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  • The Kyoto School: An Introduction by Robert E. Carter
  • Richard F. Calichman (bio)
The Kyoto School: An Introduction. By Robert E. Carter. State University of New York Press, Albany, 2013. xxii, 236 pages. $75.00, cloth; $24.95, paper.

In his foreword to this volume, Thomas P. Kasulis describes The Kyoto School: An Introduction as a nyūmon, an introduction that can be understood [End Page 500] in its literal meaning as an “entry gate.” “Every great Japanese institution has a nyūmon,” Kasulis writes, citing the example of entrances to Zen Buddhist temples, Shintō shrines, and educational sites such as the University of Tokyo (pp. x–xi). To this we can add the more general point that gates do not simply demarcate the space of an entity that has already appeared or presented itself as such; on the contrary, gates help determine the entity in its presentation, invariably transforming it in the course of its appearing and reappearing in the world. By its very nature, in other words, the introduction alters what it introduces. Although introductions are generally regarded as a medium through which an object can be more or less transparently represented, the fact is that this medium subjectively intervenes in the establishment of its object.

It is important to keep this point in mind, as there is nothing inherently “Japanese” about Kyoto School philosophy. Both Kasulis and the book’s author, Robert Carter, wish to determine the Kyoto School in this manner, as indeed did many of the Kyoto School thinkers themselves, and this desire is itself of interest given the fact that philosophical discourse typically aims to transcend the relativism of cultural particularity and arrive at something like universal truth. In studies of “Western” philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Henri Bergson, for example, one rarely sees attempts to so intimately link the thought of these philosophers to the specific national cultures of Germany and France, respectively. In the discourse on the Kyoto School, however, one encounters a powerful desire to determine this philosophy as properly Japanese, a product of Eastern culture in its distinction from the West. Rather than question or challenge this desire, Carter unfortunately replicates it. Much could be said about the culturalism that governs such East-West discourse, and how Kyoto School philosophy, which is otherwise sharply critical of such dichotomies, nevertheless participated in reinforcing these cultural binaries. Much too could be said about the whole-part relation that ideologically determines individuals as members, or parts, of national cultural totalities, from which one could then inquire into the possibility of conceiving of forms of resistance to this framework. These questions do not exist outside of philosophy; they are in no way extraneous or incidental to philosophical discourse. Carter, however, regards such issues as strictly tangential to his project of introducing Kyoto School philosophy. He regards this philosophy as, in some sense, an explicit conceptual articulation of a mindset that inheres among the Japanese people and can be seen in latent or inchoate form among certain “traditional” Japanese cultural practices.

Before exploring this point, however, let us provide a general overview of the four primary chapters, each devoted to a major Kyoto School philosopher: Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), Tanabe Hajime (1885–1962), Nishitani Keiji (1900–1990), and Watsuji Tetsurō (1889–1960). These chapters are clearly laid out and informative in their presentation of the ideas of these [End Page 501] thinkers. The Nishida chapter focuses mainly on his seminal 1911 work, Zen no kenkyū (An inquiry into the good). As Carter explains, Nishida attempted in this text to elaborate a notion of “pure experience” through dialogue with thinkers such as Bergson and William James. This experience represents a primal unity that emerges prior to the distinction between subject and object. For Nishida, the structural unity that governs man in his faculties of thinking and willing is identical to the structural unity that underlies the world of objects. In this way, experience must be conceived as more originary than the individual subject, who can only appear on the basis of that experience.

Carter, who has written extensively on Nishida elsewhere, reveals a keen understanding of the philosopher’s thought. Yet it must...


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