Fudo: The Japanese Concept of Nature, Culture, and the Human Psyche
In this post, I wanted to explore the term Fudo (風土). Used by Japanese philosopher Watsuji, the term is derived from the Japanese characters for "wind" (風) and "earth" (土), and represents a worldview that emphasises the interconnectedness of natural elements and the environment as well as the influence of nature and culture on an individual's character and behaviour.
Watsuji makes a critique of Heidegger’s phenomenology. Phenomenology as a philosophical enquiry was developed by Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl. Husserl wanted to bridge the gap between subjective and objective reality more holistically, beyond Western philosophy’s duality of the subjective/objective. He argued that our experience is not primarily that of a separate consciousness trapped in our heads. Heidegger took this nondualism a step further, asserting that the “objective” worldview is merely a helpful abstraction which obscures the “primordial” truth—the whole and meaningful world in which we live our everyday lives. Heidegger used his word Dasein to describe the subjective consciousness, the being that questions its own being. Dasein literally means “being there,” which is Heidegger’s way of pointing out that if we look at our experience, we find ourselves in the “outside” world. Our experience is not that of a separate consciousness in our head; instead, when we look out at a sunset, we experience ourselves out there, at the sunset. And the world that Dasein inhabits is already imbued with an inexhaustible array of meanings.
In his seminal work Time and Being, Heidegger focused on our relationship of experience in and of time. Watsuji, however, brings the space we inhabit and climate as key constituents of phenomenology. He says, "All of us live on a given land and the natural environment of this land "environs" us whether we like it or not. People usually discern this natural environment in the form of natural phenomena of various kinds and accordingly concern themselves with the influences which such a natural environment exercises upon “us", in some cases upon “us" as biological and physiological objects and in other cases upon “us" as being engaged in practical activities such as the formation of a polity." From this perspective, our moods, cultures, language, and the changing of the seasons as well as the tangible climatic, scenic and topographical characteristics, are as vital to our understanding of the world as the various abstractions that have dominated European thought for centuries.
Watsuji doesn’t stop there. He claims that man and natural phenomena are intertwined so that the phenomena operate as the metaphor for human subjectivity, transcending scientific objectivism. This Fudo or historical milieu is not a passive chemical-physical substrate “around” the subject or a “nature” to be controlled but a co-determined web of meanings. Watsuji refers to it as the “structural moment of human existence.” He writes,” The question here is not about the natural environment determining human life. What we usually think of as a natural environment is a thing that has been taken out from its concrete ground, the human mediance [or milieu], to be objectified. When we think of the relation between this thing and human life, the relation itself is already objectified. This position leads thus to examine the relation between two objects; it does not concern human existence in its subjectivity.”
Moving on, Watsuji critiques Heidegger of a Western bias toward individualism and claims that he failed to account for the primary social nature of Dasein sufficiently. Human beings exist through and by the milieu. From there, Watsuji argues that human beings are relational living individuals in constant dynamic co-determining cycles with the world. These cycles are enabled by "betweenness" (aidagara). Just as we are already outside ourselves in the world for Heidegger, we are already socialised and fulfilling a social role for Watsuji. Our climate and culture are components of our individual sense of self and each other. Even before we begin to think about nature scientifically, we find ourselves in a deeply meaningful environment as social space. A milieu is a place of shared intersubjectivity because it is a place where people meet one another and project representations, meanings, symbols and shared imaginaries.
We are not, however, passive agents in this milieu. Our minds do not simply represent what exists in the world. The mind enacts or co-creates the world it perceives by engaging with the environment. We engage in transformational interactions, not merely informational ones; we enact worlds. Watsuji's ethics centres around the concept of betweenness, or the space between humans and their surroundings. Indeed, betweenness is what allows us to act in the world. Watsuji defines this betweenness as the "practical interconnection of acts." He says: "Human existence, through fragmentation into countless individual entities, is the activity which brings into being all forms of combination and community. Such fragmentation and union are essential of a self-active and practical nature and cannot come about without self-active entities."
Watsuji provides a different understanding of self, which is deeply rooted in Buddhist Dharma philosophy. There are numerous philosophical perspectives on the relationship between Anthropos and Gaia. Humans have been perceived as distinct from the environment, superior and capable of establishing new ecological eras (Anthropocene), rejecting the primacy of human existence over the existence of nonhuman objects (post-humanism/OOO), colonisers and extractors of nature (critical theories), or even saviours (eco modernism).
Environmental ethics, in my opinion, cannot be derived solely from the study of the environment as a separate, or at least independent, entity from us, as various theories suggest, because we risk repeating the same critical errors made by dualists. Beyond Western notions of sustainability, I believe Fudo can be a much richer (and non-dual) way of looking at the world.
Departing from there, I'm interested in the kinds of philosophies, interactions, and systems we'd develop if we recognised our deep interdependence as part of our phenomenology and the structure of our minds and societies. What does this fundamental interdependence say about the moral imperative to act collectively? What kinds of relationships do we form with our surroundings if we consider them to be co-determined milieux of our collective lives rather than mere receptacles for our existence? Perhaps a more enactive approach to our surroundings should aim to bring more vitality and generate positive feedback loops to raise positive valence over time for all living beings and all environments. Ethics will then emerge in this space between the self and the milieu.