Philosophers of Nothingness

Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School

James W. Heisig
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  • Book Info
    Philosophers of Nothingness
    Book Description:

    The past twenty years have seen the publication of numerous translations and commentaries on the principal philosophers of the Kyoto School, but so far no general overview and evaluation of their thought has been available, either in Japanese or in Western languages. James Heisig, a longstanding participant in these efforts, has filled that gap with Philosophers of Nothingness. In this extensive study, the ideas of Nishida Kitaro, Tanabe Hajime, and Nishitani Keiji are presented both as a consistent school of thought in its own right and as a challenge to the Western philosophical tradition to open itself to the original contribution of Japan.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6394-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VIII)
  3. Preface to the English Edition
    (pp. IX-XII)
    James W. Heisig
  4. Orientation
      (pp. 3-7)

      The emergence of the Kyoto school marks a watershed in intellectual history. Not only does this group of philosophers represent Japan’s first sustained and original contribution to western philosophical thought, they do so from a distinctively eastern perspective. Far from simply reupholstering traditional philosophical questions in an oriental décor, theirs is a disciplined and well-informed challenge to the definition of the history of philosophy itself. The fact that the formative years of this new current of thinking coincided with a period of intense nationalism and militarism in Japan has tended to retard recognition of their achievement both at home and...

      (pp. 7-9)

      In the Kyoto school we have the makings of a school of thought able to stand shoulder to shoulder with major schools and currents of philosophy in the west. More than that, it is thefirstphilosophical current in Japan of which this can be said. Nishida was the wellspring; of that there can be no question. But, as Tosaka had recognized, Nishida’s work alone would not have sufficed to put Japanese thought on the map of world philosophy, even with the help of first-rate disciples. For that it needed the counterfoil of Tanabe’s thought and the creative enlargements of...

      (pp. 9-13)

      Looked at from the broader perspective of the history of world philosophy, the story of western philosophy in Japan divides into two with the career of Nishida. Looked at from within Japan, there is no such watershed, just another landmark along the road. It is worth our while at least to have a look at how western philosophy has been studied in Japan in order to understand why this is so.

      The image of the American ships anchoring in the harbors of Japan’s capital city of Edo in 1854, determined to pry open the doors of a country that had...

      (pp. 13-17)

      One speaks of the Kyoto philosophers Nishida, Tanabe, and Nishitani as a “school” not only because of their having shared chairs successively at the same university, but because there are fundamental working assumptions they share in common. The differences between the three will perhaps stand out more clearly later if we first lay out some of these assumptions.

      In doing so, it should be noted that these assumptions they share are not necessarily held by others in the wider reaches of the “school.” By the same token, broadening the definition of the school would oblige us to add other assumptions...

      (pp. 17-21)

      Absent from my account of the working assumptions was any mention of the special quality that the Japanese language brings to philosophy. It is time to address this question briefly before we go any further.

      The introduction of philosophical vocabulary in Meiji Japan was a rather haphazard affair. After the initial attempts of Nishi Amane, the first complete dictionary of philosophical terms was prepared under the direction of Inoue Tetsujirō in 1881. Revisions were made regularly as scholars began to specialize in various currents of western thought, leading to the more reliable and comprehensive dictionaries that began to appear around...

      (pp. 21-23)

      The study of Kyoto school philosophy in the west has developed in two directions at more or less the same time. On the one hand, it has been studied as a chapter in the history of ideas; on the other, some first steps have been taken to appropriate those ideas into the mainstream of western thinking. In general it can be said that in philosophical circles the former by far outpaces the latter, while in the theological it is the other way around. These are questions that need critical attention in their own right. I content myself with the observation...

      (pp. 23-26)

      The basic framework in which the material of this essay has been laid out is a simple one: a separate chapter devoted to the principal ideas of each of the three major figures of the Kyoto school. The simplicity cloaks a number of choices against approaches I reckoned misleading.

      Given my aim of offering an overview of the distinctive perspective that the Kyoto school brings on western philosophy, it seemed to me that drawing out certain perennial questions of philosophy and tracing the respective responses of the Kyoto philosophers to them would yield results more anecdotal than systematic. Although there...

  5. Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945)
      (pp. 29-32)

      Nishida Kitarō was born on 19 May 1870 in Ishikawa Prefecture, central Japan. After dropping out of high school over a disagreement with the authorities on educational reforms, he studied independently for and passed the entrance exams to Tokyo’s Imperial University as a special student. He graduated in 1894 with a degree in philosophy, having written an optional thesis on Hume’s idea of causality, and returned to his home prefecture as an English instructor in a middleschool. To keep alive his interest in philosophy, he studied the posthumous writings on ethics of the British neo-Hegelian, Thomas Green, first with the...

      (pp. 32-36)

      Of the three Kyoto school philosophers treated here, Nishida was without a doubt the most creative and, not surprisingly, the one about whom the most has been written. The number of new ideas, signaled typically by the coinage of a new phrase, outweighs the advances we find in Nishitani and Tanabe. Not only does Nishida hold a lofty place in the intellectual history of modern Japan, he rises above his times as a seminal thinker for the generations that followed. Once he had determined that an idea had strong roots, he would not wait around to harvest the results but...

      (pp. 36-39)

      Nishida’s adventure of ideas was to make a distinctive Japanese contribution to world philosophy. Before looking at those ideas themselves, it is worthwhile to pause a moment and consider just what this entailed for him, if only to alert the reader to the way his commentators are too often given to collapse that goal to the measure of their own assumptions about the place that Nishida gave that “distinctiveness.”

      I begin with a statement he made in 1940:

      Must we assume western logic to be the only logic and the eastern way of thinking simply a less-developed form of it?…...

      (pp. 39-42)

      If we look at Nishida’s diaries and letters during the years as a high-school teacher when he was feverishly devouring philosophical books and getting deeper and deeper into Zen meditation, we find a number of short statements about the focal point of his interest. They center on two questions, both of which he received as much from Zen as from his philosophical reading and the intellectual mood of the times: the discovery of the self, and fidelity to life. Typical of the former concern is a letter he wrote to a friend in 1897 in which he explains that for...

      (pp. 42-47)

      The idea of pure experience is not difficult, though it is complicated by the interference of word associations natural to traditional philosophy but alien to Nishida’s intentions, and also by a certain unclarity in his own mind. Let us reconstruct Nishida’s intention and how he carried it out.

      We begin from the assumption that reality is one, and that means it has a single principle that makes it one, orunifiesit. Nishida never questioned this in his writings. He does not take up at any point the possibility of “other worlds” or consider the possibility that reality might be...

      (pp. 47-49)

      Already beforeAn Inquiry into the Goodwas finished, Nishida had taken an interest in the neo-Kantians, beginning with the Freiburg thinkers Windelband and Rickert. Initially he saw in them, and also in Husserl, allies in the attempt to “argue the question of theoretical values exclusively from the standpoint of pure experience.” This was in fact only an educated guess on his part about that major current of contemporary European philosophy, and turned out to be wrong. A lengthy critique of his first book, written by a young professor specializing in this thought, raised the counterposition of distinguishing value and...

      (pp. 49-52)

      The use of the term “self-awareness” to point to something distinct from what western philosophy calls “self-consciousness” only gradually came to force in Nishida’s writings. It may be said to be a function of a shift of focus from experience in general to the search for what he called “a standpoint of the self” to deabsolutize the ordinary subjectivity of the ego. This shift was by no means complete by the time he had completedIntuition and Reflection,and if he prefers it there to “self-consciousness,” it is only because of a general concern with avoiding the creeping psychologism people...

      (pp. 53-56)

      Given the general description of awareness above, we may approach more confidently a new attempt by Nishida to solve the problem he had set out with inIntuition and Reflection

      If the term “awareness” was allowed to keep its everyday, ordinary flavor, the idea was not. When Nishida decided to integrate a core idea into his philosophy, he did so by introducing a carefully chosen but unmistakable technical term. With each new term, it is as if he were grinding and polishing a lens with which to have another look at the fundamental questions of philosophy. If he found that...

      (pp. 56-61)

      Nishida’s idea of active intuition was basically designed, as we noted, to show the correlative interdependence of the activity of mental reflection and the passivity of taking in the world. Not only the layers of meaning contained in the termintuitionbut the idea ofactingin the world lend themselves to thinking about artistic expression. In Nishida’s case, it is not a case of a simple metaphor; artistic creation was itself a direct extension of the notion of “body” that he had set up to mediate the dialectic of active intuition.

      His first sustained attempt to tackle the relevance...

      (pp. 61-64)

      The idea of grounding all thought in a single, absolute principle continued to pester Nishida, like a fly buzzing inside his head that he could not swat down. While the terms “pure experience” and “absolute will” had disappeared, the assumption of an absolute beyond subject and object and yet somehow knowable had not. The more he realized that none of his solutions had managed really to dislodge the subject from center stage—in his terms, that a certain “psychologism” still remained—the more acute became the need for a replacement absolute. He sought it in a turn to religion and...

      (pp. 64-68)

      InAn Inquiry into the GoodNishida had spoken of agiven unityin reality that exists prior to the mind’s carving it up into a dualism of subject and object in order to render it intelligible. In time, he was to shift his idiom to speak of the real as aself-identity.There is not a great shift in content, only in emphasis. His choice of terms is significant, however. Rejecting the idea of a principle of individuation as he found it in western philosophy—that which gives a thing its identity, based on the idea of an underlying...

      (pp. 68-72)

      The place Nishida gave to history is one of the weakest points of his thought, and the lack will be glaring when he turns to questions of political philosophy. As his position is not argued at length, it has to be reassembled from his remarks about time and allusions to history scattered throughout his works.

      Nishida generally refers to history in terms of what he calls “the historical world.” The use of the term is telling. His final concern is not so much with the events whose unfolding gives us our concrete idea of history as a flow oftime,...

      (pp. 72-75)

      Nishida’s first treatise on the logic of locus appeared in 1926. The idea, unlike any other, was like a magnet that drew to itself all his other ideas and increased its pull, if not its clarity of definition, to the end of his work. Clearly, it was this idea, more than any single work, that was Nishida’s crowning achievement.

      The idea itself is not complicated, nor is it new. He had spoken of a “locus of will” already from 1919 and other uses of the term appear inArt and Morality.Though in none of these cases does he attach...

      (pp. 75-79)

      The clue to reading Nishida’s texts on the logic of locus lies in seeing how he takes the dialectic of active intuition between the idea of the subject as mental reflection and the object as the world that is intuited, and rethinks it in terms of the relationships among the grammatical subject and predicate in the judgments that come from the collaboration of the active self and the intuited world.

      Perhaps the best place to begin is with his idea of the universal. Basically, it can be said that Nishida uses the idea of the universal in three senses. First...

    • 22 SELF AND OTHER.
      (pp. 79-83)

      In the theory of active intuition, it will be recalled, the body was presented as the meeting point of self and world, while the problem of other selves was left out. Clearly the notion of body, or active intuition for that matter, was not sufficient to capture this important ingredient of the relation between self and world: the fact that there are other centers of awareness, in interaction with which there is something to know about one’s own self. The logic of locus helped to raise the issue and to fit it into Nishida’s overall philosophy.

      Self-awareness, in the sense...

      (pp. 83-86)

      Given the logical pattern at work in Nishida’s idea of the I-you relationship, it is hardly surprising that until the concluding pages ofI and Youwhen Nishida turns his attention to love, no particular attention is drawn to the affective element in the I-you relationship. Even in “Love of Self, Love of the Other, and the Dialectic,” the I-you (or more often, the I-other) refers principally to the basic unit of human society; not even in the perfection of love does it rise to the stature of religious or personal sentiment. In the end, as we saw above, the...

      (pp. 86-90)

      Allusions to Japanese culture and the culture of the east were common in Nishida’s writings from the first, and were further nuanced through his comparison of artistic and poetic forms east and west, some of which we mentioned above. But it is not until 1934 that he broaches the idea that the philosophical ideas he has worked out may be rooted in culture as such and are not simply transcendental insights seeking confirmation in cultural expression.

      The context of his remarks is an attempt to lay out a cultural typology that will trace differences in classical culture east and west...

      (pp. 90-95)

      Nishida’s passing reference to the need for a relationship between politics and philosophy seems to have created the expectation, both in his own mind and in the minds of the keepers of the official ideology, that he would add this dimension, so far lacking, to his own thought. In the past, he had gone right from theideaof the concrete world of history into religion and the arms of the all-encompassing, passing over concerns with moral principles or the social structure. For the same reason he did not develop his thought in either of these areas, he should not...

      (pp. 95-99)

      That Nishida continued to develop these ideas in the direction of a political philosophy cannot be explained simply as a continued reaction against the deleterious effects of the war on freedom of thought. The justification for that repression lay in an ideology that put the unity of the Japanese people under the emperor first, and the development of individual conscience and thought second. But these were the very questions he skirted around cautiously, once again allowing his voice to lend support to the very thing he most detested. If it was indeed a tug of war, it was so slack...

      (pp. 99-104)

      At some point, Nishida shook the dust of the journey into political philosophy from his sandals and returned to what he knew best. In the dusk of his years, Nishida looked back over his work and made one last attempt to comprehend the whole. He wrote as Japan was under bombardment from the Allied Forces and ordinary life was deteriorating rapidly. He wrote to Hisamatsu Shin’ichi:

      I put myself in the mind of Hegel writing hisPhenomenologywith the cannons of Napoleon exploding in the background, writing with the thought that I could die any day now…. I have just...

  6. Tanabe Hajime (1885–1962)
      (pp. 107-110)

      Tanabe Hajime was born in Tokyo on 3 February 1885. He entered the department of natural sciences at Imperial University of Tokyo in 1904, specializing in mathematics. The following year he switched to philosophy, recalling in later years that he did not think he had it in him to be a mathematician. After graduating in 1908 he took up a post as a teacher of English at a middle school, later transferring to the school where his father was principal.

      His philosophical career began in 1913 at Tōhoku Imperial University, where he was appointed lecturer in the department of natural...

      (pp. 110-113)

      For the most part, Tanabe’s philosophical prose is ponderous and lacking in rhetorical flourish. His sentences are long and winding yet crafted with mathematical precision. At his best, he makes his way from one thought to the next in short, studied strides, with a great deal of repetition but little ambiguity of expression. At his worst, he concentrates earlier complex arguments into almost unreadable density. His frequent concatenation of abstract terms tend to grate on the Japanese reader not already familiar with western philosophical style, but the clarity of his conjunctions makes translating him into western languages relatively easy, even...

      (pp. 113-116)

      From early on, it was clear that Tanabe would head in a direction different from that of Nishida. Indeed, it was precisely his different perspective on the idea of pure experience that had drawn Nishida’s attention to him.

      Tanabe’s first essay, “On Thetic Judgment,” was a short piece that gathered up the main ideas he had presented in his graduation thesis. It was published in 1910 in theJournal of Philosophy, a year before Nishida’sStudy of the Goodwould appear, but was based on the idea of pure experience as Nishida had outlined it in the pages of that...

      (pp. 116-118)

      When Nishida introduced his logic of locus in 1926 in the attempt to relate absolute nothingness more closely to the goal of awareness, Tanabe did not follow suit. Instead he began to work out an idea of “absolute mediation” distilled from his careful reading of Hegel. In a 1930 essay openly critical of the senior Nishida, he presented his idea as an alternative way to incorporate the idea of absolute nothingness into philosophy.

      As we have seen, the more Tanabe tried to work from Nishida’s perspective of awareness grounded in pure and immediate experience (or in its more recent formulation,...

      (pp. 118-122)

      At the time Nishida was studying philosophy, and indeed throughout his career, one of the major problems inherited from the nineteenth century was that of the conflict between the individual and society. As his students and contemporaries caught in the maelstrom of Marxist thought complained to him often enough, the issue was begged, not settled, by focusing concrete attention on the awakening of the individual and reducing history to some general notion of historicity. The younger Tanabe, who had not yet worked out a clear philosophical position of his own, was quick to register the significance of the criticism. The...

      (pp. 122-125)

      With the reformulation of the idea of absolute nothingness, Tanabe’s dialectic of absolute mediation had next to come to terms with its own abstractness and distance from the actual historical world. As he himself admitted, “my past bias towards abstraction stems from a flaw in my speculative powers.” He sought an answer in a new logic, the logic of the specific.

      Tanabe’s expressed reasons for introducing a new logic, in which he did not include any mention of a confrontation with the logic of locus of Nishida, were two. First, he said, was a practical concern with “seeking out rational...

      (pp. 125-130)

      The logic of the specific begins in a shift from the formal, syllogistic function of species to an ontological role in the dialectic of absolute mediation. The first step in Tanabe’s reinterpretation of the notion of the specific is to dislodge the concept of species from its obligation to formal logic, where it served as a mere category of classification pinched between the universal and the individual. This entails two things.

      First, as Hegel had shown, when the dimension of history is brought into the picture, the two-valued logic of the grammatical syllogism gives way to a dialectic in which...

      (pp. 130-134)

      These three steps—the ontologizing of the specific, the structure of the closure of the ethnic society, and the religious grounding in absolute nothingness—represent the core of the logic of the specific. There was one more step he took, a step whose consequences would lead him down a path he would later regret.

      Although the freedom of the Japanese language to omit distinction between singulars and plurals, together with Tanabe’s own failure to give concrete examples, leaves a certain ambiguity; nevertheless, there seems little doubt that the logic of the specific was aimed primarily at the situation in Japan....

      (pp. 134-139)

      In September of 1931 Japan’s colonial army in Southern Manchuria, impatient with the indecision of their government back home, unilaterally attacked the Chinese garrison in Mukden. Within fifteen months they had assumed control of Manchuria. The aggression not only widened the rift between Japan and China, it also prompted the Russians to a military buildup in Siberia and brought the Japanese government general censure from the nations of the world. This in turn further hardened the extremist elements within Japan in their resolve for military hegemony in Eastern Asia. Step by step they began to tighten their grip on the...

      (pp. 139-142)

      A small resistance of thinkers, Marxist as well as Christians, were quick to identify Tanabe’s new “logic” as cut from the same cloth as the rhetoric of the ultra-nationalist government. Once the war was lost and the government disgraced, the ranks of the critics swelled liberally, and the same ideological fever that had sent the country blindly to the battle fields was turned mercilessly against the errant intellectuals who had supposedly given substance to many of the slogans of mass deception. Leading scholars of the Kyoto school were relieved of their posts as part of a wider purge. Tanabe, who...

      (pp. 143-146)

      A second sort of criticism, no less severe, was intent on showing Tanabe simply to have been incompetent to pass judgment on matters of state. A certain abstractness and distance from the real world in Tanabe’s thinking and lifestyle, the argument goes, not only made his ideas easy prey for political ideologues but also clouded Tanabe’s own perception of the events going on around him. Umehara Takeshi offers himself as a representative of those who felt themselves cheated by the philosophers at Kyoto—first herded off to war and then brought back to the pure heights of speculation as if...

      (pp. 146-151)

      To understand the extent of Tanabe’s repentance, we first need to see the extent to which he did not repent but merely “clarified” or “enhanced” previous positions.

      Tanabe did not take well to the criticisms of nationalism and totalitarianism that reached him. The accusations understandably hurt him, as it did others in the Kyoto school. As early as 1937 he composed a first defense of the logic of the specific in which he addresses the criticisms in a general fashion:

      My view, which at first glance appears to be no more than an extreme nationalism, is in no way simply...

    • 40 REPENTANCE.
      (pp. 151-154)

      In a public act of repentance issued during the final stages of the Pacific War, Tanabe acknowledged his lack of strength to speak out against what he knew in his heart was wrong. In his crowning philosophical work,Philosophy as Metanoetics,he called for a complete overhaul of the notion of philosophy, which had betrayed itself in opting for expedience over truth. To his critics, this eleventh hour call for a “metanoia” to purge philosophy of its tainted innocence was viewed as courageous only in the sense that a dive from a burning ship can still be an act of...

      (pp. 154-157)

      WithPhilosophy as Metanoeticsrepentance is transformed into a philosophical method. The work is not an attempt on Tanabe’s part to redress anything he himself had done or not done, thought or not thought, but a lamentation on the philosophical enterprise itself and a call for its general reform. There are three factors in play here.

      First was the disaster of the war and the closing of the Japanese mind to critical reflection, which required nothing less than a repentance by the whole nation. Second was the poverty and cowardice of philosophy in the face of this closure. After nearly...

      (pp. 157-162)

      The work as a whole may be said to circle around the reform of philosophy elliptically, as if on a double pivot: the limits of reason and the force of Other-power. In the same way that the ellipsis needs both its pivots at the same time, so does Tanabe’s argument. For the sake of brevity, I shall treat the two separately here.

      The first aim is constellated in what he calls “the logic of absolute critique.” The logic of the specific had shown up the irrationality at the basis of all historical praxis. TheMetanoeticstakes a leap beyond that...

      (pp. 162-165)

      The great and ineluctable philosophical paradox of theMetanoetics, that only reason can ultimately persuade reason of its own debilities, is overcome by the addition of—or rather, attention to—the religious dimension. It is not a matter of turning philosophy into a “religious philosophy” or religion into “philosophical religion,” but of recovering the original ground at which the two rely on each other, a kind of philosophy-in-religion. As we noted, the key here is the enhancement of the notion of absolute nothingness. There are three new elements interwoven here: absolute nothingness as Other-power; its manifestation as a nothingness-in-love through...

      (pp. 165-171)

      The religious tenor of theMetanoeticssets the tone for Tanabe’s late work in retirement. Even when he returned to his interest in science, carrying on what Takeuchi has called his “lifelong guerrilla warfare” against the inflated claims of natural science, he did so in a religious mood. The “progress” gained through an accumulation of knowledge, he saw, was ultimately no more than the working out of the innate methodological fragmentation of science itself, impeding a true synthesis of knowledge. Tanabe welcomed the contradictions that the new physics was uncovering at its own foundations, and suggested that they be read...

      (pp. 171-175)

      After his first full-fledged experiment with Shin Buddhist categories inPhilosophy as Metanoetics, Tanabe’s attention remained focused for the rest of his life on developing a “philosophy that is not a philosophy.” The absolute critique he considered to have been more or less accomplished in that book. What remained was to clarify the transition from philosophy to religion.

      Tanabe had always drawn the line between the two bolder than Nishida had done, never to separate them but only to keep their tasks distinct. Indeed, as we saw in discussing his logic of the specific, religion was always in some sense...

      (pp. 175-180)

      In his very latest writings, we see Tanabe’s reform of philosophy not only incorporating the religious dimension more basically but also turning back to restore to philosophy the breadth of scope he had denied it previously. He had always thought it in the nature of philosophy “to try to think about reality in such a way as to leave nothing of reality out of the picture.” Still, there were two elements he had neglected, aesthetics and a philosophy of life. These come together only at the end of his life with his turn to what he called the dialectics of...

  7. Nishitani Keiji (1900–1990)
      (pp. 183-187)

      Nishitani Keiji was born on 27 February 1900 in a small town in Ishikawa Prefecture on the Japan Sea. He did most of his pre-university schooling in Tokyo, where he lived alone with his mother after the death of his father when he was fourteen. Ill from the same tuberculosis that had killed his father, he failed the physical examination on his first attempt to enter the prestigious Daiichi High School. Since he had the highest grades in his class, the humiliation of this weighed heavily on him. After a period of recuperation on the northern island of Hokkaidō at...

      (pp. 187-190)

      Nishitani’s mature style, as it has come to the west in translation, shows a buoyancy of expression, a liberal use of the Zen tradition, and a gift for concrete examples that make it stylistically Nishida’s and Tanabe’s superior. His is the sort of originality that shows up not only in major innovations of thought but also in a making intelligible and tangible much of what his predecessors had left in the abstract. Without Nishitani’s genuine feel for the heart of the philosophical problems that Nishida and Tanabe were dealing with, and for their relationship with the fundamental problems of the...

      (pp. 191-193)

      Jaspers says that philosophy begins—where Aristotle and Plato had seen it to begin—in wonder at existence and the desire to know, is clarified by doubt, and is confronted with the finitude of human existence itself. Nishitani saw things the exact reverse. As a child of his age, he saw that the only route to philosophy was one that began in a nihilistic despair over the human condition, passed on to doubt over all of existence, and only then ascended to the wonder of emptiness. This pattern is present already in the essay he wrote on Nietzsche and Eckhart...

      (pp. 193-195)

      Nishitani’s first book, published in 1940 under the titleA Philosophy of Elemental Subjectivity,is actually a collection of ten essays previously published, and shows the typical disjunction of such collections. What is interesting is that, rather than follow the order of their appearance, he rearranges them, with the section on “Religion and Culture” at the opening, a choice that symbolizes the direction his thought was moving in already at this early date.

      Here we find a first clear expression of what Nishitani understands the nature of religion to be: the awareness of elemental subjectivity. The termsubjectivity,which Nishitani...

      (pp. 195-200)

      Whereas Nishida had tried to squeeze a political philosophy out of an abstract metaphysic and only ended up breathing life into the idols he wanted to topple, Nishitani did create a political philosophy, the principal statement of which was a 1941 book entitledView of the World, View of the Nation.He knew that he was doing something novel. In his late years he confided in a letter that his book “was the first book that attempted to analyze from a philosophic point of view the historical reality of the time in terms of world politics—and of Japan as...

      (pp. 200-204)

      In September 1939, Nishida, then in retirement in Kamakura, was paid a visit by Captain Takagi Sōkichi, an officer in the research division of the secretariat of the Department of the Navy. The purpose of the visit was to request the support of academics of the “Kyoto school” in helping the Navy stem the escapades of the Army, which was headed for a war with the United States that it could not win. Recognizing the hollowness of the ruling slogans of “all the world under one roof,” and “East-Asian Coprosperity Sphere,” he broached the subject by asking for advice regarding...

      (pp. 204-208)

      Nishitani argues in the second of theChūōkōrondiscussions that accomplishing a unity in Asia as Europe had done for the west will call for amoralische Energiebased on an idea of nationalism and racialism strong enough to stand up to democracy, and that only Japan is up to the task. It was Nishitani who introduced the term into the discussions, though it was not until the second discussion, with the war uppermost in everyone’s mind, that he tried to apply it concretely.

      The summoning of this energy belongs to religion, or more correctly, adds a dimension to religion...

      (pp. 208-211)

      In 1942 a leading intellectual journal in Japan,Literary World,organized a symposium to discuss the impasse in Japan’s reception of western civilization, under caution that the participants were to avoid political statements. Published the following year under the titleOvercoming Modernitywith a first printing of 6,000 copies, the work was dismissed in the postwar years as no more than another expression of the fascist ideology that had led Japan to its distressful state. But as the problems it took up were clearly of relevance broader than that exploited by the ideologues of the day, there was a revival...

      (pp. 211-214)

      Nishitani made a few attempts to recast his earlier political philosophy, to salvage what he could of its ideas, but then let it go. In a 1946 essay on “Popular Culture and Humanism,” for instance, he retains the idea of the dialectic of subject and substrate, but the substrate is now identified as a “principle of life” that checks the subject’s attempts to define itself on the one hand, while on the other it brings “a freedom embodying infinite possibility” when brought to awareness in the subject. Or again, for a while the “moral energy” he had seen as requisite...

      (pp. 215-217)

      The problem of nihilism had already appeared in Nishitani’s earlier writings, but did not become the focal point of attention until the years after the war. Allusions to nihilism continued to appear regularly in his writings for a few years afterReligion and Nothingness,but then faded away from his late works. In the midst of his renewed interest in the subject, he recalls the importance that nihilism had for his philosophical vocation:

      I am convinced that the problem of nihilism lies at the root of the mutual aversion of religion and science. And it was this that gave my...

      (pp. 217-222)

      Religion and Nothingnessis Nishitani’s masterpiece. It is also a giant step in the advance of Japanese philosophy and religious thinking onto the stage of world intellectual history. In order to introduce others of his writings, it will be necessary to shorten our account of this book and fracture the structure of the whole into a number of themes, but not without a word about how it came to take shape.

      Nishitani says in the preface that the book began in response to a request for an essay on “What is Religion?” In fact, the opening essay was not written...

      (pp. 222-224)

      Nishitani includes himself in the company of Nishida and Tanabe, whose respective logics, he says, “share a distinctive and common basis that sets them apart from traditional western philosophy: absolute nothingness.” As we noted, however, without abandoning this lineage he gradually came to prefer the term “emptiness.” As we will see, this also represents the first step in what was to be an ever more courageous attempt to integrate Zen ideas and images into philosophical discourse.

      He also came to speak of his own position as a “standpoint” rather than a logic. There seem to be two reasons for this....

      (pp. 224-228)

      As with Nishida, for Nishitani the structure of self-awareness was a paradigm of how all of reality is constructed, “the nonobjectifiable mode of being of things as they are in themselves.” Being aware is not like an activity that one schedules for a certain period, and then sets aside in order to do other things. It is the original activity that defines what it means to be human. When birds fly and fish swim, when fire burns and water washes, they do not do so as a pastime, butby being what they are.So, too, the mind is, by...

    • 60 EGO AND SELF.
      (pp. 228-233)

      From what has just been said, it should be obvious that for Nishitani the idea of the true self cannot be a permanent, unchanging principle of identity somehow encased within the person, an individuated soul, a cluster of human potentials waiting to be realized, or even an ideal of expanded consciousness. It has to be, rather, a mode of being in which everything done is done “naturally,” and in that sense has to serve as a paradigm of the mode of being of the nonhuman world as well. It must also be a mode of selfhood that does not complement...

      (pp. 233-238)

      As with Nishida, the I-you relationship in Nishitani is given a place of special importance but does not form part of the paradigm of all of reality. In a word, interpersonal encounter is made the handmaiden of self-awareness, and within it the “other” is viewed as a dimension of no-self. On this basis he tries to generate a kind of moral imperative. Although all the ingredients for this step are already present, the connection will take some explaining.

      The principal model of the self-other relationship in Nishitani is that of the Zen dialogue between master and disciple, tales of which...

      (pp. 238-242)

      In condensing Nishitani’s views on science, we have to understand that his context was defined by the overcoming of nihilism, whose advent and consequences he saw at the heart of the modern world; and by the fact that Christianity was both the womb of science and its chief antagonist. His views were framed, accordingly, in terms of a face-off between religion and science in which the latter had swallowed up the former. While he will agreein principlethat some kind of a convergence of the two is necessary,in practicehe was more given to the critique of science...

      (pp. 242-245)

      For many, if not most, of Nishitani’s western readers, the chapters on time and history inReligion and Nothingnessare the most dissatisfying because of their irrelevance to lived history. What has to be remembered here, however, is that a large part of the reason for his apparent abstraction of history from the concrete actuality it normally has, is that his only serious attempts to do otherwise were in his political philosophy and particularly in the Chūōkōron discussions. The abstraction is, I believe, as clear a sign as we have that Nishitani wishes deliberately to distance himself from that earlier...

    • 64 GOD.
      (pp. 245-249)

      As we have seen with so many of the other ideas Nishitani takes up—nihilism, self, interpersonal relationship, ethics, science, history—Nishitani neither simply rejects traditional ideas he wants to rethink nor does he simply modify them in the light of his own standpoint. Rather, he tries to think ideas through to the point where they collapse before what they are trying to express, and at the point of collapse disclose what had been neglected. What he calls “breakthrough” always implies a rebirth, not only of the self but also of that which has been broken through. From there he...

      (pp. 249-252)

      Beginning withReligion and NothingnessNishitani takes ever longer Buddhist strides in his treatment of philosophical themes. It was only after completing the last chapter of that book that he was to publish his first essay on Zen, “Zen and Science.” But once he had taken that step he gained in confidence to deal directly with the texts of the Zen tradition, culminating in two volumes of commentary on Dōgen’sShōbōgenzōrunning to over 830 pages. This is not to say that he was simply applying Zen ideas to the philosophical questions. Beginning with the central idea of emptiness, these...

      (pp. 252-256)

      We may conclude our account of Nishitani’s philosophy by noting his general orientation to organized religion, in particular Buddhism and Christianity. Although he never addressed the subject of institutional religion at any length, comments that surface here and there in his works and late talks make it clear that he understood the task of the philosopher as one of recovering for those religions the soul that they seem to have lost in preoccupying themselves with doctrinal, ritual, or structural reform. “There is no ‘present age’ in religion,” he liked to say, “and no religion in the present age.” The relationship...

  8. Prospectus
      (pp. 259-261)

      As I write, the study of Kyoto-school philosophy both inside Japan and abroad is alive and well. As major currents of thought around the world go, it is a small stream, but one that continues to course swiftly and deep across the wasteland that has long separated philosophy east and west. The number of younger scholars attracted to its ideas, the new translations in preparation, the confrontations with contemporary questions as well as with traditional religious thought—all of this suggests a vitality in its fundamental inspirations.

      Like any “school” of thought, its survival depends on two elements. On the...

      (pp. 261-263)

      Trying to condense a shelf of heavy volumes into a single essay, as I am only too well aware, risks misunderstanding. Attempting it three times in the same book makes it inevitable. Careful arguments are made to look like wild conjecture, the flavor and nuance that build up an author’s style are pared away to the most basic ideas in the rawest form. What is worse still, in the time that it takes to read enough of the material to construct a summary, one’s attention fades in and out, and the memory of what was read at one sitting often...

      (pp. 263-267)

      No doubt much in the foregoing chapters will have struck many readers, particularly those conversant with contemporary western philosophy, as interesting hypothesis but far removed from the currents of intellectual history today. In the years in which the Kyoto school’s philosophies were taking shape, the philosophical mood was changing in the west. Even continental philosophies concerned with the same sort of questions have taken a different direction. The Kyoto school surfaces on the other side of Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas, and Gadamer to look like something of an anachronism. What is more, a great many ideas in the philosophical...

      (pp. 267-269)

      The three questions I have singled out above—the no-self as moral subject, the limits of the anthropocentric, and the detachment of God from being—can hardly be said to have found their way into western philosophy. But they are among the many ideas from the Kyoto-school tradition that have stimulated discussion between Buddhist and Christian scholars, particularly in Japan. Since this has been one of the principal forms in which their thought has gained attention outside of Japan during the past twenty years, it is worth pausing a moment to consider the factors that combined to bring this about....

      (pp. 269-272)

      In the opening pages, mention was made of the absence in the Kyoto school of a distinction between philosophy and religion like that found in the west. Later we came to see how Tanabe at first resisted the position and then came to embrace it more enthusiastically than either Nishida or Nishitani. Whatever their own views in the matter, the reader accustomed to western philosophy can hardly fail to ask at some point whether these thinkers have not in fact forsaken philosophy for religion. I would suggest that the question cannot be answered as such, but only detected, because it...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 273-344)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 345-368)
  11. Index
    (pp. 369-380)