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Sunday, July 29, 2001

One-stop shopping in the Kyoto School

PHILOSOPHERS OF NOTHINGNESS: An Essay on the Kyoto School, by James W. Heisig. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001, 380 pp., $29.95 (paperback).

Great cities dominate our age. In many ways, Japan is Tokyo's colony. If cultural life outside the Kanto plain is to be vital, Tokyo's hegemony must be resisted. The question is how.

The short answer is that publics must be "invented" for the cultural products of regional life. Reflecting on the sources of the intellectual vitality of Europe's regions, George Steiner argues nothing matters more than "private rebellions of judgment."

It is confident acts of resistance by those caught "in humbler and decentralized economic conditions" that allow "a painter in Newcastle or Barcelona, a publishing house in Sheffield or Bari, not only to endure in the face of metropolitan repudiation but to generate its own public."

James W. Heisig's rebellion is contained in the pages of "Philosophers of Nothingness." Director of the Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture at Nagoya's Nanzan University, Heisig has devoted the bulk of his working life as a scholar, editor and translator to putting Nagoya on the map of Japan studies.

In the fields of Buddhism, comparative religion and the Kyoto School of philosophy (particularly the work of Kitaro Nishida, Hajime Tanabe and Keiji Nishitani), Heisig and his formidable team of collaborators, both Japanese and Western, have invented a global public for their selective but always impressive output. Uncompromising rebellion has played an important role in Nanzan's success.

In his recent writings, Heisig comes across as an irritated, almost angry, critic of the Japanese philosophic establishment: "When (Nishida's Japanese) commentators -- even the best of them -- cite him in support of their own ethnocentrism, or at least their own privileged position to read him, they are no longer talking about Nishida but about themselves."

Rejecting one of the iron laws of Japanese intellectual life, Heisig insists the reputation of the Kyoto School as philosophy depends entirely on its international reputation. Japan (that is Tokyo) does not provide the standard that counts in these matters.

"I have no hesitation in claiming that . . . our reading of Aristotle and Descartes, Kant and Hegel, Heidegger and Nietzsche, should be different after reading Nishida, Tanabe and Nishitani. To the extent that this is not the case . . . the Kyoto philosophers have failed to live up to their goals. It is really as simple as that."

Having wounded the local philosophic establishment, Heisig rubs in some salt: the achievement of Nishida, Tanabe and Nishitani "completely eclipses the scholarly contribution that professional Japanese philosophers specializing in Western thinkers have made in the 20th century."

When Nagoya barks, Tokyo should listen. No question has bedeviled Japanese commentary on the Kyoto School more than who does and who does not belong to it. When Japanese scholars include philosopher X at the expense of philosopher Y, it is often "my teacher" or "my student" who is being argued about. The whole business can be personal to a fault.

Heisig is not only an outsider to these debates, he is also a foreigner. But like any provincial with his wits about him, he turns this weakness into strength. It is precisely because he stands apart from this incestuous wrangling that he is able to exploit so singularly the insight that the Kyoto School is, in essence, defined by the triangular relationship among Nishida, Tanabe and Nishitani.

Indeed, it is around this triangular structure that "Philosophers of Nothingness" is organized: three large sections, one on each of these major thinkers, plus a lengthy set of notes and an extended bibliography. The result is a triumph of economy entirely different from that other triangular triumph, Nishitani's famous biography of Nishida in which Tanabe figures so prominently.

Heisig has provided us with the intellectual equivalent of one-stop shopping. "Philosophers of Nothing" allows the curious reader to take his bearings, quickly and confidently, on the Kyoto School. The result is a formidable research resource.

He is at his best in analyzing the core concepts that animate the philosophic labors of Nishida, Tanabe and Nishitani. Here is Heisig at full strength on what Nishida meant by "transcendence":

"As with everything in Nishida's philosophy, so here, too, all questions of logic and metaphysics had to answer to the fundamental question of illuminating the self. It is not a matter of finding a standpoint from which to "transcend" opposition but rather of bringing it down to the problem of consciousness, a standpoint of "transcendence" as he called it. In this sense, the final paradigm for the union of opposites in reality lay not in the cosmos but in the self-awareness of the individual.

This book is studded with gems such as this. But Heisig is a foreigner in another, even more controversial, sense. He subscribes, almost without qualification, to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal view. The growing and compelling revisionist literature on the war produced by Western liberal scholars has left no mark on his philosophic reading of wartime Japan.

This sets him not only apart from most of liberal Japanese philosophic colleagues, it also presents him with a formidable problem of interpretation. This is how he tries to solve it: "One has, deliberately or otherwise, to ignore the greatest bulk of the writings of these thinkers to arrive at the conclusion that anything approaching or supporting the imperialistic ideology of wartime Japan belongs to the fundamental inspiration of their thought."

The prose is tortured because the writer is. This suggests that Heisig should extend his hand to liberal revisionist historians of the Pacific War because they alone offer a humane escape route from his central dilemma: If Tanabe and Nishitani were fascists, how can they also be great philosophers?

Liberal revisionism could have transformed this book, making it even better than it is. Instead, Heisig attempts to remove the nationalist bones from the metaphysical flesh of the wartime writings of Nishida, Tanabe and Nishitani in ways that, finally, do not convince.

This censure applies with particular force to Tanabe's "Logic of the Species." Regarded as notorious by those who have not read it properly, this text is not fascist but it is nationalist in the thinking, rational Hegelian mode. It is my suspicion that no persuasive interpretation of what may be Tanabe's supreme achievement is possible unless we read it as a powerful Japanese contribution to the philosophy of subjectivity, of "post-white" reasoning.

In defense of his position, Heisig roughly dissects two of the most controversial round-table discussions of the Pacific War, "Overcoming Modernity" and "The Standpoint of World History and Japan." His analysis is incisive, but it should be noted the latter discussions were, not as the text has it, in 1943 and 1944, but in November 1941, and March and November 1942.

"Philosophers of Nothingness" was first published in Spanish. Heisig wrote it at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. This, too, is a marvelous gesture because Catalonia is the one of the globe's supreme examples of a successful regional culture. Indeed, Barcelona may be the very Rome of private rebellions of intellectual judgment.

After the impressive rigor displayed in the collection of essays he published with John C. Maraldo in 1994, under the title "Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, & the Question of Nationalism," Heisig has now presented Japan studies with his most compelling achievement to date. He has won new glory for the discipline. We are in his debt.

David Williams is the author of "Overcoming Whiteness: Pearl Harbor and the Kyoto School of Philosophy," to be published by The Curzon Press.

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