Atheism has been Part of Many Asian Traditions for Millennia

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Atheism is not a modern concept.
Zoe Margolis, CC BY-NC-ND

Signe Cohen, University of Missouri-Columbia

A group of atheists and secularists recently gathered in Southern California to talk about social and political issues. This was the first of three summits planned by the Secular Coalition for America, an advocacy group based in Washington D.C.

To many, atheism – the lack of belief in a personal god or gods – may appear an entirely modern concept. After all, it would seem that it is religious traditions that have dominated the world since the beginning of recorded history.

As a scholar of Asian religions, however, I’m often struck by the prevalence of atheism and agnosticism – the view that it is impossible to know whether a god exists – in ancient Asian texts. Atheistic traditions have played a significant part in Asian cultures for millennia.

Atheism in Buddhism, Jainism

Buddhists do not believe in a creator God.
Keith Cuddeback, CC BY-NC-ND

While Buddhism is a tradition focused on spiritual liberation, it is not a theistic religion.

The Buddha himself rejected the idea of a creator god, and Buddhist philosophers have even argued that belief in an eternal god is nothing but a distraction for humans seeking enlightenment.

While Buddhism does not argue that gods don’t exist, gods are seen as completely irrelevant to those who strive for enlightenment.

Jains do not believe in a divine creator.
Gandalf’s Gallery, CC BY-NC-SA

A similar form of functional atheism can also be found in the ancient Asian religion of Jainism, a tradition that emphasizes non-violence toward all living beings, non-attachment to worldly possessions and ascetic practice. While Jains believe in an eternal soul or jiva, that can be reborn, they do not believe in a divine creator.

According to Jainism, the universe is eternal, and while gods may exist, they too must be reborn, just like humans are. The gods play no role in spiritual liberation and enlightenment; humans must find their own path to enlightenment with the help of wise human teachers.

Other Atheistic Philosophies

Around the same time when Buddhism and Jainism arose in the sixth century B.C., there was also an explicitly atheist school of thought in India called the Carvaka school. Although none of their original texts have survived, Buddhist and Hindu authors describe the Carvakas as firm atheists who believed that nothing existed beyond the material world.

To the Carvakas, there was no life after death, no soul apart from the body, no gods and no world other than this one.

Another school of thought, Ajivika, which flourished around the same time, similarly argued that gods didn’t exist, although its followers did believe in a soul and in rebirth.

The Ajivikas claimed that the fate of the soul was determined by fate alone, and not by a god, or even by free will. The Ajivikas taught that everything was made up of atoms, but that these atoms were moving and combining with each other in predestined ways.

Like the Carvaka school, the Ajivika school is today only known from texts composed by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is therefore difficult to determine exactly what the Ajivikas themselves thought.

According to Buddhist texts, the Ajivikas argued that there was no distinction between good and evil and there was no such thing as sin. The school may have existed around the same time as early Buddhism, in the fifth century B.C.

Atheism in Hinduism

There are many gods in Hinduism, but there are also atheistic beliefs.
Religious Studies Unisa, CC BY-SA

While the Hindu tradition of India embraces the belief in many gods and goddesses – 330 million of them, according to some sources – there are also atheistic strands of thought found within Hinduism.

The Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy is one such example. It believes that humans can achieve liberation for themselves by freeing their own spirit from the realm of matter.

Another example is the Mimamsa school. This school also rejects the idea of a creator God. The Mimamsa philosopher Kumarila said that if a god had created the world by himself in the beginning, how could anyone else possibly confirm it? Kumarila further argued that if a merciful god had created the world, it could not have been as full of suffering as it is.

According to the 2011 census, there were approximately 2.9 million atheists in India. Atheism is still a significant cultural force in India, as well as in other Asian countries influenced by Indian religions.The Conversation

Signe Cohen, Associate Professor and Department Chair, University of Missouri-Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


“In India our religions will never take root. The ancient wisdom of the human race will not be displaced by what happened in Galilee. On the contrary, Indian philosophy streams back to Europe, and will produce a fundamental change in our knowledge and thought.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer


Full Book (PDF): The World as Will and Representation – Volume IVolume II

Full Book (PDF): On the Basis of Morality

Schopenhauer’s Thought

A key focus of Schopenhauer was his investigation of individual motivation. Before Schopenhauer, Hegel had popularized the concept of Zeitgeist, the idea that society consisted of a collective consciousness that moved in a distinct direction, dictating the actions of its members. Schopenhauer, a reader of both Kant and Hegel, criticized their logical optimism and the belief that individual morality could be determined by society and reason. Schopenhauer believed that humans were motivated by only their own basic desires, or Wille zum Leben (“Will to Live”), which directed all of mankind.

For Schopenhauer, human desire was futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world. Einstein paraphrased his views as follows: “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants.” In this sense, he adhered to the Fichtean principle of idealism: “The world is for a subject.” This idealism so presented, immediately commits it to an ethical attitude, unlike the purely epistemological concerns of Descartes and Berkeley. To Schopenhauer, the Will is a blind force that controls not only the actions of individual, intelligent agents, but ultimately all observable phenomena—an evil to be terminated via mankind’s duties: asceticism and chastity. He is credited with one of the most famous opening lines of philosophy: “The world is my representation.” Will, for Schopenhauer, is what Kant called the “thing-in-itself”. Friedrich Nietzsche was greatly influenced by this idea of Will, although he eventually rejected it.

For Schopenhauer, human desiring, “willing”, and craving cause suffering or pain. A temporary way to escape this pain is through aesthetic contemplation (a method comparable to Zapffe’s “Sublimation“). Aesthetic contemplation allows one to escape this pain—albeit temporarily—because it stops one perceiving the world as mere presentation. Instead, one no longer perceives the world as an object of perception (therefore as subject to the Principle of Sufficient Grounds; time, space and causality) from which one is separated; rather one becomes one with that perception: “one can thus no longer separate the perceiver from the perception” (The World as Will and Representation, section 34). From this immersion with the world one no longer views oneself as an individual who suffers in the world due to one’s individual will but, rather, becomes a “subject of cognition” to a perception that is “Pure, will-less, timeless” (section 34) where the essence, “ideas”, of the world are shown. Art is the practical consequence of this brief aesthetic contemplation as it attempts to depict one’s immersion with the world, thus tries to depict the essence/pure ideas of the world. Music, for Schopenhauer, was the purest form of art because it was the one that depicted the will itself without it appearing as subject to the Principle of Sufficient Grounds, therefore as an individual object. According to Daniel Albright, “Schopenhauer thought that music was the only art that did not merely copy ideas, but actually embodied the will itself”.

He deemed music a timeless, universal language comprehended everywhere, that can imbue global enthusiasm, if in possession of a significant melody.

Will as Noumenon

Schopenhauer accepted Kant’s double-aspect of the universe—the phenomenal (world of experience) and the noumenal (the true world, independent of experience). Some commentators suggest that Schopenhauer claimed that the noumenon, or thing-in-itself, was the basis for Schopenhauer’s concept of the will. Other commentators suggest that Schopenhauer considered will to be only a subset of the “thing-in-itself” class, namely that which we can most directly experience.

Schopenhauer’s identification of the Kantian noumenon (i.e., the actually existing entity) with what he termed “will” deserves some explanation. The noumenon was what Kant called the Ding an sich (the Thing in Itself), the reality that is the foundation of our sensory and mental representations of an external world. In Kantian terms, those sensory and mental representations are mere phenomena. Schopenhauer departed from Kant in his description of the relationship between the phenomenon and the noumenon. According to Kant, things-in-themselves ground the phenomenal representations in our minds; Schopenhauer, on the other hand, believed that phenomena and noumena are two different sides of the same coin. Noumena do not cause phenomena, but rather phenomena are simply the way by which our minds perceive the noumena, according to the principle of sufficient reason.

Schopenhauer’s second major departure from Kant’s epistemology concerns the body. Kant’s philosophy was formulated as a response to the radical philosophical skepticism of David Hume, who claimed that causality could not be observed empirically. Schopenhauer begins by arguing that Kant’s demarcation between external objects, knowable only as phenomena, and the Thing in Itself of noumenon, contains a significant omission. There is, in fact, one physical object we know more intimately than we know any object of sense perception: our own body.

We know our human bodies have boundaries and occupy space, the same way other objects known only through our named senses do. Though we seldom think of our body as a physical object, we know even before reflection that it shares some of an object’s properties. We understand that a watermelon cannot successfully occupy the same space as an oncoming truck; we know that if we tried to repeat the experiment with our own body, we would obtain similar results—we know this even if we do not understand the physics involved.

We know that our consciousness inhabits a physical body, similar to other physical objects only known as phenomena. Yet our consciousness is not commensurate with our body. Most of us possess the power of voluntary motion. We usually are not aware of the breathing of our lungs or the beating of our heart unless somehow our attention is called to them. Our ability to control either is limited. Our kidneys command our attention on their schedule rather than one we choose. Few of us have any idea what our liver is doing right now, though this organ is as needful as lungs, heart, or kidneys. The conscious mind is the servant, not the master, of these and other organs. These organs have an agenda the conscious mind did not choose, and over which it has limited power.

When Schopenhauer identifies the noumenon with the desires, needs, and impulses in us that we name “will”, what he is saying is that we participate in the reality of an otherwise unachievable world outside the mind through will. We cannot prove that our mental picture of an outside world corresponds with a reality by reasoning; through will, we know—without thinking—that the world can stimulate us. We suffer fear, or desire: these states arise involuntarily; they arise prior to reflection; they arise even when the conscious mind would prefer to hold them at bay. The rational mind is, for Schopenhauer, a leaf borne along in a stream of pre-reflective and largely unconscious emotion. That stream is will, and through will, if not through logic, we can participate in the underlying reality beyond mere phenomena. It is for this reason that Schopenhauer identifies the noumenon with what we call our will.

In his criticism of Kant, Schopenhauer claimed that sensation and understanding are separate and distinct abilities. Yet, for Kant, an object is known through each of them. Kant wrote: “[T]here are two stems of human knowledge … namely, sensibility and understanding, objects being given by the former [sensibility] and thought by the latter [understanding].” Schopenhauer disagreed. He asserted that mere sense impressions, not objects, are given by sensibility. According to Schopenhauer, objects are intuitively perceived by understanding and are discursively thought by reason (Kant had claimed that (1) the understanding thinks objects through concepts and that (2) reason seeks the unconditioned or ultimate answer to “why?”). Schopenhauer said that Kant’s mistake regarding perception resulted in all of the obscurity and difficult confusion that is exhibited in the Transcendental Analytic section of his critique.

Lastly, Schopenhauer departed from Kant in how he interpreted the Platonic ideas. In The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer explicitly stated:

…Kant used the word [Idea] wrongly as well as illegitimately, although Plato had already taken possession of it, and used it most appropriately.

Instead Schopenhauer relied upon the Neoplatonist interpretation of the biographer Diogenes Laërtius from Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. In reference to Plato’s Ideas, Schopenhauer quotes Laërtius verbatim in an explanatory footnote.

Diogenes Laërtius (III, 12): Plato teaches that the Ideas exist in nature, so to speak, as patterns or prototypes, and that the remainder of things only resemble them, and exist as their copies.


Moral Theory

Schopenhauer’s moral theory proposed that only compassion can drive moral acts. According to Schopenhauer, compassion alone is the good of the object of the acts, that is, they cannot be inspired by either the prospect of personal utility or the feeling of duty. Mankind can also be guided by egoism and malice. Egotistic acts are those guided by self-interest, desire for pleasure or happiness. Schopenhauer believed most of our deeds belong to this class. Acts of malice are different from egotistic acts. As in the case of acts of compassion, these do not target personal utility. Their aim is to cause damage to others, independently of personal gains. He believed, like Swami Vivekananda in the unity of all with one-self and also believed that ego is the origin of pain and conflicts, that reduction of ego frames the moral principles.

Even though Schopenhauer ended his treatise on the freedom of human will with the postulate of everyone’s responsibility for their character and, consequently, acts—the responsibility following from one’s being the Will as noumenon (from which also all the characters and creations come)—he considered his views incompatible with theism, on grounds of fatalism and, more generally, responsibility for evil. In Schopenhauer’s philosophy the dogmas of Christianity lose their significance, and the “Last Judgment” is no longer preceded by anything—”The world is itself the Last Judgment on it.” Whereas God, if he existed, would be evil.

He named a force within man that he felt took invariable precedence over reason: the Will to Live or Will to Life (Wille zum Leben), defined as an inherent drive within human beings, and indeed all creatures, to stay alive; a force that inveigles us into reproducing.

Schopenhauer refused to conceive of love as either trifling or accidental, but rather understood it as an immensely powerful force that lay unseen within man’s psyche and dramatically shaped the world:

The ultimate aim of all love affairs … is more important than all other aims in man’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it. What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation.


Influence of Eastern Thought

Schopenhauer read the Latin translation of the ancient Hindu texts, The Upanishads, which French writer Anquetil du Perron had translated from the Persian translation of Prince Dara Shikoh entitled Sirre-Akbar (“The Great Secret”). He was so impressed by their philosophy that he called them “the production of the highest human wisdom”, and believed they contained superhuman concepts. The Upanishads was a great source of inspiration to Schopenhauer. Writing about them, he said:

It is the most satisfying and elevating reading (with the exception of the original text) which is possible in the world; it has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.

It is well known that the book Oupnekhat (Upanishad) always lay open on his table, and he invariably studied it before sleeping at night. He called the opening up of Sanskrit literature “the greatest gift of our century”, and predicted that the philosophy and knowledge of the Upanishads would become the cherished faith of the West.

Schopenhauer was first introduced to the 1802 Latin Upanishad translation through Friedrich Majer. They met during the winter of 1813–1814 in Weimar at the home of Schopenhauer’s mother according to the biographer Safranski. Majer was a follower of Herder, and an early Indologist. Schopenhauer did not begin a serious study of the Indic texts, however, until the summer of 1814. Sansfranski maintains that between 1815 and 1817, Schopenhauer had another important cross-pollination with Indian thought in Dresden. This was through his neighbor of two years, Karl Christian Friedrich Krause. Krause was then a minor and rather unorthodox philosopher who attempted to mix his own ideas with that of ancient Indian wisdom. Krause had also mastered Sanskrit, unlike Schopenhauer, and the two developed a professional relationship. It was from Krause that Schopenhauer learned meditation and received the closest thing to expert advice concerning Indian thought.

Most noticeable, in the case of Schopenhauer’s work, was the significance of the Chandogya Upanishad, whose Mahavakya, Tat Tvam Asi is mentioned throughout The World as Will and Representation.

Schopenhauer noted a correspondence between his doctrines and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Similarities centered on the principles that life involves suffering, that suffering is caused by desire (taṇhā), and that the extinction of desire leads to liberation. Thus three of the four “truths of the Buddha” correspond to Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will. In Buddhism, however, while greed and lust are always unskillful, desire is ethically variable – it can be skillful, unskillful, or neutral.

For Schopenhauer, Will had ontological primacy over the intellect; in other words, desire is understood to be prior to thought. Schopenhauer felt this was similar to notions of puruṣārtha or goals of life in Vedānta Hinduism.

In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, denial of the will is attained by either:

  • personal experience of an extremely great suffering that leads to loss of the will to live; or
  • knowledge of the essential nature of life in the world through observation of the suffering of other people.

However, Buddhist nirvāṇa is not equivalent to the condition that Schopenhauer described as denial of the will. Nirvāṇa is not the extinguishing of the person as some Western scholars have thought, but only the “extinguishing” (the literal meaning of nirvana) of the flames of greed, hatred, and delusion that assail a person’s character. Occult historian Joscelyn Godwin (1945– ) stated, “It was Buddhism that inspired the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, and, through him, attracted Richard Wagner. This Orientalism reflected the struggle of the German Romantics, in the words of Leon Poliakov, to “free themselves from Judeo-Christian fetters”. In contradistinction to Godwin’s claim that Buddhism inspired Schopenhauer, the philosopher himself made the following statement in his discussion of religions:

If I wished to take the results of my philosophy as the standard of truth, I should have to concede to Buddhism pre-eminence over the others. In any case, it must be a pleasure to me to see my doctrine in such close agreement with a religion that the majority of men on earth hold as their own, for this numbers far more followers than any other. And this agreement must be yet the more pleasing to me, inasmuch as in my philosophizing I have certainly not been under its influence. For up till 1818, when my work appeared, there was to be found in Europe only a very few accounts of Buddhism.

Buddhist philosopher Nishitani Keiji, however, sought to distance Buddhism from Schopenhauer. While Schopenhauer’s philosophy may sound rather mystical in such a summary, his methodology was resolutely empirical, rather than speculative or transcendental:

Philosophy … is a science, and as such has no articles of faith; accordingly, in it nothing can be assumed as existing except what is either positively given empirically, or demonstrated through indubitable conclusions.

Also note:

This actual world of what is knowable, in which we are and which is in us, remains both the material and the limit of our consideration.

The argument that Buddhism affected Schopenhauer’s philosophy more than any other Dharmic faith loses more credence when viewed in light of the fact that Schopenhauer did not begin a serious study of Buddhism until after the publication of The World as Will and Representation in 1818. Scholars have started to revise earlier views about Schopenhauer’s discovery of Buddhism. Proof of early interest and influence, however, appears in Schopenhauer’s 1815/16 notes (transcribed and translated by Urs App) about Buddhism. They are included in a recent case study that traces Schopenhauer’s interest in Buddhism and documents its influence. Other scholarly work questions how similar Schopenhauer’s philosophy actually is to Buddhism.

Schopenhauer said he was influenced by the Upanishads, Immanuel Kant and Plato. References to Eastern philosophy and religion appear frequently in his writing. As noted above, he appreciated the teachings of the Buddha and even called himself a Buddhist. He said that his philosophy could not have been conceived before these teachings were available.

Concerning the Upanishads and Vedas, he writes in The World as Will and Representation:

If the reader has also received the benefit of the Vedas, the access to which by means of the Upanishads is in my eyes the greatest privilege which this still young century (1818) may claim before all previous centuries, if then the reader, I say, has received his initiation in primeval Indian wisdom, and received it with an open heart, he will be prepared in the very best way for hearing what I have to tell him. It will not sound to him strange, as to many others, much less disagreeable; for I might, if it did not sound conceited, contend that every one of the detached statements which constitute the Upanishads, may be deduced as a necessary result from the fundamental thoughts which I have to enunciate, though those deductions themselves are by no means to be found there.

Among Schopenhauer’s other influences were: Shakespeare, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Thomas Reid, Baruch Spinoza, Matthias Claudius, George Berkeley, David Hume, and René Descartes.


Schopenhauer’s Influence

Schopenhauer has had a massive influence upon later thinkers, though more so in the arts (especially literature and music) and psychology than in philosophy. His popularity peaked in the early twentieth century, especially during the Modernist era, and waned somewhat thereafter. Nevertheless, a number of recent publications have reinterpreted and modernised the study of Schopenhauer. His theory is also being explored by some modern philosophers as a precursor to evolutionary theory and modern evolutionary psychology.

Russian writer and philosopher Leo Tolstoy was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer. After reading Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, Tolstoy gradually became converted to the ascetic morality upheld in that work as the proper spiritual path for the upper classes: “Do you know what this summer has meant for me? Constant raptures over Schopenhauer and a whole series of spiritual delights which I’ve never experienced before. … no student has ever studied so much on his course, and learned so much, as I have this summer”

Richard Wagner, writing in his autobiography, remembered his first impression that Schopenhauer left on him (when he read The World as Will and Representation):

Schopenhauer’s book was never completely out of my mind, and by the following summer I had studied it from cover to cover four times. It had a radical influence on my whole life.

Wagner also commented on that “serious mood, which was trying to find ecstatic expression” created by Schopenhauer inspired the conception of Tristan und Isolde.

Friedrich Nietzsche owed the awakening of his philosophical interest to reading The World as Will and Representation and admitted that he was one of the few philosophers that he respected, dedicating to him his essay Schopenhauer als Erzieher one of his Untimely Meditations.

Jorge Luis Borges remarked that the reason he had never attempted to write a systematic account of his world view, despite his penchant for philosophy and metaphysics in particular, was because Schopenhauer had already written it for him.

As a teenager, Ludwig Wittgenstein adopted Schopenhauer’s epistemological idealism. However, after his study of the philosophy of mathematics, he rejected epistemological idealism for Gottlob Frege’s conceptual realism. In later years, Wittgenstein was highly dismissive of Schopenhauer, describing him as an ultimately shallow thinker: “Schopenhauer has quite a crude mind… where real depth starts, his comes to an end.”

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle read Schopenhauer’s works as a student, but later largely forgot them, only to unwittingly recycle ideas from Schopenhauer in his The Concept of Mind (1949).

Further Study

Arthur Schopenhauer (SEP)

Arthur Schopenhauer (IEP)

Schopenhauer’s Works (Project Gutenberg)

Schopenhauer’s Works (Wikisource)

Meditation & The Dark Night

Seven Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain


Meditation Helps Preserve the Aging Brain

Last week, a study from UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged. Participants who’d been meditating for an average of 20 years had more grey matter volume throughout the brain — although older meditators still had some volume loss compared to younger meditators, it wasn’t as pronounced as the non-meditators. “We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” said study author Florian Kurth. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

Meditation Reduces Activity in the Brain’s “Me Center”

One of the most interesting studies in the last few years, carried out at Yale University, found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts – a.k.a., “monkey mind.” The DMN is “on” or active when we’re not thinking about anything in particular, when our minds are just wandering from thought to thought. Since mind-wandering is typically associated with being less happy, ruminating, and worrying about the past and future, it’s the goal for many people to dial it down. Several studies have shown that meditation, though its quieting effect on the DMN, appears to do just this. And even when the mind does start to wander, because of the new connections that form, meditators are better at snapping back out of it.

Its Effects Rival Antidepressants for Depression, Anxiety

A review study last year at Johns Hopkins looked at the relationship between mindfulness meditation and its ability to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain. Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3. If this sounds low, keep in mind that the effect size for antidepressants is also 0.3, which makes the effect of meditation sound pretty good. Meditation is, after all an active form of brain training. “A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing,” says Goyal. “But that’s not true. Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.” Meditation isn’t a magic bullet for depression, as no treatment is, but it’s one of the tools that may help manage symptoms.

Meditation May Lead to Volume Changes in Key Areas of the Brain

In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain: Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress – and these changes matched the participants’ self-reports of their stress levels, indicating that meditation not only changes the brain, but it changes our subjective perception and feelings as well. In fact, a follow-up study by Lazar’s team found that after meditation training, changes in brain areas linked to mood and arousal were also linked to improvements in how participants said they felt — i.e., their psychological well-being. So for anyone who says that activated blobs in the brain don’t necessarily mean anything, our subjective experience – improved mood and well-being – does indeed seem to be shifted through meditation as well.

Just a Few Days of Training Improves Concentration and Attention 

Having problems concentrating isn’t just a kid thing – it affects millions of grown-ups as well, with an ADD diagnosis or not. Interestingly but not surprisingly, one of the central benefits of meditation is that it improves attention and concentration: One recent study found that just a couple of weeks of meditation training helped people’s focus and memory during the verbal reasoning section of the GRE. In fact, the increase in score was equivalent to 16 percentile points, which is nothing to sneeze at. Since the strong focus of attention (on an object, idea, or activity) is one of the central aims of meditation, it’s not so surprising that meditation should help people’s cognitive skills on the job, too – but it’s nice to have science confirm it. And everyone can use a little extra assistance on standardized tests.

Meditation Reduces Anxiety — and Social Anxiety

A lot of people start meditating for its benefits in stress reduction, and there’s lots of good evidence to support this rationale. There’s a whole newer sub-genre of meditation, mentioned earlier, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness (now available all over the country), that aims to reduce a person’s stress level, physically and mentally. Studies have shown its benefits in reducing anxiety, even years after the initial 8-week course. Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation, in contrast to attending to the breath only, can reduce anxiety – and that these changes seem to be mediated through the brain regions associated with those self-referential (“me-centered”) thoughts. Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to help people with social anxiety disorder: a Stanford University team found that MBSR brought about changes in brain regions involved in attention, as well as relief from symptoms of social anxiety.

Meditation Can Help with Addiction

A growing number of studies has shown that, given its effects on the self-control regions of the brain, meditation can be very effective in helping people recover from various types of addiction. One study, for example, pitted mindfulness training against the American Lung Association’s freedom from smoking (FFS) program, and found that people who learned mindfulness were many times more likely to have quit smoking by the end of the training, and at 17 weeks follow-up, than those in the conventional treatment. This may be because meditation helps people “decouple” the state of craving from the act of smoking, so the one doesn’t always have to lead to the other, but rather you fully experience and ride out the “wave” of craving, until it passes. Other research has found that mindfulness training, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) can be helpful in treating other forms of addiction.

Short Meditation Breaks Can Help Kids in School

For developing brains, meditation has as much as or perhaps even more promise than it has for adults. There’s been increasing interest from educators and researchers in bringing meditation and yoga to school kids, who are dealing with the usual stressors inside school, and oftentimes additional stress and trauma outside school. Some schools have starting implementing meditation into their daily schedules, and with good effect: One district in San Francisco started a twice daily meditation program in some of its high-risk schools – and saw suspensions decrease, and GPAs and attendance increase. Studies have confirmed the cognitive and emotional benefits of meditation for schoolchildren, but more work will probably need to be done before it gains more widespread acceptance.

Worth a Try?

Meditation is not a panacea, but there’s certainly a lot of evidence that it may do some good for those who practice it regularly. Everyone from Anderson Cooper and congressman Tim Ryan to companies like Google GOOGL -1.17% and Apple AAPL +0.38% and Target TGT +0.76% are integrating meditation into their schedules. And its benefits seem to be felt after a relatively short amount of practice. Some researchers have cautioned that meditation can lead to ill effects under certain circumstances (known as the “dark night” phenomenon), but for most people – especially if you have a good teacher – meditation is beneficial, rather than harmful. It’s certainly worth a shot: If you have a few minutes in the morning or evening (or both), rather than turning on your phone or going online, see what happens if you try quieting down your mind, or at least paying attention to your thoughts and letting them go without reacting to them. If the research is right, just a few minutes of meditation may make a big difference.

Source: Forbes

Buddhist Meditation and the Dark Night


© Pelt69 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

By Barbara O’Brien – Buddhism Expert

The Power of Meditation

Although meditation has been marketed in the West as a kind of relaxation technique, that is actually not what it is in a spiritual context. Buddhists meditate to wake up (see enlightenment). The traditional Buddhist meditation practices are powerful techniques developed over millennia that can reveal to us who we really are and how we are connected to the rest of the cosmos throughout space and time.

Stress reduction is just a side effect.

Indeed, as a spiritual practice meditation is sometimes anything but relaxing. The traditional practices have a way of reaching deep into the psyche and bringing dark and painful things about ourselves into awareness. For a person seeking enlightenment this is considered necessary; for someone just trying to de-stress, maybe not.

These deep psychological effects have been well documented for centuries, although the old commentaries may not describe them in terms a western psychologist would recognize. A skilled dharma teacher knows how to guide students through these experiences. Unfortunately, there’s still a shortage of skilled dharma teachers in the West.

The Dark Night Project

You can find many articles on the Web about the Dark Night Project, run by a psychology professor named Dr. Willoughby Britton (see, for example, an article on The Atlantic website by Tomas Rocha, “The Dark Knight of the Soul“). Britton runs a kind of refuge for people recovering from bad meditation experiences and is also working to “document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices,” the article says.

As a long-time Zen student there is nothing in this or other articles about the Dark Night Project that particularly surprises me. Indeed, many of the experiences described are common ones Zen teachers explicitly warn about and which in a monastic setting would be recognized and worked through. But through a combination of improper preparation and incompetent or no guidance, people’s lives actually were wrecked.

What Can Go Wrong?

First, let’s be clear that in a spiritual practice, an  unpleasant experience is not necessarily bad, and a blissful one is not necessarily good. My first Zen teacher used to refer to meditative bliss as “the cave of hell,” for example, because people want to stay there forever and feel let down when the bliss fades. All passing mental states, including bliss, are dukkha.

At the same time, mystics of many religious traditions have described the not-at-all blissful “dark night of the soul” experience and recognized it was a necessary phase of their particular spiritual journey, not something to be avoided.

But sometimes painful meditation experiences are harmful. A lot of damage can be done when people are pushed into deep states of meditative absorption before they are ready for example. In a proper monastic setting students get one-on-one time with a teacher who knows them and their particular spiritual challenges personally. Meditation practices may be prescribed for the student, like medicine, that are appropriate for his or her stage of development.

Unfortunately, in a lot of western retreat experiences everyone gets the same instruction with little or no individual guidance. And if everyone is being pushed into having some satori-palooza, ready or not, this is dangerous. Whatever is clanking about in your id needs to be properly processed, and this can take time.

Visions, Pits of Emptiness and Dukkha Nanas

It’s also common for meditation to cause hallucinations of all sorts, especially during retreats. In Japanese Zen hallucinations are called makyo, or “devil’s cave” — even if the hallucinations are pretty — and students are forewarned to not attach importance to them. A student plagued by visions and other sensory misfirings may be making an effort but not focusing correctly.

The “pit of emptiness” is something Zen students fall into occasionally. This is hard to explain, but it is usually described as a one-sided experience of sunyata in which there is just nothing, and the student remains stuck there. Such an experience is considered to be a serious spiritual sickness that must be worked through with great care. This is not something likely to happen to a casual mediator or a beginner student.

A nana is a mental phenomenon. It is also used to mean something like “insight knowledge.” The early Pali scriptures describe many “nanas” or insights, pleasant and unpleasant, one passes through on the way to enlightenment. The several “dukkha nanas” are insights into misery, but we can’t stop being miserable until we thoroughly understand misery. Passing through a dukkha nana stage is a kind of dark night of the soul.

Particularly if you are recovering from a recent severe trauma or a deep clinical depression, for example, meditation may feel too raw and intense, like rubbing sandpaper on a wound. If that’s the case, stop, and take it up again when you’re feeling better. Don’t push it just because someone else says it’s good for you.

I hope this discussion does not deter you from meditating but rather helps you make more sensible meditation choices. I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between mindfulness therapy and mindfulness or other meditations as spiritual practice. I don’t recommend intensive retreats unless you are prepared to commit to a spiritual practice, for example. Be clear which one you are doing. And if you are working with a teacher or therapist, which is highly recommended, make sure that person is clear which one you are doing also.


Zen & The Art of Postmodern Philosophy

zen and postmodern philosophy

Selected Passages

Nietzsche views Buddhism as a passive kind of nihilism, a sign of weakness. Contrary to Nietzsche’s opinion of Buddhism, the historical Buddha wanted to “steer clear of notions of permanent existence and nihilistic nonexistence.” Within the context of the historically later Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, classical Madhyamika thinkers, for instance, emphatically rejected a nihilistic interpretation of the doctrine of emptiness. In his Mulamadhyamakakarika, Nagarjuna writes, for instance, the following:

In truth, the cessation of a real existing entity is not possible. For, indeed, it is not possible to have the nature of both existence and non-existence at the same time.

This type of statement motivated some critical interpreters to label such assertions nihilistic…

In response to western critics like Nietzsche and others, Nishitani rejects such erroneous claims, and asserts that nihilism is “the single greatest issue facing philosophy and religion in our times.” Within our historical time and place, philosophy has failed to provide an adequate response to nihilism, a historical actuality. The failure of philosophy is connected with the death of the traditional notion of a transcendent deity that gave history its meaningful basis in eternity. Devoid of any transcendent foundation, history becomes an errant striving for a viable future and an unbearable burden upon the individual.

Nietzsche’s response to the loss of a transcendent God and ground of historical meaning was to attempt to transcend history in and through time rather than striving to go beyond time…

Nishitani does not think that Nietzsche’s vision is a useful solution because the “will to power” was conceived as a “thing” referred to as “will.” To remain an entity suggests for Nishitani that it did not lose its connotation as other for us and something of which could help us become aware of ourselves at a primary level.

Science is also part of the problem because “Modern science has completely transformed the old view of nature, resulting in the birth of various forms of atheism and the fomenting of an indifference to religion in general.” Moreover, science rejects the possibility of a personal God or a teleological view of the world, and conceives of nature as something indifferent and impersonal.

According to Nishitani, reality is not something that can be reduced: “It is both life and death, and at the same time is neither life nor death. It is what we have to call the nonduality of life and death.”

From Nishitani’s perspective, contemporary atheism goes further by adding a sense of the meaninglessness associated with a purely materialistic and mechanistic world and “an accompanying awareness of the nihility that lies concealed just beneath the surface of the world.” Within contemporary atheism, there is an awareness of nihility in which the existence of God is denied and replaced by nihility. How is it possible to break out of this fundamental crisis of human existence? It is possible to deepen our subjectivity and freedom by practicing zazen (seated meditation) which will help us to become aware of the reality of sunyata (emptiness)? … From Nishitani’s perspective, Zen Buddhism does not represent an eastern form of nihilism.

Nishitani refers to the elemental mode of being as possessing an illusory appearance: “That being is only being in unison with emptiness means that eing possesses at its ground the character of an ‘illusion,’ that everything that is, is in essence fleeting, illusory appearance.”

In his work entitled Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Nietzsche refers to the overcoming of metaphysics and links it with liberation. In his four-volume study of Nietzsche, Heidegger interprets Nietzsche’s call for an end of metaphysics in the following manner: “The end of metaphysics discloses itself as the collapse of the reign of the transcendent and the ‘ideal’ that sprang from it. But the end of metaphysics does not mean the cessation of history.” Heidegger’s study of Nietzsche depicts him as the last metaphysician. Rosen disputes this claim because Nietzsche view metaphysics as illusion, and “Metaphysics is rendered impossible by the irrational necessity of the Chaos that lies in the heart of all things.” Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s call for an end of the western metaphysical tradition creates room for the eventual development and retrieval of an analysis of Being from the perspective of Heidegger. In a lecture from his later period, Heidegger claims that “To think Being without beings means: to think Being without regard to metaphysics.” Within the space provided by Nietzsche’s termination of metaphysics, Heidegger anoints and appoints himself to be the initial philosopher after the end of metaphysics, which for some postmodern thinkers also means the end of philosophy or the conclusion of philosophy as it has been practiced in the West.

As part of his argument, Derrida states that not all languages are logocentric because Chinese or Japanese nonphonetic scripts are evidence of cultures developing alternatively to logocentrism.

D.T. Suzuki captures the spirit of play in Zen Buddhism when he writes, “For playfulness comes out of empty nothingness, and where there is something, this cannot take place. Zen comes out of absolute nothingness and knows how to be playful.” To be able to play is to be free, whereas to work is to be limited and confined. The free and voluntary nature of play is a source of joy and amusement. The spirit of play for Dogen represents his transcendence of earthly dichotomies and absolute freedom. In a spirit applicable to the Zen of Dogen, Huizinga writes, “Play lies outside te antithesis of wisdom and folly, equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil.”

It is a time for thinkers to wander aimlessly, err, emphasize altarity, stress the importance of difference, communicate indirectly, and embrace irony.

Zen, from one perspective, represents the end of philosophy as the love of wisdom and the use of rational means to find the truth, and many postmodern thinkers share the Zen suspicion of metaphysics and representational thinking, even though some postmodernists might view Zen as an example of eastern logocentrism.

“[Writing] plays within the simulacrum.” In fact, other postmodernists agree with Derrida that we are located in the simulacrum, a copy of a copy according to Plato… The functioning of the simulacrum, a Dionysian machine, is simulation, a phantasm itself, that subverts the same or representative model and renders it false… “It harbors a positive power that deniesthe original and the copy, the model and the reproduction.” Such a philosophical position manifests an anti-Kantian perspective that is aconceptual and nonrepresentational.

Writing on behalf of all human beings, Deleuze concludes that “We have become simulacra.”

Although there are certainly many similarities between Buddhist philosophy and forms of postmodern philosophy as evident by our previous discussions, the differences are ultimately more significant. Many postmodern thinkers manifest evidence of moving in the direction of Zen, but there is always a point at which they become captives of their own radical skepticism and/or language games.

Proceeding in a direction where the postmodernists would never tread, Dogen claims that the body is both subject and object, and that the body and mind represent the entire world, which implies that we are never separated from the world.

Due the the absence of an end, a definite conclusion is impossible. The most that we can affirm is that a conclusion is inconclusive, and yet we must come to some sort of end. I tend to agree with Taylor who thinks that one must end where one finds oneself. It has not been the intention of this dialogue between representatives of the Zen philosophical tradition and postmodern thought to arrive at a final solution to any philosophical problems. The inconclusive end of this intercultural dialogue terminates with an interlude that anticipates a continuation of the dialogue at a future date. Unable to come to final conclusions or a definitive end, it seems advisable to simply sign out.

– Carl Olson


“The Buddhist Dharma cannot be understood through rational and intellectual study.”

– Dogen

“The relationship of being and nothingness is thus one of mutual implication and intertwining; it is not predicated on antithesis or reciprocal exclusion.”

– Dallmayr

The Logic of Basho

Nishida Kitarō‘s logic of basho, contra the substance logic of Aristotle and the predicate logic of Kant?

Subject and object nondualism?

“To be” is “to be within.”

“To be” is “to be in relation.”

“To be” is “not to be.”

Universe as self-aware with nothing outside?

Two truths” of Buddhism?

Logic as limited by language and reason and sense?

Logos as language as logic?

Worldview development restricted by culture, producing fundamentally differing languages?

Which is first – Language or Worldview?

What is the mathematical equation that explains, or rather describes, all of existence?

Mathematics as limited by virtue of its own abstract nature?

Death is not an event at the end of one’s life but penetrates life at each and every moment.

The Kyoto School’s Takeover of Hegel

Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 38/1 (2011)

Reviews, pp. 223-226

kyoto hegel

Peter Suares, The Kyoto School’s Takeover of Hegel: Nishida,

Nishitani, and Tanabe Remake the Philosophy of Spirit

Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010. 238 pp. Cloth, $65.00.

ISBN 0-7391-4688-2/978-0-7391-4688-0.


Suares’s first book-length publication on philosophy fills a conspicuous lacuna of

scholarship on the complex relationship between Hegel and the philosophers of the

Kyoto School. The uptake of Hegel’s thought in Japan has been addressed by scholars

in articles, book chapters, or in passing within the context of other subjects;

but given the pervasive influence of Hegelian philosophy on Nishida and Tanabe in

particular, Suares’s in-depth treatment of the Kyoto School’s “takeover” of Hegel is a

needed addition to the existing comparative studies on this topic.


Suares makes a compelling and well-documented argument demonstrating that

Nishida, Nishitani, and Tanabe all rely heavily on Hegel’s ideas and methodology in

fashioning their own positions, despite their harsh criticisms of certain views they

attribute to him. Suares does a convincing job of showing that though the Kyoto

scholars unanimously reject what they take to be the central tenets of Hegel’s philosophy,

namely his “dogmatic Christian theism, the promotion of being to the central

category of reality, and rigid rationalism,” these “ostensibly Hegelian features

are in fact nowhere to be found in his philosophy”(190). Not only do the Kyoto

scholars misinterpret Hegel in their critiques of him, Suares argues, they actually

incorporate Hegel’s thought in significant ways such that their own philosophies

must be considered Hegelian in many respects. This idea itself is not new, however,

and Suares acknowledges that others have made similar observations. The contribution

made by this book is its thorough demonstration of this fact, with trenchant

reasoning and clear explanations of the many confounding formulations employed

by these thinkers.


The book consists of a short introduction and five chapters. Besides a brief chapter

on “The Danish Parallel” which addresses Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel and his

stance on faith in relation to reason, the author primarily examines and critiques the

thought of Nishida, Nishitani, and Tanabe. While dimensions of Hegel’s philosophy

are discussed at length throughout the volume, the book focuses on the work of

the Kyoto School philosophers and the presence of Hegel’s ideas therein. This being

the case, the reading of Hegel adopted by Suares is not worked out in conversation

with current developments in Hegel scholarship. This may be a disappointment to

those who come to the subject well versed in those debates since the reader must

simply accept the author’s interpretation of Hegel in order to follow him through

his comparative enterprise. This disappointment is far outweighed, however, by

the original insights offered. Suares’s analysis of the uptake of Hegel in Japan illuminates

issues germane to Hegel studies and the history of philosophy broadly. In

fact, this volume’s account of how the Kyoto scholars “remake” Hegel’s philosophy

of spirit addresses important issues in Hegel scholarship that have not been probed

this deeply until now. For example, the in-depth analysis of Hegelian contradiction

given within this context provides a lucid explanation of perhaps the most notorious

dimensions of his philosophy—the inner workings of his dialectical method.

With the Kyoto scholars as Hegel’s conversation partners, the nature of dialectic

and the movement of spirit in self-consciousness becomes clearer than it could have

been had it been treated exclusively within the European and American context.


The first chapter, which comprises roughly half of the book, is devoted to

Nishida and surveys the development of his thought throughout his life. The chapter

is divided into two main sections. The first describes the “anatomy of subjectivity”

and the “world within,” situating Nishida’s conception of self-consciousness

within the context of Western philosophy. Here Nishida’s notion of pure experience

and his logic of place are examined alongside Hegel’s developmental model of

selfconsciousness, in addition to the models put forth by other notable figures such as

Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hölderlin, and Josiah Royce. The second section confronts

“the objective dimension” which delves into the finer workings of “the dialectical

formula” operative in both Hegel and Nishida and addresses Nishida’s attempts at

sociopolitical thought in relation to history. Nishida’s notion of jikaku 自覚,

or selfawareness, establishes the continuity of the chapter in that it encompasses both the

subjective and objective components of reality in one two-fold activity. The most

notable strength of this discussion lies in its analysis and explication of the form of

Nishida’s logic in relation to Hegel’s. The analysis Suares gives is highly technical,

providing an account of paradox, contradiction, and negation in the work of both

authors. Suares tackles their perplexing dialectical maneuvers with uncommon

precision and clarity, relating them at times to their possible counterparts within

certain Buddhist strands such as Mādhyamika and Pure Land.


In addition to the analysis of the logical forms employed by Hegel and Nishida,

one of the most provocative elements of Suares’s discussion—and one which warrants

further debate—is his investigation into the limits of rationality for these

thinkers, a theme that continues throughout the remaining chapters of the book.

Despite the close analysis of the logical structures shaping the thought of each, the

question remains as to whether a fully rational account of reality and experience is

possible. Suares writes of Nishida, “The reconciliation of the rationality of everyday

life with the transrational level of consciousness at the base of reality is the central

problem with which he will struggle until the end of his career” (12). This struggle

is evident in Nishida’s simultaneous commitment to rational, philosophical discourse

and his use of utterly paradoxical language to formulate his position. This

tension points to a deeper issue not specifically taken up in the book, which is the

possibility that contradiction and paradox are themselves forms of rationality, both

operating within and pointing beyond the laws that define them. For both Nishida

and Hegel, self-consciousness and the reality it grounds exist through dialectical

conflict. For Hegel, as Suares points out, “Contradiction is the motor of life” (57).

And for Nishida, remaining true to the convolutions of the self in its ordinary and

ultimate character requires articulations that conjoin antithetical terms. Nishida’s

notions of the eternal now (eien no ima 永遠の今), the continuity of discontinuity

(hirenzoku no renzoku 非連続の連続), and the self-identity of absolute contradictories

(zettai mujunteki jikodōitsu 絶対矛盾的自己同一) are examples. Prompted by

the author’s comparison of the ways these thinkers conceive of contradiction, the

reader is led to question the nature of logic itself and to confront how dialectical

reason challenges common notions of rationality.


The limits of reason discussed within the context of Nishida’s philosophy are

taken up in different ways, both directly and indirectly, in the following chapters

on Nishitani, Tanabe, and Kierkegaard. In the chapter on Nishitani, his “postulate

of emptiness as enhancement of being” as a means to counter the problem of nihilism

is examined through his accounts of “original nature” and emptiness as “double

exposure.” Nishitani’s notion of double exposure in particular proves to be a useful

tool for explaining how seemingly incompatible views can be held at the same time.

This also provides a useful point of comparison with Hegel’s logic, elucidating similar

conundrums therein, shedding light on the issues related to rationality just noted.


Suares’s general approach in each chapter is to lay out his chosen thinkers’ critiques

of Hegel and proceed to show whether or not they successfully avoid the

pitfalls into which they perceive Hegel to have fallen. In each case he concludes that

they are either unsuccessful in clearing themselves of the same charges that they

level against him, or that their criticisms reject claims that Hegel cannot be proven

to have actually made. In Tanabe’s case, these failures are particularly pointed,

Suares argues, since his adoption of numerous Hegelian features in his own work

clashes harshly with his stringent critique of those same features in Hegel’s philosophy.

In addition, Tanabe rejects certain ideas that he incorrectly attributes to Hegel.

For Tanabe, Hegel is both a well of inspiration and a foil he continually pits himself

against, and, as Suares aptly shows, that ambivalence has problematic consequences

that come to bear in the anti-philosophical position Tanabe eventually adopts.


Overall, Suares’s study is well-documented with an extensive bibliography

divided into sections according to subjects for convenient reference. Textual references

to Hegel and the Kyoto scholars make use of both translations and the sources

in their original languages, providing guidance for readers at various levels of expertise.

There is one reference, however, that must be flagged. On page 69, Suares cites

a passage from David Dilworth’s translation of Nishida’s final essay, “The Logic of

Nothingness [Place] and the Religious Worldview,” in which the philosopher says of

his logic that it “is illustrated by Nāgārjuna’s logic of the eightfold negation” and “is

decidedly not a dialectic of substance in the Hegelian sense.” Michiko Yusa (1988),

in her review of this translation, makes the important observation that in the original

text Nishida makes no direct mention of either Nāgārjuna or Hegel here, and

charges Dilworth with having been excessively interpretive at this point in his translation.

This pivotal passage bears upon a number of themes dealt with in Suares’s

book, so readers should consult the original text, mindful of its disputed translation.


The book’s thesis, succinctly put forth in the conclusion, emphasizes the closeness

of the principal views held by Hegel and the philosophers of the Kyoto School.

Suares, in fact, finds no significant difference between the notion of absolute spirit

delineated by Hegel and the Japanese philosophers’ notion of absolute nothingness.

Though he voices good reasons to support this view, not enough analysis of

Hegel’s notion of spirit is given to prove this particular point. But whether or not

this point is proved, the final assessment of the relationship between Hegel and the

Kyoto scholars given in the conclusion presents a new reading of Hegel informed

by the ways his thought has been adapted by Nishida, Nishitani, and Tanabe. The

convergence of their various dialectics opens new ways of understanding Hegel, in

addition to bringing together and clarifying the ideas that have shaped philosophical

thought in Japan. In this respect The Kyoto School’s Takeover of Hegel is a model

work of comparative scholarship and makes a highly valuable contribution to the

field. All in all, this work boldly charts exciting frontiers in world philosophy, demonstrating

the potential fruit that may come from thorough and intelligent crosscultural

comparative studies.



Yusa, Michiko

1988 Review of “Last writings: The logic of nothingness and the religious worldview.”

Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56: 802–804.


Lucy Schultz

University of Oregon

Source: Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture

Religion & Nothingness

Keiji Nishitani – “Religion and Nothingness”

religion and nothingness

Originally Published on Strong Reading


Keiji Nishitani attempts in this book to reformulate the question “What is religion?” away from attempts to amass historical evidence from a variety of traditions in order to create a universal definition of religion based on certain shared characteristics, from using an objective viewpoint to encounter religion as some type of object whose characteristics can be catalogued and compared. Instead, Nishitani seeks the home-ground of religion, its existence as it is lived by people. The question of religion is to be approached by a person questioning what religion is specifically to them, how they live what they call religion, treating that practice as religion’s sole existence, “where religion emerges from man himself, as a subject, as a self living in the present.” (xlviii) So Nishitani is uninterested in what religion “has been,” but in what it “ought to be,” how it can be understood and practiced in such a way as to carry personal conviction.

In so reformulating the question of religion, Nishitani attempts to engage not only with the Zen Buddhist tradition in which he has been raised and practiced, but also with Western philosophies of religion (comparisons of Eastern vs. Western thinking/society are all over this book – I’m too lazy to put scare quotes over all of them…). Nishitani regards the contemporary situation of Western culture (this book was written in 1982) as one whose primary disease is nihilism, the loss of lived belief in personal deities and an ordered cosmos, replaced by what he sees as empty worship of human capacities. In order to overcome this situation, Western thought must come to recognize the Buddhist standpoint of sunyata, and the perspective it opens on human affairs and the natural world.

Nishitani insists that his account is meant to be non-doctrinal, equally applicable to all religions, but he ultimately criticizes Christianity and Judaism for embodying a pre-nihilistic viewpoint, that of a personal deity and of individual chosenness and election by God, a fundamentally self-centered viewpoint, which he argues can only be overcome, along with the nihilism to which it has succumbed, by adoption of certain Buddhist concepts and perspectives, heavily inflected with concepts taken from Heidegger, Hegel, and Kierkegaard.

Chapter 1: “What is Religion?”

The question “What is religion?” or, more importantly, the question “Why do we need religion?” is ambiguous: asking the question is a demonstration that religion has not yet become a necessity for the questioner, but religion should be necessary even for one who does not yet see its value. This ambiguity arises from the fact that religion cannot be defended in terms of its utility: “a religion concerned primarily with its own utility bears witness to its degeneration.” (2) Utility is a form of evaluation that is fundamentally self-centered; when I ask what purpose religion serves I really ask what purpose it serves for me.

The question of religion opens up, for Nishitani, at the point where we no longer understand utility as a viable form of evaluation, in what are called limit experiences such as death, illness, poverty, etc., undermines “the roothold of our existence and bring[s] the meaning of life into question – become[s] pressing personal problems for us.” (3) The value of all our previous projects undertaken for our own sakes is dissolved in these limit experiences, and we recognize that “not one of all the things that had made up the stuff of life until then is of any use.” (3) Nishitani argues that, following Kierkegaard and Heidegger, “that abyss is always just underfoot,” and that the nihility, “that which renders meaningless the meaning of life,” always underlies the projects we create for ourselves (3-4). Religion arises at these moments of crisis where nihility has overcome our self-centered existence and called the meaning of our lives into question, such that we are force to asked for what purpose we exist. Religion, then, for Nishitani, is the practice, the lived experience, of an individual’s answering this question for herself, the overcoming of self-centered living through the replacement of self-love by life lived for a purpose which becomes the new object of live, which he will later compare to love of one’s neighbor.

Nishitani, noting that there are many different perspective by which one can view religion, chooses to focus on religion as the “real self-awareness of reality,” which refers both to our awareness of reality and reality’s realizing (actualizing itself and coming to its self-awareness) itself within our awareness and actions (5). Reality realizes itself in us by appropriating us to reality, thus altering not only our thoughts, but also our actions and practices to take up their “essential determination,” thus bringing us to live in the fullest sense of the term according to our real being (6).

Reality for Nishitani is unrelated to bare physical existence, as the nihility representing the meaninglessness of physical things and the death representing the negation of life are equally real phenomena. When Nishitani speaks of reality, he refers to “a great harmony among all things in the universe that brings them into being and sustains them in mutual dependence and cooperation, a mystical order that rules over all things so that God can be seen in the most trivial of things.” (8-9) In other words, reality constitutes that perspective whereby we can see within each individual thing, in its course of changes and ultimately its inevitable death, its essential relationship and harmony with all other things in the universe. Reality realizes itself in us when we not only see the universe according to this perspective, but actively take it up in our practices of living, behaving and becoming a harmonious being in relationship with all other things, described in more detail in later chapters.

Two types of self-centeredness, however, prevent us from living within what Nishitani calls the field of reality: the first, already described above, is the self-centeredness of our intentions and interests, understanding all of our activities in terms of their utility for us. The second is a conceptual self-centeredness, or the “subjective autonomy of the ego” that arises from Cartesian philosophy (10). Modern philosophy regards the ego as a separate individual, cut off from the world which it represents to itself and thus comprehends as a set of objects. This egocentric perspective prevents us from comprehending the pre-Cartesian view of the universe, as an organic whole whose parts are in sympathy with each other, connected by the souls of each thing.

The modern egocentric perspective sees only its own intentions and representations, its forms of knowledge and emotions, reflected back to it when looking into the universe. The egocentric subject is closed within its own self-understanding, such that “ego means self in a state of self-attachment.” (14) Nishitani opposes what he refers to as the elemental self to this form of encountering the world, where one recognizes and therefore lives within one’s roots or grounds within universal harmony. The passing-over from the self-attached to the elemental selves begins in the limit experiences outlined above, which create in the individual “the Great Doubt,” a Zen phrase Nishitani uses to express the “fundamental uncertainty about the very existence of oneself and others.” (16) The Great Doubt involves recognizing that nihility not only is present as a threat amongst our everyday existence, but is fundamentally at its root, that nihility, meaningless and formlessness, lies “concealed at the ground of all that exists, at the ground of the world itself,” a recognition that does not negate the reality of the world, but “nullifies” it, bringing us face-to-face with the impermanence and evanescence of our own existences, along with that of all things (16).

Nishitani compares the experience of the Great Doubt to the Christian recognition of sin and evil. An individual’s recognition of his or her own sinful state is connected with recognizing the sinfulness of all humanity, that in the very ground of humanity’s existence as humanity, it is in essence sinful. True recognition of sin is deeper than secular definitions of evil as the latter only isolate instances of evil actions, whereas the former recognizes the transtemporality and essentiality of sin to humanity as such, in other words that humanity is in itself corrupt. In Christianity, faith must exist within this experience of sin, beginning in the recognition that sin, the shunning of divine love, is only possible inasmuch as humanity is essentially a receptacle for divine love, such that the “point of contact” between humans and God is found within “the very awareness of the fact of complete corruption itself.” (25)

Nishitani labels this realization the “Great Reality,” which follows from the Great Doubt in Zen Buddhism. In both religions, faith comes upon the recognition that humanity, in its state of nihility/sinfulness, is in reality essentially connected by its point of contact with some form of divine love. It follows that humanity is transtemporally and essentially connected not only in its sinfulness, but also in its relationship with the divine, the “‘Power of the Original Vow’ (that is, the saving will) of the Tagatha (Buddha) in the direction of all sentient beings,” or God’s agape. (26) Our recognition of our relationship with all other sentient beings and thus also with the divine is the only way to fully overcome our egocentric selfhood, fully break apart our solitude, and actualize our true elemental selfhood through faith.

Modern atheism in fact provides the key to start each individual’s personal journey towards faith. Nishitani chooses Sartre as his representative for modern atheistic humanism, basing his understanding of the ego on “subjective nothingness,” where no transcendent meaning grounds human existence, such that humans are capable of choosing “an image of what he believes man ought to be” and living that image out (31). In place of the imago Dei as the transcendent ground of human ethics, Sartre has humans create an “image of man” by which they model themselves. In this way, Nishitani argues, humans become fully closed within their ego’s projections of who they ought to be, blinded to the nihility that underlies their projections.

Modern atheism does not, however, liberate humanity from nihility, but rather brings it closer to it. Limit experiences will still call into question an individual’s existence, but this time with no grounding meaning to their lives outside of that which they have created and has just been called into question. In response, religion must reassert itself by coming to terms with two issues that have traditionally hampered it. First is a paradox regarding the ontological status of humanity vis a vis God. God has in traditional Christianity been understood as creator ex nihilo, meaning that God is ultimately more real than creation, being its archetype and architect. At the same time, however, creation is seen as imbued and sustained by divine love, and so the exact ontological status of creation is unsettled. Second, religion must come to terms with the problem of evil, of theodicy. Religion must finally be able to answer the problem of how a good and omnipotent God can allow evil and, for Nishitani, nihility, in the world.

Chapter 2: “The Personal and the Impersonal in Religion”

The two great intellectual crises of our time, Nishitani argues, are the resolution of the debate between religion and science, and the overcoming of philosophical nihilism, seen most prevalently in the form of modern atheism described above. The twin forces of science and philosophical nihilism began to challenge religion as the classical view of a teleologically ordered universe collapsed. The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake (destroyed lots of the city, churches destroyed, brothels not, etc., the idea that natural disasters were divine punishment was shattered) demonstrated that God and humanity do not have a personal relationship with each other, such that God responds to and ultimately supports human interests. In its wake a materialistic and mechanistic view of the universe, “a world cold and dead, governed by laws of mechanical necessity, completely indifferent to the fact of men.” (48) Without the idea of soul or spirit, the world now began to be seen as a collection of matter that followed impersonal rules.

This materialistic and mechanistic view of the physical universe was accompanied by a social vision of human progress. Under this vision, humans were viewed as the subjugators of nature, making the world conform to its own will and conceptions of justice and rationality. These three ideas, materialism, mechanism, and progress, are for Nishitani the three poles of modern atheism. The problem of nihility, however, was not resolved in the modern atheistic view of the world, but in fact was made into a presupposition of it. Humans became the masters of their own destiny with no structure of transcendent meaning (ie. metaphysics or religion) to ground their self-understanding, thus making them free to self-define.

The nihility underlying the modern atheistic subject, however, is not overcome by this kind of freedom, as limit experiences will always call into question whatever self-definition the subject gives itself. The only appropriate response to nihilism, for Nishitani, is to affirm the indifference of nature, but “not a cold and insensitive indifference, but an indifference of love. It is a non-differentiating love that transcends the distinctions men make between good and evil, justice and injustice.” (58) This type of love for Nishitani is the common denominator between Christian agape and Buddhist non-ego, both ways of indifferently appreciating all things, regardless of individual differences.

Nishitani explains the link between non-ego and agape in his reading of Meister Eckhart. For Eckhart, the essence of God is “absolute nothingness,” equated with the “Godhead” as opposed to the personal God, and a transcendence of any mode of divine being (61). When humans are made in the image of God, then, this includes the Godhead as well, such that each human has an element of absolute nothingness in his or herself. Union with God, then, requires that individual subjectivity be transcended in order to attain the divine element of absolute nothingness in the depths of the individual soul, such that “the element of self is broken through again and again” in mystic ascent (62). The individual in mystic ascent dies to his or her individual subjectivity, but begins to live a divine life having found and taken up his or her absolute nothingness, entering a condition Nishitani calls “death-sive-life,” the unity of death and life in mystic union (63). Having reached this union, Eckhart warns against rapture and self-intoxication in divine perfection, but advocates living everyday life with a higher sense of the value of all activities, each inspired with divine perfection. In fact, for Eckhart there is no divine soul beyond this everyday activity, such that Nishitani concludes that the mystic soul “bears witness to God as present in the Dasein of the soul itself.” (64) God does not stand in some transcendent ground beyond human experience, but in fact only exists as the Existenz, existence without essence, only through activity, of humans, the point of intersection between human and divine nature in the godhead which reveals itself as perfect practices of living.

In order to achieve this state, however, the subject must overcome the self-centered view of personhood implied in modern atheism. Modern atheistic subjects create and define themselves against a backdrop of nihility. Mystic ascent begins by affirming this nihility, recognizing that nothing underlies human subjectivity. There is no thing that models human existence, and the recognition of this opens the possibility of awareness of absolute nothingness: “true nothingness means that there is no thing that is nothingness, and this is absolute nothingness.” (70) Absolute nothingness can only be experienced as this lack of grounding of human subjectivity, experienced in succumbing to the experience of nihility in limit situations. Grounding subjectivity, in other words, is absolute nothingness, which opens up therefore as an individual’s true self:

The ‘nothing at all’ behind the person comes out into the open on the side of the self, the original self. If person [ie. modern atheistic subjectivity] be regarded as the sheer mode of self-being itself, ‘behind’ which there is nothing, this is so because the matter is being looked at from the side of the person. […] When the ‘nothing at all’ opens up on the near side of the personal self, however, and is seen as the sheer self itself, then nothingness really becomes actualized in the self as the true self. (70-71).

Instead of living as a “person,” an independent subject, we find ourselves, when recognizing that absolute nothingness is our ground, to be a “persona,” a role we play and nothing more. We are actors playing out roles that absolute nothingness delimits: our true nature is absolute nothingness, and so we merely embody the nature of absolute nothingness. Nishitani compares this situation to a wave and water. The wave is water and behaves as water does, but it an individual unit of it. There is no water that is not a wave, just as there is no ideal “humanity” that exists without individual humans, such that humans are the form and its instantiation at the same time. So it is not that humans are formless, but have no-form, have nothingness as their form, such that we are not “personal” beings, but are impersonal in our existence: “Seen from that aspect, every man, such as he is in the real Form of his suchness, is not man. He is impersonal. In other words, he is ‘man’ as an appearance with nothing at all behind it to make it an appearance,” and is “impersonal-sive-personal,” or beyond the duality of personality and impersonality. (74)

Chapter 3: “Nihility and Sunyata”

The similarity between religion and science/modern atheism is that each religion, and modern science as well, is grounded on a particular ontology or worldview. Each worldview acts as a basis for the truths expounded by the religion or science, and science, no less than religion, “seems to regard its own scientific standpoint as a position of unquestionable truth from which it can assert itself in all directions.” (78) Nishitani has already argued that modern science possesses a worldview of mechanism and materialism, or that the matter comprising the universe follows predictable laws. Each event in the universe, then, is an instance of those laws of nature.

Human freedom, then, follows a peculiar course for the scientific subject. Humans begin already appropriated to particular laws of their nature, those of human instincts. However, the ideal of progress requires transcendence of mere instinct to gain knowledge. At the same time, though, “knowledge advances and develops through the technological labors of man; and the advance of knowledge in turn advances technology.” (81) As humans free themselves from their bondage to instinct, they ultimately submit to the mechanistic rules of nature through technology. The condition of modern life is one of increasing impersonalization and mechanization of everyday human activity, so that just as humans liberate themselves from instincts often described as “animal,” they re-enslave themselves to their technology, causing the “mechanization of man, toward the loss of the human.” (85)

At the same time as human everyday life has become increasingly mechanized and routinized, however, humans themselves have become increasingly hedonistic. Humans see themselves as unbound by any laws whatsoever, free only to follow their personal desires, engaged in what Nishitani calls “crypto-nihilism,” the denial of any transcendent grounding of human subjectivity but without the Sartrean “image of man” or the Nietzschean drive toward self-transcendence that provided some guide to and impetus for subjective aspirations.

The standpoint that allows for movement beyond the mechanistic and hedonistic lives of modern subjects living by scientific atheism is the standpoint of sunyata, which in Buddhism refers to emptiness. Sunyata is the standpoint where each individual person becomes manifest as they are “as concrete human beings, as individuals with both body and personality. And at the same time, it is the point at which everything around us becomes manifest in its own suchness.” (90) The standpoint of sunyata is accessed through nihility. As one experiences the Great Doubt described above, all things in the world begin to appear meaningless and inessential, and beings become eclipsed by the absolute nothingness that not only serves as our ground, but the ground of the entire world. Sunyata, then, is the way of interpreting experience from the standpoint of absolute nothingness, how the world appears when being has been transcended.

Here the wave metaphor comes in handy again. Whereas classical Christianity would see God as inaccessibly transcendent to humanity, sunyata recognizes that each thing is like a wave in the ocean, where no ocean exists outside of the waves, but the waves themselves have no essential independent existence. “Rather, at the point that water and waves are self-identical (as water-waves), this flowing wetness emerges into reality for what it is, water there being water and waves there being waves.” (103) All things are absolute nothingness, but absolute nothingness has no existence (is nothing) apart from the things in the world which are groundless and inessential.

Attaining the standpoint of sunyata requires giving up conceptions of subject and object. Understanding the world as an object, or as a collection of objects, presumes an observing subject separated from those objects, particularly one who can represent the world to his or herself. In sunyata, contrastingly, each thing appears in its elemental existence as an appearance of absolute nothingness, “the point at which the self is truly on its own home-ground. Here plants and trees have penetrated to the bottom to be themselves; here tiles and stones are through and through tiles and stones; and here, too, in self-identity with everything, the self is radically itself.” (110) Sunyata understands each thing in its own selfhood as an appearance of absolute nothingness, thus revealing it not only its original nature but also its essential harmony with other things.

Chapter 4: “The Standpoint of Sunyata”

In classical Western philosophy, however, objectivity has traditionally taken the form of understanding individual things in terms of concepts like “substance” or “essence.” An individual existence is said to be an outgrowth of some form of true essence that explains the individual thing in its particular way of being. In classical philosophy, things are not seen on their home-ground, here defined as their existence as revealed by their particular activities, but rather as mediated through some more general concept that obscures the existenz of those things. In order to reach the standpoint of sunyata, individuals must transcend logical reason which categorizes objects and understands them in terms of universal concepts such as substance, etc.

The standpoint of sunyata regards things not as species within higher levels of logical genera, culminating with universalities such as “substance” or “matter,” but as they appear “with nihility at [their] ground, as lacking roots from the very beginning.” (122) In other words, rather than deriving the activity of things from a ground in universal concepts and laws, the standpoint of sunyata attends to the be-ing of things, their activity or in Nishitani’s terms, their virtus: “that individual capacity that each things possesses as a display of its own possibility of existence. The pine tree is returned to the virtus of the pine, the bamboo to the virtus of the bamboo, man to the virtus of his humanity.” (123-124) So rather than thinking of being as some kind of material base that differentiates itself to produce the myriad of existent things, things are grounded on nihility, and so only exist insofar as they are made visible in their virtus.

The conclusion Nishitani reaches is that being is only a coherent concept when united with emptiness. To explain this paradoxical conclusion, Nishitani gives the example of fire. Fire burns, but it burns something other than itself (ie. oxygen, wood, etc.). In fact, fire’s activity is in burning things other than itself, and not burning itself up in the process. So if we called the virtus of fire combustion, then the being of fire as combustion is dependent on its negation, its not combusting itself, so that fire is grounded on nothingness, non-combustion. The same goes with attributes as with substance. When we say that fire is hot, we do not say that the heat of fire itself is hot, because that statement would presuppose some deeper conception of heat that allows us to say that heat is hot, and so on ad infinitum. Heat is only an intelligible concept because of the existence of non-heat, the negation of heat as a concept, that heat is not itself hot. In both cases, being is grounded upon nothingness, such that being is only intelligible from the perspective of nothingness or sunyata.

For Nishitani, that being is grounded upon nothingness justifies its being labeled an illusion, an appearance that can only exist by virtue of its dependence on nothingness. Thus, the standpoint of sunyata allows us to see things in their truly elemental existence, in the sense described above. Since, furthermore, this standpoint allows things to reveal themselves in their activity, their virtus, rather than as a species within a category, taking up sunyata allows us to affirm the existence of all things as they are in their elemental natures. Things are as they reveal themselves when viewed from the standpoint of sunyata, and so are nothing but their own activity, and are thus radically affirmed, giving Nishitani cause to apply the Nietzschean title “Great Affirmation” to sunyata (131).

The standpoint of sunyata also breaks through the limitations of Enlightenment and German Idealist conceptions of human subjectivity, both sharing the notion of an isolated individual human subject standing apart from the world, representing it to itself as a set of objects. For Nishitani, this conception of subjectivity naturally bleeds into modern atheism, with an independent subject who is able to represent and order the world and himself according to his own faculties of reason and imagination. The Enlightenment/German Idealist subject, then, fails to confront its nihility as with the modern atheist subject. The standpoint of sunyata, however, allows subjects to see themselves as grounded in the same absolute nothingness as all other beings, finally overcoming their isolation and allowing them to affirm themselves and their own virtus in elemental existence. To this state of affairs of interconnectedness of all things by virtue of being grounded in absolute nothingness Nishitani applies the term circumincession, originally a Christian term used to describe the mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the Trinity. Nishitani also likens it to Leibniz’s monads, each “reflecting one another like living mirrors of the universe.” (150)

Realizing the circumincession of ourselves with the rest of the world allows us to finally overcome the self-centeredness and self-attachment of our everyday lives. All of our activity is grounded on nothingness, such that the absolute nothingness we share with the rest of the world is closer to our true selves than our egos. Sight is only sight because it is also non-sight, the eye does not see itself or it would be eternally lost in itself viewing itself viewing itself, etc., and the same goes for consciousness. By recognizing one’s own grounding in nothingness, we can cease to cling to our ego-based self-recognition that inevitably succumbs to nihility, and rather take up the absolute nothingness that connects us with the rest of the world, thus answering the question of how to overcome the essential nihility at the heart of the human experience posed at the end of chapter 1. Religion also answers the problem of the ontological status of humanity by arguing that humanity is indeed essentially nothingness, but a nothingness that connects it will all things, including the godhead as per Eckhart.

Chapter 5: “Sunyata and Time”

The question of theodicy, however, still remains open, and Nishitani spends the rest of the book dealing with it by reconceptualizing time and history from the perspective of sunyata. Nishitani begins by stating the basic principle of samsara, describing the way sentient beings exist, condemned to a constant cycle of births and deaths of their selves and their projects, or in other words, “the awareness of an unfathomable nihility and “nullification.” (169) Samsara is the state of our being as always threatened by nihility underlying our activity. Nishitani connects samsara with karma, where humans are bound to experience the consequences of their past actions that condition their present possibilities, such that “everyone without exception reaps only the fruits of his own acts.” (169)

Nishitani argues that the recognition of samsaric suffering in the face of constant nihility and our imprisonment to the causal conditions of karma that continually renew our commitment to actions underlain by nihility constitutes Buddhism’s mythos, its fundamental awareness of humanity’s subjective experience. From the mythic perspective of Buddhism, our struggle against suffering and to overcome nihility is fundamentally a search for liberation from samsara and eventually for Nirvana, a state of absolute freedom unbound by karmic conditioning. Buddhism’s mythos provides the interpretive ground to understand human suffering as fundamentally a struggle to overcome the despair brought on by nihility.

Even if, however, we succeed in finding our original selves on the elemental ground of our existence described in the previous chapters, that attainment does not constitute the end of our struggle against despair. Nirvana cannot be considered some paradisiacal state outside of human experience, or only existing after death, but must be lived within ordinary life, as liberation from samsaric suffering while still enduring the “anxious, petty troubles of daily life,” or in Nishitani’s terms, “samsara-sive-Nirvana.” (182) Keeping in mind that samsaric suffering is truly suffering at the nihility grounding all existence, affirming nihility allows us to see the wheel of birth and death in each thing or event in the world as a microcosm of the absolute nothingness that pervades the entire universe, of the godhead that is imbued into all things.

Zen Buddhism refers to the ability to recognize absolute nothingness in any event or object as meditation, zazen, or in other words, religious practice. Through meditation, which in Zen takes the form of “just sitting,” one releases one’s interests and desires that keep one chained to karmic conditions, allowing oneself to experience the godhead hidden within each moment. Nishitani compares the experience of religious practice to opening oneself to the “atom of eternity” Kierkegaard sees in temporality, where every moment may open up transcendence from the despair of everyday life (189). In each moment one can find absolute nothingness, allowing one to view the universal harmony of elemental existence within its microcosm contained in the present moment. Viewing eternity and the fullness of universal harmony within the present moment is, for Nishitani, the standpoint opened and represented by all “religions that have their base in myth,” in recognition and interpretation of our subjective existence. (206)

Chapter 6: Sunyata and History

The standpoint of religion allows us to see eternal and universal harmony among the meaninglessness and suffering of samsara by coming to terms with and ultimately affirming nihility. The problem of theodicy is thus resolved inasmuch as it is only through a recognition of the suffering that is inherent to the samsaric condition of all sentient beings that the ability to see eternity and universal harmony in each moment is opened. Nishitani also seeks, however, to demonstrate that sunyata provides a standpoint to justify ethical behavior and action against suffering and in favor of love, so that religion does not achieve liberation by merely ignoring concrete suffering by seeking eternity within people’s pain.

The Buddhist conception of time is as an infinite system of simultaneous kalpas, closed and complete temporal systems that coexist. These kalpas exist overlain upon “an infinite openness at the bottom of time, like a great expanse of vast, skylike emptiness that cannot be confined to any systematic enclosure.” (219) Thus time is truly irreversible and unique in the Buddhist scheme, as each “now” in one kalpa only exists in the context of an infinite set of other “nows” in other kalpas. Each moment is thus truly impermanent, as no moment could ever be conceivably repeated, unlike a circular system of time, or even Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence. This system of infinite time, always opening onto newness, is both profoundly liberating and profoundly burdensome. For, at the same time as each moment is necessarily and truly new and unrepeatable, the constant becoming of time continually pushes us into having to confront ever-renewed realities, such that the “obligation to unceasing newness makes our existence an infinite burden to us.” (220) The infinite nature of time signifies that we are always caught within karma, that our actions will necessarily feed back upon us in the future and keep us chained to causality.

The Buddhist conception of time also escapes the illusion that time has a beginning and an end, a key grounding of both classical religious and modern atheist histories. The idea of divine election seeks the ground of time in a transcendent being that can create time and give it a sense and purpose. Modern atheist historicism grew in revolt against this notion, affirming instead that there is no ground transcendent to time, that all things exist only within time, not recognizing that “the time that provides it with its field, a time unrestrictedly open to both past and future, can only come about by virtue of an infinite openness lying at the ground of the present.” (227) Progress narratives merely posit a point where history will culminate and fulfill itself, rather than grasping the infinite openness the Buddhist conception of time understands as grounding any temporal system.

While both classical religious and modern atheist understandings of time are future-oriented, however (with the exception of scientific time seeking the causes of things, thus being past-oriented), Nietzsche’s Eternal Return provides a way to come to the Buddhist understanding of time as present-oriented. As time for Nietzsche bends and meets at the extremes of past and future it returns at the beginning of the cycle to now, the present, where in the Great Affirmation one sees the significance of all past and future things in the present moment. The Great Affirmation brings us back to the present moment, where nihility inevitably comes to overthrow whatever sense of meaning we build, thus opening the ground for absolute emptiness to appear in the present moment.

The Buddhist affirmation of nihility allows for the burden of existence to be interpreted in another way than as the field for the pursuit of self-centered endeavors based on our self-definition. Modern atheistic time also contains a form of infinite time, inasmuch as “each of the various facets of human existence becomes autotelic, each as it were becomes autonomous. Each begins to contain a kind of infinity, an infinite finitude.” (235) Each moment can become the fulfillment of human desires inasmuch as one acts exactly according to one’s self-definition at every moment. At this point, however, human activity ceases to serve anything other than its own desires and interests, bringing us back to the beginning of the book where nihility calls into the question the meaning of our projects.

The burden of existence from the perspective of sunyata appears instead as a mission or a debt towards all others with whom we are essentially connected in elemental existence. As discussed last chapter, entering the infinity of the present moment allows to see our connection with all other things in the universe, effecting a liberation from karmic conditioning. The moment of time and the present moment, then, appears from this perspective as instead one unit of time, the present moment, “spreading out endlessly before and after with the present at its point of origin.” (267) This conception of time as one moment spreading out infinitely into the past and future correlates with the understanding of the elemental existence of the universe as one harmony, a single whole. Understanding the universe as essentially connected makes self-love ignoring others impossible, as loving ourselves necessarily entails loving all other sentient beings, such that loving thy neighbor “as thyself” “comes about where each and every ‘other’ has its being as other, namely, at its own home-ground; or again, where all things are gathered into one circumcessional interpenetration as a ‘world’ and ‘All are One.’” (279) Self-centeredness gives way in religion to understanding the entire world as its own center, such that love must be directed towards all others. Thus, only from the perspective of religion can we grasp our ethical purpose in loving all others, seen most clearly for Nishitani in Boddhisattvahood in Buddhism and love of one’s neighbor in Christianity.

Source: Strong Reading

Primary Sources

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

Religion and Nothingness

Further Reading

Nishitani’s Buddhist Response to Nihilism

Great Doubt, Great Death, Great Awakening

The Kyoto School of Philosophy

The Kyoto School (京都学派 Kyōto-gakuha?) is the name given to the Japanese philosophical movement centered at Kyoto University that assimilated western philosophy and religious ideas and used them to reformulate religious and moral insights unique to the East Asian cultural tradition.”[1] However, it is also used to describe several postwar scholars from various disciplines who have taught at the same university, been influenced by the foundational thinkers of Kyoto school philosophy, and who have developed distinctive theories of Japanese uniqueness. To disambiguate the term, therefore, thinkers and writers covered by this second sense appear under The Kyoto University Research Centre for the Cultural Sciences.

Beginning roughly in 1913 with Nishida Kitaro, it survived the serious controversy it garnered after World War II to develop into a well-known and active movement. However, it is not a “school” of philosophy in the traditional sense of the phrase, such as with the Frankfurt School or Plato’s Academy. Instead, the group of academics gathered around Kyoto University as a de facto meeting place, and as its founder, Nishida, steadfastly encouraged independent thinking.

According to James Heisig, the name “Kyoto School” was first used in 1932 by a student of Nishida and Hajime Tanabe. Tosaka Jun (1900–45) considered himself to be part of the ‘Marxist left-wing’ of the school.[2] Afterwards, the media and other academic institutions outside of Japan began to use the moniker, and by the 1970s it had become a universal title – practically by default.


  • 1 History
  • 2 Significance of its notable members
    • 1 Kitaro Nishida
    • 2 Hajime Tanabe
    • 3 Keiji Nishitani
    • 4 Masao Abe
    • 5 Shizuteru Ueda
    • 6 Eshin Nishimura
  • 3 Criticism of the Kyoto School
  • 4 Members
  • 5 Suggested reading
    • 1 Readings byindividual members
    • 2 Secondary sources onindividual members
  • 6 References
  • 7 External links


Masao Abe writes in his introduction to a new English translation of Nishida’s magnum opus, that if one thinks of philosophy in terms of Kant or Hegel, then there is no philosophy taking place in Japan. But if it is instead thought of in terms of the tradition carried out by Augustine and Kierkegaard, then Japan has a rich philosophical history, composed of the great thinkers Kūkai, Shinran, Dōgen, and others.[3]

The group of philosophers involved with the Kyoto School in its nearly 100 year history is a diverse one. Individual members often come from very different social backgrounds. At the same time, in the heat of intellectual they did not hesitate to criticise each others’ work.

The following criteria roughly characterize the features of this school:

  1. Teaching at Kyoto University or at a nearby affiliated school
  2. Share some basic assumptions about using Asian thought in the framework of western philosophical tradition.
  3. Introduce and rationally investigate the meaning of “nothingness” and its importance in the history of philosophical debate.
  4. Expand on the philosophical vocabulary introduced by Nishida.

Generally, most were strongly influenced by the German philosophical tradition, especially the thought of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. In addition, many employed their cultural resources in formulating their philosophy and bringing it to play to add to the philosophical enterprise. However, while their work was not expressly religious it was informed significantly by it. For example, both Tanabe and Keiji Nishitani wrote on Christianity and Buddhism and identified common elements between the two religions.[4] For this reason, some scholars classify the intellectual products of the school as “religious philosophy.”

Although the group was fluidic and largely informal, traditionally whoever occupied the Chair of the Department of Modern Philosophy at the University of Kyoto was considered its leader. Nishida was the first, from 1913 to 1928. Hajime Tanabe succeeded him until the mid-1930s. By this time, Nishitani had graduated from Kyoto University, studied with Martin Heidegger for two years in Germany, and returned to a teaching post since 1928. From 1955 to 1963, Nishitani officially occupied the Chair and since his departure, leadership of the school has crumbled – turning the movement into a very decentralized group of philosophers with common beliefs and common interests.

Significance of its notable members

The significance of the group continues to grow, especially in American departments of religion and philosophy. Since the mid-1980s, there has been a growing interest in East/West dialogue, especially inter-faith scholarship. Masao Abe traveled to both coasts of the United States on professorships, and lectured to many groups on Buddhist-Christian relations.

In addition, although Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was closely connected to the Kyoto school and in some ways critical to the development of thought that occurred there—indeed, Suzuki personally knew Nishida, Tanabe, and Nishitani—he is not considered a true member of the group.[5]

Kitaro Nishida

Main article: Kitaro Nishida

Nishida, the school’s founder, is most known for his groundbreaking work An Inquiry into the Good and later for his elucidation of the “logic of basho” (Japanese: 場所; usually translated as “place,” or the Greek topos) – which brought him fame outside of Japan, and contributed largely to the attention later paid to philosophers from the Kyoto School.

Nishida’s work is notable for a few reasons, chief among them however is how much they are related to the German tradition of philosophy since Schopenhauer. The logic of basho is a non-dualistic ‘concrete’ logic, meant to overcome the inadequacy of the subject-object distinction essential to the subject logic of Aristotle and the predicate logic of Kant, through the affirmation of what he calls the ‘absolutely contradictory self-identity’, a dynamic tension of opposites that, unlike the dialectical logic of Hegel, does not resolve in a synthesis, but rather defines its proper subject by maintaining the tension between affirmation and negation as opposite poles or perspectives.

Nishitani describes East Asian philosophy as something very different from what the Western tradition of Descartes, Leibniz or Hume would indicate,

It is ‘intuitive and practical,’ with its emphasis on religious aspects of experience not lending themselves readily to theoretical description. True wisdom is to be distinguished from intellectual understanding of the kind appropriate to the sciences. The ‘appropriation’ of Nishida’s thought,…’embraces difficulties entirely different from those of intellectual understanding’…and those who ‘pretend to understand much but do not really understand, no matter how much they intellectually understand’ are the object of his scorn.[1]

Before his death Nishida wrote The Logic of Place and the Religious Worldview, developing more fully the religious implications of his work and philosophy through “Absolute Nothingness,” which “contains its own absolute self-negation within itself.”[6] By this Nishida means that, while the divine is dynamically paradoxical, it should not be construed as pantheism or transcendent theism. Both Nishitani and Abe spent much of their academic lives dedicated to this development of nothingness and the Absolute, leading on occasion topanentheism.[citation needed]

Hajime Tanabe

Main article: Hajime Tanabe

Keiji Nishitani

Main article: Keiji Nishitani

Nishitani, one of Nishida’s main disciples, would become the doyen in the post-war period. Nishitani’s works, such as his Religion and Nothingness, primarily dealt with the Western notion of nihilism, inherited from Nietzsche, and religious interpretation of nothingness, as found in the Buddhist idea of sunyata and the specifically Zen Buddhist concept of mu.

Masao Abe

Main article: Masao Abe

Shizuteru Ueda

A disciple of Keiji Nishitani.

Main article: Shizuteru Ueda

Eshin Nishimura

Main article: Eshin Nishimura

Criticism of the Kyoto School

Today, there is a great deal of critical research into the school’s role prior to and during the Second World War. Hajime Tanabe bears the greatest brunt of the criticism for bringing his work on the “Logic of Species” into Japanese politics, which was used to buttress the militarist project to formulate imperialist ideology and propaganda. Tanabe’s notion is that the logical category of “species” and nation are equivalent, and each nation or “species” provides a fundamental set of characteristics which define and determine the lives and outlooks of those who participate in it.

Some western scholars think this criticism of the Kyoto School is inaccurate and spurious.[7] They have shown that Tanabe did not support the war effort and that Nishitani tried to organize intellectuals to question and criticize the growing militarism of the Tojo junta. This scholarly work attempts to provide an historical understanding of these thinkers’ work in terms of opposition to western colonial imperialism at the same as the thinkers opposed fascist reactionary politics.[8]


  • Kitaro Nishida: 1870 – 1945 (KU Philosophy Dept. 1910-13, Chair 1913-28)
  • Hajime Tanabe: 1885 – 1962 (KU Philosophy Dept. ?, Chair, 1928-35?)
  • Keiji Nishitani: 1900 – 1990 (KU Philosophy Dept. 1928-35, Chair 1935-63)
  • Masao Abe
  • Miki Kiyoshi
  • Hisamatsu Shinichi
  • Shizuteru Ueda
  • Saneshige Komaki
  • Yamanouchi Tokuryu
  • Takeuchi Yoshinori

Suggested reading

Scholarly books

  • The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School.Edited by Frederick Franck. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1982.

Seventeen essays, most from The Eastern Buddhist, on Zen and Pure Land Buddhism.

Anthology of texts by Kyoto scholars themselves, with additional biographical essays.

  • The Thought of the Kyoto School,edited by Ohashi Ryosuke. 2004.

Collection of essays dealing with the history of its name, and its members contributions to philosophy.

  • Philosophers of Nothingnessby James Heisig. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8248-2481-4

Excellent introduction to the School’s history and content; includes rich multilingual bibliography.

  • Absolute Nothingness: Foundations for a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue,Hans Waldenfels. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.

Good early work, focuses mostly on Nishitani’s relevance for the perspective of Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

  • James W. Heisig, John C. Maraldo (Ed.): “Rude Awakenings. Zen, the Kyoto School, & the Question of Nationalism”, Honololu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Journal articles

  • “The Religious Philosophy of the Kyoto School: An Overview,” by James Heisig.Japanese Journal of Religious Studies17, No.1, (1990), p51-81.
  • “Heidegger and Buddhism,” by T. Umehara. Philosophy East and West,20 (1970), p271-281.
  • “Nishida’s Philosophy of ‘Place’,” by Masao Abe, International Philosophical Quarterly28, No.4 (Winter 1988), p. 355-371.
  • “In Memoriam: Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990),” by E. Kawamura-Hanoka. Buddhist-Christian Studies,12 (1992), p241-245.

Readings by individual members

For further information, see the Nanzan Institute’s Complete Bibliography for all Kyoto School members

  • Kitaro Nishida, An Inquiry into the Good,Translated by Masao Abe and Christopher Ives. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987 (1921).
  • ——, Art and Morality,Translated by D. Dilworth and Valdo Viglielmo. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1973.
  • ——, Intelligibility and the Philosophy of Nothingness,Translated by Robert Schinzinger. Westport: 1958.
  • Tanabe, Hajime, “Demonstratio of Christianity”, in Introduction to the philosophy of Tanabe: According to the English translation of the seventh chapter of the demonstratio of Christianity, translated by Makoto Ozaki, Rodopi Bv Editions, January 1990, ISBN 90-5183-205-2,ISBN 978-90-5183-205-1, ASIN B0006F1CBU.
  • –, “The Logic of The Species as Dialectics,” trns. David Dilworth; Taira Sato, inMonumenta Nipponica, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1969, pp. 273-288. [Available as pdf through JSTOR]
  • –, Philosophy as Metanoetics(Nanzan studies in religion and culture), Yoshinori Takeuchi, Valdo Viglielmo, and James W. Heisig (Translators), University of California Press, April 1987, ISBN 0-520-05490-3.
  • Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness,Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. ISBN 0-520-04946-2
  • ——, The Self-overcoming of Nihilism,translated by Graham Parkes and Setsuko Aihara. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
  • Yoshinori Takeuchi, The Heart of Buddhism,translated by James Heisig. New York: 1983.

Secondary sources on individual members

  • Nishida Kitaro,by Nishitani Keiji, translated by Yamamoto Sesaku and James Heisig. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • The Religious Philosophy of Tanabe Hajime,edited by Taitetsu Unno and James Heisig. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
  • The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji,edited by Taitetsu Unno. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.


  1. a b D.S. Clarke, Jr. “Introduction” in Nishida Kitaro by Nishitani Keiji, 1991.
  2. ^ Heisig 2001, p.4
  3. ^ Masao Abe, “Introduction” in An Inquiry into the Good, 1987, (1921).
  4. ^ Tanabe in Philosophy as Metanoetics and Demonstratio of Christianity, and Nishitani in Religion and Nothingness and On Buddhism.
  5. ^ Robert Lee, “Review of The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School,” in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol.42, No.4 (Aug.,1983).
  6. ^ The Kyoto School (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  7. ^ Parkes, Graham, ‘Heidegger and Japanese Fascism: An Unsubstantiated Connection,’ in Japanese and Continental Philosophy, Indiana University press, 2011. Parkes exposes the shabby scholarship of the accusers of the Kyoto School, while leaving open the question of what exactly the politics of the Kyoto school philosophers consisted in.
  8. ^ David Williams, Defending Japan’s Pacific War: The Kyoto School philosophers and post-White power Routledge Curzon, London and New York 2004

External links

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • The Fascist Next Door? Nishitani Keiji and the ChuokoronDiscussions in Perspective, Discussion Paper by Xiaofei Tu in the electronic journal of contemporary Japanese studies, 27 July 2006.


An Imagined Dialogue on Eastern & Western Philosophy & The Nature of Knowledge

“The search for knowledge is like the search for true love. We live in a web of relationships, be it of propositions or people. Sometimes we are in a skeptical mood and we grasp for a solid base—a belief that we’re sure of or a friend or lover we can trust completely—but experience seems to admonish us, ‘all are fickle’; at such times the web can seem inscrutable. Then at other times we’re completely in the moment and the web is worldwide, and we’re secure in its interrelationships, confident in our position. We’re in a web all right—just sometimes we see ourselves as the spider other times as the fly.” – Raam Gokhale

“Truth may have been found but might never be known.” – Kedar Joshi


Ram: You know the quote from Kipling, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”? Do you think it applies to philosophy?

Kedar: It applies there more than anywhere else. Western philosophy demands the rigors of sound arguments. Eastern philosophy is virtually indistinguishable from religion.

Ram: But “NEVER the twain shall meet” is pretty radical. Don’t you think they must meet in some sense if both are to be labeled as philosophy? To compare them, to use the same word, ‘philosophy’, to describe them, they must have something in common. It’s not like say comparing farming with the Dewey-decimal system, for example.

Kedar: You seem to have a common ground in mind?

Ram: I do. I think it’s contained in the inscription at the Temple of the Delphic oracle, namely ‘Know Thyself’.

Kedar: Hmm. I think you’re right. Western philosophy exhorts ‘Know Thyself’ in order to know all other things. Eastern philosophy exhorts ‘Know Thyself’ in order to forget about all other things.

Ram: As usual, you’ve put things very pithily. In western philosophy, whether you’re dealing with ideas that have an external existence as in Plato or Berkeley or ideas only present in the mind as in Descartes, Locke, or Hume, ideas are known first and are the basis of knowing everything else. Know thyself in order to know all other things.

Kedar: How about your favorite philosopher, Wittgenstein? Doesn’t he argue that even self-knowledge is only possible through outward criteria, that there is no such thing as a private language? I for one would be only too happy to dismiss Wittgenstein as not a true philosopher.

Ram: Ah so that’s how philosophers trade barbs huh? They don’t directly insult each other; they insult each other’s intellectual heroes. I agree Wittgenstein doesn’t fit the paradigm too neatly but you must admit, even his linguistic analysis can be described as an exercise in ‘Knowing Thyself’—except in his case the thyself that you’re exhorted to know is the linguistic practices of your “form of life”, your community of speakers. Not ‘Know Thyself in order to know all other things’ but ‘know the practices of thy community in order not to muck up the enterprise of knowing other things’.

Kedar: At any rate, the later Wittgenstein is understood partly as attacking the phenomenalists who definitely fit into the ‘Know Thyself in order to know all other things’ camp. So I guess he’s a philosopher in the same sense as the statement, ‘Philosophy is crap’ is itself taken to express a philosophical position.

Ram: You put it more crudely than I would but I think we agree that in western philosophy, ‘Knowing Thyself’ is generally necessary in order to know other things. Wittgenstein might be an exception, but if he is, he is the exception that proves the rule.

Kedar: OK…perhaps. Now how about eastern philosophy? I take it you have in mind ‘Atman is Brahman’ and the doctrine of Maya from the Vedas when you say eastern philosophy exhorts, ‘Know Thyself in order to forget about all other things’.

Ram: Actually you said eastern philosophy exhorts ‘Know Thyself in order to forget about all other things’. I recently read The Tao of Physics and I would have to redescribe eastern philosophy as exhorting, ‘Know Thyself in order to know the subjective nature of all other things’. I think that’s a more accurate formulation of eastern philosophy.

Kedar: Interesting reformulation. It still fits the ‘Atman is Brahman’ and Maya doctrines of Hindu philosophy. And I can see how one might draw parallels with quantum mechanics where the observer plays an inseparable role in the process of observing. But can it really be taken to represent all eastern philosophy? I mean I don’t know much about Chinese and Japanese philosophy for instance.

Ram: Actually it better fits non-Hindu eastern philosophy, especially Taoism, much better because, unlike Hinduism, Taoism, in exhorting us to see the subjective nature of all other things, actively encourages us to understand all other things. Each separate thing is a Tao, composed of opposites like the yin-yang, with each piece containing the seeds of its opposite. The parallels with modern physics are clear: matter is energy; particles are waves. In Hinduism, a genuine interest in understanding individual things outside the self is sometimes lacking. This is certainly true in Hinduism’s emphasis on the big picture, of transcending the veil of Maya in order for the atman or self to merge with the Brahman or God. But even Hinduism holds that the duality of Shiva and Shakti, the male and female elements, like yin and yang from Taoism, or matter and energy, particles and waves from modern physics, can be seen in everything.

Kedar: OK it seems ‘the twain do meet’ in the exhortation, ‘Know Thyself’. That’s how we can recognize eastern philosophy and western philosophy, as different as they are, as philosophy. But they clearly differ in their recommendation of how best we can know ourselves.

Ram: That’s right and the methods they recommend are suited to their widely divergent views about the nature of reality—the ‘twains’ do meet but from then on steam in opposite directions. Western science has been making successively more accurate maps of the world but their first approximation was always common sense. Common sense is what all the theorizing must tie back to. And the methods of common sense–ordinary seeing is believing—are at the core of classical science just as ordinary introspection is at the heart of western philosophy. Eastern philosophy seeks to transcend common sense; common sense is Maya. The essence of reality is glimpsed in mystical visions. The extra-ordinary visions may explain the world of common sense but their basis is an ineffable contradiction: all things are a unity of opposites, opposites like the tendency to rest/to move, to sometimes exhibit ‘male’ sometimes ‘female’ characteristics, etc. We see these opposites first in our innermost natures. ‘Know thyself in order to know the subjective nature of all other things’.

Kedar: And quantum mechanics…I guess it just so happens reality has dictated western maps have eastern legends?

Ram: I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Kedar: But like you I consider myself more of a western philosopher. Must the west be so short-changed?

Ram: Not at all. Western philosophy’s great contribution is a healthy skepticism. While eastern philosophy goes on to prescribe how to go about acquiring self-knowledge be it through yogic meditation or contemplation of Zen paradoxes, western philosophy, facing a much simpler task as far as acquiring self-knowledge is concerned, goes on to either explicate how we then acquire knowledge of external things or failing that raises doubts about whether such knowledge is even possible.

Kedar: Ahem, with all this talk of knowledge, don’t you think we should define knowledge first?

Ram: You’re right. Surprisingly, as different as they are, both eastern and western philosophy, I think, would agree, at least as a first approximation, that knowledge is justified, true belief…just the things they believe and their methods of justification would be as different as night and day.

Kedar: I know ‘justified, true belief’ has been a definition of knowledge at least as far back as Plato but I am not sure it’s correct.

Ram: Well a lot of contemporary epistemologists think that the traditional definition needs at least a fourth condition to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge. And even the ones that don’t think that the traditional 3-condition definition is deficient, think that justification has to be radically reinterpreted.

Kedar: I’m not referring to that. I think knowledge is just true belief not justified true belief. Yet even with the simpler definition, I don’t think we ever have knowledge because we’re never sufficiently confident in our beliefs. Indeed the more beliefs we have, the less sure we are of any of them. Our uncertainty is even warranted on purely probabilistic grounds.

Ram: You and I have had this conversation before. As I recall, you think justification is merely a tool that helps us to have greater conviction in our beliefs but that it itself isn’t really necessary for knowledge.

Kedar: That’s right.

Ram: I think you have the ‘man-on-the-street’ on your side. I think if we asked an ordinary person to define knowledge, he would say true belief. Justification is usually the kind of thing only philosophers worry about.

Kedar: Is this another way that philosophers trade insults, by saying the ‘man-on-the-street’ would agree with you? Philosophers are a passive-aggressive lot aren’t they? You know me: I usually walk on the opposite side of the street as the ‘man-on-the-street’. So I don’t exactly find comfort in having the ‘man-on-the-street’ on my side.

Ram: Philosophy makes strange bedfellows. I usually find comfort in using words as they are used in everyday speech and, as yours is the more ‘everyday’ definition, let me try to see things from your perspective. First let me try to put a philosopher in your corner so you feel a little more secure. The philosopher Robert Nozick, like you, drops justification from his basic account of knowledge though like you he also thinks justification has a very important role to play in how we acquire knowledge. According to Nozick, knowledge is true belief except the belief has to be so ‘secure’ that it would vary with the truth of what’s believed in ‘close’ counterfactual situations.

Kedar: Could you elaborate?

Ram: Sure. I believe I’m talking to you. And in fact I AM talking to you. But for my belief to count as knowledge, Nozick would say my belief would have to be such that if I weren’t talking to you, I wouldn’t believe I was talking to you and in other not-too-farfetched situations where I would be talking to you, I would continue to believe I’m talking to you. As Nozick says it, my belief has to ‘track’ the truth in close counterfactual situations in order to count as knowledge.

Kedar: I don’t think I walk on the same side of the street as Mr. Nozick either. If I weren’t talking to you, I might still believe that I was; and there may be situations where I would be talking to you but for whatever reason I wouldn’t believe I was talking to you. Still that doesn’t change the fact that I know here and now that I am talking to you.

Ram: Nozick tries to capture this intuition by restricting his tracking conditions to close counterfactual situations. For example if I were drugged I could believe I’m talking to you even if I wasn’t talking to you. But Nozick would say that is not a close possible world. In ‘normal’ situations where I wouldn’t be talking to you, I would (undrugged) simply be talking to someone else or to no one at all. And in such circumstances, it might seem reasonable to require that I wouldn’t continue to believe I’m talking to you if my belief is to count as knowledge.

Kedar: But even if in close-counterfactual situations my belief doesn’t track the truth, even then I think I could still be said to know. What does it matter if I’m drugged and would think I’m talking to you even when I’m not. If I believe I’m talking to you when I AM talking to you, and my belief is caused by the usual perceptual cues, and not the drug in my system, then in those circumstances I’m right and have knowledge. For instance, I can give an accurate report of our conversation. It doesn’t matter that the drug would make me believe I’m talking to you even when I’m not. In that case I don’t have knowledge but that shouldn’t infect the case where the belief is properly caused.

Ram: I think I agree with you, though other people, in particular some epistemologists, might have different intuitions so we have to make the situation more precise. Imagine the drug that’s in my system only works when I don’t hear anything for a length of time. We may imagine the doctor has prescribed it to alleviate my desperate fear of being alone. Then in close counterfactual situations when I’m not talking with you, I would still believe I’m talking with you. My intuition is that, despite this weird drug, when I’m talking with you, I know I’m talking with you. We could imagine a doctor saying the drug only affects my judgment when I don’t hear any sounds for a length of time.

Nozick with his observations about ‘keeping the method fixed’ has some wiggle-room to deal with our intuitions, but ultimately I think he fails. But let’s not lose sight of what his tracking conditions were really meant to do. They were intended to rule out lucky guesses as not instances of knowledge; the intuition he was trying to capture is that if your belief is only accidentally true, it shouldn’t count as knowledge. The trouble is in our example, the belief I am talking to you is NOT accidentally true—it’s properly caused by the fact that I am talking to you; it’s just that even if it weren’t true, there would be another cause—namely the drug—that would make me believe I was talking to you; but the existence of this other cause doesn’t make my belief accidentally true when the right cause is the one that’s operating at the present time.

Kedar: My view of knowledge, as you know, permits even accidentally true beliefs or lucky guesses to count, provided they are firmly believed.

Ram: I was wondering when you were going to say that. I happen to think lucky guesses should be excluded, though not as Nozick does, so let me try to dissuade you with the following example: suppose someone has a dream he is going to win the lottery; the dream firmly convinces him it’s going to happen and so he buys a ticket; the ticket wins. You would say that though he wasn’t justified in believing he would win, he nevertheless knew he would win?

Kedar: Sure I would. Wouldn’t we in such circumstances say he JUST KNEW he was going to win?

Ram: Watch it! You’re in danger of appealing to the man-on-the-street again. The man-on-the-street’s intuitions can be notoriously slippery. Though in the lottery example, we could picture him agreeing to the claim, ‘the dreamer just knew he was going to win’, if we pressed him, the man-on-the-street could equally be brought to say the dreamer didn’t really know he was going to win, he just got lucky.

We’ve had this type of conversation before. The other day when we were talking about necessity in the Deccan Dugout, you stated there can be multiple, sometimes conflicting intuitions about the proper meaning of common words. But you said the philosopher has the right, the obligation, to select or define a technical meaning to suit his purpose. I submit to you, justified, true belief or some account of knowledge that precludes accidentally true beliefs is a more technical, philosophically more interesting definition of knowledge than just true belief, and so should be chosen by the philosopher over the latter.

Kedar: Well I have to admit just true belief as a definition of knowledge is not very philosophically interesting. For example, as you pointed out before, a man could be said to acquire a lot of knowledge on this definition simply by believing each pair of a series of contradictory statements. One of each pair has to be true and if he ‘hedges his bets’ by believing both he’s guaranteed to have knowledge. This is clearly a pretty ridiculous way of acquiring knowledge. Perhaps when I proposed the ‘true-belief’ definition, I was guilty of appealing to the man-on-the-street’s lesser intuitions.

So it seems beliefs have to be non-accidentally true in order to count as knowledge. How do we flush out exactly the conditions necessary to rule out accidentally true beliefs?

Ram: Certainly if someone as illustrious as Robert Nozick, the winner of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize, has failed, we should be on guard.

Kedar: I’m not sure whether you’re being facetious or passive-aggressive again, but we definitely should be on guard. For example, your justification condition—we would want to say most people have knowledge about the content of their perceptual beliefs without having a justification for them. We know the causes that make most perceptual beliefs true—i.e. their reliability in conditions of good lighting, the perceiver not being under the influence of drugs, etc.—so we would say such people are justified but these people may not be aware all the premises that go into their justification.

Ram: You bring up an interesting point. Could someone be justified in his knowledge claim only from the outside and still be said to know?

Kedar: What do you mean ‘from the outside’?

Ram: I mean inaccessible to the putative knower. This is the internalism/externalism distinction one encounters in contemporary epistemology. We from the outside, external perspective know why the man-on-the-street’s perceptual beliefs are justified but from the internal perspective, based solely on what the man is aware of, the man might have no justification—he simply believes what he sees. The question is do we want to require the man be aware of the full justification of his beliefs in order to know them or do we allow external justifications to support his knowledge claims?

Kedar: I’ve re-girded myself against the man-on-the-street. My intuitions about justifications are that it’s an internal thing, so I would say if the man-on-the-street doesn’t have the full justifications for his perceptual beliefs internally, so much the worse for him—he doesn’t know.

Ram: Now we have to be careful what we require as full justification. For consider the following example. A man in an empty public square sees a prominent clock in a country known for punctuality and precision…

Kedar: Not India, I take it.

Ram: Ha, Ha, OK not India. The man notices that the clock reads 5:00 pm. He thinks to himself, ‘clocks around here generally tell the correct time’, looks at the position of the sun in the sky and judges that it’s about 5:00 pm and takes similar other measures to justify his belief that it is in fact 5:00 pm. Suppose it is in fact 5:00 pm but the clock he is looking at stopped working at 5:00 am. A philosopher named Edmund Gettier used examples like this to argue that knowledge can’t simply be justified, true belief because the man seems to meet all three conditions but we don’t want to say he knows it’s 5:00 pm.

Kedar: Interesting example. My first inclination is to maintain that knowledge can be justified, true belief. It’s just that the man’s justification is not a full, complete justification.

Ram: I had the same reaction when I first heard this example. But remember: you’re committed to justification being internal, that the man be fully aware of each premise in his justification. What would you have him do? Wait a few minutes to see if the clock is running? We could suppose the clock did coincidentally restart at 5:00 pm so it seems to be running. Still we don’t want to say that the man who relies on such an on-off clock knows what time it is. Do we want to further require he examine the inner workings of the clock? Again since the clock has restarted, inner workings might yield no clue that in fact it’s reading 5:00 am and that therefore the man’s belief that it’s 5:00 pm is only accidentally true.

In general any belief inductively justified can be false. That’s the nature of inductive justification. All we have to do to cook up a Gettieresque example is to imagine a scenario in which the inductively justified belief would be false but suppose the belief coincidentally is true. Then you have truth, belief, justification—just not knowledge.

Kedar: Extending your example to the n-th degree, we could imagine a full justification would require a justification for induction, which the history of philosophy has taught us is a losing battle.

Ram: Fortunately it’s not as bad as that. In the case of inductive justification you could argue that a justification only has to make it likely that the conclusion-belief is true. Against Gettieresque examples, the only thing that’s required is that there be no genuine defeaters of that justification as there are in the clock example.

Kedar: What’s a genuine defeater?

Ram: Well, a defeater of a person’s justification for a belief is a true proposition such that if the person believed this proposition, he would no longer be justified in holding the belief in question. The proposition ‘the clock stopped working at 5:00 am’ is a defeater, a genuine defeater, in the earlier example because if the man believed it, he would no longer be justified in believing it’s 5:00 pm.

Kedar: I guess to understand why you say genuine defeater, I have to know what’s a non-genuine defeater.

Ram: A non-genuine defeater, or a misleading defeater as it’s known in the literature, is a proposition that is a defeater in the sense that were the putative knower to believe it, he would no longer be justified. But it is a misleading defeater in the sense that its power to defeat is dependent on a false proposition. That at least is how my graduate school professor, Peter Klein, a defeasibility theorist, put it.

Kedar: Can you give an example?

Ram: We already had one. The drug that caused conversations to be imagined when no conversation was going on is an example of a misleading defeater. Imagine that I was unknowingly given this drug. This proposition is a defeater of my justification for believing that I’m talking to you. It is a defeater because if I believed it, I would no longer be justified in believing I was talking to you. Yet to some it seems like a misleading defeater because its power to defeat is dependent on the false proposition that the drug in my system is active right now. Remember we said the drug doesn’t operate so long as I hear sounds.

Kedar: OK—I think I have some sense of defeasibility theories of knowledge. And in Nozick I got some flavor of a different type of theory. I know we couldn’t have covered every epistemological theory but did we at least hit all the major classifications?

Ram: Let’s see…Nozick was an example of reliabilism. We talked about defeasibility. I guess the only other major strand is the causal theory of knowledge.

Kedar: That sounds interesting…maybe just the kind of theory I can espouse. I don’t know exactly what a causal theory of knowledge is but it sounds like it could fit our intuitions in the drug case. There we said I know I am talking to you because my belief is caused by the facts that make it true.

Ram: A causal theory has strong intuitive appeal. We want to say what’s true caused us to know it’s true. It’s the basis of our most common beliefs, namely perceptual beliefs. Seeing is believing because the thing we believe plays a causal role in forming our belief.

Kedar: And a causal theory would handle our Gettieresque clock example. The man doesn’t know it’s 5:00 pm because there is a causal disconnect between it actually being 5:00 pm and his belief that it’s 5:00 pm.

Ram: That’s right, but…

Kedar: I just knew there would be a but. Did you ever think, philosophy is crap because it’s full of butts?

Ram: Very funny. Seriously though, a causal theory of knowledge faces some challenges distinguishing causal connections of the right sort from causal connections that don’t result in knowledge.

Kedar: Could you give an example of the wrong sort of causal connection?

Ram: Certainly. Let’s modify our drugged conversation example. Suppose the drug administered unknown to me makes me imagine a conversation, perhaps a very flattering conversation, when someone is talking to me. I think we would say I don’t know you’re talking to me though my belief that you’re talking to me is caused by your talking to me.

Kedar: It’s funny how our strongest intuitions fall prey to such easy to dream up counterexamples.

Ram: They’re not that easy to dream up—I’ve just heard them or their kind before. For example another criticism of the causal theory I’ve heard is that it’s unable to handle deductive knowledge like our knowledge of the truths of mathematics. Numbers don’t cause anything because they’re simply logical constructs.

Kedar: Remember, I happen to be a Platonist about truths of mathematics so I can believe that somehow they cause our beliefs. They cause our beliefs because our mind directly ‘grasps’ them.

Ram: Well let’s just say numbers pose difficulties for most ‘normal’ causal theorists of knowledge.

Kedar: As usual you’re being very cagey and passive-aggressively insulting. We’ve surveyed the major epistemological theories but you still haven’t said which one you prefer.

Ram: If I am being cagey it’s not from any deviousness. Remember, like Wittgenstein, I’m an ordinary language philosopher. To borrow Wittgenstein’s metaphor, maybe knowledge is like a family resemblance: we see a family’s photographs and the faces all seem to resemble one another but we may be hard-pressed to find a single feature that is common to them all; knowledge may be like that, a concept that has many intuitions running through it without one being common to them all. For example, for knowledge we have intuitions that it must be reliable, non-accidental, caused by the thing known, be supported by a justification. It wouldn’t surprise me if all these intuitions couldn’t be brought together under one rubric. Maybe all philosophically interesting concepts are like that, making our attempts to find necessary and sufficient conditions for them ultimately doomed to failure.

Kedar: Don’t be so pessimistic. After all, as different as eastern and western philosophies are, you found a common thread running through all of them—know thyself.

Ram: I think I got lucky. But you may have a point. Maybe I got lucky because philosophy is a more technical word than knowledge. Maybe philosophers should only focus on words that have already been lifted out of the confused din of common discourse. Maybe epistemologists would do better to focus on concepts like evidence or justification which are already more technical than knowledge.

Though, wouldn’t it be funny if the word philosophy was the only philosophically interesting word that permits a philosophically satisfying definition?

Kedar: I think that would be funny only to a philosopher. I choose to believe that concepts like justification and evidence would permit philosophically interesting definitions. Let’s talk about them next.

Ram: Wait a minute. I see by the clock outside it’s 5:00 pm. I think I better be getting back. We can talk about justification and evidence next time.

Kedar: OK. Meanwhile I’ll take the imagined conversation drug and think about what you and I might say.


March 6, 2011

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