Existential Reflections: The Shadow Side of Human Existence (3)

In our two previous articles, we explored the ‘shadow’ side of Kierkegaard, Levinas, Heidegger, and Sartre’s philosophies. In this article, the last in the series, we look at the fundamental role emptiness or negativity plays in Watsuji Tetsuro’s analysis of human existence, before summarising some of the main themes driving this series of articles.

Watsuji Tetsuro: Negativity

Watsuji Tetsuro (1889-1960) was born into the midst of the Meiji Period of Japan (1868-1912), a period which saw Japan open up to the wider world after a lengthy period of isolation. One of the consequences of this for Japan was an intense interest in, and influx of, Western ideas in all fields, with philosophy being no exception. The most well-known ‘group’ of philosophers to emerge from this was the so-called ‘Kyoto School,’ a collection of philosophers, basically defined by their proximity to, and engagement with, the ideas of Nishida Kitaro. While Watsuji himself was too distant from Nishida to be included in this group, many of his ideas share affinities with those emerging from the Kyoto School, particularly through their shared Buddhist background. The book with which we will be dealing here is his Rinrigaku (Ethics) published in three volumes in 1937, 1942, and 1949.


To understand the fundamental structure of human existence, Watsuji begins with an ordinary, everyday fact. Human life is permeated through and through with references to, and dependencies on, other people. By contrast, Western philosophy has investigated this topic with an almost exclusive focus on the individual. The wider society in which those atomistic, individual lives take place may come into the picture later, but only as a secondary, derivative concern. Watsuji’s approach is a complete reversal of this. For him, we are originally and fundamentally defined by what he calls aidagara, which is usually translated as betweenness. The idea here is that human beings are essentially ‘together with’ other people, our individual lives are fundamentally and inextricably intertwined in the whole. Note that this is different from Aristotle’s assertion that “Man is by nature a social animal…” because on this account, we are still first and foremost individuals; just individuals who naturally need, and seek out, the company of other people.

As mentioned, betweenness manifests, not as the consequence of a philosophical argument, but in our everyday lives. Watsuji uses the example of writing. A writer is always writing for others (even if they never intend to show their work to anyone, in which case the ‘others’ are merely imagined), using a language which has arisen through generations of discourse between people, according to norms and conventions established by others (e.g. making use of a contents page, breaking the book up into chapters, using universally agreed-upon punctuation, etc.), and so on. Further, betweenness implies a ‘reciprocal determination’ whereby my acts influence the wider community even as that wider community influences me. Using the example of writing again, the writer writes according to how they anticipate the reader reading the text, while the reader, in turn, reads the work according to the way the writer has written it. There is a mutual, or reciprocal, character present in any act of betweenness. Finally, both the relation itself and the parties who make up that relation are constructed together in the activity of betweenness. The writer (who writes for a reader) and the reader (who reads what a writer has written) don’t exist prior to the relation that exists between them (as community), nor does the relationship exist prior to the individuals. Both are constructed at the same time in and through betweenness.

The Individual and the Whole in Human Existence

The notion of betweenness, which manifests in, and characterises, our everyday lives, functions like a clue for Watsuji. It tells us that whatever the fundamental structure of human existence is, it will have to reflect, or accommodate, this essential ‘together with’ that we have discovered in everyday human existence. Betweenness emphasises the whole or the collective, but we must not forget that it is a whole that is, at the same time, composed of individuals. Thus, the fundamental structure of human existence will have to reflect both the individual and whole aspects of our being.

What does it mean to be an individual? As we’ve seen, there is virtually no sense in which we stand alone as separated individuals. Every action betrays our fundamental connection to other human beings. And yet, we can choose to understand ourselves as individuals, to put our individual nature above our communal nature. For this to happen then, there is only one option available to us; we must reject the community. In Watsuji’s own words, the “…independence of the individual is a mode of the deficiency of community.”

What about the aspect of the whole, then? Community, for Watsuji, is more than just separate individuals in close proximity to each other, even individuals who work together to achieve common aims, because here the individual is still the primary concern, the fundamental unit. Rather, community denotes different things becoming the same, becoming one. The totality has a cohesive unity in and of itself, over and above the specific individuals who make it up. The only way this can happen in human life is through another negation, this time the negation of the individual.

The Negative Structure of Human Beings

To summarise the last section: the “…essential feature characteristic of the independence of an individual lies in its rebelling against the whole, and the essential feature characteristic of the wholeness of the whole lies in its negating the independence of the individual.” The relationship is negative in both cases, meaning that we cannot understand betweenness starting from either a positive individual or a positive whole. Thus, we see that the fundamental structure of human existence is wholly negative.

Does this not drop us straight into a chicken and egg dilemma? If the individual is the negation of the whole and the whole is the negation of the individual, how does anything get started? Watsuji’s answer is that the subject is originally a fundamental emptiness he calls absolute negativity – ‘absolute’ because it refers to the fundamental, essential structure of the subject; i.e. that which serves as the total (absolute) ground of that subject’s existence. Despite the heavily Buddhist connotations here, it would be a mistake to read anything mystical or supernatural in this claim (Watsuji himself shies away from explicitly connecting this to Buddhist dogma). We can probably understand this “emptiness” as a kind of unthinking, and therefore complete, absorption in a greater whole; maybe something like infancy, where we can’t properly speak of an individual or a genuine whole (in Watsuji’s sense of “community”) because an infant is incapable of cognising either. The negation of the whole that takes place to give rise to the individual, then, rather than negating the whole directly, is actually the subject negating the emptiness they are through the medium of the whole in which they are absorbed. Winning its individuality through this first negation is only half the battle for Watsuji though. Prompted by feelings of alienation and disconnectedness, the individual subject now makes the second movement, the negation of the individual, to finally enter social existence proper (which, characterised by different things becoming one, requires the prior existence of separated individuals).

Thus, the fundamental structure of human existence is negative through and through, and marked by a double movement: “the movement of the negation of negation in which absolute negativity returns to itself through its own self-negation.” The double movement of negation passes through three moments: fundamental emptiness, individual existence, social existence.

The ‘shadow side’ of Watsuji’s philosophy arises largely in the negativity he identifies at the core of human existence; a negativity which is both multi-faceted and comprehensive. We see it first in the primordial essence of the subject. At this stage, the subject is not in “community” proper because it is not distinguished at all from its environment, but nor is it an individual, for the same reason. Being neither individual nor whole, the subject is absolute negativity. Despite how it sounds, this is not to be understood as a failing on the part of the subject, an ‘original sin,’ as a certain religion we won’t name might like to have it. On the contrary, this is a morally-neutral description of what it is to be a subject.

Next, negativity appears (twice) in the double movement that brings us to authenticity. First, in the negation of the whole to become an individual, and then in the negation of this negation to return to association (this time as a member capable of genuine participation in the communal whole). For sure, there is ‘progress’ here, and in this sense positivity, but a positivity which is bought at the price of two negations. As we saw with what Watsuji calls ‘absolute negativity’ though, there is nothing ‘bad’ about this double movement nor is there anything we ought to try to avoid or overcome in it, despite its being constituted entirely by negativity.

Finally, the authenticity of the return of the negative to itself through its self-negation is a task that can never be attained once and for all. Human existence is a dynamic activity, not a fixed form of being. Nothing one does will ever result in a permanent state of being. Permanent, fixed being is the prerogative of things, not humans. But once more, although the lack of permanence, completeness, solidity in being, amounts to a ‘deficiency’ of sorts, it isn’t one of which we ought to be ashamed or try to eliminate. It is just the nature of human beings to be forever unable to attain the security and stability of being enjoyed by ‘lesser’ things.

Final Thoughts

All of the philosophers we have looked at over the course of this series have highlighted different ‘shadow sides’ to human existence; Kierkegaard’s anxiety, Levinas’ separation, Heidegger’s everydayness, Sartre’s bad faith, and Watsuji’s negativity, but none of them were pessimists, nor were their philosophies marked by pessimism. What exactly do I mean, then, when I talk about the ‘shadow side’ of human existence? I mean that there are fundamental aspects of human life that are limiting, restricting, excluding, alienating, or in some other way marked by negativity, which are, nevertheless, the very essence of what it is to be a human being. The ‘shadow side’ doesn’t refer to things like living through the death of friends and family, or heartbreak, or disappointment, or suffering, or any of the other innumerable contingent, ontic, negative, albeit inevitable, experiences all human beings have to go through in some form or other during a life. The ‘shadow side’ is ontological in nature, meaning it refers to sheer (human) existence itself, not events that happen over the course of that existence.

As an ontological feature of human life, there are a few points we can make about the ‘shadow side’ by way of summary (points which have all been raised at one point or another over the course of the three articles). First, the ‘shadow side’ is always there in the background, and it’s always there as shadow. Even though our relation to the shadow may change, the shadow itself, as an ontological characteristic, is immutable. We saw this with existential anxiety, where, although we can come to appreciate the anxiety inherent in the dizzying infinity of possibilities our freedom opens up, perhaps even coming to face it with a kind of heady exhilaration, the anxiety itself and the fact that it is anxiety isn’t altered. If it were, you would hardly find the encounter with it exhilarating; on the contrary, it would be a non-event, a ho-hum, “I see, *yawn* an infinity of possibilities, uncertainty on all sides, no guideposts, infinite responsibility for my actions. Got it. Do we have any milk?” If someone responds like this in the face of the existential topics we have raised here, it is safe to say they have failed to properly understand them.

Second, while the ‘shadow side’ is all of those things I mentioned earlier; limiting, restricting, excluding, alienating, it is never moral in nature; that is to say, it isn’t negative in the sense of being wrong or bad. The ‘shadow side,’ as ontological, is beyond ethical distinctions precisely because it is what is required for ethical distinctions to arise in the first place. Levinas’ separation, for example, is literally an exclusion from the whole of existence itself (the “there is”), but without this exclusion, there is no individuality, which means no possibility of the face to face (the encounter with the Other), which, in turn, means no objectivity, no meaning, no truth, and no possible sense in which the words ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mean anything. This might sound like a bad attempt to justify the means by appeal to the end, but it is deeper than that. It isn’t that without A, we can’t have B (perhaps having to settle for C or D instead), therefore A is ‘acceptable’ or even a kind of collateral damage; rather, it’s that without A, there is no B, C, D, or any other letter of the alphabet! The ends justifying the means is an ontic strategy to justify one course of action over others. The ‘shadow side’ is an ontological reality without which there can be no ontic strategies at all.

Third (and closely connected to the second point), while these ‘shadow side’ elements are negative (albeit non-morally so), thus provoking some level of discomfort or unease such that, in your capacity as a living human being, you would wish them away if you could, in your capacity as a reflective subject, you shouldn’t actually want to get rid of any of them. The reason for this is that, without them, you would lose something fundamentally and intrinsically valuable. Bad faith is perhaps the best example of this. Because bad faith is an unavoidable consequence of our absolute freedom, to wish you could overcome it and enter into ‘good faith,’ for example, is the exact same thing as desiring to get rid of your freedom. Watsuji’s double movement is also instructive. Without the double movement and all the negativity this implies, you couldn’t attain the wholeness of community. Although this seems even more like a case of the ends justifying the means than the earlier point, I still don’t think that is what we have here. Rather, this reveals something essential about all truly valuable features of human existence (freedom, authenticity, community, etc.); namely, that they are actually negative at their core. To say the ends justify the means is to unite two causally-related, and therefore different, acts. The connection between the ‘negative’ and the ‘positive’ we have encountered in these articles is closer than this. They are fundamentally united such that rather than the ‘positive’ arising as a result of the ‘negative,’ the ‘negative’ and the ‘positive’ are the same thing, just expressed in opposite terms. Returning to the example of bad faith – lacking the capacity to be anything wholly and completely doesn’t then entail our freedom as if these were two separate things; rather, the lack is the freedom. To say, “I am a lack” (in the sense in which lack applies to bad faith) is precisely the same as to say, “I am free.”

Fourth, the ‘shadow side’ is not usually directly experienced as a feeling, less because it’s ‘hidden’ or buried ‘deep down’ somewhere inside you, and more because, as a fundamental, structural element of human existence, it is the ground for experiences and feelings. Of course, this isn’t to say the ‘shadow’ can’t be experienced. If you deliberately turn your attention to an aspect of the ‘shadow side,’ positing it as an object for reflection, you can directly experience it in a feeling that we usually precede with the word ‘existential,’ as in, “existential angst” or “existential terror.” However, even this is a curious type of feeling because, like all feelings, it is experienced on the ground of the ‘shadow side;’ that is, on the ground that it itself comprises. This raises the question as to whether our felt experience of inauthentic entanglement with das man (as existential anxiety), for example, is the same as that inauthentic entanglement itself (as ‘shadow’). It would seem that it can’t be the ‘shadow’ as ground that we experience. Our inauthentic entanglement, as the ontological, structural feature that it is, is, by definition, always background or horizon to our thematic object (in this case, the entanglement). Nevertheless, I don’t think this amounts to an actual limit on our knowledge. Rather than having epistemological implications, I think it tells us something about the structure of consciousness experience.

Finally, although there is nothing ethical, or normative, about the ‘shadow side’ in and of itself, there is at least one ethical implication we can draw from it. Since the ‘shadow’ is negative, by its nature arousing feelings of discomfort should we focus our attention on it, and yet at the same time a permanent feature of human existence, it may be necessary to avoid, or distract oneself from, it. To dwell on the negativity at the core of human existence (in all the forms of the ‘shadow’ we have looked at here) would make a happy, fulfilled life impossible, so a certain level of distraction, a mental turning-away from the ‘shadow’ to focus on the task of living itself, can be of use as a kind of practical remedy. However, while a ‘strategic’ diversion from the ‘shadow’ can be made to serve us, what must be avoided is its denial. The former makes possible a well-lived life, the latter, grounding itself in ignorance and delusion, doesn’t. Any well-lived life must accept existence as it actually is, good and bad (non-morally speaking, of course) – perhaps ‘shadow’ and ‘light’ is better – not create fictions and fantasies to cover over uncomfortable truths.

Although this series of articles might strike you as somewhat bleak or depressing, a ‘cup half empty’ way of thinking about human existence, this response is a malady of our unreasonably optimistic, ‘I can do anything I set my mind to’ era. I’m not against progress or overcoming limits, but I am against deluding ourselves into thinking that all shadows are things to be avoided, all things to be avoided are problems, and all problems can be solved (with the right drug, IoT gizmo, self-help course, state of mind, breathing technique, or spiritual guru). While we have restricted our investigation here to the ontological ‘shadows’ of human existence, there are certainly others; ontic ‘shadows,’ and ‘shadows’ of experience, to name two that immediately come to mind. Negativity, in all its varied forms, is present in every aspect of our lives. If we want to live those lives well; that is, live them in full, unflinching acceptance of what they are, we must not be afraid to acknowledge that every bright ontological (or ontic) feature unavoidably and necessarily casts a ‘shadow’ somewhere.

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