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Reviewed by:
  • Zen and Philosophy: An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitarō
  • Thomas P. Kasulis
Zen and Philosophy: An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitarō. By Michiko Yusa. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. 482 pp.

Readers of this journal know that much Buddhist-Christian dialogue over the past three decades has featured Kyōto School philosophy for the Buddhist side of the conversations. The major figures in that school known to the West are Nishida Kitarō, Tanabe Hajime, Nishitani Keiji, Takeuchi Yoshinori, and Ueda Shizuteru. Other philosophers not formally connected to the school but in some ways kindred spirits with it include Watsuji Tetsurō, Hisamatsu Shin'ichi, and Abe Masao. Both individually and collectively these philosophers represent a formidable intellectual tradition, simultaneously challenging and inspiring their Western theological and philosophical counterparts. In surveying the Western responses to the Kyōto School, however, I often find an odd lacuna: the philosophers behind the thought are often absent or, at best, caricatured.

The mischief here comes from two directions. On one hand, there are the Western theologians and philosophers who read in translation the works by Nishitani or Tanabe and are astounded by the sophistication of the thought and the way familiar Western philosophical thinkers such as Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, and Plato are interwoven in the arguments. Not being Asian specialists, these readers quite naturally focus on parts of the texts most familiar and intelligible—the interplay with Western ideas and values. This approach has helped Western thinkers discover hidden cultural assumptions in their own philosophizing and religious thinking. Missing, however, is the culturally Japanese character of the Kyōto School philosophers. At least until very recently, these philosophers did not write for a Western audience, but [End Page 268] for their Japanese compatriots. Thus, however much their philosophies might be Western in style and content, it is likely that at least some of their questions (and therefore their answers) were responses to Japanese, rather than Western, concerns. Given the upheaval that Japanese culture and society underwent in the first half of the twentieth century, it is especially important to factor into the equation such contemporaneous cultural concerns.

Partly in response to this situation, there has more recently been a response from some Western intellectual historians of Japan who seek to debunk the Kyōto School as a whole, finding in it nothing more than disguised ethnocentrism, jingoism, and imperialism. In making their case, they often ignore the full philosophical systems developed by the Kyōto School thinkers and focus instead on comments from public forums or lectures. Sometimes no more than a few isolated quotations are used to support the case. What is wrong here is not necessarily the claim that Kyōto School philosophy was implicated in the political thought of the wartime years, but rather the cavalier scholarship used to support that claim. A whole school of philosophers tends to be lumped together with little concern for sorting out individual differences. For intellectual historians of this ilk, it is as if books are written by ideologies rather than individuals (or even individual ideologues). Such caricatures of the Kyōto School may even minimize the significance of the fact that some philosophers associated with the movement, Miki Kiyoshi and Tosaka Jun for example, died in prison for their leftist ideas and practices. The Kyōto School is not nearly as hegemonic as some of its critics like to claim.

In short, these two commonWestern approaches to reading the Kyōto School philosophers tend either to overlook their Japaneseness or to deny their individuality. Either way, the philosopher disappears from the philosophizing. Here Yusa's book is a vital corrective. Her intellectual biography both Japanizes and humanizes Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945), the founder of the Kyōto School and the inspiration for most of Japan's modern philosophy. Her narrative gives us insight after insight into the concrete contexts in which Nishida's thought developed. Her discussion of each progression in Nishida's thought over his lifetime is framed by relevant events in his family life, his professional career, his interaction with colleagues, and the readings that were inspiring him at the time. Japanese editions of modern writers' collected works commonly...