Kyoto School

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The Kyoto School(京都学派,Kyōto-gakuha) is the name given to the Japanese philosophical movement centered at Kyoto University that assimilated Western philosophy and religious ideas and used them to reformulate religious and moral insights unique to the East Asian cultural tradition. [1] However, it is also used to describe postwar scholars who have taught at the same university, been influenced by the foundational thinkers of Kyoto school philosophy, and who have developed distinctive theories of Japanese uniqueness. To disambiguate the term, therefore, thinkers and writers covered by this second sense appear under The Kyoto University Research Centre for the Cultural Sciences.

Kyoto University national university located in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto University, or Kyodai is a national university in Kyoto, Japan. It is the second oldest Japanese university, one of Asia's highest ranked universities and one of Japan's National Seven Universities. One of Asia's leading research-oriented institutions, Kyoto University is famed for producing world-class researchers, including 18 Nobel Prize laureates, 2 Fields medalists and one Gauss Prize winner. It has the most Nobel laureates of all universities in Asia.

Western philosophy Philosophy of the Western world

Western philosophy is the philosophical thought and work of the Western world. Historically, the term refers to the philosophical thinking of Western culture, beginning with Greek philosophy of the pre-Socratics such as Thales and Pythagoras, and eventually covering a large area of the globe. The word philosophy itself originated from the Ancient Greek philosophía (φιλοσοφία), literally, "the love of wisdom".

Institute for Research in Humanities, Kyoto University is an institution for research into the humanities and ethno-ecological studies. It has a distinctive school tradition, as heir to the philosophically-oriented Kyoto School, but differs from the latter in its broader cultural interests.


Beginning roughly in 1913 with Kitarō Nishida, it survived the serious controversy it garnered after World War II to develop into a well-known and active movement. However, it is not a "school" of philosophy in the traditional sense of the phrase, such as with the Frankfurt School or Plato's Academy. Instead, the group of academics gathered around Kyoto University as a de facto meeting place. Its founder, Nishida, steadfastly encouraged independent thinking.

Kitaro Nishida Japanese philosopher

Kitarō Nishida was a prominent Japanese philosopher, founder of what has been called the Kyoto School of philosophy. He graduated from the University of Tokyo during the Meiji period in 1894 with a degree in philosophy. He was named professor of the Fourth Higher School in Ishikawa Prefecture in 1899 and later became professor of philosophy at Kyoto University. Nishida retired in 1927. In 1940, he was awarded the Order of Culture. He participated in establishing the Chiba Institute of Technology (千葉工業大学) from 1940.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from more than 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Frankfurt School A school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the Institute for Social Research, at Goethe University Frankfurt

The Frankfurt School is a school of social theory and critical philosophy associated with the Institute for Social Research, at Goethe University Frankfurt. Founded in the Weimar Republic (1918–33), during the European interwar period (1918–39), the Frankfurt School comprised intellectuals, academics, and political dissidents who were ill-fitted to the contemporary socio-economic systems of the 1930s. The Frankfurt theorists proposed that social theory was inadequate for explaining the turbulent political factionalism and reactionary politics occurring in ostensibly liberal capitalist societies in the 20th century. Critical of both capitalism and Marxism–Leninism as philosophically inflexible systems of social organisation, the School's critical theory research indicated alternative paths to realising the social development of a society and a nation.

According to James Heisig, the name "Kyoto School" was first used in 1932 by a student of Nishida and Hajime Tanabe. Jun Tosaka (1900–45) considered himself to be part of the 'Marxist left-wing' of the school. [2] Afterwards, the media and academic institutions outside Japan began to use the term. By the 1970s it had become a universally accepted term.

Hajime Tanabe Japanese philosopher

Hajime Tanabe was a Japanese philosopher of the Kyoto School. In 1947 he became a member of Japan Academy, in 1950 he received the Order of Cultural Merit, and in 1957 an honorary doctorate from University of Freiburg.

Jun Tosaka Japanese philosopher

Jun Tosaka was a Shōwa era Kyoto-trained Japanese intellectual, and teacher. Some identify strands of Marxism in his later philosophy. His criticisms of governments and their war policies meant that he ended up in prison on various occasions.


Neo-Marxism encompasses 20th-century approaches that amend or extend Marxism and Marxist theory, typically by incorporating elements from other intellectual traditions such as critical theory, psychoanalysis, or existentialism.


Masao Abe writes in his introduction to a new English translation of Nishida's magnum opus that if one thinks of philosophy in terms of Kant or Hegel, then there is no philosophy taking place in Japan. But if it is instead thought of in the tradition carried out by Augustine and Kierkegaard, then Japan has a rich philosophical history, composed of the great thinkers Kūkai, Shinran, Dōgen, and others. [3]

Masao Abe was a Japanese Buddhist and professor in religious studies, who became well known for his work in Buddhist-Christian interfaith dialogue, which later included Judaism. He wrote also on the experience of Zen.

Immanuel Kant Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant was an influential German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, he argued that space, time, and causation are mere sensibilities; "things-in-themselves" exist, but their nature is unknowable. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience, with all human experience sharing certain structural features. He drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposition that worldly objects can be intuited a priori ('beforehand'), and that intuition is therefore independent from objective reality. Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant's views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially the fields of epistemology, ethics, political theory, and post-modern aesthetics.

Augustine of Hippo Early Christian theologian, philosopher and Church Father

Augustine of Hippo was a Roman African, early Christian theologian and Neoplatonic philosopher from Numidia whose writings influenced the development of the Western Church and Western philosophy, and indirectly all of Western Christianity. He was the bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa and is viewed as one of the most important Church Fathers of the Latin Church for his writings in the Patristic Period. Among his most important works are The City of God, De doctrina Christiana, and Confessions.

The group of philosophers involved with the Kyoto School in its nearly 100-year history is a diverse one. Members often come from very different social backgrounds. At the same time, in the heat of intellectual debate they did not hesitate to criticise each other's work.

The following criteria roughly characterize the features of this school:

  1. Teaching at Kyoto University or at a nearby affiliated school.
  2. Sharing some basic assumptions about using Asian thought in the framework of Western philosophical tradition.
  3. Introducing and rationally investigating the meaning of "nothingness" and its importance in the history of philosophical debate.
  4. Expanding on the philosophical vocabulary introduced by Nishida.

Generally, most were strongly influenced by the German philosophical tradition, especially the thought of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. In addition, many employed their cultural resources in formulating their philosophy and bringing it to play to add to the philosophical enterprise.

Friedrich Nietzsche German philosopher

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a German philosopher, cultural critic, composer, poet, philologist, and Latin and Greek scholar whose work has exerted a profound influence on modern intellectual history. He began his career as a classical philologist before turning to philosophy. He became the youngest ever to hold the Chair of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in 1869 at the age of 24. Nietzsche resigned in 1879 due to health problems that plagued him most of his life; he completed much of his core writing in the following decade. In 1889 at age 44, he suffered a collapse and afterward, a complete loss of his mental faculties. He lived his remaining years in the care of his mother until her death in 1897 and then with his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Nietzsche died in 1900.

Martin Heidegger German philosopher

Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher and a seminal thinker in the Continental tradition of philosophy. He is "widely acknowledged to be one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century." Heidegger is best known for his contributions to phenomenology, hermeneutics, and existentialism, though as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cautions, "his thinking should be identified as part of such philosophical movements only with extreme care and qualification". Heidegger was a member and public supporter of the Nazi Party. There is controversy over the degree to which his Nazi affiliations influenced his philosophy.

While their work was not expressly religious it was informed significantly by it. For example, Tanabe and Keiji Nishitani wrote on Christianity and Buddhism and identified common elements between the religions. [4] For this reason, some scholars classify the intellectual products of the school as "religious philosophy."

Keiji Nishitani Japanese philosopher

Keiji Nishitani was a Japanese philosopher of the Kyoto School and a disciple of Kitarō Nishida. In 1924 Nishitani received a Ph.D. from Kyoto University for his dissertation "Das Ideale und das Reale bei Schelling und Bergson". He studied under Martin Heidegger in Freiburg from 1937-9.

Christianity is an Abrahamic monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the savior of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament in Christianity, and chronicled in the New Testament. It is the world's largest religion with about 2.4 billion followers.

Buddhism World religion, founded by the Buddha

Buddhism is the world's fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists. Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies. Buddhism originated in ancient India as a Sramana tradition sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, spreading through much of Asia. Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognised by scholars: Theravada and Mahayana.

Although the group was fluid and largely informal, traditionally whoever occupied the Chair of the Department of Modern Philosophy at the University of Kyoto was considered its leader. Nishida was the first, from 1913 to 1928. Hajime Tanabe succeeded him until the mid-1930s. By this time, Nishitani had graduated from Kyoto University, studied with Martin Heidegger for two years in Germany, and returned to a teaching post since 1928. From 1955 to 1963, Nishitani officially occupied the Chair. Since his departure, leadership of the school crumbled — turning the movement into a very decentralized group of philosophers with common beliefs and interests.

Significance of its notable members

The significance of the group continues to grow, especially in American departments of religion and philosophy. Since the mid-1980s, there has been a growing interest in East/West dialogue, especially inter-faith scholarship. Masao Abe traveled to both coasts of the United States on professorships and lectured to many groups on Buddhist-Christian relations.

Although Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki was closely connected to the Kyoto School and in some ways critical to the development of thought that occurred there — he personally knew Nishida, Tanabe, and Nishitani — he is not considered a true member of the group. [5]

Kitaro Nishida

Nishida, the school's founder, is most known for his groundbreaking work An Inquiry into the Good and later for his elucidation of the "logic of basho" (Japanese: 場所; usually translated as "place," or the Greek τόπος topos). This brought him fame outside Japan and contributed largely to the attention later paid to philosophers from the Kyoto School.

Nishida's work is notable for a few reasons. Chief among them is how much they are related to the German tradition of philosophy since Schopenhauer. The logic of basho is a non-dualistic 'concrete' logic, meant to overcome the inadequacy of the subject-object distinction essential to the subject logic of Aristotle and the predicate logic of Kant, through the affirmation of what he calls the 'absolutely contradictory self-identity' — a dynamic tension of opposites that, unlike the dialectical logic of Hegel, does not resolve in a synthesis. Rather, it defines its proper subject by maintaining the tension between affirmation and negation as opposite poles or perspectives.

Nishitani describes East Asian philosophy as something very different from what the Western tradition of Descartes, Leibniz or Hume would indicate.

It is 'intuitive and practical,' with its emphasis on religious aspects of experience not lending themselves readily to theoretical description. True wisdom is to be distinguished from intellectual understanding of the kind appropriate to the sciences. The 'appropriation' of Nishida's thought,...'embraces difficulties entirely different from those of intellectual understanding'...and those who 'pretend to understand much but do not really understand, no matter how much they intellectually understand' are the object of his scorn. [1]

Nishida wrote The Logic of Place and the Religious Worldview, developing more fully the religious implications of his work and philosophy through "Absolute Nothingness," which "contains its own absolute self-negation within itself." [6] By this Nishida means that while the divine is dynamically paradoxical, it should not be construed as pantheism or transcendent theism.

Nishitani and Abe spent much of their academic lives dedicated to this development of nothingness and the Absolute, leading on occasion to panentheism .[ citation needed ]

Hajime Tanabe

Keiji Nishitani

Nishitani, one of Nishida's main disciples, became the doyen in the post-war period. Nishitani's works, such as his Religion and Nothingness , primarily dealt with the Western notion of nihilism, inherited from Nietzsche, and religious interpretation of nothingness, as found in the Buddhist idea of sunyata and the specifically Zen Buddhist concept of mu.

Masao Abe

Shizuteru Ueda

A disciple of Keiji Nishitani.

Eshin Nishimura


Today, there is a great deal of critical research into the school's role before and during the Second World War.

Hajime Tanabe bears the greatest brunt of the criticism for bringing his work on the "Logic of Species" into Japanese politics, which was used to buttress the militarist project to formulate imperialist ideology and propaganda. Tanabe's notion is that the logical category of "species" and nation are equivalent, and each nation or "species" provides a fundamental set of characteristics which define and determine the lives and outlooks of those who participate in it.


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  1. 1 2 D.S. Clarke, Jr. "Introduction" in Nishida Kitaro by Nishitani Keiji, 1991.
  2. Heisig 2001, p.4
  3. Masao Abe, "Introduction" in An Inquiry into the Good, 1987, (1921).
  4. Tanabe in Philosophy as Metanoetics and Demonstratio of Christianity, and Nishitani in Religion and Nothingness and On Buddhism.
  5. Robert Lee, "Review of The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School," in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol.42, No.4 (Aug.,1983).
  6. The Kyoto School (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Suggested reading

Scholarly books
Seventeen essays, most from The Eastern Buddhist , on Zen and Pure Land Buddhism.
Anthology of texts by Kyoto scholars themselves, with additional biographical essays.
Collection of essays dealing with the history of its name, and its members contributions to philosophy.
Excellent introduction to the School's history and content; includes rich multilingual bibliography.
Good early work, focuses mostly on Nishitani's relevance for the perspective of Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
Journal articles

Readings by members

For further information, see the Nanzan Institute's Bibliography for all Kyoto School members

Secondary sources on members