Hajime Tanabe

Hajime Tanabe (田辺 元, Tanabe Hajime, February 3, 1885 – April 29, 1962) was a Japanese philosopher of the Kyoto School. In 1947 he became a member of Japan Academy, in 1950 he received the Order of Cultural Merit, and in 1957 an honorary doctorate from University of Freiburg.

Hajime Tanabe
田辺 元
Tanabe Hajime.jpg
Born(1885-02-03)February 3, 1885
DiedApril 29, 1962(1962-04-29) (aged 77)
Nationality Japanese
Alma materTokyo Imperial University
Notable work
Philosophy as Metanoetics
AwardsOrder of Culture
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionJapanese philosophy
Main interests
Philosophy of religion, ontology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, ethics, metaphysics
Notable ideas

Tanabe was a founding member of what has become known in the West as the Kyoto School, alongside notable philosophers Kitaro Nishida and Keiji Nishitani.[1][2] While the latter philosophers have received recognition in Western academia, Tanabe's writing has received less notice. Nishida, the figure who is considered the originator of this School, was Tanabe's teacher.[3] Philosophers of this School received opprobrium for their perceived active role in the Japanese militarist regime. However, their participation in resistance to the political environment has been documented widely by James Heisig. Tanabe especially has fallen under scrutiny for his political activities, though scholarship[citation needed] provides some mitigation of the harsher stigmata surrounding his career.


Tanabe was born on February 3, 1885 in Tokyo to a household devoted to education. His father was principal at Kaisei Academy and was also a scholar of Confucius, whose teachings may have influenced Tanabe's philosophical and religious thought.[4] Tanabe enrolled at Tokyo Imperial University, first as a mathematics student before moving to literature and philosophy.[5] After graduation, he worked as a lecturer at Tohoku University and taught English at Kaisei Academy.[6]

On Kitarō Nishida's invitation, Tanabe accepted the position of associate professor at Kyoto University in 1919. He spent two years studying in Germany, at Berlin University and then the University of Freiburg from 1922 to 1924. At Freiburg, he studied under Edmund Husserl and was tutored by the young Martin Heidegger. The influence of these two philosophers stayed with Tanabe throughout his life, and much of his thought exhibits the assumptions and terminology of ontology.

After Nishida's retirement from teaching, Tanabe succeeded him. Though they began as friends, and shared several philosophical concepts such as Absolute Nothingness, Tanabe became increasingly critical of Nishida's philosophy. Many of Tanabe's writings after Nishida left the university obliquely attacked the latter's philosophy.

During the Japanese expansion and war effort, Tanabe worked with Nishida and others to maintain the right for free academic expression. Though he criticized the Nazi-inspired letter of Heidegger,[clarification needed] Tanabe himself was caught up in the Japanese war effort, and his letters to students going off to war exhibit many of the same terms and ideology used by the reigning military powers. Even more damning are his essays written in defense of Japanese racial and state superiority, exploiting his theory of the Logic of Species to herald and abet the militaristic ideology.[7] This proposed dialectic argued that every contradictory opposition is to be mediated by a third term in the same manner a species mediates a genus and an individual.[8]

During the war years, however, Tanabe wrote and published little, perhaps reflecting the moral turmoil that he attests to in his monumental post-war work, Philosophy as Metanoetics. The work is framed as a confession of repentance (metanoia) for his support of the war effort. It purports to show a philosophical way to overcome philosophy itself, which suggests[citation needed] that traditional Western thought contained seeds of the ideological framework that led to World War II.

His activities, and the actions of Japan as a whole, haunted Tanabe for the rest of his life. In 1951, he writes:

But as the tensions of World War II grew ever more fierce and with it the regulation of thinking, weak-willed as I was, I found myself unable to resist and could not but yield to some degree to the prevalent mood, which is a shame deeper than I can bear. The already blind militarism had led so many of our graduates precipitously to the battlefields; among the fallen were more than ten from philosophy, for which I feel the height of responsibility and remorse. I can only lower my head and earnestly lament my sin.[9]

He lived for another eleven years after writing these words, dying in 1962 in Kita-Karuizawa, Japan.


As James Heisig and others note, Tanabe and other members of the Kyoto School accepted the Western philosophical tradition stemming from the Greeks. This tradition attempts to explain the meaning of human experience in rational terms. This sets them apart from other Eastern writers who, though thinking about what life means and how best to live a good life, spoke in religious terms.

Although the Kyoto School used Western philosophical terminology and rational exploration, they made these items serve the purpose of presenting a unique vision of reality from within their cultural heritage. Specifically, they could enrich a discussion of the ultimate nature of reality using the experience and thought of various forms of Buddhism like Zen and Pure Land, but embedded in an analysis that calls upon conceptual tools forged and honed in western philosophy by thinkers ranging from Plato to Descartes to Heidegger.[10]

Tanabe's own contribution to this dialog between Eastern and Western philosophy ultimately sets him apart from the other members of the Kyoto School. His radical critique of philosophical reason and method, while stemming from Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard, which emerges in his work Philosophy as Metanoetics, easily sets him as a major thinker with a unique position on perennial philosophical questions. Some commentators, for example, suggest that Tanabe's work in metanoetics is a forerunner of deconstruction.[11]

Tanabe engaged with philosophers of Continental philosophy, especially Existentialism. His work is often a dialogue with philosophers like Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Because of his engaging these thinkers, especially the first two, Tanabe's thought has been characterized as Existentialist, though Makoto Ozaki writes that Tanabe preferred the terms "existentialist philosophy of history", "historical existentialism", or "existential metaphysics of history".[12] In his masterpiece, Philosophy as Metanoetics, Tanabe characterized his work as "philosophy that is not a philosophy", foreshadowing various approaches to thinking by deconstructionists.

Like other Existentialists, Tanabe emphasizes the importance of philosophy as being meaning; that is, what humans think about and desire is finding a meaning to life and death. In company with the other members of the Kyoto School, Tanabe believed that the foremost problem facing humans in the modern world is the lack of meaning and its consequent Nihilism. Jean-Paul Sartre, following Kierkegaard in his Concept of Anxiety, was keen to characterize this as Nothingness. Heidegger, as well, appropriated the notion of Nothingness in his later writings.

The Kyoto School philosophers believed that their contribution to this discussion of Nihilism centered on the Buddhist-inspired concept of nothingness, aligned with its correlate Sunyata. Tanabe and Nishida attempted to distinguish their philosophical use of this concept, however, by calling it Absolute Nothingness. This term differentiates it from the Buddhist religious concept of nothingness, as well as underlines the historical aspects of human existence that they believed Buddhism does not capture.

Tanabe disagreed with Nishida and Nishitani on the meaning of Absolute Nothingness, emphasizing the practical, historical aspect over what he termed the latter's intuitionism. By this, Tanabe hoped to emphasize the working of Nothingness in time, as opposed to an eternal Now. He also wished to center the human experience in action rather than contemplation, since he thought that action embodies a concern for ethics whereas contemplation ultimately disregards this, resulting in a form of Monism, after the mold of Plotinus and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.[13] That is, echoing Kierkegaard's undermining in Philosophical Fragments of systematic philosophy from Plato to Baruch Spinoza to Hegel,[14] Tanabe questions whether there is an aboriginal condition of preexisting awareness that can or must be regained to attain enlightenment.[15]

Tanabe's insistence on this point is not simply philosophical and instead points again to his insistence that the proper mode of human being is action, especially ethics. However, he is critical of the notion of a pre-existing condition of enlightenment because he accepts the Kantian notion of radical evil, wherein humans exhibit an ineluctable propensity to act against their own desires for the good and instead perpetrate evil.[16][17]


Demonstration of ChristianityEdit

Tanabe's "Demonstration of Christianity" presents religion as a cultural entity in tension with the existential meaning that religion plays in individual lives. Tanabe uses the terms genus to represent the universality of form that all entities strive for, contrasting them with the stable, though ossified form they can become as species as social systems.

Tanabe contraposes Christianity and Christ, represented here as the opposition between Paul and Jesus. Jesus, in Tanabe's terms, is a historical being who manifests the action of Absolute Nothingness, or God understood in non-theistic terms. God is beyond all conceptuality and human thinking, which can only occur in terms of self-identity, or Being. God becomes, as manifested in human actions, though God can never be reduced to being, or self-identity.

For Tanabe, humans have the potential to realize compassionate divinity, Nothingness, through continual death and resurrection, by way of seeing their nothingness. Tanabe believes that the Christian Incarnation narrative is important for explaining the nature of reality, since he believed Absolute Nothingness becoming human exemplifies the true nature of the divine, as well as exemplar to realization of human being in relationship to divinity. Jesus signifies this process in a most pure form, thereby setting an example for others to follow.

Ultimately, Tanabe chooses philosophy over religion, since the latter tends toward socialization and domestication of the original impulse of the religious action. Philosophy, understood as metanoetics, always remains open to questions and the possibility self-delusion in the form of radical evil. Therefore, Tanabe's statement is a philosophy of religion.


Primary sourcesEdit

Tanabe Hajime, "Demonstration of Christianity", in Introduction to the philosophy of Tanabe: According to the English translation of the seventh chapter of the demonstratio of Christianity, trans. Makoto Ozaki, Rodopi Bv Editions, 1990.

_____, "The Logic of the Species as Dialectics," trans. David Dilworth and Taira Sato, in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 24, No. 3 (1969): 273–88.

_____, "Kant's Theory of Freedom," trans. Takeshi Morisato with Cody Staton in "An Essay on Kant’s Theory of Freedom from the Early Works of Tanabe Hajime" in Comparative and Continental Philosophy, vol. 5 (2013): 150–156.

_____, "On the Universal," trans. Takeshi Morisato with Timothy Burns, in "Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Deductive Reasoning: The Relation of the Universal and the Particular in Early Works of Tanabe Hajime" in Comparative and Continental Philosophy, vol. 5 (2013): 124–149.

_____, Philosophy as Metanoetics, trans. Takeuchi Yoshinori, Valdo Viglielmo, and James W. Heisig, University of California Press, 1987.

Secondary sourcesEdit

Books and thesesEdit

Adams, Robert William, "The feasibility of the philosophical in early Taishô Japan: Nishida Kitarô and Tanabe Hajime." PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1991.

Dilworth, David A. and Valdo H. Viglielmo (translators and editors); with Agustin Jacinto Zavala, Sourcebook for modern Japanese philosophy : selected documents, Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1998.

Fredericks, James L., "Alterity in the thought of Tanabe Hajime and Karl Rahner." PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1988.

Heisig, James W., "Philosophers of Nothingness: An Essay on the Kyoto School", Nanzan Library of Asian Religion and Culture, University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Ozaki, Makoto, Individuum, Society, Humankind: The Triadic Logic of Species According to Hajime Tanabe (Brill's Japanese Studies Library), Brill Academic Publishers (April 2001), ISBN 90-04-12118-8, ISBN 978-90-04-12118-8.

Pattison, George, Agnosis: Theology in the Void, Palgrave Macmillan (February 1997), ISBN 0-312-16206-5. ISBN 978-0-312-16206-1.

Unno, Taitetsu, and James W. Heisig (Editor), The Religious Philosophy of Tanabe Hajime: The Metanoetic Imperative (Nanzan Studies in Religion and Culture), Asian Humanities Press (June 1990), ISBN 0-89581-872-8, ISBN 978-0-89581-872-0 .


Cestari, Matteo, "Between Emptiness and Absolute Nothingness: Reflections on Negation in Nishida and Buddhism."

Ruiz, F. Perez, "Philosophy in Present-day Japan," in Monumenta Nipponica Vol. 24, No. 1/2 (1969), pp. 137–168.

Heisig, James W., "Tanabe's Logic of the Specific and the Critique of the Global Village," in Eastern Buddhist, Autumn95, Vol. 28 Issue 2, p198.

Sakai, Naoki, "SUBJECT AND SUBSTRATUM : ON JAPANESE IMPERIAL NATIONALISM," in Cultural Studies; Jul2000, Vol. 14 Issue 3/4, p462-530 (AN 4052788)

Viglielmo, V. H., "An Introduction to Tanabe Hajime's Existence, Love, and Praxis" in Wandel zwischen den Welten: Festschrift für Johannes Laube, (Peter Lang, 2003) pp. 781–797.

Waldenfels, Hans, "Absolute Nothingness. Preliminary Considerations on a Central Notion in the Philosophy of Nishida Kitaro and the Kyoto School," in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 21, No. 3/4 (1966), 354–391.

Williams, David, "In defence of the Kyoto School: reflections on philosophy, the Pacific War and the making of a post-White world," in Japan Forum, Sep2000, Vol. 12 Issue 2, 143-156.

Online linksEdit

Bracken, Joseph, "Absolute Nothingness and The Divine Matrix"

Buri, Fritz, "Hajime Tanabe, Philosophy of repentance and Dialectic of Death," in The Buddha-Christ as the Lord of the True Self: The Religious Philosophy of the Kyoto School, trns. by Harold H. Oliver, Mercer University Press, 1997, pp. 65–94. [via Google Books]

Driscoll, Mark, "Apoco-elliptic Thought in Modern Japanese Philosophy"

Hajime, Tanabe, Jitsuzon to ai to jissen (Existence, Love, and Praxis) [1947], (from vol. 9, Complete Works of Tanabe Hajime), Tokyo, Chikuma Shobô, 1963. A partial translation by V. H. Viglielmo [1], for which the Preface, Chapter One, and translator's introductory essay are published in “An Introduction to Tanabe Hajime’s Existence, Love, and Praxis." in Wandel zwischen den Welten: Festschrift für Johannes Laube, Peter Lang, 2003.

Mierzejewska, Anna, "The Buddhist Inspiration of The Concept of Faith in The Philosophy of Hajime Tanabe," in SILVA IAPONICARUM, FASC. VI・第六号, WINTER ・冬 2005, pp. 18–37.

Odin, Steve, "Hajime Tanabe," in The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism, pp. 114–117.

Ozaki, Makoto, "On Tanabe's Logic of Species," in ΠΑΔΕΙΑ: Comparative Philosophy.

Takahane, Yosuke, "Absolute Nothingness and Metanoetics,".

Wattles, Jeffrey, "Dialectic and Religious Experience in Tanabe Hajime's Philosophy as Metanoetics"

———. Philosophy and Spiritual Experience: The case of a Japanese Shin Buddhist

Yata, Ryosho. "An Examination of the Historical Development of the Concept of Two Aspects of Deep Belief, Part 1".


  1. ^ Davis, Bret W. (2019), Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), "The Kyoto School", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-06-24
  2. ^ Flanagan, Damian (2019-02-09). "'Philosophers of Nothingness': Philosophy built on quietly gripping human dramas". The Japan Times. Retrieved 2020-06-24.
  3. ^ Shaw, Kendrick. "Zen Buddhism: The Kyoto School". University at Buffalo. Retrieved June 25, 2010.
  4. ^ Ozaki, Makoto. Introduction to the Philosophy of Tanabe. p. 1.
  5. ^ Ozaki, Makoto (2001). Individuum, Society, Humankind: The Triadic Logic of Species According to Hajime Tanabe. Leiden: BRILL. p. 2. ISBN 978-90-04-12118-8.
  6. ^ Yusa, Michiko (2002). Zen and Philosophy: An Intellectual Biography of Nishida Kitarô. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. p. 151. ISBN 978-0-8248-2459-4.
  7. ^ Cf. Hubbard, Jamie, 'Tanabe's Metanoetics: The Failure of Absolutism,' in Unno and Heisig, p. 362.
  8. ^ Embree, Lester (2013). Encyclopedia of Phenomenology. Dordrecht: Springer Science & Business Media. p. 368. ISBN 9789048144297.
  9. ^ Quoted in Heisig, James, 'The Self That Is Not a self,' in Unno and Heisig, p. 284.
  10. ^ Cestari, Matteo, "Between Emptiness and Absolute Nothingness: Reflections on Negation in Nishida and Buddhism," p. 323.
  11. ^ John C. Maraldo, 'Metanoetics and the Crisis of Reason: Tanabe, Nishida, and Contemporary Philosophy,' in Unno, pp. 235-255
  12. ^ Ozaki. p. 193. Missing or empty |title= (help) By these terms, Ozaki paraphrases Tanabe as meaning "a synthesis of relativistic historicism and individualistic existentialism".
  13. ^ Fredericks, James, 'Philosophy as Metanoetics', in Unno and Heisig, pp. 59-60.
  14. ^ Tanabe's stance on system-building in philosophy is an open question. Heisig, for example, notes the systematic approach that Tanabe takes to philosophy. Tanabe's writings in the philosophy of science often give the appearance of identifying basic metaphysical principles which, combined with Absolute Nothingness, reveal something akin to Aristotle's axioms, the guiding archetypes for matter and thought.
  15. ^ Fredericks, pp. 65-66.
  16. ^ Laube, Johannes, "The Way of Metanoia and the Way of the Bodhisattva," in Unno and Heisig, pp. 318 and 321.
  17. ^ For critique, see Hubbard, Jamie, "Tanabe's Metanoetics: The Failure of Absolutism," in Unno and Heisig, p. 368 and pp. 374-376.