Japanese Philosophy in the Making 1

Crossing Paths with Nishida

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John C. Maraldo
Studies in Japanese Philosophy, Volume 13
  • Brussels, Belgium: 
    Chisokudo Publications
    , June
     488 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


No thinker has had a greater impact on 20th-century philosophy in Japan than Nishida Kitarō (1870–1945), considered the founder of the so-called Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy. The Kyoto School is not only renowned in Japan. It has also inspired much of the East-West exchange arising from Buddhist-Christian dialogue, influencing not only sectors of Western theology but also the philosophy and psychology of religion. Among US scholar-philosophers, no one understands the ins and outs of Nishida’s thought and explains them better than John Maraldo. Up until now, some of Maraldo’s most provocative essays on Nishida have appeared in venues not available in most Western libraries or even in online research bibliographies, however. Chisokudō Publications (globally available through Amazon) begins to address that lacuna with this initial collection of thirteen previously published essays and lectures, with some revisions and added introductory material linking them into a coherent whole.

To do full justice to Nishida, interpreters need to be knowledgeable in multiple areas: Nishida’s main Western philosophical sources (especially 19th-century German philosophy); his intellectual context in Japan from the late 19th century up to 1945; and Buddhist themes that Nishida seldom addresses directly, but which often add a hue or mood to his theories. In addition, to appreciate the latest insights and trends in Nishida studies, critics should be in conversation with other Nishida scholars not only in Japan and the US, but also in Europe, Latin America, and China. Maraldo has the credentials. Besides Japanese philosophy per se, he is trained in phenomenology, Catholic studies, modern critical theory, Buddhism, and modern Japanese intellectual history. As such, he can be a prism for his readers, refracting Nishida’s writings into a spectrum of interests and applications, thereby justifying Nishida’s and the Kyoto School’s place in world philosophy.

In a way, the best signifier of the book’s overall theme is found on the handsomely designed cover by Claudio Bado. There we find two lines of vertical calligraphy written with a pen (by Mary Jo Maraldo). I first thought it to be Japanese, written in “grass style” calligraphy, which I always find challenging to decipher. As I tried to read it, however, I realized it was not Japanese at all, but English (albeit still hard to decipher). The inscription was a destabilizing betwixt and between Japanese and Western frames of meaning or expression. My experience fit the book’s recurring theme, what Maraldo calls the problem of “trans-lation,” not only the rendering of words from one language to another, but also the syncretism involved in concepts and words influencing and conditioning each other, creating new and hybridized meanings. Neologisms not only convey meanings or even change meanings; they also reflexively change the original meanings of the words or concepts they are translating. New words require new ways of thinking and new ways of thinking generate new meanings for both old and new words. For Maraldo this is not just an issue for Japanese philosophy, but rather suggests a deeper mission for philosophy itself. Philosophy has no fixed essence, but is always an enterprise “in the making”—continuously challenging, redefining, trans-lating itself anew. Maraldo relishes this dance of the hermeneutic circle. The calligraphy on the cover is the keynote that sets the dance in motion.

The first three chapters teach us the basic steps of the dance through a metaphilosophical discussion of philosophy in its classical Greek form (drawing on interpretations by such figures as Pierre Hadot). That insight into the ancient Greeks is further focused through the lens of some late 19th-century Japanese philosophers like Inoue Enryo, who found in the Greeks an emphasis on Way (Chinese: dao; Japanese: michi): a vision of philosophy as grounded in the analysis and enrichment of experience rather than in abstract logic and detached observation. The next essay deals with the Meiji-period intellectuals who undertook the arduous task of translating Western words and ideas into the language of late 19th-century Japan and how the enterprise changed modern Japanese thinking itself in fundamental ways. The third chapter focuses on Nishida’s own language, on the difficulties it presents for a Japanese language that is itself a hybridized language of trans-lation and the further complexities it presents to the English translator who then tries to trans-late Nishida’s trans-lated Japanese into English (or any other European language). Thus those three initial essays give us the basic forms for the choreography in the philosophical performances to follow. 

The ensuing ten chapters deal with a variety of topics that, on the one hand stand on their own, but on the other are also movements within the hermeneutic dance. Some of Maraldo’s themes more directly bear on religion than others—for example, Nishida’s focus on religions as an individualized rather than a social phenomenon, the link between intuition and action (with references to cognitive science), the nature of self and self-awareness, Nishida’s idea of nothingness as a way to mediate the controversy about “giving” in the theology of Jean-Luc Marion against its deconstructionist critique by Jacques Derrida, and reflections on today’s environmental crisis in light of Heidegger’s and Nishida’s concerns about our refusal to face the limitations of our human powers.

Reading Nishida, whether in Japanese or in translation, is notoriously difficult, but there is no reason a book about Nishida’s philosophy need be torturous. Maraldo’s scholarship is impeccable; his knowledge of the traditions on which Nishida draws is extensive; his contextualization of the philosophical issues of Nishida’s Japan is spot-on; his use of the most recent scholarship from both Europe and Japan is comprehensive. But more importantly, Maraldo makes his expertise available to his readers in the most clear and precise language possible. Even when Nishida himself is not clear (which to my mind is too often), Maraldo explains in clear terms how and why Nishida is not clear. No reader, neither novice nor expert, could ask for more.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas P. Kasulis is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Studies and Univeristy Distinguished Scholar at The Ohio State University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Maraldo is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of North Florida.


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