Technology and the Way: Daoism in Buber and Heidegger
Introduction: The perils of intercultural philosophy
Comparative intercultural philosophy continues to face entrenched skepticism from the professional philosophical establishment, despite centuries of engagement and dialogue between philosophies of diverse provenance. In the contexts of German and Chinese philosophy, a number of significant modern German thinkers from Leibniz and Wolff to Martin Buber (1878-1965) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) have engaged Chinese thought with varying degrees of seriousness. At the same time, German philosophers such as—to name a few prominent examples—Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, and Heidegger have become an established part of modern Chinese discourses.
A cursory glance at the philosophy sections of Western and Chinese bookstores reveals an abundance of translations and interpretive works. There is an ongoing intellectual exchange, despite the neglect and in some cases open hostility in institutional settings; yet the question lingers whether there is or can be mutual understanding. The suspicion remains that a comparative or cross-cultural encounter is bound to miss the essential intrinsic content of one discourse or the other. Even in this age suspicious of essentialism, there is hesitation concerning whether Westerners can grasp the genuine meaning of Chinese classics, just as Chinese intellectuals have fashioned their own understandings and interpretations of European thought in ways that diverge from their European contexts.
There is a hermeneutical dilemma in interpreting texts from other traditions, which radicalizes interpretive problems that already occur within the same cultural milieu. On the one hand, if the interpretive measure of meaning requires the reader to comprehend the real intentions of the author, or the author in his or her full historical context, then there has never been a European encounter with a classical Chinese text such as the Zhuangzi or—for that
matter—perhaps not yet even a Chinese encounter. There has in this case never been a genuine reception of Chinese philosophy in German philosophy, since these interpretations from Leibniz and Wolff to Buber and Heidegger are based more or less on their own presuppositions, inadequate translations, and a lack of familiarity with the cultural context and language in which these texts were initially composed and transmitted. If such a hermeneutical measure is too stringent, since it makes understanding others virtually impossible, the opposite approach of unrestricted charity would be too lax. That is, on the other hand, both scholarly experts and the actual practitioners of a tradition will appropriately demand hermeneutical standards to distinguish genuinely expert readings from superficial external impositions and anachronistic or ideologically driven appropriations foisted onto a text by idiosyncratic philosophers and popular audiences from different cultural situations. Intercultural philosophy appears captured in a dilemma between rigorous but potentially overly narrow expertise and free and open but potentially ill-informed communication. The question of the possibility of a genuinely intercultural philosophizing is of pressing concern in the context of this chapter that addresses two early twentieth-century German philosophers: (1) who used and adopted images and strategies from the early Daoist (daojia ШШ) classics, the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi, and (2)
whose thinking appears to be impacted by them to the extent that it is possible to be influenced by texts read in translation and through the mediations of a different historical and cultural nexus.
One instance of East-West philosophical interaction and intertextual hybridity, which a dominant Eurocentric ideology denies in assuming the autonomy and isolation of Western philosophy, is evident in German philosophical reflections about the interconnections and tensions between technology, spirituality, and poetry in the modern world. Weimar-era intellectuals such as Count Hermann Alexander von Keyserling, Theodor Lessing, and Richard Wilhelm, discussed in Chapter 2, contrasted Daoist spontaneity and naturalness with the alienation and mechanization of the modern Western organization of life. In the current chapter, an exemplary case of the intertextuality between Chinese and Western thought is examined through an interpretation of how images, metaphors, and ideas from the texts associated with Laozi and Zhuangzi were taken up in early twentieth- century German philosophy. This interest in the Laozi and Zhuangzi encompasses a diverse range of thinkers such as Buber, Heidegger, and Georg Misch. Heidegger’s encounter with Daoism has been widely discussed, yet the interpretive context of this encounter has been rarely considered. One task of this chapter is to address issues of historical intercultural inspiration in Buber and Heidegger (Misch will be taken up again in Chapter 5), if not directly the relative accuracy or inaccuracy of their readings, and a second task is to examine philosophical questions concerning the fate of humanity in the age of technology and, remarkably, how the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi became sources for the twentieth-century German philosophical debate about the modern scientific and technological worldview and how to respond to it in the profoundly different philosophies of Buber and Heidegger.1