Gereon Kopf on “How to Make Philosophy of Religion Relevant to the Future”

Gereon Kopf is Professor of East Asian religions and philosophy of religion at Luther College, an adjunct professor of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Iceland, and research fellow at the International Institute for Philosophy at Tōyō University. We invited him to answer the question “Is there a future for the philosophy of religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In this essay, I would like to shift the focus and not ponder whether or not philosophy of religion has a future as academic discipline but instead to focus on the question of whether or not philosophy of religion can maintain or regain its relevance as an academic discipline and for the public discourse beyond academia. The data collected by Wesley Wildman and his team indicate that the future of this discipline could become an existential question for us “experts” in the field, even though Gary Colwell argued convincingly in this series that “there will always be a future for philosophy of religion” in one shape or another. I agree with Wildman that to remain/be relevant philosophy of religion needs to be multidisciplinary in its method and inclusive in its scope. In this essay I will propose an approach to facilitate this inclusivity that I have developed over the past 4 years (Kopf 2019, 2022a, 2022b).

In the interests of full disclosure, before I begin, I would like to describe my background and explain the standpoint from which I come. I am not trained in philosophy of religion per se, but rather in the religious philosophies developed in the context of Japanese Buddhism. Together with Timothy Knepper and Nathan Loewen, I serve as co-director of the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project that started as a 5-year seminar at the A.A.R. and now continues its work funded by generous grants from the Wabash Center and the N.E.H. We are currently working on three book projects: a textbook (authored by Knepper), a teaching manual (edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and myself), and a companion volume that is edited by Loewen and Agnieszka Rostalska. These volumes propose different visions of global-critical philosophy. Today, I will focus on what I call a “fourth-person approach” (Kopf 2022a, 2022b).

As important as my academic training and activity is, my way of thinking is also shaped by my personal background and experience. I grew up in post-war Germany (F.R.G.), lived through the German Autumn, left Germany prior to the events of November 1989, studied at the East Coast, taught at a denominational college in the Midwest, and resided in Hong Kong S.A.R., and Japan. I am a card-carrying member of the Roman-Catholic church as well as the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism. During my stays in Japan and Hong Kong, I routinely practice Shintō or Daoism. Finally, I work/live in three languages (German, English, and Japanese) and am immersed, to varying degrees, in American, Japanese, Germanophone, and Sinophone cultures. I am sure that this “confession” seems trivial to some, but it illustrates my framework of reference. Furthermore, the languages we think in shape the way we think.

One obstacle to globalizing or decolonizing our discipline is the fact that we all live in our “own world.” For the longest time, I thought that Leibniz’s idea of the monads was absurd until I once looked at the faces of the drivers around me in a traffic jam. Everyone was in their own world with the self at the center. In a comedy routine, A. Whitney Brown suggested that “we all live in a Pre-Copernican universe – the world revolves around ourselves.” MUTAI Risaku (1890-1974) argued that to form identities, we create “small worlds” (Jap. shōsekai) and mistake them for the publicly shared world. We take our cultural background, our worldview, and even our academic methods to be normative. To use the language of Jean Piaget (1896-1908), we tend to assimilate information into our own cognitive schemata instead of expanding them to accommodate that very information. Even we academics tend to treat other traditions and methods this way.

In a current essay (Kopf 2022b), I suggest a fourth-person approach to conceive of a global-critical philosophy of religion. This idea is reflected in the grammar of the Ainu and Eskaleut1 languages and Toyama penned a philosophy of the fourth-person pronoun (2010). While a first-person approach is driven by MY narrative, a third-person approach by THE grand narrative, and a second-person approach by TWO potentially conflicting stories, a fourth-person approach engages a MULTIPLICITY of vantage points in a creative multilogue. How can we conceive such a multilogue? A multiplicity of subjectivities tends to degenerate into a cacophony; many voices streamlined by one conductor produce a symphony. A multilogue, however, forms an “antiphony” (Heisig 2013, 128-130) in which all voices are aware of each other yet keep their individuality; as in free Jazz performances, such a multilogue takes on the form of a “call-and-response” (Jap. kō’ō) (Kōyama 1976).

As a thought experiment, I suggest using the terms “first-person” and “third-person strategies,” contrary to convention, to indicate my beliefs or method and the beliefs or method of an other, respectively. A first-person strategy, then, privileges my own culture or method, a third-person strategy that of an other, a second-person strategy an equal dialogue between two belief systems or methods, and a fourth-person strategy a multiplicity of voices. It is important to note that the latter includes all four strategies. Accordingly, a multilogue requires integrity, i.e., awareness of one’s own beliefs/arguments (1st person), listening to the arguments of the other (3rd person), an encounter with the other that is grounded in an attitude of understanding rather than judgment and discloses the standpoints of self and other by means of a dialectics of identity and difference (2nd person), and the search for common ground that is expressed in multiple ways (4th person).

A fourth-person approach focuses on understanding all approaches, identifying the standpoint and concerns each approach expresses, and locating all standpoints on the ideological landscape. It strives to appreciate all approaches in order to disclose our common humanity. This fourth-person approach is cosmopolitan rather than global or postcolonial in so far as it does not reify or privilege either the oneness of humanity or the particularity and multiplicity of cultures. Rather, a cosmopolitan philosophy of religion embodies the principle “one-and-yet-many many-and-yet-one” (Chin. yijiduo duojiyi) developed in Tiantai Buddhism and Kyoto School philosophy. In a current essay (Kopf 2022b), I provide a more detailed account of this strategy. The goal of this essay is to offer the blueprint of a radical new vision of philosophy of religion that is inclusive in its scope and multidisciplinary in its design.

Works Cited:

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2007. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York W. W. Norton & Company.

Heisig, James W. 2013. Nothingness and Desire: An East-West Philosophical Antiphony. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Kopf, Gereon. 2019. “Emptiness, Multiverses, and the Conception of a Multi-Entry Philosophy,” APA Newsletter on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies Vol. 19, No. 1, 34-36.

_____. 2022a. “Expression in Japanese Philosophy,” in Key Concepts in World Philosophies: Everything you need to know about doing Cross-Cultural Philosophy, eds.: Sarah Flavel and Chiara Robbiano. Bloomsbury Academics.

______. 2022b. “The Theory and Practice of the Multi-Entry Approach.” In Philosophy of Religion Around the World: A Critical Approach, eds. Nathan Loewen and Agnieszka Rostalska. Bloomsbury Academics.

Kōyama, Iwao. 1976. Bashoteki ronri to kō’ō no genri [The logic of basho and the principle of antiphony]. Tokyo: Sōbunsha.

Toyama. Shigehiko. 2010. Daiyonninshō [The Fourth Person Pronoun]. Tokyo Misuzu Shobō.

1. José Andrés Alonso de la Fuente has been kind enough to share his expertise of the Eskaleut languages.

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