Who Are “We”? A Philosophy of Encounter by KUKI Shûzô (1888-1941)

Who Are “We”? A Philosophy of Encounter by KUKI Shûzô (1888-1941)

Modern Japanese Philosophy is neither a mere passive reception of the Western philosophy, nor a mere exotic shadow of ‘specifically Japanese’ or ‘Eastern’ traditions expressed through Western concepts. Rather, it has been constituted by a constant and patient dialogue that philosophers have maintained with concrete philosophical communities, both Japanese and European. Given the intense exchanges between modern Japanese philosophers and philosophical Europe, the history of Japanese philosophy is a fruitful field of study which aims at a field of tension between, on the one hand, the claim to a conceptual universality advanced by philosophy and philosopher-individuals in particular and, on the other hand, the contact between national communities to which these individuals belong and which are characterised by dynamic languages and histories. In other words, it is a field of tension between individuals, nations, and universality.


Kuki in 1923. Archives Tôeisha, Ittôen, Kyôto

From this point of view, the case of Kuki Shûzô is fascinating. Having studied in Japan at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as in Europe for seven years (1921-1928), Kuki’s thinking took shape through his connections with several national communities (the languages in which he wrote – Japanese, German, and French – express this inter-national dimension). While Kuki claims a certain Japanese specificity in The Structure of Iki (1930), he also strives for a conceptual universality in The Problem of Contingency (1935). He not only attended the courses of European philosophers and interacted with some of them, including Bergson, Koyré, Sartre, Husserl, and Heidegger (who remembered his memories of Kuki in “A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer”). We may say that Kuki was also well integrated within the European intellectual world; in 1928, he participated in the Pontigny Decade, which embodied at the time a sort of Republic of Letters, and he even published within the same year in French a book which contains his lectures in Pontigny, Propos sur le temps [On Time].

In August 1928, in Pontigny. Top row, from left to right: Dominique Parodi, Kuki Shûzô, Alexandre Koyré, Vladimir Jankélévitch. Bottom row,
from left to right: Émile Namer, Raymond Aron.

Propos sur le temps
The original edition of Propos sur le temps

In the context of the crisis of Western universalism after the Great War, Kuki adopts a stance of “irony” regarding the idea of “universal”, which had been highlighted by two influential currents in his younger years: the neo-Kantian theory of knowledge in the philosophical world and, more broadly among young writers and intellectuals, what could be called the ‘universalist individualism’, whereby an originally isolated ‘I’ directly connects itself to an abstract universal (called Life, Cosmos or Humanity). Influenced by the “method of intuition”, which he considers to be the common point between Bergsonism and phenomenology, and which abolishes the abstract distinction posed by neo-Kantianism between subject and object, Kuki adopts an intuitionist frame of mind that strives to grasp “what is concretely given” to consciousness. This “given” is found in Kuki’s work through several types of the “we”, what may be called ‘the common’, which is more “concrete” than the isolated individual and the abstract universal. Firstly, there is the “we” in the sense of the cultural community of the people (minzoku), which is different from other forms of “we” (in particular European forms), and whose meaning is expressed by the national language. Secondly, there is the dual “we” as the intersubjective coexistence of iki, the ethical and aesthetic ideal born in Edo at the end of the 18th century. Kuki presented this ideal as specifically Japanese, yet it is also possible to give it a universalist interpretation: his analysis of iki as a field of attraction and distance between women and men, simultaneously and paradoxically made of “seduction” (bitai), “bravery” (ikiji) and “resignation” (akirame), actually clarifies the dual tension of the erotic phenomenon, or the “fact of being two”, as Levinas puts it. Thirdly, and finally, there is “we” as the contingent encounter between individuals.

Let us focus more on this third type of “we” – which actually constitutes the core of Kuki’s philosophy – by taking the concrete case of Kuki’s translation of Husserls’s “principle of principles” (Ideen I, § 24), where the “method of intuition” appears. The Husserlian phrase gebende Anschauung is rendered as ataerareru chokkan. Whereas gebende, which derives from the present participle of the verb geben (to give), is often translated into an active sense, either in English (“giving intuition”) or in Japanese (ataeru hataraki o suru chokkan), Kuki chose to interpret it in the sense of spontaneity, with the ending -rareru, which plays more or less the role of pronominal verbs in European languages. Therefore, his translation signifies “intuition which gives itself” or “intuition giving itself”. In the “principle of principles”, the gebende characteristic of intuition refers to the pronominal aspect of what “offers itself” (sich darbietet) or “gives itself” (sich gibt) to consciousness which receives it at the same time, hic et nunc. Through the intuition of what gives itself, consciousness is simultaneously passive and active: passive because it leaves what gives itself to give itself; active because it receives it by giving it meaning (a completely passive consciousness is unable to receive anything).

As spontaneity is descriptive of the phenomenon which phenomenalizes itself by itself without a deliberate act of a subject-agent, it is close to the function of a reflexive verb which describes both the passivity and the activity of the grammatical subject. Kuki’s choice for ataerareru as spontaneity expresses at the same time the passivity and the activity of intuition, whereas ataeru, for which recent translators have opted, has no passive nuance. The spontaneity of the -rareru form allowed Kuki to describe a phenomenon which is neither the (neo-)Kantian phenomenon, i.e. an object constituted by the subject of knowledge, nor an object prior to a passive subject that would simply be submitted to it (naive realism), but – here, no anteriority of one over the other – a phenomenon where a given and a consciousness always already spontaneously encounter each other in intuition: the grammatical spontaneity expresses the phenomenological spontaneity. As originary, this encounter is prior to the distinction between subject and object, from which derives the idea of object constituted by the subject.

Following the above outline, we can assert that the third type of the “we”, the contingent encounter, is this originary phenomenon of the intuition. The fortuitous encounter, which is the “nodal meaning” of contingency according to Kuki, is not constituted by the subject, but originally gives itself. Let us note that an encounter is by definition contingent, fortuitous, it cannot be planned by the laws of causality or constituted by humans. If it were planned, it would no longer be an encounter, but an appointment or an arranged marriage, constituted by subjects. The encounter is not constituted, but always gives itself. The encounter is a phenomenon of the “we”, and even the very phenomenon which makes be the “we”. It is common to an ‘I’ and a ‘Thou’, hence forming a “we”, and making simultaneously emerge the difference between both. It is only because we encounter each other that we realize our individual differences. The “we” of the encounter gives itself, and the individuals are simultaneously given by it. From this point of view, the relevant pair of concepts is not the opposition between identity and difference, the same and the other, or the community and the individual, but the simultaneity of the common and the different, or the common and the individual.

Thus, the Kukian intuitionism of encounter reveals itself in translation, which is itself an encounter between different linguistic communities, i.e. different national “we”. The emergence of concepts does not reveal itself only in an intellectual context, in the encounters between a thinker and other thinkers, but at the same time in con-texts, by bringing different texts closer. Translation is paradigmatic of this approach. The act of translating is the uni-versal in the literal sense, an act of orientation “towards” the undetermined “One”, and not a mere imposition to the world of “one” culture or “one” determined particular language (nowadays English), i.e. imperialism. In the words of Barbara Cassin, it is a question of “complicating the universal”, which is not the imposition of a model upon the world, but rather what is the common being of languages, what is found between them. Japanese philosophy, here represented by Kuki, shows vividly that the act of philosophizing is neither the work of one isolated thinker, nor the mere shadow of an ethnic context (culturalism), or a historical one (historicism). Rather, it is at crossroads of the individual, the national, and the universal: the emergence of a conceptuality both personal and universal from a dialogue between individuals, but also between different national communities. This universal is not an abstract preconception, dogmatically posed, but a concrete dynamic universal, emerging patiently from this fertile crossroads.


Simon Ebersolt

Simon Ebersolt is an ATER (Temporary Lecturer and Research Assistant) at the Inalco,
and an organizing member of Groupe d’étude de philosophie japonaise (Institut Français de Recherche sur l’Asie de l’Est, Paris),
focusing on Japanese philosophy and intellectual history. He received four Prizes (Paris Sciences & Lettres-special mention,
Chancellerie des Universités de Paris, French Society of Japanese Studies, Shibusawa-Claudel)
for his Ph.D. thesis defended in 2017, forthcoming from Paris, Vrin.


Keywords: Japanese philosophy, universal, Kuki Shûzô, intuition, contingent encounter



Kuki Shûzô, Le problème de la contingence, trad. fr. Omodaka Hisayuki, Éditions de l’Université de Tôkyô, 1966.

Kuki Shûzô, La structure de l’iki, trad. fr. Camille Loivier, Paris, PUF, 2004.

Ebersolt Simon, Contingence et communauté. Kuki Shûzô, philosophe japonais, thèse de doctorat, Inalco-Paris 1, 2017 ; à paraître chez Vrin, coll. « Bibliothèque d’Histoire de la Philosophie ».

Ebersolt Simon, « The Present of Difference and the Present of Identity. Kuki’s Conception of Time », Tetsugaku: International Journal, Special Theme: ‘Japanese Philosophy’, vol. 3, 2019.

Light Stephen, Shūzō Kuki and Jean-Paul Sartre: Influence and Counter-Influence in the Early History of Existential Phenomenology, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

Mayeda Graham, Time, Space and Ethics in the Philosophy of Watsuji Tetsurô, Kuki Shûzô and Martin Heidegger, New York, Routledge, 2006.