Kwok-ying Lau

Ballard Prize 2019:  Kwok-ying LAU, Phenomenology and Intercultural Understanding: Toward a New Cultural Flesh (Springer Verlag, 2016)

Kwok-Ying Lau’s Phenomenology and Intercultural Understanding: Toward a New Cultural Flesh represents a thoughtful effort to promote intercultural understanding. Lau’s book rightly raises good questions about Husserl’s dismissal of Indian and Chinese philosophies as not being genuine philosophy, includes an intriguing phenomenological reading of Laozi’s Daodejing, and provides an illuminating discussion of Lao Sze-Kwang’s “orientative philosophy” that aims at self-transformation. In addition, Lau creatively applies Merleau-Ponty’s idea of the “flesh” to the intercultural world, insofar as one who bridges cultures, or one who seriously engages another culture, will find it difficult to distinguish neatly and easily a boundary between what the other culture is contributing and what of one’s own culture is involved in interpreting the other culture. In addition, Lau suggests the value of a lateral universal that sees other cultures as making contributions parallel to one’s own instead of seeing the other’s contribution as subordinate to a “vertical universal” that culminates in the perspective of one’s own culture.

Although Husserl should not have dismissed the philosophical genius at work in India and China, questions can be raised about Lau’s criticism that Husserl’s “pure theoria” is cognitivist, that is, lacking in concern about moral-practical life. Lau himself acknowledges at one point (146-151) that Husserl was in fact in some places concerned about the self-transformation of the philosophizing subject and society in the direction of becoming self-responsible.  Further, if one directs one’s philosophy to establishing the need for such a moral life, it still seems that to make the philosophical case that such moral values are of ultimate importance, one would have to do so theoretically and engage in a highly “cognitivist” (perhaps in another sense of the word) enterprise. Lau’s own book, advocating for moral and wise living, is itself a theoretical tour de force. In addition, Husserl’s idea of pure theory requires a self-responsible examination of one’s presuppositions as well as a striving toward uncovering the ultimate presuppositions of one’s thinking and living.  Consequently, Merleau-Ponty’s finding an ultimate in primordial nature; the Dao’s arriving at a final idea of philosophy as an open dialectic and a call for “weak” thinking; Patočka’s culmination in a fundamental philosophical anthropology, which includes care for the soul and world mystery, as the common ground for intercultural dialogue; and Lao Sze-Kwang’s “orientative philosophy”—all represent a striving toward an ultimate plane, the final presuppositions of philosophizing itself.

Despite such questions, this book represents a courageous and creative engagement in intercultural philosophical dialogue between representatives of Chinese philosophy and European phenomenology.

Visit Lau’s book page at Springer: