Books

Spreading the word of the philosophers of nothingness

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

Heading out from Tokyo to Nagoya on a shinkansen to visit James Heisig — a leading author of works on Japanese philosophy — I vaguely imagine what the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, where Heisig is a fellow, will look like.

I’ve a mental image of a gleaming white building with deep carpets, probably funded by some ultrawealthy religious foundation, where I will enjoy a coffee in a cafe with a garden view and floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

Yet when I arrive at Nanzan University, I discover that no one has heard of the institute and finally find it to be a ramshackle, forgotten building located (Heisig later tells me) at the “Devil’s Gate” (Kimon) corner of the campus.

It’s a paradox of the Japanese university world that — from the University of Tokyo downward — the more basic and derelict in appearance a university department is, the more distinguished are the intellectual minds contained within it. The Nanzan Institute is no exception: The broad bookcases in the entrance hallway positively groan under the weight of books and journals published by this powerhouse in the Japanese philosophical world.

I’d first briefly met Heisig — an amiable, gentle man — in September at a European Network of Japanese Philosophy (ENOJP) conference in Hildesheim, Germany, where I puzzled him by telling him I would be giving a talk on Nietzsche’s influence on Japanese literature. (“You mean they read his aphorisms?” he asks, as if unaware that Nietzschean ideas run like a gold seam through many of Japan’s modern literary classics.)

Yet I, in turn, am acutely ignorant of Heisig’s pioneering work in explaining the significance of the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy to a broad world audience through such books as “Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School” (2001) and “Much Ado About Nothingness” (2015), as well as his voluminous translations of the writings of the philosophers themselves.

The holy trinity of thinkers that comprise the Kyoto School (so named because they studied and thought at Kyoto University in succession) are Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945), Hajime Tanabe (1885-1962) and Nishida’s former pupil Keiji Nishitani (1900-90). Much of the intellectual achievement of these thinkers was to bridge the gap, each in their own individualistic way, between Western philosophical traditions and the concepts of Japanese Buddhism, particularly Zen.

Yet, until comparatively recently, the Kyoto School was almost completely ignored in the West — although Tanabe and Nishitani visited Germany and were acquainted with Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, European philosophers initially took no interest in their thought.

Even more surprisingly, the Japanese themselves have tended to pay little attention to their native philosophers. Although just about every Japanese university has experts in the history of Western philosophy, many of them still have no one capable of teaching Japan’s own modern philosophers.

Heisig has long argued that the Kyoto School — offering stimulating ideas, a distinctive critique of Western philosophy and applying a Western methodology to Japanese thought — represents Japan’s greatest contribution to world philosophy in the 20th century.

Just as the intense contemplation of Western literary works by Japanese writers in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) led to the explosive emergence of modern Japanese literature, there are clear parallels in the world of Japanese philosophy with its interaction with Western philosophy. Yet when I ask Heisig whether there was a desire in Nishida to create a world-beating philosophy as an item of national pride, he responds, “No, I don’t think Nishida ever thought in terms of coming up with philosophical ideas that would gain Japan recognition. He was simply working out his own thoughts.”

These days, the international study of modern Japanese philosophy has greatly spanned out from the Kyoto School, with other philosophers such as Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960) and Kiyoshi Miki (1897-1945) being the subject of much research. Heisig shows me round the rooms of the Nanzan Institute where scholars from around the world in the fields of religion and philosophy gather to debate ideas.

A polyglot, Heisig originally published “Philosophers of Nothingness” in Spanish while on a yearlong sabbatical in Barcelona and he has lectured all over Latin America. When I sit down in his study, I note that he has been dipping into a book in German on Chinese philosophy.

This multilingual, international and interdisciplinary approach to Japanese philosophy has been picked up and expanded by a new generation of scholars who, in the last few years, have joined together to form the European Network of Japanese Philosophy and who have held wide-ranging annual conferences in Barcelona, Brussels, Paris and Hildesheim. Next summer’s conference — which is open to all members of the public — will be held at the Nanzan Institute.

Heisig and I are joined by Jan Gerrit Strala, a professor of philosophy at Aichi Prefectural University and president of ENOJP. “One of our ambitions,” says Strala, “when we started the group was to achieve the same kind of worldwide recognition for Japanese philosophy that Donald Keene achieved for Japanese literature.”

What most stays in my mind from the September ENOJP conference is that, apart from all the usual weighty philosophical papers, there was an impressive diversity of speakers who took inspiration from Japanese philosophy in activities as diverse as photography and calligraphy, and connected it to subjects such as feminism and Islam.

The ability of Japanese philosophy to break bounds and stimulate a world of other interests has only recently been fully recognized. In the transformative forward march of Japanese philosophy, the Nanzan Institute and the ENOJP, as well as the fascinating books they have produced, seem set to play a key role.

For more information on the European Network of Japanese Philosophy, visit enojp.org.