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Comparative Philosophy

Hartshorne and Nishida Re-envisioning the Absolute

Tokiyuki Nobuhara
Keiwa College, Japan

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ABSTRACT: This paper is a comparative study of Hartshorne's neoclassical reconsideration of the notion of the Absolute based on his Whiteheadian vision of the divine relativity, and Nishida's attempt at redefining the same notion against the background of what he calls the philosophy of "place" (Jpn., basho) of absolute Nothingness or Buddhist Emptiness. By reconsidering the notion of the Absolute, Hartshorne has come up with the standpoint of "Surrelativism," and Nishida's attempt has resulted in the standpoint of "absolute dialectic as guided by the principle of the self-identity of absolute contradictions."

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What I intend to do in this paper is study comparatively Charles Hartshorne's neo-classical re-consideration of the notion of the Absolute based upon his Whiteheadian vision of the "divine relativity" and Nishida Kitaro's attempt at re-defining the same notion against the background of what he calls the philosophy of the "place" (Jpn., basho) of absolute Nothingness or Buddhist Emptiness. By reconsidering the notion of the Absolute Hartshorne has come up with the standpoint of "Surrelativism" in his Divine Relativity (1948). And Nishida's attempt at redefining the same notion has resulted in the standpoint of "absolute dialectic as guided by the principle of the self-identity of absolute contradictories" in his "The Logic of Place and the Religious Worldview" (written in 1945; published posthumously in 1946).

Hartshorne belongs, as leader, to the second generation of Whiteheadian process-relational thought in North America. By contrast, Nishida is the founder of what is usually called the Kyoto School of philosophy in Japan; deeply inspired by Zen, Nishida vigorously engaged in a wholehearted, laborious encounter with the West philosophically throughout his career. But what I can commonly perceive in the two philosophers is a noticeable philosophical phenomenon: namely, the notion of the Absolute has undergone a profoundly significant process of self-transcendence/self-transformation in either of the two philosophical systems in such a way that one now begins to identify one's own position as "panentheism."

Hartshorne and Nishida both negate and transcend the traditional notion of the Absolute as "transcendence"; in this sense, they both tend to be radically affirmative of the "immanence of the Absolute." And yet at this very juncture they both decidedly deny the linkage of their respective standpoints with that of Spinoza's "pantheism." Hence, panentheism. But how so?

In what follows let me try to answer and elucidate this question as much as I can. For I perceive that herein lie their respectively unique contributions to world philosophy as this can and does actually emerge in the contemporary philosophical arena as we decisively proceed from and go beyond and above ourown self-centric philosphical cum cultural cum religious vision of reality of whatever kind, aiming at some point of convergence with others'. That is, their philosphical missions can be critically acknowledged repeatedly anew in the midst of cross-cultural encounter we today reenact on our own based upon their unique achievements. As far as this point is concerned, John C. Maraldo is right when he says at the end of his critically evaluative essay concerning Nishida's philosophy of culture, "The Problem of World Culture: Towards an Appropriation of Nishida's Philosophy of Nation and Culture," as follows:

Again I diverge from the specific content of his philosophy of culture and focus instead on a context in which it is read. If we are to discard the Japan-centrism of Nishida's philosophy of culture, we must also abandon our reading him as an "Oriental" philosopher. Just as Japan no longer stands for Asia in the realization of a global world, as it ever did, Nishida does not represent "Eastern" or "non-Western philosophy." Even the cursory sketsch I have drawn here begins to show that the most basic problems Nishida dealt with are universal, and his way of dealing with them contrasts as much with other Asian philosophers as with philosophers of the so-called West. His philosophy of culture should be evaluated and appropriated in a way that does not discriminate between massive and increasingly meaningless cultural or geographical blocks like "East" and "West," (1)

It is precisely for the purpose of transforming the East and the West philosophical traditions, as they are represented by Nishida and Hartshorne, into world philosophy as a creative fusion of them that I want to study comparatively their respective endeavors of re-envisioning the notion of the Absolute: namely, two types of "panentheism" as they have been put forward in distinction from Spinoza's "pantheism."

I. Hartshorne Re-envisioning the Absolute: "Panentheism" or "Surrelativism"

Hartshorne's re-envisioning of the notion of the Absolute has been carried out in his thesis, called Surrelativism, also Panentheism. Its main content, according to him, is as follows: "the 'relative' or changeable, that which depends upon and varies with varying relationships, includes within itself and in value exceeds the nonrelative, immutable, independent, or 'absolute,' as the concrete includes and exceeds the abstract." (2) From this doctrine it follows, as Hartshorne further maintains, that "God, as supremely excellent and concrete, must be conceived not as wholly absolute or immutable, but rather as supremely-relative, 'surrelative,' although, or because of this superior relativity, containing an abstract character or essence in respect to which, but only in respect to which, he is indeed strictly absolute and immutable" (DR,ix).

As is evident above, Hartshorne's re-envisioning of the notion of the Absolute takes place only by way of putting it within the context of God as "supremely-relative." In this sense, in order to re-envision the concept of the Absolute, Hartshorne necessarily needs this "supremely-relative" context as that which includes within itself the Absolute and the universe as a whole together. This, I think, is what he means when he writes as follows:

...if the universe is eminently animate and rational, then either it is God, or there are two eminent beings, God and Universe, and a third supereminent entity, which is the total reality of God-and-universe. The dilemma is satisfactorily dissolved only by the admission that the God who creates and the inclusive creation are one God.(DR,79)

In saying so Hartshorne is distinguishing his own standpoint of "panentheism" (which is the view that "deity is in some real aspect distinguishable from and independent of any and all relative items, and yet, taken as an actual whole, includes all relative items") from traditional theism or deism (which makes God "solely independent or noninclusive") and also from "pantheism" of Spinoza's type (which is the view that "deity is the all of relative or interdependent items, with nothing wholly independent or in any clear sense nonrelative")(DR,89-90). In this manner Hartshorne breaks through an impasse of one-sidedness peculiar not only to the standpoint of traditional theism centering around the notion of the nonrelative Absolute but to Spinoza's pantheism based upon the vision of reality as the nonindependent, solely relative deity coterminous with nature, namely deus sive natura.

In a nutshell, the Absolute, for Hartshorne, is God with something left out of account. And God is more than his absolute character (DC,83). Thus, what he is affirming is the contrary of the Hindu doctrine (rejected by Ramajuna and others), which, he thinks, is sometimes asserted also in the West, that "the personal God of worship is a more or less unreal appearance of the absolute" (ibid.). His contention is, then, this, that "the absolute is, rather, an abstract feature of the inclusive and supreme reality which is precisely the personal God" ( ibid.).

Then, Hartshorne takes up the problem of "appearance" and further argues that "the absolute, simply as such, may be termed the appearance of ultimate reality to abstract cognition, including the divine self-cognition in its abstract aspect" (DR,83). Is this also the case in Nishida's philosophy of absolute Nothingness? In trying to answer this question I would like to examine in the next section how Nishida deals with the problem of the Absolute as it expresses itself and appears in the midst of the intra-mundane situation.

‡U. Nishida Re-envisioning the Absolute: The Place of Absolute Nothingness As It Expresses Itself As the Unity/Self-identity of Absolute Contradictories

In his last essay entitled "The Logic of Place and a Religious Worldview," Nishida reconsiders the notion of the Absolute based upon his own peculiar understanding of the matter of religion as the self's encounter with the divine "only through dying," thus relating to the divine in the manner of an "inverse correspondence" (Jpn., gyaku-taioo). For him, conversely, the divine dynamics is in itself operative, inversely correspondingly, to this effect: that "The Absolute is truly absolute by facing absolute Nothingness," in the sense that "the Absolute includes in itself absolute self-negation." (3)

Evidently, this is the same logic as Nagarjuna's view of emptiness emptying itself, as I examined elsewhere. (4) However, what is unique in Nishida's case is the fact that he has applied this logic of emptiness emptying itself or of the Absolute including in itself absolute self-negation to the discursive argument for the existence of God, as I argued in still another of my recent articles. (5) My specific concern here in this paper is with seeing how this Buddhistic re-envisioning of the notion of the Absolute by Nishida can and actually does give rise to his own version of "panentheism."

What is inherent in Nishida's logic of the place of absolute Nothingness is, as far as I can see, the negation of a merely abstract idea of the Absolute like the one depicted by Hartshorne. In Hartshorne's case, there has occurred a radical inclusion of the Abolute within the context of the inclusive and supreme reality which is precisely the personal God--and this as the Deity's abstract character. By contrast, Nishida attacks and challenges the notion of the Absolute itself from within itself, thus transforming its real meaningfulness by way of a discursive articulation of the Buddhist emptiness emptying itself into a unitary one, in the sense of the "self-identity of absolute contradictories," that is, of the so-called Absolute and the Relative. Herein is involved what I might call a metaphysical revolution--one similar to the case of Alfred North Whitehead's insight into the nature of "creativity" as devoid of its own character and actuality and yet as lying at the base of all actual entities.

This whole issue is clearly put forward in the following passage:

Because God, as the self-negation of the Absolute, faces Godself in the manner of an inverse correspondence and is inclusive of absolute self-negation in Godself, therefore God exists through Godself. Because God is absolute Nothingness, God is absolute Being. Because God is at once absolute Nothingness and absolute Being, God is omnipotent and omniscient. Therefore, I hold that because there is Buddha, there are sentient beings, and that because there are sentient beings, there is Buddha. In Christian terms, this would mean that because there is God the Creator, there is the world of creatures, and that because there is the world of creatures, there is God the Creator.(Zenshu,XI,398)

In this logic of the self-negation of the Absolute, the realm of pure potentiality (i.e., the place of absolute Nothingness) converts itself, ontologically, into the realm of actuality (i.e., the world of creatures) simply because it is, in Whiteheadian conceptuality, character-less in this thoroughgoing sense: you just cannot take the characterlessness to mean another character; hence, characterlessness is a dynamism, an ongoing movement. It is precisely along these lines that Nishida attends to the old phrase that God is "nowhere and yet everywhere in this world" (Zenshu, XI, 398). For Nishida, it is a Christian expression of the Buddhist paradox that is called the dialectic of "is" and "is not" at the same time (soku-hi). On the part of Buddhism per se, this dialectic is most manifestly expressed in these terms in the Diamond Sutra:

Because all dharmas are not all dharmas,
Therefore they are called all dharmas.
Because there is no Buddha, there is Buddha;
Because there are no sentient beings, there are sentient beings. @(ibid.,399)
Nishida can find another expression of this same dialectic in the saying of
the Zen master Myocho (Daito Kokushi):
Buddha and I, distinct through a billion kalpas of time,
Yet not separate for one instant;
Facing each other the whole day through,
Yet not facing each other for an instant. (ibid.)

From this Buddhist perspective covering the purely potential and the actual and concrete, Nishida asserts that "a God who is merely transcendent and self-sufficient would not be a true God"(ibid.). For Nishida, God must be transcendent and at the same time immanent--an argument similar to Hartshorne's mentioned earlier, but based upon a different rationale. In the immanent aspect of the deity God is a thoroughgoing "kenotic" actuality who embraces "even a heinous man" (Zenshu,XI,404). And it is important that Nishida thinks of this God as "truly absolute", in the sense of "absolute dialectic as inherent in the self-identity of absolute contradictories." It is precisely in this sense that he begins to use the term "panentheism" in his own way. Within this new context, the absolute being of Spinoza is to be called, as by Hegel, "a caput mortum" (ibid.,399).

Concluding Remarks:

Hartshorne has radically re-envisioned the Absolute by including it within the context of the all-embracing love of God. For him this context is both the personal Deity and the Universe as a whole. In this respect, he regards his standpoint of "panentheism" as not only in line with Spinoza's intellect but also as free from it in perceiving, with Jesus, that nature is not only God but also the God of love, deus est caritas.

This is of profound axiological significance. Hartshorne writes:

The value of the world does not reside merely in there being a single perfect understanding of the individuals in that world, but also in the aesthetic richness arising from the variety and intensity of the experiences of those individuals. (6)

We can critically compare this passage with Spinoza's as follows:

[S]ince nothing can be or be conceived without God, it is certain that all those things which are in nature involve and express the concept of God, in proportion to their essence and perfection. Hence the more we cognize natural things, the greater and more perfect is the cognition of God we acquire, or, (since cognition of an effect through its cause is nothing but cognizing some property of that casue) the more we cognize natural things, the more perfectly do we cognize the essence of God, which is the cause of all things. So all our cognition, that is our greatest good, not only depends on the cognition of God but consists entirely in it. (7)

Hartshorne's vision of panentheism is, accordingly, distinct from Spinoza's type of traditional pantheism, the view that God is merely the cosmos, in all aspects inseparable from the system (namely, Spinoza's "natura naturans" as God as substance and free cause necessitating "natura naturata" as the modes of the attributes of God contained in Godself)--and this solely because of the inclusion of the Absolute within the context of the all-embracing love of God. And yet it distinguishes itself also from traditional theism, the belief that God is not the system, but is in all aspects independent (e.g., Thomas's notion of God as ipsum esse subsistens)(cf.DR,90).

Nishida, too, criticizes Spinoza for his idea of substance being entirely focused upon the direction toward the single whole. Certainly, Spinoza was able to transcend Descartes in this direction, Nishida holds, but he lost sight of the connection with our own self-awareness, which was Descartes's point of departure (Zenshu,X,510). (8)

However, here arises a question in my mind: Is Hartshorne's critical concern with "the aesthetic richness arising from the variety and intensity of the experiences of those individuals" vis-a-vis Spinoza's pantheistic idea of "a single perfect understanding" exactly the same thing as Nishida's attention to "self-awareness" over against Spinoza's notion of the "cognition of God"? I think not. For Hartshorne's critical standpoint is that of the all-inclusive personal Deity, but Nishida is fundamentally based upon his vision of the place of absolute Nothingness as it expresses itself as the unitary self-identity of absolute contradictories, i.e., the purely potential Absolute and the concrete world of sentient beings or creatures.

Hartshorne's "Surrelativism" is shot through with the belief in the personal God, whereas Nishida's transformation of the notion of the Absolute is taking place by way of a new interpretation of the Buddhist metaphysics of emptiness emptying itself. The latter's standpoint is articulated to the full when D. T. Suzuki, Nishida's life-long heart friend, says regarding Basho's famous haiku poem "Furu ike ya!/Kawazu tobikomu,/Mizu no oto; The old pond, ah!/A frog jumps in:/The water's sound!" as follows:

It is by intuition alone that this timelessness of the Unconsciousness [symbolized by the pond] is truly taken hold of. And this intuitive grasp of Reality never takes place when a world of Emptiness is assumed outside our everyday world of the senses; for these two worlds, sensual and supersensual, are not separate but one. Therefore the poet sees into this Unconsciousness not through the stillness of the pond but through the sound stirred up by the jumping frog. (9)

In this sense, if one speaks of emptiness or Nishida's notion of the place of absolute Nothingness as implying something that we can identify as the "penumbral fringe or background or field of perception" (10) only, but not the dynamic field of inter-relationality as such of emptiness and form (in the sense of the world of sentient beings or creatures), one, unfortunately, is totally mistaken in one's understanding of Buddhist emptiness or Nishida's "place" (Jpn., basho) at its final core.

Whether or not a similar misunderstanding is taking place in Hartshorne's reference to the "appearance of the Absolute" I don't know. But one thing, at least, is clear: Hartshorne's notion of the Absolute per se is not clearly defined. In order clearly to define it, he needs its own context of relation within the realm of the Absolute, not just in relation to the concrete and actual. This intra-Absolute or intra-Ultimate context I can find in Whitehead's idea of the Primordial Nature of God as "the acquirement by creativity of a primordial character." (11) In Japan my teacher Katsumi Takizawa has discovered the idea of the Proto-facum. Immanuel or the fundamental unity between God and humanity or creatures as such context. (12)

Then, my next question comes up: How is this new divine context related to Nishida's transformed notion of the Absolute as unity of opposites? My answer is to say that this primordial Deity is "supremely loyal" to the Absolute as Nothingness negating itself to be really absolutely affirmative toward things in the world. But this is the theme I have already amply elaborated upon elsewhere. (13)

The resultant final vision is like this: this new intra-Ultimate divine context is the "out-come" (14) of the metaphysical ultimate, Whitehead's creativity or Nishida's place or unity of opposites; as such, it is the "push" of the universe, whereas Hartshorne's all-inclusive love of God (or the consequent nature of God) is the "pull" and acceptance of the universe. These are two poles of the Divinity who is always "with" us creatures in the midst of the creative advance of the universe: in silence even before calling us, while calling us, and after calling us to be "loyal"--that is, in the manner of Ernst Fuchs's phraseology "language [i.e., God's evocation] helps reality to its truth." (15) Namely, "the hidden, silent reality of God's being with us" gives rise to, and is to be conformed to by, its individualized manifestation in our creaturely self-creative activity while solely mediated by God's "evocation"; and all the consequences of our activity are only to be understood and redeemed by God's "responsive love." And in this whole process God is operative as the "principle of loyalty to Nothingness negating itself" in the universe.

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(1) John C. Maraldo, "The Problem of World Culture: Towards an Appropriation of Nishida's Philosophy of Nation and Culture," The Eastern Buddhist, New Series, 38/2, Autumn 1995, 196-197.

(2) Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964), p. ix; italics Hartshorne's. (Hereafter cited as DR.)

(3) Kitaro Nishida, Zenshu, (Complete Works)(Tokyo: Iwanami, 1947), Vol.XI, p. 397. (Hereafter, Zenshu with volume and page numbers.)

(4) See Tokiyuki Nobuhara, "How Can Principles Be More Than Just Epistemological or Conceptual?: Anselm, Nagarjuna, and Whitehead," Purosesu Shiso (Process Thought), No.5 (1993), 89-102.

(5) Tokiyuki Nobuhara, "How Can Pure Experience Give Rise to Religious Self-Awareness and Then to the Topological Argument for the Existence of God Cogently?: Nishida, Whitehead, and Pannenberg," Purosesu Shiso (Process Thought), No.6 (1995), 125-50.

(6) Charles Hartshorne, Beyond Humanism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1937), p. 47.

(7) Benedictus de Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, ed. and trans. Samuel Shirley (Leiden: Brill, 1989), iv, 11; cited in Alan Donagan, "Spinoza's Theology," in: Don Garrett, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 354.

(8) Cf. Kunitsugu Kosaka, Nishida Kitaro o meguru tetsugakusha gunzo: Kindai Nihon tetsugaku to shukyo (Philosophers Surrounding Kitaro Nishida: Modern Japanese Philosophy and Religion)(Tokyo: Ninerva Shobo, 1997), pp. 59, 63.

(9) D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (Washington: Pantheon Books, 1955), pp. 241-242.

(10) Nancy Frankenberry, Religion and Radical Empiricism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), p. 176; see my afore-mentioned article "How Can Pure Experience...," 133-134.

(11) Alfread North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, eds. David R. Griffin and D. W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), p. 344. (Hereafter cited as PR.)

(12) See Tokiyuki Nobuhara, "Principles for Interpreting Christ/Buddha: Katsumi Takizawa and John B. Cobb,Jr.," Buddhist-Christian Studies, 3 (1983), 63-97.

(13) See Tokiyuki Nobuhara, "Sunyata, Kenosis, and Jihi or Friendly Compassionate Love: Toward a Buddhist-Christian Theology of Loyalty," Japanese Religions, 15/4, July 1989, 50-66.

(14) Whitehead, PR, 88: "This is the conception of God according to which he is considered as the outcome of creativity, as the foundation of order, and as the goad towards novelty."

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