The Topic of Environmental Issues and Japanese Philosophy

The Topic of Environmental Issues and Japanese Philosophy

Katsuhito Inoue, Kansai University


Indeed our deily life has become rich and convenient by the development of technology and industry, but the air in cities is heavily polluted by vehicle emissions, and the water contaminated by industrial waste from chemical plants. So the global ecosystem is now facing a crisis of global warming or thye desertification caused by excessive deforestation. The cause od this enviromental pollution is Western modernization. On the hand, the adnvanced, industrialized nation feels a sense of crisis concerning this problem. On the other hand, developed nations regard modernization as a progressive process, and push ahead with it. Under the pretense of civilization, they turn nature into industrial cities. In this critical situation, enviromental ethics is grappling with serious issues in order to overcome the global crisis.

The main maxims of enviromental ethics can be given as follows.

  1. All living thing on earth have wqaul rights to life.
  2. Th e present generation has a duty to provide a comfortable life and security for future generations.
  3. The present generation should not completely consume the current natural resources.

In spite of those proposed maxims, our liferstyles and home enviromentls do not change. The cause of this situation is our deep-seated beliefs that science and technology are almughty, and that profit-seeking is to be highly regarded. In this situation, what is the philosopher to do ? I would argue that we need not only enviromental ethics, bot also eco-philosophy.

At this juncture, let me introduce Arne Naess, a philosopher from Norway. He advanced a philosophy called deep ecology. In his book Ecology, community and Lifestyle (translated and edited by David Rothenberg, Cambridge Unuiversity Press, 1989), he classified enviromental protection into two types of eco-activities, that is, shallow ecology and deep ecology. The former is a campaign to fight agaisnt the pollution and exhaustion of natural resources. Its ultimate goal is the health and wealth of advanced, industrialized nations. The enviromental policy of goverments, or the international congress on enviromental development suggest this basic attitude. What should be noted is that shallow ecology believes in the progress of technology and insists that continuous economic growth can be campatible with enviromental preservation. In contrast with this, deep ecology suports the image of relational, holistic field, and regards all beings in the world as being within as organic union. This ecology replaces anthoropocentrism, wich see the enviroment only from the viewpoint of human beings, and tries instead to see the natural enviromental as it is in and of itself. The attitude of deep ecology pays respect to all life as irreplaceable and precious being.

Beyond a utilitarian view of things, it has a sense of “reverence for life itself“.


There are, however, two objections to his kind of ecology in Japan.


Is an objection against the popular opinion that expresses sharp criticism of the Western modernization which resulted ine the spread of enviromental pollution, and advocates instead a return to Oriental naturalism. This opinion seems objectionable since, from the standpoint of enviromental ecology, the misterious, and meditative Eastern thought will not help with concrete solutions to enviromental problems.


There is a more severe objection to consider. It claims that deep ecology is a romantic ideology that tries to keep up appearances under superficial slogans. For, while deep ecology professes “reverence for life itself“, it does not show an awareness of the fact that it is life itself that causes the boundless desire to live comfortably and conveniently. This ecology does not go beyond the insistence that western thought is one of confrontation and rule, whereas wastern thought about life and nature holds harmony and symbiosis in high esteem. Though it advocates aovercoming the dualism at the heart of Western modernization, and also a sense of unity with all natural beings, such slogan are, in the final analysis, to shallow.

For these reasons, the topic of enviromental philosophy must take up the many contradictions, compromises, troubles, bad, and good, that lurk within the depths of the dark side of life. Hence, enviromental philosophy should consider to what extent the expected representative of Japanese philosophy, the Kyoto School, is suitable in this respect, or not. Wherein lies the particular nature and meaning of the much spoken of Eastern traditional ethic of the Kyoto School’s philosophy? Especially when think of enviromental issues, where must the topic Japanese philosophy be taken up?

III – Deep Ecology and the Organic Vision

The standpoint at the basis of the Kyoto school has an extremely strong religious color, especially in relation to Buddhism, and it is here that one cosistent commonality can be seen. That commonality is its truly Eastern form of thought, i.e. ‘holistic monism‘, which is of a different nature than the Western form, especially wich regards to the dualism characteristic of the Latin Western tradition. This monism describes a transcendentally single principle which, while preserving to the end its transcendence, develops itself by arising within itself, is a logic which transforms all things from within, and is a whole from which all origination of development is derived. In other words, we can say that this principle is a logic of substance (ti) and function (yòung).

It should also be noted, however, that the ‘transcendent unity’ of this holistic monism, while we can say that it is transcendent, is not something externally transcendent. In this sense it can be contrasted to that which is featured by the Latin tradition of Western thought in its assumption of an external, personal, singular, divinity which stands outside of that which it transcends. The Eastern transcendent unity of which i speak is, to the utmost, an ‘internal transcendence’. Hence, the view of nature which can be seen here, as opposed to creation made from nothing ny a creator god, is, rather, an organic perspective, individual things, while relating to one another, preserve harmony, and nature is the existence of individual independent things as they are in and of themselves. This is, therefore, is a pantheistic view of nature which sees it technological view of nature forming the basis of modern ‘analytic thought‘, which approaches things as objects external to the knowing subject.

Nishida Kitaro often uses the phrase:

“mono-to natte-mi, mono-to natte-hataraku“

which could be translated as

“Look/see by becoming the thing, work/do by becoming the thing“.

This phrase means to see from within thething going within the thing, and it is here that Nishida sought the marrow of scientific spirit. That is to say, in distinction from the West’s objectively logical thoght, Nishida sought at the root of Eastern thougt a thinking that becomes the ‘thing‘ completely. In other words, to transcend the self, whilst standing in the existential world which envelops this self, and to stand on the realized plane wherein things come to appear to extent that the self is made nothing. In this sense , Nishida’s standpoint is a ‘thoroughgoing objectivism‘. Hence, with regards to Nishida’s philosophy, we can see that it cannot be thought in terms of a self and world, subject and enviroment, opposiionally constituted dualism. Rather, both terms are taken to be none other than contradictoty, dialectical (sõsoku-teki), and relational, and are determined ‘topologically‘ (ba sho-teki-ni). This means that, as opposed to the modern western way of looking at the world from the side of the self, Nishida’s philosophy tries to look at the side of the world, i. e. From the side side of things.

If we now re-think enviromental ethics, by taking up a position like Nishida’s, let us try to find a point that closely resembles the standpoint of deep ecology discussed above. Insofar as we speak of turning away from anthropocentrism, and towards the self-realization of a position which recognizes the value of all thing in and of themselves in organic and living nature, through the process introduced above of negating the self to look from the side of thing in a topological thinking, there may be many points of correspondence. If that is the case, then perhaps there is nothing to save Nishida’s philosophy from also being rejected as mere romanticism. However, Nishida’s philosophy from has inexhaustible depths to offer. We can see this depths in this notion of ‘oppositional correspondence (gyaku-taiõ)’ emphasized in his later years.

IV – Criticism and Deep Ecology

What Nishida tried to teach via his logic of oppositional correspondence is that “the self is itself insofar as it transcends it self”. To put this in other words, we can say that the self which turns its back to God is, just as it is, enveloped within God’s Love, or that the self full of desires which cannot cleanse itself of its sin, is, Just as it is, receiving the salvation of divine mercy. The paradoxal situation which Nishida describes is that while the individual self separate in relation to the absolute self, that individual self remains, at the same time and Just as it is, unfied with the absolute self in deep reality. In short, Nishida’s logic is none other than a “logic of immanence and transcendence”.

While transcendence remains utterly within the absolute Other, it is precisely there that the relative existent being is something utterly finite. While there is an absolute division between these two, in the depths they are unfied. The finite relative self, in the depths of itself, finds ‚transcendece‘, and it is here that such a kind os perspective opens towards the absolute Other. This problem of the ‘transcendental other‘ at the root of the relation between self and self constitutes the centre of Nishida’s thought. Hence, his is not ethics based on the everyday relatively mediated lateral relations of ‘I and thou’, ‘self and enviroment’. It is, rather, an ethics wich takes as its basis the vertically linear relation between the subjective self and the absolute Other.

Therefore, even if Nishida were to think of enviromental ethics, it seems it would be placed within the productive ‘vretical relation‘ of the absolute self, which is the source of that between self and self. That is to say, not an ethic which advocates a feeling of unity with fertile living nature by liberation from anthropocentrism, but rather a perspective used to become aware of the ‘desires‘ and ‘bad karma‘ hidden at the base of ‘life‘ which urge humans on towards the destruction of the enviromental.


I would now like to try and grasp this perspective towards the transcendent ‘absolut Other‘ based on the ethics of the Kyoto school, that is to say, the ethics of the ‘oppositional correspondence‘ as a kind of ‘trans-descendance‘. This term, is viewed as having been creatively carried on by the Kyoto school member Takeuchi Yoshinori’s philosophy, which is at the base of his philosophy of religion. Through an explanation of this term, the thorough-going awareness of the self’s finitude can be taken up as a weighty problem. According to Takeuchi, finite human beings cannot move to approach the absolute Other, this is, rather, cut off and left far behind. Without seeing infinity, it becomes covered over and hidden, unable to be seen. It is there that we have the failure of harmony and human misery. It is there the human being with tendency to fall into infinite.despair in its depths is grasped. If we speak from the basis, without running away from the ‘desires‘ which have destroyed the enviroment, without relation to the tension of the enviromental danger in the sphere of our lifestyle, but instead we will be made conscious of the loss of the given ‘suffering‘ of the self which cannot reform its present lifestyle from the ground up.

What comes to be seen here is not a transcendental upwardly directed transcendece, it is, rather, a downwardly directed degradation that seems to be opposite of transcendece, or what we may call a ‘trans-descendance‘. Such an awareness of finitude becomes the thorough-going form of no-self brought to shine forth and become the repentance by the infinte Other which sunk to the depths of the self. In this sense, Takeuchi’s religious philosophy becomes a ‘logic of awakening‘ and a ‘logic of convresion’. That is to say that philosophy has for its aim a perspective which has overcome the self’s sinful nature by focusing on it, and going over its origins. That is the way of being of transcendence as trans-descendance.

Moreover, this kind of going to the depths within a consciousness of the self’s finite nature is not simply a despairing sinking down. Quite the opposite, since the directionality of descending meets here a kind od leaping up in the opposing direction, or a ‘sublimating direction’ which cannot help but be awakened. Within the awareness of finitude nature, there is an escounter with the ‘infinitude Other’, and by this encounter, negation is turned into affirmation. That kind of transcendent way of being is what Takeuchi tries to show with the concept of trans-descendence. Taken as this kind of thing, trans-descendence is ‘that which constitutes the place of encounter with the other’.

Therefore, if the perspective which would take up the crisis of enviromental destruction would deal sincerely with the human beings driven into this situation by modernization, and bring them to endless repetance, then what is most necessary is an ethics based on a twinge of conscience. This menas to see the look of transcendental ‘absolute Other’, within the natural enviromental in peril of destruction, and to there hear call of the Infinite Other’. That is, the subjective and existential awareness of thical responsability pierced through with the sensitivity of indebtedness.