Nishida, Kitarō (1870–1945)

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One of modern Japan's most prominent philosophers, Nishida was born in the village of Unoke, located on the Japanese Sea near Kanazawa, which was the capital of the Ishikawa prefecture. He attended the Prefecture Gymnasium in Kanazawa, where he began a lifelong friendship with Teitaro (Daisetz) Suzuki. He then enrolled at the University of Tokyo, choosing philosophy over mathematics, in which he was quite gifted, and studied Western philosophy there from 1891 until 1894. After completing his studies with a thesis on David Hume, Nishida returned to his home, married, and devoted himself intensely for about ten years after 1897 to the practice of Zen.

In 1899 he was appointed as a teacher at the Forth Senior High School (previously the Prefecture Gymnasium) in Kanazawa, where he taught logic, ethics, psychology, and German until 1909. During this period, which Nishida would later characterize as the best of his life, he laid the solid and fertile groundwork for his subsequent philosophical work, a groundwork based on the unusual combination of Western philosophy and Zen. Each day he faithfully practiced Zen meditation and sitting exercises (Zazen ), but he also worked through the main texts of Western philosophy from Plato and Aristotle through to Henri-Louis Bergson, William James, Heinrich Rickert, and Alexius Meinong. His own philosophy was to emerge out of the seemingly impossible combination of these two parallel directions.

In 1910 he received an appointment as assistant professor for ethics at the University of Kyoto. The following year his first work titled An Inquiry into the Good appeared, in which a philosophy of pure experience is developed. It is the first monumental philosophical work in Japan according to the full sense of the word philosophy as it was imported into Japan from the West. In 1913 he was named full professor for the philosophy of religion and then in 1914 full professor in philosophy. This was the beginning of what has come to be known as the Nishida period in the philosophy department at the University of Kyoto, during which a philosophical community arose around him with both high scholarly standards and close personal attachments. Hajime Tanabe, later Nishida's successor, and Tetsurō Watuji were recruited by him. Similarly successful students arose under his tutelage, including Kiyoshi Miki and Keiji Nishitani. The philosophical department flourished during this period and became a significant factor in the intellectual and academic life of modern Japan. This circle of scholars came to be known as the Kyoto School. He retired from the university in 1928.

His family life during this time, however, was difficult and painful, as he recalled on the occasion of his retirement: "For ten years, I have pursued my scholarly work while faced with continually unbearable, unfortunate circumstances in my family, which has been very difficult for me." In 1920 he lost his beloved first son, in 1925 he lost his wife, who had been bedridden at home for six years as the result of a serious stroke. One of his daughters suffered with tuberculosis for several years. Two others were hospitalized for acute typhoid fever, one of whom never completely recovered. Earlier, during the Kanazawa period, he had already lost his brother and two young daughters. In several philosophical essays, Nishida wrote, "What impels one towards philosophy is the sorrow and pain of human life." Not wonder that there is something rather than nothing, not methodical doubt as a means to achieve certainty, but rather the fate of human life as a whole on earth motivated Nishida to pursue philosophy. Nishida's basic question is, "What is the structure of the actual world into which we are born, in which we labor, and in which we die? What is our self in this actual world?"

Nishida's concern is not only the life-world, not only the historical world, but also the world of life and death. Nishida is not concerning solely with the self that lives in the world, but rather the whole self that is born, lives, and dies. Sorrowful, painful events in human life tear open the world. This tear or rift opens up a window and gives access to the profundity of the world. Nishida says that "Grasping the common everydayness of our lives most profoundly leads to the most profound philosophizing." This profundity is nothing other than the profundity of everyday life. Nishida speaks of eschatological everydayness.

In the middle of the painful sorrows of his life, Nishida could say: "The ground of my heart, infinitely deep, will not be reached by all of the waves of joy and cares." For Nishida profundity or depth was experienced profundity. In his calligraphic work, for which he also counts as an artist, Nishida expresses a beautiful power rising out of this profundity. In spite of the difficult circumstances he faced in his life, he worked continuously every day. Even in the year in which he retired, he published five essays, including Predicative Logic, The Place Wherein One Sees Oneself and the Place of Consciousness, and The Intelligible World. His creative powers were sustained up to the end of his life, whereby the pathway for his thinking did not get any easier.

After his retirement Nishida spent half of each year in Kyoto and half in Kamakura at the seashore. He said, "I love the sea. There is something infinite that is suspended and moves in the sea." One student characterized Nishida's philosophy as a philosophy of the sea. His boyhood friend Suzuki also lived in Kamakura after he had returned from the United States so there the two of them often met for conversations in the space between Zen and philosophy, and Nishida attributed much in his philosophy to the influence of Suzuki. After his second marriage in 1931, Nishida's family situation was much better, but his concerns over Japan's worsening internal political situation and its external policies became increasingly grave. In 1939 the Second World War began and in 1941 the Pacific War with the United States began, which plummeted Japan on the war to its catastrophic defeat in August of 1945.

In May of 1945, Nishida wrote to Suzuki regarding the impending defeat: "Things are happening as we always feared they would. A state that is based on military power will perish by military power." As he was intensely searching for the possibility of a world culture that could unite humanity in the newly unified world that was to come after the world war, Nishida died on June 7, 1945, on account of an acute kidney infection. On his desk lay the unfinished manuscript of an essay Concerning My Logic. Nishida worked up until the last day of his life. During the year before he died, he wrote articles titled Concerning A Philosophy of Religion Governed by the Pre-established Harmony, Life, Philosophical Foundations of Mathematics, and The Logic of Place and the Religious World View.

His Work

In 1926 the essay Place (Basho ) appeared. Concerning that article, Nishida wrote, "It seems to me that I attained my final standpoint with the notion of 'place'." Nishida's philosophy can in a real sense be characterized as a philosophy of place. The basic idea behind the notion of place is: Everything that is, is located in a place. Being means being in. The proposition "S is P" means in truth that "S is in P." Nishida states one time simply and concretely, "Place is where we are located." Place for Nishida, then, corresponds to what Martin Heidegger called world as a component of being in the world. For Nishida, place consists both of the place of being and the place of the absolute nothing in the sense that the place of being is surrounded by the place of absolute nothing. The place of being as the place of limited disclosedness is located within the place of nothing as the unlimited disclosedness, infinite openness. Place thereby has a twofold disclosedness for us. Those of us who find ourselves in a place find ourselves not only in a world, but also in the unlimited openness that surrounds the world, a view that is different from Heidegger's. Nishida explicitly discusses the we as something that is located in a place in his essay I and Thou (1932).

According to Nishida, I and thou means that I am what I am in that I am nothingness in the unlimited openness, and conversely, I and thou means that you are what you are in that you are in the nothingness of unlimited openness. Nishida views the relationship differently than Martin Buber in that the I-thou is an aspect, the face-to-face aspect of the full reality of what is located in a place, a reality that consists in the fact that this one single individual and this other single individual are both in contradiction and in unity based on the abyss of the absolute nothingness where there is neither I nor thou. The basic traits of the notion of place according to Nishida can only be understood in correspondence to an originary pure experience because the notion of place is developed out of this experience.

Nishida's philosophy of pure experience arose through an original and radical encounter between West and East. There is a qualitative divide between the thinking of Western philosophy and the nonthinking in Zen. This rift inside Nishida himself, where both philosophy and Zen coexisted, threatened to rip him apart, but instead it came to serve as a magnetic field in which philosophy and Zen actually touched and permeated each other. This is where Nishida's philosophy was born, a philosophy of another beginning. For a philosophy of pure experience, it is crucial to explain everything through the fact that the only real reality is pure experience. In attempting to explain everything within a single context, Nishida orients himself on Western philosophy; his pure experience, however, comes from Zen.

Pure experience is not a monadic substance-like foundational entity, but rather an original occurrence of experiencing, an event like the following: "In the moment of seeing, of hearing, still without reflections such as 'I see flowers' and without judgments like 'These flowers are red,' in this moment of momentary seeing or hearing, there is neither subject nor object." This immediately experiencing experience occurs as the ground of the truly real reality because in immediate seeing and hearing the undifferentiatedness that obtains before splitting into difference is at work. Here, a direct connection between the empirical and the metaphysical is revealed in a unique way. For Nishida, the metaphysical does not disclose itself beyond experience but rather within experience, that is, within the immediately experiencing experience. Nishida sees the origin of the true self in pure experience because in it shackles of the ego are shattered. The empirical, the metaphysical, and the existential are integrated here prior to their differentiation.

Human experience, which is usually encountered as constrained or shackled inside the subject/object framework, breaks through this framework into the unlimited openness through the originary event of pure experience as immediate seeing and hearing. Pure experience is then articulated within the subject-object framework, but now not as a constraining frame, but rather as a projective ladder into openness. The place for the self-articulation of experience is now in the subject-object framework within the infinite openness. This is then the equivalent to the place of being within the place of the absolute nothingness. From this perspective, pure experience articulates itself as the originary unified whole, sometimes from the subjective side, but not as a subject, and sometimes from the objective side, but not as an object. Illustrating the differentiation of pure experience in dynamic relationships is what we mean by explaining everything.

Nishida actually does present these explanations. Explanation, however, is work that takes place at the level of reflection. How are pure experience and explanation related? To answer this question, the standpoint of pure experience turns into the standpoint of self-consciousness/self-awareness, which unites intuition and reflection within itself. Here, once again, the question of the place of self-consciousness is fundamental. This kind of awareness is more than self-consciousness because the limited place in the unlimited place of openness, this duality of place, is mirrored in the limited place that arises as the focal point of self-consciousness that is transparent to itself for the unlimited openness. Self-consciousness/self-awareness says, "I am I, in not being I" instead of simply "I am I."

The dynamic connection of "pure experience, self-consciousness or self-awareness, and place" (Basho) serves as the basis for further philosophical deliberations that Nishida carried out in the areas of art, history, society, the state, practical philosophy, the study of experience, mathematics, physics, and others areas in which he showed over and again how they are all permeated by this fundamental constellation. In the course of thinking that does not always proceed smoothly, Nishida tried out some unique categories such as active intuition, historical body, absolutely contradictory self-identity, and converse parallel to name just a few.

Nishida's thinking proceeds from a new beginning. Its basic category is place instead of substance, God, or the modern notion of an absolute (transcendental) subject. Logic as the logic of a contradictory self-identity, or rather the self-identity of the self-contradictory (the logic of place) instead of a logic of identity; the unity of the contradictory subject-object on the basis of something-before-the-split instead of a subject-object schema; reason as something that is active in intuition or rather acts as intuition instead of one side of a regional, qualitative distinction between sense and reasonall of these things arise out of pure experience. If global philosophy is going to take into account non-Western cultural traditions, Nishida's philosophy needs to be discussed within the horizon of that philosophy.

See also Buddhism; Phenomenology.


primary works

Fundamental Problems of Philosophy: The World of Action and the Dialectical World. Translated by D. A. Dilworth. Tokyo: Sophia University Press, 1970.

Art and Morality. Translated by D.H. Dilworth and V. H. Viglielmo. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1973.

Intelligibility and the Philosophy of Nothingness. Translated by R. Schinzinger. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973.

"The Logic of Topos and the Religious World View." Translated by M. Yusa. The Eastern Buddhist 19 (1986) and 20 (1987).

Intuition and Reflection in Self-Consciousness. Translated by V.H. Viglielmo with Y. Tekeuchi and J. S. O'Leary. Albany: SUNY Press, 1987.

Xenshu (Collected Works). 19 vols. 4th ed. Tokyo: Iwanami, 19871989.

An Inquiry into the Good. Translated by M. Abe and C. Ives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

secondary works

Heisig, James W. Philosophy of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Nishitani, Keiji. Nishida Kitaro. Translated by S. Yananoto and J.W. Heisig. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Wargo, Robert J. J. The Logic of Nothingness: A Study of Nishida Kitaro. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.

Yusa, Michiko. Zen and Philosophy: An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitaro. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Ueda Shizuteru (2005)