The Historical World as the Unity of Natural History and Human History

Miki Kiyoshi (1897-1945)

 John Krummel writes: “Miki … asserts that history is made not in accordance with reason but in accordance with imagination, creating from nothing, whereby its ends (purposes) have the aspect of the purposeless – in Kant’s words a “teleology without a telos.” History itself is this alteration of of forms without any preconceived telos.” In Philosophy of Technology Miki states, “transformation … is the fundamental operation of technology. This is also the fundamental concept of history as well.” Krummel then adds: “But what is astonishing is that in both Philosophy of Technology and Logic of Imagination, Miki goes on to claim that this happens in nature as well.” In Miki’s words, “The history of nature is the history of the transformation of forms … the technology of nature and the technology of man are both nothing but elements or stages of the self-formation of the historical world.”

The creative logic of imagination is already at work within nature

From a human standpoint, there is of course a discontinuity between the “natural” and the “technological” in our lives, even though it has been noticed that no matter how far human technologies have diverged from “nature,” humans would not have been able to develop them had they had not existed potentially in nature. But this had not led us to say that nature is a technology. Biological nature, at least, can be seen as forms caught in a process of evolution. Miki can then state: “the creative logic of imagination is already at work within nature … To the extent that we can view natural life as technological and as making forms, it follows the logic of imagination … “The history of nature is the history of the transformation of forms.”

Krummel notes that “Miki indeed clarifies that by nature he means living or lived nature, the organism, and refers to Kant who conceived of an “organic technology” belonging to nature.” Miki can then state: “Life is technological as that which makes forms. We can view not only the human but nature as technological to the extent that it makes forms. The human only continues what nature does … the forms biological nature possess are … made from the relations of adaptation between subject and environment … We can think of nature as also technological because everything that has life has forms. We can view the form of a living thing … as born as the unity of the subjective and the objective due to being the living thing’s adaptation to the environment, and to that extent, we can see therein the technology of nature.”

Of course, wheras for much of its history humankind has, in common with all living things, sought to adapt to its environment, with the emergence of technology in modernity, we must speak of a reverse adaptation as humans aim at adapting their environment to their wishes. Still, from the standpoint of imagination, it makes no difference as in both cases, whether we adapt to nature or we work at making nature adapt to us, the same process of transformation is involved. Miki’s project was to “unify natural history and human history.” After all, humans are not alone in altering their environment. All species do. Krummel says that what matters to Miki is “whether the same sort of imagination is at work in nature.”

In an effort to throw light on the nature of imagination, Miki notes that “nature can also be conceived to be productive,”just as technology is. It is a fact that “the human-made forms of culture are quite distinct from natural forms in that they do not exist in nature just as they are.” Miki argues that this is because “the essence of technology is invention … Invention is creative and requires imagination,” but, as such, “invention … contains an element of discovery.” Extensive observation of nature is usually required before what appears as an “invention” is achieved. 

“Even though invention produces forms not existing in nature, it cannot produce forms contrary to nature. It must assimilate and compose existing elements to construct a new synthesis.” So, Miki asserts, “In one sense this forming in human culture is an imitation of nature but also, as Miki states in Philosophy of Technology a completion of nature. Miki can then conclude: “Technology takes up anew the construction of the universe at the point where it had been abandoned by nature.” There is no denying that, despite the apparent discontinuity we can see everyday between nature and technology, there is a complementarity between the two that clearly amounts to a continuity.

The real subject, more than the human or the biological organism, is the historical world

Busy as we were comparing human technology and the technological essence of nature, we may have missed the true import of Miki’s investigation.  Krummel writes:“The real subject, more than the human or the biological organism, is the historical world … In unfolding his own logic of imagination, Miki … employs Nishida’s logic with its concept of the historical world while explicating its development in terms of “transformation.” It is this idea that leads to his claim that “the creative logic of imagination is already at work within nature … To the extent that we can view natural life as technological and as the making of forms, it follows the logic of imagination.” He finds support for this extension of the imagination in Kant’s characterization of genius as “nature in the subject.” Sounding like Nishida, Miki had already asserted in his Philosophy of Technology that: “The historical world is creative and the human is a creative element of the creative world”; “Human beings making things means that they are at-work as means for the self-formation of the historical world”; and “As the formative element of the formative world, we participate in the self-formation of the historical world.”

Krummel concludes: “Miki also takes this nature to be historical nature that unifies necessity and freedom. That is, he understands genius to be the productive capacity of a preconceptual, or unconscious, nature which is regulated by the imagination. Miki asserts that the logic of imagination is at the root of concrete nature seen in Kant’s idea of the technology of nature, whereby not only the human but nature as historical nature, apparently broader than mere biological nature, is genius at its root. He thereby places the logic of imagination even deeper than the human subjective faculties and ultimately at the root of the historical world that unifies humanity and nature, thus letting-go, intentionally or not, of the self-proclaimed humanism of his earlier works. Despite his so-called “humanism,” Miki grasps the human in relation to that which transcends, or rather trans-descends, the existence of the human as an (an)ontological un/ground.”

Critical assessment and conclusion

Since 1945 the world has changed in ways that were difficult to foresee. Today’s Anthropocene does not reflect the harmonious union of humankind and nature Miki had predicted, or at least hoped for. Krummel writes, “This has much to do with our technological transformation of the environment … Whether Miki’s account of technology is viable today or not would depend on whether it can resolve the fundamental issue of the Anthropocene and its destruction of nature … What appears to be Miki’s anticipation of an ultimate harmony between the human and nature via technology may be too optimistic – a naivete traceable to his inheritance of the ancient Greek dualism of form and matter … The reduction of nature to matter (Materie) as material for humanity’s formative activity serves to intensify the Anthropocene, and if that is Miki’s intent, he neglects natural history per se. This precludes any genuine critique of problems that can arise from the technological imposition of forms of human civilisation upon nature reduced to its mere material.”

On the positive side, Krummel says: “Form, as Miki conceives it, immanent to the historical world, is always changing in the history of the concrete world in which we partake; it is not the unchanging transcendental eidos or idea of Greek metaphysics. Miki underscores the realm of practice where new forms are made through our embodied interactivity with the environment. Forms are as such not transcendental but can themselves be material and embodied, in self-formation. Miki thus affirmed the imagination, instead of reason, as the originary principle behind their production and conceived this production as concrete and immanent, involving the human praxis of being-in-the-world, rather than confining it to theoria.

“To bring Miki’s philosophy to life today and actualize the project he was unable to complete due to his untimely death, we will need to update it, such as by incorporating the more recent findings of ecology, information schiece, and bio- and nano-technology, cybernetics, computer science, and the new realities currently unfolding through the interface of the physical, the somatic, the mental, and the virtual … We will need to clarify the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity between nature and culture through an analysis of social-somatic technological activity found not only in the physical world but also in the virtual dimensions opening through computer technology and the Internet. A viable appropriation of Miki’s logic of imagination then would mean not only furthering it beyond Kant, Nishida, and Heidegger but also beyond Miki himself, in light of contemporary realities. And this requires our imagining and reimagining the imagination for the formation of a meaningful world.”


John W M Krummel – “Imagination and Technology: Ontological Formation of/as Being-in-the-World” in Miki Kiyoshi and the Crisis of Thought, ed. Steve Lofts, Nakamura Norihito & Fernando Wirtz