- Nihilism, Science, and Emptiness in Nishitani
Emptiness and Nihilism
It may be sufficiently known by now that the trunk line of Nishitani’s philosophy is the ‘idea of emptiness.’ Indeed, from his Philosophy of Primordial Subjectivity (1940) through his God and Absolute Nothingness (1948) and Nihilism (1949) right into Religion and Nothingness (1961), Nishitani’s thinking has fundamentally turned around the idea of emptiness. 1 Not that in the three works preceding Religion and Nothingness the idea of emptiness is treated overtly as such. Rather, in those works the idea is continually growing, as it were, on an invisible underground level, to come finally to the surface in Religion and Nothingness. It is as if the emptiness that had grown strong by withstanding the pressure of the ‘rock’ of nihilism came into the open by overthrowing that rock.
As it was the key to the solution of the problem of nihilism that had beset him in his youth, the idea of emptiness was more than a mere idea for Nishitani. It was something on which the possibility of existence entirely depended for him. Therefore, he did not speak of the idea of emptiness but of the ‘standpoint of emptiness.’ For Nishitani, nihilism was not simply a philosophical problem, a problem accidentally encountered in the course of his philosophical investigations. It was a problem he had been saddled with willy nilly as a result of his own nature and temperament as well as of the conditions of his time. He then decided to shoulder the problem as his particular task. In other words, nihilism assumed for him the nature of a destiny. Consequently, the ‘standpoint of emptiness,’ at which he arrived at the end of the arduous struggle for the solution of the problem of nihilism, took on for him the character of a reliable slab of granite discovered at the bottom of his own existence: something with a depth reaching all the way to the core of the earth and a solidity sufficient to carry the weight of nihilism. Of all this Nishitani himself was clearly aware. Let me reflect a few moments on Nishitani’s idea of emptiness in its relationship with nihilism.
How did Nishitani view this nihilism that constituted the basic problem for him? He defined his own philosophical standpoint as, in the final analysis, “the overcoming of nihilism by way of nihilism.” In his own estimate, the nihilism he struggled with was an extremely “difficult” and “hard to solve” problem for philosophy—a problem wherein intellectual aporia and existential conundrum intertwine; not the [End Page 139] kind of problem that finds a solution provided one makes the necessary efforts; a problem that is hard to get hold of: the study of various thought systems appears only to circle around its periphery. Thus, “at a certain moment I decided to give up my philosophical efforts and to tackle the problem by Zen [meditation], away from all intellectual efforts. At that point, for the first time and little by little, a way to its solution came in sight.” 2
This kind of patient struggling with one particular problem, as we see it in Nishitani’s case, may not be unheard of but is certainly not commonplace. If we may call this attitude or way of facing problems a ‘method,’ it appears to be described by Simone Weil, where she writes: “The method proper to philosophy consists in clearly seeing insoluble problems in their insolubility, and then to contemplate them, concentratedly and indefatigably, for years, without any hope in the waiting. According to this criterion, there are few philosophers. But ‘few’ may be saying too much. The passage to the transcendent is opened when the human faculties—intellect, will, human love—run into a limit, and then the human being stays on this threshold, beyond which it cannot put a single step—and this without turning away, without knowing what it desires, and concentrated on the waiting. It is a state of extreme humiliation. It is unachievable for anybody who is not capable of accepting humiliation.” 3
We may say that, just like Simone Weil herself, who for many years struggled with the insoluble problem of ‘unhappiness...