Kitarō Nishida Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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...

(The entire section is 2273 words.)