Intellectual history

Pluralizing Intellectual Histories of Climate: Beyond the Tropics with Watsuji Tetsuro

By Archit Guha

By Archit Guha

With Europe reeling under the effects of a torrid summer that solidifies the pressing reality and futurity of climate change, there has been some discussion generated around how Europeans managed to colonize the tropics while being unable to beat the heat today. The construction of the ‘tropics’ were one of the primary colonial technologies of rule tied to climate as an observable and palpable natural phenomenon that lent itself to fixity and hierarchization seamlessly within colonial frames of reference.

Much of the scholarly conversation around the fraught co-constitution of climate and people has been from the vantage point of colonial governance, which is hardly surprising given how fundamental knowledge production around the populations and natural environments to be governed was to the imperial project. However, it might be worthwhile to turn our attention away from Europe and questions of governance, to grasp how the relationship between climate and people was being theorized elsewhere, to denaturalize colonial and Eurocentric frames of reference as the only ones contributing to these debates. One such example was the twentieth-century Japanese philosopher, Watsuji Tetsuro, whose Climate & Culture: A Philosophical Study (first translated into English, 1952; published in Japanese, 1935) was at once a meditation on climate as a cultural and phenomenological concept and a mediation between European and non-European knowledge systems—giving us an alternative paradigm to the tropics. It is important to note that Watsuji himself was writing in imperial Japan, and as we will see, his understanding of climate too was shaped by a loyalty to Japanese imperial ambitions grounded in an ideology of civilizational progress that idealized Europe. Before I delve into Watsuji’s ideas, it would be good to contextualize how tropical climates have been central to learning how the British Empire sustained itself.

As David Arnold notes, the advent of a scientific tropicalism made its presence felt in the processes of British governance in the colonies through ‘observation, mapping, and classification.’ What this meant, in essence, was that climate as a geographically specific set of conditions started to get mapped onto ideas and concepts that bore no direct linkage with climatic forces beyond sharing the same geographies—in this way, theories of climate and race became inextricably analogous to each other, and got mapped onto a variety of colonial projects. The impact of theories around race and climate have been well-documented in medicine and public health, especially in the emergence of miasma theory and tropical medicine as objects of study that marked difference. They registered their impact in areas farther afield as well though.

Ashwini Tambe shows how the age of consent debates that emerged in the League of Nations in the 1920s and 1930s borrowed heavily from eighteenth and nineteenth century anthropological writings on ‘the races of man’ and climatically deterministic understanding of racial hierarchies. Tambe argues that during this period, when white feminist consciousness was on the rise in Britain, white women (among other stakeholders) actively endorsed anthropologists’ views in a bid to save brown women from brown men. Such rhetoric clearly highlights how race and climate became ideological cognates. The biopolitical and gendered rationale for raising the age of consent to counter trafficking suggested that lower ages of consent were more common amongst people in warmer climates. Warmer climates, they said, posed particular problems because menstruation and sexual maturation also occurred earlier in such places compared to colder climates, which increased the threat of trafficking.

A text produced in 1813 showing how colonial British climate anxiety led to
scientific knowledge production (Source: Wellcome Collection)

These ideas of the body as the ultimate bearer of and responder to the climate were also applied to white people, but the stakes of that discourse were quite distinct. Bharat Venkat argues that imperial anxieties around heat began to coalesce around the white body as a “sensing technology” that experienced heat differently than the “natives.” White people, it was commonly thought, were more acutely sensitive to thermal fluctuations, which became a subject of more sustained research once meteorology was formalized as a state science in British India in the late nineteenth century. This proved to be a thorn in the flesh for the British for two reasons. First, it meant that the everyday struggles with tropical climatic conditions that wore them out in ways big and small generated a lot of concern for the health and well-being of the British in India. The oppressive climate also left the existential question of the sustenance of empire in perpetuity, premised as it was in British permanent settlement in tropical lands, in the doldrums. Could the British manage their hold over the colonies if living there proved to be especially arduous on account of climatic differences?

Watsuji does not answer this particular question, as we will go on to see, but he does address and raise some important other ones. Climate and Culture was a response to Heidegger’s Being and Time, which Watsuji believed was too temporally embedded, and therefore, could not rise above the atomistic individual in its conception of Dasein. Watsuji offered a more spatially informed concept—Fudo—which literally means wind and earth. Climate, then, was crucial to understanding how cultural formations emerged, impinging on people’s daily lives and bodies. Fudo establishes climate as the primary interface of man’s interaction with the environment, as opposed to the more commonly used category of ‘nature.’ For Watsuji, this is a deliberate choice to indicate the subjective human feeling of climate as a natural object that is external to the self. But can only be experienced physically through the body. He refers to this as an “intentional experience,” which though subjectively felt, can only be a reality when there is the objective climatic condition that makes one feel a certain way—the feeling of being cold, then, can only arise out of the encounter with the cold air outside of one’s body.

While this may seem like it furthers the idea of the individual as the channel of this experience, Watsuji shows us how the social is inevitably imbricated in this dynamic—the ‘I’ cannot neatly be separated from the ‘we.’ How one chooses to either protect or immerse oneself from shifts in weather is socially constituted and often intergenerationally inherited—enjoying a spring day outdoors or using the fireplace in the winter, then becomes a reflection of a historical sociocultural adaptation to climate. So far, these claims may not seem very different from how Europeans encountered unknown climates, and constructed the tropics as a distinct geographical and climatological zone that were alien to them—disproportionately producing negative effects on their health.

However, unlike European thinking, he never slips into the language of race and biology, thereby resisting easy anthropological naturalization of this apprehension of climate. Instead, he relies on climate as a metanarrative that shapes all of our social and cultural expression—from food and dietary choices to artistic and literary works. Such a framing also allows Watsuji to forward his typology of climates, which works quite differently than the dominant European scientific processes of mapping and classifying global climates that were happening coevally. Watsuji’s conceptions of climate are similar to an older European philosophical tradition that explored how geographical and climatic differences shaped worldmaking projects—from Tacitus’ Germania (98 AD)  to Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748).

The three climatic types and the geographical regions they apply to that Watsuji identifies are:

1) Monsoon: the coastal belts of East Asia, including China and Japan, and the larger Asiatic Indian Ocean.

2) Desert: Arabia, Africa, and Mongolia.

3) Meadow: The Mediterranean and Western Europe.

It is unclear why Watsuji leaves out the Americas, Australia, or the polar regions entirely outside of this process of classification. But even so, there is much to contemplate through the texture he provides through this schema that has no mention of the tropics. As a method, it transcends the temporal limits of the contemporary and reaches back to antiquity to make the historical and philological commensurate with the everyday and embodied. I shall focus on some snippets from Watsuji’s analysis of the Indian case and then contrast it with how he represents Europe, given my interests in South Asia and the Indian Ocean world.

India, he suggests, is “the most faithful example of the monsoon pattern,” which results in a “fullness of feeling” that defines “a resignatory relationship with nature” characterized by “anxiety and unrest:”

The continental heat itself already tests the power of this resistance to the very limit; but when this heat is linked to humidity, man can no longer do anything but submit. Thus, nature withers and relaxes man’s energies and slackens the tension of his will. The fullness of feeling of the Indian is not experienced by any unifying will power. The structure of the resignatory type, in the case of the Indian, is set in a mould of a lack of historical awareness, a fullness of feeling and relaxation of will power. This is exemplified in both the historical and social aspects of India’s cultural patterns. (p. 26)

The “historical and social aspects of India’s cultural patterns” are best exemplified for Watsuji by a turn to the Vedas and Upanishads, which showed India’s richness in art, culture, and philosophy, but less so in commerce and warfare. Contrary to the Greeks who shared roots with Indians, but mastered the art of governing a polis. The reliance on antiquity to make these claims allows Watsuji to see the eastward spread of Buddhism outside of the borders of India and the lack of a forceful struggle for independence against the British in India as part of a larger pattern of resignation. This pattern, then, stifled both active learning and political strategizing in favor of ritual, superstition, and an acquiescence to subjugation. One could certainly argue that this reeks of an orientalist vision of India no different than one finds when reading colonial accounts that reduce the idea of India to Hindu upper-caste authority completely shorn of its complexities. However, it also offers us conceptual frames to historicize and locate spatially and temporally that were facilitated by longer processes of circulation and translation. In Watsuji’s case, his idea of India was certainly shaped by Japanese interaction with South Asia via Buddhism as well as European orientalist scholarship that legitimated European colonial authority in the region.

It, then, would come as no surprise that the resignation Watsuji found in Indians was absent in the Europeans, who were blessed with the “docility of nature” that was beneficial for progress:

One realises thus that nature’s docility is not to be separated from the development of man’s technical knowledge about nature. Patterns can be deduced fairly readily from nature that is docile; this discovery of a pattern in itself renders nature a stage more docile. Discovery of this kind was not easy in the case of a nature which was forever making unexpected assaults on man. In the one case, there is the domination of the resignatory attitude which entrusts the whole of fate to Heaven. Here is the watershed which determines whether or not the spirit of reason is to flourish.  (p.108)

There may not be the resignation present in India, but Watsuji argues that northwestern Europe’s lack of sunshine lends itself to a “sense of gloom” that hampers intellectual and cultural production, which tends to reduce appreciably as one travels through warmer, more sun-filled climes. This is why ancient Greece and Rome were the apotheoses of culture for him, given that they had been blessed by the ideal interaction between climate and humans, and the Reformation “was a Renaissance conditioned by the gloom of western Europe.”

Where does an engagement with Watsuji’s text lead us, then? On one level, it expands our sense of the archive, moving away from the more dominant colonial European theorizing, as I had suggested. But as a philosophical work, not directly tied to questions of governmentality, it also gives us an opportunity to raise more provocations as we continually face changing climates in future years.

More specifically, in Watsuji’s case, I wonder how he would resolve the issue of the European in India (or vice versa), given his model accounted for no movement of people across geographies, and also how he would locate the impact of changes in climate that had already occurred in centuries past by his time, undermining a conception of stasis. Beyond these questions, though, the text is generative for broader research agendas. How, for example, was climate characterized as an immutable phenomenon, and how did it become a diagnostic for societies and cultures en masse despite its ineffable and internally varied nature? What do we make of feeling and affect in invocations of climate, and does that necessitate broadening our historiographical reach beyond the histories of science, technology, environment, and medicine, that climate has traditionally been situated in?

The tensions between the ostensible certainty of climate and the everyday fluctuations of weather have become an increasingly important historical analytic to contend with in the context of the flows of European colonial capitalism. Texts like Watsuji’s, written in conversation with, but outside of Europe, give us an optic to explore how global and planetary histories were being envisioned at the brink of decolonization, emphasizing the centrality of climate.

Archit Guha is a doctoral researcher in the History Department at Duke University, with interests in the climate and extreme weather phenomena in Modern South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: 1) Watsuji Tetsuro captured by the Mainichi Graphic Newspaper in 1975 (Source: Wikimedia Commons). 2)