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

From: Philosophy East and West
Volume 54, Number 2, April 2004
pp. 273-276 | 10.1353/pew.2004.0003

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2004 by University of Hawai‘i Press Heisig claims that the Kyoto school philosophers give the West a way into the East like none other (p. 272). They thrust Japanese philosophical and religious thought onto the world stage, revealing an East Asian perspective to the outside world, as well as to the Japanese themselves. They self-consciously attempted to articulate the distinctiveness of the Japanese mind-set in particular, and the Eastern way of thinking generally. Heisig artfully weaves the thought and times of these three thinkers together into a tapestry of understanding and insight of the highest quality. As is always the case, however, there are issues that remain which might have been dealt with, and interpretive differences to be noted. Nishida began his philosophical journey with his groundbreaking Inquiry into the Good, published in 1911.1 His goal in that work, as Heisig describes it, was to introduce the important but radically nonphilosophical language of Zen to the closed world of philosophy, and conversely to use philosophy to find a language to talk about those things that Zen had always insisted were not susceptible to rationalization. The Inquiry created a significant stir in Japan upon its publication, and Nishida’s appropriation of William James’ notion of pure experience appeared to span the philosophical differences East and West without smoothing over those differences. Yet Heisig’s critical honesty forces him to underplay the actual lasting importance of the Inquiry. Nishida, too, later criticized the heavy psychological emphasis of the book.2 However, it seems too strong to argue, as Heisig does, that the work is a classic only because of its influence and its place in Nishida’s own philosophical development (p. 41). Heisig is frank in anticipating that some will find his diminishing of the Inquiry as ‘‘irreverent.’’ I admire his irreverence as a cautionary attempt to save us all from a bandwagon elevation of Nishida and the Kyoto school, but I think he underestimates the subtle brilliance of the book and its profound originality. To be sure, the Inquiry is...

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