- Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School
Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School, by James W. Heisig, is indeed a very good book. It provides a systematic interpretation and appraisal of the three key figures of the Kyoto school—Nishida Kitarō , Tanabe Hajime, and Nishitani Keiji—together with an in-depth account of the sociopolitical context in which they worked. Heisig succeeds in indicating the importance of each of these philosophers both within the Japanese context and beyond. He deftly summarizes the philosophical positions of each of the three and details the interactions between them, as well as with other philosophers of their era. The book's style is accessible, although the ideas are often dense and the analysis subtle. There are no footnotes per se, but instead a bibliographical essay is provided for each of the sixty-six sections of the book. [End Page 273]
Heisig claims that the Kyoto school philosophers give the West a way into the East like none other (p. 272). They thrust Japanese philosophical and religious thought onto the world stage, revealing an East Asian perspective to the outside world, as well as to the Japanese themselves. They self-consciously attempted to articulate the distinctiveness of the Japanese mind-set in particular, and the Eastern way of thinking generally. Heisig artfully weaves the thought and times of these three thinkers together into a tapestry of understanding and insight of the highest quality.
As is always the case, however, there are issues that remain which might have been dealt with, and interpretive differences to be noted. Nishida began his philosophical journey with his groundbreaking Inquiry into the Good, published in 1911.1 His goal in that work, as Heisig describes it, was to introduce the important but radically nonphilosophical language of Zen to the closed world of philosophy, and conversely to use philosophy to find a language to talk about those things that Zen had always insisted were not susceptible to rationalization. The Inquiry created a significant stir in Japan upon its publication, and Nishida's appropriation of William James' notion of pure experience appeared to span the philosophical differences East and West without smoothing over those differences.
Yet Heisig's critical honesty forces him to underplay the actual lasting importance of the Inquiry. Nishida, too, later criticized the heavy psychological emphasis of the book.2 However, it seems too strong to argue, as Heisig does, that the work is a classic only because of its influence and its place in Nishida's own philosophical development (p. 41). Heisig is frank in anticipating that some will find his diminishing of the Inquiry as "irreverent." I admire his irreverence as a cautionary attempt to save us all from a bandwagon elevation of Nishida and the Kyoto school, but I think he underestimates the subtle brilliance of the book and its profound originality. To be sure, the Inquiry is a notebook of insights and ideas to be developed. Not only is experiential nonduality a focus (and with it a critique of the dogma of intentionality), but there is also the reinstatement of religion as foundational to all systematic thinking, an account of God as both immanent and transcendent (including nothingness) together with God's role in Eastern thought, and a theory of ethics based on the innate tendencies within each of us as located at the deeper, unconscious levels of our nature. Heisig concludes that the Inquiry is "less an achievement than an agenda to direct his work in the years ahead" (p. 42). It seems evident to me that this pioneering work is both an immense achievement and an agenda for a lifetime of future investigation. The richness and suggestiveness of Nishida's explorations in the Inquiry seem to me to ensure that the work is genuinely worthy of being judged a classic on its own philosophical merits.
Heisig recognizes over and over again the importance of the mystical element in all three...