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

The Philosophy of the Kyoto School Book Cover The Philosophy of the Kyoto School
Masakatsu Fujita (Ed.). Translated by J.W.M. Krummel, R. Chapeskie
Hardback 114,39 €
XV, 273

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.

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Possibility of a World

The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin Book Cover The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin
Jean-Luc Nancy, Pierre-Philippe Jandin, translated by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain
Fordham University Press
August 8, 2017

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Balliol College, University of Oxford)

A reader looking to make their first entry into Jean-Luc Nancy’s work is bound to feel intimidated by the extraordinarily vast and varied nature of this particular French philosopher’s oeuvre. As it spans over dozens of books, hundreds of articles, and engages with almost every major modern thinker, one would be forgiven for feeling somewhat at a loss in deciding where to start. This is why the set-up of the interviews collected in The Possibility of a World is full of promise: guided by Pierre-Philippe Jandin, who shows himself both knowledgeable of how Nancy thinks and skilful in driving the conversation to cover as much ground as possible, Nancy is made to reflect on the entirety of his career in fluent and conversational language: the interviews provide both an accessible articulation of all the major themes of Nancy’s thought, if sometimes only implicitly, for those who are new to it; as well as a valuable insight into how Nancy relates to his own thinking and writing, for those who are already familiar with it. The present translation of these conversations by Travis Holloway and Flor Méchain generally captures Nancy’s playful use of the French language well, adding clarifying footnotes where necessary, and makes for a very fluent read in English that only falters occasionally when confronted with a particular French idiom or colloquialism.

Before delving into the conversations themselves, it is perhaps worth noting that, in my view, Nancy is a philosopher perfectly suited to be approached in this dialogical way: not just because it takes the sharp edges of his sometimes frustrating writing style; but also because the dialogical form – which, as Nancy notes, “has always been associated with philosophy” as the expression of “the free life of thinking” (Nancy 1982, 46-47) – embodies the very logic he wants to describe, namely the infinite circulation of meaning. Even when Nancy writes like any other philosopher would, he always does so under the guise of an engagement with someone else’s thinking: his own thinking exists in a dialogical interaction with that of others, to the point that it becomes hard to discern which ideas belong to which conversation partner, and that is exactly the point. Thus, in reading Nancy, we are always reminded of one fact: “without dialogue, no thinking, and no philosophy” (Nancy 1975, 330). In the case of the present text, we have the interesting opportunity to witness how, as prompted by Jandin, Nancy engages with himself, dialogues himself.

The first section of the book is dedicated to Nancy’s “formative years.” What the reader will not find here is a description of how Nancy sees the development of his own thinking throughout his life, for, as he admits elsewhere, he is “not somebody who is very self-aware, I don’t really have much of a conception of my own historical trajectory” (Nancy 2003, 45). What he does do in this section, however, is discuss the various “moments”, both anecdotal and more substantive, that would later prove important for his intellectual development. These anecdotes are really quite delightful. There is, for example, the very early memory of walking past a fence that “had these elaborate patterns.” Already betraying a theoretical orientation at that very young age, Nancy relates how he would “get lost in speculations about the necessity or non-necessity of all these adornments” (2). Then there is the story of his discovery of Heidegger: apparently the reason Nancy first engaged seriously with Heidegger was to play a trick on François Warin, by writing a text on Comte in a parody of Heidegger’s style that managed to convince Warin that it was actually penned by Heidegger himself (17-18).

One of the more informative moments he relates is his reading of the Bible together with the Young Christian Students when he was a teenager: for Nancy, this was “the beginning of a relationship with texts as an inexhaustible resource of meaning or sense (sens).” What he learned there was above all that “One has to interpret a text and this interpretation is infinite” (7). This can still be seen in what we could call the hermeneutic logic that governs all of Nancy’s writing and sits alongside a critique of the specific hermeneutics formulated by Ricoeur and Gadamer. This interest in the texts of Christianity, however, soon became detached from a “properly religious relationship” (8). It is this religious orientation, together with a taste for social and political activism, which he sees as “the initial ferment of my intellectual formation” (8). Nancy then goes on to discuss his initial discovery of Derrida, who he saw at the time as ushering in a profound intellectual upheaval (14, 22). Finally, it is worth mentioning how he looks back on his early work on Kant, undertaken when he was preparing to take the agrégation, for it sets the stage quite well for how he would later develop his own thinking: “What Kant taught us is that (…) pure reason is practical in itself.” Hence, he continues, “in our desire for the unconditioned, in our desire for sense, we’re practical, we act in the world, and so, a priori sensibility (…) is praxis. In every case, I am in action” (19). It is this notion of the sense of the world consisting in our action within it that sets Nancy up to articulate the idea that is at the core of, and indeed guides, his entire philosophy: “Images of the world must be substituted for a dwelling (habitation), a life of the world, in the world. (…) The world is a possibility of sense or meaning’s circulation and we have to make a world, to remake a world” (26).

This allows for a seamless transition to the second section of the book, which deals with Nancy’s understanding of world. Indeed, one of the strengths of these interviews is that they show very clearly how all of Nancy’s thinking hangs together quite closely. Regarding the world, he again takes up his starting point as it is formulated elsewhere (see Nancy 1997, 4): declaring that “There’s no longer a cosmos, there’s no longer a mundus” (38), by which he means that the world no longer appears to us as a coherent totality that is unified by some kind of inherent order. The world that we are to think “no longer has a sense, but it is sense” (Nancy 1997, 8), exists in a circulation of meaning. This leads him to formulate his relational ontology, where the meaning that is the world exists in what happens between entities, in how they relate to one another. It is this question of relation, central as it is to Nancy’s thinking, that he sees as never having received serious philosophical attention (48). Nevertheless, “What is the world,” he wonders, “if not precisely the possibility of the ‘between’?” (47). For, if meaning is not inherent to any single entity, it can only exist in how that entity relates to other entities. In that sense, it is the between, not the self-enclosed singularity of an entity, that comes first. It is only because of “the relation between the two, that is, the ‘between’ the two, which relates the one to the other and separates it from the other at the same time” (47), that something can be anything at all: thing A can only be thing A because it is separate from thing B, because it is-not thing B; because of a separation that constitutes thing A as thing A. It is only because of this between that there can be something, or rather, some things. Being, for Nancy, even when it is singular, is always plural. Indeed, it is only within plurality that there can be singularity. The world is then the totality of sense or meaning that is created by the constellation of different entities in their relation to one another (133). Nancy has coined the term transimmanence to describe the nature of the meaning constituted in this way: neither fully immanent, nor transcendent; but an immanence pointing outside of itself to the between that would be collapsed by full immanence (93).

Ultimately, this thinking of the between is a critique of self-sufficiency: the self does not constitute itself, but must go outside of itself in order to find itself. This opens up an entry into Nancy’s social and political thought, for this impossibility of self-sufficiency “is true for both the collective and the individual,” he notes, “the idea of ‘community’ quite clearly implies (through communitarianisms) the danger of shutting oneself off in self-sufficiency” (49). Indeed, the subsequent three sections deal mostly with Nancy’s handling of questions concerning community and politics. Political questions are essential for Nancy, as long as this is understood in a broad and nuanced way: for him, the French word politique means both “the organization of common existence (…), conjoining antagonistic interests,” as well as expressing “a sense or truth about this existence” (94), and as such has clear ontological significance. Most of the discussion revolves around Nancy’s (relatively) recent engagement with questions concerning identity in relation to the notion of the people, formulated polemically in reaction to the French government’s attempt to have a debate on national identity in 2009. Just like the world no longer has meaning, but is meaning; so too, the people no longer have an identity, but are an identity (Nancy 2015, 29-32). That is to say, their identity is not inherent but exists in their action within the world, their life of the world in the world: the people in themselves are not sufficient for the constitution of their own identity. Hence, speaking of the people always risks understanding this plurality inauthentically as absolute, coherent, self-sufficient singularity: “What allows one to make sense out of numerousness is the people,” Nancy says, “which gets expressed in forms that themselves are no longer numerousness, but suggest a ‘substantial’ unity (‘one’ people, ‘one’ nation)” (73-74).

The sixth section deals with Nancy’s understanding of religion, Christianity in particular. For Nancy, “in the depths of Christianity, there is something like the germ of the disappearance of the sacred” (99). What this means is that Christianity is the religion through which the West is able to leave the religious modality of thought behind. It is the religion that allows the West to emerge from its metaphysical closure, which Christianity is nevertheless at the same time also responsible for. Nancy traces this historical development in his two volumes on what he calls the deconstruction of Christianity (Nancy 2008; 2012). In doing so, he takes up various Christian concepts – God, creation, grace, etc. – and uses them to think atheologically: not necessarily against theology, but in any case against onto-theological metaphysics; in order to put on display how Christianity and the West are opening themselves up from their metaphysical closure. In doing so, these concepts come to describe the way in which we inhabit the world, our dwelling in the world: for example, “creation is the world existing,” Nancy says. “In another sense,” he continues, “one could say that within this lies an opportunity to recover the possibility of admiring, of adoring that the world exists, and the fact that I exist, that you exist” (102). That is to say, these concepts not only function within the (a)theological register, but also take on a much broader existential and ontological meaning.

In the same way, Nancy can be seen to charge the notion of art with ontological and existential significance in the seventh section of the book. There he explains how, given that we no longer live in a cosmos, a world that is unified in its display of a certain inherent order, art is in crisis: what is its role if it can no longer represent this order now that it has collapsed? Let me quote Nancy at length here: “It’s like another creation, a recreation of the world and when there isn’t actually a creator or organizer of the entire world anymore, then this gesture becomes detached for itself, but this gesture has always been the gesture of art, of opening the possibility of an ordering. And I think that one can say that the human being is the one who has to bring out a world, both as a form and as sense, or as language” (106-107). Here Nancy is first of all saying that when art is without ground it fulfils a truly ontological role: in the absence of an order or truth preordained by a creator, art is no longer in the business of merely representing this truth; rather, it performs the gesture of the opening of the possibility of an order, expresses the movement in which the possibility of a world exists, by exposing the void at its origin as “the complete absence of beauty, that is, what points out or indicates beauty” (105). Art exposes what Nancy calls the patency, the opening or the transimmanence of the world: that the world is possible even in the absence of a unifying cosmic order, for it is patently already there in our engagement with it. Art exposes that the world is possible, that the world straightforwardly or manifestly makes sense to us, without the need for a unifying and ordering cosmology or metaphysics. As such art is, as Nancy puts it, “the presentation of presentation” (Nancy 1996, 34), of the infinite circulation of sense that is the world. All we need to do is greet the world in its thereness. Art thus embodies the very gesture of the world as it is constantly coming to be in our engagement with it, in our dwelling within it. When Nancy then says that human beings bring out a world, he means that “the human being is both the expression of the world and the world’s expression,” that is to say that it “is the inhabitant of the world, but at the same time, it transforms the world deeply through its technē, its technology, what in Latin gets translated as ars, its art” (115).

The discussion on art, the presentation of presentation, makes for a smooth transition to the final two sections of the book, dealing with presence and joy. Nancy here reprises, albeit in a more metaphysical way, the analysis of presence that he already formulated in his essay on sleep (see Nancy 2009). According to him, there is never full presence, indeed absence is at the heart of presence: just like the self needs to go outside of it itself in order to find itself; so too he understands presence generally as the continual arrival, or birth, of non-being into being. Here Nancy makes this clear by talking about how when we fall asleep, we at the same time descend into nothingness as well as fall into ourselves and the world. “Every morning,” he says, “one comes back to the world after being truly absent during sleep, which is connected to this poor, physiological, biological truth: Without sleep, one can’t live for long” (121). Though this does not come through particularly clearly in these interviews, for Nancy joy (jouissance) is the moment or experience of being on the limit shared between those two opposites – being and non-being, inside and outside, presence and absence, etc. – through which meaning comes-to-be as the sense that is-about-to-be, to come, through one’s being-outside-of-oneself. “Joy, jouissance, to come,” Nancy says, “have the sense of birth: the sense of the inexhaustible imminence of sense” (Nancy 1993, 5). As such, joy is the experience of ek-sistence as it “strives toward (…) the world and Being-in-the-world, that is, toward the possibility of making sense” (133). Knowing that these interviews were conducted in 2013, Nancy’s thinking of joy here seems to anticipate the conversations with Adèle Van Reeth he would have on the subject not long after, conversations that were published in 2014 under the title La jouissance and translated into English in 2016 as Coming (Nancy & Van Reeth 2014; 2016). It is perhaps unfortunate that the translators do not make a note of this, as one of the strengths of this book is that otherwise, whenever a particular aspect of Nancy’s work is broached in the interview, it comes with a series of useful footnotes that direct the reader to the relevant texts by Nancy or indeed his interlocutors.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that some of the most interesting reflections Nancy articulates over the course of these interviews are often the result of him briefly going off on a tangent. For example, he perhaps shows himself the present-day Kierkegaard or Nietzsche – albeit with a decidedly less capricious personality – when he recounts how he envies the painter and the writer of literature and poetry, since their mode of expressing themselves might be more suited to what Nancy is trying to do. The relationship between philosophy and literature has been a central topic of Nancy’s thinking since the start of his career, and indeed continues to be to this day: “I have the feeling that my philosophical texts aren’t philosophical enough,” he says, “that they need to be more philosophical, but in order to be so, they need to no longer be philosophical, but something else” (23). Hence, Jandin describes Nancy’s writing strategy very accurately by saying that we “aren’t in the coincidentia oppositorum, nor are we in a dialectical logic; we are trying to go ‘between’” (124). The possibility of a world rests entirely on this notion of the between that is explored by Nancy’s writing. Therefore, Nancy’s writing itself must be understood as similarly structured as the world it is trying to shine a light on, to uncover, to stage; a world that is “centrifugal, erratic, open” (134).


Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘“Our World” an interview’, trans. by Emma Campbell in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 8:2 (August 2003), 43-54.

Jean-Luc Nancy, Le partage des voix (Paris: Galilée, 1982).

Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Le ventriloque (À mon père, X.)’ in Mimesis: Des articulations (Paris: Flammarion, 1975), 271-338.

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World, trans. by Jeffrey S. Librett (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Identity: Fragments, Frankness, trans. by François Raffoul (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, trans. by John McKeane (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. by Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant and Michael B. Smith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. by Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009).

Jean-Luc Nancy & Adèle van Reeth, La jouissance: Questions de caractère (Paris: Plon/France Culture, 2014).

Jean-Luc Nancy & Adèle van Reeth, Coming, trans. by Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, trans. by Brian Holmes et al. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).

Jean-Luc Nancy: The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin, Fordham University Press, 2017

The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin Book Cover The Possibility of a World: Conversations with Pierre-Philippe Jandin
Jean-Luc Nancy, and Pierre-Philippe Jandin, Translated by Travis Holloway, and Flor Méchain
Fordham University Press
Paperback $28.00