Miki’s Philosophical Anthropology

The composition of Philosophical Anthropology belongs to the middle part of Miki Kiyoshi’s career, when, after a three-year period of study in Germany and France (1923-1926), he had returned to Japan then going through a particularly turbulent period of its history. So Miki had already studied Kant with Heinrich Rickert, and phenomenology with Martin Heidegger, who had not yet published Being and Time (1927). Miki had published a Study of the Human Being in Pascal (1926), followed by Historical Materialism and Contemporary Consciousness (1928), which became influential among the young left-leaning scholars in Japan at the time.  

In Miki Kiyoshi and the Crisis of Thought, Arisaka Yoko explains that Miki never finished Philosophical Anthropology: “According to Miki’s student Masuda Keisaburo, who edited the work, Miki began the manuscript in 1933 but abandoned the project in 1937. The published volume is a combination of the three manuscripts written at the time.” Her chapter focuses on “the various ontological modalities of experience as they are developed in this work: “Embodiment,” “mediality,” and “everydayness.”

Embodiment as “Experiential Ontology”

Arisaka writes: “Miki’s thought in Philosophical Anthropology can be understood as a form of ‘experiential ontology’. For Miki, experience cannot be grasped as an object of investigation as in psychology. Experience is a mode of existence, a way of being of the subject. Thus, experience is an ontological category that captures the mode of existence of the self and not an epistemological or psychological category of sensation, feeling, or perception by which the subject knows the world. Such an account of human experience as human existence is what Miki means by the term ‘anthropology’.”

In Miki’s own words: “Human beings should not simply be understood objectively; they should be grasped subjectively. Herein is the fundamental difference between anthropology, on the one hand, and other sciences, such as physiology and psychology, on the other. Such sciences entail an objective cognition about human beings, but anthropology, in contrast, offers an understanding of the human from the perspective of the self as an embodied subject.” The word “anthropology” had also been used in connection with Heidegger’s new phenomenology. 

On the other hand, Arisaka’s characterisation of Miki’s philosophical anthropology as an “experiential ontology,” points to Nishida Kitaro, with whom Miki had studied at Kyoto University. Arisaka herself wrote a research paper on Nishida’s “experiential ontology.” This had in fact been Nishida’s starting point under the name of “pure experience” which he defined as follows (in a translation by Ueda Shizuteru): “By pure I am referring to the state of experience just as it is without the least addition of deliberative discrimination. The moment of seeing a color or hearing a sound, for example, is prior not only to the thought that the color or sound is the activity of an external object or that one is sensing it, but also to the judgment of what the color or sound might be […]. This is the most refined type of experience […] A truly pure experience has no meaning whatsoever; it is simply a present consciousness of facts just as they are.” 

In a note, Arisaka indicates that the Japanese language has two words for “subject”: “Shukan  would refer to an epistemological subject of perception, cognition, sensation, and other ‘mental’ faculties. Shutai, in contrast, is subject-as-body. It is a material subject that acts in the world. When Miki uses the term shutai, it is translated as ‘embodied subject’.” Shukan is the subject as the West understands it, a subject looking at the world as an object separate from the subject. Shutai is the existential embodied subject that experiences, and acts in the world.

Arisaka continues: “The embodied subject acts and interacts in the world in her concrete environment, taking things in, acting and reacting with others, processing ideas and objects, and constantly changing with the situation. It is the constant action that casts out the surrounding world in a particular way, and in this sense, it cannot be objectified as a thing, not even an acting thing – it is instead the acts themselves that do the objectifying (among other things).” As Miki writes: “Embodiment, that is, body in their body-ness, is the realm of the body-as-subject that cannot be objectified.”

So, in addition to a new meaning of “anthropology,” we have here a new meaning for “ontology.” Ontology here is not the study of the Greek “on,” “being” as arising to the epistemological shukan as a separate entity, a “what it is.” It is the affirmation “that it is” as the experienced presencing of the world to the shutai.  

In Miki’s more concrete language, “Walking, sitting, lying down – we have bodies through all these possibilities themselves, not through the determinations of objective knowledge. Bodies are not objects, they are instead these possibilities. If we call the totality of the tool-like organs the ‘body’ as possibilities might be called ‘embodiment’. The embodiment of human existence gives the parameter to the body, and bodies express the embodiment of human existence.” I am here reminded of the emphasis Yuasa Yasuo later gave to the body in East Asian self-cultivation practices. Whereas in Christianity we see ourselves as “souls,” and religious practices rest on a suppression of the body, in East Asia, spiritual teachers instead use the body as a modus operandi for spiritual transformation. Self-cultivation is seen as a training of the mind through the training of the body. 

In the modern period, “thinking” in Western culture, has become synonymous with the abstract mode of thinking of the epistemological shukan. But it is clear now that the embodied shutai is not simply the Zen Buddhist “no-mind” said to have been the standpoint from which Nishida and his disciples had developed their philosophies. It is a mode of thinking that, at first sight, seems to be associated with the East, or, say, is still consciously cultivated in the East, while it has been devalued in the West as distorted by affect, and dismissed as obsolete because of its association with mythology. Kuang-ming Wu, a Chinese scholar in the US, studied what he calls “concrete/body thinking” in his magnum opus On Chinese Body Thinking – A Cultural Hermeneutic. He defines “concrete thinking” as follows: “Concrete thinking is somatically systematic, whereas formal thinking aspires toward having a system … Body thinking is “concrete,” not abstract, flying off from the actual details toward their empty forms … Concrete thinking is experiential thinking, thinking from experience, thinking in terms of experience. Body thinking is not entirely synonymous with concrete thinking, though related thereto … Chinese thinking is concrete – yet explicit – thinking; it is fully reflective as formal analysis is, yet without leaving actuality, as our customary common sense does not … Chinese philosophers compress stories; they do not use concepts. They “metaphor” and spread; they do not universalize. They “ironize” (affirm in their denying) to discern sense in actuality; they do not make theoretical points.” They use negations – the famous wu forms – to refer to the embodied aspect of words. For instance, wuxin is not “no thought,” but spontaneously occurring thought.

As he moves from the descriptive definition of “concrete thinking” to the more philosophical “body thinking,” Wu explains that thinking as such is “a pointing, and pointing needs a body to do.” So, “all thinking is body thinking. The human “body” is much more than a thing among things, an indifferent collection of sensations as seen biologically … My body is myself; it is my live unity, my sensed self, my unique manifestation of the vital subject as subject … I am my body, not the body you see but the body I feel … I am my body means, then, “I am” by and in perceiving, experiencing and acting out of the world … For me to perceive is to exist as myself. I am perception. “I am” in “I act.”

For Nishitani Keiji, whose thought resonates deeply with Zen Buddhism, a wisdom tradition developed in monastic settings, and focused on the transformative experience of awakening rather than an active engagement in matters social and political, the abstract thought of the epistemological subject is described as focusing on “what” a thing is, while the embodied self is focusing on reconnecting with the fact “that” a thing is, thereby providing an experiential access to it. The left-leaning Miki who thought in terms of action rather than awakening, found in Heidegger a thinker who had, with the concept of Dasein (being there) broadened the subject into a creative role in his threefold concept of “worldhood” (Weltheit): “First, human beings are in the world; second, human beings make the world; and third, human beings are the world … Human beings are not simply in the world; rather, they make the world by working with the world. Such a world that is created may be termed “expression.” Thus, the second determination shows the expressiveness of the human being.”

Arisaka explains: “Actions are ‘expressive’ in the sense that they show what we create: “Actions are not simply praxis but also poiesis. This means that actions do not remain internal to themselves but rather are essentially aimed outwards … It is this process of the dialectic through which the acting subject changes the concrete, material world that Miki treats as the subject matter of his anthropology.”

In Miki’s own words: “Our standpoint in anthropology is that of self-realizing actions. Human beings are not abstracted from the body; they are grasped socially as the subjects [of actions]. However, the ‘subject of action’ must contain an objective moment in the dialectic.  Human beings are internal as well as external, embodied-subjective as well as material-objective. Human beings are grasped in their wholeness for the first time through their self-realizing actions.”


Arisaka Yoko – “Miki Kiyoshi’s Philosophical Anthropology” in Miki Kiyoshi and the Crisis of Thought, Ed. Steve Lofts, Nakamura Norihito & Fernando Wirtz

Kuang-ming Wu – On Chinese Body Thinking – A Cultural Hermeneutic