‘Ontology of Production: Three Essays’ reviewed by David Baronov

Ontology of Production: Three Essays

Translated by William Haver, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2012. 208pp., £16.99 pb
ISBN 9780822351801

Reviewed by David Baronov

About the reviewer

David Baronov is Professor Sociology at St John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. …


Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) occupies a major position in twentieth century Japanese philosophy. (Note that Nishida is a surname.) Nonetheless, aside from his first major work, An Inquiry Into the Good (1911), English translations of his prodigious oeuvre are scant. Western scholars tend to emphasize the syncretic nature of Nishida’s work, combining Western philosophy with Buddhist themes. Indeed, Nishida moves with remarkable felicity between Buddhist scholarship, the ancient Greeks, seventeenth century rationalism, and German idealism. Of particular interest in the three essays translated by William Haver in Ontology of Production, however, is Nishida’s grappling with debates in Japan in the 1930s arising from German idealism, including elements from the early and later Marx. These essays – “Expressive Activity” (1925), “The Standpoint of Active Intuition” (1935), and “Human Being” (1938) – introduce and develop myriad conceptual lines of argument and figuration that intertwine and complement each other along an evolving arc of intellectual inquiry over two decades. Thus, while the final essay, “Human Being,” most explicitly engages Marx’s ontology of production, each essay contributes to Nishida’s persistent enquiries into related matters. For those new to Nishida, William Haver opens Ontology of Production with a critical and provocative introductory essay that deftly places these essays in the broader contexts of Nishida’s life works, Western philosophy, the Japanese historical and philosophical scene, and Marx’s ontology of production.

The nature of Nishida’s work obliges me to begin this review with a number of preliminary remarks. While the three essays are thematically and conceptually connected, there is no single guiding thesis or argument integrating them. Hence, broadly understood, this review focuses on the thematic coherence and conceptual integrity of Nishida’s work as a whole. In addition, both Nishida’s style of writing as well as the general thrust of his ideas suggest a sense of transience, incompleteness, and concepts that are more in-formation than striving towards conclusion and completeness. As a consequence, his manner of expression and prose style often captures as much as that which is explicitly put forward and the abbreviated nature of a book review tends to lose much of Nishida’s nuance, calculated ambiguity, and layered depth. There are three aspects of Nishida’s prose style to consider. First, there is an expansive quality to Nishida’s thinking that continually asks the reader to examine (and re-examine) a concept at its limit in a manner that opens a concept to further – though not necessarily alternative – interpretations and that concretizes actual instances of a concept. Second, there is an imbricated quality to Nishida’s prose that mirrors the nonlinear movement of his conceptual lines of argument and figuration. Consequently, each path of inquiry both anticipates that which follows and further excavates (and often undoes) that which has preceded. A present thought is always contingent on that which has passed and is framed in a manner that is open to future developments. This leads to a third quality of Nishida’s prose, its at times halting, exploratory nature. There is a stark, inherently provisional and partial sensibility built into Nishida’s use of language that again, follows from the nature of the underlying ideas. To follow Nishida’s thoughts (and his manner of expression) it is thus necessary to hold in view both a given idea and how he is framing his inquiry.

What then comprise the principle contributions of these essays? Insofar as they have been lifted from a vast collection of writings, we begin with the translator’s rationale for their selection. Haver writes that these essays, “contribute to discussions and debates concerning the vicissitudes, pertinence, and possibilities of Marx’s concept of production, in an attempt to take up once again the sense of the concept; the essays are offered in an attempt to make sense of the concept, to participate in the making-of-sense that the concept, as such, is” (5 italics in original). To this end, Haver further grounds his reading of Nishida, in part, in Marx’s first thesis on Feuerbach. To wit,

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism—that of Feuerbach included—is that the thing [Gegenstand], reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object [Objekt] or of intuition [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, it happened that the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was developed by idealism—but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the objects of thought, but he does not conceive human activity itself as objective [gegenständliche] activity.

The explicit links between “Human Being” and the first thesis are plain to see. Furthermore, insofar as an unraveling of the subject/object dualism (and its myriad incarnations) via direct and indirect allusions to nineteenth century German idealism occupies a central place across Nishida’s work, framing these essays vis-à-vis this work of Marx is more than plausible. A number of Nishida’s core notions – such as “expressive activity,” “seeing is acting,” “active intuition,” and “the absolute contradiction of self-identity” – make evident that just as Marx attempted to recover sensuous human activity from a partial and one-sided materialism, Nishida sought to make possible an analysis of human beings as active and self-formative agents in (and of) “the world of historical actuality” contra the Kantian “standpoint of the logic of the cognitive epistemological object.”

Let us then consider the content of these essays. “Expressive Activity” explores language as an inherent feature of what it means to be a human being vis-à-vis certain concrete historical conditions. Through language, Nishida suggests, there is a mutual determination of the ideal and the material and he considers how each is necessarily implicated in how language comes-to-be and how it is deployed. The use of language thus becomes a formative, social act – hence, expression is treated as an “activity.” This notion of language leads Nishida into an extended consideration of the “unity of consciousness” to account for the activity of knowing between subject and object that is implied by language. Importantly, for Nishida, consciousness does not precede the material world. “All that is seen as the objective world vis-à-vis subjective consciousness subsumes within itself the activity of our consciousness and is necessarily that which causes our consciousness to come into being” (52). Subject and object mutually determine each other and language, as an expressive activity, constitutes this. Put succinctly, “all expressive activity is possible through the movement of flesh” (60). This notion of expressive activity as formative (and corporeal) activity – and of the subject as both ideal and material – evolves and remains foundational in Nishida’s later essays.

Nishida extends his analysis of expressive activity in “The Standpoint of Active Intuition” to explore cognition – or “active intuition” – cast as a mode of active appropriation. For Nishida, active intuition is a requisite condition for the appropriation of objects and thus for consummation within production, understood as the appropriation of nature (and of labor power). The path followed by Nishida in this regard allows him to re-introduce and further develop his interpretation of the One and the Many, singularity, “the absolute contradiction of self-identity,” and “the continuity of discontinuity.” These notions are taken up, in part, in reply to depictions of a priori, transcendental categories (such as, space and time) as conditions for knowledge of the world and it is Nishida’s consideration of a purported subject/object dualism within sensuous, human activity (and active intuition) that again returns his analysis to Marx’s first thesis on Feuerbach. That there is a One is only by virtue of there being Many and vice versa. The One is neither some unity that precedes separation into the Many nor (in a Hegelian sense) the One to which the Many are destined to return. Thus, the Many is neither a One in its divisions nor, less still, a One in its dissolution. Each subsists in necessary contradictory relation with the other. Singularity, therefore, cannot be deduced from the universal. A singularity is its own determination (or cause) and hence autonomous. At the same time, they are necessarily determined in relation to that which they are not – other singularities and the universal (the One). This Nishida refers to as an expression of “the absolute contradiction of self-identity,” insofar as singularities are only conceivable as that which they are not. Nishida also characterizes this as the mediation of the continuity of discontinuity, insofar as, “What is called the external world appears from the world of the continuity of discontinuity in its self-determination” (69). For Nishida, singularity as the absolute contradiction of self-identity thus makes possible the self-determination of the dialectical world – and, consequently, the movement “from the made to the making” via the self-transforming self. This pre-stages his concept of human beings.

In “Human Being” Nishida locates his inquiry into the essence of human beings in production as the loci for a possible supersession of the present human condition, or the eternal now. Ultimately, for Nishida, the essence of human beings – as self-creative, self-transformative shutai in a historical-dialectical world – is to be irreducible to any overarching, teleological essence. Two notions shaping this formulation are “from the made to the making” and shutai. All humanity occupies some historical-dialectical world. To move “from the made to the making” – a movement from the past to the future – requires a form of production that is neither a replication of the present material conditions nor an extension of these conditions via the execution of a plan that is grounded in, and thus cannot go beyond, the present conditions. Such forms of production are creative (and anarchic) rather than reproductive. Nishida locates the fundamental dilemma for such production in the incapacity of singularities (the Many or the self) to break from the grip of the universal (the One), as each remains locked in a relationship of mutual determination. “The world of the mutual determination of singularities is a world that itself determines itself in the manner of internal-qua-external and external-qua-internal. And that is the world that itself determines itself in the activity of making-form; it is the world that itself gives form to itself” (157). Nishida refers to the active subject of “creative” production as shutai. It is human beings, acting as shutai, who are the only agents within the historical-dialectical world capable of transformative (revolutionary) change. Importantly, each shutai comes-to-be through production (through praxis) and does not precede production. Nishida contrasts shutai – as human subjects – with Kant’s transcendental, cognitive (hence a priori) human subjects. By contrast, Nishida holds that, “Cognition itself belongs to the activity of historical form-making” (162). The creative-transformative role of shutai ultimately turns on Nishida’s provocative depiction of the absolutely dialectical world. “[W]hat is given is given as what is made; it must be a world continually moving from the made to the making; it must be a world in which the subject [shutai] continually makes the milieu, and the milieu continually makes the subject. We therefore speak of mediation without that which mediates; we speak of the world as absolutely dialectical” (157).

Ontology of Production promises a remarkable – albeit challenging – journey that is well worth the pursuit. One must, however, be prepared for both a great many detours and an elusive and uncertain destination, the promise of which always lies off in the distance.

2 October 2012

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