Nishida Kitarō

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NISHIDA KITARŌ (18701945) is generally considered the most original modern Japanese philosopher and the galvanizing force behind the creation of the Kyoto school of philosophy. Nishida, who incorporated Mahāyāna Buddhist spirituality and its worldview into his philosophical system, made his debut in Japanese philosophical circles in 1907, while he was a professor of psychology and logic at the Fourth Higher School in Kanazawa. After a year of teaching at Gakushūin, the Peers School, in Tokyo, he became, in 1910, a professor at the Imperial University of Kyoto, where his career flourished. Nishida's personal life during this period, however, was plagued by a series of illnesses and the deaths of several members of his family, causing him to call the source of philosophy the "pathos of life" rather than the "wonder." His retirement from the university in 1928 marked the beginning of a productive period of philosophizing. He died on June 7, 1945, two months before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During his lifetime, Nishida was widely recognized in Japan as a leading intellectual and a voice of conscience. His writings, lectures, and correspondence are compiled in nineteen volumes titled Nishida Kitarō Zenshū (Collected Works of Nishida Kitarō, 4th edition, 19871989).

Beginning in his midtwenties, Nishida underwent Rinzai Zen Buddhist practice for a decade, and this imparted a unique flavor to his philosophical thinking. Zazen, or the practice of seated meditation, requires the full engagement of the mind and body. The questions, or kōan, given by the master, carry the practitioner beyond the ordinary mental habits characterized by the subject-object dichotomy. Zen practice was a personally self-transforming experience for Nishida, and it opened up the vital reality that preceded mental analysis. Nishida incorporated epistemological principles of unity (of mind and body, of subject and object) into his philosophical vocabulary, and he advanced such ideas as pure experience, absolute nothingness, and action-intuition. The Zen tenet that each individual possesses the Buddha nature also underscored Nishida's philosophical vision.

Nishida's Thought

In 1939 Nishida reflected on his philosophical path and noted that his aim had been "to approach things from the most immediate and most fundamental standpoint from which everything emerges and to which everything returns" (Collected Works 9, p. 3). Indeed, while he was still a higher school student, he was convinced that reality (jitsuzai ), as it is, is absolute (genjitsu sono mama ) (Collected Works 1, p. 7). In his first book, Zen no kenkyū (An inquiry into the good, 1911), he unfolded his view of the ontological primacy of experience over an individual selfexperiences make up a person rather than a person "having" experiences. By taking pure experience (junsui keiken )the primary mode of experience before its bifurcation into subject and objectas the unifying principle, Nishida attempted to analyze the objective world. In this study he was indebted to the philosophical language of William James (18421910) and Henri Bergson (18591941). Dissatisfied with the psychological aspects of this approach, however, Nishida proceeded to question the nature of intuition and logical reasoning. He put these under scrutiny by engaging in a dialogue with modern mathematical theories, as well as with German neo-Kantianism and Husserlian phenom-enology.

This series of philosophical investigations resulted in Nishida's second book, Jikaku ni okeru chokkan to hansei (Intuition and reflection in self-consciousness, 1917). Therein he made a detailed analysis of self-consciousness (jikaku ); that is, consciousness that gives rise to self-awareness as the all-encompassing system of which intuition and cognition are two aspects. Through this investigation, he arrived at the primacy of free will, which transcends cognition and on account of which experiences are repeatable. Furthermore, he saw at the ground of free will ("that which acts") a field of consciousness ("that which sees"), which he developed in his essay, "Basho " ("Topos" or "Field," 1926). Basho is the matrix wherein all things come into being and from which they disappear. Nishida called basho "absolute nothingness" (zettai mu ) because in itself it is an unobjectifiable reality transcending both being (u ) and nonbeing (mu ). His reflections on the nature of time explain "absolute nothingness" as a moment that comes into being at one "present" and disappears in the next. If the present moment were some kind of being that could be grasped, there would be no time; if the present were simply nonbeing, there would also be no time. Time, then, should be considered the coincidence of absolutely nothing and being. The present moment (i.e., absolute nothingness) is where being and nonbeing come together (Collected Works 14, pp. 140141). Furthermore, Nishida saw time as the continuation of discrete or discontinuous moments, and as such time has a spatial extension, inasmuch as space has a temporal direction. Nishida came to call these contradictory features inherent in the very mode of reality "dialectical."

Nishida's basic assertion was that cognition is a phenomenon of consciousness. Taking a hint from Aristotle's definition of hypokeimenon (substance), Nishida proposed a "logic of basho " (basho no ronri ) that includes the very act of judgment within itself. If Aristotle's logic is a logic that focuses on the subject-term of the proposition, as the observer studies and classifies the subject under discussion, Nishida attempted to account for how such an observer is actually included in making logical pronouncements. Nishida considered predicates to be already contained in the field of consciousness in which the observer is embedded. The one who judges emerges from the field of consciousness at the moment of intellectual reflection and submerges back into it at the moment of volition and experience.

Nishida sometimes developed his thought in response to specific challenges and issues of his day. By the end of the 1920s, Marxism had become an intellectual fashion among Japanese thinkers. Although Nishida did not personally embrace it, Marxism challenged him to add social and historical dimensions to his thought. The rise to power of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s drew his attention to world affairs and led him to reflect on the meaning of history and race, and on the nature and role of the state.

As Nishida's perspective grew progressively global and more concrete, he moved away from the language of self-consciousness, and in its stead he developed his dialectics. In his "Benshōhōteki ippansha to shite no sekai" (The world as the dialectical universal, 1934), he described the individual self as "none other than an individual determination of the self-determining world" (Collected Works 7, p. 203). This is not to belittle the significance of the individual self but rather to emphasize the universal dimension of each individual. Human existence, obtained as the self-determination of the world, is by definition rife with self-contradictions. Precisely by knowing the profound contradictions that lie at the base of our self-existence, Nishida suggested that we undergo absolute negation and arrive at absolute affirmation, which is a step beyond the philosophy of anxiety or Angst, the trend that dominated the European philosophical scene.

In his 1935 essay, "Kōiteki chokkan no tachiba " (The standpoint of action-intuition), Nishida elaborated on the idea of action-intuition (kōiteki chokkan ) and the role of "things" (mono ). A thing is not just an item over there, it exists in vital relation to us and incites our action: "We see things by our action, and things determine us, just as we determine them" (Collected Works 8, p. 131). Further, he came to describe the authentic mode of action in terms of our "becoming a thing," that is, for us to embody the full objective reality of our physical existence. Nishida wrote the following: "Just as the body of an artist is the organ of art, so the body of a scholar is an organ of scholarship; the life of an artist lies in beauty and that of a scholar in truth. The operation of our cognition does not exist separate from our body" (Collected Works 8, p. 174). Our body is established as the self-determination of the historical world, and as such is a "historical body" (Collected Works 8, p. 180).

For Nishida, the essence of the self lies in one's creativity and expressive operations. This emphasis on creativity (poiesis, artistic and otherwise) is central to his definition of the person. We are born into this world as "that which is created" (tsukurareta mono ), but we in turn become "that which creates" (tsukuru mono ). Accordingly, a society that does not allow individual freedom to be creative is doomedthis was his bone of contention with totalitarian societies.

In "Ronri to seimei " (Logic and life, 1936), Nishida examined his thesis that logic is closely tied with the expressive self-formation of historical life. In "Shu no seisei hatten no mondai " (The problem of generation and development of species, 1937), he emphasized the radical irreducibility of the individual"An individual is an individual only in standing against another individual" (Collected Works 8, p. 523)as he meditated on "freedom" and "necessity" for individuals who exist in the historical world. In his 1939 essay "Zettai mujunteki jiko dōitsu " (Absolutely contradictory self-identity), he fully developed his dialectical logic, in which the individual, like a monad, assumes a double structure: that which reflects the world and that which is simultaneously a focal point of the world. Differing from Leibnizian monads, however, Nishida considered individuals as "self-fashioning," creative, and dynamic; each individual is a living history in that each, being creative, contributes to the formation of history (Collected Works 9, p. 155 and pp. 169173).

For the rest of his life, Nishida continued to develop his dialectics in terms of the contradictory self-identity of the self and the world as two vantage points, and the one and the many as the modality. His final essay, "Bashoteki ronri to shūkyōteki sekaikan " (The logic of basho and the religious worldview), completed two months before his death, dealt with the religious consciousness of the person explained in terms of the "logic of basho."

Nishida's Political Life

Born in 1870, the third year of the Meiji era, Nishida witnessed the dynamic period when Japan began to interact with the wider world after two centuries of self-imposed isolation. There was a prevailing sense of freedom and optimism among the young generation of that time, and Nishida was no exception. He supported the idea of a constitution and felt personal respect for Emperor Meiji as the head of the modern state. But he was against any ultranationalistic movements that deified the emperor to justify Japan's colonial aggression as staged by the military. Nishida took no part in promoting the cult of Shintō as a national rite, and he was critical of the government's indoctrination of youth.

Through his connection with the Peers School, Nishida came to know Konoe Ayamaro (or Fumimaro) and Kido Kōichi, who were prominent members of the "court group" that closely assisted Emperor Hirohito through 1945. But Nishida's opinions concerning politics and education were deemed overly idealistic to those engulfed in politics.

Nishida's political life came under criticism by Western scholars from the 1980s through the mid-1990s, partly in association with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (18891976). The argument was made that if Heidegger was connected with Nazism, Nishida could have been similarly connected with Japanese fascism. Remarks by Nishida were taken out of context and used to depict him as an ultranationalist, and his philosophy as "intrinsically nationalistic" by implication. A clear distinction between regionalism and nationalism could have clarified the confusion: celebration of one's cultural heritage (regionalism) does not necessarily make a person nationalistic. The perspective of cultural pluralism can shed light on what Nishida was attempting to achieve by ideas such as "Oriental nothingness." Nishida was depicted as a nationalist by Western scholars who relied on the views of a small number of ideological Japanese scholars. The debate began to subside as scholars recognized the need for returning to and reevaluating Nishida's philosophical texts, essays, and letters.


Nishida's works are cited above according to the volume and page number(s) of Nishida Kitarō, Nishida Kitarō Zenshū (Collected Works of Nishida Kitarō ), 19 vols., 4th ed. (Tokyo, 19871989). For an intellectual biography of Nishida see Michiko Yusa, Zen and Philosophy: An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitarō (Honolulu:, 2002), which includes English translations of ten essays by Nishida. For a Japanese biography see Michiko Yusa, Denki Nishida Kitarō (A biography of Nishida Kitarō), supp. vol. 1 of Nishida Tetsugaku Senshū (Selected works of Nishidan philosophy; Kyoto, Japan, 1998). Invaluable biographical information can be found in Keiji Nishitani, Nishida Kitarō, translated by Seisaku Yamamoto and James Heisig (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991).

For translations of Nishida's works, see An Inquiry into the Good, translated by Masao Abe and Christopher Ives (London and New Haven, Conn., 1990); A Study of Good, translated by Valdo Viglielmo (Tokyo, 1960); Intuition and Reflection in Self-Consciousness, translated by Valdo Viglielmo, Yoshinori Takeuchi, and Joseph O'Leary (Albany, N.Y., 1987); Art and Morality, translated by David Dilworth and Valdo Viglielmo (Honolulu:, 1973); L'Io e il Tu, translated by Renato Andolfato (Padova, Italy, 1996); Fundamental Problems of Philosophy: The World of Action and the Dialectical World, translated by David Dilworth (Tokyo, 1970); Intelligibility and the Philosophy of Nothingness, translated by Robert Schinzinger (Tokyo, 1958; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1973); Logik des Ortes: Der Anfang der modernen Philosophie in Japan, translated by Rolf Elberfeld (Darmstadt, Germany, 1999); Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview, translated by David Dilworth (Honolulu:, 1987); and Michiko Yusa, "The Logic of Topos and the Religious Worldview," Eastern Buddhist 19, no. 2 (1986): 129 and Eastern Buddhist 20, no. 1 (1987): 81119.

Other translations of Nishida's essays include "On the Doubt of Our Heart," translated by Jeff Shore and Fusako Nagasawa, Eastern Buddhist 17, no. 2 (1984): 711; "An Explanation of Beauty," translated by Steve Odin, Monumenta Nipponica 42, no. 2 (1987): 215217; "Gutoku Shinran," translated by Dennis Hirota, Eastern Buddhist 28, no. 2 (1995): 242244; and "The Principle of the New World Order," translated by Yoko Arisaka, Monumenta Nipponica 51, no. 1 (1996): 100105. For a more complete listing, see Wayne Yokoyama, "Nishida Kitarō in Translation: Primary Sources in Western Languages," Eastern Buddhist 28, no. 2 (1995): 297302.

For critical works on Nishida and the Kyoto School, see James Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School (Honolulu, 2001); James Heisig and John Maraldo, eds., Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism (Honolulu, 1994); Michiko Yusa, "Nishida and the Question of Nationalism," Monumenta Nipponica 46, no. 2 (1991): 203209; Michiko Yusa, "Correspondence," Monumenta Nipponica 49, no. 4 (1994): 524527; Michiko Yusa, "Reflections on Nishida Studies," Eastern Buddhist 28, no. 2 (1995): 287296; Yoko Arisaka, "The Nishida Enigma," Monumenta Nipponica 51, no. 1 (1996): 8199; and Graham Parkes, "The Putative Fascism of the Kyoto School and the Political Correctness of the Modern Academy," Philosophy East and West 47, no. 3 (1997): 305336. On select philosophical concepts of Nishida and his successors, see Michiko Yusa, "Contemporary Buddhist Philosophy," in Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe, eds., A Companion to World Philosophies (Oxford, 1997), pp. 564572. For Nishida's students and European thinkers, see Michiko Yusa, "Philosophy and Inflation: Miki Kiyoshi in Weimar Germany, 19221924," Monumenta Nipponica 53, no. 1 (1998): 4571.

Michiko Yusa (2005)