Tanabe Hajime’s “Philosophy as Metanoetics”

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Tanabe Hajime, a founding member of Japan’s famed Kyoto School of Philosophy, studied under two giants of twentieth century philosophy, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger (the latter’s own philosophy was likely influenced by Tanabe’s Buddhist views). “Philosophy as Metanoetics” was developed from lectures the author delivered in Kyoto during Japan’s disastrous war with America, Britain, and China, the shadows of which fall heavily across its pages. In this “appreciation and celebration” of Tanabe’s principal work, Steven M. Rosen (whose own pioneering writings are laying a foundation for a new non-dual philosophy of science) identifies key elements of Tanabe’s paradox-drenched philosophy and pauses to question whether the Buddhist notion of the relative self needs to be supplemented by a more dynamic vision of absolute being such as is found in some Western phenomenological thinkers.

by Steven M. Rosen image

Philosophy as Metanoetics is the 1986 translation of a remarkable work written near the end of World War II, when Japan was succumbing to the military might of America. Its author, the Kyoto philosopher Tanabe Hajime, was thoroughly disenchanted with war, and was calling for an acknowledgment of its folly, along with an expression of sincere contrition on the part of those who had been caught up in it—himself included. This is one meaning of “metanoesis”: an act of “repentant confession.” But Tanabe was urging far more than a mere acceptance of personal responsibility for involvement in destructive patterns of action and thought. The self-examination he exhorted was deeply philosophical. For him, the term meta-noesis additionally implied a movement beyond the noetics of rationalist philosophy and religion.1

Reflecting upon humankind’s philosophical, religious, and existential crisis, Tanabe staged a dialogue with Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and many other Western as well as non-Western philosophers. In deconstructing them, he also managed to deconstruct himself. The result is a critique of reason that takes us to the borderland of rational thinking and beyond, into a paradoxical realm that surpasses the rational in the very act of bringing it to fruition. In the space of this review, I cannot do full justice to the richness and subtle complexity of Tanabe’s brilliantly innovative work. Instead I will limit myself to touching on some prominent themes that seem especially significant to me.

For the practice of metanoesis to be effectively concretized in his writing, a crucial step for Tanabe is bringing his own subjectivity into the text. At key moments, he removes the cloak of anonymity usually worn by authors of philosophical texts. The disembodied authorial voice now recedes into the background and Tanabe the man stands present, openly disclosing his pride and arrogance, his complacency and inattentiveness—his all-too-human foibles. “Metanoesis is not something to be urged on others before one has performed it for oneself”.2

But metanoesis is not limited to self-reflection, self-criticism, or self-deconstruction. A radical self-transformation is called for and this, in turn, necessitates an emptying of the self, an act whereby “self-power” (jiriki) is surrendered to “Other-power” (tariki). Whereas ordinary action is carried out by the self, “Great Action is not a deed of the self, but a conversion of self-power into Other-power”.3 So self-transformation via metanoesis demands that the relative self defers to an absolute Other.

What is this Other? It is not some higher Self, Being, or God. It is not a positive presence of any kind, nor is it an absence or negation in the relative sense of a negativity that is defined merely in opposition to what is positive.4 Instead Other is what Tanabe calls absolute nothingness, characterized as the “negation and transformation…of everything relative”.5 Absolute nothingness is termed Other because of “its genuine passivity and lack of acting selfhood”.6 Therefore, it cannot be simply autonomous as is the Western God. Unable to act on its own (since it has no “own”), absolute nothingness or Other “acts through the mediation of the self-power of the relative that confronts it as other”.7 Self thus transforms Other and Other transforms self, in a process of mutual mediation.8

In emphasizing action and transformation, Tanabe is bringing out the thoroughly processual character of the absolute. Absolute nothingness means absolute transformation.9 When the relative self is oblivious to the absolute, it labors under the illusion of fixity and stasis, seizing upon those “solid substances” (things, products, capital) that seem to contribute to its own solidity and help secure its permanence. Operating in this fashion, the ends justify the means and products are valued over process. The more the relative self loses touch with the underlying dynamism of the absolute, the more it searches fruitlessly and addictively for closure, for short-term solutions, rewards, and quick fixes—for any thing that might fill the yawning gap created by its failure to acknowledge nothingness, any finite form that could serve as surrogate for infinite transformation.

But Tanabe recognizes that there is no “pot of gold,” no payoff, no final resting place at the end of one’s journey where one may reap the rewards for the work one has done. Instead, there is only the journey. Thus metanoesis must be repeated again and again, must be reenacted within each moment. It must happen on a continual, ongoing basis, since it is not about endings, payoffs, products, or “everlasting salvation,” but about ever-regenerating life-process.10

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