Volume 2, Issue 1, 2014
Anton Luis Sevilla
Watsuji’s Balancing Act
Changes in his Understanding of Individuality and Totality from 1937 to 1949
Watsuji Tetsuro-’s ethics is founded on the idea of the dual structure of human beings: that we are both individual and communal at the same time, and that these two elements constantly negate each other. But the interpretation of this structure shifts over the prewar, wartime, and postwar volumes. In the first volume, double negation is ambiguously explained as either an endless cycle that balances individuality and totality or a three-stage dialectic that privileges totality. Also, totality is seen as shaping a largely obedient but self-aware individual, with no real sense of social change worked in. In the second volume, the individual is largely subsumed beneath finite and exclusive totalities, and social change is restricted to advances in culture. But in the third volume, individuality is reinstated as that which guides social change by intuiting how the totality ought to be. Also, double negation is reinterpreted as heading toward unity-in-difference. These changes can be interpreted historically, with the emphasis on totality rising with the wartime pressures, and the emphasis on individuality rising in postwar occupied Japan. Finally, a historically nuanced and balanced interpretation of Watsuji’s ethics can have contemporary relevance, for instance by contributing to the liberal-communitarian debates.