Aesthetics in Translation:

The Politics of Ris
ō in the Early-Meiji Literary Discourse

By Ben Rosenberg




In December 1891, Mori Ōgai  (1862-1922) would publish a critical broadside aimed at the editor and intellectual heart of the ambitiously catholic literary journal, Waseda bungaku (1891-98).  The editor, Tsubouchi Shōyō (1859-1935), was a former student of the Harvard-trained philosopher Ernest Fenellosa (1853-1908), and he had spent the previous seven years assiduously staking out and refining an aesthetics.  The most well-known of these documents, a short manifesto printed in eight installments entitled Shōsetsu shinzui (Essence of the Novel, 1884-85), argued for what he called psychological realism and had already signaled a willingness to push against Fenellosa’s Hegelianism.  Ōgai’s opening salvo – launched from his own journal the Shigarami sōshi (1889-94) and capped with the searing headline “Waseda Bungaku’s Sunken Ideals,” –  toyed with Shōyō’s recently introduced neologism intended to encapsulate his thought: botsu-risō (“submerged ideals” or “hidden ideals”), thereby sparking a public debate that would last through April of the following year.

The locus of the debate would rather quickly settle on the referenz of the term risō, itself a recent addition to the critical lexicon.  A previously non-existent character compound, risō first appears as a direct translation of the English “ideal” in a conspectus of Western moral philosophy written by Nishi Amane (1829-1897) in 1877.  Nishi is, in fact, an important point of inflection for the field of modern philosophy in Japan, generally.  He would coin 787 terms of art332 of which would enter common use—in the course of translating contemporary Western philosophical works and disseminating their key conceptual innovations to a public just as unfamiliar with the style of argumentation as with the epistemologies.[1]  So risō, the point of contention for Ōgai and the conceptual thesis to Shōyō’s antithesis, was part of a vast constellation of new terms under varying degrees of ideological pressure.  More critically with regard to the debate, Nishi represents an important precedent in the form of scholarship he brought to his engagement with Western philosophical systems.  In this paper I will argue that Nishi, working in the framework of kōshōgaku (“evidential learning”), patterned a specific formula of knowing that conditioned both Ōgai and Shōyō’s reasoning through risō.  Nishi’s own early attempts to introduce Western aesthetic discourse into Confucian epistemology, as a means of developing separate but critical moral and scientific systems of thought, seems to have been particularly influential for both sides.  Given the cultural capital at stake in one’s claim over risō during this period, both Ōgai and Shōyō’s performance as critics (and political actors) may have obscured the more fundamental performance of knowing.  As a consequence it seems the debate has been marked as a no-debate debate – that is, essentially unproductive and therefore of little historical import beyond mere material fact.[2]  What I will endeavor to show is that, in addition to the heightened politics of publishing and knowledge production among newly established universities, the term risō also participates in a lexicological tradition that is given new life in its engagement with the Western science of the senses.

A Geneological Prelude: KŌSHŌGAKU as Lexicology »

[1] Morioka Kenji’s 1969 work Kindaigo no seiritsu: meijiki goi hen is generally cited for this figure.  However, Lydia Liu has recently suggested the figure may in fact be smaller if one takes into consideration translations carried out by Jesuits in China, which later make their way into Japan via Nagasaki.  For a more recent discussion of Nishi’s lexical innovations see Lippert, Wolfgang, “Language in the Modernization Process: The Integration of Western Concepts and Terms into Chinese and Japanese in the Nineteenth Century,” in Susan Deacy and Alexandra Villing, eds., Athena in the Classical World (Brill, 2001).

[2] The “fact” of the debate is more often than not unacknowledged.  While Ōgai is considered the winner, his role as antagonist in the elaborating of Shōyō’s botsu-risō is effectively erased in the large number of studies examining Shōyō’s development of botsu-risō which fail to mention Ōgai’s contributions.  The most egregious example is perhaps Shōyō, Ōgai: Kōshō to shiron, which treats the two authors in isolation.