Kyoto School of Philosophy

Research Overview

Philosophy, originally meaning “philo-sophia” (love-knowledge), is the activity of considering the nature of human beings and their ideal state (ideal or philosophy) through logos (language, logic, and reason). It originated in ancient Greece about 2,500 years ago, became associated with Christianity in the Middle Ages, and has made great progress in the West since the modern era, while also being accompanied by criticism of Christianity. The development of natural science and science and technology in the West is not unrelated to the existence of “philosophy,” an activity that emphasizes “logos” in the West. Therefore, the word “philosophy” generally means “Western philosophy.

However, since ancient times, even in the non-Western world, there have existed “philosophies” or “ideologies” in the broad sense that have pursued the essence and ideals of our world. In the East, for example, Buddhist and Confucian thought may be considered as such.

The “philosophy” that synthesizes such Eastern and Western thought is the “philosophy of Japan” of the first half of the 20th century. In this country, Western philosophy was imported in earnest during the Meiji period (1868-1912), and while combining with traditional Eastern thought, a unique philosophy was formed. At the center of this “Japanese philosophy” was NishidaKitaroand TabeiHajimeThe Kyoto School was a group of philosophers, including Shuzo Kuki, Kiyoshi Miki, Tetsuro Watsuji, and Keiji Nishitani, all of whom were faculty members at the then Kyoto Imperial University (now Kyoto University).

They not only synthesized traditional thought with Western philosophy, but also attempted to formulate a philosophy that would be meaningful in today’s scientific and technological civilization and capitalist society. In their philosophy, we can see a rich philosophy that did not simply follow Western philosophy, but also wrestled with the times (those were times of war). I am studying the philosophy of the “Kyoto School” in terms of its influence on Western philosophy.

Research Features

I have been studying Nishida, the central figure in the “Kyoto School. Nishida absorbed Western philosophy at a tremendous pace and, while taking into account the findings of the natural sciences, combined them with Buddhism and other Eastern thought to form his own unique philosophy. His philosophy is extremely difficult to understand, but his unique ideas are interesting. In recent years, the study of the “Kyoto School” philosophy has been gaining momentum overseas as well.

In conventional domestic and international research, their philosophy is recognized as a Buddhist philosophy. However, they are not simply an extension of previous Buddhist thought. They tried to speculate and compete in the universal arena of philosophy based on a firm grounding in Western philosophy. Therefore, I am trying to extract the essence and potential of their philosophy by clarifying how they received and wrestled with Western philosophy, while also taking into account the aspects of their inheritance of the tradition of Eastern thought.

Hironobu Ota, Kitaro Nishida’s Philosophy of Action.
(Nakanishiya Publishing, 2023)

Research Attraction

As mentioned above, “philosophy” generally means “Western philosophy,” so most researchers of “philosophy” in Japan today study “Western philosophy. The number of researchers of “Japanese philosophy” is relatively small by far.

The appeal of the “Kyoto School” philosophy of Nishida and others is that it is not a worship of the West that does not pay attention to the traditional thought in which we live, nor does it confine itself to traditional Japanese or Eastern thought, but rather it transcends such conflicts between East and West. In Western philosophical research, research by Japanese tends to follow the work of Westerners. However, in the study of Japanese philosophy, Japanese people whose mother tongue is Japanese still have a slight advantage (I say “slight” because even though one can speak Japanese, one cannot read their books without knowledge of “Western philosophy,” and there are also foreign researchers who interpret their books in a first-class manner), and it is attractive to be able to disseminate this knowledge internationally. The ability to disseminate this knowledge internationally is also an attractive point.

What good is “philosophy” anyway? You may ask, “What good is philosophy? It may be true that it is not useful for the development of economy or science and technology. But what do we mean by “useful”? Our lives do not revolve only around money and technology. Philosophy” takes a larger perspective and considers human nature and ethics. I believe that such study is of great significance in thinking fundamentally, not superficially, about modern society.

held in Beijing with friends from France.
At the World Congress of Philosophy (2018)

Future Outlook

Currently, I am conducting a comparative study of Heidegger and Nishida, one of the greatest philosophers of the 21st century. As part of this effort, in 2022 we published a paper on the philosophy of Shizuteru Ueda, who was strongly influenced by both Heidegger and Nishida, in the Tetsugaku Companion to Ueda Shizuteru, co-authored by a German friend. In the future, I will include the philosophy of Nishitani Keiji, a student of Nishida’s who studied under Heidegger, in the scope of my research. Nishitani tried to develop a new thought while looking at the problem of “nihilism.

Furthermore, although I do not know how my research will progress in the future, my ultimate goal in life is to conduct philosophical research that transcends the distinction between the West and Japan, to consider the nature and ideals of modern society from this perspective, and to leave behind ideas that are both academically sound and persuasive and attractive to the common people.

Message to those who are interested in this research

Students who wish to study philosophy should first read a history of philosophy, a general introduction to philosophy, and contemporary social theory written by philosophers, and then carefully read books by philosophers that interest them. Also, although I think there are only a few, those who intend to study philosophy in graduate school should study languages carefully from the time they are in college. Philosophy requires not only English but also German or French (at least one of them). This is true even for “Japanese Philosophy. Those who wish to study “Japanese philosophy” should study Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies in addition to Western philosophy.
Studying philosophy at university does not disadvantage you in finding a job. The students I have supervised have gone on to work successfully in public service and private companies. In order to write a thesis in philosophy, you need to have the ability to think logically and flexibly from a broad perspective, not just conventional and unconventional thinking. I believe that philosophy will be more recognized in the future as an important way to think about the modern world. If you are interested, let’s enter the forest of philosophy together.

Seminar trip (Itsukushima Shrine)