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  • Dancing Through Nothing:Nietzsche, the Kyoto School, and Transcendence
  • Brian Schroeder

I should only believe in a God who knew how to dance. And when I saw my Devil I found him serious, thorough, deep, and solemn: it was the Spirit of Heaviness—through him do all things fall. Not with wrath but with laughter does one kill. Come, let us kill the Spirit of Heaviness!

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Z:I "On Reading and Writing"

Here lies the secret of Nietzsche's Dionysus: on the outside we see a strong and heroic figure who does not shrink even from a religion of Satan, but on the inside, beneath the exterior garments, lies the heart of a sage overflowing with infinite love.

—Tanabe Hajime, Philosophy as Metanoetics

The most remarkable feature of Nietzsche's "religion" may be the sound of laughter that echoes through it. He teaches that one can laugh from the ground of the soul, or rather that the soul's "groundless ground" is laughter itself.

—Nishitani Keiji, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

Nietzsche and the Early Kyoto School

Among the Western thinkers who have most influenced the thinking of the so-called Kyoto school, especially the philosophies of Tanabe Hajime and Nishitani Keiji, Nietzsche clearly stands in the forefront.1 His proclamation of the death of God, the "greatest of events," signals also the demise of traditional conceptions of divinity, self, subjectivity, and transcendence. In full response to Nietzsche's herald call for a revaluation of all values, in their respective ways Tanabe and Nishitani advance nonmetaphysical, nontheistic conceptions of transcendence and the self. One finds in them a language freed from many Western metaphysical presuppositions, yet wholly capable of engaging that [End Page 44] very metaphysical tradition from a new hermeneutical perspective, all the while advancing their own cultural, philosophical, and religious commitments and inquiries. They recognize in Nietzsche's thinking an attempt to develop a genuine world philosophy—that is, a thinking that is not conditioned by and thus confined to the strictures of the predominantly rational metaphysics that had heretofore characterized the movement of Western reflection. Nietzsche thought that few contemporary and future readers (for at least the following century) would be able to understand his philosophical vision, as they were too constrained culturally and linguistically by the very metaphysics he sought to subvert and overcome. Visionary though he was, however, he could not foresee the emergence of the thinking one finds in the Kyoto school, which in its own way is likewise concerned to develop a world thinking.2

The Kyoto school, which has the distinction of formulating the first genuinely comparative philosophy of religion, is characterized primarily by its active engagement with post-Kantian European thinking. Taking its point of departure from the thinking of Nishida Kitaro (1870–1945), widely considered modern Japan's first original philosopher, the Kyoto school came into its own via Nishida's students and successors, Tanabe Hajime (1885–1961) and Nishitani Keiji (1900–1990), who through their original contributions helped shape and solidify the school's early identity by their association with contemporary European thinking of the day. Both Tanabe and Nishitani studied in Germany during the years between the first and second world wars (Tanabe in 1922–24, Nishitani in 1936–39), engaging the history of Western thought from its ancient through to its modern expressions, with particular focus on Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, and Bergson, mediated by direct encounters with Husserl and especially Heidegger, the very thinkers with whom Nishida had sent them to study. Upon returning to Japan, they commenced the work for which the Kyoto school is primarily known: the interaction of European and East Asian thinking.

In contrast to the tendency in modern Western thinking to separate philosophical and religious discourse, Asian philosophy is and has always been generally religious in orientation. This is no less true of the early Kyoto school, whose distinguishing characteristic was its adoption of a decidedly religious orientation at a time when the major currents of European thinking, such as existentialism and phenomenology, were moving away from such a stance. This led many of the thinkers associated with the Kyoto school also to engage seriously the...


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