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

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

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...

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Paradoxical Notions and Western Thought

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

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...

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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”...

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