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March 15, 2021

Takeshi Morisato, Faith and Reason in Continental and Japanese Philosophy: Reading Tanabe Hajime and William Desmond

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019

Reviewer: Richard Stone

Tokyo Academic Review of Books, vol.12 (2021);


Centuries ago, St. Augustine expressed that his most fundamental philosophical desire was to know both his own Self and God.i To “know” the Self and God, presumably, is to be able to understand their nature through the faculty of reason. With that said, though, we cannot study the Self or God in the same way that we would study typical empirical objects or through usual scientific inquiry. Rather, our understanding of both He who created us and the Self that resides in Him requires us to explore our faith. Yet, what does it mean to “know” God through faith in this way? Do we express our faith in God by rationally interpreting the nature of religion and our connection to Him? Or do our philosophical attempts to express our relation to Him pale in comparison to the inexplicable faith we have in His presence? Put differently, how does (or perhaps, should) reason relate to faith?

Faith and Reason in Continental and Japanese Philosophy: Reading William Desmond and Tanabe Hajime (henceforth abbreviated to Faith and Reason in Continental and Japanese Philosophy) by Takeshi Morisato attempts to answer this question of faith and reason by adopting a comparative perspective. Specifically, Morisato endeavors to investigate the question of faith and reason by dealing with the work of William Desmond – an author whose thought has been hugely influential in contemporary continental philosophy – and Hajime Tanabe – a member of the Kyoto School of philosophy who has yet to receive the same level of scholarly attention as philosophers like Kitarō Nishida. This book is noteworthy as a novel attempt to deal with the classical issue of the relation between reason and faith. Hence, in this review, I will attempt to first provide a rough summary of Morisato’s basic claims before offering some critical comments on the methodology in play. Before finishing this article, I will also provide some suggestions for those seeking additional resources on Tanabe or Desmond.

Outline and Key Claims

Faith and Reason in Continental and Japanese Philosophy is divided into four main sections. Each section consists of two chapters. To begin, I will start with a brief outline of each section and identify their main points. While the very particular philosophical languages employed by both Tanabe and Desmond may prove difficult to summarize briefly, I will do my best to highlight the overall gist of their arguments and how Morisato applies them to the reason-faith relation.

  1. In the first section, Morisato deals primarily with the methodological issues that come with his endeavor. Comparative philosophy is, after all, tricky business that brings with it many potential risks. Chief among them is the potential that one judges sources from other traditions solely based on one’s own worldview and the assumptions that come with it (for instance, it is perfectly possible to think of cases in which a researcher of Western philosophy judges resources solely by how well it conforms with the methods and insights of her own tradition). In response to such pitfalls that could come with comparison, Morisato starts off with a “self-critique” (16) on the possibility of comparative philosophy by following along the work of Tanabe and Desmond as it relates to the possibility of intercultural comparisons.

    Naturally, one is entitled to wonder why this critique needs to be a self-critique when there are other available methodological frameworks already available for comparing the two thinkers’ ideas on faith and reason. However, upon reading this first section, it soon becomes clear that Morisato finds Tanabe and Desmond well-equipped for dealing with the relation between Western Philosophy (as one particular intellectual tradition that values rational discourse) and its other (alternative modes of thought that differ from the core assumptions of Western philosophy). Indeed, the reason that Morisato chooses to forge a comparative philosophy from Desmond and Tanabe appears to be because both thinkers offer avenues toward accounting for what lies “in-between” determinate philosophical reasoning and the indeterminate Other which goes beyond it. In Desmond’s case, this is achieved with his “four-fold metaxological” dialectic, in which one does not stop at the usual formula of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, but instead accounts for the surplus of being that cannot be exhausted by determinate judgments, thus giving rise to an account of that which is in between, or in the metaxu (17-19). This logic makes it possible to stand between the determinacy of one’s own tradition while remaining open to the surplus of information that comes from other modes of thought. Tanabe, for his part, describes an absolute dialectic – a philosophy that is not a philosophy, in his parlance – in which rigorous critique leads philosophy to the realization that it is doomed to face antinomies it cannot possibly answer. This inevitable impasse requires that philosophy itself perform zange (懺悔), i.e. a “penitent confession” (51) for its powerlessness, that opens the philosopher up to the possibility of being led in his intellectual pursuits by an Other-power (他力) aside from his own faculties of reason and, having managed to relativize itself, becomes able to listen patiently to other philosophical traditions as equals, without pre-supposing itself to be destined for intellectual greatness or superiority (53).

  2. The second section begins the analysis on faith and reason by highlighting their problematic obfuscation in modern continental philosophy. Morisato identifies Kant and Hegel as representatives of modern Western philosophy who have served to shape much of how we think about reason and faith and shows them both to have, in large part, mixed the two together. First, while Kant would argue that morality is shaped solely by human autonomy (in other words, conforming our will to the laws that we make with practical reason) and thus has no need for divine transcendence, the practical goal of pure reason does require that we posit a “Highest Good.” This in turn requires him to introduce God as a practical postulate to ensure that following the moral law will correspond with our happiness. This ends with Kant not only requiring some form of divine transcendence to ground his moral philosophy, but a conflation of universal reason (moral law) and said divine transcendence (See 64-66). While Hegel appears to be preferable on this point, he also falls into the same trap. Although he criticizes Kant’s conflation of the moral with the spiritual and attempts to bring Christianity, a positive religion, as a means to account for divine transcendence, in the end Hegel also conflates the divine for a universal sense of rationality. This understanding of God, either as universal moral laws or as the rational creator of the universe is said to allow for the extirpation of the individual into God as the rational universal through self-mediation and thus makes no strong ontological break between humanity and divinity.

    The result of this conflation, as far as Morisato is concerned, is the affirmation of five problems first pointed out by Kierkegaard (that Desmond and Tanabe would likely have accepted as issues in Kant and Hegel). (1) Kant and Hegel reduce the relation between the self and the divine to the universal dynamic between individual and society based on autonomous reason/moral law; (2) this leaves no room for discussing divine transcendence in a robust sense; (3) it also requires the “extirpation” of the singular individual in the face of what is referred to as the rational universal as immanent absolute (i.e., autonomous reason); in other words, Kant and Hegel ask that the individual do away with their singularity and comport themselves in a manner appropriate with universal and autonomous reason; (4) the self-negation of the individual (in its agreement to act in accordance with universal reason) is an entirely one-way movement. In other words, the individual must choose to do away with their singularity of their own accord because; (5) the worth of the singular self is not found in itself, but only in its capacity to act in accordance with universal reason.ii How to overcome these five issues, and their overriding concern with the erasure of the singular self in the face of the “immanent universal” (i.e., moral law or reason), is the driving force behind Morisato’s subsequent discussions of Desmond and Tanabe.

  3. The third section attempts to face these issues by looking at the philosophy of William Desmond. As noted previously, William Desmond’s work is best defined by his “Metaxological” methodology. Desmond’s dialectic starts with the immediate and hyperbolic surplus of being ripped away from it in reflection – in our “agapeic astonishment” of the world. Several philosophers have attempted to reclaim this rapturous relation and find total determinacy in judgment and thus do away with the fears that come with the surplus of “enigmatic being” (88). However, instead of following other dialecticians attempting to take from being its enigmatic nature, Desmond adds a fourth fold to the mix in his dialectic: a surplus that lies between determinacy and indeterminacy. This “metaxological” view of philosophy provides a basis for several important philosophical insights.

    When applied to the matter of faith and reason in particular, it becomes clear Desmond’s method can present an alternative approach to the one we find in authors like Kant and Hegel. Instead of looking at how the individual extirpates itself unilaterally toward a rational universal, Desmond’s philosophy presents a picture of the “porous” (see 18–19, for instance) dealings between mind and being or self and God. This metaxological outlook opens a path for the philosopher to go beyond validating the individual’s existence only insofar as it relates to the (Kantian or Hegelian picture of a) rational universal and instead reclaims the importance of the singular as singular as it stands before the divine (understood as something that always remains somehow Other or indeterminate to – yet porously interconnected with – the relative self). Importantly, this view of our connection to the absolute as being porously interconnected but never exhaustively determined does away with the possibility of allowing the individual to be entirely or directly extirpated into some rational universal insofar as it requires intermediation with other relative selves within the context of the agapeics of community (106-109) that can make possible a connection with what can never be revealed as fully determinate to one singular self. Morisato hence draws from a wide array of Desmond’s works to ultimately argue that Desmond avoids the 5 charges made against Kant and Hegel, and thus provide an alternative view in which reason and faith need not be reduced to one another in their entirety, but could allow for philosophy to make “intimate universal” claims between finite singular selves (131–135).

  4. In the fourth and final section, Hajime Tanabe and his absolute dialectic take center stage and provide a new angle with which to articulate similar ideas to those presented in the third section. So what is this absolute dialectic? While we normally assume our own faculties of reason to be self-sufficient and operate entirely according to our own doing (entirely of our ‘self-power’ in Tanabe’s words), this outlook neglects both their inherent relativity and finitude as well as the fact that they could not without the mediation of other relative selves. However, there are times when we reach a critical impasse or face antinomies that we cannot possibly hope to resolve or give up on.iii This realization of powerlessness leads us to perform zange, a repentant act that fully admits the powerlessness of our own relative and finite self-power. This act of zange then compels us to abandon our unworthy and powerless self. At the same time, though, freeing oneself of these delusions of grandeur opens one to the possibility of faith in the “Other-power” of absolute nothingness; to something which cannot be grasped in intuition or corroborated through a narrow understanding of reason. This “transformation” of the philosopher leads to a state in which he or she constantly performs a rigorous self-critique and, in the process, opens the door to being led by something that goes beyond her own narrow faculty of reason; precisely to being led by their faith in the Other-power of absolute nothingness. Crucially, because the absolute is nothingness and is not capable of acting of its own accord, this act of being led by Other-power requires the intermediation of our interactions with other relative selves and their capacity to provide guidance to us after we have rejected our self-power.

    Over the course of this fourth section, Morisato clarifies several important influences in the background of Tanabe’s work that helped give shape to it. Of particular importance are his clarifications of Tanabe’s engagement (and dissatisfaction with) Kant, Hegel, and their attempts to critique reason (45–48; 150–154) as well as discussions of the Buddhist worldview that helped at least partially shape Tanabe’s thought.iv In doing so, Morisato illustrates how Tanabe maintains the distinction between relative self-power (the human) and the Other-power of absolute nothingness (the divine) without getting rid of one for the other. In the end, this act of zange appears to transform philosophy from a series of universal claims made under the flag of a narrow sense of rationality to an act of contrition in which various the singular self attempts to deal with her own struggles with their powerlessness and ignorant (bonbu 凡夫, 173–176) nature by following their faith in the absolute as it is mediated by compassionate dealings and patient listening with other such relative and ignorant selves.

The book concludes by noting the frequent overlapping between Tanabe and Desmond in regard to the five main points made present in the second section. As one can glean from this brief summary, we find several similarities between the two. Most pressingly, we find that both authors are interested in looking away from a picture of philosophy or faith as being entirely rational or being realized through following universal moral/religious laws. Instead, they look to save the singular as the singular in its relation to both a sense of divinity that goes beyond narrow rationality and its relation to other relative selves in its community. As far as the reviewer is able to understand, it would seem that Morisato has given us a path to making room for both our capacity to make rational philosophical ideas with each other while retaining our existence as singular selves in front of the divine, including our unique histories and personal troubles.

Critical Comments

Considering the scale and depth of the problem Morisato tackles, as well as the novel responses he provides, it is safe to say that Faith and Reason in Continental and Japanese Philosophy provides an important contribution to contemporary debates in religious philosophy. With that said, however, what interests me most about this book is rather its relation to comparative philosophy. I mean this both in terms of what this comparison offers to scholars unfamiliar with the work of either Desmond or Tanabe (and their compelling views on faith and reason) as well as how this comparison is achieved. I say this principally because, reading through section 1 of the book, it is quite clear that Morisato is not outlining both thinkers’ respective methodologies for prescriptive purposes. Put differently, the question at hand is not “how should we compare philosophers,” but rather seems to be “is it possible to compare philosophers” at all?

This question is a valid one, considering how we philosophers will always have a certain background or history that will shape our understanding of other positions. In extreme cases, a philosopher may even take her native tradition to be inherently better than others. This can naturally be seen in scholars of Western philosophy treating non-Western schools of thought as if they are secondary or of lesser importance than the work of authors in the West (a matter brought up by Morisato from 22–26). As we have discussed previously, Morisato’s response to this question is an interesting one, given that he draws from Tanabe and Desmond to present a kind of philosophy does not rely on “Eurocentric” or narrow conceptions of rationality.

Yet, as important as this finding may be for those who take seriously the question of how we can productively compare different thinkers and traditions without bias, there does appear to be a questionable assumption at play here. To be more specific, Morisato seems to imply that there are parallels between the relation of (Western?) philosophy and the other modes of thought and the relation between reason and faith. Even if Morisato did not intend to draw the parallels I mentioned here, it is beyond doubt that his descriptions of Desmond or Tanabe inspired versions of comparative philosophy rely heavily on their respective religious philosophies. This seems problematic to me, insofar as there are crucial differences between the two sets (Western Philosophy/Other Intellectual Traditions and Reason/Faith). The comparison between reason and faith, as Morisato has shown throughout his analysis of Tanabe in particular, should lead us to a relationship between determinate rational thought and something which evades our attempts to fully corroborate or explain it. Comparing traditions, however, requires us to do something different. That is to say, comparative thought asks of the author to understand two or more different modes of corroborating or explaining ideas. While different forms of argument or assumptions will likely be in play between the two positions, it is rarely the case that the comparative philosopher will be provided no grounds with which to orient herself.

Let us think a bit longer about the problems that may be presented by adopting a Tanabean framework for comparative philosophy. As we have touched upon in our analysis of the fourth section, an act of zange requires the philosopher to take reason to its very edge, to allow reason to recognize its own limitations, and to give itself up to something that cannot be grasped by rational thought or intuition. Does this mean that the comparative philosopher must also first engage in an act of “giving up” before looking to other traditions for help? Can I not step outside of my own tradition until I have taken it to its limit? Additionally, does the philosopher’s engagement with other intellectual traditions consist in merely being led by something which is totally foreign to her faculty of reason? Taking this line of thought one step further, we could even question if non-Western intellectual traditions are not being robbed of the rationale or logic behind them, given that the only way we can make sense of them is to give ourselves up to their every whim.

Morisato’s answer to such questions would likely be that zange allows for an act of “patient listening” on the part of the reformed philosopher. In other words, the act of zange shows us both the relativity of our own philosophical traditions as well as the compassion of absolute nothingness. Indeed, Tanabe frequently calls upon the philosopher to return from their zange as a mediator of absolute nothingness, thus transforming her into a passive facilitator that can compassionately accept the relative other for what they are (168-173). This act of mediating the compassion of the absolute allows for what we have been referring to as patient listening, thus allowing for philosophers to make room for even the least recognized of traditions to join the historical community of different eras and cultures. This in turn makes possible dialogue between Western philosophy and other intellectual traditions that would otherwise be dismissed as irrational or unworthy of consideration (53). The upshot is, then, that a Tanabean framework for comparative philosophy allows for those of us who are primarily familiar with Western philosophy and its emphasis on one narrow sense of rationality to lose the egocentric worldview that our “rational” form of thinking is the only possible way to engage with the world. We then become able to learn from other modes of allegedly “irrational” thinking that can provide greater insights and more fruitful discussions to world philosophy. Thus, all we can do in our comparative philosophical ventures is to exercise humility, listen, and learn from one another. The compassionate philosopher then thus learns from other traditions and becomes able to stand (and think) in shoes of the Other (56).

If my summary of Morisato’s notion of a Tanabean framework for comparative philosophy is even close to correct, then my main question could be phrased as follows: is “patient-listening” really be taken as the goal or method behind comparative philosophy? Although I would certainly admit that listening to those who have other perspectives is a core aspect of comparative philosophy (or, rather, it is a necessary condition for its existence), I do not think that it is a solution for the question of how we can conduct comparative philosophy. Moreover, given that merely listening to someone speak does not entail any attempts to critically evaluate what they have told you or to apply what they have said to issues that concern you, it does not necessarily explain how we become able to “think in the shoes” of the Other. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Morisato did not merely “patiently listen” to Desmond or Tanabe in his own comparative philosophy as if they were a form of “Other-power.” Instead, it would seem to me, Morisato has managed to integrate their philosophical insights into his own system, as a means to answers his own concerns. This is not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. To the contrary, by expertly weaving Tanabe and Desmond together to reevaluate the relation between reason and faith, Morisato has demonstrated how useful it can be to have an expert who has mastered the philosophy of two thinkers from very different traditions and is able to critically evaluate their contributions to contemporary philosophical debates. With that said, however, there is still an explanatory gap between how we are able to go from listening to what is told to us by traditions that fundamentally differ from our sense of rationality (as Other-power, following this comparison) and how we are able to master such traditions and critically evaluate them as something we understand ourselves (or, in other words, with our self-power).

As far as I can tell, then, patiently listening is not a full-blooded answer to the question of how we can conduct comparative philosophy. Recognizing the limitations of our native traditions and realizing the importance of listening to other perspectives is one important factor in the equation, certainly, but it seems to me to only be the tip of the proverbial ice-berg. This is particularly the case insofar as the explanatory gap mentioned above leaves open the important methodological questions that come up in the process of attempting to bring together writers from different traditions into the context of contemporary academic works (typically written in the framework of Western philosophy). Is it possible to assimilate the wisdom of other cultures or traditions without merely re-writing them into the language of Western philosophy? How do we evaluate the insights we gain from other traditions without reverting back to our old standards of thought? Do we merely take what is being given to us from other traditions at face value? Or can we be critical of them so long as we maintain the “intellectual humility” needed to recognize that the standards by which we judge them may be incorrect? If this intellectual humility is all we need, then why would this require an act as radical as zange?

My suspicion here would be that, in showing the possibility for comparative philosophy, Morisato has shed light on an important issue not given enough attention in the work at hand: the relationship between one form of reason and another. Throughout the book, one is given a clear picture of how reason and faith relate to one another in the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Desmond, and Tanabe. Yet, never is there a precise definition of what reason means for any of them, nor is significant attention paid to the possibility that reason can mean different things based on context. Just as an example, listening patiently to someone explain ideas from a different intellectual tradition requires at least some sense of reason to understand what is being described. But is this the same reason employed by Kant and Hegel? Or is it an entirely novel sense of reason that can only be achieved by following the lead of Desmond or Tanabe? These are perhaps nitpicks in light of how important Morisato’s methodological suggestion may be, but exploring possible different notions of reason may just elevate his philosophy to higher ground.v


iAugustine 1953, 26; Morisato 2019, 1

iiThese issues are first outlined on pages 61 and 62. Morisato’s own abbreviated titles for these qualms are as follows (1) The reduction of the divine-human relation to the immanent universality of human/societal self-relation (2) The eclipse of divine transcendence (3) The extirpation of the single individual in its relation to the rational universal as the immanent absolute (4) The one-way movement of the self-negating self-transcendence of the finite individual to the infinite absolute (5) The worth of the singular for the singular. (132–133)

iiiJust as an example, we can see that for Tanabe himself, this realization of powerlessness came during World War II. As Tanabe claims, although he felt that – as a philosopher – he was obligated to comment on Japan’s situation. On the one hand, disingenuous support of a government he believed problematic was not acceptable. On the other hand, though, raising objections to the government’s deeds would risk upsetting public morale at a time when unity was absolutely necessary. Not even bothering to try to support his nation was out of the question. According to Tanabe, it was this chain of events that led him to his notion of zange and philosophy of Other-power. (Tanabe 1986 il–l)

ivThe author of this review found the section on the relation between Tanabe’s philosophy of history and Buddhist notions of history (159-164) to be particularly helpful. Additional insights regarding Tanabe’s association with his own philosophy with Shinran’s notion of “Akunin Shoki 悪人正機” (173–176) and why his absolute has to be nothingness are similarly helpful.

vTo be fair to Morisato, what is meant by Tanabe’s conception of a transformation of reason is far from clear in any sense and several authors have attempted to tackle this issue without ever coming to a consensus (ex., Maraldo 1990; Stone 2018)

Further Resources

Importantly, Desmond is a living philosopher and continues to new texts. His most recent work, The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being: On the Threshold between the Aesthetic and the Religious, was published in 2018. As far as secondary literature is concerned, one can find another comparative look on his religious philosophy can in Renee Kӧhler-Ryan’s Companions in the Between: Augustine, Desmond, and their Communities of Love (2019). Additionally, a broader collection of analyses regarding various topics in Desmond’s philosophy can be found in the Dennis Vanden Auweele edited collection, William Desmond’s Philosophy between Metaphysics, Religion, Ethics, and Aesthetics: Thinking Metaxologically (2018). As for Tanabe, English readers will likely first want to consult The Religious Philosophy of Tanabe Hajime (1990), a comprehensive volume of articles that explore Tanabe’s absolute dialectic from various perspectives. Readers with an understanding of the Japanese language can find a comprehensive outline of Tanabe’s career in Kiyoshi Himi’s Research on Tanabe Hajime’s Philosophy – From the Perspective of Religious Philosophy (『田辺哲学研究―宗教哲学の観点から』1990). Finally, those who want to know more about Tanabe’s philosophical position with respect to his senior at Kyoto University, Kitarō Nishida, are encouraged to read through Hideki Mine’s Confrontation Between Nishida Philosophy and Tanabe Philosophy: On the Logic of Place and Dialectics (『西田哲学と田辺哲学の対決―場所の論理と弁証法』, 2012).

Works Cited

  • Morisato, Takeshi. (2019). Faith and reason in continental and Japanese philosophy: reading Tanabe Hajime and William Desmond. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Augustine. The Soliloquies. Translated by John H.S. Burleigh. The Westminster Press, 1953.
  • Desmond, William (2018). The Gift of Beauty and the Passion of Being: On the Threshold between the Aesthetic and the Religious. Wipf & Stock.
  • Himi, Kiyoshi (1990). Research on Tanabe Hajime’s Philosophy – From the Perspective of Religious Philosophy (『田辺哲学研究―宗教哲学の観点から』) Hokuju Shuppan.
  • Kӧhler-Ryan, Renee (2019). Companions in the Between: Augustine, Desmond, and their Communities of Love. Pickwick Publications.
  • Maraldo, John C. (1990). Metanoetics and the Crisis of Reason: Tanabe, Nishida, and Contemporary Philosophy. The Religious Philosophy of Tanabe Hajime: The Metanoetic Imperative, ed. Taitetsu Unno and James Heisig. Asian Humanities Press: 235–255.
  • Mine, Hideki (2012). Confrontation Between Nishida Philosophy and Tanabe Philosophy: On the Logic of Place and Dialectics (『西田哲学と田辺哲学の対決―場所の論理と弁証法』) Minerva Shobo.
  • Stone, Richard. (2018). Self-Realization as Self-Abandonment. In The Realizations of the Self, ed. Andrea Altobrando, Takuya Niikawa and Richard Stone. Palgrave Macmillan: 267–283.
  • Tanabe, Hajime. (1986). Philosophy as Metanoetics. University of California Press.
  • Taitetsu Unno and James Heisig ed. (1990). The Religious Philosophy of Tanabe Hajime: The Metanoetic Imperative. Asian Humanities Press.
  • Vanden Auweele, Dennis (2018). William Desmond’s Philosophy between Metaphysics, Religion, Ethics, and Aesthetics: Thinking Metaxologically. Palgrave MacMillan.

Publisher's Official Website

Bloomsbury Publishing

About the Author

Richard Stone

Richard Stone is a PhD student at Hokkaido University specializing in modern Japanese philosophy. He works specifically on issues related to selfhood and individuality as they are presented in the work of Kitarō Nishida and Hajime Tanabe. His publications include “Self-Realization as Self-Abandonment” (2018) and “Independence and Self-Realization: The Historical Background of the Early Nishida’s Individualism” (2018).