Kyoto School Nihilism Nikolai Berdyaev Nishitani Keiji

Nishitani Keiji on Nicholas Berdyaev

In The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism, Nishitani discusses the problem of nihilism in western philosophy, presenting a genealogy of sorts that includes a variety of intriguing figures. There is an entire chapter entiteld “Nihilism in Russia,” and Berdyaev curiously appears in two index entries. Until now I wouldn’t have imagined that the Kyoto School was aware of the Russian existentialists–now my curiosity is piqued and I will have to do some more digging. Here are the entries from the text:

Nihilism in Russia is said to have been deeply rooted in the radical temperament of the Russian people before it took the form of thought. One feels throughout the history of Russia a kind of religious nihilism lying dormant in the souls of the people. Berdyaev saw it as a marriage of the apocalyptic spirit with nihilism. We see it clearly in the burning of Moscow in the face of the military advance of the Napoleonic army. Napoleon himself called it a savage act of insanity; in fact, it shows a will to pursue a radical absolutism of ‘all or nothing’ that goes beyond reason, even at the price of self-inflicted injury. (127)


But Dostoevsky’s ‘atmospheric’ genius quickly sensed the breakdown of ‘the human’ and the advent of nihilism within the new humanism. His underground man represents a deliberate experiment with this breakdown in order to show it for what it was and to allow Dostoevsky himself to arrive at his own eternal ground. As Berdyaev says, Dostoevsky’s works embrace the crisis or internal denunciation of humanism, so that humanism comes to an end with Dostoevsky and with Nietzsche. The ‘underground psychology within the mind’ that emerged in Dostoevsky’s writing opened up a realm distinct from the psychology of normal people. A change took place in psychology equivalent to the introduction of irrational or imaginary numbers into the system of rational numbers. A psychology containing incommensurabilities and antinomies that cannot be resolved by normal rationality became for him a ‘higher reality,’ where attraction and repulsion, love and hate, appear as one. (144)

3 replies on “Nishitani Keiji on Nicholas Berdyaev”

I wonder if we have a philosopher who covers the ins and outs of Japanese philosophy with the grace and comprehensiveness of Nishitani covering the ins and outs of (this major strand of) European thought? This would be a provocative classroom text — I’ve just ordered it.

The closest that comes to mind is James Heisig, who has done more work than anyone I know of on interpreting and thinking about Japanese philosophy, from the Kyoto school to the ancients.

Nishitani’s book is wonderful–he’s readable and rigorous, and his perspective will always be unique to western readers.

I just remembered Mark C. Taylor’s book “Nots” also deals with Japanese philosophy. Apart from that there are a lot of comparative books out there, but Taylor’s tries to work it in to a more original philosophy which is similar to Nishitani. There is also a lot of buzz about the Kyoto School in Thomas Altizer and Jurgen Moltmann. I think it’s no coincidence that most interacting with these voices are of a theological bent.

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