Global History of Ideas: A Sea for Fish on Dry Land

by guest contributor Dag Herbjørnsrud

A remarkable example of how ideas migrate across so-called cultural borders and change minds in unknown ways happened in the German city of Bremen on October 8, 1930. There, Martin Heidegger gave a speech based upon his masterwork Being and Time (1927). Afterwards, he and several of Bremen’s citizens gathered at the home of a wholesaler. During the evening, Heidegger suddenly turned to his host and asked, “Mister Kellner, would you please bring me the Parables of Zhuangzi? I would like to read some passages from it.”


Sein und Zeit
(Being and Time; 1927)

Martin Buber (1878–1965) had already translated these parables of a founder of Daoism (Taoism) in 1910 with the help of Chinese collaborators, one of his first acclaimed books, Reden und Gleichnisse des Tschuang-Tse (Leipzig, 1910). Buber’s afterword connects Zhuangzi (or Chuang Tzu/莊子 369–286 BC) with his reading of the Bible, and this can be seen as advance notice of sorts for his later philosophy of “I and You” (“Ich und Du”). It was this book that Heidegger demanded.

The tradesman didn’t hesitate but went to his library and returned with a new edition of Buber’s translation. Heidegger started reading from Zhuangzi’s chapter 17, which in this context might be seen as a follow-up to his own speech “On the Essence of Truth”. Heidegger read from the passage where Zhuangzi says to the thinker Hui Tzu, known for his Zeno-like paradoxes, as they walk by a river:

Do you see how the fish are coming to the surface and swimming around as they please? That’s what fish really enjoy.”

“You’re not a fish,” replied Hui Tzu, “so how can you say you know what fish really enjoy?”

Zhuangzi said: “You are not me, so how can you know I don’t know what fish enjoy.”

The people of Bremen could relate to this 2200-year-old Chinese conversation. As an eyewitness described it: “The deep meaning of the legend cast a spell on all who were present. With the interpretation he offered of that legend, Heidegger unexpectedly drew closer to them than he had with his difficult lecture….”

Heidegger’s and Buber’s dialogue with the thinking of Asia seems to prove that Arthur O. Lovejoy was right when, in the first issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas in 1940, he pointed out that “ideas are the most migratory things in the world.” Human thoughts are like fish that swim as they please. There are no borders underwater. The connections in our minds transcend modern categories in unknown ways, and thus our ideas migrate across ages and seas – from Zhuangzi’s ancient town of Meng in eastern China to Kellner’s modern home in northern Germany.

Heidegger seems to have proved that ideas are the most migratory things in the world long before he became internationally famous. When he studied in Freiburg with the philosopher Shuzo Kuki (1888–1941) from Japan, Heidegger read Edmund Husserl’s major work with him and other East Asians once a week, as he stressed in one of his late major texts, “Aus einem Gespräch von der Sprache. Zwischen einem Japaner und einem Fragenden” (1959) (“A Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer”) – set out as a conversation between two professors. By that time, in 1921, transcripts of Heidegger’s classes were already translated into Japanese, which might be regarded as the first recognition of his groundbreaking philosophy. Indeed, Japanese was the first language Being and Time was translated into – in 1939, a staggering twenty-three years before the first English translation.


The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu, 3rd century BC)

If we re-read Heidegger’s 1927 work from such perspectives, we might understand why many East Asian philosophers feel more at home in his thinking than most Europeans.  As he concludes: “One must seek a way of illuminating the fundamental question of ontology and then go this way. Whether this is the sole or right way can be decided only after one has gone along it.” This insistence on finding and going the way in order to seek the essence of being, might be hard to grasp with a so-called Cartesian or modern perspective, trying to make philosophy a part of science, but it seems all the more natural from Zhuangzi’s point of view and the way of thinking about the Way (Dao).

After the Nazi era, Heidegger concludes much of his wandering in Unterwegs zur Sprache (1959) (On the Way to Language). In that work he explains his 40-year-long quest for a deeper, pre-philosophical source which connects us as beings across time and space: “The word ‘way’ probably is an ancient primary word that speaks to the reflective mind of man. The key word in Laozi’s poetic thinking is Tao, which ‘properly speaking’ means way […].” He concludes: “The lasting element in thinking is the way.” In this way the thinking of China and Japan breathes in Heidegger’s philosophy. Europe’s foremost thinker of the 20th century cannot be properly understood without knowledge of Asia’s philosophy.

Heidegger’s universal quest might also be something for our times. Heidegger was seeking a thinking experience which would assure “that European-Western saying and East Asian saying will enter into dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source.” And he walks the walk in the dialogue with his friend, as when he finds out that the Japanese word for language, ‘koto ba,’ is the best way to better understand his own language, German.

Thus, both Zhuangzi and Heidegger formulated central challenges and opportunities for the 21st century. Zhuangzi by asking us to see “the Others”, understand what they enjoy, and acknowledge it. Heidegger by asking us to seek a way to understand his thinking, his transcultural roots, and his search for a common human ground. Or as professor Reinhard May puts it: “In order to gain a new perspective from this ‘Heidegger case’,” we will have to devote ourselves to other people’s thinking “as thoroughly as to that of our own tradition, not least since Heidegger has, in his own special way, demonstrated the necessity of transcultural thinking.”

In this light we can also see how Heidegger questioned the basis of our modern thinking in Brief über den ‘Humanismus’ (1947) (Letter on ‘Humanism’): “Philosophy is hounded by the fear that it loses prestige and validity if it is not a science,” Heidegger wrote. And again he returned to a fish metaphor: “Thinking is judged by a standard that does not measure up to it. Such judgment may be compared to the procedure of trying to evaluate the natures and powers of a fish by seeing how long it can live on dry land. For a long time now, all too long, thinking has been stranded on dry land.”

He didn’t write it explicitly, but this metaphor seems to be a reference to another of Zhuangzi’s parables (number 6): “When the springs dry out, the fish are found stranded on the earth. They keep each other damp with their own moisture, and wet each other with their slime.”

Vital parts of our migratory history of ideas have become stranded on dry land since the encounter in Bremen. At the same time, a new awareness might be dawning of the importance of our long-forgotten global interconnectedness – as can be seen from Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori’s Global Intellectual History (2013) or Jonardon Ganeri’s “Why Philosophy Must Go Global: A Manifesto” (2016). The history of ideas can also learn lessons from the new insights now being presented in the field of global history and the de-centering of perspective, or from earlier times: The “universalism” of Mozi, or the argument for “world literature” by both Goethe and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

The world is not just connected by trade, as Hajime Nakamura pointed out in A Comparative History of Ideas (1975). Even more importantly, humans are bonded by those migratory ideas that transcend national and cultural borders. And as Heidegger showed, we don’t have to meet physically in order to face each other. In the global history of ideas we can rather stand face to face through texts across ages and seas.

Such a history of ideas has the potential to give us new and fresh ways of looking at our world, as the participiants at the gathering in Bremen found out. This is not just because “there is no such thing as western civilization,” or eastern civilization for that matter, as Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it. It is also because new research frequently proves that our cultural heritage is often not what we are taught to believe. Heidegger’s critique inspired the Algerian-born Jacques Derrida to develop the German term “Destruktion” into the French concept of “déconstruction”. As the time and being of the 21st century drags on, it might be about time to add reconstruction to deconstruction.

A reconstruction of our natural and common global history of ideas can be seen as a fulfillment of the thinking of Zhuangzi, “the first deconstructivist”. He disavowed the ideologies of rulers and the hierarchies of scholars that imprison the human mind, leading individuals astray from their own innate nature (hsing). The stringent argument that we are being taught is logic is far too often nonsense – because, rather, eclecticism is all. The eclectic, comparative, and inclusive way of thinking pours water over stranded fish, making reconstruction a flow of the natural way (wu wei 無爲). If we follow the way of Zhuangzi and read the classics anew, we can reconstruct our past based not on an ethnocentric take, but rather on a comparative and transcultural perspective – placing weight on our migratory ideas. Instead of studying history of ideas within a national or ethnic framework, we might re-orient and be on the way to reconstruction with the help of three ‘C’-terms: Contact. Comparison. Complexity.


John Adams concluded that the democracy of the US resembled that of Phoenician Carthage more than any other republic

We might for example see the way Thomas McEvilley has shown how the pre-Socratics and Plato were influenced by the thinking of India, a country where the secular and materialistic Lokayata (Carvaka) philosophy has prevailed for over 2500 years (Contact). Such global and comparative perspectives on the world of ideas can release us from the ethnocentrism that has left our thinking stranded on dry land for all too long now. If we follow such channels of thought, we discover that it was not Athens, nor any Greek city-state, that Aristotle hailed as the best-governed or most democratic. Instead, in Politics, he held up Phoenician Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, as the state with the best constitution, the most stable rule – which was not prone to tyranny – and as the place where the people had the most say when it came to electing politicians (Comparison). As the second US president John Adams pointed out in A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America (1787): “This government [of Carthage] thus far resembles those of the United States of America more than any other of the ancient republics, perhaps more than any of the modern…” (Complexity).

Thus, the reconstruction of a global history of ideas makes the founding fathers and the basic documents of our past ripe for rereading from a comparative and non-ethnocentric perspective. Man is not an island and neither is the world – nor have they ever been. Rather, man is a fish, ever in danger of being stranded on dry land. But the springs can be refilled, opening up new channels of thought so that more fish can swim as they please – just as a simple question taught the merchant Kellner, Heidegger, and their guests how to enjoy swimming in the vast seas of the global history of ideas.

Dag Herbjørnsrud is a historian of ideas from the University of Oslo with a cand. philol. thesis on the late philosophy of Robert Nozick. He is the author of the book Globalkunnskap (2016, “Global Knowledge. Renaissance for a New Enlightenment”) at Scandinavian Academic Press, and the founder of the recently established Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas (SGOKI).

January events in Paris for intellectual history

by John Raimo

Here at the JHI blog, we hope to soon share more news about upcoming events for intellectual historians of all stripes wherever they may be. A calendar is in the works. The coming weeks in Paris, however, have so many interesting events that they certainly warrant a blog posting of their own in the meantime. So without further ado, you’ll find here a few talks and conferences to consider attending should you find yourselves in Paris just now (and a little luck will see some reporting on one or two of them):