- Going to our Happy Place: Idealism, Realism, and Nishida's Eutopia: A Response to Christian Uhl
Words can be tricky things; their significance is often found in unexpected places. The word 'utopia,' for example, is usually considered to have originated in the early sixteenth century in Louvain when Thomas More fused two Greek words (ou, 'not,' and topos, 'place'). The result was a new, Greek-sounding compound, utopia, translatable as 'Noplace.' Apparently, it was a small, newly discovered island where people did things differently from Europeans. By a happy coincidence, utopia was almost homophonous with another Greek compound, eutopia, which might be translated as 'Happyplace.' The word has come to be used to describe models of nonexistent societies that are imagined to be better than the ones in which we live.
In his stimulating, thorough, and carefully crafted review of my recent book, Political Philosophy in Japan: Nishida, the Kyoto School, and Co-Prosperity, Christian [End Page 482] Uhl makes a great deal of my claim that Nishida's political project was utopian. He also takes issue with my characterization of Nishida as a political idealist. In the interests of clarification and in the spirit of engaged debate, I think that it is important to consider what these important (and often complicated) terms mean. In particular, the idea that 'idealist' and 'utopian' are coterminous should not be allowed to stand unchallenged. In a related way, it may be helpful to clarify what is meant by 'realist' in political thought, since Uhl claims that, far from being an idealist, Nishida was actually a realist "in a very fundamental sense of the word."
Uhl is quite right to observe that I identify Nishida's political scheme as utopian in the sense that he provides a model of an ideal society as a means of demonstrating the problems in the society in which he lived.1 However, when it comes to the effectiveness of Nishida's utopian vision qua dissent in wartime Japan (or simply qua practice), the key problem slides from being utopianism itself to idealism. A utopia is an ideal society; the method required to realize that society is not necessarily part of the vision itself, although it may be implied in the structure. Consider a socialist utopia: for Marx, the road to this perfect society was paved by historical materialism; for a number of other socialists (including many Japanese socialists), the route to a broadly similar society was defined in humanist or even idealist terms. In a rather casual sense we might label the later Marx a realist and, say, Kawakami Hajime as an idealist. Nishida's utopia is no simpler,2 although it does, in fact, contain a sense of process: it is defined as a type of self-realization and it is premised upon an underlying faith in the power of the mind to transform both the self and the everyday world.
I would contend that Nishida was an idealist (a thinker who works on the principle that the reality in which we live is somehow mind-correlative), although not a simple idealist, and also a political utopian. A number of his students, for example Nishitani and Kōyama, broadly shared their mentor's goals but differed in their construction of the paths to them. The quotation from Nishitani that Uhl selects reveals this clearly: he argues that if we do not "have both feet firmly grounded in the consciousness of the past as well as in the practice of the present, any idea will remain a mere concept, a utopian ideal."3 Nishitani is not taking issue with the utopia; he is challenging the process appropriate to its realization. He argues (in common with many of the other second-generation members of the Kyoto School) that an idealist philosophy that pays no attention to the significance of history can offer no blueprints for the achievement of its ideals in reality. The implied challenge to Nishida's thought here is to his understanding of the forces of historical change: idealist self-power (jiriki) is laid bare as ahistorical and inadequate as an engine for social change. Having said that, however, Nishitani does not make...