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Philosophy in Asia

Nishida Kitarô's Studies of the Good and the Debate Concerning Universal Truth in Early Twentieth-Century Japan

Robert W. Adams
Sophia University

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ABSTRACT: When Nishida Kitarô wrote Studies of the Good, he was a high school teacher in Kanazawa far from Tokyo, the center of Japanese scholarship. While he was praised for his intellectual effort, there was no substantive agreement about the content of his ideas. Critics disagreed with the way he conceived of reality and of truth as contained in reality. Taken together, I believe that the responses to Nishida's early work give us a window on the state of Japanese philosophy in the early twentieth century. In what follows, I give evidence for the existence of such a debate about the nature of truth and reality. After a sketch of Nishida's position (in which scientific truth is made subordinate to an all-encompassing divine truth), I outline the positions of two other contemporary thinkers: Katô Hiroyuki and Takahashi Satomi. With respect to Nishida, they offer markedly different takes on the question of universal truth: Katô favors an antireligious, scientific positivism while Takahashi accepts an existentialist notion of radical human finitude, in which human access to any certainty is denied. I conclude that one is confronted with a lively debate by Japanese philosophers inside Japan about the definition of truth and consequently about the nature of reality.

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Nishida Kitarô (1870-1945) wrote the essays that make up Studies of the Good while a high school teacher in Kanazawa, in the hokuriku region on the Japan sea, far from the center of scholarship in Tokyo. The essays originally appeared separately in various journals and in 1911 were published in book form. From the publication of the first essay, "Concerning the Nature of Reality", in Tetsugaku zasshi, the journal of the philosophy seminar at Tokyo Imperial University, Nishida faced a number of direct and indirect critiques. While his intellectual effort was highly praisedone person proclaiming that such a level of accomplishment . . . would have been unattainable for anyone but a true scholarthere was no such agreement about the content of what Nishida had written. Critics disagreed with the way he conceived of reality and of truth as contained in reality. Taken together, I believe that the responses to Studies give us a window onto the state of philosophizing in Japan in the early twentieth century. The responses show that four decades into the program of opening up to the West, philosophers in Japan were in full-scale debate about the nature of truth and reality. In this short talk, then, I will give evidence fornot a complete catalog ofthe existence of such a debate about these most fundamental of philosophical issues.

After a sketch of Nishidas position, in which scientific truth is made subordinate to an all-encompassing divine truth, I will outline the positions of two other contemporary thinkers Katô Hiroyuki and Takahashi Satomi. In critiques that can be directly or indirectly related to Nishida, they offer markedly different takes on the question of universal truth: Katô favors an anti-religious, scientific positivism; while Takahashi accepts an existentialistic notion of radical human finitude, in which human access to any certainty is denied. Other participants in this debate should also perhaps have been included, but time constraints prevent dealing with them fairly.

The universality of truth is of central importance to Nishida Kitarô in Studies of the Good, and it is set in direct competition with a purely scientific conception. Nishidas concern is to demonstrate how the entire universe forms one all-encompassing truth. Reminiscent of Berkeleys world-sustaining Spirit, Nishida also espouses an immaterialism anchored in God, the immanent Power that gives life to the entire physical and spiritual universe. The ceaseless activity of God unifies the many layers of reality, from ones individual consciousness, to society, to nature, to the whole of the created universe, including the motions of stellar phenomena. No mere metaphor, God is for Nishida the unifier of the universe and the universe [is] a manifestation of God.

Nishida's God, which has been described as panentheistic to emphasize that it includes but is more than the sum of the parts of the universe, is accessible to human beings through pure experience. As defined by Nishida, pure experience is the state of experience just as it is without the least addition of deliberative discrimination. It is that state before one has consciouslyand abstractlyseparated oneself as a subject from an objectified world. The self at this sub-conscious level is incessantly active as it unifies for itself its own inhabited world. The self is also a microcosm, replicating at the level of a single self Gods unifying activity in the entire universe. In this way, the core of the selfs unifying activity immediately connects to the unifying power that is the basis of all reality. Hence, pure experience allows a coupling between God and humans; it provides a conduit for truth. Active and creative, this truth is realized by ones whole being, not reflected upon, analyzed, or expressed in words and concepts.

Nishidas belief in the priority of experiential truth leads him to subordinate other conceptions, particularly those of the sciences. If genuinely universal truth exists in the direct experience of God, only the false universality of abstraction is to be found in the sciences. Physics, chemistry, and geometry are thus seen as not universal and in no respect transcending the realm of experience. Following William Jamess Principles of Psychology, Nishida interprets the intuition of geometrical forms as nothing more than a type of feeling. Or, again, he explains that physics deals only with abstract concepts, which therefore cannot be said actually to exist.

The modern scientific approach, moreover, is seen by Nishida as essentially similar to earlier, mythological world views. Like the German philosopher and psychologist Wilhelm Jerusalem (18541923), who was known for his strenuous disagreement with the leaders of Germanys rationalist schools, Nishida holds that both science and myths infer from the freedom of the will that there are objective forces active in the external world.

Of great interest from an epistemological point of view is Nishidas appropriation of Humes skeptical critique of necessity. Hume claims that it is logically impossible for necessity (i.e., causality) to be attributed to relations among phenomena in the world, because necessity must be limited to conclusions reached deductively, which can have nothing to do with experience. Unlike Nishida, Hume cites the fields of algebra, geometry, and logic as containing necessity, but the two agree that the validity of knowledge gained from experience must be limited by the rules of induction. Knowledge from experience, scientific knowledge, may thus have some probability of being true but can never be considered necessarily true. In the Reality section of Studies, Nishida uses this argument to deny that natural law can ever be more than an inductive generalization. He concludes:

The laws of nature, attained through the law of induction, are simply assumptions that because two types of phenomena arise in an unchanging succession, one is the cause of the other. No matter how far the natural sciences develop, we obtain no deeper explanation than this one, which becomes ever more detailed and encompassing.

Nishida uses another of Humes arguments five years later, in January 1912, in an article on the concepts of natural and normative law. This time he follows Hume by assuming that any claim for the universality of natural law must illicitly include the idea of the uniformity of nature as a hidden major premise. The inclusion of this premise would convert an argument based on experience and therefore inductive to one that results from a categorical syllogism and therefore contains necessity. Nishida writes that:

According to what is know as scientific law, the relations between things are thought to have universal validity because of an assumption such as there being a uniformity of nature [English in the original], but this hypothesis of a uniformity in nature is, of course, nothing more than a human subjective demand.

To sum up, Nishida views the universe as an organic whole, inter-connected and enlivened by the ultimate unifying power of God. Borrowing Humes skeptical view of scientific truththat is, denying science the status of anything more than generalizations from experienceallows Nishida to subordinate materialistic truth to the divine. Within this context, and only within this context, does he suggest that the two views of truth need not clash, but, in striking contrast to Hume, Nishida asserts that only mediocre and shallow humans would deny the existence of God.

But Nishidas was not the only, nor even the most prominent, view of truth in Japan at the time. Katô Hiroyukis (18361916) perspective can be said to represent a competing position, one from the established centers of learning.

Katô was at the end of a long and illustrious career as an intellectual and statesman when he wrote his far-reaching critique of the nonacceptance of scientific methodologies in the Japanese academy, entitled My Definition of Science and Philosophy. Katô is well-known for his rejection of political idealism shortly after the Meiji Restoration and his subsequent fervent espousal of social Darwinism and positivism. President of Tokyo Imperial University (now Tokyo University), first president of the Imperial Academy, raised to the level of nobility, a member of House of Peers, and advisor to the Meiji Emperor, it is not to be expected that someone of Katôs stature would single out for criticism the first book of an unknown authoras Nishida was at the time.

Still it is apparent that Katôs criticism does apply to Nishida. An indication of this can be found in Katôs Nature and Ethics, published in 1912, in which he criticizes Inoue Tetsujir, a former colleague from Tokyo Imperial University and a distinguished philosopher in his own right, the for his acceptance of what Katô calls the supernatural and unfathomable qualities in Confuciuss concept of heaven. But Katô characterizes Inoue as representing an entire group of philosophers. Katô states that:

Dr. Inoue is not alone in this. It seems that there are a great number of philosophers and ethicists in Japan besides him who, just as is the case in Europe, believe in this first kind of dogmatism.

This group of scholars had fallen prey to what Katô classifies as the first of Kants three metaphysical dogmas: belief in a personal god. While it may seem that this dogma has nothing to do with Nishida, Katô defines the term personal God broadly enough to include not only the Christian notion of a personal God but, indeed, any concept of a supreme God or principle. For Katô, this first metaphysical dogma represents the greatest obstacle to the creation of a modern society.

Thus, when the editors of Tetsugaku zasshi gave Katô the opportunity to write the lead article for the journals 300th edition in February 1912, he contributed his definition of science and philosophy. He had two motives: to vent his displeasure at the continued non-acceptance of scientific methods in the Japanese academy and to set out clearly what he considered the normative conception of truth: a monistic positivism. There is but one objective reality and one universal, natural law, which is understandable only through exact, mathematical methods.

Katô shows little patience for academics who shun mathematical methodologies. Since he acknowledges only one universe, with one natural law that can be precisely understood only through mathematics, it follows that nonscientific research methods obfuscate the truth, amount to little more than religious superstition, and therefore should have no place in the modern university. He states: I believe that research that does not use [exact] methods is nonscientific and the same as religion. It should be purged from the academy.

Katô defines the proper roles of science and philosophy in the following manner: Each field of science is to research one aspect of the natural law, while philosophy is to combine the results attained by the various sciences into a unified theory that expresses the singularity of truth in the universe. Admitting that this goal is not yet in sight the human understanding of the universe and its mechanisms is still underdeveloped he is nevertheless confident that every truth can in principle and one day will in fact be clearly and mathematically understood. He puts it this way:

Since the capabilities of our knowledge are not yet sufficiently developed and our understanding of mathematical methods is still extremely shallow, the result is that many things still appear very strange or mystical. As our capabilities advance, however, I firmly believe that we will reach the point where we can mathematically understand the whole of the universe.

Broadening his argument it to include all academic disciplines, Katô asserts that the mathematical methods of the most exact of the sciences will also assist the human and cultural sciences to gain objectively valid knowledge. He thinks that cultural scientists and philosophers are terribly mistaken in believing that their specialities do not need mathematics. Pointing out that mathematics has led to great advances in the fields of psychology and history, he concludes that even the cultural sciences should follow the natural sciences in their investigation of natural law.

Takahashi Satomi (1886-1964) gives a third competing view, one based on the idea that the human condition is characterized by radical finitude, which means that there are certain limits beyond which human knowledge or experience cannot reach. This existential insistence on human finitude leads him to dismiss all absolutist claims, including Nishidas panentheism and Katôs positivism. This outlook is found in Takahashis critique of Nishida, one of his earliest publications, which appeared in the March and April 1912 issues of Tetsugaku zasshi under the title of Facts of Phenomena of Consciousness and their MeaningOn Reading Nishidas Studies of the Good.

In the essay, Takahashi addresses the metaphysical implications of Nishidas conception of pure experience, and the reasons for his dissatisfaction with Nishida become clear: for by claiming that in pure experience human beings connect to the infinite mystery of God, the unifying force of the universe, Nishida has implied that human beings are at ground infinite beings, a conclusion Takahashi vehemently disagrees with: It is not to be expected that the entirety of realitys infinitude could be manifest in the finite development [found in human beings]. Takahashi goes on to say that Nishidas use of pure experience as the model for the sacred encounter in fact cheapens the mystery of religion by equating the experiences of average people and those of saints: There would be nothing simpler in this world, he asserts, than attaining enlightenment, if we could unite ourselves to the spirit of the universe merely by forgetting the distinction between ourselves and things.

If humans are not privy to the most immediate truths of the universe, they are likewise unable to comprehend any absolute truths about the physical universe. Human finitude in this respect indicates for Takahashi that skeptical doubts can never be completely overcome; nor does he think they should be, for skepticism of certain truth enlivens the creative aspect of human thought. Though many in the history of philosophy have rejected skepticism, calling it suicidal, it is he says always skepticism that calls forth new philosophies.

Accepting the limitations of human knowledge does not, however, lead Takahashi to espouse a radical form of skepticism. He holds what should be termed a pragmatic view of truth, similar to the Humean view of knowledge appropriated by Nishida, but without Nishidas subordination of human knowledge to Gods perfection. Human beings must be satisfied with relatively certain truth, which is generally reliable but, as a product of the human mind, limited.

Through the course of history such reliable knowledge has accumulated in a dialectical process, as new knowledge answers old doubts but at the same time gives rise to new problems. The solving of these problems in turn leads to the formation of more new knowledge, which creates different doubts to answer, and so on in an unending process that leads, over time, to a gradual increase of what he calls fundamental knowledgethat is, knowledge that can be relied on. New doubts are formed as new knowledge answers old doubts, but at the same time a core of reliable knowledge is solidified and expanded.

While the reliability of fundamental knowledge may be said, for all practical purposes, to be beyond doubt, this knowledge is essentially different from the absolutely certain knowledge of the universe that Katô describes. For Takahashi, any claim to true certainty automatically takes knowledge out of the realm of the human and into that of God or the Absolute. Because of this, fundamental knowledge can be said to be much closer to doubtful than to absolute knowledge. While there is an unbridgeable gulf between the absolute and the finite, there is only, in the structure of human knowledge, a relative distinction between knowledge which is fundamental and that which is not.

Thus Takahashis insight that human beings must live within their finite limits, while accepting the positive role of skepticism, puts him at odds with both Nishida and Katô: with Nishida because of the impossibility of a finite being experiencing any part of the infinite mystery of God; and with Katô because human nature means that all knowledge will always be merely provisional, not an objective description of the physical universe.

It is apparent, I believe, even in this very short talk that there is a wide spectrum of conflicting conceptions of truth being proposed in Japan in the early twentieth century ranging from panentheism to positivism to an existentialistic insistence on radical finitudewhich rely on different understandings of the nature of reality itself. Nishida denies the objective truth of the sciences, and instead links humans to the absolute in the mystical state of pure experience. Katô, meanwhile, holds that absolute truth can be found in the universe only through the mathematical methods of the exact sciences and relegates religion to the status of superstition. Takahashi rejects the absolutist claims of both Nishida and Katô, arguing instead that humans, as finite beings, cannot know anything with absolute certainty but must be satisfied with the growth of reliable, pragmatic knowledge.

In conclusion I am reminded of a phrase used by the respected Japanese historian of philosophy, Funayama Shinichi (190794). He explained the beginning of modern Japanese philosophy as an Orientierung rather than an Aufklrung. It was a reorientation, he suggests, from forms of thought that over the centuries had come to be seen as natural and native to Japan; it was not an internal awakening to reason. But as we can see, there is here no slavish acceptance or rejection of a mythically unitary European Enlightenment. Rather, we are confronted with a lively debate, by Japanese and within Japan itself, about the definition of truth and consequently about what reality really is.

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