Nishida Kitarō's Chiasmatic Chorology

Place of Dialectic, Dialectic of Place

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John W. M. Krummel
World Philosophies
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , August
     314 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The present volume is an inspiring analysis of Nishida Kitarō’s 西田幾多郎 dialectics, the philosophical method developed and employed by the founder of the co-called Kyoto school. In this volume, Krummel approaches the task of illuminating Nishida’s “enigmatic assertions regarding ‘contradictory self-identity,’ ‘inverse correspondence,’ ‘continuity of discontinuity,’ and ‘self-negation,’ which seem to shamelessly defy any allegiance to the logical law of non-contradiction” (1) in three steps. In all three sections, Krummel takes utmost pains to stay on the difficult path between the Scylla of repeating Nishida’s enigmatic phrases without adding any interpretation or commentary and the Charybdis of venturing too far from the text to superimpose his own philosophical beliefs. It is an almost impossible strait to navigate, as every interpreter of Nishida knows.

In part I, Krummel succeeds in locating Nishida’s project in its proper historical context and identifying “a ‘Buddhist metaphysic,’ reformulated in the language of Western philosophy, hidden within Nishida’s formulations” (165). This is a claim that is, at the same time, appealing and problematic. On the one hand, Nishida clearly responds to philosophical problems and questions as formulated in Neo-Kantianism and “Nishida’s texts in general, except for his last few essays, are short on any direct references to traditional Buddhist sources” (36). On the other hand, quite a few of his later conceptual constructions seem to reverberate Buddhist insights to varying degrees.

Part II traces the development of Nishida’s dialectics throughout the latter’s career. Krummel does this by spreading the “four stages” (8) of Nishida’s philosophical development over five chapters, dedicating three chapters to the last and final stage when Nishida’s dialectics blossomed fully. However, it is worth pointing out that Krummel not simply introduces the various key concepts Nishida developed over the course of his career (as James Heisig did skillfully in his Philosophers of Nothingness), but rather focuses deliberately on the various ways in which Nishida appropriates and transforms Hegel’s dialectics with the intent to subvert Kant’s dualism and Aristotle’s substantialism.

In part III, Krummel ventures to suggest his own interpretation of Nishida’s system, which he claims to be “original and challenging.” First, he distinguishes Nishida’s “ absolute dialectics” (zettai benshōhō 絶対弁証法) (144) from Hegel’s “dialectics of being” (yū no benshōhō 有の弁証法) (152). Second, Krummel examines the influence of Buddhist philosophy on Nishida’s dialectics. He explores, particularly, the Mahāyāna Buddhist equivalents and/or origins of the concepts “nothing” (mu 無), “sokuhi” 即非, “mutual non-obstruction” (C. wuai, J. muge 無礙), the “depth in the ordinary” (byōjōtei 平常底), and “inverse correspondence” (gyakutaiō 逆対応). Finally, in chapter 10, Krummel suggests using the term “chiasm” to interpret Nishida’s concept of “contradiction” (mujun 矛盾): “By taking Nishida’s ‘contradiction’ (mujun) as a chiasma, we can focus on its character as an inter-dimensional cross section where opposites, including contradictories, meet and condition each other, and as their source, out of which they are abstracted” (193). “Nishida’s work is a true case of cross-cultural or world philosophy” (189), says Krummel, and provides a blueprint for a “‘multi-worlded’ inter-civilizational world-culture” (218).

Krummel’s analysis of Nishida’s philosophical method is, without doubt, meticulous, sensitive, and, more often than not, brilliant. His focus on Nishida’s dialectic and Hegel and the non-dualist strands of Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy as Nishida’s antecedents underscores Nishida’s philosophical importance, achievements, and innovations. However, like most English language works on Nishida, Krummel does not engage Nishida’s severest critics such as his former protégé Tanabe Hajime田辺元, his contemporary Takahashi Satomi 高橋里美, and the founder of the “critical Buddhism” (hihan bukkyō 批判仏教) of Hakamaya Noriaki袴谷憲昭.

A second shortcoming Krummel shares with many commentators in the English and Japanese language is his treatment of Buddhist ideas, especially the so-called “logic of sokuhi.” While Nishida uses this phrase in his later work to refer to his own philosophy, two observations are in order: (1) Despite Nishida rhetoric of “sokuhi,” Nishida actually coins phrases using the term “soku” and not “sokuhi,” and (2) as I pointed out in my 2005 article “Critical Comments on Nishida’s Use of Chinese Buddhism” (Journal of Chinese Philosophy 32/3: 313-329), the phrase and stratification of the “logic of sokuhi” is D. T. Suzuki’s neologism and innovation. A nod to Suzuki’s role would not only strengthen Krummel’s claim that Nishida’s philosophy “extends beyond the previous formulations of Nishida’s forebears” (190); it would also minimize the danger of alienating readers primarily trained in Buddhist philosophy or buddhology.

Despite these imperfections, Krummel’s work surely makes the required reading list of anyone who is seriously interested in understanding the importance of Nishida’s philosophy in the context of its antecedents. His depiction of Nishida’s philosophy is ingenious. The challenge now is to apply it to concrete philosophies of globalism and multiculturalism. Nishida scholarship today is faced with two challenges: (1) If Nishida’s chiasmatic chorology reveals a “Urkultur … from which spring the branches of East and West” (219) is it still meaningful and tenable to use language dividing the “‘multi-worlded’ inter-civilizational world-culture” into constructed cultural binaries such as “East” and “West”? (2). If we are to apply Nishida’s terminology to the “(post/hyper-)modernity” (137) of today’s world wouldn’t it be fruitful to compare Nishida’s reading of Plato’s chōra with that of Jacques Derrida (see my article “Between Foundationalism and Relativism: Locating Nishida’s Logic of Basho’ on the Ideological Landscape,” Nanzan Bulletin no. 27: 24-45)? Either way, the current volume constitutes an enormous contribution to Nishida scholarship, comparative philosophy, and postmodern visions of and for a global world. It provides inspiring scholarship on Nishida and, at the same time, invites subsequent creative reflections. In short, it constitutes philosophical reflection at its best.

A longer version of this review will appear in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 43/2.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gereon Kopf is Professor of Religion at Luther College. 

Date of Review: 
July 24, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John W. M. Krummel is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.



John W.M. Krummel

I appreciate Kopf’s review of my book and accept most of what he says.  However his comment that “A nod to Suzuki’s role would not only strengthen Krummel’s claim that Nishida’s philosophy ‘extends beyond the previous formulations of Nishida’s forebears’ (190)” gives the erroneous impression that I did not discuss D.T. Suzuki’s role in Nishida’s appropriation of the concept of the logic of soku-hi.  In fact chapter 9 discusses in detail the relationship and mutual influence between Suzuki and Nishida and how Nishida came to borrow the concept of sokuhi logic from Suzuki’s original reading of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras.


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