Body, person, community: Watsuji Tetsuro and the ground of ethics

I’ve been working my way through some 20th Century Japanese philosophy recently. Pre-WWII Japanese philosophers seem to have attempted to find intersections between traditional Japanese thought (primarily determined by one form of Buddhism or another) and what they perceived to be the dominant philosophical trends in the West – German Idealism, Pragmatism, Phenomenology. (Post-WWII philosophers have unsurprisingly taken a more Analytic turn; but at least they didn’t have to suffer the intellectual anorexia that was Logical Positivism.)

I’m currently working my way through Watsuji Tetsuro’s “Rinrigaku.” The title is usually translated as “Ethics in Japan,” but despite Watsuji’s own effort to distinguish a cultural basis for his thought, to define its differences with Western thinking on ethics, I suggest that the title would better be translated as “Ethics in Community.” First, Watsuji is not all arguing that the ethics of which he writes only apply to Japan; secondly, the main theme Watsuji develops is that the Western bias toward conceiving ethics primarily as determinant of an individual’s principled motivation and behavior is fundamentally misguided: the ethical is always a phenomenon of interaction between people in community.

There is more to say on the matter; and so far I am very persuaded by Watsuji’s reasoning. (What is the point of having an ‘I’ if there is not first a ‘we;’ or is the individual born without parents and then somehow seeks them out after determining first principles of social contact?) But I haven’t finished the book, so I will reserve further remark.

Here, I want to post two pages from Watsuji’s book. The writing is thick, but refreshingly accessible. The quotation comprises opening considerations concerning how it is we conceive of an individual interacting within the community. Watsuji begins by remarking an important distinction that actually reflects somewhat on the issue of my previous post on neuroscience and art. The issue here is, while we certainly can and in some circumstances ought to approach the human individual as a “physiologic object” or purely as material organism, this approach is necessarily limited in practice by our experience of others as “persons,” not as objects, each of whom is best known to us in their relations with us. This further suggests limitations on what we can learn of others through purely scientific means, but opens the door to a richer philosophic inquiry into the nature of these relations.


The everyday standpoint acknowledges that betweenness is constituted as a connection between individual persons. From this standpoint, the being of individual persons is recognized but the question that remains concerns precisely what individual persons are. From a commonsense standpoint, we can say that they have bodies they cover with clothes and that they come and go by their own will. Therefore, persons are said to be determined by their ego consciousness and through their bodies. Psychology and physiology are established on such a basis. The knowledge acquired through these sciences has, in turn, contributed to the reshuffling of common sense. But the question is whether our daily life is actually carried on by individual persons described as we have described them.

To begin with a very simple case, let us first take into consideration the body of the individual human. There is no doubt among us, it seems to me, that the body is an organism of the sort that physiology expounds. This does not mean that physiology has already exhaustively resolved the hidden issues surrounding the human body. Rather, our position is that we need not oppose the attempt to deal with the human body as an object of physiology. This is supported by the fact that, whenever we become sick, we consult a physician. If this is so, then the question to ask is whether in our daily life we actually deal with our body as an object of physiology. Is it true to say, when we meet a friend and exchange greetings, that we take for granted that the greeting of our partner is a movement of our physiological body? Is it true to say, on seeing my friend running toward me while calling my name, that I pay attention only to such things as the vehement movement of muscle and the vibration of vocal chords? Everyone knows that this is not the case. In the movements of the human body, that is, in its behavior, we catch a glimpse of the expression of an acting subject, rather than the mere object of physiology. Hence, in the way in which a human body exists in daily life, we see not so much a physiological process as expressions of certain practical act-connections. Whether the person whom I asked to help me obtain a job says “yes” or “no” by shaking her head vertically or horizontally is nonsense from a purely physiological stand-point, but it is of great practical significance. Through such practical act-connections, the human body is viewed, as it were, as an individual “person” and not as a mere biological organism.

The strict physiological viewpoint is more readily apparent in a procedure that treats the human body purely as physiological object. A surgeon treats a patient on the operating table in such a way. Otherwise the operation could not be performed dispassionately. However, for an operation to be undertaken dispassionately, the framework of “the operation” needs to be carefully set up in advance. To plunge a scalpel into a human body is precisely what should be done, even though it is a criminal act in other instances. It should be performed because she who plunges the scalpel into a body is the the surgeon, and the one who suffers from this surgeon’s knife is the patient. For the purposes of medical treatment, a surgeon must use the scalpel and without hesitation, if it is deemed necessary. She does so because she acts in her capacity as a qualified surgeon. Moreover, the doctor cannot obtain such qualification unless she has undergone a long period of practice, training, and learning beforehand. Even then, the surgeon is not allowed to perform operations whenever she pleases. First of all, she must explain to the patient and to the patient’s family members or friends the reasons why the operation is required and she must secure their agreement. Thus, given the agreement of society, or of those who are closely related to the patient, and within a specified period of time, the patient’s body is then to be treated as a purely physiological object. What we must keep in mind here is that such treatment is available only at the hands of a surgeon, and all that the patient’s family or friends did was to allow treatment to occur. For the family, a “parent” or “child,” not a mere body, is undergoing surgery. Indeed, a family member who may observe the operation often falls down in a faint. After the operation, even the physician tries to deal with his patient as a person who is related as a parent or child or whatever.

Tetsuro Watsuji, “Rinrigaku (Ethics in Japan),” 1937; trans. Seisaku Yamamoto and Robert E. Carter, SUNY Albany, 1996. Pg. 59-60.

6 thoughts on “Body, person, community: Watsuji Tetsuro and the ground of ethics

    • Heidegger and Dilthey are discussed; but Watsuji carries on his longest discussion with the now little remembered (but much admired in his time) Phenomenologist/ethics theorist Max Scheler – who apparently (I have not read much by him) helped to develop the problematic of “I – Thou” relationship, that Buber later popularized.

      But again, I am only a third through the book.


      • Interesting. Scheler is mainly known now for his approach to philosophical anthropology (a direction mainly then developed by Plessner (whom I find particularly interesting) and Gelen). But he died relatively early. He was an interesting figure (burried here in cologne, by the way). I don’t know if his works have been translated into English much.
        There are a number of German philosophers from the time between the wars who are now largely forgotten (some rightfully so, others, like Scheler, very interesting thinkers). Some of them might have been influential in Japan since back then German was a more important language than it is today and many Japanese intellectuals knew German (Watuji probably among them).
        Some of the philosophers of this time developed very nationalistic ideas (this is, I think, also true for Japan, and Watsuji might be one of these). Scheler and Plessner are not among these, Gelen and Heidegger are. For some reason, Heidegger and Gelen reappeared after the war while others disappeared. I have a philosophical dictionary from the 1950s that lists a number of names that are hard to find in later dictionaries, so the history of German philosophy was somehow “cleaned”. But these thinkers are important to understand what was going on in those days in intellectual circles.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I was going to stop at this point

    Western bias toward conceiving ethics primarily as determinant of an individual’s principled motivation and behavior is fundamentally misguided: the ethical is always a phenomenon of interaction between people in community.

    because I agree. I continued to confirm that I agree more.
    And I think the conception of man in isolation is why the religious think a god, their god, is needed to direct ethics. Any unbiased naturalist would notice man is so because of the society,that is, mental environment, he lives in.

    Liked by 1 person

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