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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Nishida Kitarô: the Philosopher, his thought and his challenges

Michel Dalissier

Texte intégral

1November 2007

2Situated in the Far East, perched at the edge of the world’s abyss and home to an intellectual and original combination of Eastern and Western philosophical traditions since the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan could represent a type of athanor where part of the uncertain fate of the world’s philosophy is moulded.

3Nishida Kitarô (西田幾多郎, 1870-1945) was quick to understand this, which took him from reading classical Chinese and Buddhist writings to studying the roots of Western philosophy and calling into question its Greek foundations. Born in the north of Kanazawa, on the west coast of the archipelago, he taught at the University of Kyôto for twenty years until his death in Kamakura (close to Tokyo) a few months before the Second World War. There are 23 volumes in the latest edition of his complete works.

4Nishida was a man of immense knowledge, so much so that his “silence” on certain philosophers (Nietzsche, Marx, Freud) is thought of as a remarkable and edifying exception. In addition, he learnt “modern” and “ancient” languages of European philosophy with William James, Hegel, Bergson and Aristotle. His “Logic of Place” (場所的論理, bashotekironri) gives a philosophical meaning to intrinsic Japanese “mimicry”, which involves “emptying oneself from one’s true self to embrace the other”, glorified in history by a sudden wave of Western learning that was part of the Meiji era. This “forgetting one’s self” is far from denial or sacrifice. It restores our “conscience” that is haunted by the idea of “synthesis” (i. e. the efforts to unify both science and law), to what Nishida refers to as unifying the “great self” of the “cosmos” itself. Such a “capture” giving rise to a “vital force”, a “hollowing-out” making way for a creative “unification” (統一する tôitsusuru), made him frantically look for its traces within the history of art, science, humanities and philosophy, covering his books with “handwritten annotations” (書き込み, kakikomi), the study of which provides us with the material for a new form of semiology.

5The scale of the project requires the technicality of reasoning that should be present in every introduction and summary. The difficulty will undoubtedly call to mind the later texts of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Nishida, however, criticised bluntly his “fundamental ontology”. Moreover, his suspicious, and even critical attitude towards the ultranationalist regime, highlighted by Yusa Michiko in her philosophical biography, seems nothing compared to the “compromises” with regard to the Third Reich that are often brought up when the German philosopher is mentioned.

6In addition to his explicit criticism of “nationalism” and “imperialism”, Nishida had tried to speak with the Emperor Showa and never participated in the famous conferences organised in 1942 on the subject of “transcending modernity” (近代の超克, kindai no chôkoku), whose aim was to philosophically “justify” Japanese militarism. Furthermore, if such a connection between two Japanese and German philosophers is to be made, it is better to take the example of his academic successor, Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962), a former student of Heidegger, whose “military” commitment was recognised, even though it must be remembered that he was one of the few to repent this type of militarism, which was an understanding concept of his philosophy.

7Furthermore, it must be clarified that, in this respect, it was a case of fresh criticism of the Nishidean theses of Tanabe and Soda Kiichiro (1881-1927), Miki Kiyoshi (1897-1945), Tosaka Jun (1900-1945), from a philosophical, political and social point of view, which gradually formed a complex cloud of thought in the 20th century (that was not widely studied at that time) called “Kyôto School” (京都学派, kyôtogakuha). This school included three generations of around thirty philosophers, among whom included Marxists such as Mutai Risaku (1890-1974). Miki and Tosaka died in prison because of their ideas, and only several people participated in the aforementioned conferences, sometimes with reservations, particularly Watsuji Tetsurô (1889-1960), Nishitani Keiji (1900-1990), Kôsaka Maasaki (1900-1969), Shimomura Toratarô (1902-1995), Kôyama Iwao (1905-1993) and Suzuki Shigetaka (1907-1988).

8In any case, Nishida, the only one in his faculty to still wear the kimono, who was also a poet and calligrapher, and whose private life, on several occasions, mirrored that of a tragedy, having experienced two World Wars, diseases and bereavements in his family, appeared increasingly solitary, lost in his thoughts, readings and calculations than as a founder of school or a Mandarin university. On a trivial note, in his diary, he writes that not being able to stop smoking is to find oneself at the edge of the abyss, pondering over this unfathomable “place”, which runs alongside and blurs the tranquillity of that which is real, in which we “fall” and we find ourselves “trapped”.

9The observer of the “movement of the waves” desperately sought to understand this question of negativity, 無, of the “infinite” – literally meaning “absence of limits” (無限, mugen) in Japanese – in its mathematical, religious and metaphysical context, which refers to old and medieval philosophy, Plotinus, Eckart, Böhme, Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, Leibniz, Cantor, Dedekind, Royce. His problem can be presented as the following: should the idea of an “infinite regression”, of a never-ending chain of cause and effect, principles and consequences, be understood in an aporetic sense, or does it convey a mysterious reality illustrating its infinity, a reality that one must try to understand?

10Does history of contemporary Japanese philosophy not appear as a string of consequences stimulated by the study of Nishidean “nothingness”? Is it not the “flowering” of the narrative or the curious shimmer of an opening that today’s “narrative” philosophies of emeritus professors at the universities of Tokyo and Kyôto, Sakabe Megumi or Hase Shoto’s concept of “transparency” seek to find?

11Since his first piece of work, Nishida declared that nothingness could not be identified with “pure and simple nothingness”, which would be a pure “differentiation” encompassing the opaque, placeless, inexpressible, unthinkable. It is obvious that such an entity itself must be addressed. However, it is not this nothingness that philosophy always illustrates from the fact of “being” (有,), which is captured by language and thought, the logico-linguistic negation of “do not”, or the metaphysical “idea” of nothingness (Bergson).

12It is inevitable that the Buddhist idea of “emptiness” (空,) is at work here. Why then abandon seated meditation so quickly (座禅, zazen) in favour of the most academic kind of university research, leaving behind educated illustrations in order to throw oneself into the obscure and into that which is so unexemplified, to quote philosophers of Kamakura’s period (1185-1333), such as Dôgen (1200-1253) and Shinran (1173-1262), while inciting a conceptual arsenal of Cartesianism, Hegelianism, German idealism, Neo-Kantism, phenomenology, spiritualism and French philosophy of the critical thinking tradition? Moreover, if many of the works shed light on this subterranean relationship that Nishida maintains with Japanese Buddhism, would it not also be advisable to consider his knowledge of Chinese classics further? Would it not also be wise to specify that certain members or close friends of the Kyôto School, such as Suzuki Daisetsu (1870-1966), Hisamatsu Shin’ ichi (1889-1980), Nishitani Keiji have sought much more explicitly than Nishida to achieve an ambitious philosophy of Buddhism, be it Kegon sects, the Pure Land or Zen?

13Against reducing Western philosophy to “ontology”, a doctrine that deals with “what is” and instead, reducing Eastern thinking to an Indian, Chinese and finally Japanese meditation devoted to nothingness, Nishidean metaphysics try to make us understand that “absolute nothingness” (絶刘無, zettaimu) does not become reduced to “non-being” (in Greek: mê on), as opposed to “determined being”, the “being that is” (on). “What is”, i. e. object, individual, idea, is always in a “place” that is spatial, social, psychic, mythical, which “encompasses” it. What Nishida calls the “place” (basho) of absolute nothingness is part of the “withdrawal” operation, which enables a being to reach his or her place and take rest there. To recall the images of Theodore Lipps (1851-1914) and Plato, who he was fond of, it is like the scabbard is an open place, which allows us to sheathe a dagger, or better still, it is like the escape of an animal (nothingness, truth) attracting the hunter’s attention to it (being, philosopher).

14Thus, the problem is not to establish whether the basho is or is not to be thought, said or signified; there is a shift, a relocation that happens in the state of “what is” (what we consider as “the being”), or “what is not” (what we usually understand as “non-being”), taking up its place, and settling in. Whether or not the animal is still living, within reach or vulnerable, its very escape is why the hunter chases it, as if it is “caught” and in its escape that, in this sense, it chases nothingness. In an attempt to make the Nishidean subject clearer, this is why we distinguish “meontology”, which is limited to the study of “nothingness” as “non being”, from “neontology”, which studies this “absolute nothingness” that distinguishes itself by this absolute and incessant operation of “encompassing” (包む, tsutsumu) in a crevice that is formed continuously. For Nishida, reality is none other than this strange place, which loses ground and tumbles down on itself, as if it represented its own “way out”.

15What “evidence” (Sugimura Yasuhiko) do we have of this “gap”, this abyss that seems so unfamiliar to us? Can we not already discover a place for this “emptiness” that fills our physical universe, for this “nothingness” that channels our “amusement” (Pascal), for this oblivion that tries to push our memory aside, for the “nihilism” that invades the poet’s soul, or the philosopher trying to find ways to overcome this nihilism (Nishitani)? We are asserting the negativity, which we find in ourselves when we speak in terms of “clearing our minds”, when we forget our fixed “me” to “awaken selves” (自覚する, jikakusuru) in our abyssal reality from where our creative force springs up, making us switch over from a passive to an active state. When “I” is no longer the “product”, it becomes the centre of a “production”. The “practical” and “poetic” term of this awakening, where no “being” can expose itself to the glare of intuition, constitutes the perfect gesture, an “intuition within action” (行為的直観, kôitekichokkan), that we can illustrate in the domain of martial and fine arts.

16Ultimately, to believe, is to believe in being, strikes Nishida as being this “mistake”, which “overthrows” and “deforms” our translucent perspective towards the “thing itself”, in its original bareness and rawness, towards the thing “so to speak” (そのままに, sonomamani), an “inversion” concealing the opening from us within objects, ideas, sentiments, found in the richness of reality itself.

17The challenges of Nishida’s ventures, having read the works of other philosophers such as Dewey, James and Russell, are not only about revising the history of Western philosophy under its “continental” aspect, in light of the concept of a “place” in the topological sense, nor this astounding attempt that accompanies it to establish new (anti-) metaphysics at the beginning of the third millennium. They cannot avoid a critical dialogue with the theories of the Anglo-Saxon philosophy of the “analytical” tradition. (Frege, Quine, Strawson).

18Since the end of 19th century, philosophy as a whole has become thoroughly involved, along with Nishida and his successors, in a new episteme whose borders remain very much obscure.

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