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Conversing in Emptiness: Rethinking Cross-Cultural Dialogue with the Kyoto School

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 June 2014

Bret W. Davis
Loyola University,
E-mail address:


As we attempt to engender a dialogue between different philosophical traditions, one of the first – if not indeed the first – of the topics which need to be addressed is that of the very nature of dialogue. In other words, we need to engage in a dialogue about dialogue. Toward that end, this essay attempts to rethink the nature of dialogue from the perspective of two key members of the Kyoto School, namely its founder, Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), and its current central figure, Ueda Shizuteru (b. 1926). The Kyoto School is the most prominent group of modern Japanese philosophers, whose thought emerges from the encounter between Western and Eastern traditions. This essay seeks to elucidate and further unfold the implications of rethinking of the nature of dialogue from the perspective of Nishida's and Ueda's primarily Zen Buddhist reception of and response to Western philosophy.

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy and the contributors 2014 

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1 Basic Writings of Nietzsche, edited and translated by Kaufmann, Walter (New York: Random House, 1966)Google Scholar, 555

2 For an introduction to the Kyoto School, see my ‘The Kyoto School’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

3 Japanese names are given in the Japanese order of surname followed by given name. Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this essay are my own.

4 It is crucial to bear in mind that what Kyoto School philosophers such as Nishida and Ueda call ‘absolute nothingness’ (zettai mu) is not a mere privation of being or a nihilistic void (which they consider to be forms of ‘relative nothingness’); it is rather the self-determining ‘place’ that encompasses all distinctions, even that between being and relative nothingness. Whereas the Western tradition has tended to understand the ultimate universal or the absolute in terms of ‘being’, Eastern traditions such as Daoism and East Asian Mahayana Buddhism have tended to understand it in terms of ‘nothingness’ or ‘emptiness’. Rather than thinking of finite beings as privations of absolute being or as independent substances, these traditions have understood finite beings in terms of the self-emptying or self-delimitation of emptiness into form and in terms of interconnected processes. See my Forms of Emptiness in Zen’, in A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, edited by Emmanuel, Steven (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 It was Nishida's junior colleague, Tanabe Hajime (1885–1962), who introduced the term ‘species’ (shu) to refer to ethnic communities as a third term in dialectical relation with individual humans and universal humanity. Although I do not discuss Tanabe in this essay, it should be noted that Nishida developed his understanding of ‘species’ in response to Tanabe. See Kōichi, Sugimoto, ‘Tanabe Hajime's Logic of Species and the Philosophy of Nishida Kitarō: A Critical Dialogue within the Kyoto School’, in Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conversations with the Kyoto School, edited by Davis, Bret W., Schroeder, Brian, and Wirth, Jason M. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

6 For an orientation to the controversy surrounding Nishida and other Kyoto School philosophers' political writings, see section 4 of my article, ‘The Kyoto School’, op. cit., note 2

7 See my Nishida's Multicultural Worldview: Its Contemporary Significance and Immanent Critique’, Nishida Tetsugakkai Nenpō [The Journal of the Society for Nishida Philosophy] 10 (2013), 183203Google Scholar; and my Toward a World of Worlds: Nishida, the Kyoto School, and the Place of Cross-Cultural Dialogue’, in Frontiers of Japanese Philosophy, edited by Heisig, James W. (Nagoya: Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, 2006)Google Scholar. A revised and expanded version of the sections on Nishida in the latter article have been published in Spanish translation as El Uno y los múltiples mundos: acerca de la visión alternativa de la globalización en Nishida’, in Alternativas filosóficas: Investigaciones recientes sobre la filosofía de Nishida Kitaro, fundador de la Escuela de Kioto, edited by Zavala, Augustín Jacinto (Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico: Morevallado Editores, 2012)Google Scholar. See also my Turns to and from Political Philosophy: The Case of Nishitani Keiji’, in Re-politicising the Kyoto School as Philosophy, edited by Goto-Jones, Chris (London: Routledge, 2008)Google Scholar.

8 Ryōsuke, Ōhashi, Kyōtogakuha to Nihon-kaigun [The Kyoto School and the Japanese Navy] (Kyoto: PHP Shinsho, 2001)Google Scholar, 20ff

9 Shizuteru, Ueda, ‘Nishida, Nationalism, and the War in Question’, in Rude Awakenings: Zen, The Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism, edited by Heisig, James W. and Maraldo, John C. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 9095Google Scholar

10 This applies in particular to the following two sections of this essay, in which I attempt to draw out the cosmopolitan implications of Nishida's thought. In a recent article in Japanese, I argue that these cosmopolitan implications are truer to the religious core of his thinking than are his political thoughts on nationalism and the purportedly national moorings of morality. See my ‘Nishida to ibunkakan-taiwa: kongen-teki sekaishimin-shugi no kanōsei’ [Nishida and Intercultural Dialogue: The Possibility of a Radical Cosmopolitanism], in Fujita Masakatsu (ed.), Shisōkan no taiwa: Higashi-ajia ni okeru tetsugaku no juyō to tenkai [Dialogue between Ways of Thinking: The Reception and Development of Philosophy in East Asia], forthcoming. Since Ueda began his academic career after the war, he did not himself become embroiled in wartime politics. For Ueda's major statement on this issue, see his ‘Nishida, Nationalism, and the War in Question’, op. cit., note 9.

11 Nishida Kitarō zenshū (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1987–89), 10:337Google Scholar; see also ibid., 12:426

12 Ibid., 8:500, 514, 519–20. As John Maraldo has pointed out, one serious problem with Nishida's social and political philosophy is that he tended to understand nations monoculturally and monoethnically, and thus failed to see the possibility, and the actuality, of multicultural and multiethnic nations (‘The Problem of World Culture: Towards an Appropriation of Nishida's Philosophy of Culture’, The Eastern Buddhist 28/2, 194). In fact, cross-cultural interaction frequently takes place within a nation as well as between nations.


13 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 8:452

14 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 8:452–53

15 Ibid., 8:453


16 Ibid., 10:164; see also ibid., 10:327 and 8:519.


17 See Taylor, Charles, ‘Atomism’, in Communitarianism and Individualism, edited by Avineri, Shlomo and de-Shalit, Avner (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

18 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 8:450

19 Ibid.


20 See Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 7:305ff.; also ibid., 8: 313–14

21 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 14:395

22 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 14:394

23 Ibid., 8:451


24 Ibid., 8:455


25 Miki Kiyoshi zenshū [Complete Works of Miki Kiyoshi] (Tokyo: Iwanami, 1986), 17: 492504Google Scholar

26 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 8:314, 339; also ibid., 10:307.

27 Ibid., 10:289.


28 Ibid., 10:407.


29 Ibid., 10:321.


30 Ibid., 7:312; see also ibid., 6:381. On Nishida's conception of the I-Thou relation, see the following essays of mine: Das Innerste zuäußerst: Nishida und die Revolution der Ich-Du-Beziehung’, trans. Pfizenmaier, Ruben, Ortland, Eberhard and Elberfeld, Rolf, Allgemeine Zeitschrift für Philosophie 36(3) (2011), 281312Google Scholar; Nijū naru ‘zettai no ta e no naizai-teki chōetsu’: Nishida no shūkyō tetsugaku ni okeru tasha-ron’ [Twofold ‘Immanent Transcendence to the Absolute Other’: Alterity in Nishida's Philosophy of Religion], Nihontetsugakushi Kenkyū 9 (2012), 102–34Google Scholar; and ‘Ethical and Religious Alterity: Nishida after Levinas’, in Nishida Kitarō in der Philosophie des 20. Jahrhunderts, edited by Rolf Elberfeld and Yōko Arisaka (Freiburg/Munich: Alber Verlag, 2014).


31 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 6:372.

32 Ibid., 6:386.


33 Ibid., 7:315.


34 See Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 7:425; also ibid., 10:437, 441, and 11:378.

35 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 8:314, 339; also ibid., 10:307.

36 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 7:262–63

37 See Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 6:398

38 Unfortunately most of Ueda's work has not yet been translated. He has, however, written many articles in German, some of which have been recently republished in Ueda, Shizuteru, Wer und was bin ich: Zur Phänomenologie des Selbst im Zen-Buddhismus (Freiburg: Verlag Karl Alber, 2011)Google Scholar. English translations of about half of the essays included in that volume can be found in the following issues of The Eastern Buddhist: 15(1) (Spring 1982), 22(1) (Spring 1989), 25(2) (Autumn 1992), and 16(1) (Spring 1983). In consultation with Professor Ueda, I am presently working on an English anthology of his work.

39 Shizuteru, Ueda, Watakushi to wa nani ka [What Am I?] (Tokyo: Iwanami, 2000)Google Scholar, 116

40 See Nishitani Keiji chosakushū [Collected Works of Nishitani Keiji] (Tokyo: Sōbunsha, 1986–95), 10:259Google Scholar; Religion and Nothingness, translated by Van Bragt, Jan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982)Google Scholar, 236. See also my ‘Nishitani after Nietzsche: From the Death of God to the Great Death of the Will’, in Japanese and Continental Philosophy, op. cit., note 5.

41 Nishitani Keiji chosakushū, op. cit., note 40, 17:9–10

42 Ibid., 17:14–15


43 Ueda, Watakushi to wa nani ka, op. cit., note 39, 153–154

44 Ueda Shizuteru shū [Ueda Shizuteru Collection] (Tokyo: Iwanami, 2001–3), 10:281–282

45 Ueda Shizuteru shū, op. cit., note 44, 10:281

46 Ueda Shizuteru shū, op. cit., note 44, 10:282

47 See Heidegger, Martin, ‘From a Dialogue on Language between a Japanese and an Inquirer’, in On the Way to Language, translated by Hertz, Peter (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1971)Google Scholar; also my Heidegger's Orientations: The Step Back on the Way to Dialogue with the East’, in Heidegger-Jahrbuch 7: Heidegger und das ostasiatische Denken, edited by Denker, Alfred et al. (Freiburg and Munich: Alber Verlag, 2013)Google Scholar.

48 On the challenges of ‘diatopical’ versus ‘diachronic’ hermeneutics, see Panikkar, Raimundo, ‘What is Comparative Philosophy Comparing?’ in Interpreting Across Boundaries, edited by Larson, Gerald James and Deutsch, Eliot (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

49 More literally signifying ‘hollow void’ or ‘vacant sky’, this term was used to translate the Sanskrit ākāśa. ‘The symbols in the early Prajñāpāramitā texts show that the Mahāyāna notion of ākāśa [i.e., ‘space’ understood as ‘a luminous ether, filled with light’] derives from meditation (dhyāna) on the sky, which is experienced as vast, luminous and without boundaries' (Nancy McCagney, Nāgārjuna and the Philosophy of Openness [Lanham: Roman & Littlefield,1997], xx). In many Mahāyāna texts, including those of Zen, empty space or the open expanse of a clear sky symbolizes the ultimate Dharma realm of non-obstruction which makes room for all, letting everything within it coexist in harmonious interaction (see Zen no shisō jiten [Dictionary of Zen Thought], edited by Taishū, Tagami and Shūdō, Ishii [Tokyo: Tōkyō Shoseki, 2008]Google Scholar, 199; also Zengaku daijiten [Large Dictionary of Zen Studies], new edition [Tokyo: Daishūkan Shoten 1985]Google Scholar, 332).

50 Shizuteru, Ueda, ‘Language in a Twofold World’, translated by Davis, Bret W., in Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, edited by Heisig, James W., Kasulis, Thomas P. and Maraldo, John C. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011)Google Scholar, 769

51 See Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 7:210, 313–314; also ibid., 8:56–69. In a similar sense, for Levinas, although ethics is rooted in the face-to-face relation with the other, justice arises only when attention is given to the third person. See Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, translated by Lingis, Alphonso (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1979)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 213, 280

52 Nishitani Keiji chosakushū, op. cit., note 40, 11:243

53 Both Nishida and Nishitani employ the notion of an infinite sphere whose circumference is nowhere and center everywhere, which was used by Cusanus and the Hermetic and Christian mystical traditions to characterize God. See Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 7:208; also ibid., 11:130, 423; and Nishitani Keiji chosakushū, op. cit., note 40, 10:164

54 Chomsky, Noam, The Essential Chomsky, edited by Arnove, Anthony (New York and London: The New Press, 2008)Google Scholar, 36. This francophonic ethnocentrism can apparently be traced back to Antoine Arnauld's Grammaire Générale. On the history of the debates surrounding linguistic universality and diversity, see Leavitt, John, Linguistic Relativities: Language Diversity and Modern Thought (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011)Google Scholar. For an examination of the philosophical implications of the grammatical and semantic differences between Chinese, Japanese, and Indo-European languages, see Elberfeld, Rolf, Sprache und Sprachen: Eine philosophische Grundorientierung (Freiburg and Munich: Karl Alber Verlag, 2012)Google Scholar.

55 Heidegger, Martin, Gesamtausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1975–), 16:679Google Scholar

56 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 7:452–53. Later Nishida adds to this the idea that, between individual nations and the world, multinational cooperatives such as the so-called ‘East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere’ should be formed. And, even while he struggled to strictly distinguish this from Western imperialism and colonialism, he played into the hands of the Japanese ultranationalists when he writes: ‘Each people [in East Asia] must transcend itself to form a particular world [of East Asia] and thereby carry out the world-historical mission of the East Asian peoples. … But in order to build [such] a particular world, a central figure that carries the burden of the project is necessary. In East Asia today there is no other but Japan’ (Nishida Kitarō zenshū, 12:429, translated by Arisaka, Yoko in ‘Beyond East and West: Nishida's Universalism and Postcolonial Critique’, in Border Crossings: Toward a Comparative Political Theory, edited by Dallmayr, Fred [New York: Lexington Books, 1996]Google Scholar, 102)

57 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 14:404–6

58 Nishida Kitarō zenshū, op. cit., note 11, 14:402–6, 417

59 This should not be confused with the claim that there is no human nature or that our minds are ‘blank slates’ subsequently shaped in full by our cultural environments. Surely we can come up with a long list of cultural universals that would include such items as ‘facial expressions of fear, happiness, sadness’ and so forth (see Brown, Donald E., Human Universals [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991]Google Scholar). And, even though this list would be compiled by someone who was raised in a particular culture and who is thinking and writing in a particular language, surely it could be translated into other languages. But only the most naïve (and most likely monolingual) universalist would think that words used from other languages to translate an English word such as ‘happiness’ bear identical connotations. Even an expression such as ‘need to eat’ is laden with the cultural-linguistic connotations of ‘need’ and ‘eat’. On the other hand, equally untenable is the thesis of the extreme cultural relativist who would claim that we are forever imprisoned in our respective cultures and languages. For translation is always to some extent possible, and, more significantly, it is always to some extent possible to let oneself be translated into other idioms, and thus to empathize, to understand, and to enter into a profound dimension of dialogue with others.

60 Ueda Shizuteru shū, op. cit., note 44, 10:296

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