Hegel, Heidegger, Eurocentrism and Asian Thought

                          Richard McDonough




It is illuminating to contrast the views of the great 19th century German philosopher G.F.W. Hegel and the 20th century existentialist—phenomenologist Martin Heidegger in their attitudes towards Asian philosophy. There is a sense in which both philosophies are Eurocentric, but another deeper sense in which Heidegger’s philosophy is much more respectful towards Asian philosophy and, many argue, incorporates ideas of some of the great Asian philosophies, in particular, Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Hegel’s philosophy is Eurocentric because Hegel sees world history as the successive greater emergence of freedom and Reason (the two being intrinsically related and conceived against the background of Hegel’s Aristotelian tradition). Philosophy proper is, therefore, the expression in language of the emergence of freedom in world history. Since Hegel sees the emergence of freedom as the driving force of history, it is natural for him to rank different civilizations on a scale of lesser to greater freedom. Since Europe, which, in his Philosophy of History, Hegel contrasts with Oriental “despotism,” is the arena in which genuine freedom emerges, Hegel’s philosophy of history begins with the Greeks. The next great stage in the emergence of freedom, for Hegel, takes place with the rise of German idealism in the 19th century, the culmination of which is Hegel’s own philosophy (Absolute knowledge of man’s freedom). Since, as Hegel sees it, the idea of freedom never took hold in Asia, there is no philosophy proper in Asia. Thus, Indian philosophy is “rich in imagination and genius” but the Indian lives in a “dream” world. In his massive 1500-page three volume Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Chinese philosophy merits a mere five pages and Indian philosophy only twenty-four. In fact, “Oriental” Philosophy is relegated to the Introduction to this work along with remarks on sources and methods, while part 1 proper begins with the Greeks. That is, “Oriental” philosophy is, for Hegel, not even a part of the history of philosophy proper but only a part of its pre-history. Hegel’s system is filled with suggestive powerful insights but his obsessive focus on freedom and Reason (as he conceives these) means that he is blind to other aspects of human existence and, accordingly, develops a narrow conception of philosophy itself.

Heidegger’s philosophy, which can be seen as a reaction against many aspects of Hegelian philosophy, also appears Eurocentric with his view stated in his book What is Philosophy? that the only two languages in which it is possible to do philosophy are ancient Greek and German. However, Heidegger’s 20th century existential-phenomenology begins, in his first major book, Being and Time, with the concept of ‘Being-in-the-world’. Since Heidegger sees cognition and reason as “founded modes”, that is, as derivate from more basic ways of being, he emphasizes from the beginning that there are other modes of Being-in-the-world besides reason and cognition. He is, therefore, able to appreciate many more dimensions of human existence (including those dimensions of spirituality and mysticism emphasized in some Asian philosophies), and to understand them differently than Hegel does with his single minded obsession with the emergence of freedom and Reason.

Although Heidegger’s direct contact with Taoism took place after his publication of Being and Time the book does appear to have a definite Taoist tone. This is manifested in Heidegger’s suspicion of Western conceptions of logic, his insistence on undoing the Cartesian subject-object distinction and his desire to place philosophy back into the stream of life rather than seeing it as a detached seeker of objective foundational truth.

Many have argued that Heidegger’s later philosophy invokes Taoist concepts such as “the Way” (Tao), dwelling with things or remaining with them rather than thinking of them only as they are cognitively represented. Graham Parke talks about Taoism’s attitude to technology, which suggests that “humans thrive when they practice wuwei [doing nothing].” He argues that this “closely parallels Heidegger’s concerns about the dangerous and distorting effects of technology on human life.” Indeed, William Barrett, in Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings, states that while reading D. T. Suzuki’s works on Buddhism, Heidegger remarked that Suzuki stated what he himself has tried to say..

Several recent books explore Heidegger’s connections with Asian philosophy. Reinhard May’s 2005 book, Heidegger Hidden Sources: East Asian Influences on His Work, argues that Heidegger borrowed some of the major ideas of his philosophy from German translations of Taoist and Zen Buddhist classics. Lin Ma’s 2008 Heidegger on East-West Dialogue: Anticipating the Event provides a less sympathetic view of Heidegger’s relation to Asian thought. Graham Parkes, in his 2010 anthology, Heidegger and Asian Thought, brings together twelve scholars from China, India, Japan, Germany and the United States to discuss the relation of Heidegger’s thinking to Asian philosophy. Tim Delaune’s 2015 paper “The Tao of Heidegger” provides a neutral and informative overview of these themes (free online at http://www.wpsanet.org/papers/docs/The%20Tao%20of%20Heidegger.pdf ).

Richard McDonough has a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cornell. He has authored several books and numerous articles on philosophy, psychology and linguistics.