In his book Nietzsche and Zen. Self-overcoming without a Self (2013) André van der Braak compares the philosophy of Nietzsche with the work of some Zen thinkers. Through the works of Nāgārjuna, Linji, Dōgen en Nishitani he tries to give a new perspective (or multiple perspectives) on Nietzsche. The book is a great work of learning, especially on Zen philosophy. The stereotypical anti-intellectualism of Zen for example is revealed to be based on the philosophy of (among others) Linji. And other Zen thinkers, like Dōgen, were not anti-intellectual at all.
I shall not discuss the whole of the book here, but rather focus on Van der Braak’s method, which he expounds in the Preface and chapters 3 and 5. First, he adopts the method of ‘intercultural hermeneutics’ for his own book. Second, he interprets the philosophy of Nietzsche and of Zen thinkers as non-propositional way-seeking.
Comparative philosophy as intercultural hermeneutics
Van der Braak places his work within comparative philosophy. Rather than finding one universal, true perspective or just mapping out similarities and differences, he opts for a hermeneutical approach:
‘The aim is not to arrive at some static “objective truth” about reality, but to expand the range of possible interpretations and in this way contribute to the ongoing conversation of global philosophy. […]
Cross-cultural hermeneutics aims not so much at comparison per se, but at deconstructing fixed perspectives and opening up a plurality of interpretations, in order to enhance the fullness of our understanding […]
This study’s methodological approach can be characterized as “doing intercultural philosophy the Nietzschean way”‘ (p. x)1
He believes that with the help of intercultural hermeneutics, Nietzsche can be elucidated by Zen thought, in order to ‘regain access to lost or underemphasized dimensions of our own Western tradition’ (p. xi). Let’s look at this critically.
First of all, do we need more perspectives on Nietzsche? We already have plenty, so most certainly not, unless of course it a much better one than the current available. This is a problem however with the entire book: we gain more perspectives, but they are not critically evaluated. Is it a sensible perspective? In what way is this one better than other perspectives? Provided the Nietzschean way of philosophy is perspectivism, Nietzsche is not just about generating new perspectives, but also about evaluating them. In fact, this seems to be his main concern. So, just expanding new perspectives without evaluation is doing intercultural philosophy the half-baked Nietzschean way.
Furthermore, Van der Braak explains parts of Nietzsche’s thought from the perspective of a Buddhist or Zen thinker. Potential criticism from Zen on Nietzsche or vice versa is not explored. Neither are the perspectives of either side themselves. This becomes especially problematic as two of the main Zen thinkers adhere to opposing perspectives. Linji thinks Zen is about reaching enlightenment beyond words, whereas Dōgen says Zen enlightenment is expressed within words. The reader asks himself, which one is it? Or at least, which one is preferred by the author and why?
Also, the Zen thinkers react to earlier Buddhist philosophy and its questions, like: what is nirvana (enlightenment), which is a discussion unknown to Western philosophy. Explaining Nietzsche through the answers to these questions is like trying to explain something quite unknown by reference to something even more unknown.
Thirdly, the methods of hermeneutics and perspectivism itself is not explored. I am not sure Gadamer thought of hermeneutics as expanding on the range of perspectives. More problematically, perspectivism is just assumed. Van der Braak uses the Buddhist concept of upāya (skillful means) as a description of Nietzsche’s attitude towards perspectives. Perspectives are skeptic strategies, Nietzsche uses them not for the goals themselves, but ‘in a performative sense’ (p. 42), in order to doubt traditional values and make room for new values. The obvious problem is: if philosophy is about generating perspectives, this perspectivism is yet another perspective.
And isn’t the idea of perspectivism based on a Schopenhauerian reception of Kant? The argument behind it can be summarised as follows: we cannot know ‘the true world’, we just get sensory input which we perceive, construct and evaluate within a perspective. According to Nietzsche and Van der Braak, we should seek other perspectives, so that they can ‘battle’ themselves out to an improved, new perspective. A perspective is a product of will to power, and the measure for a perspective, for Nietzsche at least, is the stimulating feeling of life (power) it gives. (It is doubtful Nietzsche would evaluate Zen positively in this regard). This is the perspectivist way of self-overcoming mentioned in the book’s subtitle. So the idea of perspectivism means adherence to a Kantian epistemology.
Van der Braak has however chosen perspectivism as his approach to a comparison between Nietzsche and Zen. And just as with Kant, the reasons for adopting this perspectivism, ‘no true world’, ‘positing objects from sensory input’ appear in the end just to be a perspective. And what if, in a Wittgensteinian mode, we conclude Kantian epistemology is a confusion about sentences that are in fact grammatical remarks?2 Or, in a naturalist mode, based on a flawed theory of perception?3 Finally, I doubt that Van der Braak’s non-committing, non-critical, scholarly-just-generating perspectives kind of perspectivism would be evaluated positively by Nietzsche either. Perspectivism is not just a perspective, it can be accepted or rejected, because it is true or false, coherent or incoherent, based on sound reasoning or other non-perspectivist evaluations.
Non-propositional philosophy of way-seeking
According Van der Braak Western philosophy thinks of itself as a propositional discipline that aims at the establishment of true doctrines. In the Chinese tradition seeking a way of life has been more important than seeking the truth. From this perspective, we notice ancient Greek philosophy also knew this focus on practice rather than theory: áskēsis. Nietzsche too aims for a revival of this Greek way of philosophy. This insight is presented by Van der Braak as fruit of his method of elucidating western thought through non-western thought, but is in act common place: isn’t his thought commonly know as philosophy of life?
This way-seeking in Chinese can mean:
- Confucian self-cultivation such as studying the classics
- Daoist letting go of principles in order to allow natural spontaneity in harmony with the natural flow of things
- Buddhist combination of both
- Zen thinker Linji’s conception of a ‘authentic person without rank’: a master who has no truths, but manifests truth in his actions. The truth value depends on the speaker’s identity. He is true.
Again, Van der Braak does not critically discuss, evaluate or choose one of these, but the fourth receives the most attention, which I interpret as an endorsement over the other three.
I find the opposition between truth- versus way-seeking philosophy underdetermined.
First, modern philosophy does not usually conceive itself as being all about establishing true propositions, this is wisely left to the sciences, but about the possibilities of knowledge (Kant, epistemology), about the way beings are manifest (Heidegger, phenomenology), about clearing up conceptual confusion (Wittgenstein, analytic philosophy).
Second, propositional philosophy of truth versus non-propositional philosophy of way-seeking is an odd opposition. ‘Propositional’ refers to the language of philosophy. The philosophy of way-seeking is not just mute, is also uttered in language. It is still called philosophy. How are we to understand this language? What is positively understood by ‘non-propositional’? That, I think, would have been a much more interesting and more philosophical question that merely juggling with perspectives.
Third, the use of ‘truth’ in the fourth meaning of way-seeking philosophy is unclear. One can, as you learn in any beginner’s logics class, attribute truth in a non-propositional way, for example ‘a true friend’. But what is meant by manifesting truth? What truth is manifest? Can one also manifest falsehood? How do you know? Claiming that someone is true seems what D. Z. Phillips calls ‘philosophy by italics’. One still has to explain it in order to be meaningful.
Finally, why has André van der Braak opted for intercultural hermeneutics, if apparently, he endorses non-propositional way-seeking philosophy? Are these the same? The first looks rather propositional to me.
I conclude that the perspectivist approach of Van der Braak cannot be accepted without further investigation. A preliminary exploration of the merits of non-critical perspectivism has to be done. I am not sure either Nietzsche or Zen would be very helpful here.
I also conclude the idea of an non-propositional philosophy of way-seeking needs to be further questioned, explored and cleared up to make any sense. The question of non-propositional character of Zen (and Nietzschean?) language seems to me more philosophically interesting than uncritical comparison of perspectives.
In merely repeating and applying interpretations of others without critically analysing them, Van der Braak’s book is, not withstanding its intellectual effort and impressive learning, a prime example of an ill-considered approach, which unfortunately is quite common in (continental) philosophy. (Just read some of my previous articles).
1. Van der Braak has a liking for the word ‘deconstruction’ . One is advised to reserve this word for the philosophy of Derrida and alike. Especially, if one just means, as is often the case in Van der Braak’s study, ‘destruct’ – without any construction. Futher, as ‘to destruct’ just as ‘to show’ implies agreement, ‘to oppose’ would be more neutral. It is not at all clear a thinker ‘destructs’ anything: he merely opposes some other thought.
2. For example, P.M.S. Hacker, Kant’s Transcendental Deduction: a Wittgensteinian Critique in Wittgenstein: Comparisons & Context (2013)
3. See Herman Philipse, Heidegger’s Philosophy of Being (1998) p. 24, 139.
André van der Braak, Nietzsche and Zen. Self-overcoming without a Self (2013)