Meet 20th century Japanese philosophers

Helal Uddin Ahmed and Mehrabul Ferdausi | Published: December 07, 2018 18:59:45

Japanese philosophers have wielded considerable influences on the society and culture of Japan as well as the Eastern and Southeast Asian countries since the medieval era. This article presents a chronological review of some of the major Japanese philosophers of the Twentieth Century. They were: Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945 CE), Suzuki Daisetsu Teitaro (1870-1966 CE), Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962 CE), Watsjui Tetsuro (1889-1960 CE), Miki Kiyoshi (1897-1945 CE) and Nishitani Keiji (1900-1990 CE).

Nishida Kitaro was one of the first major Japanese philosophers who presented their own philosophical views to the world at large. A philosophy graduate of Tokyo University, he taught philosophy at Kyoto University from 1910 to 1928. His students and some of the colleagues are considered to have given birth to the 'Kyoto School' (Kyoto Gakuha). It became the dominant philosophical school in Japan from the 1920s onwards. His works have been collected in the volume 'Nishida Kitaro Zenshu'.   

Nishida's maiden work 'An Inquiry into the Good' (Zen no Kenkyu, 1911) is said to have given Japanese philosophy its own voice. He developed a system of his own that included insights from Japanese culture and Zen Buddhism, which made his philosophy quite unique. He applied the concepts of 'place' and 'absolute nothingness', but he articulated his views in terms of Western philosophy instead of the language of Buddhism. William James, Fichte and Aristotle were his earlier influences, while Hegel and Marx were the later ones. Distinguished by differences in emphasis, Nishida's works can also be divided into 'early', 'middle' and 'later' works.

The early works of Nishida dealt with the 'philosophy of pure experience', which were influenced by the writings of William James, Hussurl and many others. He tried to replace 'subject/object' metaphysics with a new concept of experience. This theory did not consider reality as something substantial, but looked at it as a 'dynamic field of pure experience' that underlined the abstractions of subject and object. Thus pure experience was not considered to be belonging to either 'psychological' or 'epistemological' category. Rather, it embodied a dynamic unity of thought, will, emotion, and a world that preceded reflective analysis.

Nishida felt during his middle period (1920s) that his earlier view of pure experience was still subjective. He therefore put forward the new concept of 'place' (basho) at the centre of his philosophy. According to him, the metaphysical category of 'place' was originally inspired by the Greek concepts of 'topos' and 'chora'. By developing the concept, Nishida proposed that there must be a 'field' or 'background' for any being to be 'what it is', against which such an identity could be distinguished meaningfully. However, this background constituted an essential element of the identity itself, and not merely accidentally related to the identity. Similar to Hegel, Nishida attempted to create a 'system' of knowledge, self, action, history, and spirit. He provided various contextualising frameworks like empirical knowledge, action, history etc. for a given analysis, which transcended the limits of each and gave rise to a more encompassing framework. The self itself was not considered by him to be merely an abstract entity, but it was to be ontologically contextualised further within a more contextualised 'place'. The 'place' in turn was a historical world where actions acquired ontological significance. However, while Hegel's ultimate category was 'absolute spirit', Nishida's was 'absolute nothingness' (zettai-mu), which could not be another 'being' because such a being would require 'place'. Nishida believed that absolute nothingness functioned as the most encompassing field because of its emptiness.

Nishida developed his mature philosophical writings during the 1930s and 1940s. During his later period from the mid-1930s, his focus shifted from the abstract metaphysics of place to the analysis of dialectical historical action. He developed his political and historical theories based on the notion that the 'historical world' (rekishi-teki sekai) was the place of historical action. He held that the 'global world' was the 'place' in which different nations defined themselves through historical interactions. Nations delineated their identities by transcending their own while negating that of others.

Suzuki Daisetsu Teitaro is credited with introducing Zen Buddhism to the West. He received Zen training at Engakuji Monastery of Kamakura while a university student in Tokyo. He then worked with a publishing company at Illinois, USA during 1897-1908, taught at Tokyo Imperial University, lectured in Europe and the USA in mid-1930s and again during 1950s. He translated and wrote on Mahayana Buddhist texts, particularly Zen, throughout his life in both Japanese and English languages. He elaborated on the differences between Zen philosophy and Western philosophy cum Christian mysticism, and its influences on Japanese culture and society.

While writing amid the modern-day tussle between Japan and the West and in the backdrop of suppression of Buddhism in Japan, he tried to inform the Western audiences about the distinctive wisdom of the East. At the same time, he sought to encourage Japanese audience to once more appreciate their Buddhist heritage. At the core of his endeavours was a sustained effort to express in modern terminologies the eternal truths of Zen and Mahayana Buddhism. According to Suzuki, the Zen experience of awakening was not only distinct from sensuous experience and discursive awareness, but from intuition also. He tried to challenge two common assumptions, viz. (1) experience needs a subject or mind localised in a person; and (2) reasoning is the highest achievement of the mind.

Suzuki proposed 'prajna' or insight as the highest realisation of human existence. 'Prajna' led to 'discrimination of non-discrimination' or 'undifferentiated knowledge' that went beyond and did not exclude discursive awareness. The mind had to move through such discriminative awareness until its power to decide matters by making distinctions was exhausted. Only then could it break through clarity where awareness and duality became non-dual and completely exposed. Suzuki exemplified this through classical Chinese Zen dialogues instead of supporting such claims through argumentation.

Tanabe Hajime was instrumental in advancing the dialogue with modern European philosophy in Japan. Furthermore, he founded the philosophy of science in Japan and propounded an original social philosophy that earned him recognition as a world-class philosopher. He co-founded the Kyoto School of Philosophy after he had joined the University of Kyoto as Nishida's colleague. He studied with Rickert in Heidelburg and Husserl in Freiburg, Germany during 1922-24, where he also met Martin Heidegger. Tanabe is credited with advancing the critical study of phenomenology and existentialism in Japan, especially in relation to the views of Jaspers. He did a pioneering job on Hegel, but his own philosophical views and outlook left a lasting impression. He was appointed to Nishida's chair in 1927, and he taught some four generations of Japanese philosophers even after his retirement in 1945.

Tanabe responded to Neo-Kantian philosophy of science in his initial studies. Whereas Emmanuel Kant had tried to establish a basis for humanistic or cultural sciences as against natural sciences, Tanabe attempted to bridge the gap between philosophy and all the sciences, as well as between theoretical and objective examination of culture and nature. In his treatise titled 'Outline of Science' (1918), he proposed an intuitively graspable unity between the two forms of enquiry while under the influence of Nishida.  He applied this concept to the relationship between mathematics and logic in his book 'A Study of the Philosophy of Mathematics' (1925). However, starting from 1930s, his interests shifted to social philosophy. His emphasis on intuition and unity then changed to a focus on dialectics and mediation that commenced with his work 'Hegel's Philosophy and Dialectics' published in 1932, and then led to 'The Logic of Social Being' published in 1934. Tanabe then developed his famous 'logic of species', implying that socio-cultural specificities mediate between the universal and the particular, and take shape in social institutions and conditions.

Tanabe's shift to logic of the specifics had twofold motives. His first argument was that formal logic, with its categories of universal and particular, could not accommodate the ways individuals and mankind were defined by mediating factors like ethnicity, nationality, history, etc. Secondly, historical and social dimensions of individuals were as significant as their relationship with anything absolute. Tanabe, therefore, claimed that any mediating relationship is itself defined by additional horizontal social relationships. Consequently, their infinite and constant interjections in real life frustrate any attempt to comprehend the whole in terms of logic. His work 'The Logic of National Existence' proposed that the state represented a higher genus that could ideally mediate between individuals and conflicting social conditions.

Disillusioned with his own nation as well as earlier philosophy towards the end of Second World War, Tanabe published his work 'Philosophy as Metanoetics' in 1946. By generalising the experience of repentance, he proposed the surrender of the wilfully acting self to an 'absolute other-power' that could resurrect the self and renew the culture. Metanoetics was a new terminology coined by Tanabe, and it implied a way of applying philosophy that understood the limits of reason and the power of radical evil. This, along with his subsequent work 'Dialectics of the Logic of Species' (1947), amended Nishida's concept of 'absolute nothingness' by identifying it with an absolute 'Other' that not only 'relativised' the nation-state, but also allowed mediation between individuals and socio-cultural 'species' or 'groups'. In his last major work 'Ontology of Life or Dialectic of Death?' (1959), he tried to come to terms with the total destruction of mankind in the nuclear age and further developed his interpretations of Heidegger, Christianity and Buddhism. His legacy has been the metanoetic philosophy that proposed that the deepest social and philosophical issues and problems must be tackled at the personal level.

Born in late 19th century, Watsuiji Tetsuro was Japan's premier ethicist cum cultural philosopher during the 20th century. He introduced Kierkegaard to Japan and undertook a critical study of Nietzsche in his early works of 1913-15. But he later deplored his own aestheticism and started criticising the individualism of Western heritage and its impact on modern Japan in his book 'Revival of Idols' in 1918. He undertook cultural studies on early Japanese Buddhist art, the practical philosophy of Indian Buddhism and the cultural significance of ancient Christianity. He introduced the works of the medieval Zen master Dogen to philosophical investigations for the first time through his essay 'The Monk Dogen (1920-23).

Watsuji joined the Kyoto University in 1925 as a professor of ethics, where Nishida and Tanabe were his colleagues. His 'Studies in the History of the Japanese Spirit' (1926, 1934) led to his important works 'Ethics' (3 volumes, 1937, 1942, 1949) and 'History of Japanese Ethical Thought' (2 volumes, 1954). From 1934 to 1949, he held the ethics chair at the University of Tokyo. 'Fudo' (1935) was his most popular work, which was a philosophical study of climate and culture. Relationships among and between humans as well as their environment remained at the centre of his philosophy. He held the view that human beings ('ningen' in Japanese, literally 'the interpersonal' or 'inter-human') were fundamentally spatial and relational. His proposition that 'between-ness' (aida gara) or 'relationality' of experience was the defining structure of human existence contained an implicit criticism of Heidegger's individualistic 'Dasein' defined by temporality as well as traditional Confucian and Buddhist philosophies, which lacked the idea of intentionality.

Watsuji borrowed heavily from the classical five relations and the Buddhist self-negation for defining the normativity of moral laws and ethics. He regretted his complicity with nationalism in the post-Second World War era, but has remained as one of the most influential Japanese philosophers long after his death. His ethics could transcend chauvinism and still survives as a significant alternative view in moral philosophy.   

Miki Kiyoshi was the first philosopher in modern Japan to have contributed to the development of philosophical anthropology and philosophy of history.  He was a student of Nishida and Tanabe at Kyoto University. He also studied under Rickert and Heidegger during 1922-23, and then went to Paris in 1924 to start his innovative work on Pascal. Miki was appointed a professor at the Hosei University of Tokyo, but he lost his position in 1930 during a political purge by the Japanese government because of his Marxist orientation. His 'Study of Man in Pascal' (1926) interpreted the French philosopher in clarifying how experiences underlie concepts and concepts inform experience.

Miki proposed a 'fundamental experience' conditioned by history and society that reconciled the rational and irrational as opposed to Nishida's idea of 'pure experience' prior to all conceptualisation. His works 'Historical Materialism and Modern Consciousness' (1928) applied the proletariat's experience to describe fundamental historicity and the practical orientation of man's existence. After that, his 'The Philosophy of History' (1932) explained the three successive features of history: real, objective events underlie history as being; their descriptions identify history as a form of discourse; but facticity is at the root of both, which is a-priori and not counted under the purview of objective being or the discourse of subjects. Miki's 'The Logic of the Imagination' (1937-9) developed his insight further by claiming that human actions create new discourses that later become ideological. It justified the notion that the study of human beings should start not with an enquiry of consciousness, but with embodied action. He conceptualised a Marxist existential humanism that offered a compelling alternative to individualistic ethics. Ironically, he died in prison shortly after being imprisoned for providing asylum to a communist sympathiser. 

Associated with the Kyoto School, Nishitani Keiji was both an original thinker and razor-sharp interpreter of European philosophy for the Japanese public, and the Zen Buddhist philosophy for the Western audience. He was a pupil of Nishida, and later himself taught at Kyoto University, where he held the chair of the philosophy of religion from 1943 onwards. He studied with Heidegger in Germany between 1937 and 1939. Because of his alignment with the pro-expansionist Japanese right, he had to undergo a five-year teaching prohibition during the Allied occupation of Japan after the Second World War. He taught at Otani University, Kyoto, University of Hamburg and Temple University in the USA after his retirement in 1963. He wrote prolifically on many topics including the linkages between politics, history, religion and culture, the philosophical status of religion and mysticism, historical consciousness, nature of modern state, and the role of Japan. Central to his inquiries was an insistence that philosophical questions should not be treated as something abstracted from concrete circumstances, rather they should be intertwined with the lives of individuals and societies.

Nishitani held the view that 'Nihilism' was the most important problem faced by mankind during the 20th century. It was a rift between scientific rationality that assumes nature to be indifferent to human conditions and the human need for reassurance that one's life has an ultimate purpose. Nishitani depicted this problem as that of incompatibility of religion and science in the modern times because traditionally religion played this reassuring role. Therefore, nihilism was a historical phenomenon that defined contemporary age, but it had its roots in a recognition that cut across all ages, which was 'human morality'. As a consequence, when religious belief was replaced by technological science as the common basis of European civilization and subsequently of global culture, an abyss emerged not only beneath individuals who sought meaning in their personal lives but also underneath entire cultures that had to forego their traditional moorings of validity. According to Nishitani, the global age of nihilism responded with an assertion of subjectivity, of individual subjects who would define themselves through their own wills and strive for technological control of nature as if they were outside it.   

Through his works 'The Philosophy of Fundamental Subjectivity' (1940), 'Nihilism' (1949) and 'What is Religion', Nishitani advanced a nuanced response to nihilism. It emphasized the individual over the cultural problem, and called for self-awareness about the absence of any ground for existence as individuals. He proposed that the 'nothingness' into which the self, the world and the 'Absolute' emptied did not encourage despair and destitution, but instead a clarity and conviction where humans could stand in a new, wide open field free from self-centredness. In this way, nihilism could be overcome not by adding any external basis to reality, but by plumbing the 'nihilum' more deeply and realizing the 'emptiness' of all forms of reality.

By applying the Buddhist concept of 'emptiness', Nishitani made an exceptionally original attempt to propound a Buddhist notion of history that took into account the uniqueness of each moment. He proposed that rather than conceptualising reality either as mental construction or physical substrate, it should be realized through the relentless pursuit of self-investigation. In his book 'The Standpoint of Zen' (1986), he argued that Zen was a philosophical path similar to that of Socrates, Augustine or Descartes, which required more radical self-examination by delving more deeply into the nature of the questioning self.

In conclusion, it can be safely said that the prominent Japanese philosophers of the 20th century starting with Nishida have undoubtedly left their indelible marks in the domain of world philosophy by coming out of their shell of Buddhist Zen heritage and orientation observed throughout the medieval era.

Mehrabul Ferdausi is a lecturer of Japanese language and culture at Stanford University who did her Master's from the Philosophy Department of Dhaka University, while Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a former editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. Email:

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