Japanese Philosopher KARATANI Kōjin (柄谷 行人) Awarded the 2022 Berggruen Prize

An expansive thinker who crosses boundaries.

[from Nōema Magazine, by Nathan Gardels, Editor-in-Chief]

KARATANI Kōjin has been named this year’s laureate for the $1 million Berggruen Prize for Culture and Philosophy. An expansive thinker who straddles East and West while crossing disciplinary boundaries, Karatani is not only one of Japan’s most esteemed literary critics, but a highly original mind who has turned key suppositions of Western philosophy on their heads.

In Karatani’s sharpest departure from conventional wisdom, he locates the origins of philosophy not in Athens, but in the earlier Ionian culture that greatly influenced the so-called “pre-Socratic thinkers” such as Heraclitus and Parmenides. Their ideas centered on the flux of constant change, in which “matter moves itself” without the gods, and the oneness of all being—a philosophical outlook closer to Daoist and Buddhist thought than to Plato’s later metaphysics, which posited that, as Karatani puts it, “the soul rules matter.”

In the political realm, Karatani contrasts the form of self-rule from Ionian times based on free and equal reciprocity among all inhabitants — “isonomia” — with what he calls the “degraded democracy” of Athens that rested on slavery and conquest. He considers the former the better foundation for a just polity.

In a novel twist on classical categorizations, Karatani regards Socrates himself as fitting into the pre-Socratic mold. “If one wants to properly consider the pre-Socratics, one must include Socrates in their number,” he writes. “Socrates was the last person to try to re-institute Ionian thought in politics.”

A Degraded Form of Democracy in Athens

For Karatani, Athenian democracy was debased because it was “constrained by the distinctions between public and private, and spiritual and manual labor,” a duality of existence that Socrates and the pre-Socratics sought to dismantle. As a result, by Karatani’s reading, Socrates was both held in contempt by the “aristocratic faction,” which sought to preserve its privileges built on the labor of others, and condemned to death by a narrow-minded mobocracy for his idiosyncratic insistence on autonomy and liberty in pursuit of truth.

Appalled at Socrates’ fate, Plato blamed democracy for giving birth to demagoguery and tyranny, radically rejecting the idea of rule by the masses and proposing instead a political order governed by philosophers. In Karatani’s reckoning, Plato then “took as his life’s work driving out the Ionian spirit that touched off Athenian democracy”—in short, throwing out the baby with the bathwater but maintaining the disassociations, such as citizen and slave, that follow from the distinction between public and private grounded in an apprehension of reality that separates the spiritual from the material.

In order to refute “Platonic metaphysics,” Karatani argues, “it is precisely Socrates that is required.”

Turning Marx On His Head

In his seminal work, The Structure of World History, Karatani flips Marx’s core tenet that the economic “mode of production” is the substructure of society that determines all else. He postulates instead that it is the ever-shifting “modes of exchange” among capital, the state and nation which together shape the social order.

For Karatani, historically cultivated norms and beliefs about fairness and justice, including universal religions, compel the state to regulate inequality within the mythic commonality of the nation, which sees itself as whole people, tempering the logic of the unfettered market. As he sees it, the siren call of reciprocity and equality has remained deeply resonant throughout the ages, drawing history toward a return to the original ideal of isonomia.

Expanding the Space of Civil Society

Not an armchair philosopher, Karatani has actively promoted a modern form of the kind of reciprocity he saw in ancient Ionian culture, which he calls “associationism.” In practical terms in Japan, this entails the activation of civil society, such as through citizens’ assemblies, that would exercise self-rule from the bottom up.

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, Karatani famously called for “a society where people demonstrate” that would expand the space of civil society and constrict the collusive power of Japan’s political, bureaucratic and corporate establishment. Like other activists, he blamed this closed system of governance that shuts out the voices of ordinary citizens for fatally mismanaging the nuclear power industry in a country where earthquakes and tsunamis are an ever-present danger.

An Expansive Mind

Along with The Structure of World History (2014) and Isonomia and The Origins of Philosophy (2017), the breadth of Karatani’s interests and erudition are readily evident in the titles of his many other books. These include Nation and Aesthetics: On Kant and Freud (2017), History and Repetition (2011), Transcritique: On Kant and Marx (2003), Architecture As Metaphor: Language, Number, Money (1995) and Origins of Modern Japanese Literature (1993).

The prize ceremony will be held in Tokyo in the spring.

Interesting Intuition from Marx

There’s an intriguing and puzzling quote from Marx which is very informative in a completely unexpected way, when Marx says:

Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”
(The German Ideology, International Publishers, 1970, page 47)

This seems to fit Marx’s obsession with practical circumstances as the “driver” and ideas and subjective states of mind as secondary or even derivative. For Marx, culture and consciousness are “epiphenomena” like the foam on a wave.

In a different way, modern philosophers have their own versions of this:

  1. For Wittgenstein, “forms of life” come first before all else.
  2. For Husserl, “the life-world” comes before theory.
  3. For Heidegger, “being-in-the-world” comes before theory.

Marx’s reduction of everything to material circumstances as primary causes of everything would seem to these other philosophers as a kind of extremist monomania on Marx’s part, as when he says:

We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. Their material life-process dominates.

The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence.

Karl Marx with Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, page 47

This idea from Marx is both suggestive and obsessive and maniacal at the same time, what the French call an “idée fixe” or fixation.

It is more accurate to say perhaps that life and consciousness are a “double helix.”

Essay 61: Historical Understanding as a Moving Target: Modernity

Daniel Defoe (died 1731) was a great English writer whom you remember from such works as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

He was also a very astute economy-watcher and published numerous tracts and studies on the British economic scene of the 1720s, such as:

Now normally we associate British industrialism from the 1760s or thereabouts as the launching of modern England with the transport revolutions (railways to cars and buses and subways and cars and planes) and the communications revolution (telegraph to phone to internet to cellphones) and so on.

The very distinguished English historian Christopher Hill shines an alternative light on this trajectory into the modern when he writes: “The England around which Daniel Defoe was beginning to tour at the end of our period (1720s) was very different from that through which James I rode in 1603. We are already in the modern world—the world of banks and cheques, budgets, the stock exchange, the periodical press, coffee-houses, clubs, coffins, microscopes, shorthand, actresses and umbrellas.”

“It is a world in which governments put first the promotion of production, for policy is no longer determined by aristocrats whose main economic activity is consumption. The country as a whole has become far richer. The amount raised in taxes has multiplied by twenty-five.”

(Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714, Norton 1966, page 307)

In the 1720s of Defoe’s commercial travels in England, the techno-industrial revolutions are still far off. And yet Professor Hill states “we are already in the modern world.”

Lastly: if you see the miniseries on TV, Moll Flanders, based on Defoe’s novel, the phrase “the wheel of fortune spins again” is a motif in the series and one gets the feeling that the society is very changeable and “modern transitory,” where, as Marx put it, “All that is solid melts into air.”

Thus so-called “modernity” can be thought of as a “moving target” for our historical understanding.

Essay 41: Then and Now Thinking

Historical thinking is a lifelong attempt to link something called “then” to something called “now.”  History as an academic field of study has a deep cleavage within it in that people like Foucault and Nietzsche think the links between then and now are often illusionary since history is mostly noise (i.e., disconnected chaos) and not “signal” (i.e., “cause and effect” chains of linear progress uncovered by “historian-detectives.”)

We explore this in this mini-essay by looking at the rise of what we call a service economy.

The great Russian thinker Alexander Herzen is traveling around Europe in the 1840s with Marx’s Manifesto appearing in 1848.  Herzen is amazed at the service sector in Paris:

“He was enchanted by the conveniences of Paris, especially the numbers of quick efficient services, from catering to house-cleaning, which made it unnecessary to employ private servants.”

(quoted in Revolutions of 1848:  A Social History. Priscilla Robertson, Princeton 1967, page 110 footnote)

In our own day, the leading economic historian, R.M. Hartwell, in his classic essay, “The Service Revolution:  The Growth of Services in Modern Economy 1700-1914” outlines a worldwide rise of services, and concludes his essay thus:  “The lesson of history is undoubtedly, that was has already happened in the United States, will happen elsewhere, and that the trend in employment towards the services in all developed and developing economies will result finally in a world-wide service revolution.”

(The Fontana Economic History of Europe: The Industrial Revolution, Fontana/Collins, 1980, page 394)

Shall we then “fold Herzen/Paris 1848” into this larger picture, Hartwell’s 1700-1914 or is that a false linkage?

This is an example of then and now analysis which is key to education.

Let us continue the past two essays:

We then use this kind of interesting “home-made puzzle” (one we made-up ourselves and did not read anywhere) and follow it up by entering the academic subject:

  1. Read the classic Manias, Panics and Crashes, the Prof. Kindleberger (MIT) classic.
  2. Discover that the Prof. Niall Ferguson miniseries on PBS, The Ascent of Money, doesn’t elucidate our particular query.
  3. Read Kevin Phillips’s Bad Money to get an introduction to the dangers of “over financialization.” (“hyper financialization”).

The “New York Times” in a piece The New York Times, 12 November 1910, describes the bank run in England including the Westminster Bank.   The movie is set in 1910.

We then begin to think that the collapse of Barings Bank in recent years (Nick Leeson scandal) radiating out from Hong Kong office, is not disconnected from the Barings Bank scandals of 1890. Historical thinking wants to see an arc or trajectory or larger and wider process, and not as disconnected, episodic and completely random.

The Anglo-American financialization process has led to many anomalies.

You might legitimately date the modern beginnings of this mega-process from the 1873 classic by Walter Bagehot of The Economist in his book, Lombard Street, where London is described as the money machine that governs the world and its fluctuations.

Hank Paulson, U.S. Treasury Secretary and Ben Bernanke of the Fed, warned Congressmen in Washington, in September 2008, that the global financial system was on the brink of collapse and needed “infinite” bailout money by that Monday morning, after the weekend.

These problems have yet to be seriously addressed and we might be in a new “bubble” at the intersection of real estate and financial system pathologies (i.e., where the world economy tends to become a kind of “betting parlor”).

Essay 39: Movies as a “Parachute” or Backdoor Into the Field of Economics

Here’s a second example of using movies to “sneak up on” a field such as economics.

Think of the movie, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from 1948, a Humphrey Bogart classic:

In 1925, in the Mexican oil-town of Tampico, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt), two unemployed American drifters, survive by bumming for spare change. They are recruited by an American labor contractor, Pat McCormick (Barton MacLane), as roughnecks to construct oil rigs for $8 a day.  When the project is completed, McCormick skips out without paying the men.

Returning to Tampico, the two vagrants encounter the grizzled prospector Howard (Walter Huston) in a flophouse. The loquacious and penniless ex-miner holds forth on the virtues of gold prospecting and the perils of striking it rich. The two younger men feel the lure of gold and contemplate its risks. Dobbs and Curtin run into McCormick at a cantina, and after a desperate bar fight, they collect their back wages in cash. When Dobbs wins a small jackpot in the lottery, he pools his funds with Curtin and Howard to finance a gold prospecting journey to the Mexican interior.

The flophouse mentioned above (“Oso negro”) has a quick scene which is a marvelous “parachute” into economics:  a group of men begin to reflect on why gold is so expensive while the basics of life like water or air are not.  Howard (their “cracker barrel philosopher-sage,” played by Walter Huston) explains that a thousand men set out to find gold.  999 of the men fail to find any, one finds some.  The price of gold has to reflect the costs of finding it (i.e., men, equipment, time, effort, opportunity costs, risks, danger, etc.) by all thousand and include the 999 failures and not just the one success.  This is an example, albeit primitive, of something like the labor-theory of value explored by Ricardo and then Marx:

Labor theory of value

The labor theory of value (LTV) is a heterodox theory of value that argues that the economic value of a good or service is determined by the total amount of “socially necessary labor” required to produce it. … Marx did not refer to his own theory of value as a “labor theory of value.

Again, using this movie as a charming or enchanting “jumping off place,” you would begin to “dive into” those pages of the textbook that are relevant, much as you’d use a dictionary to look up some words. You then read towards the front and the back of the textbook, coming at it your own way, mindful of these questions of yours which begin to give the field a “shape.” You could do the “standard slog” through the textbook, none of which you remember three days after the course because nothing was based on your own “enchanted” searching and exploring.

Lastly, the author of the original 1927 novel, on which the movie is based, B. Traven was a German anarchist and he may have analyzed the world and its prices and costs (i.e., economics) like Howard in the movie.  This too is itself another “pathway” into economics, a biographical one.

Essay 31: Learning to Use Movies & Books or Songs As Off-Campus Universities

Howards End is a 1910 novelistic masterpiece by the great British writer E.M. Forster. It became an excellent Merchant-Ivory movie. The story is set in Edwardian England (1901-1910) and shows the interaction of three families, each representing a section of British society:

  1. The Wilcoxes (Anthony Hopkins is Henry Wilcox) who represent cut-throat new money, with “Thatcherite” views.
  2. The Schlegels (Emma Thompson is Margaret Schlegel) represent the “culture vultures” who are always talking about music, literature, poetry, high-toned pursuits.
  3. The Basts (Leonard Bast is played by Samuel West) who is a lowly clerk in the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company and part of what one writer (Jack London) called “people of the abyss.” (their job and wage insecurity is all-consuming).

The story involves the storm created by the interaction of these families and the destruction of the marginal clerk Leonard Bast. Surprisingly, the character Margaret Schlegel of the “artiste” family, talks about the centrality of money in their lives:

“You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It’s only when we see someone near us tottering that we realize all that an independent income means. Last night, when we were talking up here round the fire, I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.”

“…we ought to remember, when we are tempted to criticize others, that we are standing on these islands, and that most of the others are down below the surface of the sea.”

“I stand each year upon six hundred pounds, and Helen [her sister] upon the same, and Tibby [their brother] will stand upon eight, and as fast as our pounds crumble away into the sea they are renewed—from the sea, yes, from the sea.

“And all our thoughts are the thoughts of the six-hundred-pounders, and all our speeches; and because we don’t want to steal umbrellas ourselves, we forget that below the sea people do want to steal them, and do steal them sometimes, and that what’s a joke up here is a down there reality.”

There are not only these terrifying lines of cleavage between rich and poor but these cleavages extend to sex and romance as well.

Leonard Bast is seduced by Helen Schlegel (Margaret’s bohemian rebellious sister) who becomes pregnant by him. Paul Wilcox (Henry’s explosive son) beats Bast to death which then brings the social “storm” of the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts, to a climax or denouement.

A close reader of English literature will perhaps have noticed that already in Jane Austen novels, set in a time one hundred years prior to Howards End there is constant talk of annuities

Already in Jane Austen “the name of the game” is Caribbean sugar while in Howards End the “game” is African rubber (and invested in English real estate), where the Wilcox fortune comes from (think of the Firestone company in Liberia as a classic example of the rise of the rubber business, with the need for rubber for tires.)

Thus we have in these novels an intermingling of families, overseas sources of wealth (West/non-West economic relations), rigid social rituals. (a romance between Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast, the marginal clerk, is a no-no punished by death.)

Decades before E.M. Forster, there was the novel by Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son which “orbits” money.

Someone once made the comment that Marx and Freud destroyed the Victorian taboos on money and sex and that comment is confirmed largely by such novels as Howards End with the very surprising utterances of Margaret Schlegel (from the family of “culture vultures”), on money and its centrality in their lives and mentalities.

Think of such novels as an “intuitive kind of open university.”

Essay 30: Magic or Sacred Geography as a Kind of Silent Education

Magic and its clone, sacred geography, are all around us and are crucial organizing principles for the way people think. Such emotions are an overlay over all formal education.

For Communists, the grave of Marx in Highgate Cemetery in England is sacred ground.  For some German soldiers after WWII who committed suicide on the steps in Feldherrnhalle (“Field Marshall’s Hall”—a display in Munich in Odeonsplatz of large statues of famous military leaders in German history), these statues and their place in Munich “means” something magical or sacred to them. North Koreans have Paektu Mountain which Kim recently ascended in a ritual addressed to the North Koreans. Think of Camelot or Lourdes.  Think of sites such as the Lincoln Memorial or Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris or “holy sites” in Jerusalem or Mecca.

Think of magical and sacred things like the three imperial regalia in Japan which Emperor Hirohito fixated on at the end of WWII.

How does this kind of thinking permeate our lives in a way that nobody quite sees clearly:

The left in American politics (Bernie Sanders, Jeffrey Sachs, et al) explicitly or implicitly, think of Scandinavian social and economic systems as a kind of “magic geography” (i.e., defects and problems are not “welcomed” in their idealized visions). On the right, there’s a Singapore paradise of the imagination (what magic geography is) whereas Boris Johnson of England sees a “high wage, low tax” investment utopia which serve as a marvelous locale for the founding of both new businesses and new families. In this vision, men found businesses and women found or establish families, so everybody’s happy.

These competing visions can be traced back as far as you like, but we point to 1974 when Hayek (“the right”) and Myrdal (“the left”) shared the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Professor Niall Ferguson, the conservative Harvard (now Stanford) financial historian (you may have seen his The Ascent of Money PBS mini-series), had a program years ago on educational TV where he walked around places in Chile that he presented as a pension “heaven.” Chile is now kind of falling apart with street riots convulsing Santiago. (Ferguson’s ideal Milton Friedman of Chicago was the main advisor of General Pinochet after the 1973 Chilean coup.

What none of these people see is that social reality is complex and highly changeable and that “magicalizing” one place or system (Sweden, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chile) won’t work because successes that look solid or eternal are often caused by all kinds of “conjunctural” (i.e., of the moment) factors which don’t last “forever.”

Thus, much less “dogmatism” is called for so that one is not “swept along” by “ideological foolishness.” embedded in “magical geography” or its clone “sacred geography.”

Essay 2: Connectivity and the Need for Meta Intelligence

Arguments without end and our attitude to them:

A reader of this book might ask:

How far does this quest for more holism go?  Are there limits on this type of inquiry?

This is a very good question.  In order to answer this, we quote something from the famous French historian, Michelet, who died in 1874:

“Woe be to him who tries to isolate one department of knowledge from the rest….all science [i.e., knowledge] is one:  language, literature and history, physics, mathematics and philosophy; subjects which seem the most remote from one another are in reality connected, or rather all form a single system.”

(quoted in To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1940, page 8)

Our attitude to such radical system building is non-committal. Rather we say, you the student should pursue flexible forms of increased connection and holism while you acquire knowledge and extend it and not worry about some once-and-for-all system underneath or beyond everything. We propose exercises in holism and all exercises are replaceable with new ones or better ones and there’s no “final layer” or hidden “mind of God” to use Stephen Hawking language. The existence of some underlying or final system is something like an “argument without end” (to use Pieter Geyl language).

This argument is captured by the classic “fight” between Hegel (the person that Marx and Kierkegaard rebelled against and who died in 1831) and Adorno in the twentieth century.

Hegel says: The whole is the true. Adorno (who died in 1969) says: The whole is the false.

We skip all such fights.

Thinking about University Knowledge Again:

One cannot major in every field. One cannot make everything a university offers your specialty or concentration.

“Sartor Resartus:”  The great British critic Thomas Carlyle (who died in 1881), close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote a famous satire called “Sartor Resartus or The Tailor Retailored” where he lampoons a certain Professor Devil’s-crud who teaches at Don’t-Know-Where University and is Professor of Everything.

Obviously, we are not proposing the creation of professors-of-everything and propose nothing more than the heightened ability to “zoom out” of academic fields, topics, lectures, topics, campuses.

A person who has similar intuitions is Alfred North Whitehead of Harvard (died 1947) who says in his essays on education that the real purpose of university education is to enable the learner to generalize better using that person’s field as a help or aid.  The purpose of a university cannot be fields and monographs within fields alone.