Benjamin K. Hoffman on ningen, sonzai, and Watsuji Tetsuro
, from Reflexivity and Social Phenomenology
Watsuji Tetsuro’s Ethics in Japan offers a critique and extension of Heidegger’s phenomenology on the basis that Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein overlooked the foundational sociality of the human way of Being. In his previous work, Climate and Culture, itself a direct response to Being and Time, Watsuji writes: “From the standpoint of the dual structure—both individual and social—of human existence, [Heidegger] did not advance beyond an abstraction of a single aspect.” Watsuji understood Heidegger’s analytic of Dasein as an illustration of only the ‘individual’ aspect of human Being, which is, more comprehensively understood, a ‘movement’ in-between individuality and community. Watsuji’s phenomenological method aims, therefore, at ethics—the ‘way’ that human beings are, as they are socially—in place of ontology. Rather than an analysis of Dasein (Being-there), Watsuji examines ningen (Being-between), as the appropriate foundation for understanding the human way of Being. The individual human is understood by Watsuji to be one side of a dialectical movement ‘between’ individuality and community. The examination of this dual movement constitutes the foundation of his study of ethics.
Watsuji identified traditional Western philosophical approaches to ethics as taking for a starting point ‘isolated subjectivity.’ “Such problems as the independence of the self over against nature, or the sway of the self over the self itself, or the satisfaction of the desires of the self, and so on are of central importance to ethics.” Watsuji suggests that these problems cannot be resolved from a perspective that begins with individual subjectivity. The appropriate starting point for ethics is, rather, betweenness—sociality. There are two central concepts in this account: ‘ningen,’ which corresponds with ‘human being,’ but in a dual sense of signifying both individual human beings as well as communities; and ‘sonzai,’ which indicates roughly (as will be explained, not very well) the way of Being which is ningen’s. The study of sonzai, as the way of Being-between (ningen), is the foundation for the study of ethics. Ningen’s sonzai is the “constantly moving interconnection of acts” which constitutes human Being. Watsuji notes that his “study of sonzai is . . . not equivalent to Ontology.” The examination of the interconnection of acts is to be given priority over the question of Being, which Watsuji identifies as addressing only one side of the dialectic of human Being, a dialectic which moves from “being to nothingness, and from nothingness to being.” Watsuji notes that sonzai had been the conventional translation of Sein (Being), and challenges this, suggesting that the significance of sonzai is not at all equivalent to that of Sein.