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Kitar Nishida was born during the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), a period in Japan’s history marked by rapid industrialization and Westernization. Like many of the intellectuals of this time, Nishida was concerned about the pervasiveness of scientific and Western modes of thought; he believed that these fostered in the Japanese people an alienation from nature and traditional cultural values. The result of this alienation, Nishida believed, was a sense of personal meaninglessness and a view of the world as coldly rational and mechanical. This alienation seemingly became concretized in the suicide of an eighteen-year-old student named Fujimura Misao. Fujimura’s suicide was seen, in part, as a protest against modernity’s overrationalization of life and the loss of the mystery of the universe. As a response to this alienation and growing sense of meaninglessness, many Japanese thinkers became critical of the changes brought about by the Meiji Restoration, particularly its importation of Western modes of thought. Nishida, while realizing a return to pre-Meiji perspectives was impossible, sought to reassess these “foreign” ideas in the context of traditional Buddhist thought, particularly in the Zen notion of “absolute nothingness.” He found in absolute nothingness the critical “space” that could include Western thought and science and, more important, ground them in the prescientific insights of Buddhist thought.

A Concern for Unity

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One of the major concerns in Nishida’s work was to articulate a principle of unity underlying the manifold oppositions experienced by the modern individual. His philosophy was in part a response to the rapid industrialization of Japan during the Meiji period; he felt that Western thought and science were supplanting and uprooting long-held religious and cultural traditions. The individual’s place in the world was also being transformed; no longer able to fully believe in traditional religious worldviews, humans were left alienated in a rationalized and scientifically explained universe.

Nishida saw the possibility of formulating a philosophical principle through which the various dichotomies in society and the individual could be “contained.” Because Nishida believed that Western thought and science were inextricably bound to Japanese culture, he felt that the only way to overcome the fragmenting power of modernity was to critically rethink the dualistic assumptions underlying rational and scientific modes of thought. Appropriating various strands of Western metaphysics, critical philosophy, and psychology, Nishida took a synthetic approach in his attempts to construct a unifying principle. This unification of views under a single principle, however, was grounded in the Buddhist tradition, specifically the standpoint of Zen.

Pure Experience

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Nishida took aim at the dualistic assumptions he believed plagued Western thinking. He maintained that the separation between, for example, the subject and object, mind and matter, the unconscious and conscious, were mere constructions abstracted from a unified experience. This experience, Nishida maintained, occurred prior to and formed the basis of these dualities. This unified experience he called “pure experience.” Nishida defined pure experience as the direct perception of phenomena before the occurrence of thoughts, judgments, feelings, and other reactions. It is a state of mind devoid of conceptuality and emotionality. However, this pure experience does not come to an end the moment thoughts and emotions arise. Pure experience is always present as the ground and subtext of all activity.

One of the fundamental criticisms Nishida had of the scientific worldview was the assumption of the subject-object dichotomy: that the observing subject is separate from the material world. For the modern, rational mind, the scientist is viewed as an objective observer who, through the formation of hypotheses and experimentation, uncovers the underlying principles that control the cosmos. What the scientifically oriented society gains by rationalization and thus control of the world, it loses by concealing the mysterious nonrational character of existence.

Nishida’s response to the scientific perspective included the insight that the perception of the world is a unitary phenomenon, that the objectification of nature into a thing to be analyzed presupposes the bare perception of the world. In Nishida’s words, it is not that the individual has experiences, but that (pure) experience makes the individual possible. This bare perception, which is before the separation of experience into subjects and objects, makes science possible and is, therefore, the ground of all scientific and rational thought.

Although pure experience is prior to conceptualization and feeling, Nishida maintains that it is dynamic, not passive. This characterization of pure experience was, in part, a critical response to Western psychological theories. In general, perception was taken to be a passive mode of consciousness, a mere reception of perceived objects, while thinking, judging, and willing were considered the active modes of consciousness. For example, while a person watches a car go by, consciousness first passively receives the image of the car. Subsequent moments of consciousness include the thought, “that is a car,” the judgment, “that car is going too fast,” and the will to do something about it, for example, call the police. Nishida claims that this view assumes, like scientific perspectives, the split between the subject and object. What underlies this division is, again, the unitary phenomenon of pure experience in which the subject, objects, and the so-called events are not separated. The analysis of separate factors of experience is a result of intellectual constructions based on dualistic assumptions and does not accurately represent the way things are.

For Nishida, bare or pure experience, though not characterized by conceptual and emotional activities, is a dynamic process that provides the “space” or “locus” for the interactions of phenomena. Nishida can claim this because for him the irreducible ground of all existence is not some kind of atomic, “material” existence, but rather the “place” within which consciousness perceives phenomena. In other words, consciousness and phenomena are one in that they participate interdependently as different aspects of a singular activity. What is primary for Nishida is the interdependent relation between seemingly oppositional phenomena, not the particular things that interact with each other. To isolate particular phenomena is, for Nishida, an intellectual construct and an abstraction from the dynamic unitary reality he calls direct experience.

Nishida claims that the ultimate or sole reality is just this unified space that contains all oppositions and dualities. Furthermore, he avoids a second-level dichotomy between this “space” and interrelational activity by explaining the paradoxical nature of pure experience as a unity in differentiation and a differentiation in unity. Nishida’s argument runs as follows: Phenomena that seem different—for instance, different colors—are in a logical sense interrelated, because if there were only a singular color (for example, red), there would in fact be no perception of the color red. Furthermore, there would also be no perception of color at all. Phenomena such as color occur, or are perceived, only in the context of opposition; that is to say, the color red is meaningful only in contrast with other colors. The same goes for the phenomenon of motion. Motion occurs only when there are at least three objects, because in the case of a singular object, there is no reference point from which one can judge movement. Even if there were two objects, there is no way to determine which object is moving and which one is not. There must be at least three objects to determine the relative motion or stasis of perceived objects.

Paradoxical Notions and Western Thought

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These kinds of analyses are Nishida’s way of rearticulating traditional East Asian Buddhist concepts in the context of modern modes of thought. Paradoxical notions found in Zen teachings—neither being nor nonbeing, form is emptiness and emptiness is form, and mind is no-mind—provided the foundation for Nishida’s appropriation and overcoming of Western dualistic thinking. In other words, the Buddhistic notion of absolute nothingness provided Nishida with the “place” within which all contradictions and differences could merge and become one.

Nishida does not limit these insights into the paradoxical nature of reality to Eastern thought. He contends that the experiences of God in Christian mysticism are instances of pure experience. Nishida’s discussion about God begins with the common notion that God is an all-powerful creator of the universe who stands outside of creation. He further notes that this notion of God as an external reality is necessary for common explanations of Christian ethics. To the latter notion of ethics Nishida responds by arguing why the necessity of postulating an external, all-powerful being for the establishment of ethics reduces God to a mere expediency. To postulate God in order to ground ethics is putting the cart before the horse. Against the notion of God being an external reality, Nishida asserts that these sorts of God-concepts are “childish” because they are founded on dualistic conceptual constructions. Like all of his criticisms against dualistic thought, Nishida maintains that direct experience is the sole reality, and a true understanding of God happens only on the basis of this direct experience. His interpretations of Christian mystical experience, therefore, point to an intimate and radically subjective experience of God, one that transcends all conceptual activity but is absolutely immanent. God, according to Nishida, is not an external reality but rather the ground of all existence; that is to say, God is absolute nothingness.

Reality and Absolute Nothingness

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If there is no external authority, who demands that humans be moral, what is the basis for ethical activity? Nishida, again grounding his discourse in his notion of direct experience and absolute nothingness, maintains that ethics cannot be based on a dutiful obeying of formal laws of morality or on a morality based on the pleasure principle. The “good,” according to Nishida, is in absolute conformity with ultimate reality, and in order to be truly moral, one must realize this ultimate reality. Another way of saying this is that when the self truly realizes ultimate reality, that is, by abandoning the self-centered standpoint, then reality realizes itself. Thus, ethics is grounded in the actualization of absolute nothingness. This actualization is the true manifestation of the true, the beautiful, and the good, and anything short of this cannot be deemed truly ethical.

The notion that in the realization of reality, reality realizes itself also underlies Nishida’s view of religion. Nishida attacks two views of religion: one that sees religion as a means to benefit one’s circumstances and the other that considers religion as a vehicle for inner peace. Examples of the former include what Nishida considered the childish practice of praying to God or some other higher being for the purpose of bettering one’s lot. The latter includes various kinds of practices that cultivate a passive indifference to life. According to Nishida, both views are similar because they see the purpose of religion as something to benefit humans. Nishida claims the opposite, that the true purpose of the individual is religion. In other words, to be religious means to fully abandon oneself to the religious quest, which requires nothing more than the death of the small or relative self. And yet, in the death of the small self, one actualizes one’s true self, which is none other than pure experience.

Although An Inquiry into the Good did not have the same impact in the West as the works of his student, Keiji Nishitani, Nishida is hailed as one of the most important philosophers of prewar Japan. Furthermore, most young philosophers at the time the book was published in the late Meiji period believed that An Inquiry into the Good accurately articulated the social and, more important, spiritual situation of the Japanese people. It was received enthusiastically as a work that succeeded in overcoming the alienating effects of modernization.


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Additional Reading

Abe, Masao. Introduction to An Inquiry into the Good, by Kitar Nishida. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. Introduces Kitar Nishida’s 1911 work as a creative synthesis of Eastern and Western philosophy. Offers useful clarification of the book’s relation to Zen and philosophy and locates it in the contexts of Nishida’s career and Western thought.

Abe, Masao. “Nishida’s Philosophy of ‘Place.’” The International Philosophical Quarterly 28 (December, 1988): 355-371. Abe’s intended audience is composed of professional philosophers. Nishida’s concept of “place” distinguishes him in the history of philosophy.

Carter, Robert E. The Nothingness Beyond God: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Nishida Kitar. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Paragon House, 1997. A helpful introduction to Nishida’s philosophy.

Knauth, Lothar. “Life Is Tragic—The Diary of Nishida Kitaro.” Monumenta Nipponica 20 (1965): 335-358. A study of Nishida’s life, based on his diary. Discussions of Nishida’s personal and family life, his professional life, his reading interests, and the development of his philosophical ideas are included.

Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York: New Directions, 1968. Contains a chapter introducing Nishida’s philosophy to Westerners. It would be helpful to know something about Western philosophy and have some knowledge of Zen before reading this article.

Nishitani, Keiji. Nishida Kitaro. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Essays on Nishida’s life and thought by a former student and a fellow member of the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy.

Piovesana, Gino K. Recent Japanese Philosophical Thought, 1862-1962: A Survey. Tokyo: Enderle Bookstore, 1963. Contains an essay that introduces Nishida’s thought, with some helpful comments that suggest how to approach the demanding aspects of Nishida’s works. Includes an index and a bibliography.

Piper, Raymond Frank. “Nishida, Notable Japanese Personalist.” Personalist 17 (1936): 21-31. The only English-language article on Nishida written while he was still alive, it is a study of Nishida’s philosophy based on the author’s acquaintance with An Inquiry into the Good.

Shibata, Masumi. “The Diary of a Zen Layman: The Philosopher Nishida Kitaro.” The Eastern Buddhist 14 (1981): 121-131. A study of what can be learned about Nishida’s Zen practice and his thoughts about Zen from the pages of his diary.

Shimomura, Torataro. Introduction to A Study of the Good, by Kitar Nishida. Tokyo: Japanese Government Printing Bureau, 1960. Nishida’s thought is related to the Japanese philosophy that preceded him. This article also contains brief overviews of Nishida’s life and of his later philosophical development.

Viglielmo, Valdo Humbert. “Nishida Kitaro: The Early Years.” In Tradition and Modernization in Japanese Culture, edited by Donald H. Shively. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971. A detailed account of Nishida’s early life, from birth to approximately thirty-three years of age. Viglielmo is a noted Nishida scholar, and this well-written work does nothing to detract from his reputation.