Western philosophy asks, “What is being?” Japanese philosophy asks, “What is nothingness?”

Neither being nor nothingness.
Neither being nor nothingness.
Image: Pixabay/gerait
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Academic philosophy departments in the West tend to teach a neat, white canon: Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche etc. Those who want to study Eastern thinkers typically have to head to the East Asian studies department. 

This closed-mindedness ignores both the long history of philosophical thinking outside the West, and Japanese philosophers’ concerted effort to engage with Western thought.

One major Japanese school of philosophy, the 20th century Kyoto School, explicitly used Western-style philosophical thinking to answer a question that had long been a feature of Japanese thought. Philosophers from the Kyoto School engaged deeply with Hegel’s writing and studied under Heidegger. But whereas Western philosophers have long focused on “What is being?” as a central question about life, the Kyoto School believed that “What is nothingness?” is far more fundamental.

James Heisig, who taught philosophy in the United States before becoming professor at Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Japan, has spent years working to encourage scholarship regarding the Kyoto School. The interview below is edited and condensed for clarity.

When did Western philosophy come to Japan?

When Japan opened in the 1850s, after a long isolation, they sent people abroad to study Western philosophy and they brought it back. Whoever was big in Europe, they made them big in Japan.

Major thinkers in Japan thought ‘We don’t really have anything like this here.’ They created the word ‘philosophy’ for Western philosophy, because the word didn’t exist in Japanese or Chinese or Korean. At the same time they created the word for ‘religion.’ The distinction between philosophy and religion is completely foreign to Japan. Even though it’s found its way here now, the classical texts ignore them pretty much as Hegel did.

Eastern thought wasn’t taught as philosophy; only Western philosophy was taught as philosophy. When you went to the philosophy department at Tokyo University or Kyoto University, we studied Western thought.  They bought in scholars from Germany and the United States to teach Western philosophy in German and English.

Up until 1990s in the book stores in Japan the section for philosophy was all Western thought. Even Japanese people doing Western-style philosophy—that was called ‘thought’ and it was in a separate section.

But there was philosophical thought in Japan before then?

I published Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook to show that philosophy in Japan begins in the seventh- and early-eighth century. Philosophy proper, according to any definition you give of it, exists in Confucianism, Buddhist, Shinto, and Native studies, in other branches of aesthetics and women’s studies. We wanted to redefine philosophy to include Japan. We’ve been trying to change that for the last 30 years. I think now it’s accepted in most circles.

Why hadn’t there been a word for ‘philosophy’ in Japan?

Why would you need a name for it?  Maybe the question is why did  the West decide for a single name?  It was an ancient Greek term that was passed onto the entire tradition even though this field is very, very varied. 

Instead of ‘What is being?’ which is a feature of existential thought and Western thought, Kyoto looked at ‘What is nothingness?’ Why is that such a fundamental question?

Nothingness is more foundational for them than the concept of being.  They were trying to ask a question that philosophy hadn’t asked, or at least they hadn’t found it in philosophy in a form that they liked. It’s a Japanese question from the Japanese intellectual tradition of Confucianism Buddhism and so forth, and they wanted to answer it using Western tools, using the logic and critical thought of the West.

The initial question was, ‘What does it mean to be awakened, to be enlightened?  What happens when you reach the stage where you’re one with the world around you, how do we describe that?’  As Kitarō Nishida [the philosopher who founded the Kyoto School] began to describe this, he got into epistemology and the notion of ‘the self,’ which they didn’t have in Japan, and the notion of the self knowing the self. It was only after he’d gone through that epistemological tangle that he turned to the idea of nothingness as foundational.

The problem with the idea of nothingness as it sounds like a negative instead of something that has a very positive meaning. We have the concept of ‘the self,’ this skin-bound entity that has a history and remembers its existence and identity. And then you say ‘no self,’ which realizes that the ‘self’ is a kind of fiction. It’s created to guide us day to day but really, fundamentally, we aren’t ‘selves.’ If we say ‘no self,’ that sounds like a negation of something, but in fact it’s a very positive idea.  The same thing is true of nothingness. It isn’t as though it’s the absence of being. Nothingness is something much more comprehensive than being.

Why isn’t nothingness simply absence of being?

The Kyoto School would say that being is the way that nothingness shows itself. Nothing exists that isn’t connected. But connectedness doesn’t exist. It shows itself through things that are connected, but connectedness itself doesn’t exist. You can’t point to it. So, which is more fundamental? Connected things, or connectedness? Connectedness is more fundamental.

So which is more fundamental, being or that which becomes apparent through being, which is this nothingness or void or connectedness or or whatever word you want to give it? Nothingness.

Have these ideas influenced philosophy outside of Japan in the decades since?

The school was pretty much neglected outside of Japan until the 1980s, when the [Nanzan] Institute began to promote the translation. By 1990 these works became translated and people became interested in studying it in Italian, Spanish, and English and, to a lesser extent, in French and German.

This had an effect on Japanese people who were studying Western philosophy. Japanese philosophers would go to Paris to give a talk in French on Descartes and someone the audience would say, ‘What do you think of Tanabe or Nishtani or Nishida’s idea of such and such?’ They came home and realized they had to start reading these people. We had a small generation of people not carefully trained in Japanese philosophy but well-trained in Western philosophy representing it to the West. That caused some confusion.

How have Japanese philosophers responded to growing interest from non-Japanese philosophers?

There’s a small group of Japanese who say, ‘It’s not Japanese anymore. We should insist that people have to know the language and complex background from which they came to understand it.’

I’m saying, ‘No, you don’t.’ Japanese philosophy is universal, not in the sense that it’s all studied in the way Japanese tell us we should study it. It’s universal because it grows as it’s translated. It enters common space.

As more and more Japanese study abroad, they begin to recognize the contributions to Japanese philosophy being made by people who don’t necessarily even know Japanese very well. After all, if only the people who knew Danish could write about Kierkegaard, we wouldn’t have Kierkegaard studies.

There are Japanese studies in the West but they tend to be in separate East Asian departments instead of in philosophy. Is there enough interaction between these ideas and Western philosophy?

That’s the right question. For too long, these ideas have been kept out of philosophy. The reason is that teachers didn’t know the languages or the background. People who did East Asian studies and had to study Korean or Japanese or Chinese spent so many years on the linguistics, they didn’t have time to read literature or Western philosophy widely. They stayed in their own field. That’s changing now.

Among the older scholars, I think they’re now finally too embarrassed to say that that doesn’t count as philosophy. Even Derrida in his late years realized there’s philosophy outside the West, and important philosophy. He didn’t have access to the texts, he hadn’t studied them. The older generation didn’t and can’t ask the kind of questions you’re asking. But the younger generation can. They’re coming over, studying, they have the skills. There’s a big interest.

Are there ideas in Japanese philosophy that haven’t been considered in the West?

The first reaction is for people to say, ‘There’s something in Japan and it’s unique. It should be studied on its own and there’s nothing in the West quite like it.’ I think we’re getting over that stage. We’re getting to another stage where we’ve realized, there’s nothing in the great philosophies of the East or the West we don’t find on the other side. It’s like a kaleidoscope: If you take it apart, you’ll find a few colored stones and a few mirrors. When you put it together again, the jumble is arranged differently; the same fundamental problems and questions are arranged differently. What’s on the periphery in mainstream Western philosophy may be at very much the center of Eastern philosophy.

The same elements are there on both sides. It’s just that they’re arranged differently.