“Humanism” in Two Acts: Motoori Norinaga, Lorenzo Valla, and the Competing Historiographies of Humanist Modernity

Jason M. Morgan


“Humanism” in Two Acts:

Motoori Norinaga, Lorenzo Valla, and the

Competing Historiographies of Humanist Modernity[1]





Lorenzo Valla was an Italian thinker and polemicist who is today considered one of the founding figures of humanism, or the reconfiguration of Western society on more rational-secularist principles against the political influence of the Catholic Church. As part of this reconfiguration, Valla advocated critical approaches to the ancient canon, overcoming what Valla saw as the Scholastic, medieval corruption of the Latin language and restoring it to its original eloquence. Motoori Norinaga was a Japanese thinker and philosopher of religion and language who is associated with Kokugaku, or the attempt by intellectuals to evince an awareness of Japan as a distinct politico-cultural entity. To do this, Norinaga, like Valla in many ways, advocated critical approaches to the ancient canon, in particular a native Japanese-language (Yamato kotoba) reading of old texts written in Chinese characters. Norinaga and other Kokugaku thinkers also wanted to attenuate the sway of Buddhism, Confucianism, and other non-Japanese schools in favor of more Japanese ways of engaging with both the physical and the metaphysical. By eliminating Chinese and other foreign influences from Japanese culture and intellectual discourse, Norinaga thought, Japan could achieve greater independence and awareness of itself as a country distinct from her continental neighbor. Today, however, while Valla is remembered as an important early humanist, Norinaga is often looked at askance in Western histories, a forerunner of twentieth-century “fascism”.

[1] A slightly modified version of this paper appeared in Japanese translation in a scholarly journal in Japan in 2022.


humanism; Lorenzo Valla; Motoori Norinaga; fascism; pre-modernity; Japan

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