Note: Watsuji and Simondon’s concept of the milieu (1)


In Sein und Zeit, Heidegger attempted to reduce space to time, this reduction was carried out in two steps, firstly Hediegger reduces space to spatiality; secondly he analysed spatiality according to temporal structures, which he calls care, or Sorge. The Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsurô came to Germany in 1927, when Heidegger just published Sein und Zeit and took over Husserl’s position in Freiburg. Tetsurô, was recently appointed as professor of ethics in Kyoto university, like most of his Japanese contemporaries, such as Keiji Nishitani, were shocked by the through analysis of existence in this work. Watsuji spent the following year in Europe, studying and travelling. The next year, when he went back to Japan, he started planning his most well known book Fūdo, which has been translated into different european languages: Climate and Culture: A Philosophical Study (1961), Fūdo – Wind und Erde. Der Zusammenhang zwischen Klima und Kultur (1992, German), and Fūdo, le milieu humain (2011, French). The Kanji of Fūdo(風土) literally means wind and earth as we see in the German translation, but it wouldn’t mean too much. The german subtitle, as the english one, emphasizes the relation between climate and culture. But Fūdo doesn’t only mean climate, it carries something more subtle, it could also means sentiment of belongingness, and material-social conditions. The french translation, le milieu humain seems to me closer to what Watsuji really means.

Watsuji’s Fūdo was a philosophical response to Heidegger’s interpretation of care as the basic unit of Dasein analytics. Tetsurô’s proposal can be simply stated as following: the analysis of existence through time is always individual; the analysis of culture needs to start from space instead of time. Retrospectively, I started to find this response to Heidegger or Dasein analytics resonants among Asian philosophers. Keiji Nishitani, the younger contemporary of Watsuji’s, who actually studied two years under the direction of Martin Heidegger (1937-39), once wrote that there is no “time” in Asia culture, time or historicity [Geschichtlichkeit] doesn’t occupy an important place in chinese, japanese and indian thoughts. I cannot judge from indian thoughts, but in Chinese and Japanese traditional philosophy, space is always over time, and it makes Watsuji’s analysis through Fūdo so well received.

Watsuji divides the whole world into three types of milieux according to climate conditions: monsoon(Asia), Dessert (Arab) and pastoral (Europe) – and apparently he didn’t count Africa and south America. Watsuji shows how the climate produces different personalities and different cultural forms. For example, in south east Asia, the lack of seasonal changes and the rich natural resources produces a self-satisfaction of life. In middle east, the tough condition created the unity of Jewish people, that exists among the european diaspora. In Europe, the pastoral condition produces the respect of nature also the motivation to control nature. Comparatively, in Asia people have to cope with typhoons, floods in order to live with them. Recalling his voyage to southern France in the summer, Watsuji was fascinated by the quietness of the sea, there were not many fishing boats compared with the crowded harbours in Japan, it was there to be explored. Watsuji’s interpretation based roughly on his short term stay in Europe, it seems that sometimes these observations remain very subjective and general. In spite of his interesting interpretation of the relation between human and milieu, he also shows a determinism of milieu to personalities and culture at large.

What is most interesting, and that he didn’t explore very much is the adoption of technologies across these milieux. Upon his arrival in Europe, Watsuji was shocked and somewhat embarrassed by the fact that trains in Germany were so small and old; in contrast, at that time Japan has already adopted german technologies to build relatively high speed double decker trains. These trains are taller, far more spatial, and faster. But after his return to Japan, he suddenly felt that these more advanced trains and cars in the city were so brutal and violent, they were not well adapted to the milieu. Watsuji further showed in his commentary on Marx how humidity is an important factor for the textile industry, that made England the leading country in this industry in Europe. He also explained why Japan has a more developed textile industry than England even though Japan adopted technology from England and both of them have similar average humidity (which is definitely not true, Japan is much more humid). It seems to me that this un-theorised part of the milieu seems much more interesting, and it could produce a very interesting dialogue with Simondon’s concept of the milieu.

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