by Yuko Ishihara

We human beings always find ourselves in a specific place. It may be our physical surroundings, cultural context, social environment, historical epoch, etc. It is because we are open to these various places that we can interact with other people and things around us. “Being in a place” (basho ni oitearu, 場所に於いてある) is therefore constitutive of our being. This was one of the basic insights highlighted by the modern Japanese philosopher and founder of the Kyoto School tradition, Nishida Kitarō (西田幾多郎, 1870–1945). A similar idea that is perhaps more well-known is Martin Heidegger’s idea of Being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein). What Heidegger here calls “the world” is the ultimate place of all places that we find ourselves in. Ueda Shizuteru (上田閑照, 1926–2019), a third-generation Kyoto School philosopher, takes Nishida and Heidegger’s idea that “place” and “world” are constitutive of our being and develops this further by suggesting that the place we find ourselves in is ultimately twofold. According to Ueda, the world is the all-encompassing space of meaning. As such, it is finite and bounded. If this is the case, however, we must be able to ask the wherein of the world: Where is the world “placed in?” Yet, we cannot determine the “where” of such a place since doing so would make it another place in the world. Accordingly, Ueda calls this place, “unconfined openness” (限りない開け, kagirinai hirake) or, adopting a Buddhist term, “hollow expanse” (虚空, kokū). Insofar as the world is a finite whole that is “placed in” the hollow expanse, the place we find ourselves is ultimately twofold. Ueda denotes this twofoldness as “world/hollow expanse” (世界/虚空, sekai/ kokū). We are Being-in-the-world-in-the-hollow-expanse. He calls this the “twofold-being-in-the-world” (二重世界内存在, nijyū sekai nai sonzai).[1]

The idea that the ultimate place we find ourselves in is “groundless” can be found in the work of various thinkers before Ueda, including that of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) as well as Nishida’s disciple and Ueda’s teacher, Nishitani Keiji (西谷啓治, 1900–1990). However, while these thinkers had various influences on his thought, Ueda’s idea of the twofoldness of the world can be traced back to Nishida’s idea of basho, or place in Japanese. In an attempt to seek the ground of our knowledge and reality, Nishida develops a threefold theory of basho consisting of what he calls “the place of being(s)” (有の場所, u no basho), “the place of relative nothingness” (相対無の場所, sōtaimu no basho), and “the place of absolute nothingness” (絶対無の場所, zettai mu no basho).[2] For Nishida, our knowledge is ultimately grounded in “the place of absolute nothingness” where there is no longer the knower and known or subject-object distinction, and the self has emptied itself and has become absolutely no-thing. While Ueda’s idea of the twofold-being-in-the-world is not so much an epistemological notion as it is ontological, Ueda takes insight from Nishida’s idea that objects in the world (“the place of being(s)”) ultimately find their ground in the groundless ground (“the place of absolute nothingness”).

Now, to say that we live in a twofold world is not to say that we somehow live in two discrete places, the world and the hollow expanse. Ueda often speaks of the world as the “text” and its “margins” and “space between the lines” as the unconfined openness. The “world-text,” he tells us, has “infinite margins and a bottomless space between the lines.”[3] The metaphor suggests that instead of being another place juxtaposed with the world, the hollow expanse is a deeper dimension of the world that provides the world various layers and depth. This dimension, however, is by its nature invisible. And thus, for the most part, the twofoldness of the world is forgotten and we live in a world that has become one-dimensional.

                What implications does the twofold-being-in-the-world have for the self? Ueda tells us that because we dwell in a twofold world, the self is fundamentally “problematic” and “in a state of unrest.”[4] Ueda calls the subject that lives in the world of the all-encompassing space of meaning “the self” and the subject that finds its place in the hollow expanse, “the selfless self.” It is “selfless” because the hollow expanse cuts through and negates our conceptions of the self. Ueda therefore tells us that when the subject finds themselves in the twofold world, their self-understanding is not a simple “the self is the self” (or “I am I”). Rather, the subject in the twofold world says, “the self is selflessly the self” (or “I am not-I, and thus I am I”).[5] This, according to Ueda, is the self-understanding of the “true self.” But why is such a self “problematic” and “in a state of unrest?” The answer to this question lies in the two dangers that are inherent in the self. The first danger is for the self to close up by falsely believing that it is self-sufficient. The danger is one of self-enclosure and self-attachment. This occurs when the negation (“selfless” or “not-I”) falls off and one gets trapped in its own little ego. The world, for such a self, has lost the depth that the hollow expanse brings forth. According to Ueda, this is a common phenomenon since the twofoldness of the world is forgotten most of the time. Indeed, he even says that this is our default mode of the self. Another danger is for the self to lose itself in the selfless disclosure to others. Rather than coming back to itself and saying, “…and thus I am I,” it stops with “I am not-I.” As opposed to self-attachment, the danger here is one of self-loss.[6] These two dangers, self-enclosure and self-loss, are both intrinsic dangers of the self since both closing in and opening up are real moments of the self. According to Ueda, it is because the world we find ourselves is intrinsically twofold and because the self is in a dynamic movement of closing in and opening up that the self is fundamentally “problematic” and “in a state of unrest.”

                Although the Kyoto School tradition is gaining recognition outside of Japan today, Ueda’s philosophy is still widely unknown. Recently, however, some English translations have come out,[7] and the first collection of essays on Ueda in the Western language is forthcoming as part of a book series by Springer called the Tetsugaku Companions to Japanese Philosophy.[8] The book will contain discussions on self-awareness, nature, and poetic language. Its publication will hopefully ignite more interest in Ueda’s philosophy.


Bouso, Raquel, Ralf Müller, and Adam Loughnane, eds. Tetsugaku Companion to Ueda Shizuteru: Language, Experience, and Zen (Tetsugaku Companions to Japanese Philosophy, 5). Cham: Springer, forthcoming.

Heisig, James W., Thomas P. Kasulis, and John C. Maraldo, eds. Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011.

Krummel, John W. M. and Shigenori Nagatomo, trans. Place & Dialectic: Two Essays by Nishida Kitarō. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Krummel, John W. M., ed. Contemporary Japanese Philosophy: A Reader. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019.

Nishida, Kitarō. “Basho” [場所]. In Hataraku mono kara miru mono e [働くものから見るものへ, From the Acting to the Seeing], Nishida Kitarō Zenshū [西田幾多郎全集, Complete Works of Nishida Kitarō] Vol. 4, edited by Yoshishige Abe et al., 208-289. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1979.

Ueda, Shizuteru. Watashi to wa nanika [私とは何か, What is this thing called the “I”?]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2000.

Ueda, Shizuteru. Kokū /Sekai [虚空/世界, Hollow expanse/World]. In Ueda Shizuteru Shū [上田閑照集, Ueda Shizuteru Collection] Vol. 9. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2002.

Related emic terms: Being-in-the-world, basho (“place” in Japanese), world, kokū (虚空, “hollow expanse” in Japanese)

Related etic terms: Ontology, being, place, emptiness

[1] Shizuteru Ueda, Kokū /Sekai [虚空/世界, Hollow expanse/World], Ueda Shizuteru Shū [上田閑照集, Ueda Shizuteru Collection] Vol. 9 (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2002).

[2] See Kitarō Nishida, “Basho”, in Hataraku mono kara miru mono e [働くものから見るものへ, From the Acting to the Seeing], Nishida Kitarō Zenshū [西田幾多郎全集, Complete Works of Nishida Kitarō] Vol. 4, eds. Yoshishige Abe et al. (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1979), 208-289. The English translation can be found in: John W. Krummel et al. (trans.), Place & Dialectic: Two Essays by Nishida Kitarō (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[3] Ueda, Kokū /Sekai, 327.

[4] Ueda, Kokū /Sekai, 149.

[5] Ueda, Kokū /Sekai, 150-151.

[6] Shizuteru Ueda, Watashi to wa nanika [私とは何か, What is this thing called the “I”?] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2000), 36-39.

[7] John W. M. Krummel has a translation of Ueda’s Chihei to chihei no Kanata [地平と地平の彼方, Horizon and the Other Side of the Horizon, 1992] in: John W. M. Krummel, ed., Contemporary Japanese Philosophy: A Reader (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019). Some excerpts of Ueda’s other writings can be found in: James W. Heisig, et al., eds., Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011).

[8] Raquel Bouso, et al., Tetsugaku Companion to Ueda Shizuteru: Language, Experience, and Zen (Tetsugaku Companions to Japanese Philosophy, 5), (Cham: Springer, forthcoming).