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.