Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Kojin Karatani has been named this year’s laureate for the $1 million Berggruen Prize for Culture and Philosophy. An expansive thinker who straddles East and West while crossing disciplinary boundaries, Karatani is not only one of Japan’s most esteemed literary critics, but a highly original mind who has turned key suppositions of Western philosophy on their heads.
In Karatani’s sharpest departure from conventional wisdom, he locates the origins of philosophy not in Athens, but in the earlier Ionian culture that greatly influenced the so-called “pre-Socratic thinkers” such as Heraclitus and Parmenides. Their ideas centered on the flux of constant change, in which “matter moves itself” without the gods, and the oneness of all being — a philosophical outlook closer to Daoist and Buddhist thought than to Plato’s later metaphysics, which posited that, as Karatani puts it, “the soul rules matter.”
In the political realm, Karatani contrasts the form of self-rule from Ionian times based on free and equal reciprocity among all inhabitants — “isonomia” — with what he calls the “degraded democracy” of Athens that rested on slavery and conquest. He considers the former the better foundation for a just polity.
In a novel twist on classical categorizations, Karatani regards Socrates himself as fitting into the pre-Socratic mold. “If one wants to properly consider the pre-Socratics, one must include Socrates in their number,” he writes. “Socrates was the last person to try to reinstitute Ionian thought in politics.”
A Degraded Form Of Democracy In Athens
For Karatani, Athenian democracy was debased because it was “constrained by the distinctions between public and private, and spiritual and manual labor,” a duality of existence that Socrates and the pre-Socratics sought to dismantle. As a result, by Karatani’s reading, Socrates was both held in contempt by the “aristocratic faction,” which sought to preserve its privileges built on the labor of others, and condemned to death by a narrow-minded mobocracy for his idiosyncratic insistence on autonomy and liberty in pursuit of truth.
Appalled at Socrates’ fate, Plato blamed democracy for giving birth to demagoguery and tyranny, radically rejecting the idea of rule by the masses and proposing instead a political order governed by philosophers. In Karatani’s reckoning, Plato then “took as his life’s work driving out the Ionian spirit that touched off Athenian democracy” — in short, throwing out the baby with the bathwater but maintaining the disassociations, such as citizen and slave, that follow from the distinction between public and private grounded in an apprehension of reality that separates the spiritual from the material.
In order to refute “Platonic metaphysics,” Karatani argues, “it is precisely Socrates that is required.”
Turning Marx On His Head
In his seminal work, “The Structure of World History,” Karatani flips Marx’s core tenet that the economic “mode of production” is the substructure of society that determines all else. He postulates instead that it is the ever-shifting “modes of exchange” among capital, the state and nation which together shape the social order.
For Karatani, historically cultivated norms and beliefs about fairness and justice, including universal religions, compel the state to regulate inequality within the mythic commonality of the nation, which sees itself as whole people, tempering the logic of the unfettered market. As he sees it, the siren call of reciprocity and equality has remained deeply resonant throughout the ages, drawing history toward a return to the original ideal of isonomia.
Expanding The Space Of Civil Society
Not an armchair philosopher, Karatani has actively promoted a modern form of the kind of reciprocity he saw in ancient Ionian culture, which he calls “associationism.” In practical terms in Japan, this entails the activation of civil society, such as through citizens’ assemblies, that would exercise self-rule from the bottom up.
In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, Karatani famously called for “a society where people demonstrate” that would expand the space of civil society and constrict the collusive power of Japan’s political, bureaucratic and corporate establishment. Like other activists, he blamed this closed system of governance that shuts out the voices of ordinary citizens for fatally mismanaging the nuclear power industry in a country where earthquakes and tsunamis are an ever-present danger.
An Expansive Mind
Along with “The Structure of World History” (2014) and “Isonomia and The Origins of Philosophy” (2017), the breadth of Karatani’s interests and erudition are readily evident in the titles of his many other books. These include “Nation and Aesthetics: On Kant and Freud” (2017) “History and Repetition” (2011), “Transcritique: On Kant and Marx” (2003), “Architecture As Metaphor: Language, Number, Money” (1995) and “Origins of Modern Japanese Literature” (1993).
The prize ceremony will be held in Tokyo in the spring.