Japanese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 28, 2023, from

8. Modern Japanese philosophy and its critique of Western philosophy

The Tokugawa policy of seclusion ended with the appearance of US gunboats in 1854 and their demand that Japan open itself to international trade. To protect its sovereignty from infringement by the Western powers, Japan believed it had to become a modern industrial and military power in its own right. The government sent its brightest young intellectuals to Europe and the United States to study what was needed for modernization, such as medicine, engineering, agriculture, postal systems and education. This effort included the study of Western thought as a means to understanding Western society and the ideas behind its science and technology. Although there was some sustained interest in American pragmatism (see Pragmatism), most Japanese philosophers turned toward Germany for their inspiration (see German idealism).

Throughout the nineteenth century, most Japanese leaders hoped Japan could superimpose Western science and technology on a society that remained true to Asian cultural values. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Japan had successfully developed the technology and military might needed to defeat both Russia and China in wars. Many Japanese intellectuals feared, however, that this was at the expense of traditional values. The ideal of detached objectivity in Western science threatened the tradition of apprenticed learning through imitation of the master. The Buddhist and Confucian theories of reality were in jeopardy of being overwhelmed by Western scientism. The new egalitarian ideals of education so helpful in developing a technological society were also part of a democratic worldview that emphasized the individual as basic unit of society and threatened the traditional Confucian virtues and social hierarchy. How to negotiate the differences between traditional Asian and modern Western values became a major concern among Japanese philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century.

The most influential development in modern Japanese philosophy was the emergence of the Kyoto School of thought (see Kyoto School). By the early twentieth century, philosophy had become an academic study in Japanese universities. An influential circle of philosophers clustered around Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), a professor at Kyoto University. This group tended to address problems about the meaning of self, the nature of knowledge, the role of spirituality and the place of both ethical and aesthetic value.

Nishida was the single most influential philosopher in the prewar period. His philosophical goal was to locate empiricism and scientific thinking within a larger system that would also give value judgements a non-subordinate place. Zen no kenkyū (An Inquiry into the Good), his first major work, developed the notion of ‘pure experience’, an idea adapted from William James and perhaps developed in light of Nishida’s own Zen Buddhist practice. The book’s theme is that there is a thrust toward unity in all experience. Thought arises out of the disruption of the unity of immediacy and serves as a means to establishing a more comprehensive unity. In Nishida’s phrase, pure experience is the ‘alpha and omega of thought’.

Nishida himself subsequently decided this early effort was too ‘psychologistic’ and ‘mystical’, and developed a different philosophical system in the 1920s and 1930s that emphasized the ‘logic of place (or topos)’. According to Nishida, every judgement is restricted by the logic of its context, which in turn derives from a broader experiential domain that it cannot explain in its own terms (see Logic in Japan). An empirical judgement, for example, excludes the subject of the experience (see Empiricism). Its internal logic precludes the consideration of the self. Yet, of course, there can be no empirical data without an experiencing subject; so, the logical place within which empirical judgements are made is within a broader experiential context that assumes the function of the self. If that broader context is then made the logical domain for judgements, we have idealism. In turn, according to Nishida, the experiential locus that makes idealist judgements possible cannot be spoken of logically within the domain of idealism. Nishida calls this experiential locus ‘place of absolute nothingness’, the ground of ‘acting-intuiting’. This region cannot be expressed in any logical form, but is the basis of all logical expression. It is also the ground of value: spiritual, ethical and aesthetic.

In this way, Nishida argued that the realm of empirical judgement is necessarily grounded experientially in a realm of value that it cannot analyse from its own standpoint. Nishida’s system attempted to grant Western science its logical place while showing that its experiential ground was what traditional Asian values had affirmed all along. Religion, at least in its Asian forms, was not antagonistic to science, nor was it endangered by science. On the contrary, Nishida argued that spiritual experience is what makes science logically possible.

Nishida argued for the synthesis of Eastern values and Western values by analysing the logic of epistemology. He was joined in this logical or epistemological approach by other philosophers connected in some way with the Kyoto School such as Tanabe Hajime (1885–1962) and Nishitani Keiji (1900–90). Other Kyoto School philosophers addressed the issue from the other direction, by analysing values. Hisamatsu Shin’ichi (1889–1980), for example, analysed the religio-aesthetic worldview of Zen Buddhism, advocating it as the basis for a style of life. Miki Kiyoshi (1897–1945), on the other hand, developed a ‘logic of creativity’ inspired by both Buddhist and Marxist theories of praxis.

Among the modern Japanese ethicists, the most influential was Watsuji Tetsurō (1889–1960), a professor at Tokyo University and not technically a member of the Kyoto School. Watsuji explained that Western ethics takes the individual for its prime locus. Western ethics is constituted vis-à-vis individual needs and the focus of morality is the individual agent. In contrast, Watsuji said, Confucian ethics takes the social as its prime locus, being constituted out of the primary social relations. Watsuji maintained both traditions are faulty in seeing only one dimension of the whole. As an alternative, he developed a philosophical anthropology emphasising ‘betweenness’, a dialectical tension between the individual and the collective. The collective establishes norms within which one can act in a given society, whereas the individual serves as the locus of freedom. If unqualified by the opposing pole, the collective suppresses freedom and the individual rejects the objective validity of norms.

Watsuji concluded, therefore, that true ethical behaviour is possible only as a ‘double negation’ that rejects both poles without settling in either. In this ‘betweenness’ we find the dialectical tension between the social and the individual, the fundamental definition of our human being. So, the nature of ethics follows from the definition of human being, and ethics is the fundamental way of realizing our humanity. Watsuji developed these ideas first in his Ningen no gaku to shite no rinrigaku (Ethics as the Study of Human Being) (1934) and then more fully in his magnum opus, a three-volume work called simply Rinrigaku (Ethics) (1937–49).

Citing this article:
Kasulis, Thomas P.. Modern Japanese philosophy and its critique of Western philosophy. Japanese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G100-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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