The Uppsala and Kyoto schools of philosophy

Being a former student of both Uppsala University and Kyoto University I have since long been intrigued by the so-called Uppsala and Kyoto schools of philosophy. Although not directly related and although their founders probably had no intention of being founders of philosophical schools with those names, there are some striking features of both schools that keep attracting my interest.

The Uppsala school of philosophy was first based upon the theories of the Uppsala university professors Axel Hägerström (1868-1939) and Adolf Phalén (1884-1931). It was never a uniform school of philosophical thought in a strict sense, but all the same very important for Swedish philosophy. Its ideas developed through debates between the different factions of Hägerström and Phalén and was also important for the later development of Swedish social sciences, theology and theories of law. Between the two world wars the school also had an important influence on the cultural debate in Sweden.

Characteristic for the school was that it looked upon the analysis of concepts as the most important task of philosophy. It also criticized idealism and subjectivism. Much of its inspiration came from neo-Kantianism and phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). Some theories the Uppsala school developed were those of the value theoretical nihilism and the theory of consciousness.

The Kyoto school in its turn can be said to have been founded by Nishida Kitarô (1870-1945) and Tanabe Hajime (1885-1962), or rather through the debates between the two. It is sometimes called the first Japanese school of philosophy in the modern sense of the term. Kyoto school thinkers commonly seek an account of the whole of experience and reality that unifies its various aspects – such as nature, culture, morality, art, mind and conceptions of the absolute. (As defined in the book Japanese philosophy, A sourcebook, by James W. Heisig, Thomas P. Kasulis and John C. Maraldo, University of Hawai’i Press, 2011, p. 639). The school has several generations of philosophers, as does the Uppsala school, but was initially driven by the debate between the two founders, again, as was the Uppsala school. The Kyoto school was deeply influenced by Western philosophers, like Husserl, but was also unique in its emphasis on Eastern thought, as for instance can be found in Zen buddhism. Some of Nishida’s favorite concepts were those of ‘absolute nothingness’ and ‘pure experience’.

The Kyoto school thinkers also took a critical attitude toward Western conceptions of modernity. It was in some ways influenced by marxism, but has also been criticized for being too apologetic visavis the predominant ideology in Japan during the 1930s and the 1940s. However, the school was probably more driven by  its conviction that the East should have its rightful place alongside the West in the discipline of philosophy. Nishida was no doubt influenced by zen buddhism, and history has shown that some aspects of zen fascinated military leaders, not least during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), but I don’t think it is fair to say that the Kyoto school was an essential part of modern militaristic ideology.

Anyway, the Kyoto school has been as important for modern Japanese philosophy as the Uppsala school has been for Swedish philosophy and a comparison between the two would be a very interesting topic for students of philosophy.


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