In our conference in Nagoya in 2017 (see Chronicles 515516) I compared the paradoxes of the Greek Eleatic philosopher Zeno, the best known of which is that of Achilles and the Tortoise, with the paradoxes of Nagarjuna: the traveler who doesn’t travel, etc. It is easy to see from a modern perspective that Zeno’s paradoxes of motion could be “solved” by a more advanced mathematical system in which the infinite number of “steps” required for Achilles to catch up with the Tortoise could be reduced to the sum of an infinite series. In contrast, Nagarjuna’s critique did not concern the accurate description of motion or of anything else but what he grasped as the necessarily paradoxical relationship of language to reality: that no sentence or series of sentences could fully “reproduce” or “embody” the traveler’s action.

I concluded from this example that “Western” thought was ultimately concerned with reducing the world to an efficient system of notation, one that would permit such things as distances and the area under curves to be calculated, whereas the “Eastern” point was rather that no act such as the traveler’s could ever be fully captured by one or any number of sentences; what primarily mattered was not to improve our techniques of representing reality, but to realize that it was the scene of representation on which we observed and spoke about these phenomena that was the fundamental, necessary element. That is, language was not unimportant, but its practical function in telling us about the world was less significant than the fact that as humans we possessed a scene of representation on which we could share our experiences through language and other representational forms, however incapable we would always be of “reproducing” the reality it represented.

As befits a student of René Girard, I have always been rather skeptical of the pretensions of Western philosophy. My work on generative anthropology attempts to deal with language or semiotic representation and the cultural worlds derived from it in a way that avoids what I consider the fundamental error of metaphysics—that is, of classical Western philosophy: that of tacitly accepting Plato’s Myth of the Cave and viewing the “Ideas” of language as transcendent guarantees of ontology rather than simply a system of signs that permit us to communicate with our fellows—a system, as I described in Chronicle 802, initiated in order to avoid what Girard understood as the potential for violence inherent in mimetic desire.

The attempt to draw a contrast between Nishida and Western philosophy is obviously complicated by the fact that he was the Japanese philosopher most preoccupied with Western philosophy. But between his 1911 Inquiry into the Good  and his final work, Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview, published after his death in 1945, there is an obvious return from his interest in Western thought to a more characteristically Eastern perspective. Interestingly enough, this change is above all evident in his constant references to nothingness as achieved by self-negation.

Rather than attempt to explicate these “Eastern” uses of the notion of nothingness immediately, I think it will be more useful in the context of my own “Western” doctrine of generative anthropology to return to them, following a discussion of the best-known use of the term “nothingness” in Western philosophy—that of Jean-Paul Sartre, whose most significant philosophical work was entitled L’être et le néant, translated as Being and Nothingness—a work that Nishida presumably did not have a chance to read. We should note in passing that the French word néant is a much more natural term than “nothingness,” which exists only in philosophical discourse, whereas néant is often used as a an emphatic synonym for “nothing.”

There is a fascinating and little-known “Japanese connection” relative to Sartre’s use of “néant.” In “The Problem of the Self in the Later Nishida and in Sartre,” Philosophy East and West, 44, 2 (Apr 1994): 303-316, Brian Elwood pointed out that in 1928, the 23-year-old Sartre had weekly discussions in Paris with the Japanese philosopher Kuki Shuzo. Quoting Elwood,

Apparently Kuki and the young Sartre engaged in conversations on the topic of modern French philosophy. Although it is not clear that Sartre exerted any special influence on Kuki, it is now evident that it was Kuki who played the crucial role of introducing Sartre to the thought of both Husserl and Heidegger. (303)

This last detail is certainly ironic: this celebrated European existentialist first learned about existentialism’s major sources from a Japanese philosopher! Thus it is far from impossible that Sartre’s adoption of the term néant was an effect of Kuki’s influence.

Ellwood’s focus on Sartre’s use of néant is entirely “existential,” referring either to the self’s lack of a preconstituted essence or its ultimate death. Yet most readers of L’être et le néant would agree that Sartre’s most significant use of this term, significant in what I would call an anthropological sense, is not related to abstractions like our mortality or lack of an “originary essence.” It is Sartre’s use of it, early in the book, in his description of human self-consciousness or pour-soi, “for-itself,” the French translation of Hegel’s für-sich. The néant, the “free space” in the human self, is what permits it to contemplate its objects, cut off from the urges of appetite. This separation from our “instincts” is precisely what distinguishes human language from animal communications. It is on this self-conscious basis that we have built around our use of signs the rest of human scientific, esthetic, and religious culture. All this derives from what was at its origin the scene of language on which the human self, Sartre’s pour-soi, contemplates its objects, separated from them by a néant which is a space of freedom.

Whether or not conceived under Japanese influence, the spatial metaphor of the néant referring to the free space between the self-conscious human pour-soi and its object is the root of Sartre’s “existentialist” philosophy—one that distinguishes him from Heidegger and all the others, none of whom provide a simple physical analogue of what we can call the scene of consciousness.

Clearly when Sartre described the human self “geometrically” by distinguishing it as pour-soi by means of a spatial néant that separates the self from its object, he did not have in mind GA’s hunting scene and even less a scenario of the origin of language. Indeed, one striking feature of Being and Nothingness is that language as such is barely mentioned in the book. Sartre makes a categorical distinction between the human self/mind and those of animals that reprises Descartes’ idea that animals were “soulless” like machines, yet he never refers to our use of signs, but attributes this distinction entirely to the nothingness within the pour-soi or human consciousness that by separating the self from its objects makes it completely free in its relationship to them.

For Sartre, the human pour-soi is contrasted to the in-itself or en-soi, a parallel Hegelian term that describes being that has no “for”-itself, that simply is, like that of a rock—a category within which, following the example of Descartes, Sartre includes all other living beings, even the higher animals.

Thus in contrast to the néant inside the pour-soi, Sartre conceives the entire world of the en-soi, from the stars and planets to grains of sand, as lacking in free space, as objects so to speak shoved up against each other. The idea of le néant being embodied by, for example, interstellar space, is just the opposite of Sartre’s idea; for Sartre the néant is solely the metaphorical mental space between the subject and the object that embodies human freedom.

Let us now return to the East and try to understand what relationship Sartre’s néant has with nothingness in Nishida and in the Buddhist tradition.

In this tradition, rather than one thinker’s neologism, nothingness is a central conception at the intersection of religion and philosophy—indeed, one that makes the need for this Western distinction all but unnecessary. I hope to persuade you that, if we can justify this rapprochement, our understanding of Eastern thought will be shown to confirm and enrich my earlier point in describing Nagarjuna’s paradoxes as not so much critiques of language as reminders that the specific correspondence between language and “reality” is a less fundamental component of language than its demonstration of the néant that characterizes the scene of representation. And this is true not merely of the scene of language, but of the cultural scene in general, whether taking place within an individual mind, in a ritual or theatrical setting—or in a simple conversation, an exchange among humans where all freely emit, receive, and interpret the signs, or words, exchanged among the parties, each of whom embodies Sartre’s conception of the pour-soi inhabited by a néant.

As I mentioned in my 2017 talk, the very idea of “mindfulness” that Westerners associate with Eastern thinking makes clear that these exercises that turn the mind’s attention on its own activity, for example by making you focus on some trivial object or repeat a mantra, are in the first place demonstrations of the néant within the pour-soi, all the more convincing for dispensing with philosophical vocabulary.

What is “freeing” about focusing on a candle-flame or repeating a nonsense-word? It is superficially just the opposite of a “free” activity. But its point is to exemplify your own power over your attention, which implies your power to direct it elsewhere: the point of the exercise is to make you aware of this non-reflexive, conscious freedom to focus your attention, which is the real sense of the néant.

It is in this context that the entire structure of Eastern thought centered on “nothingness” must be understood. Nothingness is the stuff of freedom. Just as samsara is meant to progress through a series of incarnations to the nothingness of Nirvana, so our specific intentionalities are, like the sentences whose incomplete grasp of reality Nagarjuna rejected, merely steps on the way to the universal freedom of the pour-soi, the human consciousness, as embodied in the néant from within whose protection we contemplate the world.

To demonstrate these points, let us examine a few selections from Nishida’s final work, The Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview (emphases mine):

(69) Because God, or the absolute, stands to itself in the form of a contradictory identity—namely as its own absolute self-negation, or as possessing absolute self-negation within itself—it exists and expresses itself through itself. Because it is absolute nothingness, it is absolute being.

(70) A God merely transcendent and self-sufficient would not be a true God. God must always, in St. Paul’s words, empty himself.

(78) To know of one’s own death is already to exist while being nothing. To exist while being absolutely nothing is the ultimate self-contradiction.

(87) The true absolute does not merely transcend the relative . . . It must absolutely negate, and thereby express, itself within itself.

My position is … that eternal life is gained at the point where birth and death (samsara) and no-birth and no-death (nirvana) are realized as one. Samsara and nirvana, the self and the absolute God, are for me expressed in that verse of Daito Kokushi which refers to the paradoxical relation of simultaneous presence and absence of the self and the absolute.

Buddha and I, distinct through a billion kalpas [1 kalpa=4.32 billion years] of time,
Yet not separate for a single instant;
Facing each other the whole day through,
Yet not facing each other for an instant.

(96) The true individual arises as a unique, momentary self-determination of the absolute present. . . . I interpret “having No Place wherein it abides, this Mind arises” in this light.

I think the comparison between the néants of Sartre and Nishida allows us to understand why, despite all Eastern accomplishments in mathematics (zero, the “Arabic” numbers) and in science, as detailed in Joseph Needham’s series on Science and Civilization in China, it was the West with its conception of individual liberty, the freedom of the individual scene of representation, that opened up the world to modernity. Eastern nothingness is impersonal; it is not my nothingness inside my mind, as in Sartre, but nothingness as the limitless fecundity of what is in fact the mind, but a mind de-personalized—Sartre’s pour-soi extended to the enormous womb of the universe.

I cannot claim that this brief analysis of the parallels between Eastern and Western marks a new step toward the global peace that remains the goal of all our hopes. But we can hope that at a moment when the entire West is agitated by the renewal of antisemitism—stimulated by the return of an atavistic version of Islam that would destroy Christianity (“whiteness”) along with Judaism, that in a word is the cry of pain of those who cannot reconcile themselves to secondarity—this confluence that transcends the quarrels among the three Abrahamic religions can lead us to realize that the real lesson of the dialectic of history is that our common humanity must and hopefully will always override the remnants of the local distinctions of which it is the permanent synthesis. This modest reminder of our humanity’s common basis in nothingness, which is to say, ultimately, in the sacred freedom that precedes our desire for any object, can only help both East and West to put their “original sins” behind them and to progress along the path of universal fraternity.