The Paradox of Representation

“Reason is not the proper field to give rise to the true mode of being of things as they are in themselves. In order to approach that fire is, reason invariably goes the route of asking ‘what’ fire is. It approaches ‘actual being’ by way of ‘essential being’ … This standpoint does not enter directly and immediately to the point at which something is. It does not put one directly in touch with the home-ground of a thing, with the thing itself” (Religion and Nothingness p 114).

Nishitani writes: “Throughout the history of Western thought, from the days of ancient Greece right up to the present, being or existence has, by and large, been thought of in terms of either the category of ‘substance’ or that of ‘subject’. Whether animate or inanimate, man or even God, insofar as an entity is considered to exist in itself, to be on its own ground, it has been conceived of as substance. The concept of substance points to that which makes a thing to be what it is and makes it preserve its self-identity in spite of the incessant changes that occur in its various ‘accidental’ properties” (RN 110).

The word “substance,” comes from the Latin “substantia” and “substare,” “to stand firm, be under, or present,” from “sub,” under, and “stare,” to stand. It is clear that the key prefix here is “sub” – sub-stance, sub-ject. Some sort of reality that is more real than what manifests to our senses is assumed to support the world we see. Aristotle called it the sub-stratum underlying change. Heidegger has shown how “substantia” was used as a translation for “ousia,” which was a form of “enai,” “to be.” In other words, substance came to mean being, what makes a thing to be what it is, beneath the various changes captured at the sensory level. “Suppose, for example, that this ‘thing’ were a human being. Then ‘substance’ would denote the ‘beingness’ of such a reality in its mode of ‘being as a man’. It is generally held that substance is imperceptible to the senses, that as the selfness of a thing lying behind various sensory appearances, it can only be grasped through thinking” (RN 119).

This unchanging reality taken to be “being” was regarded as a transcendental order, received as it were, from above, and which humans had to “discover.” Plato called it the realm of Ideas, where all the beings we see pre-existed as Forms of which the beings we see are copies. It seems that Plato saw the Ideas as, as it were, wired into our minds – since we were made by the same transcendental order (God) as the rest of creation. Aristotle added that the way we discovered the Ideas was by watching the natural world, and inducting the transcendental Ideas from their manifestations in reality. In his presentation of Nishida’s analysis of Aristotle, Robert Carter wrote that, for Aristotle, “to know a thing is to name it, and to name it is to attach one or usually more universal predicates to it.”

Even though things fully grasped as objects by a subject really came to the fore with Descartes’s philosophy of consciousness, Greek philosophy already apprehended things as objects. This is why Nishida could speak of “object logic.” Nishitani states, likewise, that “Being is looked upon as substance because, from the very outset, beings are looked upon as objects; and thus also, conversely, because beings set before the subject representationally are viewed from the subject’s point of view. The paradox of representation [already] comes into play here. It is the same with life’ or ‘soul’ when these are conceived of in terms of substance (RN 110).

With Descartes, the notion that the rational order of the world is still received by humans as a given, but the focus switches from an emphasis on its transcendental, divine, aspect to the urgency of deciphering that order. It could be seen as one more step in the direction already taken by Aristotle. The motive, for Descartes, was to be able to expand our knowledge of reality so as to get a better control of our lives. Hence the new focus on the subject, and Descartes’s assertion that “I think, therefore I am,” i.e., I am “one who thinks,” so I am able to investigate the rational order, now, more or less equated with a mathematical order. In other words, there is legitimacy in embarking on an investigation of reality. At the same time, as the goal is to achieve an “objective” view of reality, the subject is as far as possible divorced from its subjective particularities (affective, body-based, elements active in ordinary life) that could distort its thought. But, Nishitani remarks, “to say of something merely that it lies outside of subjectivity is still an act of subjectivity. An object is nothing other than something that has been represented as an object, and even the very idea of something independent of representation can only come about as a representation. This is the paradox essential to representation” (RN 108).

Nishitani concludes: “Both materialism and idealism lose sight of the basic field where the reality of things and praxis initially come about; they lose sight of the sort of field where things become manifest in their suchness, where every action, no matter how slight, emerges into being from its point of origin” (RN 121). In other words, the Western standpoint of being, whether in its early formulation as substance, or in its modern formulation as objects represented by subjects, has no access to the things as both are only dealing with representations.

Kant’s revolution – reason as something that thought ‘thinks into” objects – opens the way to existential inquiry

Kant, however, had opened a new path. Once the circumstances lying behind the formation of the concept of substance are brought to light, it is natural to propose, as Kant did, the basic position that all objects are representations, and therefore “appearances”; and to interpret substance as one of the a priori concepts of pure reason, as something that thought ‘thinks into’ (hineindenkt) objects (RN 111). Kant’s revolutionary contribution was that the way we see reality is reality as perceived through the particular structures of our minds, which, by then, were no longer taken to be the product of a divine wiring, but the mere products of our physical make-up. “No doubt Kant marks a milestone in the awareness of such a subject. Since his time, the process of awakening to subjectivity has progressed rapidly, arriving at the notion of ecstatic existence within nihility, that is, at the notion of subjectivity in Existenz. The same subject now comes to exist within nihility ‘essentially’, that is, in such as way as to disclose its very ‘existence’ in nihility” (RN 111). So Kant opened the way for existential inquiry, and Nishitani sees himself as having brought that existential inquiry to its logical end – an inquiry from the standpoint of ecstatic existence, the standpoint of emptiness – self as no-self – through which the ego-centred standpoint is overcome.

To sum up, in Nishitani’s words, “on the field of reason the selfness of things merely represents the sort of Form in which they appear to us who happen to be thinking about them. The function of thinking, as an activity of reason in us, is to journey beyond the field of sense perception to a field on which things can be made to disclose their selfness. Therein lies the particular significance of thinking.” This is what Nishitani refers to when he says that “In order to approach that fire is, reason invariably goes the route of asking what fire is. It approaches actual being by way of essential being … This standpoint does not enter directly and immediately to the point at which something is. It does not put one directly in touch with the home-ground of a thing, with the thing itself … Such original selfness must lie beyond the reach of reason and be impervious to thought (RN 119-120).

This “field that goes beyond consciousness and intellect” is the “field of sunyata or emptiness” (RN 121). “On the field of emptiness … the selfness of a thing cannot be expressed simply in terms of its ‘being one thing or another’. It is rather disclosed precisely as something that cannot be so expressed. Selfness is laid bare as something that cannot on the whole be expressed in the ordinary language of reason, nor for that matter in any language containing logical form. Should we be forced to put it into words all the same, we can only express it in terms of a paradox, such as: ‘It is not this thing or that, therefore it is this thing or that’” (RN 124).

Nishitani Keiji – Religion and Nothingness
Robert E Carter – The Nothingness Beyond God

One and Three Chairs (1965) – Joseph Kosuth – A chair, a photograph of a chair and an enlarged definition of the word “chair”