Between Affinity and Expression: Kant, Nishida, and the Sensible Foundations of Expressivity, #4: Nishida and the Unity of Experience.

By Otto Paans



I. Introduction

II. Definitions

III. Why Rethink Affinity?

IV. Nishida and the Unity of Experience

V. Affinity, Sensibility and Expression

VI. Conclusion

This is the fourth of five installments, and contains section IV.


IV. Nishida and the Unity of Experience

If there is a recurring theme that runs as a single thread through all Nishida’s philosophical work, it is undoubtedly the unity of experience.[i] In his attempt to overcome the fragmenting effects what he called “object logic,” Nishida attempted again and again to ground the unifying features that underlie conscious experience.[ii] It is no surprise, then, that his first major work leans heavily on William James’s concept of “pure experience.”[iii] For James as for Nishida, experience is a continuous, densely connected texture. The density of this experiential texture is continuous in time, and its elements can be combined or separated, yet without becoming isolated from the whole:

According to radical empiricism, experience as a whole wears the form of a process in time, whereby terms lapse and are superseded by others that follow upon them by transitions which, whether disjunctive or conjunctive in content are themselves experiences, and must in general at least be accounted as real as the terms which they relate.[iv]

Nishida echoes James’s overall sentiment, but adds a few new ingredients of his own:

The directness and purity of pure experience derive not from the experience’s being simple, unanalyzable, or instantaneous, but from the strict unity of concrete consciousness.[v]

[W]hen we think we have perceived at a glance the entirety of a thing, careful investigation will reveal that attention sifted automatically through eye movement, enabling us to know the whole. Such systematic development is the original form of consciousness, and as long as the unity maintains itself and consciousness develops of its own accord, we do not loose our foothold in pure experience.[vi]

The Nishidean contention is that everyday experience is rooted in a deeper layer of unified experience called “pure experience.” However, any worry that Nishida’s thought obliterates the subject-object distinction and replaces it with an undifferentiated muddle called “experience” is quickly dispelled. It is the degree of unity, i.e., affinity, that grounds an experience in “pure” instead of mundane experience. Correspondingly, pure experience is not some sudden flash of insight or enlightenment, but a systematic development of consciousness according to its own norms and organic processes. It is the systematic, as opposed to haphazard, development of consciousness that maintains and grounds its unity. But, as James Heisig notes:

At this point, Nishida breaks camp with James by making pure experience the foundation not simply of consciousness, but of all reality. He does this by combining two claims: that the unifying nature of pure experience is not the function of a static order imposed on the flux of experience from without, but a dynamic predisposition to differentiate itself systematically; and that the whole process of differentiation is a kind of consciousness.[vii]

There are clear Hegelian overtones in this thought, because Hegel also held that in thinking, the “internal structure” of the question had to be explored in order to set off the developmental dialectical tension between question and response.[viii] Nishida turns this point around and makes the systematic development of thought a hallmark of its unity, and indeed essential to its very nature. Given Nishida’s familiarity with Hegel’s thought, it is again not too surprising to encounter the organic development of ideas within experience in his thinking. What is surprising, is that Nishida makes it the very nature of thought itself. Instead of being a static system of categories, thought is developmental, and very much alive.

While Nishida’s earlier work leans heavily on William James to reach this conclusion, his later works articulate a more refined and personal version of pure experience, one that also articulates the dynamic, developmental character of thought in more detail.

In his second book, titled Intuition and Reflection in Self-Consciousness, Nishida’s position is remarkably more nuanced. After a tortuous and lengthy engagement with Kant, Fichte, Hegel and the Neo-Kantians, the last chapters and the postscript of the book show Nishida speculating and summarizing his thought. Once again, the unified character of experience emerges:

It might be impossible for our little personalities to grasp all reality teleologically, but the greater the personality, the more it approximates to such a comprehension, and to one who has attained the godlike intellectual love described by Spinoza, all appears at once as necessary and teleological.[ix]

There are some echoes of Kant’s account of genius in the third Critique here, but we can equally well interpret this passage as emphasizing the importance of a unified standpoint from which reality is comprehended as a single and interconnected teleological development.[x] This interpretation leaves at least room for thinking about the unifying force of thought as something that can be trained, that can be mastered, and that has a truly speculative character. After all, to grasp reality teleologically is to be able to envision what it could become when the present is taken as point of departure. It is dimly to perceive future possibilities, wholly or only partially non-conceptually, that beckon in the twilight zone just beyond the light-cone. To grasp reality, then, is to activate one’s capacities as an epistemological subject. Nishida approvingly quotes Kant, stating that “to know things is to unify given experiential content.”[xi] But this Kantian thought receives a characteristic Nishidean slant:

The true epistemological subject is not the self known in introspection, but the unifying activity which constructs a certain objective world. This self cannot become an object of reflection. It is the process of construction of the objective world, and it now appears that subjectivity and objectivity are to be defined as the two inseparable extremes of a single reality.[xii]

The self is not some hidden noumenal substance, or an unchangeable kernel with an extended temporal duration, but instead an ongoing, unifying, constructive process. In a typical Nishidean fashion, this change in definition leads to rejecting the subject-object distinction altogether.

Now if the self is neither a hidden noumenal substance nor an unchangeable kernel, but instead a continuous process of unification, what can we say about affinity? At this point, we have to extend Nishida’s way of thinking about the deepest layers of experience. What if “affinity” is the outcome of an underlying unifying process instead of a necessary law or substantial ground that connects mental representations? In this case, affinity would not be the objective ground of the connection of mental representations, but it would be the result of an underlying process. But which process, exactly? Certainly, it cannot just be a deeper-level connection between all thoughts that are thought by an individual person, because in that case, then we would once again constrain affinity to simple association, although one at a deeper level that was hidden from sight.

For an alternative answer, we might again look into Nishida’s later work. At the beginning of his career, Nishida regarded the self as the unification of experience by a single cognizer, but later on, he deepened his notion of the self — most notably, in his last essay Nothingness and the Religious Worldview. The initial conception of the self as a unifying activity seemed to do little justice to its capacities for development. It is clear that people can learn, that their self-image changes, that they acquire and lose personal characteristics, etc. The later Nishida conceptualizes this development as the “opening of the self to the self.” Again, there are Hegelian overtones in this passage, notably from the master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology of Spirit.

But the formula “the self opening up to the self” is not merely an observation about personal identity, but — again in typical Nishidean fashion — a fundamental point about the nature of cognition (and the universe) as such:

That which is self-conscious must stand, self-consciously, in a dynamically expressive relationship to an absolute other. This entails the biconditional structure of co-origination and co-reflection. Thus I repeat that I disagree altogether with the epistemological position that takes its point of departure from the logic of objects.[xiii]

The self is not an object for reflection in the same sense that sunsets, paintings, or interpersonal relationships are. The self opens up unto the world, while the world opens up towards the self in a reciprocal gesture called “co-reflection.” Again, Nishida comes very close to Hegel’s account of the self that recognizes itself in and through its recognition by an absolute other. The embrace of self and world is called “expression.” At first, this seems an odd way of thinking the self-world relationship, but Nishida has a very clear goal in mind. In speaking about self and world as co-expressing themselves, he can discuss them as notionally distinct yet essentially complementary entities, hence without sliding back into the fragmenting language of the subject-object distinction:

The conscious world transforms itself as a movement from the formed to the forming — it is self-forming in this way, through its own self-expression — and it transforms itself by way of this self-expression in the forms of its space-time vectors, as the contradictory identity of the many and the one.[xiv]

This passage is at the same time deeply evocative and highly obscure. However, what seems an exegetically plausible possibility is that Nishida circumvents any talk of subject and object by thinking from the formed (passive) to the forming (active). In other words: all entities in the world express themselves by being simultaneously the formed and the forming, the acting and the acted-upon. Like Hegel, Nishida reserves a special place for “contradiction,” i.e., dialectical tension. It is through dialectical tensions and negativity that the underlying unity of the world is emerges and is grasped, only to disintegrate immediately into its constituent components when subjected to close scrutiny. The relationship that grounds the unity of consciousness is endlessly reflexive, not unlike a mirror palace in which impressions are infinitely reflected.[xv] Nishida emphasizes that expression itself is an act that is both forming and formed; and that our experience of reality is unified, and thus possesses a degree of affinity, because the world is constituted by reciprocally and dynamically expressive entities.


[i] Nishida tried to do this in quite a different way from that of the Western philosophical tradition. Given his extensive background in Buddhism, for Nishida the idea of unity does not imply a set of necessary laws, as Kant claimed:

Thus as exaggerated and contradictory as it may sound to say that the understanding is itself the source of the laws of nature, and thus of the formal unity of nature, such an assertion is nevertheless correct and appropriate to the object, namely experience. (CPR A127/242).

It is not entirely incorrect that Nishida tried to grasp the unity of experience not from a nomological, but from a lived, roughly existential point of departure.

[ii] What makes interpreting Nishida a difficult exercise is twofold. First, not all of his works have been translated into Western languages yet. This gives us a merely fragmentary picture of his thought and its development. And second, Nishida — not unlike Hegel and Heidegger — is a writer who developed a highly abstract, idiosyncratic idiom for his thoughts. Consequently, it is not always obvious what to make of certain passages. These difficulties plague any interpretation of Nishida and have no doubt influenced the interpretation I present here.

[iii] W. James, “A World of Pure Experience,” Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 1 (1904): 533–543; see also K. Nishida, An Inquiry Into the Good, trans. C. Ives. C., and A. Masao (New Haven/London, Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 3–10.

[iv] James, “A World of Pure Experience”, pp. 541–542.

[v] Nishida, An Inquiry Into the Good, p. 6.

[vi] Ibid., p. 7.

[vii] J. W. Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness. An Essay on the Kyoto School (Honolulu, HI: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2001), p. 45.

[viii] G.W.F. Hegel., The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), p. 27.

[ix] K. Nishida, Intuition and Reflection in Self-Consciousness, trans. V.H. Viglielmo, T. Toshinori, and J. O’Leary (New York: SUNY Press, 1987), p. 161.

[x] The thought that enlightenment (not in the sense of daring to think for oneself, but in the sense of an intuitive grasp of an entire domain of content, as a whole) consists in seeing the unity behind all fragmentary experiences is found throughout the various strands of Buddhism. In the thought of the three core Kyoto School authors (Nishida, Tanabe, Nishitani), this idea surfaces regularly. We also encounter it also in Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, insofar as his unique version of neo-Kantian philosophy also drew upon the Upanishad and Vedas as sources of inspiration.

[xi] Nishida, Intuition and Reflection in Self-Consciousness, p. 164. Nishida quotes (CPR A105).

[xii] Nishida, Intuition and Reflection in Self-Consciousness, p. 165.

[xiii] K. Nishida, Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview (Honolulu, HI: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1993), p. 55.

[xiv] Nishida, Last Writings: Nothingness and the Religious Worldview, p. 62.

[xv] Douglas Hofstadter worked this thought out in I am A Strange Loop (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2007),via the notion of the “strange loop,” i.e. a self-referring/reflexive, impredicative, paradoxical function that’s somehow also computable and recursive. Hofstader’s basic idea goes back to the Liar Paradox taken together with the work of Kurt Gödel, M.C. Escher, Alan Turing, and Alonzo Church; and a similar idea can be found in the doctrine of “connectionism” in contemporary philosophy of mind.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 19 July 2021

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.