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Nishida Kitarō's Chiasmatic Chorology: Place of Dialectic, Dialectic of Place

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Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945) is considered Japan's first and greatest modern philosopher. As founder of the Kyoto School, he began a rigorous philosophical engagement and dialogue with Western philosophical traditions, especially the work of G. W. F. Hegel. John W. M. Krummel explores the Buddhist roots of Nishida’s thought and places him in connection with Hegel and other philosophers of the Continental tradition. Krummel develops notions of self-awareness, will, being, place, the environment, religion, and politics in Nishida’s thought and shows how his ethics of humility may best serve us in our complex world.

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1 From Aristotle’s Substance to Hegel’s Concrete Universal: The Development of Nishida’s Dialectic

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CHAPTERS 1 AND 2 consist of preliminary investigations, which I feel are necessary before I embark on a detailed look at the dialectic and its development in Nishida’s oeuvre. In this chapter I look at the development of dialectics in Nishida’s thinking as a response to the two trends of substantialism and dualism that he noticed in Western philosophy. His search for a non-substantialist and non-dualistic alternative is what led him to the dialectical way of thinking. In this development we see him reacting and responding to the ideas of Aristotle and the Neo-Kantians while also struggling with and appropriating alternative notions presented by thinkers such as Henri Bergson, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, William James, and J. S. Haldane. In his search for a non-substantialist and non-dualistic alternative, Nishida turned initially to Hegel’s dialectics and appropriated his concepts and terms. It was through this encounter with Western philosophical theories that Nishida eventually developed his unique theory of basho or “place” in the 1920s. From that notion of place, Nishida then unfolded his dialectical understanding of the world in the 1930s. Nevertheless, in this development of what came to be called “Nishidian philosophy” (Nishida tetsugaku ), we also notice insights that suggest, or at least are commensurable with, ideas of Mahāyāna Buddhism traceable to the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras. To what degree, then, was Nishida a Hegelian, and to what degree is his thinking Mahāyānist?

 

2 Hegelian Dialectics and Mahāyāna Non-dualism

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IN EXAMINING Nishida’s dialectical philosophy, we find insights drawn from both Hegel and Mahāyāna Buddhism. Most conspicuous from the Buddhist tradition is the concept of “nothing” (mu ), and most conspicuous from Hegel is the concrete universal. In the 1950s Ha Tai Kim, for example, took Nishida’s work to be “a synthetic product of Zen and Hegel” that treats Hegelian dialectic in light of Zen Buddhism.1 If Nishida’s dialectic was inspired by both Buddhist and Hegelian thought, how close and compatible are these two ways of thinking? Each in its own way attempts to overcome oppositions and dichotomies. As a preliminary to discussing Nishida’s dialectics vis-à-vis Hegel and Buddhism, in the present chapter I will examine the major dialectical features noticeable in Hegel’s thinking, as well as the non-dualistic notions in the major schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism that may be characterized as “dialectical.” At the end of this chapter I will also consider their compatibility or incompatibility and similarities or differences to lay the groundwork for a more in-depth investigation of Nishida’s dialectics, which draws insight from both of these sources.

 

3 Pure Experience, Self-Awareness, and Will: Dialectics in the Early Works (from the 1910s to the 1920s)

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NOW THAT we have undertaken a preliminary look at the various influences on Nishida’s non-dualism and his dialectics, we are prepared to investigate the dialectical aspects of his thinking in detail. In this and the following chapters, we will examine Nishida’s oeuvre roughly chronologically, so that one can discern the evolution or development of his dialectics from its implicit beginnings to its most pronounced and sophisticated formulations.

As mentioned in the introduction, commentators have divided Nishida’s work into stages or periods in different ways. Even if we accept that Nishida’s fundamental project remained the same throughout his career—to investigate concrete reality before its theoretical bifurcation—we cannot deny that his thinking evolved from work to work as he experimented with different formulations and terminologies. Yet it is not so easy to make clear-cut distinctions of periods in that development because the different formulations and modes of expression that allegedly characterize each stage of his thinking in fact overlap throughout the different stages. Looking at Nishida’s works as a whole, we see the general theme of concrete reality formulated and discussed in different ways, beginning with “pure experience” (junsui keiken ) in the early to mid-1910s and moving to the voluntarism of “the absolute will” (zettai ishi ) and its “self-awareness” (jikaku ) from the late 1910s to the early 1920s, the epistemology of basho or “place” in the mid-to-late 1920s to early 1930s, the concern with the sociohistorical world (shakaiteki rekishiteki sekai ) and the concepts of “absolutely contradictory self-identity” (zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu) and “the dialectical universal” (benshōhōteki ippansha) in the 1930s and 1940s, and finally his interest in “the religious” (shūkyōteki ) discussed in terms of “inverse correspondence” (gyakutaiō) in the mid-1940s. All these different modes of expression have to do with what Nishida viewed as the concrete basis of the real that, while prior to the subject-object dichotomy, also encompasses such oppositional relations and contains the seed for their dialectical development. They all express in different ways what Nishida was convinced of throughout his philosophical life: the concrete un-differentiated foundation of everything, encompassing the many, including opposites and contradictories.

 

4 Dialectics in the Epistemology of Place (from the Late 1920s to the Early 1930s)

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NISHIDA IN THE late 1920s further develops his conceptions of self-differentiation and self-contradiction that we saw under the earlier rubrics of pure experience, self-awareness, and the absolute will. In the essays of the 1920s, compiled in 1927 as Hatarakumono kara mirumono e (; From the Working to the Seeing), we find Nishida breaking through his previous positions in his attempt to develop a theory that overcomes epistemological dualism while precluding any possible psychologistic mistaking of his position. The result is a reformulation of his ideas in terms of what he calls basho or “place.” The implications of this epistemology of place are further worked out in Ippansha no jikakuteki taikei (; The Self-Aware System of Universals) of 1930 and Mu no jikakuteki gentei (; The Self-Aware Determination of Nothing) of 1932. In all three works Nishida further elaborates on the dialectical implications already present in his ideas, moving toward his radical conception of an absolute dialectic (zettai benshōhō ) of the 1930s.

 

5 The Dialectic of the World-Matrix Involving Acting Persons (from the 1930s to the 1940s)

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IN HIS PREFACE to Tetsugaku ronbunshū dai san (; Collected Philosophical Essays, Volume 3) (1939), Nishida states that his philosophical purpose ever since Zen no kenkyū has been to see things from the most direct and fundamental standpoint. To overcome the psychologistic coloring of the concept of pure experience, and through contact mainly with the Southwest school of Neo-Kantianism, he was led during the 1920s, as we saw in chapter 4, to the concept of basho or place. Following his formulation of the epistemology of place in that decade, Nishida extends and further develops the dialectical features of his thinking in the 1930s and 1940s. He describes basho, “the most fundamental and concrete universal,” as a “dialectical universal” (benshōhōteki ippansha ) and an “absolutely contradictory self-identity of many and one” (ta to ichi to no zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu ) (Z8 257). The shift in the 1930s takes us from a look that penetrates through the interior depths of consciousness into its abyssal grounding to a view that in penetrating beyond that interiority lands outside in the world of one’s implacement, wherein one acts. The concept of place almost seems to become eclipsed by the notion of “the sociohistorical world” (shakaiteki rekishiteki sekai ), but the latter is really its external manifestation, an extension of its self-determination. And he still occasionally makes use of the term basho in this sense as world (sekai ). The change here is no theoretical alteration or rejection of his theory of place; rather, it involves a thorough retrieval of the roots of oneself that takes one from the self as knower to the self as actor in the contextual world.

 

6 The Dialectic of the World-Matrix Involving the Dialectical Universal and Contradictory Identity (from the 1930s to the 1940s)

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THROUGHOUT THE 1930s Nishida analyzes the overall dialectical structure of the historical world and the interrelationships involved therein in the various terms of absolute negation (or self-negation) (zettai hitei , jiko hitei ), the continuity of discontinuity (hirenzoku no renzoku ), absolutely contradictory self-identity (zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu ), and the self-determination of absolute nothing (zettai mu ) and of the absolute present (zettai genzai ). Through these formulations that may, at first sight, seem abstract, Nishida attempts to portray systematically, in a kind of “logic” (ronri ), the dialectical complexity of the concretely real, that is, the world as involving the manifold interrelationships between its oneness and manyness, its universality and individuals. This complex inter-dimensionality of the world as a dialectical matrix, moreover, is depicted in its vast cosmic significance as an infinite space-time matrix. In this chapter I will examine these dialectical formulations of what Nishida takes to be the logical structuring of the world, place in its dialectical unfolding qua world.

 

7 The Dialectic of Religiosity (the 1940s)

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WHAT NISHIDA CALLS “religion” (shūkyō ) was a concern from the beginning of his writing career and was already an issue underlying his discussions of pure experience, epistemology, interpersonal relations, and the historical world. But Nishida fully develops the explicitly dialectical aspects of “religiosity,” in its connection with the world-matrix, only in the last period of his oeuvre, during the mid-1940s up to his death. One might say that his attempt to answer this question of religion in relation to the dialectical matrix marks the apex of all his philosophical efforts. We find the first obvious attempt on Nishida’s part to establish such a dialectic of religion vis-à-vis the world-dialectic in his 1944 essay “Yoteichōwa o tebiki to shite shūkyōtetsugaku e” (; “Toward a Philosophy of Religion with Pre-established Harmony as Guide”). And his 1945 essay “Bashoteki ronri to shūkyōteki sekaikan” (; “The Logic of Place and the Religious Worldview”), which was his last completed work before his death, recaps and summarizes the main ideas of his philosophical lifework, especially ideas developed from the 1920s and 1930s concerning judgment and knowledge, the historical world, and the nothing, while relating them to that ultimate question of religion. Nishida’s appropriation of religious ideas—both of the East and of the West, that is, Buddhism and Christianity—while developing his dialectic of religiosity is most noticeable in these two essays of the mid-1940s, both included at the end of the final volume of his Tetsugaku ronbunshū (; Philosophical Essays), published in 1945. In these works we see Nishida striving to discern what the essence of religion is while focusing on the theme we saw earlier of death and finitude in the contradiction of human existence. It is important to realize here that by “religion” Nishida thus has in mind something quite specific. It has to do with an existential sense of self-contradiction in the tension of life-and-death or the impermanence one feels in the depths of self-awareness. Religious awareness means the knowledge of one’s own death, self-negation as constitutive of one’s identity, whereby “I am myself by knowing my own death” (Z10 333). What religions call “God” or “absolute,” then, for Nishida is what that finite self immediately faces in those depths of self-awareness, that is, the alterity of the source of being and knowing, the wherein in which we find ourselves always already, always in excess of our attempts at conceptual reduction. On that basis religion becomes man’s relationship to that source or ground of reality. In Nishida’s terms this is a place delimited by nothing. Nishida unpacks all of this with a further exposition of his dialectic in relation to religion. In this chapter I will discuss the dialectic we find in both works, and some others, from this period.

 

8 Nishida and Hegel

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NOW THAT we have discussed the dialectic in each period of Nishida’s oeuvre in detail, we are prepared to look more directly at the issue of Nishida’s relationship to Hegel and to Mahāyāna Buddhism. We are also prepared to give a general assessment of his philosophical work, in its so-called dialectical aspect, in light of its unique stance as more than merely Hegelian or merely Buddhist. Finally, I would like to address some questions about Nishida’s dialectics in regard to the kind of terminology or language Nishida employs and in regard to what the dialectic of place may have to offer us today in the context of a globalizing world. This and the following chapters will cover these issues. Stylistically they may differ from the previous chapters in that philosophically they will be more ambitious. In this chapter we look at the relationship of Nishida’s dialectic to Hegel’s dialectic, and in chapter 9 we look at its relationship to Buddhist Mahāyāna ideas of non-duality. But because this necessitates a discussion of his dialectical theory of religion in general, we will also look into his reading and incorporation of Christianity. In chapter 10 I develop Nishida’s dialectical philosophy in terms of “chiasmatic chorology” on the basis of the chiasma and the chōra as the matter (Sache) of his thinking. This is where our reading of Nishida will move beyond traditional exegesis and bring him into the light of contemporary philosophical issues, especially of Continental philosophy. This will also lead us to raise the issue of Nishida’s appropriation of the philosophical terminology of nineteenth-century German philosophy, primarily that of Hegel’s dialectics. To what extent does that terminology adequately express what he was thinking? Is there a better way to express the matter of his thought so that it will speak to us in our contemporary philosophical context? In chapter 11 I will tackle that issue of the language of Nishida’s dialectic, as well as of its logic and the meaning of “contradiction.” I will end my discussion with a look into where Nishida positioned his dialectical thought in relation to the world context, especially in terms of the geo-politics in which he found himself at that time. What might we derive or extract from it in light of our contemporary situation in the global world? This will allow us to make an assessment of what Nishida’s work has to offer us today. The reader must therefore be forewarned that while parts 1 and 2 were more expository, the chapters in part 3, especially chapter 10, will be more original and challenging.

 

9 Nishida, Buddhism, and Religion

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NISHIDA THROUGHOUT HIS philosophical career, as I have already mentioned, was concerned with what he called the “religious” (shūkyōteki ) or “religiosity” (shūkyōsei ). At the beginning of his philosophical career he wrote in his preface to Zen no kenkyū (; An Inquiry into the Good) that religion is “the end [shūketsu ] of philosophy” (Z1 6). For Nishida, religion is the dimension referring to the deep contradiction one feels in the depths of one’s existence. It has to do with the fact of one’s implacement within and on an endless openness and bottomless abyss while encountering one’s own annihilation, death. According to one commentator, the statement that “religion is the end of philosophy” means that “philosophy ends in religion, or returns to religion.”1 Nishida did not, however, fully develop this issue thematically until his final works in the 1940s. In general, before the 1940s, we find Nishida somewhat reserved in referring to religious texts, especially those of the Eastern traditions, in contrast to the Western philosophical sources he frequently cited. Nevertheless, both Kyoto School followers and Western disciples of Nishida have repeatedly pointed to a “Buddhist metaphysic,” reformulated in the language of Western philosophy, hidden within Nishida’s formulations. Although it may be too simplistic to read Nishida’s entire project as nothing but a modernized version of Mahāyāna metaphysics, I think that any serious student of Eastern thought would recognize Mahāyānist components in Nishida’s dialectical thinking. They are there even before the final essays of the 1940s, in which Nishida acknowledges more openly some sort of connection. We can find references throughout his career to classical Buddhist texts, such as the Diamond Sūtra and the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras in general, the Rinzairoku, and the Mumonkan, and to Buddhist thinkers like Shinran, Nansen, Rinzai, Daitō Kokushi, Dōgen, and others.

 

10 The Chiasma and the Chōra

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ON THE BASIS of the previous two chapters one might surmise the inadequacy of Nishida’s appropriation of Hegelian (and, in general, nineteenth-century German philosophical) terminology to capture the content of what he strove to express. The matter that he attempted to expound through the language of dialectical philosophy slips away from its structure, ex-ploding beyond any bounds erected to systematize it. But neither would simply repeating the paradoxical and parabolic modes of traditional Zen discourse be satisfying philosophically. The two aspects of Nishida’s thinking that I think confound traditional metaphysical discourse despite the fact that they are essential to his mature philosophy are what I call the “chiasmatic” aspect of, or implied in, his so-called dialectic (benshōhō ) on the one hand, and the chōra that embraces or enfolds it while expressing itself in it, on the other. Combining these two terms, I will take the liberty in the following of presenting Nishida’s mature philosophy, what he calls his “absolute dialectic” (zettai benshōhō ), as a “chiasmatic chorology” in an attempt to better characterize the real matter of his thinking and to suggest that therein lies Nishida’s philosophical contribution that makes his work more than a mere appropriation or development of Hegelian dialectics or Mahāyāna non-dualism. I argue that it is because of its chiasmatic and chōratic nature that the Sache he strove to capture and express through the language of dialectical philosophy perpetually slips away from any systemic bounds.1

 

11 Concluding Thoughts, Criticism, and Evaluation

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Now THAT we have discussed in detail Nishida’s dialectic, in this final chapter I would like to conclude this work with some evaluation and assessment of Nishida’s dialectical philosophy. I ask two challenging questions: (1) To what extent is the language (or terminology) Nishida employed adequate for expressing the matter of his thinking? (2) What does Nishida’s thinking have to offer us today? I will discuss the first question in relation to the issues of logic and dialectics in Nishida and the second question in relation to modernity and the contemporary situation of globalization.

Nishida’s theory of place seeks to provide a philosophical glimpse of the concrete standpoint we all live and experience as always already, the ever-implicit wherein of our implacement. Yet this is also the wherein from which we inevitably “fall from grace”—or at least distance ourselves—in the act of reflecting on it. Perhaps this attempt to philosophically formulate the inexpressably concrete is one of the attractions of Nishida’s thought. The attempt makes us aware of our finitude and contingency. This brings up the issue of Nishida’s mode of presenting that concrete. To what extent is it viable? One might say that one point of Mahāyāna Buddhist practice, such as Zen, is to experience concrete reality in its non-dual or contradictory nature, unmediated by conceptual thought. Paradoxically, Nishida strives to articulate the un-articulable, to speak about what cannot be spoken, to discursively bring the concrete to expression. While telling us to look for it in the direction of the predicate since it cannot be made into a subject of judgment, Nishida cannot help but speak of it himself, treating it as the subject of discussion. Does his mode of locution succeed in portraying that ineffable sphere? This question may be raised more succinctly in regard to the metaphysical and epistemological terminologies he appropriates, especially from nineteenth-century German philosophy—most notably, that of the Neo-Kantians and of Hegel. This includes the conceptual schemata of the universal-individual relationship or of the concrete universal, the logic of contradiction, and the language of a dialectic. Do these terms and phrases do justice to the matter of Nishida’s thinking? My concern here is not whether Nishida adequately understood those German philosophers. The point is whether his appropriation of their terms and concepts—Hegelian dialectics, the epistemological hylo-morphism of the Neo-Kantians, or even the noesis-noema scheme of Husserl from the early twentieth century—fits what he wanted to express.

 

Lexicon of Key Non-English Terms

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Chan : Zen (Jp.): East Asian school of Mahāyāna Buddhism emphasizing meditation. The name comes from the abbreviation of the Chinese transliteration (channa ) of the Sanskrit dhyāna for “meditation.”

chifei : is/not, is and is-not, affirmation-yet-negation, sokuhi (Jp.)

dao : way, (Jp.)

fajie : realm of truth/reality, dharmadhātu (Skrt.), hokkai (Jp.)

Huayan : Kegon (Jp.): East Asian school of Mahāyāna Buddhism emphasizing the interpenetration of all and based on the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. The name comes from the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit avataṃsaka for “flower garland.”

kong : emptiness, (Jp.), śūnyatā (Skrt.)

li : patterning, patternment, ri (Jp.)

lishi wuai : non-obstruction between thing-events and their patternings, riji muge (Jp.)

San-lun : Sannron (Jp.): a Chinese school of Buddhism based on Madhyamaka

 

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