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Home arrow Psychology arrow Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in early Twentieth-Century German Thought

Cosmopolitanism, politics, and race: Zhang and Driesch

Zhang, who engaged in writing and politically organizing on behalf of realizing democratic socialism in China, was politically to the left of the liberal nationalist Eucken and the moderate social democrat Driesch. Zhang was a critic of Marxism and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, Zhongguo gongchandang ФВ№ЖШ). He was involved in the leadership of various social democratic parties and publications. His social democratic vision for China, influenced by German social democrats such as Philipp Scheidemann and deemed idealistic and utopian by his communist critics, was of a mixed economy mediated by liberal rights and constitutional government. His political activities and leadership brought him into conflict with the two dominant Chinese political forces, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, Zhongguo guomindang ФННК Щ) and the Communist party, which eventually forced him into American exile near the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.

Eucken had opposed socialism in Der Sozialismus und seine Lebensgestaltung (1920; published in English in 1921 as Socialism: An Analysis). Eucken’s philosophical fellow traveler Driesch was a cosmopolitan, pro-democratic, anticolonial, and (together with Theodor Lessing) anti-militaristic pacifist and antinationalistic thinker.52 Driesch was a leading figure in the “League for Human Rights” (Liga fur Menschenrechte) during the Weimar Republic, warning Germany in political speeches of impending dictatorship. Because of his political activism against the National Socialist movement, Driesch became the first non-Jewish professor to lose his university position in National Socialist Germany. He was forbidden to engage in political speech and activity by the new regime. Isolated and silenced in National Socialist Germany, and marginalized in academic life, Driesch dedicated his last decade to the study of paranormal psychology and the occult in what has been interpreted as either a withdrawal from social-political life or “as a form of oppositional politics,” as Driesch himself suggested in his autobiography (Lebenserinnerungen) written in 1938 and posthumously published in 1951.53

The philosophy and ideology of racial categorization and hierarchy were prevalent in Western and Eastern, conservative and liberal, intellectual and social-political discourses of the early twentieth-century. It is noteworthy, given the contemporary revival of racialist and nationalist ideologies that serve as a reminder of their destructive influence in the first half of the twentieth-century, that Zhang and Driesch were both critical of the use and validity of the concept of race while employing the categories and concepts of their times.

In the case of Zhang, unlike other notable East Asian intellectuals of the time, he explicitly rejected using notions of race and common blood to define the Han people, opposing the racial categorization of the Han as a group with one unique ethnic lineage or identity.54 He argued in his political writings of the 1930s such as The Scientific Foundation for National Revival (1935) and The Chinese Culture of Tomorrow (1936) that the Han people were already a mixture of peoples with myriad origins and that Han identity was one of a common culture, language, and ethical life.55

The issue of race is more complex in Driesch because of the German situation and the subsequent reception of his work. In another twist to his story and the eclipse of his philosophy during and after the National Socialist era, Driesch has been linked in later sources with the National Socialism he actively opposed because of his ostensive contributions—as an irrationalist, holistic, organicist, and vitalistic life-philosopher—to the ideological fermentation and background that led to its assumption of power and the deployment of his biological holism and vitalism in some National Socialist discourses.56 This is an ironic fate given

Driesch’s resistance to racism, Social Darwinism, and the idea of a “struggle for existence" which formed crucial parts of his opposition to the Darwinian explanation of evolution, and his argument that biological holism undermined the thesis that there could be isolatable determinative racial characteristics.

Driesch opposed the Darwinian model of conflict and struggle that was appropriated in racial and National Socialist thinking; biological organisms and their evolution reveal an entelechy, a teleologically structured process, toward wholeness, harmony, balance, and proper environmental functioning in Driesch’s account. His argumentation for anti-mechanistic vitalism did not appeal to forms of pure or primordial intuition and feeling as sloppy overly generalizing intellectual histories of the Weimar Republic would have it; it was a philosophical inquiry into the fullness of entelechic psychoidic life inspired by the philosophical tradition of Aristotle, Leibniz, and Goethe. Driesch’s notion of life, as well as Zhang’s use of the notion of life in the 1920s, encompassed cooperation, communication, and rationality; it was opposed to a model—reflecting the alienation of capitalist society more than nature itself—of relentless competition, conflict, and struggle in which only the biologically superior survived.

Hans and Margarete Driesch claimed that their work The Far-East as Guest of Young China aimed at encouraging the “understanding among the nations and races"57 Such understanding was possible as there is no abyss or impossibility of communication between peoples, such as Germans and Chinese, based on racial characteristics. They express doubts about the value of notions of “race" and racialized conceptions of peoples and nations.58 They furthermore rejected the prevalent racial discourse of the “yellow peril" stemming from the East against the West, as a myth.59 This discourse of an Asian physical or spiritual threat to the Western world occurs in popular and philosophical Western portraits of China (some of which are discussed in Chapters 1 and 7), as the anxiety and fear of a “yellow peril” has shaped modern Western misunderstandings of China.60

The racial idea of a “yellow peril" critiqued by Driesch had its origins in the early Western encounter with East Asia and intensified with the Western colonial intrusion in East Asia.61 The German Kaiser Wilhelm II utilized the idea of a “gelbe Gefahr” in 1895, purportedly based on a nightmare of the Buddha riding a dragon conquering Europe, to justify and excuse European imperialist excursions into China. The German-Baltic physician and writer Hermann von Samson-Himmelstjerna published in 1902 The Yellow Peril as a Moral-Problem (Die gelbe Gefahr als Moralproblem) with the pro-imperialist “German Colonial Publishing House” (Deutscher Kolonial-Verlag).62 China was perceived as a threat to Western civilization because of the advanced character of Chinese civilization and the inability of the West to fully transform China into a pure colonial subject state.

The Austrian social Darwinist and racialist philosopher Christian von Ehrenfels (1859-1932), a student of Franz Brentano and Alexius Meinong and a forerunner to Gestalt-psychology, constructed an image of a “yellow peril” based on sexual anxieties about Asians. Ehrenfels asserted in his writings concerning the philosophy of sex that East Asians would sexually outcompete Europeans through higher rates of reproduction and consequently overwhelm the Aryan race.63 Ehrenfels warned Western men against the seductive powers of Asian women. The fear of the “yellow peril” is frequently correlated with fears of “Asiatic” Bolshevism, as in the writings of the social theorist Karl A. Wittfogel and as will be traced further in Chapters 6 and 7 in relation to Martin Heidegger, Henri Massis, and Arthur Koestler. The philosopher of the alterity of the other, Emmanuel Levinas, could speak in the 1950s—in a discussion of the threatening specter of Chinese communism—of the “yellow peril,” while denying that he is using this explicitly racial concept in a racial way, as a “spiritual” threat endangering the West.64

A number of German thinkers rejected racial thinking and the idea of a “yellow danger” from the East in the 1920s. Driesch’s friend Richard Wilhelm called it an empty phantom conjured up by European bad conscience (“Keine ‘gelbe Gefahr’, das inhaltsleere Gespensterphantom des europaischen schlechten Gewissens”).65 Hans and Margarete Driesch challenged the discourse of “racial hygiene” and its myth of a Chinese racial threat to the West. They reject thinking of race in these terms and, in response to the image of a “yellow” take-over of the West, pointed toward the pacifism active in Chinese intellectual traditions and the tolerance of diverse intellectual and religious perspectives and ways of life visible in Chinese society. Chinese ethical life is in some ways (scientifically and technologically) behind and in other ways (ethically) ahead of European life. They furthermore describe the much more real existing threat of the “white menace”: that is, the reality of the Western colonial expropriation of Asia, including the Western powers encroachment on China in wars waged for special rights and concessions, such as the British right to sell opium, and in plundering and destruction.66

Driesch published, a couple years after his departure from China, a short piece in 1925 in the German-Jewish Newspaper CV-Zeitung (Central Vereins- Zeitung: Blatter fur Deutschtum und Judentum), posing the question in his title: “Konnen Rassen einander Verstehen?” (“Can Races Understand Each Other?”). The CV-Zeitung had published a series of contributions on race with an eye toward the “Jewish question” in Germany in 1925. The question in Driesch’s, itself naively phrased—as David Wertheim notes—in racial language, was one of urgency for German-Jewish citizens faced with the intensification of German Nationalism and anti-Semitism during the Weimar Republic that would lead to the persecution and annihilation of National Socialist Germany.67

Driesch formulated the dilemma of the German-Jewish situation in the 1920s in the following way: if different races can understand one another, then there can be cooperation and dialogue between them. German-Jews could as Jews flourish in Germany. But if races cannot understand one another, if there is a basic incommensurability between peoples based on racial characteristics, or an intractable ethnocentric a priori (as discussed in Chapter 5), then—Driesch warns sensing the devastation German nationalism can unleash—German-Jews need to find other ways of flourishing in recognition of the impossibility of such mutual understanding.68 Driesch presented this as two alternative possibilities in which he hoped for reconciliation in a multiethnic Germany. Popper-Lynkeus, discussed in Chapter 1, and other German language Zionist authors had already concluded—given the harsh realities of German racialist hostility—that Jews could only survive and flourish with the foundation of their own nation state and by becoming a people with a homeland like any other people.

Driesch critiqued in this short piece the racialist idea that peoples are “entirely other” (volligen andersein) from one another living in incommensurably different worlds with different truths.69 Based on his experiences in China, his work with Jewish intellectuals, as well as other reasons, Driesch contended that there is no difference of essence, nature, or substance between Eastern and Western peoples, nor can there be one between Germans and Jews. He noted how he experienced China not as a tourist but first-hand as a guest. He describes how he could recognize through daily communication and interaction the personality, the ideas, and moral life of Chinese persons. Chinese discourses, institutions and practices are he claimed both recognizably characteristically Chinese (and so distinguished from other cultural milieus) and, at the same time, understandable by the non-Chinese who experiences and learns them: some practices are to be criticized and changed (such as, notably, the treatment and status of women) and others learned from and emulated (such as the Confucian moral sensibility). There are difficulties communicating across diverse cultures and languages, but there is no racial or cultural ethnocentric a priori that makes communication and mutual life in principle impossible.

Germans and Chinese, and Germans and Jews in Driesch’s article, not only can in the future but already have repeatedly communicated and understood one another. German elite and popular cultures were already positively shaped by a long history of German-Jewish interaction, and Germans and Jews had formed new communities and forms of life together.70 Employing a common yet problematic tactic that highlights prominent Jews to counter anti-Semitism, Driesch emphasizes in particular the role of Spinoza in the formation of German philosophical (Schelling and Haeckel) and poetic culture (Goethe) that German nationalists identified as uniquely German. Driesch concludes with the following considerations. If there is no essential biologically or naturally based difference between races, then mutual understanding and common life are possible even if there are (1) no unified or underlying truths or discourses known by all peoples, (2) radical differences in worldview and perspective, and (3) conflicts produced by the closure of religious and cultural systems through which other persons are perceived to be the radically alien “other"71 The most radical differences between peoples cannot justify the racialist notion that peoples are either biologically or incommensurably distinct in essence or in principle.

There are a number of concerns with his argument and its context. Driesch pluralizes and relativizes but does not reject the idea of race as such. The very need to make such arguments against racial thinking for interracial mutuality leads readers to sense the ominous racist context in which they are presented and the ineffectiveness of his critique. A people—such as the Germans inspired by racialist and nationalist ideology—could imagine and act as if there were a difference in essence between themselves and others such that possibilities for mutual understanding and common human life are short-circuited and destroyed. The growing nationalistic and racial fervor of Weimar Germany would increasingly undermine Driesch’s cosmopolitan hopes in intercultural communication and the formation of new multiracial and international communities that would draw on and allow for dialogue between all persons with their varying cultures and traditions.

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