Faith and Reason in Continental and Japanese Philosophy

Reading Tanabe Hajime and William Desmond

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Takeshi Morisato
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Comparative philosophy is tricky business, especially when dealing with philosophers who have developed their own (technical) language, speak from their very distinct traditions, and who have not engaged one another in any significant way. All of this is true for the Irish Catholic philosopher William Desmond (1951) and the Japanese Buddhist philosopher Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962). In Faith and Reason in Continental and Japanese Philosophy, Takeshi Morisato places these thinkers in a meaningful discussion on the main challenges of modern and postmodern philosophy of religion.

The main point of the book is to locate five flaws (inspired by Søren Kierkegaard) that occur in two seminal modern philosophies of religion—that is, of Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel—and to show how both Desmond and Tanabe, on the one hand, diagnose these flaws in their own particular ways and, on the other hand, offer up a different way of relating philosophy and religion so as to overcome these difficulties. Such a project is worthwhile for three reasons: first, it gives a focused account of Desmond’s enigmatic metaxology; second, it introduces many Western readers, likely for the first time, to the work of one of the founders of the Kyoto school, Tanabe; third, it creates a space of communication so that these two thinkers, perhaps even two traditions, can come to converse.

Morisato is attentive to his methodology and its difficulties. As such, the introduction of this work is a self-critical reflection on the very project of this book: Why do comparative philosophy? Why are Kant and Hegel under scrutiny? Why engage Desmond and Tanabe? There is always a sense of arbitrariness to any selection of authors, and it is easy as a reviewer to complain about this. Do Kant and Hegel represent the best of modern philosophy of religion? Hegel’s philosophy of religion was indeed highly influential, but Kant’s was less influential in philosophy of religion and more significant in matters of metaphysics. Why not engage with a stronger defender of religion, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher or the later F.W.J Schelling? Or why not bring in those modern authors who have indeed been critical of the modern project, such as Arthur Schopenhauer or Friedrich Nietzsche? And why the choice for Tanabe and Desmond? While Desmond is surely a Continental philosopher, he is, as an unapologetic metaphysician, hardly representative of the contemporary state of Continental philosophy. He does not fit into any of the broad categories of Continental philosophy (deconstruction, phenomenology, or hermeneutics).

After giving a justification of method and a brief outline of the thought of Desmond and Tanabe (chapters 1 and 2), the second part of the book is concerned with detecting a number of fundamental flaws in Kant’s and Hegel’s philosophy of religion. These chapters clearly serve mainly to outline Desmond’s and Tanabe’s criticism of Kant and Hegel, and not as a detailed exegesis of Kant and Hegel. Morisato seems to accept their criticism, which requires a more detailed engagement with Kant and Hegel. There has been no dearth of apologetics for these thinkers on these scores, and none of this is engaged in any meaningful way. The chapter on Kant, for one, moves quickly and makes some problematic claims or levels criticisms against Kant for which he might have good answers.

There are a good number of issues, but I will take on just one. Morisato argues that Kant’s point is that God cannot be founder and ruler of an ethical community, else moral laws would be legal laws (65). Morisato references Kant’s Religion, where Kant puts this point as an antinomy. Kant’s ultimate point, by working through the antinomy, is, however, that God must be seen as the lawgiver of an ethical community. Kant writes: “Only such a one can be thought of as the supreme lawgiver of an ethical community, with respect to whom all true duties, hence also the ethical, must be represented as at the same time his commands. . . . But this is the concept of God as a moral ruler of the world” (Cambridge 1986, 6:99). Similar issues occur when Morisato discusses how ethics precedes faith, which Kant addresses at 6:119-121. Morisato works from a somewhat outdated interpretation of Kant’s views of religion, which has changed drastically in the last few decades.

The best way to read the chapters on Kant and Hegel are to introduce Desmond and Tanabe’s general worries with a modern philosophy of religion. Read in this way, the next chapters make sense as new, non-modern accounts of the relationship between religion and philosophy. This point is made from Desmond’s metaxology and the hyperboles of being. The latter are tentative, indirect signs that a sense of radical transcendence enables and permeates immanence. Morisato’s discussion of these is helpful and richly illustrated with literary references, which assist in understanding this difficult aspect of Desmond’s thought.

It might have been helpful to take a step back from Desmond’s argument and investigate in what way these hyperboles differ essentially from the classical proofs for the existence of God. This leads to an account of God as ‘overdeterminate’ surplus and ‘agapeic’ origin through a theological/philosophical reflection on creation, freedom, and transcendence. What would have been helpful here is a reflection on Desmond’s methodology of perplexity and astonishment (posthumous philosophy), on Desmond’s place in Continental thought, and the role of aesthetics in the community of religion and philosophy. What Morisato does for Desmond in chapters 5 and 6, he does for Tanabe in chapters 7 and 8. After some contextualizing concerns, Tanabe’s philosophy of religion is summarized with two objectives: first, to show the self-deconstruction of philosophy in its critical frame (what allows for the critique?) and, second, to show how we can reenter philosophy from the side of religion. The latter is illustrated extensively by Tanabe’s Buddhist approach to philosophy.

This book has a personal touch, as the author speaks often in the first person and addresses the reader personally. There is self-reflection upon self-reflection, even leading to a meta-reflection on the nature of endnotes (230-231). The style is occasionally dense and hermetic, but that is due to the book’s object and not its author’s fault. The structure of the book did not allow for a lot of comparison, as Desmond and Tanabe are treated in isolated chapters; some of this is solved by the strong conclusion, but this reader would have enjoyed more explicit comparison. Morisato’s book is a worthwhile introduction to the work of Desmond and Tanabe, and a valiant and self-reflective attempt at bold comparative thought.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dennis Vanden Auweele is a Lecturer at KU Leuven.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Takeshi Morisato is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Research Centre for East Asian Studies (EASt) and at the Centre Interdisciplinaire d'Etude des Religions et de la Laïcité (CIERL), Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.


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