Kitaro Nishida (1870 - 1945) was a Japanese philosopher who was important for examining concepts which had been pervasive in the eastern philosophical traditions of Japan with methodological approaches borrowed from Western traditions. His work is influential in what is now often referred to as the Kyoto school of philosophy.

Experiential and Rationalist Themes

The notion of God propounded by Kitaro Nishida in an Inquiry into the Good falls well into the type rationalist god set up by Spinoza in his Ethics, though their metaphysics of God differ radically. At this early point it is worth noting though the notion of God is given an exposition in ethical works of each author, in each authors writing God serves in an almost purely metaphysical role. In neither treatise is the God presented a harsh commandant barking down orders from above, but instead a metaphysical construction serving in a position necessary for the framework of their systems.

It makes sense in this early part of the exploration to get a solid grasp on what is going on in Nishida’s world by starting with his presentation of reality. Nishida presents a picture of reality that exists as the phenomena of consciousness. It is perhaps this rather than his ethical discourse that presents the most revealing glimpse into his pursuit of philosophical innovation by blending eastern and western together. While the psychology presented in part one is Jamesian by his own admission, what of his metaphysics? He presents his metaphysics as a critical flavor, but very unlike the critical system of Kant comparing his approach more amiable to that of Berkeley or Fichte.(1)

The theme of unity flows through his metaphysical discourse following the tradition beginning with Parmenides in the west and the Atman commonly found in religious though of Indian origin from the east. While the theme of unity along with the process of unification plays a central role in the ethics he develops in the final part of the book, the exploration pursued in this inquiry is to present Nishida’s metaphysics of unity qua unification. The presentation of reality as the unified phenomena of consciousness tempered by the ongoing process of unification is the vehicle by which Nishida develops his ethics, but the development of this metaphysics of the consciousness is framework for the inquiry.

The placement of the nature of pure experience as the first chapter of Nishida’s work presents a natural beginning for an inquiry into the heart of Nishida’s metaphysical framework. The second to last sentence of Nishida’s first paragraph sets the tone for the rest of the work, “When one directly experiences one’s own state of consciousness, there is not yet a subject or object, and knowing and its object are completely unified.”(2) It is here that Nishida first presents a relation of equivalence between knowledge and object as a unity within consciousness through this statement on the nature of experience. He ascribes some measure of duration to consciousness as a necessary condition that a reflexive experience of the present would no longer occur as the present, but must be a recollection of a past present. His inclusion of the broad truism of the present as the constant focus of the consciousness paired with the equivalence of the sphere of attention with the sphere of pure experience provides further skeletal bounds for his later metaphysical exposition.

It is after his exposition of pure experience and phenomenology that Nishida finally gets to the larger metaphysical matters that color his world view. But at this point before getting into Nishida’s rather simple metaphysics, let us get some of the ideas from Spinoza’s very precise and detail oriented metaphysics out there. In Spinoza God is the sole being. Everything in the common order of nature exists as a mode of God that may be described in either thought or extension. The nature of God as the sole true being is to serve as a framework in which the universe of particular things exists.

A solid exposition of what Spinoza’s god isn’t can be found in the appendix to the first book of the ethics. The biggest contrast Spinoza seems to be making in this part of the ethics is a contrast between what he views as a mature idea of God and the immature ideas of God that seem to be presented or held by others. For Spinoza the prejudice that people hold assuming natural teleology, that nature behaves in the manner that people do seeking results from their actions to satisfy an end is immature. The god Spinoza conceives acts as he does out of his infinite power as everything in nature is ultimately a part of God. God as the name is used by Spinoza seems to describe everything in nature. Attributing intention and direction towards events that happen in nature seems to Spinoza to appeal to persons as it is tempting to attribute one’s own biases to the natural world.

Essentially Spinoza is saying that man thinks of God as a big man, because that seems to be the first thing that pops into man’s head when trying to understand the natural order of things outside of oneself. I operate in this manner so everything else must operate in this manner. This is simply man applying himself to everything outside him, because simply it is easy to do. He talks about how the phenomenon of angry God is a product of people attributing bad occurrences to a their lack of respect towards the big man God that acts as they do out of motivations and for reasons. The idea of attributing something like anger as a quality to God doesn’t make much sense in a Spinozist worldview as God being the primary being must exemplify the attributes of thought and extension. For other attributes to be primary attributes of God would radically change the nature of being in our common nature.

Spinoza holds that the big man God view is wrong if the idea of God is given any manner of thought. Things happen not out of direction for Spinoza. Things happen out of their infinite connections to other things. Everything existing and everything happening over the course of eternity for ever is the infinite power and substance of God. It is the Aristotelian being qua being applied to everything ever that is God. An infinite and supreme primary substance must simply be in everything. Spinoza reasons this axiomatically from his definitions. Discussing God in part one of the Ethics we can know what Spinoza wasn’t talking about and get an idea of what he was. We haven’t yet found any inconsistencies flowing from his definitions. That doesn’t mean he was right, just as Euclid wasn’t necessarily right about the whole parallel postulate deal. It would be hard though to take the idea of Spinoza attaching the name God to everything existing ever and calling the synthesis categorically wrong. Spinoza though finds error with the idea that in infinite existing eternity there can be found the really big man form of God doing things actively to shape the world according to his will.

From Ethics 1a6, that “a true idea must agree with its object,”(3) seems to be a really telling in the force of Spinoza’s expansion in the appendix of his disdain for the prejudices pushed onto the world by ignorant men. A man like god given the circumstances presented by Spinoza could not at all be infinite and eternal in the way that Spinoza finds necessary, so it must be a false idea. It is ridiculous in Spinoza’s mind to support a big man out there making decisions and shaping things as it sees fit, and putting that big man into everything to eternity. The infinite substance and its eternity without the stupid man shaped attributes are simply everything. The last big prejudice Spinoza attacks at the end of the appendix is the prejudice that “healthy” things are often regarded as good while “unhealthy” things are regarded as evil. A prejudice for a divinely moral aesthetic that appreciates harmony, i.e. good beats and tasty treats, while frowning upon things like tornados and rabies. The rationale for this moral aesthetic is rooted in the judgment that some things in the world are pleasurable and conducive to health, while other things are harmful or painful. Spinoza hasn’t actually gotten into a discussion of such things yet as he views them, but it will be interesting to see where it goes. It seems that his criticism of these prejudices is in the same vein as his condemnation of God as the bully carrying a big stick to enforce rules.

How such metaphysics becomes relevant to a particular individual may be well understood through his three pronged theory of knowledge and confusion, which forms a sharp contrast from Nishida’s ideas of pure experience grounded in practical Jamesian psychology of experience presented earlier. Spinoza’s assertion that the Mind has a confused knowledge when it operates from perceptions coming from the common order of nature in considering itself, its body, and external bodies(4) gets to the deepest abscess of the confusion infecting the mind, but in the scholium to this corollary Spinoza offers a hint to an alternative away from the confused knowledge.

Spinoza gives us three different distinct and unequal forms of knowledge. The first consists of opinion and imagination. Reason, the ordered geometric and demonstrated flavor comes next up on the pyramid, and intuitive true knowledge without any intervention between the mind and the knowledge’s truth is at the apex of Spinoza’s knowledge pyramid. The second two forms of knowledge can be dealt with in a bit, but this first kind of knowledge found in opinion and imagination needs to be dealt with first because it is the source of our confusion.

Opinion which consists of empirical knowledge from experience and reported knowledge from other persons presents problems, as does the imagination which renders images based our sensory experience. Spinoza gives us real insight into the problem through proposition twenty-eight in Book two(5) and the consequences he elaborates upon in the scholium where by itself the Mind is not clear and distinct and the body is not clear and distinct either. This problem relates into the problem with the first kind of knowledge tremendously. So long as the mind is just taking in all of the sense data presented to it by the body and its sensory organs it is going to be confused.

Opinions in the mind that could be translated into statements such as “This room is very brightly lit,” “That car is loud,” or “Wow, she has a tremendous amount of books on her wall,” are nearly worthless as knowledge as they are confused vacuous assertions about the world that lack true information of the essence of anything. Opinions are simply false because they are confused and vacuous. Imagination too is confused as it puts together images from the mind based on sensory data that is essentially lacking in meaning. My images are going to have shapes and colors, while a bat’s are going to be something composed of echoes in a way I can not relate to, while a sea sponge may or may not deal with sensory data and a comparison with such a simple animal is beyond the scope of things I feel capable of considering myself. This is the sort of perceptual experience that Nishida seems to cherish which Spinoza would readily subjugate to more intellectually clean knowledge of a higher kind.

This confused knowledge finds its home in our lives within the common order of nature, a web of events where event X leads to Yx consequences of X and this causal series happens within the realm of finite things. The web of events involved in this common causal series could be traced back to infinity. For Spinoza the existence of the common causal series as the only mode of existence would have terrifying consequences for our possibility of achieving adequate knowledge since in a causal series knowledge of the effect must be had from knowledge of the cause and taken over the entirety of the common order of nature the infinite regress inherent would lead to the annihilation of the possibility of any adequate, true knowledge at all.

Spinoza’s alternative order comes about through the two kinds of knowledge that are not confused. Reason, the knowledge of things in general allows us to sort relations and allows us to see things like the failings of the common order of nature as a source of adequate knowledge for the mind. Intuitive knowledge though gives us true knowledge. Spinoza demonstrates how the second and third kinds of knowledge are adequate and true because they must be. Intuitive knowledge comes in the flavor of things to the point that though exists and extension exists. Thought does not demand rigorous proof of its existence, and neither does extension. They are true necessarily. And so the sort of pure experience Nishida enshrines in his examples of the painter and mountain climber are lost on Spinoza.

Though the conclusion they reach are different on the mechanics of a particular individual’s place in the world are radically different, we may turn to Nishida having a grasping rough outline of a rationalist God and see how that reads against Nishida in similarity. “God is not something that transcends reality, God is the base of reality.”(6) This is taken from the opening paragraph of Chapter fourteen in An Inquiry into the Good. Already early into the game, Nishida makes a similar metaphysical claim to that offered by Spinoza.

Nishida begins his argument in a radically different manner than Spinoza. While Spinoza appealed transcendental intuition to find God, Nishida instead referred to how common among languages and cultures the notion of God is. Still though Nishida asserts that God is a spiritual basis for reality in his quest for God Nishida will make claims that sound decidedly rationalist in spite of his overall commitment to experience.

Nishida in round robin fashion offers summary dismissals of several arguments in favor of God. He offers that soulful introspection can offer evidence of God and cites historic Indian religion and fifteenth and sixteenth century European mystics as examples of people on the right path to find God. This intuition of God from within is a decidedly Rationalist turn for Nishida, and in pointing to that period of European intellectual history he certainly seems to be hitting on the right time frame for introspective rationalists like Spinoza.

Final contrast between the two may be drawn from their conclusions. Where Spinoza’s God was absolute being since Spinoza could think of nothing greater than being, Nishida finds God to be absolute negation. Nishida’s logic is that anything that exists in our world must be to inconsequential to accomplish the great cosmic task of being the base of reality, so he follow Nicholas of Cusa to find God to be the absolute negation of everything that may be found or touched in the world. This divinity of the negative seems to mesh with the traditional Buddhist doctrine of Karma (if such a thing could truly be simply pinned down) in spirit. Nishida associates this divine negation with positive things like “love, infinite joy, and peace.”(7) Though such association may seem initially counter intuitive to the casual reader such positive associations with negation are not too unusual, and Maimonides may be looked to as an example from the Western theological tradition.

In this manner it can be seen that in spite of the general emphasis on experience present in Nishida’s philosophy that in many way Nishida’s theology may be seen as having some rationalist roots. Spinoza provided a metaphysical background of what a rationalist theology looks like, and from this seed a framework was readily assembled to show some rationalist influence on Nishida. It is here that Nishida first presents a relation of equivalence between knowledge and object as a unity within consciousness through this statement on the nature of experience. He ascribes some measure of duration to consciousness as a necessary condition that a reflexive experience of the present would no longer occur as the present, but must be a recollection of a past present. His inclusion of the broad truism of the present as the constant focus of the consciousness paired with the equivalence of the sphere of attention with the sphere of pure experience provides further skeletal bounds for his later metaphysical exposition.


  1. Nishida, Kitaro; Abe, Masao and Ives, Christopher trans. An Inquiry into the Good. New Haven: Yale University Press (1987) p. 43
  2. Ibid, p. 3-4
  3. Curley, Edwin ed. trans. The Collected Works of Spinoza. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1985) p. 409
  4. Ibid, p. 471 (Book 2, proposition 29 corollary)
  5. Ibid, p. 470
  6. Nishida, p. 79
  7. Ibid, p. 83

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