Interviews & Podcasts

A Letter from Japan: Postdoctoral Life at the University of Tokyo

By Yusuke Wakazawa

1. Hume and Eighteenth-Century Studies in Japan

After spending five and a half years in York, I flew back to Japan in February and started working as a project research fellow at the University of Tokyo (UT). My one-year research fellowship is sponsored by the East Asian Academy for New Liberal Arts (EAA), a joint research institution between UT and Peking University. This year, six EAA fellows conduct their own research at UT and collaborate with senior scholars across disciplines from the humanities to social and natural sciences. The EAA research community is “creatively chaotic” and characterized by continuous conversations with students and scholars from different disciplines. On the very first day of my job appointment, I attended an online research roundtable with a biologist, chemist and anthropologist, and then had an intensive discussion with a political theorist, who is interested in David Hume’s intellectual legacy in the social sciences.

In Japan, fortunately, there are plenty of scholars working on eighteenth-century studies and it is not difficult to find interlocutors for my own research. I am currently exploring Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion as part of my postdoctoral project on eighteenth-century philosophy and conversation. I am very fortunate to share this research interest with Prof. Hajime Inuzuka (Hosei University), whose Japanese translation of the Dialogues was just published this January, and Prof. Ryu Susato (Keio University), the author of Hume’s Sceptical Enlightenment (Edinburgh UP, 2015). In post-war Japan, the departments of politics and economics have nurtured studies of British philosophy, particularly focused on Locke, Hume, and Smith. After returning to Japan, as a Hume scholar, I need to think about how to connect literary and philosophical studies with the history of political and economic thought. At UT, Prof. Masaaki Takeda, who specializes in the linguistic theory and practice of Swift and Locke, kindly acts as my mentor. His weekly seminar on eighteenth-century novels has enabled me to examine the intersection between eighteenth-century literature and philosophy.

Although I have been working far from the UK, I am still able to consult eighteenth-century books thanks to UT’s Special Collection, which includes “Adam Smith’s Library.” Surprisingly, 315 books, originally owned and read by Adam Smith, are now in Tokyo. Scholars of Smith’s project in Japan worked hard to organize an International Adam Smith Society Conference this year, which was unfortunately canceled due to the current pandemic. Like BSECS, there is the Japanese Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (JSECS), which is proud of its multilingual research exchange. There are a certain number of scholars working on eighteenth-century France, Germany and Italy. At the JSECS annual conference, we often have a chance to learn about eighteenth-century Japan, China and Korea as well. This heterogenous research environment will benefit my exploration of the eighteenth-century worlds as an intellectual historian.

2. EAA and the “World Philosophy” Project

EAA currently has four research initiatives: (1) world philosophy, (2) world literature, (3) world history and (4) society, public health and environmental studies. I mainly work with the “world philosophy” project in which Prof. Takahiro Nakajima and Prof. Tsuyoshi Ishii aim to conceptualize a global history of philosophy as something more than a comparative study of regional philosophies. In response to Markus Gabriel’s Why the World does not Exist? (2013), they are particularly keen to examine the contemporary significance of the term “world” in philosophical thinking. Prof. Nakajima is one of the editors of the History of World Philosophy (8 volumes: 2020), the sixth volume of which—entitled the Enlightenment and the Theory of Moral Sentiments—focuses on the global eighteenth century.

This volume highlights the plural rise of sentimental philosophy across the globe. In eighteenth-century China, for instance, Dai Zhen (1724-77) theorized sympathy through a re-interpretation of the Mencius. Against the conventional understanding of human feelings as an impediment to moral cultivation, Dai Zhen appreciated feelings as a driving force for the progress of society and culture. In eighteenth-century Japan, it was the founding moment of a new philological school, known as “Ancient Studies” or “Japanese Studies,” which inquired after the original condition of human feeling through analyses of ancient Japanese poetry. The members of this school saw literary criticism as a means to conceptualize sympathy.

In the “world philosophy” research initiative, my main interest is theorizing the “synchronicity” of intellectual inquiry in the global eighteenth century during which thinkers in diverse regions explored human nature, conceptualized sympathy as a normative force, and reorganized the system of knowledge. European philosophers did not know what was going on in East Asia, and vice versa. I am keen to think about how eighteenth-century thinkers in distant regions came to ask similar philosophical questions without knowing each other. My inquiry into this “synchronicity is different from a comparative study of European and East Asian thought, and also from examining their mutual influence. A senior scholar in the world philosophy project has noted that the cross-cultural encounter between Chinese intellectuals and the Jesuits in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, represented by the intellectual exchange between Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) and Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), would open up a shared horizon of philosophical thinking across the globe in later centuries.

The scope of the “world philosophy” project is tremendously broad, but its research framework has proven a benefit to my own inquiry into the “culture of conversation” in the eighteenth century. As an intellectual historian, I am excited to trace the broad circulation of knowledge beyond regional boundaries and the emergence of a “synchronicity of thought” as its consequence. Thanks to the University of York’s CECS research associate status, I can also continue to participate in its online seminar. My seminar report on “Hannah Greg in the Age of Manufactures: Gender, Politics, and Class” is now on UT’s project website. I continue to seek ways to contribute to and learn from York’s Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies Research Community. I am even dreaming of establishing the CECS Tokyo Branch!

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