Volume 1, Issue 1, 2013
Masakatsu Fujita, Bret W. Davis
The Significance of Japanese Philosophy
When I deliver an introductory lecture on Japanese Philosophy, I always raise the following question: Is it appropriate to modify the word philosophy with an adjective such as Japanese? Philosophy is, after all, a discipline that addresses universal problems, and so transcends the restrictions implied in geographical descriptors. However, as Kuki Shūzō argues in his essay “Tokyo and Kyoto,” I think that this is only part, and not the whole truth of the matter.
One’s thinking takes place within the framework of one’s cultural heritage, and the different nuances of each of the words one uses can influence how one thinks. It is for this reason that every philosophy has its own unique character. As Otto Pöggeler suggests, there is something about the thought of Japanese philosophers such as Nishida Kitarō and Nishitani Keiji that does not fit easily into the framework of “philosophy” in the Western tradition. This is a consequence of the fact that they did not simply passively adopt, but rather attempted to critically challenge Western philosophy. I suppose that their grounding in Japanese and other Eastern traditions contributed to their critical challenge of Western philosophy. And I submit that there is a strong tendency in traditional East Asian thought to not simply grasp things within a presupposed framework of “knowledge,” but rather, since “knowledge” itself is understood to be a certain kind of restriction, to return to its roots.
Needless to say, neither Nishida’s nor Nishitani’s thought is merely a philosophical reiteration of such traditional East Asian teachings. Nevertheless, we can say that the East Asian idea that knowledge is at root something restrictive lives on in their thinking. The radicality of Nishida’s and Nishitani’s thought can be understood to lie in the manner in which they cast light on the limits of the “knowledge” pursued by Western philosophy, problematizing the basis on which this knowledge is established as well as the framework it sets up.
I think that the “character” of this or that philosophy arises from such different ways of seeing things and different attitudes toward “knowledge.” It is crucial to point out, however, that the gaps resulting from these differences need not become hindrances for philosophical thinking. Indeed, I think that the existence of such gaps, rather than hindering “dialogues” between different philosophies, is precisely what enables them to be meaningful. This is also what I have in mind when I stress the importance of dialogue in my lectures on Japanese philosophy. It is, after all, the creative dialogue engendered in this manner that enables philosophy to progress along its path of radical inquiry.