A Chinese reading of Eucken’s philosophy of spirit
Zhang describes the two prevailing philosophical tendencies of the current epoch as those that have thinking as their point of departure and those that have life as their point of departure (Lebensphilosophie; shengming zhexue Ф'&ЩФ) in his 1921 essay “An Outline of Eucken’s Philosophy of Spiritual Life” (“Woyikeng jingshen shenghuo zhexue dagai” Ш^ШЩЩФ^ЩФФШ).24 Both tendencies, he argued, are discernible in Descartes’s conclusion in the Meditations: “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). In rational doubt and reflection (the “I think”), one is led back to that which cannot be doubted: one’s own life (the “I am”) as a point of departure and touchstone for thinking.25 Zhang appealed to Nietzsche, James, and Bergson in his argument that life-philosophy situates thinking in life and lived-experience (Erleben), which is the domain where truth takes place and is meaningful, in contrast to the intellectualistic tendencies that separate experience and truth, and subordinate life to abstract cognition. Both of these tendencies, however, are one-sided; German idealism and Eucken’s activist idealism, in contrast to mere life-philosophy, disclose the interconnection of life and reason, situating thinking in its life-nexus without reducing it to bare life.26
Eucken’s work Cognition and Life (Erkennen und Leben) indicates how life can be lost in the pursuit of concepts and how conceptual cognition (Erkennen) needs to be rooted in its life-context.27 But what is this “life”? Zhang critiques Eucken at this point, suggesting that he remained within the boundaries of Kant’s critical philosophy and poses the question to him of where life and its value arise and of what this life consists; he asks Eucken to clarify an adequate conception of life and responds to this question for Eucken by noting his ethical-religious conception of life that differentiates it from James’ psychological and Bergson’s biological interpretations of life.28 Eucken is unusual among life-philosophers in conceiving life in relation to the transcendent rather than thinking it solely within the confines of this-worldly immanence. Zhang situates Eucken’s philosophy in the historical context of the emergence of positivism, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and industrial society in the nineteenth-century. Eucken resembles a kind of prophet for the sake of life, revealing how life is not merely a servant of biological instincts and impulses to be employed by a destructive technological civilization.29
Zhang links the thinking of life in Bergson and Eucken in the next passages of this essay through a discussion of Bergson’s favorable introduction to the French translation (Avant-propos pour Le sens et la valeur de la vie, 1912) of Eucken’s 1907 work: Der Sinn und Wert des Lebens (translated into English as The Meaning and Value of Life, 1909).30 They are two giants of contemporary thought and advocates of “spiritual ontology” (jingshen benti for
Zhang. Eucken’s contemporary significance lies in particular in his discourse of “spiritual life” (Geistesleben; jingshen shenghuo MttA'JS) that defines what it means to be appropriately human.31 The idea of “spiritual life,” which is a fusion of German life-philosophy and Chinese traditional discourses about life, would be a contested notion during the Republican and early Communist eras in China. Zhang would in his subsequent thinking define the Confucian task of cultivating humanity and spiritual life as the realization of human autonomy and spiritual freedom (jingshen ziyou М^ФЙЙ).
Zhang explicates Eucken’s The Philosophy of Life of the Great Thinkers (Die Lebensanschauungen der grossen Denker, 1890) as asserting that “spiritual life” means to expand from a small to a great self. It lies in the human heart- mind (renxin AA) and yet it is not limited to human beings. It extends and encompasses all life and spirit as such, and God. Eucken rejects the adequacy of either intellectualism or naturalism for adequately interpreting spiritual life. This argument includes, despite the Hegelian lineage of Eucken’s notion of spirit, rejecting Hegel’s philosophical system for exaggerating the role of reason and theoretical life over practice and active life.32
Zhang published at this time, in a classical Chinese translation that makes Eucken sound Confucian, Eucken’s letter written to him in Jena on November 12th, 1920.33 The letter notes that the most important task of the present is the combination of Chinese civilization and modern Western thought through communication. Insofar as the modern West is a culture of force (Kultur der Kraft), which hinders the cultivation of the human heart-mind (renxin) in Zhang’s translation that is Confucianizing through his choice of words, China confronts the difficult task of balancing the modern Western will for domination and external power and the traditional Chinese emphasis on the humane cultivation of the self and human relationships in forming a new common ground between East and West.34 Eucken perceives new possibilities for philosophy and practical life in engaging in intercultural dialogue, the formation of new relationships and communities, and in the new East-West hybrid philosophies of life emerging in China that transcend the stratified privilege of the West in the modern Western philosophical tradition.
Eucken’s conservative philosophy of spirit, which appeared antiquated and outdated for Horkheimer and other German intellectuals of the 1920s, took on a different more radical tone in the Chinese context insofar as it indicated avenues of active defiance, resistance, and transformation. Eucken’s message of “affirmative” ethical activism was pertinent for Zhang in a semi-colonized China threatened by the reductive forces of Western modernity and by the continuing encroachment of colonial powers; a China in need of social-political engagement and spiritual transformation and reconstruction (jingshen de gaizao from within. Eucken’s emphasis on the heart, the role of
the affects in morality, and ethical action in practical life resonated with, and can be explicated in light of, the ethical tradition of Mencius (Mengzi and Wang Yangming )?ШЩ, which Zhang interpreted as a movement of an ethically motivated and reform-oriented idealism of action.