WESTERN PHILOSOPHY ASKS, “WHAT IS BEING?” JAPANESE PHILOSOPHY ASKS, “WHAT IS NOTHINGNESS?”

by Ezra Buckley on December 12, 2017

Academic philosophy departments in the West tend to teach a neat, white canon: Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche etc. Those who want to study Eastern thinkers typically have to head to the East Asian studies department.

This closed-mindedness ignores both the long history of philosophical thinking outside the West, and Japanese philosophers’ concerted effort to engage with Western thought.

One major Japanese school of philosophy, the 20th century Kyoto School, explicitly used Western-style philosophical thinking to answer a question that had long been a feature of Japanese thought. Philosophers from the Kyoto School engaged deeply with Hegel’s writing and studied under Heidegger. But whereas Western philosophers have long focused on “What is being?” as a central question about life, the Kyoto School believed that “What is nothingness?” is far more fundamental.

James Heisig, who taught philosophy in the United States before becoming professor at Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture in Japan, has spent years working to encourage scholarship regarding the Kyoto School. The interview below is edited and condensed for clarity.

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