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Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School (review)

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 53, Number 4, October 2003
pp. 605-612 | 10.1353/pew.2003.0046

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School. By James W. Heisig. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001. Pp. xii + 380.

Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School by James W. Heisig is the first major work in English to offer such a complete introduction to the thought of the Kyoto School. It analyzes the School's three core figures, Nishida Kitarō, Tanabe Hajime, and Nishitani Keiji, whom Heisig, using Takeuchi Yoshinori's terminology (p. 176), has elsewhere referred to as the "triangulation" around which the School is [End Page 605] defined.1 Heisig's work helps the Western reader to understand the School within the context of current Western ideological trends, interests, and expectations. The book is more than an introduction for Westerners, however, as it makes significant contributions to Kyoto School scholarship and should be of serious interest to both Japanese and Western readers. Beyond this, Heisig brings the Kyoto School into the forum of "world philosophy" (pp. 8-9) by subjecting it to the critical analysis that one associates with the standards and interests of conventional Western philosophy.

Heisig begins with the conscious assumption that the Kyoto School was dedicated to the same philosophical project that the West has come to regard as conventional: "Nishida, Tanabe, and Nishitani themselves made no claim to a uniquely Japanese mode of thought inaccessible to the outside world. . . . On the contrary, their very reason for working in the philosophical idiom—and adjusting their own language to accommodate it—was that it was a universal idiom" (p. 18). Heisig says of those denying the supra-cultural aims of Nishida's philosophy that they "not only miss the point of his goal, but they push his ideas in the opposite direction he was headed" (p. 37).

Offering frequent examples of how problems and developments in the history of Western philosophy and religion mirror developments in the Kyoto School, Heisig provides his readers with a philosophical context in which they can appreciate the aims of the School and feel confident that they will be able to comprehend them. With regard to what appears to be the School's incomprehensible terminology, including notions of absolute contradiction, the union of opposites, and so on, Heisig reassures his Western readers that there is a definite, consistent logic at work, which, he says, in the context of Nishida's philosophy, gives "rational thought its rightful place in the scheme of things" (p. 79). In a word, Heisig feels that there is nothing "logically 'contradictory' " about it (p. 66).

While aiming to demonstrate that the Kyoto School shares significant commonalities with Western philosophy, Heisig stresses that the Kyoto School is unique in its development and features, and that it is fully capable of making new contributions to world philosophy:

It is true that the thinking of the Kyoto philosophers feeds well into the critique of the transcendental subject and the return to the primacy of experience that has marked [the] twentieth century in the west's shift from the nineteenth, and in that sense is more easily understandable. But such points of contact should not obscure the fact that there is nothing in western philosophy that approaches the particular constellation of their thinking. (p. 13)

The entire book is dedicated to an exposition of the "particular constellation" of Kyoto School thought, setting the stage for its unique place and contribution to world philosophy. Notwithstanding the rich variety of thought produced by the School, Heisig follows Sueki Takehiro and Ueda Shizuteru in characterizing its central, unique feature as "self-awareness" (jikakuinline graphic), which Heisig also calls "the transformation of awareness" (pp. 14, 17). Elsewhere, Heisig also writes, "If there is one [End Page 606] notion that seems to run like a golden thread throughout the entire, rich tapestry that Kyoto philosophers have woven, it is that of jikaku or self-awareness."2

While commenting on the School's unique features, Heisig is still careful to stress that it is nonetheless working in the same genre that the West has come to regard as conventional philosophy. With regard to the assumptions of certain multi-culturalist or postmodern movements, or of certain Japanese culture enthusiasts...