Karl Löwith’s Encounter with Japanese Philosophy: Reconstructions in a New Light [4: 105–30]

Flavia Baldari

The German-Jewish philosopher Karl Löwith fled to Japan in 1936, where he taught for almost five years. During the 1940s, Löwith openly criticized Japanese culture, in a manner often derisive and sometimes merciless. His tense relationship with Japan has been criticized frequently on the assumption that he lacked any real knowledge of Japanese thought. In this paper, I examine works of Löwith’s that are not explicitly dedicated to Japan but clearly indicate some of his thinking on Japanese culture. To reconstruct Löwith’s reflections on Japanese philosophy it is necessary to examine writings that stretch over a much longer period than what most commentators have focused on. I will show not only how his attitude towards Japan softened over the years, but also how Japanese culture came to influence his philosophy, which in turn led to a better understanding of the subtleties of Japanese culture that had so profoundly captivated him. Through an analysis of his work, I will also show that his original criticisms matured into a respect based on similarities between the core of Japanese philosophy and his own philosophical thinking.

Keywords: Karl Löwith—Japanese philosophy—Nishida Kitarō—Nietzsche—Japanese spirit—Zen Buddhism—comparative philosophy—nihilism—Japan