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  • Temporality and Personal Identity in the Thought of Nishida Kitarō
  • Gereon Kopf

The Euro-American philosophical traditions offer two extreme positions to the problem of identity over time:1 G. W. Leibniz' essentialism2 and Derek Parfit's reductionism.3 In addition, even though it differs significantly from Parfit's reductionism, as Steven Collins (1997) has pointed out, the Theravāda Buddhist theory of no-self resembles Parfit's position in that it rejects essentialism in favor of a conception of the person as a continuity of experiences.4 In this essay, I will present a third alternative conception of personal identity, more appropriately named personal non-duality, which is based on Nishida Kitarō's conception of personal unity () as nonrelative contradictory self-identity (). This notion of personal nonduality reflects the paradox that persons conceive of themselves (and others) as identical over time despite the difficulty (if not impossibility) of identifying an unchanging substance in the face of constant physical and psychological change. More specifically, Nishida argues that the core of this dilemma lies in the contradictory () nature of the continuity of experience and time itself. Subsequently, he develops his dialectical conception of personhood in three steps. First, Nishida replaces the notion of continuity with his dialectical conception of the continuity of discontinuity (). Second, he grounds this dialectical notion of personhood qua continuity of discontinuity on his dialectical conception of time as simultaneously temporal () and a temporal (). Third, he provides a hermeneutical key to his dialectic in his threefold phenomenology of human experience and knowledge. I believe that the notion of personal nonduality, based on Nishida's threefold conceptual structure, renders a conception of personhood that accommodates the strengths of both the essentialist and the reductionist paradigms.

Nishida on Continuity

While Nishida does not explicitly refer to the debate on personal identity involving Leibniz, John Locke, David Hume , Thomas Reid, and Joseph Butler, he shares with these philosophers and with criteriologists5 of the past forty years such as Parfit, Sidney Shoemaker, and David Lewis the desire to identify the underlying principle that accounts for the experience of continuity. Nishida defines personal unity as "an intuitive unity of the I of yesterday and the I of today" (Nishida 1988, 6 : 399) and thus thematizes the relationship between two diachronically distinct "person-stages,"6 P1 at the time t1 and P2 at the time t2, that is central to the criteriological project. The key problem for any philosophical quest for personal identity is to examine [End Page 224] whether it is possible to establish the logical and ontological identity of two such diachronically distinct person-stages, P1 and P2, as Leibniz argues, or whether Parfit's solution that these person-stages are continuous but not identical is more tenable. Leibniz differentiates between the flux of memory and consciousness on the one side and an unchanging substance on the other in order to establish an identity over time, while Parfit rejects such a substance as an additional fact (a fact "in addition to" the psycho-physiological continuity of person-stages).

Nishida rejects both positions and argues that two distinct stages of what we commonly call "one person" are simultaneously identical and different. In order to clarify this paradox, Nishida develops a threefold phenomenology of personal identity. In short, Nishida describes the relationship between the "'I' of yesterday" and the "'I' of today" as the process from the created to the creating () and as the movement from the present to the present () and thus combines an asymmetric as well as a symmetric conception of continuity. It is this dialectic between an asymmetric and a symmetric terminology that gives Nishida's conception of continuity qua continuity of discontinuity its unique flavor.

From the Created to the Creating

Upon first reading, Nishida's "from the created to the creating" seems so thoroughly Sartrean that it is possible to paraphrase it as "from existence to consciousness" and "from the being-in-itself to the being-for-itself." In analogy to Sartre, Nishida seems to distinguish between the existence of self-consciousness, the "'I' of yesterday" that is objectively given as the created, and self-consciousness, the "'I' of today" qua...


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