Nishida on self-consciousness

Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) was not only Japan’s foremost philosopher but remains a significant world philosopher of the 20th century. Though little known in Western circles, Nishida mastered the varieties of Western philosophical expression and promoted its encounter with Eastern thought, specifically Buddhism, in a manner beyond any Western thinker.

Nishida’s studies are wide-ranging, from Greek philosophers to Christian mystics, from rationalists and empiricists to Enlightenment thinkers, from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Husserl to contemporary Christian thinkers — all are brought forth to an encounter with Eastern thought.

Nishida’s early venture begins with Aristotle and the entirely dominant role of logic and reason in the Western world. His analyses culminate in Kant and Husserl in attempting to explore the cognitive patterns in which logic discloses noetic and subjective needs. The range of human intent is necessarily self-expressive and therefore existential and concretely individual. Personal awareness and consciousness of internal contradiction reveals the ethical self — unresolvable, and paradoxical (in the world). The individual identifies the intuition of a historical existence. Yet it is a plunge into a bottomless contradiction, between existence and nothingness, with the concomitant awakening of what Nishida calls a religious awareness.

This religious awareness is not a conventional belief system but a realization of the nothingness behind the awareness of the world and its absolute presence in the historical — like a crossroad (if the individual is properly self-conscious) of the intersection of Absolute and Nothing.

It is to find this place, this space, this ground of consciousness, that embarked Nishida on an exploration of the semantic features of the religious and tapped the philosophy of Buddhism. Indeed, his final essay, in the year of his death, was titled “The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview.” It may be said that Nishida’s entire career, working doggedly on this central issue of ontology, culminated in this essay.

In this work, Nishida begins his journey with Kant. In his Critiques, Kant saw the existence of God and the immortality of the soul as logical postulates of the will. Kant capitulates (if not exhausts) Western philosophy’s dependence on reason, and logic’s defense of the preeminence of scientific logic. Kant updated Aristotle, grounding self-reflection and the a priori into human faculties of reason and the inevitability of logic. Elements outside of reason or deduced ethics are not legitimate in this tradition — namely moral will or religious consciousness, however these may be defined.

While appreciating the structure of Kant’s philosophical architecture, Nishida also notes its absence of consciousness individually, the absence of existential identity, of the ground of consciousness which is eschatological and therefore “religious” in Nishida’s more rarefied definition of the latter. It is this being-ness, this space, this matrix of the self-forming historical world that is immediately expressed in the self that Nishida wants to account for. To this process he brings an encounter between that absolute present and the nothingness of Buddhist tradition.

As Nishida translator and commentator David Dilworth notes:

Nishida argues that neither paradigm, Aristotelian or Kantian, can account for the historical self as an individual self-conscious being that knows of its own mortality. It is only when the self becomes aware of its own existential contradiction — of the fact that it is a unique living being that must die — that the religious problem arises.

By any definition, then, Nishida seems to be an existentialist, taking off directly from Kierkegaard in considering the final existential insight to be a religious one, or at least religious in the eschatological sense, the crisis sense, that Walter Kaufmann uses as a criterion for defining existentialism. But Nishida differs in the evolution of his thought. He stands out from phenomenology as the ground of existential thinking, and the stands clear from both the angst-ridden or the action-oriented philosophies that existentialism became in the mid-20th century West. Nor is Nishida speaking of practices or even dogmas of world religions, all of which are symbolic, he tells us.

Rather, our actions in the Kantian plane or realm of logic and intelligibility is unaware of historical existence. Morality itself is unaware, and death has no effect on this plane. Like Kierkegaard, Nishida states that only with self-consciousness does the self become aware of its own death. Death is not an event but a condition residing in the being, here and now, an absolute now, the “eternal now” of Dogen.
Nishida calls this point of consciousness the essential religious question because it generates a logic of contradictory identity, a logic of nothingness. The existential is the absolute, one dying in the other in absolute simultaneity and identity.

Nishida speaks further of a non-dualistic place of nothingness and a formless form. This vocabulary hearkens of Taoist, Buddhist, and Neo-Shinto thought. Mind arises, having no place to abide — a familiar Buddhist sentiment. Samsara and Nirvana are non-dual, co-originating, constituting an existential realization in enlightenment, or in transcendence in the terminology of Aristotle and Kant.

Nishida alludes to Nicolas of Cusa’s phrase: “The Absolute cannot be a One.” The Absolute is simultaneously absolute nothingness, absolute negation, maintains Nishida, further utilizing Plotinus, Eckhart, Boehme, and Cusa, but applying to this body of insight what Nishida calls “Asian nothingness” and a “logic of nothingness” to contrast both religious logic and Western “concrete” logic with the historically unencountered East. This encounter is the strength of Nishida, what makes him indispensable to philosophy, and what happily spills over into the culture of eremitism that already explores the commonalities of Eastern and Western expression.

Solitary animals (and some humor)

According to scientists, solitary animals are those animals which — with the exception of the evolutionary necessities of feeding and reproduction, including migratory habits — do not live in groups. A significant number of animals are , in fact, solitary. Among mammals are big cats and bears — pet owners of cats will notice their characteristic “indifference” as a remnant solitary behavior. Such solitary behavior presumably originated from territorial necessity, given that the roaming pattern for feeding required a large habitat per individual, but the behavior lingered even when such a necessity was not in play.

A second category of solitary animal is so defined because the animal eludes human and other animal observation, hiding, as it were, from potential predators but, in effect, from everyone. These may seem to elude humans, such as reptiles, when it is just a matter of observation. Others, like the famous hermit thrush, simply blends into their environment well or, like owls, are nocturnal. We call them solitary by default, which makes a significant portion of the world’s animals solitary, or as far as human observation is concerned.

At least three reclusive creatures have been dubbed “hermits”for their solitary behavior or for their penchant for concealment: 1) the hermit crab, 2) the hermit thrush, and 3) the hermit ibis. Other animals could have earned the hermit sobriquet, but a little humor shows why these three have earned the title, at least to this observer.

hermit crab hermit thrush hermit ibis

1. The lowly hermit crab is the digambara of the solitary animals, sky-clad and entirely vulnerable. This crustacean is without shell and takes a covering as it finds it, typically from deceased crustaceans, the garb ill-fitting and object of human derision. Scientists have identified rare accumulations of hermit crabs (analogous to the vast Kumbh Mela festival of India held every 12 years, attracting sadhus and holy pilgrims) wherein the crabs shed their garb and find larger, more suitable garb from their brothers.

2. The hermit thrush delights listeners of its “somewhat melancholy” song, which emanates from deep hidden forests. Scientists have recently confirmed (“Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US),” Nov. 2014) that the hermit thrush approximates the mathematical structures of human music. Science News reported that

In its somewhat melancholy songs, North America’s Catharus guttatus thrushes mix in strings of short, non-wavering tones. In 54 out of 71 thrush songs, two statistical methods showed those tones related to each other much as notes in human musical scales do, researchers report November 3 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The hermit thrushes “have a strong preference for the same simple ratios [such as 3:2] that humans seem to like,” says paper coauthor Tecumseh Fitch of the University of Vienna.

When recordings of the hermit thrush song are slowed down, the sound is distinctly like that of a flute, so the next question is whether the sound approximates the Japanese shakuhachi, the Indian Carnatic flute, or Mozart. Our preference, especially with the description of “melancholic,” is for the first. Not pursued by distinguished panel was whether humans somehow inherited this capacity from birds as part of evolution or if they imitated the hermit thrush, which is not familiar with Pythagorean mathematical principles. Also to be determined is whether all this singing (bird or human) is simply to attract a mate, much like human behavior in adolescent rock bands, interminably outliving both their youth and reproductive needs.

3. The hermit ibis is also called, less diplomatically, the northern bald ibis, though it winters in southern Africa and flies north along East Africa to Turkey (or, more romantically, East Asia, Anatolia, etc.) The hermit ibis looks like a vulture, and thus lives up to the hermit characteristic of wandering, feeding indiscriminately, and retaining a certain ugliness by worldly standards. (The hermit thrush wisely conceals its good looks to retain its hermit identity.) Like the early desert hermits, the hermit ibis lives in rocky arid places, and achieved a religious respectability with report that it guided Muslim pilgrims to Mecca during the Hajj. Indeed, a 16th-cetury Austrian bishop declared the hermit ibis a protected species, but the species died out in Europe (not unlike thriving eremitism) around the same time. Today, the hermit ibis continues to haunt arid places from Syria to Morocco, indifferent to the conflicts of human populations, their religions, and their disdain for hermits.