Friday, April 27, 2012
Flower-place: Heisig, Nishida and Zeami
The plant on my window ledge
That I planted last autumn
Will bloom in spring
But there will be no body there
To see it
This is, literally, too sad! I will come back to this point at the end.
Yesterday I attempted to read two excellent articles by James Heisig, (Heisig, 2004 and 2010, both online) the renowned author of two of the most famous books for students of Japanese, "Learning the Kanji," and professor of philosophy at the Nanzan Institute of Religion and Culture. I am of course academically a million miles away, and yet I feel jealous. Fortunately, I was consoled by the fact that 'there is always someone above the person above' as they say in Japan, and in this case, that would be the subject of these two papers: Nishida Kitaro. Both papers were very interesting, very good introductions to Nishida but rather critical.
In the first, (Heisig, 2004) after expressing his doubts regarding the confidence with which Nishida expressed his ideas, professor Heisig likens Nishida's thought to medieval European mysticism, a genre of thought that he seems to feel is something from which we need to move on.
Heisig writes, "If I had to focus these general impressions on a single idea running through Nishida’s writings, it would be his almost superstitious belief in the fundamental unity of consciousness and reality: a belief never questioned, never proved, never even argued, and yet never very far from his mind. "
Heisig claims that like medieval European thinkers, such as Eckhart and Cusanus, Nishida located the infinite in the finite world, in the experience of a sphere without edges, a single world, or mental mirror, both terms given in the Latin of medieval scholars, ”unus mundus” and ”speculum mentis” respectively. Secondly Nishida finds a unity in the “identity of absolute contradictories,” which is shared by medieval philosophers though in a different way, the latter by appeal to an infinite god. Finally Heisig questions the purity of Nishida's pure experience, wondering I think whether from with the god of the medieval mystics it has yet to be distilled. Wow. I did not really understand, or agree, but I was very impressed.
Following on from this, I feel, in the second paper Heisig questions how Nishida's place, referred to several times as a mirror, can act as a unifying principle rather than the the 'blooming buzzing confusion' found in William James. Heisig complains (quite rightly in a way I think) about the lack of scent or smell in Nishida's 'place' despite the fact that it is found in Zeami's notion of "flower" which grows from the same Buddhist ground. Heisig finds Nishida's logic of place which "relies throughout on images of space and sight" (p.), "thanks the primacy given [to the] sense of sight."(p.)
I am just loving Heisig's version of Nishida and agree with everything that I understand, except the rather harsh criticism. I am looking forward to reading lots more Nishida. I was inspired to make a picture of a blooming, buzzing confusion, superimposed with Zeami's Kanji for flower, which I have called flower-place. I think that Heisig was spot on to point out the parallel between Zeami's flower, Nishida's place, and that both have something to do with an appreciation of Kanji - which Heisig has in abundance.
When reading the second paper, I was kind of trembling with excitement (!) because I thought that Heisig would come to the same conclusion as my own: that the unifying principle in Nishida's logic basho is indeed supplied by Zeami in riken no ken(Yusa, 1987), or the ability to see oneself. Zeami claimed that practising Noh allowed the actor to see himself from the perspective of the audience. In Heisig's discussion of Nishida's "mirror" it comes across as all blooming, and confusing, but perhaps that is to forget that Nishida's place is a flower-place: the sort of "mental mirror" that no only reflects but is seen, and means something.
Returning to the blooming confusion of William James, the Western answer to the provision of unity to the experience is as provided by Mead(1967), through the action of the rational intellect, or more precisely through speech. Speech enables us to express ourselves and hear, and understand, that which we express from the point of view of others, and thus to have meaning. Meaning is found in this our ability to hear from the point of view of others, ever more universal, in the sound box of our mind. Mead rejected the idea that humans could reflect visually without the aid of a mirror, and says that such visual introspection, and meaning making is limited to actors.
"Is is only the actor who uses bodily expressions as a means of looking as he wants others to feel. He gets a response which reveals to him how he looks by continually using a mirror. He registers anger, he registers love, he registers this that or the other attitude and he examines himself in a glass to see how he does so." Mead, 1987, p66-67)
In my own very limited research (Heine, Takemoto, Moskalenko, Lasaleta, & Henrich, 2008) we have shown that that the ability to see oneself is not limited to actors, Noh or otherwise, but to Japanese in general. A seminar student found that this ability was particularly prevalent among those who had mastered a Japanese martial art.
Many Western semioticians and linguists (Barthes, 1977; DeFrancis, 1989; McDonald, 2009; Unger, 1990) however, are quite categorical or even vehement in their dismissal of meaning in vision. They claim that for any meaning that is more than rudimentary, visual meanings have to be pass through the vector of spoken words. This debate has become positively passionate (see Lurie, 2006) in the field of sinology on the part of those that critique the "ideographic myth" (see Hansen, 1993).
In the Chinese language each Kanji has a different sound, so the phono-centric myth is more plausible. Japanese is perhaps alone in using Kanji alongside multiple readings. I do not know how Zeami pronounced the Kanji in the image above, "ka" or "hana," and I don't say either when I see it, but I do know that he used it to mean something like the background of the image. So when sinologists like DeFrancis (1989) claim that it visual meaning is "unthinkable," what I think that they mean is that they can not think see those characters from the viewpoint of another, and can not integrate them with the phonetic medium of their thought, their selfing (McAdams, 1997). For those in this mode of self, there can be no meaning, and no unifying principle in the visual.
It is this ability to simulate the consciousness of another that allows one to mean to oneself and create a self for oneself. At the limit the self may be expunged, but the ability to see or understand, the God part of the equation, is only subsequently expunged.
The important point is that it comes with practice. Language does not come with a mirror built into it, and nor are Japanese born with a mirror in their heads. Westerners learn to "express themselves," define their objectives, debate, and think objectively by thinking about how others would hear their expressions, definitions and oration. Japanese people, through different kinds of practice and attention learn to see from the eyes of the world. These different types of practice give rise to different types of unifying ability, different kinds of "God." Not that the Japanese do "God" exactly. In Japan the notion of God is more often replaced especially these days with the notion of loving 'ancestors' those by whom we have been predeceased.
I like to think that in a way Nishida's wife saw his flower when it came into bloom.
Barthes, R. (1977). Elements of Semiology. Hill and Wang.
Hansen, C. (1993). Chinese Ideographs and Western Ideas. The Journal of Asian Studies, 52(02), 373–399. doi:10.2307/2059652
Heine, S. J., Takemoto, T., Moskalenko, S., Lasaleta, J., & Henrich, J. (2008). Mirrors in the head: Cultural variation in objective self-awareness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 879–887. doi:10.2307/2059652 http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/Website/Papers/Mirrors-pspb4%5B1%5D.pdf
Heisig, J. W. (2004). Nishida’s medieval bent. Japanese journal of religious studies, 55–72. nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/publications/jjrs/pdf/674.pdf
Heisig, J. W. (2010). Nishida’s Deodorized Basho and the Scent of Zeami’s Flower. Frontiers of Japanese Philosophy 7: Classical Japanese Philosophy (p. 247–73). Nagoya: Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture. Retrieved from nirc.nanzan-u.ac.jp/staff/jheisig/pdf/Nishida%20and%20Zea...
Lurie, D. B. (2006). Language, writing, and disciplinarity in the Critique of the ‘“Ideographic Myth”’: Some proleptical remarks. Language & Communication, (26), 25–269. Retrieved from www.columbia.edu/~dbl11/Lurie-LangWritingDisc.pdf
Mead, G. H. (1967). Mind, self, and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist (Vol. 1). The University of Chicago Press.
McAdams, D. P. (1997). The case for unity in the (post) modern self. Self and identity: Fundamental issues, 1, 46–78.
McDonald, E. (2009). Getting over the Walls of Discourse: ‘Character Fetishization’ in Chinese Studies. The Journal of Asian Studies, 68(04), 1189. doi:10.1017/S0021911809990763
Unger, J. M. (1990). The Very Idea. The Notion of Ideogram in China and Japan. Monumenta Nipponica, 45(4), 391–411.
Yusa, M. (1987). Riken no Ken. Zeami’s Theory of Acting and Theatrical Appreciation. Monumenta Nipponica, 42(3), 331–345.
This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.