RISŌ and the Positivist Turn


As explained above Nishi Amane is the first to systematically treat Western aesthetics.  Significant for our purposes is Amane’s endorsement of a positivist understanding of aesthetic experience.  This rejection of idealist conceptions likely met Nishi’s tactical needs as a former consul and civil authority.   The ratification of “pragmatic” principles that encouraged good citizenship (kokutai, “body politic”) extended from education policy to restrictions on newspaper content.  This had its strongest expression in the Gakusei (1872), a 44-page outline for a common public school system issued by the Ministry of Education:

The acquirement of knowledge and the cultivation of talent are essential to a successful life.  By education men learn to acquire property, practice learned professions, perform public services, and make themselves independent of the help of their fellow-men.  Schools are designed to provide this essential education.  In their various capacities they are intended to supply to all classes of men the knowledge necessary for a successful life.  The simple forms of language, the methods of writing, the principles of calculation, the highest knowledge of law, politics, science and arts, the preparation of the officer for his duties, of the farm and merchant for their occupations, the physician for his profession, all of these it is the proper function of schools to supply…Although schools have been established for many centuries in Japan...even among the higher classes the character of education was defective.  Under the pretext of acquiring knowledge for the benefit of the state, much time was spent in the useless occupation of writing poetry and composing maxims, instead of learning what would be for their own benefit or that of the state [italics my own].[10]

Kangaku, the study of the arts and canon of Imperial China, was condemned as impractical and swept aside for the techne of “a successful” state.  Nishi’s lectures before the student body at the state language institute, the Kaiseijo, and later before the court in 1877 therefore had to show how the study of aesthetics benefitted the state.

            Nishi’s positivism can be seen as responding to these concerns in three ways: by elevating the individual in an evolutionary scheme such that it is a primary object of scrutiny in ways accessible to the hard sciences; by universalizing the cumulative effects of cultural production with reference to well-known historical accounts detailed in the Confucian canon; and by offering up the national language as a possible secondary field of concern.  The term he chose to introduce the field to the court, bimyōgaku, (“the science of the beautiful and the mysterious”) would be one of the few not to make it into common currency, but this positivist concern for the mind (coeur) and morals (moeur) can be seen to be taken up by Shōyō’s manifesto, which calls for accurate depiction (ari no mama, or “things as they are”)of human emotions (ninjō) and customs (setai), and in his subsequent promotion of Shakespeare’s work as paradigms for his botsu-risō aesthetics.



The Politics of Criticism: The Scientific vs. The Idealist »

[10] Quoted in Duke, Benjamin, The History of Modern Japanese Education: Constructing the National School System, 1872-1890 (Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 73.  Also see Ueda, Atsuko, Concealment of Politics, Politics of Concealment (Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 39-40.