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Political Philosophy in Japan: Nishida, the Kyoto School, and Co-Prosperity (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 56, Number 2, April 2006
pp. 361-364 | 10.1353/pew.2006.0028

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Reviewed by
Political Philosophy in Japan: Nishida, the Kyoto School, and Co-Prosperity. By Christopher S. Goto-Jones. London and New York: Routledge, 2005. Pp. 192. Hardcover $105.00.

If it is the case that scholars who engage the Kyoto School philosophy in any serious manner may risk their reputation by "being tarred with the brush of fascism" (p. 4), then Christopher Goto-Jones is certainly courageous to set out to redress the predicament that Nishida Kitarō 's thought (Nishida tetsugaku) is apparently in. Indeed, Goto-Jones' effort is to be highly commended. He contends that Nishida tetsugaku "ought to have been liberated from the oppression of the ultra-nationalist orthodoxy of wartime Japan" by "the allied victory," but instead it has been "oppressed under the new weight of post-war historiography" (p. 2). The author hopes to help change the present-day academic environment that still condemns Nishida tetsugaku or Kyoto School philosophy for complicity with the agenda of fascists and ultranationalists, a formidable force in Japan from the mid-1930s through the end of the Pacific War.

Believing that Nishida tetsugaku qua political philosophy should gain its rightful place in the academic discourse, Goto-Jones embarks on this task. The way to liberate Nishida tetsugaku, he suggests, is to avoid the approach taken by apologists whose arguments, ultimately "unconvincing," were "not finally rooted in Nishida's philosophy but in his diaries and correspondence" (p. 4). He hopes to bring out the "cultural and political pluralism" that is at the heart of Nishida's political philosophy and to demonstrate that the contribution of Nishida's thought is to "relativize the political conceptualizations of Western philosophy" (p. 5). The strategy is to "re-politicize" Nishida tetsugaku and allow his (political) texts to speak for themselves. Goto-Jones contends that Nishida's political philosophy, properly understood, is neither ultranationalism nor liberalism, but "may be termed radical liberalism" (p. 137 n. 11).

In chapter 2, the author proposes to situate Nishida's political thought "in the context of some of its earlier formulations," just as "[m]uch of Western political philosophy partakes in conversations initiated by the Greeks" (p. 28). He therefore begins with the seventeen-article constitution of Prince Shōtoku as the Ur-official text, and then turns his attention to the Japanese Buddhist and Confucian traditions. En route, Goto-Jones tries to connect such ideas as the honji suijaku theory with Nishida's dialectics, or the Tendai meditation practice of ichinen sanzen with the ideology of hakkō ichiu. Whether this approach clarifies Nishida's thought or adds further complications is left to the judgment of the reader. [End Page 361]

Contrary to the view that Nishida underwent a "turn" in the early 1930s, Goto- Jones attempts to prove in chapters 3 and 4 that Nishida's political philosophy remained consistent throughout his life. To demonstrate this point, he examines the several theories of good discussed by Nishida in part 3 of Zen no kenkyū (An inquiry into the good), written ca. 1906, and the 1937 lecture "Rekishiteki shintai" (Historical body). The author's evidence to sustain his argument seems to rest on Nishida's personal protest against the intervention of the state in the affairs of education, as well as his lament that his thought was never properly understood.

Because the scope of the book extends to Nishida's one-time students (such as Tosaka Jun, Miki Kiyoshi, Kōsaka Masaaki, Kōyama Iwao, and Nishitani Keiji as well as Harada Kumao and Kido Kōichi)1 and his colleagues (such as Tanabe Hajime and Watsuji Tetsurō ), to undertake this project Goto-Jones took on the weighty task of studying biographical information about Nishida and his colleagues as well as their vastly varying political approaches. The author's project is far more serious than a mere debate on the semantics of, for instance, the word "liberal," which, when applied to Nishida-and I tend to agree with him here-is "inappropriate and ahistor-ical" (p. 7), or the term "universal(ism)," which seems to have become another term of contention by sheer chance.

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