A Different Kind of Philosophy

“The one is self-contradictorily composed of the many, and the many are self-contradictorily one. The world can be viewed in two directions – the double aperture – and its unity is not the unity of oneness, as the mystic would likely express it, but the unity of self-contradiction. It is both one and many; changing and unchanging; past and future in the present. Nishida’s dialectic has as its aim the preservation of the contradictory terms, yet as a unity … This is the logic of soku, or sokuhi – the absolute identification of the is, and the is not. In symbolic representation: A is A; A is not-A; therefore A is A. I see the mountains. I see that there are no mountains. Therefore I see the mountains again, but as transformed. And the transformation is that the mountains both are and are not mountains. That is their reality.” (Robert E Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God -An Introduction to the Philosophy of Nishida Kitaro,  58)

The Kyoto School of Philosophy

Professor Nishida among students and university staff
at Kyoto Imperial University around 1913

Founded in 1897, Kyoto Imperial University sought to distinguish itself from the older Tokyo Imperial University by “designing a unique curriculum and adopting an unconventional method of hiring professors … they chose to hire men of talents far beyond the confines of academic walls … a policy of “identifying talents in the wild.” (Michiko Yusa, Zen & Philosophy – An Intellectual Biography of Nishida, Kitaro, 117). Nishida joined its College of Humanities in 1910, and in 1913-1914 was appointed full professor first in the study of religion, then in the very first chair for the history of philosophy. Nishida had a strong personal presence as a teacher, thinking aloud as he paced the floor back and forth, and exerted a cult-like fascination on his students. 1911 saw the publication of his first  work, An Inquiry into the Good, which, Yusa says, “had the effect of a small stone thrown into a calm pond.” (Yusa, Ibid, 128). A reprint in 1921 turned it into a best seller. Though not easy reading, a large audience of Japanese readers resonated with Nishida’s inquiry. By then, the department of philosophy at Kyoto University had displaced that of Tokyo as the best in Japan, and a regular circle of students had begun to meet with Professor Nishida, often at his own house, for passionate discussions. Out of this circle, a number of gifted and like-minded philosophers emerged to form what came to be known as the Kyoto School. Though their works, now covering three generations, are diverse, they can be said to have followed in Nishida’s footsteps as they all gave a central place to nothingness.

Lofty Mt Lu (1467) – Shen Zhou (Ming Dynasty)

Following the treaty the US had imposed on Japan, which compelled it to open up its borders to trade, a rapid westernization of the country took place under the leadership of the restored emperor during what has been called the Meiji Restoration. Born in 1870, that is, two years after the restoration, the young Nishida received an education still based on the traditional study of Chinese Classics. His first encounter with the West came through the study of mathematics. He eventually chose to study Western philosophy at Tokyo Imperial University. Before embarking on his own philosophical inquiry, however, he engaged in a decade-long Zen practice. In other words, Nishida was pretty much a man of the East, and what this meant is that he shared the Eastern apprehension of reality as an embodied experience of change as life arises out of nothingness to give shape to phenomena. He was also convinced that this view of reality, though primarily experiential, could be articulated in the language of Western philosophy, though Western philosophy had been developed on the assumption that reality is “being,” with nothingness defined as an absence of being. Nishida sought to ensure that what has been called “Asian nothingness” remained accessible to later generations of Japanese, in spite of the westernization process they would have gone through. To be sure, the Buddha himself had tried to reformulate the Indian subcontinent’s native spirituality in the language and mode of thinking of Brahmanism, and it had not been easy for him to express his core teaching of anatman “no-own being” in a philosophical language based on being.

The trouble with Aristotle

In many ways, Nishida was faced with the exact same problem. The philosophy he had learned as a student was also based on the Indo-European ontological mode of thinking. The difference, however, was that, over the centuries, and especially after going through the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, the ontological philosophical mode of thinking had reinvented itself several times. Idealism, which had been the dominant school, deriving its name from Plato’s “Ideas,” equated “being” with abstract “Forms” transcending reality as experienced by the senses. With Aristotle, the being of a thing was defined through the superimposition of a name which was a universal, and could not, therefore, truly express the uniqueness of the particular thing given in experience.  Idealism had later been redefined by Kant as the notion that we can never see reality as it is, we can only see it as shaped by the structures of our minds. And Hegel had already gone beyond Aristotle’s emphasis on the principle of non-contradiction when he described reality as unfolding through a process of contradiction with a thesis, an anti-thesis, and a synthesis, which resolved the contradiction and recovered a unified view. Even more significantly for Nishida, a group of philosophers calling themselves empiricists, had started to rebel against idealism itself – the notion that the really  real is a mind-based abstraction – and was calling for a return to experience. Nishida read William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1904, and Henri Bergson’s works soon after. Reality as an experienced, concrete, embodied apprehension of the world by the heart-mind, was precisely the way the East had always understood reality.

The heartmind

A lot has been written about this particular way the East approaches reality from a standpoint of xin (Japanese kokoro), the heartmind, where the world is felt, intuited, originally even divined, more than it is analysed, a procedure which involves a cutting up of the world into parts which are later rearranged into a meaningful system. It has been suggested that the use of ideogrammes which retain the shape of the things used as images, in contrast to the European use of alphabets based on sounds – phonics – helped preserve a concrete grasp of reality in China. Another reason behind the difference between the Eastern and Western modes of thinking may be the East’s comparatively gentler inclusion of native spiritualities, using shamanic ecstasy, divination, and intuition, in other words, lunar consciousness, seeking “in-sights” rather than drawing sharp boundaries, in contrast with the much more aggressive prohibition of all things pagan in the West, and its strong assertion of solar consciousness, insisting on clarity and meaning. Nishida shared this Eastern experiential apprehension of reality, and saw it as akin to the return to “direct, or pure, experience” James and Bergson were calling for. He then equated the Zen state of no-mind as experience of facts “just as they are.” In his own words: “To experience means to know facts just as they are, to know in accordance with facts by completely relinquishing one’s own fabrications … by pure I am referring to the state of experience just as it is without the least addition of deliberative discrimination.” (Nishida, An Inquiry into the Good, 3). That, at the same time, amounted to doing philosophy from the standpoint of nothingness so, definitely, a different kind of philosophy, since philosophy in its Greek and European forms, approaches reality from the standpoint of being.

The standpoint of nothingness


But doesn’t “no-mind” mean “no-thought”? Is it possible to do philosophy from the standpoint of nothingness? Well, one of the first assertions Nishida makes is that “pure experience includes thinking.” (Nishida, Ibid, 17). Unless we are newborns with an undifferentiated consciousness, we do see “things.” Things appear to us when given a name, so whatever we see is by definition the product of the mental activity of naming. What Nishida called “fabrications” and “deliberative discrimination” referred to mental elaborations rooted in attachment to ego and the confused ruminations the ego is thrown into when trying to defend itself! What “nothingness” really means is a  non-attachment to form which allows us to see things as they are, without ego-based distortion. We are thus able to let the flow of life take place, and the “natural” dynamism of the formless manifest as forms, without trying to interfere, grasp, or reject. We have to be empty in that sense in the present moment, and resonate with reality as it unfolds. By contrast, philosophy as done in the West reifies reality into an order whose operating system, as it were, is causality. In the Principle of Reason, Heidegger elucidates Leibniz’s “Nihil est sine ratione,” – “nothing is without a reason,” as “nothing is without a cause” adding, of course it is, since what “is” has been defined from the start as what has a cause! The tautology has substantialized what being is. In a nutshell, if you take Einstein’s assertion that matter and energy are one and the same reality seen from two different perspectives, the West has chosen the perspective of matter – a solid substantial world which one seeks to control – and the (ancient) East has chosen the perspective of energy – a flowing dynamic reality which one allows oneself to flow with, interact with, adjust to, so that one lives with it as if borne by it.

The double aperture – things are and are not, they are “lined with nothingness”

Nishida’s intuition was that the standpoint of nothingness was not merely another perspective on reality. It was a deeper standpoint which embraced the standpoint of being in the way the cosmic order embraces human existence and activity. To show this convincingly, he used the language of philosophy, and presented a fuller picture of reality by showing that what he came to call the “logic of the place of nothingness” embraced “object logic,” that is, Aristotle’s logic, based on the laws of reason. More specifically, he showed that what he calls the “logic of self-contradictory identity” is valid at a deeper level of reality than Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction. So his logic was not, as such, a challenge to Aristotle’s logic, which remained correct at the level of ordinary practical life. Again, the relation between the two is reminiscent of that between quantum physics, whose laws hold at the level of the infinitely small, and traditional Newtonian physics, which we still use in our everyday lives.

Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction asserts that A is A, and cannot be at the same time not-A. Obvious enough, isn’t it? That is what Nishida calls “object logic.” This is the sort of logic which one finds operating at the level of ordinary consciousness, where things are seen as objects seemingly displayed on a screen in front of us. At a deeper level, Nishida argues, reality arises according to the “logic of the place of nothingness,” which he characterises as “self-contradictory identity,” – in Japanese zettai mujunteki jikodoitsu, which means literally “the self-identity of absolute contradictories.”(Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God, 61). “Unity of opposites” is less of a mouthful and can be used as shorthand for what is a logical reformulation of the Buddhist doctrine of co-dependent origination. All things arise co-dependently as pairs of opposites: I get to know what “long” is at the same time as I get to know what “short” is, that is, I know A as not A, but at the same time A owes its existence to its opposite “not A.”

View of Ama-no-Hashidate – Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506)

In his presentation of Nishida’s thought, Robert Carter uses the well-known Qingyuan Weixin Chinese epigram to explain self-contradictory identity:

Thirty years ago, before I began the study of Zen, I said, ‘Mountains are mountains, waters are waters.’
After I got an insight into the truth of Zen through the instruction of a good master, I said, ‘Mountains are not mountains, waters are not waters.’
But now, having attained the abode of final rest [that is, Awakening], I say, “Mountains are really mountains, waters are really waters.’

In the first line, ordinary consciousness posits mountains and waters as objects whose existence I do not normally question. But after learning that things only appear when given a name, I come to see them as just shapes drawn by the mind in an otherwise undifferentiated oneness. When you get to the 3rd line, which is the view of enlightened consciousness, it is clear that mountains and waters, though really empty of being, are the phenomenal forms I live my life with – I do not live my life in undifferentiated oneness. Though they are experientially real, since mountains and waters are still “empty of own being,” my life with these empty forms is indeed a life lived in emptiness.

Robert E Carter explains self-contradictory identity as follows: “The one is self-contradictorily composed of the many, and the many are self-contradictorily one. The world can be viewed in two directions – the double aperture – and its unity is not the unity of oneness, as the mystic would likely express it, but the unity of self-contradiction. It is both one and many; changing and unchanging; past and future in the present. Nishida’s dialectic has as its aim the preservation of the contradictory terms, yet as a unity … This is the logic of soku, or sokuhi – the absolute identification of the is, and the is not. In symbolic representation: A is A; A is not-A; therefore A is A. I see the mountains. I see that there are no mountains. Therefore I see the mountains again, but as transformed. And the transformation is that the mountains both are and are not mountains. That is their reality.” (Ibid , 58).

Having said that reality as self-contradictory is not a direct challenge to Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction, I have to add now, that since Nishida asserts that the former is more fundamental than the latter – since it encompasses and includes the latter -, he is still advocating it as truer, because more complete, than the latter. Aristotle’s non-contradiction posits that the mountains are. Nishida’s unity of opposites show that the mountains are and are not mountains. They are, but they are also “lined with nothingness.”

The logic of the place of nothingness as a religious worldview


Nishida’s last work is called “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview.” Some readers may have felt uneasy about Nishida’s assimilation of the empiricists’ quest for direct experience – a quasi-scientific investigation of reality – with the Zen state of no-mind, which  is also that of Buddhist enlightenment, that is, a spiritual state of realisation said to be only achieved by a few. Nishida’s last work confirms that the view of reality as self-contradictory is indeed the religious worldview. It is, more precisely, the religious worldview as understood in the East, where religion is not a matter of belief in a set of scriptures, but a practice leading to an inner transformation allowing us to apprehend reality in an enlightened way. This does not, however, imply that only fully enlightened individuals can understand it. Dedicating oneself to a practice leading to enlightenment allows what is originally a mere intellectual grasp of the logic of self-contradictory identity to grow into a lived view of reality through the “double aperture,” both real and unreal, or “real in its unreality.”

Enlightenment is rarely a big flash of realisation, but much more often a long process of maturation. Basically, to be religious is to dwell in the standpoint of nothingness, in the present moment, again and again emptying oneself of one’s (ego-)self, until one actually “forgets” one’s self – which triggers empathetic coalescence with all beings: not being one’s self, one can be all beings and all things.

And from that standpoint of nothingness, free of bias, one can see “things as they are” and one can do “what needs to be done.” Thus, all individuals are called upon to co-express the formless into the world of forms, from the standpoint of no-self. No-self, correctly understood, means that the self is not a “thing,” it can never be seen as an object – whether a soul or an organ -, at the most, it could be called a “function”. Nishida describes it as the activity of consciousness, as it allows the self-determination of the formless into forms. So, the true self is the activity giving form to the formless.

In Nishida’s words: “the self is to be understood as existing in that dynamic dimension wherein each existential act of consciousness, as a self-expressive determination of the world, simultaneously reflects the world’s self-expression within itself and forms itself through its own self-expression.” (Nishida, An Inquiry into the Good, 64)

Now, is religion as understood in the West all that different? When described as a belief in a higher authority – whose utterances are recorded in sacred books – it appears to be little more than a medium to ensure social cohesion through a submission of individual wills to the higher authority of a revealed truth. It is in no way a practice allowing individuals to achieve the standpoint of nothingness from which they can have direct access to the truth – i.e., see things as they are. Nishida, however, sees a common ground between all religions. A large part of Nishida’s last work is a reflection on Christianity, where he regularly uses the word God, usually as another name for nothingness. For him, it is easy to see that in Judaeo-Christian religions, surrender to a higher being is the means used to allow individuals to realise the state of no-self – the small ego-self is replaced by the higher being, whose will one submits to. This approach is called that of “other power,” and is also found in the Buddhist Pure Land School, which most Japanese belong to. Zen is said to belong to the “own power” approach, meaning that one realises – knows and appropriates – the fact that there is no such thing as an (individual) self. But, Nishida adds, Zen no-self is not really “own power” since “own power” presupposes a self as the source of that power! Only when it negates itself does the self can be said to have power, and at that point it is not a self. It is a no-self which, as we saw, is really an activity seemingly surging from below us. In fact, in Japan, the two approaches are widely regarded as the same path seen from two different angles.

True emptiness, wondrous being

Courtesy of Seraphim Sigrist

As he reformulated the Eastern standpoint of nothingness in philosophical terms, Nishida also hoped it would make it possible for Japanese to engage more fully with the outside world. From its inception in India, Buddhism has been seen as a spiritual journey requiring that one leaves home and society, and enter a monastery. Zen was no different. This is why ordinary Japanese belong to the Pure Land School, but their engagement is not as deep. On the other hand, Nishida felt that most Japanese lacked the sort of critical spirit he saw in the West as the foundation of democracy. Remember that Nishida lived at a time when attempts at setting up a democratic system in Japan eventually failed under the pressures of nationalists who took the country to war. Nishida’s last work was written in the spring of 1945, as he was literally surrounded by the bombs dropped by US fighter planes, and Japan was  rushing to a certain defeat. How would the reconstruction be carried out after that imminent defeat? Ordinary people had to be encouraged to think and contribute to the shaping of the worldview, but they were to do it from the standpoint of nothingness, not that of being, as proposed by the West. Not only was the standpoint of nothingness the standpoint they were taught as Japanese – so, the core of their own culture – but, as Nishida argues above, it is a deeper standpoint than that of being, which is that of the ordinary consciousness used in practical life. And, because it was deeper and truer, it would help avoid the excesses committed by the West where it was believed that success, or happiness, can only come from enhancing one’s being – through consumption, wealth, status, etc. – so that life at all levels becomes a game of one-upmanship, with ruinous consequences for the environment as there can be no end to the wish to be more, or to control more of the world. For a democracy to produce a healthy individual, a healthy society and a healthy environment, one must call upon the ancient practice of self-control of one’s desires and fears, and see that a finite world cannot satisfy infinite desires, and there is a need to adjust one’s demands to what the world can sustainably provide. In fact, the mere practice of self-emptying and dwelling in nothingness, associated with empathetic coalescence with all beings, will generate for a large part the sort of satisfaction ego-centred people are looking for in shopping malls, clubs, cruises and holidays under the sun! Contentment is not the satisfaction of one’s desires, it is having no desires.

The path to true self-realisation is nothingness: “True emptiness, wondrous being,” as the famous line has it. Or, as Thomas Merton said in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: “From moment to moment I remember with astonishment that I am at the same time empty and full, and satisfied because I am empty. I lack nothing.”