by Yuko Ishihara
Basho (場所), which literally means “place” in Japanese, is arguably the most important concept in the philosophy of Nishida Kitarō (西田幾多郎1870–1945), a modern Japanese philosopher and founder of the Kyoto School tradition. Nishida’s concept of basho was first introduced in an essay titled “Basho” published in 1926 in the context of seeking the foundations of our knowledge. Taking issue with epistemological positions that assume the knower and known, subject-object distinction to begin with, Nishida wanted to show that the self or consciousness is not primarily an epistemic subject (as Kant and the Neo-Kantians would have it), but the “place” that makes knowledge possible.
But what does it mean to say that the self is a “place?” Ueda Shizuteru (上田閑照, 1926–2019), a third-generation Kyoto School philosopher, has provided a helpful illustration. In Japanese, when one hears the sound of a bell, one would naturally say, “Kane no oto ga kikoeru” (鐘の音が聞こえる), which can be literally translated as “The sound of the bell is heard.” For an English speaker, such a way of speaking sounds odd, for in English it is more natural to say, “I hear the sound of the bell.” Ueda explains that in the English phrase, the experience is grasped and articulated by the subject “I,” while the Japanese phrase is expressive of an event prior to such positing of the “I” as subject. Before the subject takes the experience as one’s own and says, “I hear…,” there is simply the experience of hearing the sound of the bell. There is not yet a subject that is hearing the bell nor is there an object, “the bell,” that is being heard. In his maiden work, Zen no kenkyu (善の研究, 1911), Nishida called this “pure experience.” It is the direct experience prior to the subject-object duality. Now, while the “I” as subject may be absent in such an experience, this is not to say that it is beyond consciousness. Before the self or consciousness becomes the subject of our experience, it withdraws and discloses the ringing of the bell just as it is. In other words, the self or consciousness is the “place” wherein the sound of the bell is heard. It should be noted that Ueda is not suggesting that the structures of our language directly reflect the way we experience reality, but only saying that the natural way of speaking in Japanese can serve as an illustration for the notion of the self at issue.
Nishida himself did not refer to the Japanese language, but turned to the logical structure of subsumptive judgments in order to show that consciousness is the “place” that makes knowledge possible. In the judgment “red is a color,” the predicate and universal “color” subsumes the grammatical subject and particular “red.” If one takes the particularization to its limit, one would reach that which is subject but never predicate, which was Aristotle’s definition of substance (hypokeimenon) and which he identified with individual things. But in order to know such individuals, they must still be subsumed by some universal. Accordingly, Nishida went the other direction and took the universalization to its limit where he found that which is predicate but never subject. Nishida called this “the transcendent predicate plane” (超越的述語面, chōetsuteki jutsugomen). All judgments and, accordingly, all knowledge, is grounded in this transcendent predicate plane, which he also calls “the place of nothingness” (無の場所, mu no basho). It is “nothing” because it cannot be objectified and predicated. Yet it is the “place” of all objectification and predication. This, for Nishida, was none other than the self or consciousness. However, as long as this “nothing” is understood relative to things that are objectified in consciousness, it is “the place of relative nothingness” (相対無の場所, sōtaimu no basho). The “true” place of nothingness, according to Nishida, is “the place of absolute nothingness” (絶対無の場所, zettaimu no basho). Here, absolute nothingness does not mean that there is absolutely nothing as if to suggest a nihilistic position. Rather, it means that the self has completely emptied itself (the self has become absolutely no-thing), letting things present themselves just as they are. According to Nishida, then, our knowledge is ultimately grounded in the place of absolute nothingness where there is no longer a distinction between the knower and the known. Though it was never his intention to provide a philosophical grounding of Zen Buddhism, the idea of the place of absolute nothingness as the selfless ground of our knowledge and reality clearly has its roots in Nishida’s experience in zazen. And it is with this idea that we find Nishida’s most original contribution, which finds no precedent in the history of philosophy.
In the 1930s and 40s, as Nishida’s interests became less focused on epistemological concerns and move more towards the historical reality, his notion of basho took on a new meaning. Basho is no longer understood in terms of consciousness, but the historical world wherein our embodied actions take place. However, this is not to say that the self was no longer important in Nishida’s philosophy. On the contrary, Nishida highlights the co-determining relationship between the self (or what he calls “individuals”) and the socio-historical world. On the one hand, the self is determined by the world in the sense that it is born into and lives in a society. On the other hand, through its actions, the self shapes the world and makes history. In contrast to the earlier period where basho, as the ground of knowledge and reality, was given priority over the “emplaced” (that which is “in the place”), the later period emphasizes the dialectical relationship between the self (the emplaced) and the world (the place, basho).
Nishida’s concept of basho influenced various thinkers not only within philosophy but in the sciences as well. For example, Imanishi Kinji (今西錦司, 1902–1992), a biologist and founder of Japanese primatology, developed the idea of the dialectical relationship between the self and the world from a biological point of view. Kimura Bin (木村敏, 1931–2021), a Japanese psychiatrist, applied Nishida’s idea of basho to understand the nature of the self through an analysis of various mental disorders such as schizophrenia.
Imanishi, Kinji. A Japanese View of Nature The World of Living Things by Kinji Imanishi. Translated by Pamela J. Asquith et al. London: Routledge, 2002.
Kimura, Bin. Jikan to jiko [時間と自己, Time and Self]. Tokyo: Chuo Koron Shinsha, 1982.
Krummel, John W. M. and Shigenori Nagatomo, trans. Place & Dialectic: Two Essays by Nishida Kitarō. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
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., 208–89. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1979.
Ueda, Shizuteru. Nishida Kitarō o yomu [西田幾多郎を読む, Reading Nishida Kitarō]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1991.
Related emic terms: Zettai mu (“absolute nothingness”), jikaku (“self-awareness” in Japanese), consciousness, historial world
Related etic terms: Nothingness, being, hypokeimenon, consciousness
 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).
 See: Shizuteru Ueda, Nishida Kitarō o yomu [西田幾多郎を読む, Reading Nishida Kitarō] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1991), 326-329.
 See, for example: Kinji Imanishi, Seibutsu no sekai [生物の世界, The World of Living Things] (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1972). Originally published in 1941. The English translation is provided in: Kinji Imanishi, A Japanese View of Nature: The World of Living Things by Kinji Imanishi, trans. Pamela J. Asquith et al. (London: Routledge, 2002).
 See, for example: Bin Kimura, Jikan to jiko [時間と自己, Time and Self]. (Tokyo: Chuo Koron Shinsha, 1982).