Practical dialectic - PART 3: A book written for nobody

Friday, July 19 2013 @ 09:11 PM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto


To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.
- Henri Bergson

Believe it or not, nobody studies economics, business administration, accounting, computer science, neuroscience, philosophy, literature, psychiatry, and politics for sixty years just in order to become able to crack a witty joke or two, or sharpen his caustic tongue. To emphasize my point here, let me summarize below the basic rules and manners for dialectical interchange.

1. Take serious arguments seriously.
2. Drop all that contempt and cynicism for anything beyond your comprehension, and pay due respect for those who know what you don’t, or who do what you can’t.
3. Always subject yourself to “the pain of study” to catch up with or overtake people ahead of you.
4. Otherwise, go to hell.

There’s nothing particularly lofty or esoteric in this code of conduct. Basically it's a matter of commonsense. Even kindergarten kids at Robert J. Sternberg's psychology class of Yale University will have no difficulty understanding it.

Actually this is the single most important lesson I have learned from Jean-Paul Sartre.

I encountered Sartre 58 years ago. On February 14 three years later, when I was a junior at the school of economics of Keio University, a female student studying English literature on the same campus gave a couple of gifts to her live-in boyfriend, that I was. One of them was a 45-RPM record in which trumpeter Chet Baker and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan played My Funny Valentine. The other item was Sartre's play titled Nekrassov. It's funny, but although I wasn't particularly impressed by the Molieresque farce satirizing the right-leaning newspapers such as Figaro, and French communists at the same time, I think it's this lighthearted play that got me irreversibly hooked on the French philosopher.

Today not a few Japanese still celebrate on July 14 their Pari-sai, Paris Festival, in one way or the other. But in those days, a greater number of people filled bars and restaurants on the Ginza streets, downtown Tokyo, to commemorate the day which the French call La Fête Nationale. These Japanese drunk champagne and sang Shanson, chansons, without knowing courageous Parisians stormed the Bastille on that day in 1789 and that the death toll of the French Revolution reached 16,000-40,000, if you forget about other one million lives lost in the subsequent Napoleonic wars.

Small wonder it was considered especially trendy in the late 1950s through the first half of the '60s to talk about French literature, cinema and philosophy among "educated" Japanese. This lasted until the days Japan started overtaking one West European country after another, GDP-wise. Needless to say, Sartre couldn't escape this bastardization. Against this social background, not a few students of my generation became hooked on the French thinker regardless of their majors. It's no accident that most of them stopped talking about him, at least on weekdays, as soon as they graduated from school. It is true still today we see here and there a small number of Sartrean remnants from the days the Japanese were fantasizing about the French culture. I call them
WEEKEND SARTREANS because that's exactly what they are.

For my part, Sartrean ideas kept haunting me throughout my adulthood. One day, decades after I became a corporate warrior, I realized the short (5 ft 025 in,) cross-eyed, nicotine addicted Monsieur Sartre was still there on my mind. I think the reason I have drifted far away from weekend Sartreans and we have never crossed each other again is because I have a peculiar trait to constantly test my thoughts against reality of life, and vice versa. Although I didn't have a particularly good comprehension of Sartre's ideas as compared to these guys, I learned something more important from his attitude toward life. I call it integrity, but he called it constant pursuit of liberation from mauvaise foi (self-deception.) Throughout his lifetime (1905-80) he strictly adhered to his existentialist principle, while at the same time keeping himself open to the constant challenge from changing reality.

In 1943 he published Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. They say it was meant to be an antithesis to Martin Heidegger's Being and Time (1927.) I don't know if that was the case because I am not very familiar with the works of the German philosopher. But either way, I suspect Sartre should have attempted to transcend Henri Bergson's metaphysics before anything else. He first became attracted to philosophy, as a teenager, when he read Bergson's essay Time and Free Will.

Sartre's ontology focused almost solely on human consciousness, which he called lêtre-pour-soi (being-for-itself) as against the material world which he termed lêtre-en-soi (being-in-itself.) From this lay philosopher's point of view, his approach was not really flawless. For one thing, since being-in-itself is essentially self-contained, and thus motionless, his ontology leaves you wondering how to explain moving objects. If I remember it correctly, he said a being-in-itself in motion, such as the wind or the sea wave is nothing but a "disease of being." This wasn't convincing enough.

More importantly, he talked practically nothing about animals as if to get around these questions: "Do some of them have consciousness? And if they do, how does it affect the evolution. or extinction, of nonhuman species?". If Sartre hadn't ignored animals, he might have written something that went beyond Bergson's Creative Evolution. However, I don't think it's his fault. The author of the classic of existentialism was too preoccupied with human affairs because he wrote it in the midst of the occupation of Paris by Nazi Germany.

Then in the late-1950s, amid the bloody Algerian Independence War, Sartre found a tough challenge to his existentialist thesis arising from the Third World. Against this backdrop, he published in 1960 Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1, to synthesize his thoughts with dialectical materialism of Karl Marx.

There's no such thing as a synthesis that is immune from negation forever. Marx wrote Das Kapital at the height of the First Industrial Revolution. Sartre intended to bring it up to date so as to address issues particular to the second phase of Industrial Revolution, although some of his terminology (proletariat, bourgeoisie, etc.) were almost outdated by that time. By the same token, Critique of Dialectical Reason was soon to be sublated because we were to see the arrival of the Internet Era in a matter of a quarter century. So it's a pity that he died in 1980 without updating Critique of Dialectical Reason one step further himself, or being challenged from that angle by someone else. Judging from the feedback I've received thus far in response to my post titled The Death of the What?, nobody seems to need a philosophy for the 21st century. The yawning gap between technology and its users is further widening at an accelerated pace. This is an unmistakable sign that we have already chosen the path to ruin.

The situation in that respect is even more disastrous in this country. One case in point is a typical Japanese "philosopher" by the name of Yoshiro Takeuchi. He is the very person who first introduced Critique of Dialectical Reason to the Japanese audience some fifty years ago. But it hasn't crossed his mind for a split second that it's his duty to his audience as well as the French author to update it to something that meets the real challenge of the Internet era. This, alone, indicates that he doesn't understand what dialectic is all about.

In the last half century, Takeuchi has made his living by peddling around ideas borrowed from the French philosopher. There's nothing particularly wrong with making money from someone else's ideas. Actually I thought I owed him something. On the eve of Anpo Toso (the nationwide protests against the Japan-U.S. security treaty of 1960,) I contacted the up-and-coming professor of philosophy, that he was, to deepen my understanding of existentialism. He helped me neatly digest Sartre's ideas when we met in person and exchanged letters. But in those days either of us knew nothing about the real world. In the subsequent half century, I've had to change myself, while he has remained unchanged all along because of his physical and intellectual laziness. Now the self-proclaimed Sartre expert is totally out of touch with the reality of the 21st century. Small wonder he still remains a computer-illiterate and is writing letters and manuscripts with a ballpoint pen in his wrinkled hand.

These are why I'm inclined to call him a retired
WEEKDAY SARTREAN. We all know what it's like when a weekday person faces a post-retirement life where everyday is a Sunday. But you can't imagine how a retired weekday philosopher can adapt himself to the reality of life for the first time in his lifetime.

In 2009, I found out on the web that Takeuchi was (and still remains) around living in a luxurious retirement home on the outskirts of the capital. The 80-something-year-old is now presiding over a small "study" group. By now he has exhausted his pet subjects - wars and revolutions overseas, and the class struggle at home, which is an imaginary thing in this classless society. That's why Takeuchi and his half-a-dozen disciples are now focusing primarily on this weird cultural climate characterized by the Tennoist cult. There's nothing wrong with "confronting" it, as they word it. But obviously it's not a task the retired weekday Sartrean and the remnants of weekend Sartreans could possibly handle. The most important thing is that the link between Sartre's ontology or dialectic and their battle against the Tennoist cult is fatally missing. Quite naturally, now Takeuchi looks more like a guru than what he actually is: yet another retiree suffering senile dementia. And his disciples look more like cultists than ordinary citizens suffering juvenile dementia who actually work at the office on weekdays and have fun discussing Sartre on weekends.

I was invited to attend their secret meeting to "size each other up." Sickened by the sheepish attendees at the pointless meeting (there were only three or four of them at that time,) I challenged the guru's lukewarm views of the new administration of the Democratic Party of Japan and Obama's, which indicated he had no sense of urgency. Then the old fart solemnly proclaimed: "You should remember Jesus Christ started with 12 apostles to change the world." The megalomaniac seemed to imply I was Judas Iscariot. I decided it was a total waste of time to mix with these bastards whose wavelength is miles apart from mine. Since then I haven't talked to them again.

I'm too tired to repeat my argument about the terminally-ill nation named Japan. To make a long story short, you can trace back the incurable disease at least to the mid-19th century. The Japanese have since suffered the pathological fixation to the idea of Wakon Yosai (learning from the West while keeping the Japanese spirit intact.) They have adamantly refused to accept tangible and intangible imports from the West as antitheses to the Japanese spirit, though with excruciatingly ambivalent feelings toward them. Another mantra of Fukoku Kyohei (building a strong nation with military might,) which was the real purpose of the Wakon Yosai exercise, had already been in place as an inviolable synthesis.

When the idea of dialectic was imported from Germany, it was standing on its head from the beginning. Douglas MacArthur didn't have the guts to turn all this around. Without straightening out the inversion, he ordered us to replace the military might with the economic might.

Even today in Japan, a synthesis always comes first and remains there until the end of time. At times the same synthesis has to be reconfirmed against possible antitheses. But that doesn't constitute a major problem because the Japanese have unparalleled skills with which to neutralize or sanitize heterogeneous elements. Every time that happens, they conduct the ritual called Dibeto (debate.) As I always say, an issue is debatable here only when the correct answer is given beforehand.

In this country, a man who does thinking is completely out of place like a fish that does walking.

Recently I found the full English text of Critique of Dialectical Reason available for free on the web. But I said to myself, "Why bother to re-read it when the audience to whom the author intended to pass down his thoughts has long been absent in Japan, America and most other industrialized nations?".

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