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Nothingness and Desire

A Philosophical Antiphony

James W. Heisig

Publication Year: 2013

The six lectures that make up this book were delivered in March 2011 at London University’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies as the Jordan Lectures on Comparative Religion. They revolve around the intersection of two ideas, nothingness and desire, as they apply to a re-examination of the questions of self, God, morality, property, and the East-West philosophical divide.

Rather than attempt to harmonize East and West philosophies into a single chorus, Heisig undertakes what he calls a “philosophical antiphony.” Through the simple call-and-response of a few representative voices, Heisig tries to join the choir on both sides of the antiphony to relate the questions at hand to larger problems that press on the human community. He argues that as problems like the technological devastation of the natural world, the shrinking of elected governance through the expanding powers of financial institutions, and the expropriation of alternate cultures of health and education spread freely through traditional civilizations across the world, religious and philosophical responses can no longer afford to remain territorial in outlook. Although the lectures often stress the importance of practice, their principal preoccupation is with seeing the things of life more clearly. Heisig explains:

“By that I mean not just looking more closely at objects that come into my line of view from day to day, but seeing them as mirrors in which I can see myself reflected. Things do not just reveal parts of the world to me; they also tell me something of how I see what I see, and who it is that does the seeing. To listen to what things have to say to me, I need to break with the habit of thinking simply that it is I who mirror inside of myself the world outside and process what I have captured to make my way through life. Only when this habit has been broken will I be able to start seeing through the reflections, to scrape the tain off the mirror, as it were, so that it becomes a window to the things of life as they are, with only a pale reflection of myself left on the pane. Everything seen through the looking glass, myself included, becomes an image on which reality has stamped itself. This, I am persuaded, is the closest we can come to a ground for thinking reasonably and acting as true-to-life as we can.”

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Series: Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. 1-6

The pursuit of certitude and wealth lie at the foundations of the growth of human societies. Societies that care little to know for certain what is true and what is not, or those that have little concern for increasing their holdings—material, monetary, intellectual, geographical, or political—are easily swallowed up by those that do. The accumulation of certitude and of wealth ...

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Nothingness and Desire

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pp. 7-30

...these lectures is defined by two focal ideas, nothingness and desire. The discussion is never centered on one without taking into account its eccentricity from the other. The movement of the argument is therefore deliberately elliptical, with no covert aim of collapsing the two into a common central point. The distance between them will depend solely on how they ...

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Self and No-Self

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pp. 31-54

...standing the notion of no-self has been to define it as a gloss on the notion of self. I would like to reverse the process and see no-self as the primary analog for talk about a self. To do this, we need to show how the notion of self is incapable of embracing the concept of no-self within itself. A good place to begin is by questioning Feuerbach’s project of unmasking all theology as a ...

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pp. 55-78

...fear that first made gods in the world—wrote the first-century poet Petron-ius. Hume went on to point to the origins of religion in unknown causes that hold us hanging between life and death and “which become the constant object of our hope and fear.” The hopes and fears surrounding death and the ultimate human desire for its cure are as obvious as they are difficult ...

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pp. 79-102

...and desire have no concrete ethical content. Their intersect occupies a place between those two orders—the is and the ought to be—whose conflict is a central concern of philosophy. It is the place we stand as we fear the finitude of our lives such as they are and from which we hope for a more desirable world. What we do about what we see there is another thing. Mythical sto-...

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pp. 103-122

...the notion of property in a much wider sense than normal in order to draw together some of the many loose ends left dangling in the discussion thus far. The primary analogy for property, we will suggest, is consciousness of having a body “of one’s own,” but we begin with the notion of ownership or Accumulating possessions is a way of feeding desires for health, power, ...

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The East-West Divide

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pp. 123-140

...ter in Japan after a formal education in the United States and Europe has left me chronically pestered by thoughts about the East-West divide. They buzz around inside of my head like flies that, try as I might, I cannot swat down. Often enough I catch myself envious of people who live within a more or less stable horizon where the sun rises at one end and sets at the other, within ...

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pp. 141-142

The shadow of intolerance cast by the pursuit of certitude is no less long and menacing in the intellectual adventures of the East than it is in the West. Each side has its own correctives which today, more than ever, need to be consulted to combat the global institutionalization of knowledge as information. It has become clearer to me in hindsight than it was when I set out ...


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pp. 143-178


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pp. 179-190

Index of Proper Names

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pp. 191-193

Back Cover

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p. 202-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780824839567
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824838850

Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Philosophy, Comparative.
  • Nothing (Philosophy).
  • Desire (Philosophy).
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