Sofia Miguens (Ed.): The Logical Alien: Conant and his Critics

The Logical Alien: Conant and His Critics Book Cover The Logical Alien: Conant and His Critics
Sofia Miguens (Ed.)
Harvard University Press
Hardback $59.95 • £47.95 • €54.00

Reviewed by: Nicola Spinelli (King’s College London / Hertswood Academy)

This is the kind of book one hates to review. Not because it is bad; it is an excellent work, rich and profound and relevant at least to: the scholar of half a dozen areas in the history of philosophy (from medieval through early modern, modern, Kant, post-Kantian, to the early analytic philosophy), the philosopher of language, the metaphysician, the philosopher of logic, and the epistemologist. But it is complex – much more complex even than your average 1069-page philosophy collection. Perhaps this is to be expected: one way to think of The Logical Alien is as a commentary (on steroids) of James Conant’s 1991 “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the Tractatus”, itself a long, seminal, profound and – dealing as it does with history and theory and some of the heavyweights of the last five hundred years of philosophy – multitasking paper.[1] The papers collected in the book are written for one third by different authors engaging with Conant’s 1991 paper, and for two thirds by Conant engaging with his former self and with each of the other contributors, occasionally with more than one at the same time. The parts of the book end up being so interconnected at so many levels, that it takes several readings just to find one’s way through it – never mind figuring out what to make of even one of the numerous debates involved or convey it to prospective readers with something resembling accuracy. Yet the book is as difficult to review as it is exhilarating to read. Once you get hooked up (and you do get hooked up), you won’t be finished for a long time.

The central question is taken from Frege and is simple enough: Is there such a thing as thought which is logical but whose logical laws are different from, and incompatible with, ours? Put this way, there would seem to be an equally simple answer: yes. Consider systems with different and incompatible rules of inference: in a classical setting, Excluded Middle and Full Double Negation are laws; in an intuitionistic setting, they aren’t – yet nobody from either camp seriously thinks that the other just isn’t thinking logically. After all, intuitionistic and classical logic are equiconsistent (a proposition is classically provable if and only if its double negation is intuitionistically provable). Of course there is a qualification to make in this case: some logical laws are in common. For example, Non-Contradiction – which in any case seems to be needed for concepts like ‘consistency’, ‘incompatibility’ and ‘disagreement’ to even make sense. What about, then, thought which shares none of our logical laws – not even Non-Contradiction? Conant’s original paper, and much of the discussion in the book, revolve around this insight: that since at least some of what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, thought which does not conform to them is in fact not thought at all. In one form or another is attributed by Conant, past and present, to Frege, Wittgenstein and Putnam (or Putnam at some point of his career).

The insight – which we shall call the Insight – develops in interesting ways. Consider the following way of putting the central question: Are the laws of logic necessary? If the Insight is correct, then, one might say, they are. Not so – at least on the view Conant and his critics are interested in. Since what we call logical laws are constitutive of thought as such, logically alien thought is an impossibility. Discourse about it, then, is what Conant calls philosophical fiction (768).[2] The contrast is with empirical fiction. The latter invites us to contemplate a scenario which happens not to be the case, but which ‘falls within the realm of the possible’. The former invites us to contemplate something which is not even possible. So that in philosophical fiction we ‘only apparently grasp what it would be for [the scenario] to obtain: its possibility can only seemingly be grasped in thought’. But, the view concludes, if logically alien thought is philosophical fiction, then the project of establishing its possibility or impossibility is in fact a non-starter: for in order to affirm or deny that logically alien thought is possible, or even ask whether it is possible, we first need to grasp ‘it’ – the thought with content ‘logically alien thought’ – but that is exactly what we cannot do. Far from being able to answer the question, we seem to have no question to answer. It looked as though we had one; but it turns out we never did. It was a mock-question. Hence, for example and according to Conant (past and present), the austere – non-mystical – Wittgensteinian stance at the end of the Tractatus: the necessity of logic isn’t a question which logic cannot answer; it is a non-question. Hence, too, the Wittgensteinian idea that philosophy should be conceived of not as doctrine, not even as research, but as something called ‘elucidation’: the activity of recognising that some or all of what we take to be profound philosophical problems are in fact simply nonsense.

In the original 1991 paper, Conant follows the development of this line of thought – call it elucidativism about logic – from Descartes through Aquinas,  Leibniz, Kant, Frege, to Wittgenstein and Putnam. He does not defend elucidativism, but he clearly favours it. In the first part of The Logical Alien, his critics either follow up on 1991-Conant’s historical claims in the paper (which is included in the book), or take issue with theoretical claims, or both. The following is an overview of the contributions. A.W. Moore’s is about Descartes and what he ought to have thought about modality. In particular, whereas 1991-Conant claims that Descartes’ official view was that necessary truths (amongst which are the laws of logic) are contingently necessary, Moore argues that statements to that effect to be found in Descartes are aberrations rather than expressions of the official view. Matthew Boyle’s chapter is about Kant’s and Frege’s conceptions of logic and of the formal. Arata Hamawaki’s paper is about a distinction between Cartesian and Kantian skepticism. I have to say that, while the former contributions are excellent reads, I found this one rather difficult to follow and, despite the theme, somewhat underwhelming. Barry Stroud’s paper is the skeptical contribution: historically, doubts are cast on 1991-Conant’s reading of Frege; theoretically, issue is taken with the notion that necessary truths are apt to being explained. Peter Sullivan objects to 1991-Conant’s view of Frege, and argues that the latter is more Kantian than is usually thought. The contribution also contains a very good summary of the dialectic of the 1991 article (in case you struggle to follow it). Along with Moore’s, perhaps the best of the (mainly) historical contributions (to my taste). Martin Gustafsson and Jocelyn Benoist concentrate on post-tractarian Wittgenstein: the former to examine the relations between language use and rule-following, the latter to show how Wittgenstein’s treatment of private languge is an exercise in elucidation. Finally, Charles Travis’ chapter, the longest, discusses Frege, Wittgenstein and the heart of the elucidative enterprise. Undoubtedly the most important of the critical essays. I agree with many points he makes, and I will be saying something similar in the remainder of this review – but from a very different perspective. The second part of The Logical Alien consists of present-day Conant discussing both his 1991 paper and the critics’ contributions. I see no point in saying anything here, except that he (and probably the editor, Sophia Miguens) did an excellent job of making the Conant’s own chapters a single narrative rather than a collection of discrete replies.

Now, upon my first reading of the 1991 paper, and on every subsequent reread, and indeed as I was ploughing through the book, I thought it a shame that there was (virtually) no reference to the phenomenological tradition at all. This is not to say that there should have been: as far as I can tell, phenomenology has never been among Conant’s interests, and that this should be reflected in a book about his work is, after all, only natural. On the other hand, at least some of the debates in The Logical Alien might have benefited from a phenomenological voice; and others are relevant to discussions within the phenomenological tradition. And since I am writing this review for a journal called Phenomenological Reviews, I will allow myself to expand on the above and bring phenomenology into the melee.

I have already said what the central view at stake in the book is: that the question as to whether there can be logically alien thought is a non-question, because its formulation involves something akin to a cognitive illusion. The further question, however, is: Why is grasping a thought about an impossibility itself impossible? Why, in other words, should we buy the claim that in philosophical fiction, as Conant says, we only seem to grasp a thought but we really do not? Why is the thought that there may be logically alien thought, despite appearances, no thought at all?

The reason lies in the following view, endorsed at lest to some extent by Frege, embraced by tractarian Wittgenstein and assumed in Conant and his critics’ discussions: To grasp a thought is to grasp what the world must be like for the thought to be true and what the world must be like for the thought to be false.[3] A thought for which either of these things cannot be done is a thought for which, as Frege would put it, the question of truth does not genuinely arise. It is then not a thought but a mock-thought. This is the basis of Wittgenstein’s notion that tautologies and contradictions have no content: for we just cannot imagine what the world what have to be like for tautologies to be false or contradictions true. For all the depth and complexity of the debates which Conant’s 1991 paper has sparked, and which are well represented in The Logical Alien, if what we may call the Assumption falls it is hard to see how the rest might stand. For if grasping the content of a thought is decoupled from grasping its truth-(and-falsity-)conditions, or from even bringing truth into the picture, then even if philosophically-fictitious scenarios are impossible we can still grasp them – if only to deem them impossible. Thoughts about them are not mock-thoughts; or, if they are, they are so in a weaker sense than Conant seems to envisage – too weak for the work he wants mock-thoughts to do.

Conant is aware of this. In his reply to Stroud he highlights how the 1991 paper pinpoints a tension in Frege between 1) his elucidative treatment of the logical alien in the foreword to Grundgesetze, and 2) his commitment to the idea that tautologies and axioms are true.[4] If the Insight and the Assumption are true, then 1) and 2) are (or very much seem to be) incompatible. Conant suggests that the ‘deeper wisdom’ to be found in Frege, which is also the strand of Frege’s thought which Wittgenstein develops, is 1). The claim that axioms and tautologies, despite having negations which are absurd, are true is treated by Conant as stemming from Frege’s conception of content (thought) as ‘explanatorily prior’ to judgement. So that it is only if we think that the content of a judgement pre-exists the judgement that we can take judgements about impossible scenarios to have a content. Otherwise we would have to say: there is no judgement to be made here, and therefore there is no content.

I will not go into the minutiae – or even the nitty-gritty – of Fregean scholarship. But surely the move only pushes the problem a step further. Grant that judgeable content should not be thought of as explanatorily prior (whatever that means exactly) to judgement, the question is: Why buy the claim that we cannot judge about impossibilia – not even to say that they are impossibilia? If we can, there is judgement; and therefore there is content. Are there views on the market which do not take judgeable content as explanatorily prior to judgement, and according to which we can and do judge about impossibilia?

Husserl held just such a view throughout his career. There are several ways to see this. Begin with the Investigations. There, meanings are ideal objects (universals) instantiated by the act-matter of classes of meaning-intentions. The latter are intentional acts through which a subject intends, or refers to, an object. Their matter is, with some oversimplification, their content.[5] Notice that the content of a meaning-intention is not the meaning: without an act there is no content – though there is a (perhaps uninstantiated) meaning. So even in the early Husserl, despite his ostensible Platonism, it is not obvious that judgeable content is prior to, or even independent of, judgement. In the fourth Logical Investigation, a distinction is made between nonsensical (Unsinnig) and absurd (Widersinnig) meanings. A nonsensical meaning is a non-meaning: an illegal combination of simpler meanings (illegal, that is, with respect to a certain set of a priori laws). A syntactical analogue would be a non-well-formed string of symbols: ‘But or home’. So, when it comes to nonsensical meanings, there just is no content (no act-matter). An absurd meaning, by contrast, is a (formally or materially) contradictory one: ‘Round square’. In this case there are both a meaning and an act matter; it’s just that to intentional acts whose matter or content instantiates the absurd meaning there cannot correspond an intuition – intuition being the sort of experience which acquaint us with objects: perception, memory, imagination. So we cannot see or remember or imagine round squares, but we can think about them, wonder whether they exist, explain why they cannot exist, and so on. Moreover, the very impossibility of intuitively fulfilling an absurd meaning-intention is, in Husserl, itself intuitively constituted and attested: attempting to intuit the absurd meaning leads to what Husserl calls a synthesis of conflict.

Say, then, that whilst engaging in philosophical fiction we try to make sense of logically alien thought, and we fail. This failure consists, in Husserlian phenomenology, in the arising of a conflict in our intuition, as a consequence of which we deem the scenario impossible. In the Husserlian framework this failure does not entail that there was never any thinking taking place with the content ‘logically alien thought’: it was ‘merely signitive’ thinking – thinking to which, a priori, no intuition can correspond – but contentful thinking nonetheless. We cannot intuit the impossible, but we can think about it.

So in Husserl the impossibility – the philosophical-fictitiousness – of logically alien thought does not entail that, when we think of logically alien thought, we only seem to do so. When we think of logically alien thought, we actually do think about logically alien thought; and one of the things we reckon when we think about logically alien thought is that it is impossible. All of this, notice, without appealing to the explanatory priority of judgeable content over judgement – which is what Conant finds disagreeable in Frege. Husserl, then, seems to be in a position to agree with Conant that judgeable content doesn’t come before judgement, and yet disagree with Conant that there is any wisdom whatever in Frege’s elucidative treatment of the logical alien.

All this is reflected in Husserl’s view of logic. From the Investigations throughout his career, Husserl maintained that logic comes in layers. In the official systematisation (Formal and Transcendental Logic, §§ 12-20) these are: 1) the theory of the pure form of judgements; 2) the logic of non-contradiction; 3) truth-logic. The first of the three is what in the fourth Investigation was called ‘grammar of pure logic’, and its job is to sort the meaningless – combinations of meaning which do not yield a new meaning – from the meaningful. It is the job of the logic of non-contradiction to sort, within the realm of the meaningful, the absurd meanings from the non-absurd. It is debatable whether truth is operative in this second layer of logic; I understand Husserl as denying that it is. But in any case, truth is not operative in the first layer. When Conant and his critics discuss the laws of logic, they take them to be such that, first, they are constitutive of thought, and second, truth plays a crucial role in them; and they take thoughts which misbehave with respect to truth, such as tautologies and contradictions, not to be thoughts at all (giving rise to tension in Frege). From a Husserlian perspective, what makes a thought a thought is not the laws of truth, but the laws of the grammar of meanings. Truth has nothing to do with it – nor, as a consequence, with what it is to be a thought.

The second part of Conant’s reply to Stroud (roughly, from p. 819 onwards) connects the above to another phenomenologically relevant strand of The Logical Alien: Kant and the project of a transcendental philosophy. The starting point is the difference between Frege’s approach on the one hand, and Kant’s and Wittgenstein’s on the other. The issue is, again, the central one of the relations between thoughts and judgements. Conant’s aim is to show that Frege can conceive of thought as separate from judgement – of content as distinct from the recognition of the truth of content – only by committing himself to the following conjunctive account: whenever an agent S judges that p, a) S thinks that p, and b) S recognises that p is true. These are two distinct acts on the part of S. This is contrasted with Kant’s (and, later on, Wittgenstein’s) disjunctive approach: there is a fundamental case of judgement in which S simply judges that p; and there are derived cases, different in kind from the former, in which S entertains the thought that p without recognising its truth – for example, in what Kant calls problematic judgements (‘Possibly, p’). Conant does not seem to provide a reason why we should be disjunctivists rather than conjunctivists – other than the claim that conjunctivism is at odds with the wider Kantian transcendental project. The implication being that if one buys into the latter at all, then one ought to be a Kantian rather than a Fregean when it comes to the relations between content and judgement.

What is, for Conant, Kant’s transcendental project? This is spelled out in the excellent reply to Hamawaki and Stroud.[6] To be a Kantian is first of all to put forward transcendental arguments. According to Conant, a transcendental argument is something close to an elucidative treatment of what he calls Kantian Skepticism: the worry, not that the external world may not be as experienced or not exist all, but that we may not be able to ‘make sense of the idea that our experience is so much as able to afford us with the sort of content that is able to present the world as seeming to be a certain way’ (762). Kant’s way to resolve the worry is to show that the scenario in which our experience is not able to present the world at all is philosophical fiction: if we probe the Kantian-skeptical worry enough, we find it unintelligible.

I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as endorsing elucidativism – that is, I don’t believe Conant reads Kant as making the final step: if the scenario in which experience does not present us with a world is unintelligible, then so is the scenario in which it does. But he does say that this ‘is arguably the closest Kant ever comes to an extended philosophical engagement with something approximating the question of the intelligibility of the idea of a form of cognition that is logically alien to ours’ (772). If one is a transcendentalist, in any case, one has to put forward transcendental arguments; and if Conant is right in his reading of what a (Kantian) transcendental argument is, then a transcendentalist needs to be in a position to reason from the unintelligibility of a scenario to the unintelligibility of the question as to whether the scenario is possible. But to do so – recall the (alleged) tension between Fregean conjunctivism and the Kantian project – a transcendentalist ought to avoid seriously distinguishing between content and judgement.

Another strand of Conant’s discussion of Kant, and at some level a consequence of the nature of transcendental arguments as described above, is the recognition that any account of our cognitive capacity must be given from within the exercise of our cognitive capacity – so that no account of the latter can be given in non-cognitive terms. Conant calls this ‘the truth in idealism’ (776). And this is what, for Conant, ultimately is to be a Kantian: to pursuse a philosophical project in the light of the truth in idealism. Needless to say, Wittgenstein counts as a Kantian par excellence; and so does the elucidativist half of Frege.

The phenomenologically alert reader will not have missed the fact that the truth in idealism is in fact a central tenet of Husserl’s post-Investigations philosophy. Suffice it to quote the title of Section 104 of Formal and Transcendental Logic: “Transcendental phenomenology as self-explication on the part of transcendental subjectivity”. I am less sure about Conant’s reading of transcendental arguments: granted that they do involve the recognition of the unintelligibility of skeptical scenarios, it is unclear why that should not simply be thought of as some sort of reductio ad absurdum, or perhaps of a quasi-aristotelian elenchos, rather than as something pointing to elucidation. Be that as it may, Husserl’s mature philosophy is a view in which the truth in idealism is preserved and in which, however, elucidativism is avoided – because even in the mature Husserl absurd thoughts are contentful.

Consider the relation between content and judgement. In the mature Husserl the interdependence of content and the mental is reasserted and strengthened with the notion of meaning as noema, introduced alongside the old Platonistic one in the 1908 Lectures on the Theory of Meaning, and center-stage in the first volume of Ideas in 1913. The main difference here is that the noema, one of whose component is intentional content, exists only insofar as the relevant mental act – in our case, the relevant thinking episode – does. As to the relations of noema and judgement, Husserl does think that it is possible to thematise a propositional content without judging that it is true. Yet this is claimed within a broader story – genetic phenomenology – of how more sophisticated intentional performances, together with their productions (including propositional contents), arise from more fundamental ones. The chief text here is Experience and Judgement. So Husserl could be said to hold something like what Conant calls the disjunctive account: the act of merely entertaining a thought is derivative of the act of straightforwardly judging. But this is not to say that one cannot merely entertain a thought! It simply means that we would not be able to mereley entertain thoughts if we were not able to straightforwardly judge. Indeed, for Husserl the existence of a noema such as, say, ‘ABCD is a round square’, while dependent on the relevant meaning-intention, is independent of the possibility of there being round squares at all. We can and do entertain the thought whether round squares exist, ask ourselves whether they do, and judge that they don’t. (The simplicity of the example might lead to error: it might appear as though, in this case, phenomenologically or introspectively, there were no distinction between entertaining and judging, for it is immediately clear that there are no round squares. All you have to do is try with more covert absurdities; to take a pertinent example, Frege’s very own Basic Law V.)

It really does seem to be a phenomenological fact that content and judgement are distinct. As the Husserlian case shows, one can maintain that that is so while still allowing the distinction to be derived rather than fundamental. Not only this: one can maintain the distinction, thereby blocking elucidativism, and still subscribe to the truth in idealism and be counted as a Kantian by Conant’s own standards. Or so, at any rate, it seems.

So being a Husserlian may be one way of being a Kantian without being an elucidativist. I hope it is and I hope there are others. Elucidativism usually divides people into three categories: those who buy it, those who don’t, and those who dismiss it as empty gobbledegook. I don’t dismiss it – but I don’t buy it either. For example, the argument for it discussed, and indeed put forward, by Conant seems to me to prove too much. This is a point Stroud makes in his contribution.[7]  In the reply, Conant is, I think, too concerned to show Stroud’s (alleged) misunderstandings to take his commonsense worries seriously. Regardless of that dialectic, consider any proof by contradiction in mathematics: we set up a proposition, we show that the proposition is inconsistent (either with itself or with other assumptions), we conclude that the negation of the proposition is true. If the elucidativist is right, the latter step is unwarranted: if a proposition turns out to be nonsense (which it does, being a proposition about an impossible scenario) then its denial is also nonsensical. So, if the view is correct, a large part of mathematics either is merely a cognitive illusion or, at best, is an exercise in elucidation. And yet the proposition, say, that there are infinitely many primes – whose negation is absurd in the same sense in which logically alien thought is – seems to be a perfectly legitimate proposition. So does the question whether there is a greatest prime, even though, it turns out, it makes no sense to suppose that there is. For some of us, intuitions in this respect are just too strong. In comparison, the elucidativist manoeuvre really seems sleight of hand of sorts.

Of course, even we must bow to argument. And in any case, since the stakes could not be higher, high-quality discussion is always welcome. The Logical Alien provides plenty – as I said, enough to go on for a long time. That is one reason to recommend the book – eve if, like me, you are not in the elucidativist camp. Another reason, relevant to the phenomenologically-minded reader, is that there seems to me to be a family resemblance, however faint, between elucidativism and certain strands of the phenomenological tradition broadly construed: Deleuze’s operation in Logic of Sense, Derrida with his différance, Sartre’s manoeuvres in Critique of Dialectical Reason. The Logical Alien might add something meaningful to those discussions, too.

[1]     J. Conant. 1991. “The Search for Logically Alien Thought: Descartes, Kant, Frege, and the TractatusPhilosophical Topics 20 (1): 115-180.

[2]     Part II, Section X, “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution of the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782. Arabic numerals in parentheses in the main text refer to pages in The Logical Alien.

[3]     I say ‘assumed’, but it is in fact at the heart of Travis’ piece. Sullivan discusses it, too.

[4]     Part II, Section XI, “Reply to Stroud on Kant and Frege”: 783-829.

[5]     For an excellent overview of Husserl’s philosphy of language and its development, see Simons 1995.

[6]     Part II, Section X: “Reply to Hamawaki and Stroud on Transcendental Arguments, Idealism, and the Kantian Solution to the Problem of Philosophy”: 758-782.

[7]     Part I, “Logical Aliens and the ‘Ground’ of Logical Necessity”: 170-182.

Robin D. Rollinger: Concept and Judgment in Brentano’s Logic Lectures: Analysis and Materials, Brill, 2020

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Martin Heidegger: Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Gesamtausgabe 38 A), Klostermann, 2020)

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Sofia Miguens (Ed.): The Logical Alien: Conant and His Critics, Harvard University Press, 2020

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Stefania Centrone, Pierluigi Minari: Oskar Becker on Modalities, Logos Verlag, 2019

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Christina Weiss (Ed.): Constructive Semantics: Meaning in Between Phenomenology and Constructivism, Springer, 2019

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S. Besoli, G. Morrone, R. Redaelli (Hrsg.): Emil Lask. An der Grenze des Kantianismus, Königshausen & Neumann, 2019

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Frode Kjosavik, Camilla Serck-Hanssen (Eds.): Metametaphysics and the Sciences: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives, Routledge, 2019

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Mohammad Shafiei, Ahti-Veikko Pietarinen (Eds.): Peirce and Husserl: Mutual Insights on Logic, Mathematics and Cognition, Springer, 2019

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Masakatsu Fujita (Ed.): The Philosophy of the Kyoto School

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Reviewed by: Philip Højme (Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Graduate School for Social Research)

The Philosophy of the Kyoto School (2018) is translated into English by Robert Chapeskie and revised by John W. M. Krummel. It introduces the reader to the works of (some of) the members of the Kyoto School. The general structure of the book means that each member is represented by a primary text, which is supplemented by an introductory essay. The general purpose of the latter is to outline the research, life and works of each scholar and to provide the background knowledge necessary to understand how each member relates to the conception of the Kyoto School. In the preface, Fujita Masakatsu, the editor of this book, suggests that readers “read the [introductory] essay first before turning to the original text it discusses” (The Philosophy of the Kyoto School, Ed. Fujita Masakatsu, 2018, vii). In addition to this suggestion, which I strongly recommend that any reader with no prior knowledge of the Kyoto School adhere to, I would recommend reading the two supplementary essays (The Kyoto School and the Issue of “Overcoming Modernity”, and The Identity of the Kyoto School: A Critical Analysis) before tackling any of the chapters, since they answer some of the questions readers with little previous knowledge of the Kyoto School might overlook while reading this book; these questions, nonetheless, do seem important to bear in mind while reading this book. They can be summarised as: Which thinkers do we include in the Kyoto School? and How do we define the Kyoto School?

The answer to the first question is far too complex for a thorough examination in this review, but the Kyoto School is generally considered to have been founded by Kitarō Nishida (1870-1945), a professor at Kyoto University, together with Hajime Tanabe (1885-1965). In relation to this, it seems relevant to answer questions regarding the nature of the Kyoto School. First, it is important to know that it was not a school in the sense of the Frankfurt School. Instead, and as an answer to the second question raised earlier, the Kyoto School is a loose term used to describe philosophers with a direct, or indirect, relationship to Nishida and Tanabe. In practice, this invariably also means to have a relationship with Kyoto University, its Faculty of Letters and/or the Chair of Philosophy at this faculty. The chair which Tanabe held after Nishida. Due to this strong connection with these two philosophers, a thorough outline of their philosophies and disputes seems to be in order, even if the book is structured so that each individual philosopher is given an equal amount of attention.

Nishida graduated from Tokyo Imperial University and later became first an assistant professor (in 1910) and shortly after a full professor (in 1913), both positions held at the Kyoto University Faculty of Letters, where Nishida held the Chair of Philosophy. While Nishida’s philosophical style is described as unsystematic by Masakatsu in the introductory essay, the concept of place is suggested as an important fixture in Nishidian Philosophy. The text included in this volume by Nishida is called Place. Place for Nishida is a concept which is developed in order to describe that which must “[envelope the] opposition between the ‘I’ and the ‘non-I’ and that establishes the so-called phenomena of consciousness” (Ibid. 3). This might be paraphrased as meaning that for Nishida place is a mediator of the I and the non-I, or put differently, of the subject and the object, as we know the discussion from the Western philosophical tradition (see i.e. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger). However, place is not platonic, a point which Nishida spells out, writing: “what I refer to as ‘place’ is not the same as what Plato refers to as ‘space’ or ‘receptacle’ [vώqa]” (Ibid. 3). Opposed to Plato’s understanding of space/receptacle, Nishida’s place is “that which permits the relationship between physical space and physical space cannot itself be physical space. What is required is a place wherein physical space is situated” (Ibid. 5, my italics). This means that for Nishida place comes to be the solution to the question of how to understand the relation between I and non-I, subject and object. Critiquing the Kantian notion of the transcendental subject, Nishida posits that consciousness includes meaning and that because of this “we can speak of consciousness as the self-determination of something universal” (Ibid. 6). This led Nishida to the realisation that this cannot be in the case of form and matter; instead, these – to establish knowledge – must be mediated by a different sort of place, concerning which Nishida writes:

“The place that establishes the opposition between form and matter must be different from the place that establishes the opposition between truth and falsity. At the place that establishes knowledge, not only must form and content be distinguishable, but their separation and combination must be free” (Ibid. 6).

This leads to the conclusion that there must be a “place of experience” (Ibid. 6-7). Thus, knowledge and experience are established in the same place, because both knowledge and experience are “phenomena of consciousness” (Ibid. 7). This outline of Western metaphysics, of the subject/object distinction, led Nishida to consider “the idea of self-awareness that reflects the self within itself” (Ibid. 8). Following this revelation, Nishida comes to posit knowing as an act which envelops the opposition between form and matter, or between subject and object. Answering the question of where a self-awareness, which reflects itself within itself, is situated (i.e. placed), Nishida posits the category of true nothing as this place. True nothing is a nothing which has transcended the opposition between being and nothing, between the I and non-I. It has transcended these in such a way that it envelops both – “To speak of subject-object unity, or the disappearance of subject and object, is simply to say that place becomes truly nothing” (Ibid. 9).

This is what Nishida calls the logic of nothing, a logic which takes on a new form in the work of Nishida’s successor, Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962). After graduating from the Faculty of Letters at Tokyo Imperial University, he eventually gained a position at Kyoto University in 1919, and later took over the Chair of Philosophy after Nishida’s retirement. The text included in this volume by Tanabe is called Clarifying the Meaning of the Logic of Species. Heavily inspired by historical materialism, Hajime “brought the practical dynamism he had learned from it to the logic of nothing” (Ibid. 43), founding the philosophical notion of the logic of species, a term which is as much a critique of the logic of nothing as it is a development of it. Regarding the internal critique between the members of the Kyoto School, Masakatsu writes:

“We may take this kind of relationship that permits mutual criticism, or of taking critique as a springboard or the criticism received as energy for developing one’s own thought, to be one characteristic feature of the Kyoto School” (Ibid. vii).

This can be assumed to be a direct reference to the fact that Nishida not only accepted Tanabe’s critique, but also used it to further develop the logic of nothing. Leaving this development aside, the following is an outline of Tanabe’s conception of the logic of species. Tanabe states that there are two reasons for writing this essay: “the practical and the logical” (ibid. 25). The practical reason for Tanabe seems to be a wish to understand the rise of ethno-homogenous state ideology in South-East Asia. Tanabe refutes the idea that states are made up of individuals who enter into a contract, as exemplified in the theories of Hobbes’ Leviathan, or Rousseau’s Social Contract. Opposed to such theories as describing at least the Japanese state, Tanabe instead argues that:

“society is not a relationship that simply proceeds from individuals … Rather, unless it possessed a substratum [基体] unbounded by the generational replacement of individuals and to this extent exist as something preceding them, it would be unable to coercively unify them. And since the social substratum is something species-tribal [種族的], wherein individuals are born and included, I thought it should be called a [species]” (ibid. 25)

Tanabe calls this kind of society “communal” (Ibid. 27), which stands in opposition to the “contractual society” (Ibid. 27). Following on from this, Tanabe devotes the remainder of the essay to explaining how an individual comes to accept state coercion, and it is here that the logic of nothing is redeveloped by Tanabe, who argues that: “The true individual becomes individual within the whole only through the mediation of the universal … the affirmation of the subject in absolute negation, is the mutual unification [相即] of the state and the individual as a subjective whole” (Ibid. 27-28). Hence, the mediation between individuality and state is, for Tanabe, that which brings about the true individual (in the same way as the mediation of universal and particular in Nishidian philosophy came to bring about true nothingness). Thus, Tanabe breaks with Nishida in claiming that state coercion is necessary to mediate and, in this way, achieve a subjective whole. With regard to this, in the introductory essay, Nakaoka writes that “To negate the self as an individual is to establish its communal character. Tanabe thus came to believe that ‘the true self is restored by losing itself’ ” (Ibid. 47). The true self for Tanabe is something which envelops both the individual and the species (the universal), but where Nishida claimed an absolutely nothing, Tanabe postulated a true self which needs to lose itself to be found. Thus, Tanabe’s conceptual development of the logic of nothing into the logic of species makes Tanabe’s contribution a much more social/material logic than Nishida’s. Nishida and Tanabe constitute two of the grounding pillars on which the Kyoto School stands, and in their works, we see concepts and topics which are to be taken up, expanded upon or criticised by their direct or indirect heirs.

Kiyoshi Miki (1897-1945) was a direct heir, who entered Kyoto University in 1917 and subsequently studied philosophy under both Nishida and Tanabe. In 1922, Miki went to Germany to attend lectures given by Rickert and Heidegger and in 1924 Miki moved to Paris, “where he spent one year devoting himself to reading [Pascal] while studying French” (Ibid. 66). Miki’s text included here is called The Logic of Imagination, and it represents Miki’s attempt to unify pathos and logos, which eventually led Miki to the logic of imagination conceived of as a “philosophy of action” (Ibid. 59). While paying tribute to Nishidian philosophy, Miki would state clearly that the logic of imagination was to be “considered separately” (Ibid. 59). Miki conceived of action different from the philosophical tradition which conceives it as having an origin in the will, meaning in subjectivism. Opposed to such an understanding, Miki posited that the term should be understood as

“the event of creating things … All acts in the broad sense … have the meaning of production … To act is to make new forms by working upon things and altering their forms (transforming them). Forms, as things that are made, are historical and change through history” (Ibid. 59).

Here one clearly sees the influence which historical materialism had on the philosophy of Miki, and this is a definite break with Nishidian philosophy. The acts of creation which Miki attributes to the logic of imagination links this philosophy closely with technology and the arts, both of which Miki conceives of as creative, in the sense that they both create something new. Another figure closely linked to Miki is Jun Tosaka (1900-1945). The connection with Miki is not only in the forming of what has been termed the left-wing of the Kyoto School, but also in the tragic fate they shared, both dying in prison (in Japan) in 1945. Tosaka, another graduate from Kyoto University, was concerned with the notion of the technological spirit, and the text included is What Is the Technological Spirit? Tosaka describes this as “the fundamental spirit of modern culture” (Ibid. 81). Tosaka then goes on to locate this spirit not only in the modern world but also traces it back to ancient philosophy, in effect tracing it back to Plato and Aristotle. Tosaka also postulates a scientific spirit, which is then examined in relation to the technological spirit, concluding that these spirits are like opposite sides of the same coin. The scientific spirit, Tosaka claims, has three characteristics. It is “firstly a positivist spirit … secondly … a rational spirit … [And] I also consider the scientific spirit to the historical spirit … The scientific spirit … must be a spirit of our everyday life and action” (Ibid. 85). Tosaka does not dwell on the question concerning whether the scientific spirit is the technological spirit or the other way around. Instead, the technological spirit is conceived as “another face of the scientific spirit” (Ibid.). This leads Tosaka to argue that even at the level of the laboratory (positivist science) there is a social aspect, thus it is not a “true [absolute] historical understanding” (Ibid. 86). This is a direct critique of Tanabe and the idea that the progress of science will be rolled out deterministically based on the logic of species. Opposed to such an understanding, Tosaka came to claim that even positive science is historically situated and not an absolute.

Differing from Miki and Tosaka’s materialistic concerns, Motomori Kimura’s (1895-1946) philosophy engages with the question of body and spirit and the essay included here is Body and Spirit [Mind]. Kimura graduated from Kyoto University in 1923 and returned in 1933 as an assistant professor. What is of interest regarding Kimura is that from 1939 onwards Kimura oversaw teaching, not in philosophy but in pedagogy and teaching methods. Thus, Ōnishi, in the introductory essay, examines Kimura as “as a scholar (philosopher) of education … Kimura philosophized from the principial depths of praxis = poiesis underlying both the undertaking of the practice called ‘education’ and the act of creating a work of art” (Ibid. 124). For Kimura the body is not the opposite of the spirit. Instead, the body is described as “a principle of expression [表現]. Expression, however, is the manifestation of the inside on the outside” (Ibid. 110). This means for Kimura that the inside is “at the same time outside and vice versa” (Ibid). In this sense, the body becomes a mediator which manifests the inside, or the spirit on the outside (what Kimura calls nature). Hence, in Kimura there is no dualism between body and spirit. Instead, there is a mediation between the spirit and nature through the body. The body comes to act as a point which allows mind and matter to interact with one another. Leaving this point aside, what is important for Kimura in this regard is the concept of expression. Expression, outlined succinctly, is the inside expressed on the outside, as an act of creation, situated on the outside. It is not conceived of as in opposition to the outside (nature) but, instead, as being situated outside of the inside. The conclusion of this line of thought is that:

“[The body]is the self-negation of spirit, and at the same time it is the self-negation of matter. Because the body is thus the self-identity of contradictories [矛盾の自己同] it possesses the capacity of formation, and expressive life is able to express itself in self-awareness through the mediation of the body” (Ibid. 120).

Another thinker who continues this line of examination into the spirit is Shinichi Hisamatsu (1889-1980), who became a professor at Kyoto University in 1946. The text included is called The Metaphysical Element of the East. In this text Hisamatsu elaborates pivotal concept in Hamamatsu’s philosophy of the Eastern nothing. Hamamatsu’s life and works are perhaps those which dwell mostly on the topic of religion, and Nishida once had to write a letter reprimanding Hisamatsu for “[trying] to drop out of university just before graduation in order to practice Zen” (Ibid. 150). Hence, the practice of Zen is an important factor in the development of Hisamatsu’s thoughts, a practice which can be said to have been inspired by a direct suggestion from Nishida, who was also a Zen practitioner. The Eastern nothing is an integral part of Hisamatsu’s religion of awakening. The latter is a metaphysical thought or system which Hisamatsu claims cannot be found in the West, while the former is described as a concept different to, but not in opposition to, Western thought. Hisamatsu stipulates that Western thought, since the Greeks, has revolved around the concept of Being, positing that in the East a different line of thought concerning this developed. Hisamatsu explains that:

“This ‘Eastern nothing’ is something that cannot be fit into the category of what exists in actuality. Without being something metaphysical from the standpoint of all beings or “being”, it is something metaphysical that negates and transcends being itself” (Ibid. 143).

This is thus a concept which draws heavily on the concept of absolute nothingness in Nishidian philosophy, and for this reason Hisamatsu’s philosophy falls within the frame of the Kyoto School, as it directly deals with one of the pivotal concepts of the Kyoto School.

Toratarō Shimomura (1902-1995) is described by Takeda in the introductory essay as the man who brought the Kyoto School to a close, and while the book does, in fact, contain an additional philosopher, this is not an overestimation on Takeda’s part, considering that Shimomura was the last of the philosophers included in this book to pass away. Shimomura’s work included in this volume is The Position of Mathematics in Intellectual History. In this text Shimomura tries to discern the difference between Eastern and Western culture, specifically regarding scientific/academic inquiry (science, for Shimomura, becomes academic inquiry as natural sciences stem from the mathematics of the ancient Greek philosophers). Shimomura asserts that academic inquiry is a Western term which originates from the West and points out that:

“ ‘academic inquiry’ [gakumon 学問] in our mother tongue, if we follow its classical usage, meant something close to that which takes ‘statecraft’ [治国平天下] or ‘moral conduct for living’ [修身処生]—ultimately things of a religious or political-moral, generally practical nature—or ‘practical inquiry’ [実学] as its subject matter” (Ibid. 164).

This means that the subject matter of these inquiries differs in one very important sense; namely, one is theoretical, and the other is practical. Following this insight, Shimomura argues that each culture, or what Shimomura and the Kyoto School call ethnic spirit, has its own kind of “Religion, academic inquiry, and art, too …[which] thereby form a system of culture, and, through the mediation of the ethnic spirit, express the world; the world thus realizes itself in them” (Ibid. 165). Therefore, it is through an inquiry into European academic inquiry (understood as a moment) that Shimomura comes to regard history, and academic inquiry itself, as being mediated through the spirit and experienced by that spirit in its historical moment.

Closing this volume, but not the Kyoto School, is Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990), whose included work is Nihility and Emptiness. This was the only work known to me prior to reading this book, though my knowledge is superficial. In this work by Nishitani, we again see the notions of nothingness (nihility) and emptiness coming into play as pivotal concepts for the Kyoto School. Keta, in the introductory essay on Nishitani, writes that Nishitani’s relationship to Zen is important if one is to understand the philosophy of Nishitani. Like Hisamatsu, Zen Buddhism became a practice for Nishitani which would resolve the crisis of not feeling that any of the philosophers studied up until that point (primarily Western philosophers, as this was Nishitani’s speciality) had been able to fill a growing internal void. Keta writes that: “at the age of thirty-three he began practicing Zen at the Meditation Hall of Shōkoku Temple in Kyoto. He would later state that through this practice he somehow managed to extricate himself from this crisis” (Ibid. 219-220). The basic premise of Nishitani’s philosophy is that science (the scientific method) overlooks both religious and philosophical questions, by mechanizing or rationalising humans, society and nature. This, Nishitani argues, leads to the fact that “contemporary nihilism arises … from an awakening to the meaninglessness at the root of this world and of human beings” (Ibid. 207). This meaninglessness, nihility, is for Nishitani overcome by the concept of Buddhist emptiness [空], which Nishitani equates with Eckhart’s notion of detachment: “What Eckhart called ‘detachment’ [離脱], … a transcendence that is a freeing not only from the self and the world but even from God …This point emerges with greater clarity in the standpoint of what is referred to in Buddhism as ‘emptiness’ [空]” (Ibid. 209). The concept of emptiness is described as “the completion of an orientation toward negation. As a standpoint that has negated nihility as the negation of being” (Ibid. 2014). Such a standpoint seems in alignment with the development of Nishidian philosophy as outlined in this book, and while Nishitani’s concept of emptiness differs from Nishida’s absolute nothingness, it still follows in a line of critiques, redevelopments and new articulations that seem to be the hallmark of the Kyoto School.

Succeeding in drawing a red line through the main topics, interests and fields which comprise the works of the members of the Kyoto School, this book is an important contribution to scholars in the West with an interest in the appropriation of Western metaphysics in the East (Japan/Zen Buddhism), to scholars of the Kyoto School in particular, or to those interested in the specific topics dealt with by individual members of the Kyoto School. The primary texts, with their introductory essays, elicit a development of the thought(s) of the Kyoto School which would be hard to elicit for an individual scholar with limited knowledge of Japanese philosophical tradition, Zen Buddhism, or the history of the Japan (ca. 1850-2000), and without access to the translated works. For such scholars, this book is of vital importance as an introduction to this school of philosophy, and the introductory texts and supplementary essays help the reader obtain an outline of each member’s philosophy, their project and the historically important events surrounding their lives, even if it is accomplished from a bird’s eye view. Therefore, I recommend readers with no knowledge of the history of either the Kyoto School or Japan to read the supplementary essays at the end of the book before engaging with the primary texts or their introductory essays. In particular, I found The Kyoto School and the Issue of “Overcoming Modernity” by Kunitsugu Kosaka to be an essay which is very informative for the novice scholar. In this essay Kosaka elaborates not only on the development of the general project of the Kyoto School as an attempt to overcome modernity, but also on the claim that some of the members of the Kyoto School “beginning with Nishida Kitarō, have been stamped with the label of having been collaborators in Japan’s activities during World War II” (Ibid. 233). This is not unlike similar claims levelled against the philosophy of Heidegger or even Nietzsche, both of whom are philosophers who can be said to have had an influence, directly or indirectly, on the members of the Kyoto School. While the book is an introduction to the Kyoto School, it does, however, assume knowledge of philosophical concepts, particularly of metaphysical and ontological concepts. This is not a criticism of the book but a note for any potential reader. Moreover, while it might seem daunting for some readers to immerse themselves in the depths of philosophical inquiry, the task of reading these texts is not insurmountable for anyone willing to spend some time brushing up on key concepts.

A key aspect, or method, of the Kyoto School seems to be that of mutual criticism, and while this does not make the general project of the Kyoto School compatible with the Frankfurt School (e.g. with Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of modernity/enlightenment), I would point out that this is an aspect where that these two schools converge. In addition to this, both schools also seem to have been engaged with the question of the relationship between Being and Nothing, subject and object, though they differ enormously in their conclusions. Leaving this point aside, as the book does not dwell too much on this question, it seems important to mention finally that while the book introduces the Kyoto School as endeavouring to present an Eastern philosophy which differs from Western philosophy, these two terms are ambiguous for several reasons. Firstly, because the Kyoto School is firmly anchored in Japanese Zen Buddhism or a critique of it, as opposed to an Eastern philosophy that spans other Buddhist ways of thinking, or even other countries. Secondly, because of their engagement with a certain kind of Western philosophy, mainly Heidegger and Nietzsche. In addition to these two points, some members also engage with historical materialism (i.e. Miki and Tosaka). All in all, this is a serious book worth attention from any scholar interested in metaphysical or ontological questions answered from a position different from the normative Western perspective. Though different from the western perspective, Nishida’s general claim is that Japanese culture is well-versed in both the Eastern and Western perspectives, and thus exceptionally suited to provide a bridge between them.

“The original characters of Eastern culture and Western culture are such that they ought to be mutually complementary, not such that one is superior to the other or one must be integrated into the other. What is important is instead to uncover the broader and deeper roots that run through both Eastern culture and Western culture, and from there to shine a new light on both cultures. Nishida argued that this is precisely the world-historical role Japan (being well versed in both cultures) bears today” (Ibid. 240).

In paraphrasing this rather lengthy quote, one might say that the goal of Nishidian philosophy was to bridge the gap between two cultures, or metaphysical systems and that the subsequent members of the Kyoto School should be thought of as engaging with this project either affirmatively, critically or descriptively. Thus, what makes up the Kyoto School, and what merits its name, is a sense of dealing with common themes centred around the idea of shining a light on these two cultures by uncovering their common roots.