Phenomenology, Eurocentrism, and Asia: Husserl and Heidegger


A number of works published since the lifetime of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) have shown the germaneness of classical phenomenology for interpreting Asian philosophies—such as Confucianism and Daoism, as examined in previous chapters, and Buddhism, as discussed in this and subsequent two chapters— and for articulating a more extensive intercultural conception and practice of philosophy and hermeneutics. This chapter contextualizes and analyzes the discourses concerning phenomenology and Asian philosophy through an examination of its reception of Buddhism and the conception of Europe and Asia, Occident and Orient, in the writings of two early phenomenological thinkers. An analysis of this problematic in Husserl and Heidegger underscores the limits of standard phenomenology for intercultural philosophy and indicates what else is required in articulating an adequate intercultural hermeneutics.

The reflections of Husserl and Heidegger concluded, in opposition to Misch’s opening up of the field of philosophy, with their conception of the intrinsically European-Western character of philosophy and the unique and exclusive spiritual identity and social-cultural history of Europe. Their philosophies of history and understandings of philosophy, rather than an explicit notion of racial identity, shaped and confined their interpretations of Asia and Asian thought. Both Husserl and Heidegger had moments of positive engagement with Asian thought as well as moments of refusal and rejection.

As we shall consider below, Husserl discussed Buddhism in a sympathetic manner in two small texts from the mid-1920s, discovering in them a source of ethical and cultural renewal in attunement with his own project of ethical revitalization.1 As explored previously in Chapters 4 and 5, Heidegger explicitly engaged with Daoist and Japanese themes in his postwar writings. He employed at times a hybrid Daoist language in speaking about emptiness and the thing. Nevertheless, while Husserl and Heidegger had moments of engagement with and openness toward Asian philosophy that have inspired later work in comparative phenomenology and disclosed possibilities for furthering the project of a “hybrid” intercultural and comparative philosophizing, they both problematically restricted in distinctive yet overlapping ways the scope of philosophical reflection and dialogue through the essentialistic identitythinking that characterized their understanding of the ideas of Asia, Europe, and philosophy itself.

Questions examined in this chapter include: To what extent is the philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger open to non-Western philosophical sources? To what extent do their conceptions of philosophy, its history, and “Europe” limit the possibility of a genuine encounter with non-Western philosophy as philosophical? Is phenomenology inherently Eurocentric or does it suggest intercultural possibilities beyond its European origins? Is it limited as an intercultural philosophy by the limitations of classical phenomenologists? Are there other forms of phenomenological practice, such as Buddhist or Daoist phenomenologies?

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