Zen and Philosophy

Zen and Philosophy: An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitaro

Michiko Yusa
Copyright Date: 2002
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  • Book Info
    Zen and Philosophy
    Book Description:

    This is the definitive work on the first and greatest of Japan's twentieth-century philosophers, Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945). Interspersed throughout the narrative of Nishida's life and thought is a generous selection of the philosopher's own essays, letters, and short presentations, newly translated into English.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6565-8
    Subjects: Philosophy, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword A Contemplative Life
    (pp. vii-xii)
    Raimon Panikkar

    It is for me an honor and a pleasant duty to preface this remarkable study. An intellectual biography is neither a mere historical account of the events of one particular person, more or less interesting as they might be, nor is it merely one more chapter in the history of ideas describing the more or less logical connection of one person’s thought to ideas prevalent at a particular time and place. It is more demanding than that, and also more important. To be sure, the intellect expresses itself in ideas, and biography is concerned with the facts of a person’s...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxiv)

    Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) defined for the Japanese what it means to philosophize. His thought was crowned with his name and came to be known asNishida tetsugaku, or “Nishidan philosophy,” and enjoyed high regard among his peers for its rigor and originality. His endeavors helped shape a major stream of philosophical discourse, known as the Kyoto school, which sought to go beyond merely adapting Western philosophy. His conviction of the universal validity, inherent rationality, and beauty of Japanese culture compelled him to give it a philosophical expression. Even during his lifetime, he was hailed as the representative thinker of...

  6. Conventions and Abbreviations
    (pp. xxv-xxvi)
  7. Prologue
    (pp. 1-4)

    The winter of 1944–1945 was unusually cold. On December 14, Nishida wrote a letter to Suzuki Daisetz, his friend of sixty years:

    It snowed yesterday morning. Snow in Kamakura in December is rare, don’t you think? You must take care of yourself, as you said you have a cold. It can easily develop into pneumonia, and for old folks like us that can be deadly. As for the wood for cooking and heating, we decided to cut the trees in the garden.

    You must live five, nay, ten more years, and write for posterity. A new age is dawning;...

  8. Chapter 1 Childhood: “White Sand, Green Pine Needles” (1870–1886)
    (pp. 5-15)

    Nishida always remembered his childhood in association with “white sandy beaches surrounded by green needles of pine trees.” His place of birth, Mori, was a small village, facing the Japan Sea, about twenty kilometers northwest of the city of Kanazawa. He was born on May 19, 1870, as the oldest son of Nishida Yasunori (1834–1898) and Tosa (1842–1918), into a family that held the hereditary office of village mayor,tomura(literally, “ten villages”). Thetomura, an administrative position unique to Kaga Province, oversaw the affairs of several neighboring villages.¹ This office entitled the Nishidas to bear a family...

  9. Chapter 2 Mathematics or Philosophy? (1886–1891)
    (pp. 16-29)

    In September 1886 Nishida, now sixteen, was admitted into the preparatory division of Ishikawa Prefecture Senmon Gakkō, when a place fell vacant. Hōjō’s recommendation must have been instrumental in his acceptance. Senmon Gakkō, or Higher School of Specialized Training, was the preparatory elite school for Tokyo University in and around Ishikawa Prefecture. It was a seven-year institution, of which the first four years were devoted to the preparatory curriculum; in the last three years students specialized in their chosen field—humanities, natural sciences, or law.¹ These subjects were mainly taught in English.² Nishida had no problem following the preparatory courses...

  10. Chapter 3 The Imperial University (1891–1894)
    (pp. 30-44)

    When Nishida recovered from his eye trouble, he realized that his plan to study on his own was unrealistic. There was only one choice left for him—to take the entrance exam of the Imperial University as a “limited status”(senka)student. He was lucky that this option existed at all. It had been created on September 25, 1878, at the request of Katō Hiroyuki, the first president of the university, to accommodate students of diverse backgrounds.¹ While the graduates of higher schools were automatically admitted to the university, students applying through the venue of limited status had to take...

  11. Chapter 4 Existential Impasse and Zen Practice (1894–1899)
    (pp. 45-58)

    In July 1894 Nishida returned to Kanazawa, where he was promised a position as a teacher of English at the Ishikawa Prefecture Ordinary Middle School. But in September he learned that someone in the prefecture office had suggested another candidate. The official explanation was that someone trained in English had become available. Because he had just declined a job for which he had been recommended by Hōjō Tokiyuki, he was terribly disturbed by this unexpected course of events.¹ Nishida found the conduct of the officials and school administrators unconscionable and confided to Yamamoto: “I sigh at the degree of corruption...

  12. Chapter 5 Toward Kenshō: An Inner Journey (1899–1904)
    (pp. 59-75)

    The Fourth Higher School Nishida returned to was being radically reformed under the leadership of Hōjō Tokiyuki. Student conduct had deteriorated since the founding days of the school when Nishida had been a student. After Japan’s victory in its war with China (1894–1895), the higher school students had “softened” their moral values; many engaged in heavy drinking, and a few even commuted to school from the demimonde.¹ Hojo believed that students were the future of Japan and that an educator’s mission was to guide them properly. In 1898, to prepare the ground for school reform, he first brought his...

  13. Chapter 6 The Birth of a Philosopher (1904–1907)
    (pp. 76-95)

    The Russo-Japanese War broke out on February 9, 1904.¹ By early May it claimed the life of Nishida’s dear friend, Mukō Kikutarō, then a lieutenant commander in the Japanese navy.² Because Mukō’s wife had died in December 1903, his death left their newborn baby an orphan. Brooding over Mukō’s orphaned child, Nishida wrote a memoir about Mukō.³

    Nishida’s younger brother, Hyōjirō, a captain in the military who had been stationed in Tokyo since 1902, was also called to active duty as the war escalated. He returned to Kanazawa to entrust his wife, Hatsue, and their baby daughter, Toshiko, to Nishida’s...

  14. Chapter 7 “Pure Experience” and “On Religion” (1908–1909)
    (pp. 96-102)

    Nishida began 1908 with the idea of writing a book dealing withjitsuzai to jinsei(reality and life)¹ but was forced to abandon the project because of his poor health; once again he was suffering from a recurrence of pleurisy. Instead, he produced an essay, “Junsui keiken to shii, ishi, oyobi chiteki chokkan” [Pure experience, cognition, will, and intellectual intuition], which became part 1 of hisZen no kenkyū. In it he focused his attention on “pure experience.”

    As early as 1905 Nishida had been interested in the discussion revolving around “pure experience” led by William James. In his notes...

  15. Chapter 8 Gakushūin in Tokyo: A Year of Transition (1909–1910)
    (pp. 103-116)

    Nishida’s gamble to move to Tokyo paid off handsomely. On the home front, he was able to rent a brand-new house in Nishi-ōkubo,¹ adjacent to the estate of Marquis Maeda Toshinari. This arrangement was made possible by Ishikawa Ryūzō, who was working for the Maeda family.² The house was situated in a good school district, which was a prime concern for Nishida, who wanted his children to get the best education possible. There was also a tramline nearby, providing a convenient commute to Gakushuin in Mejiro.³

    The Peers School, Gakushūin, established in 1877, was for the sons⁴ (and separately the...

  16. Chapter 9 Kyoto Imperial University: Early Years (1910–1912)
    (pp. 117-134)

    Nishida moved to Kyoto. He was forty years old, and Kotomi, thirty-five years old, was pregnant for the eighth time. By the time Nishida arrived in Kyoto, the rest of his family was already settled in a house on Konoe Street, a few blocks south of the university campus. Right away, he wrote postcards to his friends in Tokyo, informing them of his new address. He then called on Yamamoto. In the evening of the same day he visited Kotomi’s parents, Tokuda Tagayasu and Tei, who were living in the precinct of the Chion’in Temple. During the first week after...

  17. Chapter 10 Consolidation of the Philosophy Department (1913–1917)
    (pp. 135-150)

    The year 1913, the second year of Taisho, marked a personal, professional, and intellectual turning point for Nishida. He felt he was ready to tackle substantial philosophical problems, and thus on New Year’s Day he began writing an essay “Shii to chokkan” [Thinking and intuition], with which he embarked on the long and winding road that saw its end in 1917 in his second book,Jikaku ni okeru chokkan to hansei[Intuition and reflection in self-consciousness].¹ To begin something new with the new year’s arrival was something ingrained in Nishida; as we recall he began writing his seminal essay on...

  18. Chapter 11 Correspondence with Tanabe Hajime (1913–1917)
    (pp. 151-160)

    Sometime soon after their initial encounter in April 1913, Nishida and Tanabe Hajime began corresponding. Tanabe, born in 1885, entered Tokyo Imperial University in 1904 to study mathematics but switched to philosophy midcourse. Upon graduation in 1908 he was admitted to the graduate school, where he remained until June 1912. In 1913, when he met Nishida, he was teaching English at Kaisei Higher School in Tokyo; in August of that year he was appointed lecturer in the natural sciences faculty at Tohoku Imperial University and moved to Sendai. It so happened that Hōjō Tokiyuki was then the president of Tōhoku...

  19. Chapter 12 The Calm before the Storm (1917–1919)
    (pp. 161-170)

    Nishida caught the flu during the cold weather at the beginning of 1917, and this unfortunately led to the recurrence of chronic pleurisy.¹ He initially planned to go to Tokyo to attend Yayoi’s graduation in March but was obliged to stay at home until his health sufficiently recovered. In April, with the arrival of the warmer weather, he was finally able to travel to Tokyo. Nishida set aside some time to see and talk with Tanabe Hajime in private on April 7. On April 15 he gave a talk at the semiannual gathering of the Philosophical Society, entitled “Shushu no...

  20. Chapter 13 Sorrows of Life and Philosophy (1919–1922)
    (pp. 171-184)

    Kotomi regained her consciousness after the stroke, but she was completely paralyzed and became bedridden. Eight years later, Nishida confided to Yamamoto how he felt when his wife became disabled:

    Human beings exist in time. Precisely because there is the past, such a thing as “I” exists. The fact that the past is present in the present moment simultaneously constitutes that person’s future. When my wife was suddenly paralyzed because of illness, I was overcome by this thought. It felt to me as if the important part of my past had vanished all at once, and with it, my future....

  21. Chapter 14 The Nishida-Einstein Connection (1920–1922)
    (pp. 185-187)

    Nishida had a hand in inviting Albert Einstein to Japan in 1922. He had been interested since 1920 in Einstein’s theory of gravity from a philosophical point of view and asked Tanabe Hajime for his opinion of Harrow’sFrom Newton to Einsteinand Slosson’sEasy Lessons in Einstein.¹ This was a year before Einstein’s nomination for a Nobel Prize in physics. Nishida also sought the professional opinion of Kuwaki Ayao,² a physicist and the younger brother of Kuwaki Gen’yoku (he and Kuwaki Ayao had begun corresponding sometime around 1912). Nishida wanted to know whether “Einstein’s theory of gravity, which is...

  22. Chapter 15 An Inner Struggle and a Breakthrough (1923–1925)
    (pp. 188-201)

    Tomoko’s serious condition hung heavily on Nishida’s mind at the beginning of 1923. Tomoko was still in the hospital and faced the possibility of becoming lame or mad. Nishida’swakaof this time reads:

    Being tied down

    by the iron chain of fate

    and trampled all over

    I don’t even know

    how to stand up¹

    He kept his feelings close to himself, however, and his professional life went on as usual. Dozens of teachers from the Nagano Education Board who had been studying philosophy under Nishida’s guidance came to Kyoto at the beginning of the year to hear his lectures...

  23. Chapter 16 The Logic of the Topos (1924–1926)
    (pp. 202-209)

    The signature idea of “Nishidan Philosophy” is that ofbasho(place, field,topos, orchōra).¹ Thus, it is worthwhile to pause for a moment to take a closer look at the inception of this idea, which is traceable to the 1924 essay, “Naibu chikaku ni tsuite” [On the inner perception],² and his 1925 essay, “Hyōgen sayō” [Expressive operation].³

    In “Naibu chikaku ni tsuite,” Nishida advances his criticism of the phenomenological method, which in his view fails to totally eradicate the objectifying stance. The phenomenological method only suspends the facts framed by the category of time, which is the standpoint of...

  24. Chapter 17 Retirement (1926–1929)
    (pp. 210-226)

    In Nishida’s time university professors retired on their sixtieth birthday. Because his father had changed Nishida’s official birth date to August 10, 1868, so that he could enter Normal School, his retirement was to come in August 1928. He welcomed early retirement. (Incidentally, 1928 was also the year of Edmund Husserl’s retirement from the University of Freiburg, on March 31.)

    The timing of Nishida’s retirement coincided with a period of social unrest and transition from the “Taisho democracy” to the turbulent Shōwa years. Although Nishida had looked forward to his retirement and planned to devote himself to philosophical contemplation, he...

  25. Chapter 18 Formation of the Kyoto School of Philosophy (1929–1932)
    (pp. 227-233)

    Nishida was enjoying his first winter in Kamakura. On February 1, 1929, he was appointed professor emeritus.¹ Visitors from the Kantō area continued to stream in to his rented house at Zaimokuchō. The popular writer, Kurata Hyakuzō, who made Nishida’sZen no kenkyūa best-seller, called on him twice in February, and Tanabe Juri, Odaka Tomoo, Honda Kenzō, Miyamoto Wakichi, and Ōsaka Motokichirō were among other callers. He saw Kuki Shūzō at a beachside hotel in Kamakura.

    On March 2 Nishida gave a talk at the Philosophical Society at Tokyo Imperial University on “Kant and Husserl,” which he later retitled...

  26. Chapter 19 Remarriage and Nishida’s View of Women (1927–1931)
    (pp. 234-247)

    Nishida’s biggest concern around the time of his retirement was the future of his three daughters, Shizuko, Tomoko, and Umeko. “I have three daughters, all graduated from women’s higher school, and the oldest is already twenty-three. I truly would like to see them married,”¹ he wrote to a former student. He felt a heavy responsibility for his daughters, especially now that Kotomi was no longer by his side. Hiswakareveals how he felt in the face of what seemed like a daunting task:

    There are many things

    one should not have

    in this world

    but at the top of...

  27. Chapter 20 Development of Personalist Dialectics (1932–1934)
    (pp. 248-261)

    By December 1931 Nishida had finally found his long-sought personal happiness. In stark contrast, ominous events were beginning to cloud Japanese politics. In August 1931 former prime minister Hamaguchi Osachi died of the gunshot wound inflicted a year earlier by an assassin. On September 18 an unauthorized military démarche, known as the Manchurian incident, broke out, marking the beginning of the so-called Fifteen Years War. On December 13 the second Wakatsuki cabinet dissolved after only eight months of existence, and Inukai Tsuyoshi became prime minister. Japan was moving into a period of political turmoil at home and an aggressive military...

  28. Chapter 21 Education and Scholarship under Fascism (1935–1937)
    (pp. 262-277)

    During the New Year’s holiday of 1935, Nishida gave his customary series of lectures to the members of the Shinano Philosophical Society on the “logical structure of the actual world.”¹ He then began a two months’s stay in Kamakura on January 21. He agreed to an interview on February 26 with a journalist from Kaizōsha that was published as “Beruguson, Shesutofu, sono ta—ujitsu zatsudan” [Bergson, Shestov, and so forth—conversations on a rainy day].² In March he wrote a preface to Kōyama Iwao’sNishida Tetsugaku[Nishidan philosophy], a book that explained his philosophical system, which was published by Iwanami...

  29. Chapter 22 Dark Political Undercurrent (1936–1937)
    (pp. 278-289)

    The January 1936 issue ofShisōacknowledged Nishida’s “sustained philosophical endeavor” and gave him a “proper philosophical salute, by organizing a symposium, in the truest sense of the word,” with the hope that such a tribute would “contribute to the enrichment of the Japanese intellectual world.”¹ Articles were contributed by Takahashi Satomi, Mutai Risaku, Miki Kiyoshi, Kōsaka Masaaki, Honda Kenzō, Nishitani Keiji, Doi Torakazu, Yamaguchi Yusuke, Shimomura Toratarō, Hosoya Tsuneo, Kōyama Iwao, Satō Nobue, Takizawa Katsumi, and Shitahodo Yūkichi.

    Nishida was in Kamakura from January 22 until March 15. On January 29 Fujioka Tōho’s mother died at the advanced age...

  30. Chapter 23 The Dialectical World as the Absolutely Contradictory Self-Identity (1938–1940)
    (pp. 290-304)

    It seemed to Nishida that by 1938 the Ministry of Education had lost all guiding principles and was merely reacting to constantly changing political pressures. He spent the winter of 1938 in Kamakura. As soon as he arrived in Kamakura on January 27, he contacted Kido, minister of education, but Kido was too busy to see him. Instead, Kikuchi Toyosaburō, head of the academic department, got in touch with him. Nishida conveyed his concerns that the Ministry of Education was catering to the demands of the home ministry and the army. In this environment, irrational accusations and simplistic reasoning, clad...

  31. Chapter 24 History, State, and the Individual (1940–1941)
    (pp. 305-318)

    On January 15, 1940, the Abe cabinet dissolved and Yonai Mitsumasa, an admiral, was appointed prime minister. Two days earlier, the Tsuda incident had broken out, when the home minister took issue with Tsuda Sōkichi’sKojiki oyobi nihonshoki no kenkyū[A study of theRecords of Ancient Mattersand theChronicles of Japan]. Tsuda,¹ a leading historian, had applied his method of “empirical scientific investigation” to theRecords of Ancient Mattersand theChronicles of Japan, two primary sources of early Japanese history. Ultranationalists, led by Minoda and his followers, accused Tsuda of undermining the sacred origin of Japan and...

  32. Chapter 25 Finale (1942–1945)
    (pp. 319-335)

    During his convalescence Nishida followed the doctor’s advice to the letter, from daily shots to massage and dietary restrictions, for he had utter confidence in modern medicine. Because the muscles of his fingers were frozen so that he could hardly hold a pen, he spent a lot of time reading. He was drawn to scientific books such as Heisenberg’s quantum theory¹ and Max Planck’s theory of causality.² By the summer of 1942, when he had sufficiently recovered from his rheumatism to resume writing, it felt to him as if whatever he had read and thought during the last several months...

  33. Epilogue
    (pp. 336-340)

    When Nishida died, Koto and Nishida’s youngest daughter, Umeko, were at his bedside. News of his death reached Suzuki Daisetz almost immediately, and he rushed to the Nishidas’ home. Several days after Nishida’s death, Daisetz recorded his memories:

    The last time I saw you, less than a month ago, you were talking with your usual ardor and candor about such things as “the ordinary mind is the way” and the self-determination of the absolute present.

    I thought of calling on you again soon, but I kept on procrastinating because of the train situation; the few trains that ran were tremendously...

  34. Notes
    (pp. 341-402)
  35. Glossary of Names and Terms
    (pp. 403-422)
  36. Bibliography
    (pp. 423-454)
  37. Index
    (pp. 455-482)
  38. Back Matter
    (pp. 483-483)