- Nishida and Western Philosophy
Robert Wilkinson is a comparative philosopher who teaches at Open University in Edinburgh and has worked for years in the areas of comparative philosophy of mind and comparative aesthetics. This book should be read as part of a larger discussion of the philosophy of Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), which began with Keiji Nishitani (Nishida Kitarō, trans. S. Yamamoto and J. W. Heisig, University of California Press, 1991) and continues with Robert E. Carter (The Nothingness Beyond God: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Nishida Kitaro, Paragon House, 1997) and Robert J.Wargo (The Logic of Nothingness: A Study of Nishida Kitarō, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2005), among others. Going beyond his predecessors, however—even though it is unfortunate that Wilkinson does not interact much with them explicitly—Nishida and Western Philosophy prosecutes a clear even if perhaps controversial thesis: that in the end, Nishida’s philosophy of self-contradictory identity was, as a natural outgrowth of his Buddhist and Zen experience of satori (awakening), fundamentally incommensurable with the philosophy of identity that has characterized the major trajectory of the Western philosophical tradition.
There are four chapters to the book (besides the introduction and then the summary and conclusions). The first focuses on Nishida’s starting point, the Zen Buddhist experience of enlightenment regarding the ultimate emptiness (mu), which albeit a difficult term to translate can be understood at least in part as referring to the nonduality, or even the interrelatedness, of all reality. Nishida’s work can be seen as a lifelong quest to formalize this experiential insight systematically in dialogue with the Western philosophical tradition. In a sense, this can be understood as a spirituality in search of a metaphysic, and given the emergence of Japan on the world stage at the beginning of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that up-and-coming Japanese philosophers like Nishida sought to legitimate their own insights in the Western idiom. But precisely for the same reason, however, Nishida rarely appealed to Asian sources, even within the Buddhist tradition, especially in his earlier work.
Chapter 2 explicates Nishida’s early philosophy of pure experience, particularly as summarized in his Inquiry into the Good (1911; English translation: Yale University Press, 1990). The major dialogue partner at this point was William James and his notion of radical empiricism, which provided Nishida with Western conceptual resources to think through the primordial base from out of which conscious experience emerged. Thus did pure experience point to the nondual dimension of consciousness before the split between subject and object. Nishida never repudiated his Jamesian connection, although his ongoing work pushed him further and deeper into the metaphysical and ontological dimensions of consciousness that eventually left behind James’s more psychologically driven formulations.
Next Wilkinson turns to Nishida’s second major book, Intuition and Reflection in [End Page 231] Self-Consciousness (1917; English translation: State University of New York Press, 1987), and focuses primarily on the Japanese philosopher’s interactions with the Neo-Kantian school of philosophy, Fichte, and Bergson. Each of these provided specific resources for this stage of Nishida’s philosophical project. The Neo-Kantians helped him to think about how the noumena-phenomena and fact-value distinctions contrasted with his own philosophical intuitions regarding their primordial unity in historicity. Fichte enabled the forging of a philosophy of action-consciousness, which promised to go beyond the subject-object distinction, even if in the end (for Nishida), the Fichtean ego remained “trapped” within the logic of identity rather than becoming “delivered” by or within the Zen logic of no-thingness. Bergson, meanwhile, was attractive precisely because of his dynamic (rather than static) philosophy of elan vital or conscious becoming even if Nishida was already discerning at this time that the Bergsonian elan both presumed an ontological togetherness that succumbed to the Western logic of identity on the one hand, and was not sufficiently attentive to the contrary of becoming—death, or the lapsing back into no-thingness—which was a prominent feature of historical reality on the other hand. Yet these Western interlocutors...