Black Illumination: the abyss of Keiji Nishitani

by Eugene Thacker

Special To The Japan Times

I’ve always felt there are basically two kinds of philosophers: those who begin in wonder and those who begin in despair. Though the philosopher Keiji Nishitani (1900-90) was arguably the latter kind, he struggled throughout his life to see the world with wonder.

At the center of his philosophy lies the problem of nihilism, what he called “the abyss of nihility” — the absence of any meaningful relationship between the human being and the nonhuman world into which it is cast. But this was not just a subjective dilemma for Nishitani. Attentive to the rapid changes in mid-20th-century Japan and across the globe, Nishitani sought to comprehend “the tendency to lose the human” in a world at once post-industrial and postmodern. The questions he posed are still relevant, specifically to our recent concerns about the climate and planet. Rather than ignore this abyss, Nishitani sought to go deeper into it. As he once put it, “the fundamental problem of my life has always been, put simply, the overcoming of nihilism through nihilism.”

Nishitani’s philosophy grew out of his first experiences with this abyss. As a youth he struggled with bouts of illness, but discovered his love of reading in periods of convalescence. In high school — listless and bored — he found further solace in books after abandoning the official curriculum. He steeped himself in Fyodor Dostoevsky, Natsume Soseki, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Christian mystics and, above all, Nietzsche.

At university, Nishitani refused the path expected of him (to study law), but no clear alternative presented itself — each option seeming as inconsequential as the next. The small questions about his life decisions began to unravel into big questions concerning life in general and the world itself … all the little doubts unraveling into a taigi (“great doubt”).

Nishitani would later describe this hovering, unstable state in his major work, “Religion and Nothingness”: “A void appears here that nothing in the world can fill; a gaping abyss opens up at the very ground on which one stands. In the face of this abyss, not one of all the things that had made up the stuff of life until then is of any use.”

Most of us, if we recognize this feeling, also recognize the range of social responses to it.

“In such a case,” Nishitani writes, “the person may commit suicide or he may go on living. If he continues to live he may become a vagrant or a poet, he may give himself up to social action or moneymaking, etc.”

Often we learn not to worry about questions without answers or problems without solutions — we simply continue on with our lives. But Nishitani could not or would not let his questions go unanswered. He writes, “when this horizon does open up at the bottom of those engagements that keep life moving continually on and on, something seems to halt and linger before us.”

In the 1920s he studied philosophy at Kyoto University, where he made this “abyss of nihility” the cornerstone of his philosophy. There he would become affiliated with the Kyoto School tradition (examined in James Heisig’s pioneering 2001 study “Philosophers of Nothingness”). Nishitani rigorously studied Mahayana Buddhism and Zen, while also cultivating his interest in Western philosophy. He also regularly visited Shokokuji Temple in northern Kyoto to practice Zen meditation, and it was this practice that would sustain him throughout the difficult periods during and after World War II (following the war, Nishitani was forced to resign from his position by U.S. Occupation authorities). Nishitani also received funding to study with Martin Heidegger in Freiburg. There Nishitani began to conceive of a syncretic, comparative philosophy that would bring together elements from Mahayana Buddhism, the mystical philosophy of German theologian Meister Eckhart, the Zen writings of Dogen and Nietzschean nihilism.

This syncretic approach — by no means the norm at the time — allowed Nishitani’s philosophy to develop in unique ways. If he had focused only on “nihility” it would be nothing more than a contribution to the many existential philosophies popular at the time. But nihilism was just the beginning for Nishitani. He began to view the human being — reduced through science, manufactured through technology, alienated in our social relations and rendered insignificant by the scale of the planet, the human being — as everywhere in general, and nowhere in particular.

Like many Kyoto School thinkers, he turned to the concept of sunyata — a Sanskrit term conventionally translated as “nothingness” or “emptiness” — as a way of comprehending this enigmatic, impersonal aspect of the world. But this is not nihilism as typically understood, this nothingness is no void that must be filled: sunyata is not some thing in itself nor some empty container in which things exist and persist. It is, paradoxically, “the point at which everything around us becomes manifest in its own suchness.”

Stripped of essences, attributes and values, all that remains for the human being is what Nishitani called “the impersonal,” where we find ourselves radically out of place with the nonhuman world: “a cosmic sky enveloping the earth and human beings and the countless regions of stars that move and have their being within it.”

Nishitani is highly regarded in the history of Japanese philosophy. More than anyone, he placed nihilism at the center of any future philosophy. For him, nihilism was not just an abstract concept but a deeply personal experience, and yet one that opened onto the impersonal — the climate, the Earth itself and every other nonhuman thing that remains indifferent to our wants and desires. That this view of nihilism recurs again and again — culturally, socially, historically — is evidence of our need to understand the world in non-human as well as human terms. Ultimately both categories emerge as tenuous and uncertain.

Along the way, Nishitani overcame the old struggle between despair and wonder by taking a position that was at once neither and, strangely, both at the same time.

As he writes in “Religion and Nothingness,” “the field of emptiness (sunyata) points directly to a most intimate encounter with everything that exists.”

This is the third article in a series on pessimism in Japanese literature. Eugene Thacker is the author of “In The Dust Of This Planet” (Zero Books, 2011) and “Cosmic Pessimism” (Univocal, 2015).