in
denial of the individual. In fact, the individual was thought to be realized only
through the Buddhistic negation of the self. Watsuji's communitarian position,
however, devolved into the idea that once the self is denied, fulfillment comes
with identification with the State. Thus, one of the sharpest criticisms of the
communitarian position is that the idea of the "good" can be manipulated by the
State for its own purposes, as Foucault points out."

Anonymous said...

Yoko Arisaka on Watsuji Tetsuro's theory of intersubjectivity (pp205-207 missing):

Anonymous said...

Carl, Beholdmyswarthyface and Mother Nessiona,

Buber and Ricouer are two western thinkers who argue for a similar view of subjectivity. You might want to check them out.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and add George Herbert Mead to that list.

Tom Kain said...
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