Kitarō Nishida

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2273

Article abstract: Nishida created a highly original and distinctive philosophy, based upon his thorough assimilation of both Western philosophy and methodology and the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Early Life

Kitarō Nishida was born on June 17, 1870, in the Mori section of the village of Unoke in Ishikawa Prefecture, located near Kanazawa on the Sea of Japan. He was the eldest son, the middle child out of five. Nishida’s family moved to Kanazawa in 1883. There Nishida entered the local school, the prefectural normal school, which boasted an enterprising Western-style school system. Typhus forced his withdrawal from the school one year later, and he studied privately with several teachers for the next two years. In July, 1886, Nishida entered the middle school attached to the Ishikawa Prefectural College. After completing his preparatory work there, Nishida entered the Fourth Higher School in July, 1889. While attending the Fourth Higher School, Nishida lived in the home of the mathematician Hōjō Tokiyoshi. His interest in Zen Buddhism, of which his mathematics teacher was an adept, dates to this period of his life.

Despite the urging of Hōjō that he become a mathematician, Nishida specialized in philosophy. He left the Fourth Higher School shortly before his graduation in 1890. The circumstances surrounding his departure remain mysterious. Lack of formal graduation from high school forced Nishida to enter the philosophy department of Tokyo Imperial University as a special student in September of 1891. There he was exposed to contemporary European thought. Nishida graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in 1894. He encountered difficulties in finding employment because of his irregular academic background and was unemployed for nearly a full year after graduation. He took a room in the house of a painter named Tokuda Kō; during this time he wrote a study of Thomas Hill Green, a British Hegelian. He then obtained a position with a meager salary at a prefectural middle school on remote Noto Peninsula.

Nishida married the daugher of Tokuda Kō, Tokuda Kotomi, in May of 1895. His first daughter, Yayoi, was born in March of 1896. Together, Nishida and Kotomi had eight children: six daughters and two sons. Shortly after his marriage, Nishida’s religious interests deepened. Upon returning to Kanazawa in 1896 to take a teaching position at the Fourth Higher School, Nishida began Zen meditation. A diary begun in 1897 provides an account of his rigorous introspective regimen. This spiritual discipline intensified in 1897 to 1899, when Nishida was alone in Yamaguchi, separated from his wife as a result of a serious disagreement with his father.

Life’s Work

After teaching as a part-time professor at Yamaguchi Higher School from 1897 to 1899, Nishida returned to teach again at the Fourth Higher School in Kanazawa. There he taught psychology, ethics, German, and logic for ten years, from 1899 to 1909; at this time, he developed the basic philosophical views that he would broaden and deepen for the rest of his life but never abandon. In addition to teaching, Nishida was active in establishing extracurricular literary groups. His most ambitious project was the establishment of a student residence and study center called San San Juku. San San Juku served as a meeting place for students to discuss problems of religion and literature with invited lecturers from various religious sects and denominations. This institution became a lasting part of the Fourth Higher School in Kanazawa.

In January of 1907, Nishida’s daughter, Yūko, died of bronchitis. In June of that same year, another daughter, only one month old, died. Nishida himself fell sick. In the face of these tragedies, Nishida spurred himself toward greater self-reliance. He also disciplined himself to increase the level of his intellectual output. The fruit of this discipline was the publication of his first book, An Inquiry into the Good, in January of 1911. Nishida’s lifelong concern was to provide a Western philosophical framework for Zen intuition. An Inquiry into the Good launched this project. It included a theory of reality, a study of ethics, and the skeleton of a philosophy of religion. One of Nishida’s most central philosophical concepts, that of “pure experience,” is introduced in this first major work. Nishida defines “pure experience” as direct experience without deliberative discrimination and without the least addition of one’s own fabrications. Unlike many practitioners of Zen, Nishida does not give the impression of being anti-intellectual. “Pure experience” is not in opposition to thought and intellect but rather lies at the base of all the oppositions produced by the mind, such as those of subject and object, body and mind, and spirit and matter. Nishida was inspired by the American philosopher William James and found in French philosopher Henri Bergson a kindred spirit, but if he borrowed anything from either, it became thoroughly assimilated into his own philosophy. The publication of An Inquiry into the Good in 1911 was hailed as an epoch-making event in the introduction of Western philosophy into Japan. The academic world perceived it to be the first truly original philosophic work by a Japanese thinker in the modern period (which began in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration). All prior attempts at combining traditional Japanese thought with Western philosophy had been patently eclectic.

Following one year at Gakushūin University in Tokyo, Nishida was appointed assistant professor of ethics at Kyoto Imperial University in 1910. In August of 1914, he was relieved from his chair of ethics in the Faculty of Letters and called to the first chair of the history of philosophy in the philosophy department of the University of Kyoto. There he taught until his retirement in 1928. Many brilliant students flocked to his classes. Together with Hajime Tanabe, he established what has come to be known as the Kyoto, or Nishida-Tanabe, School of philosophy. Around 1910, Nishida’s philosophy was influenced by his study of Bergson and the German Neo-Kantians, especially Wilhelm Windelband, Heinrich Rickert, and Hermann Cohen. His thorough assimilation of the logical epistemology of Neo-Kantian transcendentalism and his own critique of its fundamental principles enabled Nishida to discover a deeper significance in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and the transcendental method of German idealism. This achievement enabled him to bring his earlier concept of “pure experience” to a higher level. In his second major work, Intuition and Reflection in Self-Consciousness, Nishida strove to eliminate psychologism from his thinking. In this work, he defined the ultimate character of self-consciousness as “absolute free will.” “Absolute free will,” when genuine, transcends reflection. It cannot be reflected upon, for it is that which causes reflection.

In August of 1918, Nishida’s mother died; disaster struck again when his wife, Kotomi, suffered a brain hemorrhage in September of 1919. Kotomi was paralyzed for the remaining six years of her life. In June of 1920, Nishida’s eldest son, Ken, died of peritonitis at the age of twenty-two. During the next several years, three more of his daughters fell ill with typhus. In January of 1925, Kotomi died after a prolonged period of suffering. She was fifty years old. Nishida’s diary reveals that these personal tragedies affected him deeply. Nevertheless, he disciplined himself to maintain his philosophical activity. His next two works, Ishiki no mondai (the problem of consciousness) and Art and Morality, offered progressive refinements of the concepts of “pure experience” and “absolute free will.”

The epoch-making Hataraku mono kara miru mono e (from that which acts to that which sees) formulates the concept of basho no ronri (“logic of place”). It is Nishida’s notion of “place” and his “logic of place” that distinguish him in the history of philosophy. In this work, he discusses a realm of reality that corresponds to his own mystical experience. Indeed, with his concept of place, Nishida provided a conceptual and logical framework for a philosophical position that is usually categorized as mysticism in the West. According to Nishida, the “true self” is revealed in the “place” of “absolute nothingness.” The concept of “absolute nothingness” has clear roots in Buddhist tradition. This “nothingness” is not relative nothingness, nothingness as contrasted with phenomenal existence; rather, it is absolute nothingness, wherein all phenomenal existences appear as determinations of it. “Absolute free will” emerges from creative nothingness and returns to creative nothingness.

Retirement from his teaching position at the University of Kyoto in 1928 did not slow Nishida’s productive pace. His postretirement works include Ippansha no jikakuteki taikei (the self-conscious system of universals), Mu no jikakuteki gentei (the self-conscious determination of nothingness), Fundamental Problems of Philosophy, and Tetsugaku ronbunshū I-VII (philosophical essays). In the last stage of his philosophical development, Nishida was concerned with “the self-identity of absolute contradiction,” or “the unity of opposites.” This concept was discovered through his investigation of the relationship between the self and the world. Nishida used this concept to probe what he considered to be one of the fundamental problems of a philosophy of religion: the contradictions of an existence in which the satisfaction of desire means the extinction of desire and in which the will makes its own extinction its goal. These contradictions undergird religious experience, for it is only in the awareness of the absolute contradictoriness and nothingness of the self’s existence that human beings are able to touch God and the absolute.

Nishida’s first grandchild was born in October of 1928. He married again in December of 1931; his second wife’s name was Koto. For perhaps the first time in his life, Nishida’s family life became serene. The retired professor enjoyed the visits of his children and grandchildren immensely. There were no further deaths in the family until February of 1945, when his favorite daughter, Yayoi, died suddenly. Nishida found World War II to be a profoundly distressing event. He managed, however, to continue his philosophical writings at his home in Kamakura despite the destruction in Tokyo and other major Japanese cities. He died suddenly in early June of 1945, only two months before Japan’s surrender.


Nishida is widely recognized as the first genuinely original Japanese philosopher of the modern period. He departed from the eclecticism of his predecessors and almost single-handedly created an indigenous Japanese philosophy. His true significance will probably not be determined until a comprehensive, global history of modern ideas is written: He is the only Japanese philosopher of recent times around whom a philosophical school has been formed. Most of the leading philosophers of twentieth century Japan were influenced by him, either as a result of being his students or through assimilation of his thought.

Since the late 1950’s, Nishida’s works have become known outside Japan. Although his thought has been severely criticized by Marxist and other antimetaphysical thinkers, on the whole Nishida’s philosophy has been favorably received by the Western world. He is recognized as one of the first philosophers to offer a system that transcends the distinctions between Eastern and Western philosophy. He is further credited with having given Asian thought a logical foundation with his “logic of nothingness.”

Additional Reading

Abe, Masao. Introduction to An Inquiry into the Good, by Kitarō Nishida. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. Introduces Kitarō 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 Kitarō. 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 Kitarō 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.

Bibliography updated by William Nelles

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