Tanabe Hajime’s “Philosophy as Metanoetics”

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
Now, Tanabe distinguishes himself from other philosophers and mystics by making it clear that he does not seek to transcend the world for some abstract unitary spirit (the path of oso).11 What he wishes to do is descend from the heights of philosophical abstraction and return to the concrete realm of matter and embodiment (the way of genso).12 Yet he would not return to the world merely as a positive being, as an ego or self. Rather, he would come back down to earth from his philosophical excursion as a being who is emptying himself, one who is mediating, and being mediated by, absolute nothingness. It is through the ongoing process of metanoesis that this emptying is enacted.

In emptying oneself, in deliberately exposing oneself to the ravages of nothingness, one surrenders one’s life. But this is no relative death, no mere negation of life. It is death-and-resurrection—a theme that pervades Tanabe’s work. In a tone that seems to mix irony with sincerity, he confesses that he is merely mortal and thus cannot avoid ignorance and sinfulness as can the great philosophical “sages” and mystical “seers.” What Tanabe can do is surrender himself, die to Other, and, in so doing, be reborn. By no means does this simply erase all conflict and ignorance. And in such a rebirth, there is no returning to a life in which death is denied. Rather, there is a condition of “death-qua-life”13 in which one joyously dwells within the Great Compassion—not in an experience of pure light, but one of “shimmering darkness.” “The joy of salvation is bound as closely to the grief of metanoesis as light is to shadow”.14 This is a paradox, of course, and paradoxes of this kind abound in Tanabe’s book.15

Tanabe espouses neither a philosophy of monolithic unity nor one of simple duality. Opposites are indeed reconciled or integrated in his thinking, yet—in contrast to the privileging of unity characteristic of Hegel’s dialectical approach—they also remain opposed! “Dialectics, deprived of its paradoxical character,” says Tanabe, “can no longer be authentic dialectic; it degenerates into a mere logic of identity”.16 The practice of metanoesis itself entails paradoxical action. It is the “action of no-action”17 whereby the hitherto active self “acts” by surrendering itself to the utter passivity of absolute nothingness. In the course of the book, paradox frequently operates through use of the word “qua” (“as”), which translates the Sino-Japanese soku. This term “functions as a sort of pivot around which two [opposing] terms revolve and interchange with each other as mutually defining elements in a single dynamic”.18 The following are some important oppositions to which qua is applied: life-qua-death19, the absolute-qua-relative20, the transcendent-qua-immanent21, subject-qua-object22, reason-qua-fact23, revolution-qua-restoration24, and development-qua-return25. In the paradoxical relation, “contradictions are brought to unity in spite of the nothingness that keeps them just as they are”.26 So it is the aspect nothingness that maintains difference and duality. Under the rule of relative being, we would have a simple unity of opposites, one in which differences allegedly would be eliminated. But in Tanabe’s paradoxical embrace of wholeness, all is included.27

While this review is more an appreciation and celebration of Tanabe’s book than anything else, I would like to raise a question about one basic facet of the work. I suggest that a term is missing from Tanabe’s dialectic of the relative and the absolute. I venture to say that a threefold dialectic is required. Between relative being and absolute nothingness, I would interpose a mediating term, viz. absolute Being. This is the dimension of dynamic life-process alluded to by phenomenological thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. We may also relate Being to the archetypal Self of which Jungians speak. By limiting the dialectic to relative being and absolute nothingness, we miss the fact that there is a Being that constitutes its own distinct order of non-relative action, of genuine process. Indeed, I suggest that absolute nothingness could never be effectively mediated by a self that is merely relative, as Tanabe seems to think. That is because a simply relative being could not survive its confrontation with the absolute; instead of being able to mediate or contain absolute nothingness, such a being would be overwhelmed and devastated by it. I propose, then, that it is not so much the action of being that mediates absolute nothingness but the action of Being, that only an absolute self would be equal to the task of such mediation. Note that, in the dialectical account I have offered elsewhere, the attainment of absolute selfhood is no mere positive accomplishment; Self-realization of this kind includes an aspect of self-negation. So it is not simple wholeness that would be achieved in realizing Being, but (w)holeness. The negative aspect of the absolute Self is precisely what enables it to mediate the thoroughgoing negativity of absolute nothingness. I realize, of course, that these ideas bear further clarification, but I do not have the space for that here (see my Topologies of the Flesh).

Tanabe’s profoundly transformative book contains a great many themes that I have not explored in this review. To list a few: the nature of time, the circular/spiral character of dialectical process, intuition, modern science, societal relations, Shin Buddhism, Zen, and mysticism. Nor have I done much by way of describing Tanabe’s probing dialogue with philosophers such as Hegel, Heidegger, Kant, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard. I can only invite the reader to pursue these matters on his or her own. For the present, I will end with a metaphor. As I see it, the essential work of philosophy is akin to riding a bucking bronco. One must find a way to endure the bumpy ride and stay in the “dialectical saddle”—to tolerate the buffeting to and fro of paradox—lest one fall off the “horse” into a monism or dualism of one sort or another and thus lose contact with the truth of dynamic life-process. I know of no philosopher as adept as Tanabe at staying in the “dialectical saddle.”

1. Hajime Tanabe, Philosophy as Metanoetics (University of California Press, Berkeley: 1990), p. 2.
2. Tanabe, p. lx.
3. Tanabe, p. 81.
4. Tanabe, p. 18.
5. Tanabe, p. li.
6. Tanabe, p. 18
7. Tanabe, p. 18.
8. Tanabe, pp. 7, 8, 23-24.
9. Tanabe, pp. 18, 22.
10. Tanabe, p. 5.
11. Tanabe, pp. 209-220.
12. Tanabe, pp. 211-221.
13. Tanabe, p. 7.
14. Tanabe, p.17.
15. While paradox was a central theme of my own even before I learned of Tanabe (in 1993), my encounter with him only made it more so. See my Science, Paradox and the Moebius Principle (1994), Dimensions of Apeiron (2004), Topologies of the Flesh (2006), and The Self-Evolving Cosmos (2008).
16. Tanabe, p. 52.
17. Tanabe, p. 81.
18. Tanabe, p. 297, n. 2.
19. Tanabe, p. 7.
20. Tanabe, p. 14.
21. Tanabe, p. 14.
22. Tanabe, p. 34.
23. Tanabe, p. 40.
24. Tanabe, pp. 62-63.
25, Tanabe, p. 74
26. Tanabe, p. 89
27. See my essay, “Wholeness as the Body of Paradox,” Journal of Mind and Behavior,18, 1997, pp. 391-424.

Steven M. Rosen, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, has developed a pioneering body of work that is laying the foundation for a non-dual philosophy of science.  Dr. Rosen currently resides in Vancouver, Canada, where he is actively pursuing interdisciplinary interests that include phenomenological ontology, the philosophy and poetics of science, Jungian thought, the gender question, ecological change, and cultural transformation. Dr. Rosen is presently Research Associate and member of the Board of Directors of the Lifwynn Foundation for Social Research, an organization dedicated to carrying forward the work of the American social psychiatrist Trigant Burrow. Rosen is also on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Mind and Behavior, and has served as editorial consultant for such journals as Foundations of Physics, Man/Environment Systems, and Frontier Perspectives, and for the State University of New York Press.





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