The Logic of the Illogical: Zen and Hegel
By Ha Tai Kim

Philosophy East and West
V. 5, No. 1 (January, 1955)
pp. 19-29

Copyright 1955 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA



p. 19

    If one would seek for a common meeting-ground of East and West in philosophy, one should certainly turn to the method of intuition. Zen and Christian mysticism, representing Eastern and Western intuitive philosophies, respectively, make this method essential and primary in their attempt to apprehend ultimate reality. The obvious difference between them lies, not in their methodology, but in their affiliation with different cultural backgrounds, with their divergent general characteristics.

    At the outset, one must avoid two extreme views in relating Eastern and Western philosophy. One view is that the philosophies of East and West are totally different, having no common ground. The other is that there is no real difference whatsoever between Oriental philosophy and Western mysticism, Any student who is interested in a synthesis of the philosophies of East and West must be careful to observe disagreements as well as agreements, even in systems which are similar. Kitaroo Nishida (Nishida Kitaroo, 西田幾多郎 1870-1945), one of Japan's greatest philosophers, suggested that the general character of Western philosophy is the concept of Being, while that of Oriental philosophy is the concept of Nothing [1] Following this characterization, it can be said that Western mysticism is deeply rooted in the concept of Being, and that Zen adheres tenaciously to the concept of Nothing, although both systems employ the same method, that of intuition.

    Bergson's well-known distinction between two ways of knowing an object is made in order to show the profundity of the intuitive method in contrast with the rational method. However, his intuitive method, by which we "enter into the object" instead of moving around the object, is still characterized by the concept of Being, for it presupposes an object, the Absolute, that is, Being. Christian mystics also make the concept of Being their start-



p. 20

ing point, even if they mystify the concept. Meister Eckhart's God was made Godhead, but it still remained as the "Naked Boy." True, this is a negative concept, but even here he is assuming "being" in terms of the "boy."

    Zen philosophy, however, negates all the presuppositions of Being, thus making the concept of Nothing the alpha and omega of reality. In Western mysticism, the ultimate goal of the mystic is to become one with God. But in this union he becomes either a god or an enlarged or enlightened Self. In either case, he is still caught by the concept of Being. The goal of a Zen Buddhist is to reach the state of mind in which he considers everything as nothing, even his own self. P'u-yuan [2] (died A.D. 830) expressed this idea well when he said, "If you really comprehend the indubitable Tao, it is like a wide expanse of emptiness, so how can distinctions between right and wrong be forced into it?" Tao-sheng said that to achieve Buddhahood means to be one with wu (non-being). [3] Zen is not satisfied with the idea of God as an ultimate reality, because Zen immediately asks the question "Where is God?" In fact, Zen presses the question further by asking, "Even prior to the creation of the world, where is God?" [4] And it demands a quick answer. The kind of quick answer which Zen Buddhism can offer could be anything: it could be tea that you are drinking or it could be the point of your pencil. At the same time, since it could be anything, it is almost the same as nothing. Thus, the fundamental presupposition of Zen is absolute nothing.

    The familiar declaration of Zen thinkers, that "Zen teaches nothing," [5] must not be taken literally. It is true that Zen dares not build any philosophical systems, for it defies all concept-making. Realizing the difficulties of conceptual description in understanding the nature of reality, it resorts largely to the method of poetry and art, as Suzuki points out succinctly in the following statement: "Zen naturally finds its readiest expression in poetry rather than in philosophy, because it has more affinity with feeling than with intellect; its poetic predilection is inevitable." [6] It is in this sense, perhaps, that Rudolph Otto said that Zen is anything but a philosophy in the



p. 21

Western sense of the word. [7] However, it is by no means an artistic method which depends entirely upon mediumless immediacy. It is paradoxically philosophical in that it requires intellect to dispute an intellectual method. We may revise Suzuki's declaration by saying that Zen teaches that it teaches nothing. Its situation is somewhat like that of Socrates' ironic modesty when, in upsetting the thesis of the Sophists, he declared, "I know that I know nothing." This positive aspect of Zen is often ignored by the critics of Zen philosophy. Indeed, the positive side of Zen is the logic of the illogical. It may be added that the logic of Zen is not a-logical but super-logical; it transcends the logical bifurcation of subject and object, mind and matter, being and non-being, which always falls into the realm of relational knowledge. It is due to the thoroughgoing attitude of Zen that it pierces through relational knowledge, so as to acquire an absolute point of view. It attempts to see the world in its absolute wholeness. This is truly the philosophical spirit. In the following statement, Suzuki clearly expresses this point: "It is not the object of Zen to look illogical for its own sake, but to make people know that logical consistency is not final and that there is a certain transcendental statement that cannot be attained by mere intellectual cleverness." [8] Zen starts realistically from the actualities of reality, which is the world of sa^msaara, with its sufferings and dualities. As long as we stay in the mutual conditioning of opposites in the world of antithesis, Zen teaches, we never feel complete. As a measure of emancipation from this world of dualities, Zen suggests the attitude of non-duality, and this is possible only by the method of praj~naa-intuition. [9] The attitude is achieved only when one looks upon all things as beyond every form of expression and demonstration, and as transcending knowledge and argument. Therefore, absolute purity must be intuited by transcending both purity and non-purity. The absolute viewpoint can be attained only by transcending the dichotomy of being and non-being. Zen masters are concerned, not with reliance upon a void as such, but with the attainment of a state in which all distinctions are superseded. Zen is, therefore, not without knowledge; rather, it is the knowledge that is not knowledge. This is why Zen method can be regarded as the logic of the illogical. This is paradoxical, it is true, but to obtain the absolute standpoint Zen discards all of the ordinary logical laws.



p. 22

    The paradoxical nature of Zen manifests itself in its ignoring of the law of contradiction. It does not attempt to invalidate the law of contradiction, but ignores it only to illuminate the law of identity. Thus the logical proposition of illogical Zen is: "A is not-A; therefore, A is A." Zen believes that the true meaning of the proposition "A is A" will be realized only when "A is not-A." The Zen way of thinking is to assert that to be itself is not to be itself, and also that I am really I only by negating myself.

    The philosophical "fun" of contradiction manifested in the logic of illogical Zen seems to have two intended purposes. First, Zen believes that the logical dissection of reality will never bring about the unitive point of view, the only method by which reality can be presented as it is. The unitive point of view achieved by the intuitive method transcends not only subject and object but also all logical categories, including affirmation and negation. Zen masters frequently resort to the following pattern of argument: "Do not call this a staff; if you do, it is an affirmation; if you do not, it is a negation. Apart from affirmation and negation say a word, quick, quick." [10] Zen aims at acquiring the pure experience in which subject and object are not yet separated.

    The second purpose of Zen's employment of this method may be detected from the fact that the logic of the illogical accounts for many paradoxical problems of practical philosophy more adequately than does ordinary logic. In a sense, it is a form of practical reason; it is the logic of life. It is reasonable to say that "living is dying" (A is not-A), as existentialists seem to point out. A fine illustration of this method is Jesus' pronouncement that "He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life shall find it" (Matt. 10:39). In the moral and religious sphere, this method is frequently employed. Any idea of the good which is not carefully scrutinized in the light of the practical and concrete situation cannot really be called good; thus, we may say that "good is not-good." Only by examining the idea of good to the ultimate extreme can we say that we understand the idea. In order to understand fully the implications of a concept -- for example, philanthropy -- we must allow room for reasonable doubt about the concept, even stating that philanthropy is selfishness, that is, "A is not-A." [11]



p. 23

    The simple proposition "A is A" does not go beyond the socially accepted meaning of the term: it is limited, and, therefore, infinite possibilities of the meaning of the term are excluded. The proposition excludes all doubt and skepticism. However, in the proposition "A is not-A" we can travel far beyond the limited and determined meaning of a concept by placing it at the most extreme opposite. A is fully understood as A, because A is scrutinized to the fullest degree, and all possible meanings of A are exhaustively explored. This is precisely the meaning of Hegel's dictum that "Truth is the whole." By negating the very meaning of a concept, we are able to move toward the apprehension of the whole. For both Zen and Hegel, the negative method signifies that an affirmative concept contains within it the possibility of a negative.

    We are surprised, at first, to discover that the logic of the illogical in Zen is akin to Hegel's dialectical method. But it is no surprise at all if we note that Hegel's dialectical method is also the logic of life. The "fun" of contradiction, or "pretension" of the other, in the act of negating itself, is the comical impersonation of which Loewenberg speaks in describing Hegelian dialectic. "The logic called dialectical," writes Loewenberg, "is the logic of comedy par excellence. It is the logic by which ideas and beliefs are made to whip themselves, as it were, in the process of exhibiting their internal contradictions." [12] It is the method of the self-alienation of the Absolute in Hegel's philosophy. Even in his legend, "The Naked Boy," Eckhart identifies the Naked Boy with God himself, "who was having a bit of fun." [13] As early as 1800, when Hegel wrote his Fragment of a System, he knew that the dialectical method was the logic of life, for he regarded life as the "union of union and nonunion." [14] Both Hegel and Zen thinkers assume the absolute viewpoint to be the ground of unity between A and not-A, being and not-being. The only difference is that the universal of universals in Hegel is the Absolute, while in Zen it is Nothing, which is a sort of Absolute itself.

    What really distinguishes Zen from the dialectic of Hegel may be found in its thoroughgoing contradiction included in the antinomy. In Hegel, the antinomy is sublated in the synthesis, as canceling and preserving the original antinomy, thus progressing toward an endless realization of the possibilities of the original term. But Zen simply asserts the identity of



p. 24

the antinomy, without following the three-way dialectical process of Hegel. The antithesis, instead of developing into a synthesis, reverts to the thesis, and Zen simply declares that thesis is antithesis and antithesis is thesis. In this process, the unitive power is assumed, and it is Nothing. This is clearly pointed out by Suzuki in the following words:

    "Not unity in multiplicity, nor multiplicity in unity; but unity is multiplicity and multiplicity is unity. In other words, praj~naa is vij~naana and vij~naana is praj~naa; only this is to be 'immediately' apprehended and not after a tedious and elaborate and complicated process of dialectic." [15] It would be more adequate, therefore, to say that Zen is paradoxical, rather than dialectical. It is basically paradoxical, because true reality can be apprehended in some way other than the conceptual method. For Zen thinkers, Hegelian dialectic is still rationalistic and conceptual, since he does not go beyond conceptual thinking when he thinks about a concept and its negation. Apprehension of reality is possible, Zen thinkers insist, only by transcending the conceptual relation of being and non-being. Zen simply designates this realm "Nothing." In Zen, paradoxical propositions are convertible: "Life is death" and, therefore, "Death is life." The fact that the basic idea of Zen is the identity of being and non-being is evidenced by the following statements of Zen philosophy: "The true State is no state. The gate of Dharma is no Gate. Holy knowledge is no knowledge." [16] The identity of a concept and its negation expresses the whole of truth in Zen philosophy. Truth consists of these two aspects of intellectual dichotomy, and, furthermore, Zen concludes that truth is not something beyond and more than these contradictions and paradoxes. Here again, Hegelian rational actuality and actual rationality are concretely manifested in Zen assertions, such as "In everything you see Zen." Zen always finds the utmost significance in events as they occur. Therefore, even when you drink a cup of tea, Zen is there, and when you drink a glass of wine, Zen is there also. Tadayoshi Kihira 紀平正美, a Japanese philosopher of recent times (1874-1949), compares Hegelian philosophy with Zen. He writes, "Hegelian philosophy resembles Oriental Zen. Zen always points to facts as they are. When you are offered tea, sip it, and, when you happen to take wine, drink it. And there is nothing more than this." [17]

    Ever since German idealism was introduced to Japan in the second decade



p. 25

of the Meiji era, Hegelian philosophy has found fertile soil in Japan, for it was suited to the Japanese temperament that had been nurtured in the tradition of Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism. In fact, Hegelian philosophy was favorably received by Buddhist thinkers. But in the history of recent Japanese philosophy, there is another development which shows a conscious blending of Zen with Hegelianism. A number of outstanding Japanese philosophers who were thoroughly trained in Western philosophy have deliberately attempted to create a so-called "Japanese philosophy," which they regard as typically Oriental in character, by synthesizing Zen and Hegelian philosophy. We discover this effort particularly in the philosophies of Tadayoshi Kihira, Hajimi Tanabe 田邊元 ( 1885-), and Kitaroo Nishida. In the philosophical systems of these men, we find not only a synthesis of Zen and Hegel, but also original developments beyond the union of Zen and Hegel.

    Perhaps the most prodigious and original writer of all is Kitaroo Nishida. A brief examination of the philosophy of Nishida in so far as his philosophy combines Zen and Hegel may be helpful. Nishida, who is generally classified as a neo-Hegelian, is by no means a Zen philosopher, although he is greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism. Instead, he is a Hegelian who incorporated Zen thinking into his system. In his earliest work, Zen no Kenkyu ("A Study of the Good" ), [18] he already found Zen experience in what he calls "pure experience" or "immediate experience." He postulates "pure experience" as the most concrete reality, in which intellectual activities do not occur. It is an experience in itself, in which subject and object are not separated. For him, the undifferentiated state of pure experience is unquestionably richer and fuller than our ratiocination, which yields intellectual discrimination and analysis. But, as a Hegelian, Nishida saw Hegel's concrete universal in his "pure experience" as the concrete reality. Nishida's "pure experience" transcends individual existence. Thus, Nishida's dictum that "experience precedes the individual and not vice versa" coincides with the Hegelian essence.

    In the later stage of his thinking, Nishida presents more clearly a synthesis of Zen and Hegel in what he calls "the historical reality." Nishida's world of pure experience is more concretely crystallized in the world of historical reality. Nishida proposes to look at logic from the standpoint of reality before we proceed from logic to reality. Reality, for Nishida, is none other than life, hence it is "historical reality." "Historical reality" can never be explained in terms of logic, although Nishida readily recognizes the value of scientific



p. 26

knowledge, as aiding in the progress of the historical world. Nishida thinks that in the objectified world of logic there is no room for the acting self, which is the essential element of the historical reality. According to Nishida's argument, the thinking self (the acting self) cannot think about itself, just as the eye cannot see itself. We need something other than logic to apprehend the self: it is intuition in the present moment that enables the self to see itself. Nishida defines life as self-identity of contradiction. We must admit that the whole argument of Nishida here is based on Fichte's concept of "deed-act," which involves dialectical process as the essence of self-consciousness. Nishida's line of argument is as follows: since the historical reality includes the acting self, it contains in it a world of contradiction. The self as an acting agent is best understood as the contradiction of determining its own self. To act is to change the external world, which is originally opposed to self, into tools for man's use. Nishida discovers that in the human body contradiction of self and the world is fully met. In our body the acting subject unites with the seen object. Our act is always both subjective and objective. It is subjective because our body is intuited in time, and it is objective because our body is seen as a thing in space. In our act, things become our body, and at the same time our body becomes things. The fact that we become things indicates that we are losing our selves. The compatibility of the contradictory natures in our physical body is the essence of life. Thus life is the self-identity of contradiction. The dialectic of absolute negation implies convertibility of the individual and the universal, and of time and space. Here we find that Nishida employs the logic of illogical Zen, or the "logic of Sokuhi (即非)." The proposition of Zen, "A is not-A," is reiterated in Nishida's concept of life. For Nishida, life contains death, and death is essential to life. [19]

    Thus the world of historical reality in Nishida is the world of "act-intuition" (goiteki chokkan 行為的直觀), which sees the identity of contradiction in the physical body. His concept of "act-intuition" is a synthesis of Zen intuition and Hegelian dialectic. Nishida firmly subscribes to Hegelian thought by regarding historical life as self-determination of the dialectical universal. Nishida's world of actuality, characterized as the world of "act-intuition" which includes the dialectic of contradiction, is the creative world which expressively determines itself.

    The concrete universal in Nishida's philosophy is realized only in life, which involves self-contradictions. Self-contradiction is the character of creativeness. As an element of the creative life, the individual life is an expression



p. 27

of historical life. The movement of history, according to Nishida, is not a continuous development, but, rather, a self-contradictory movement. Hence, Nishida regards historical development as "continuity of discontinuity." In the creative act of the individual, Nishida finds Hegel's Reason. The present moment is not merely a one-directional continuity of different moments, but is the "Eternal Now." The historical present is defined by Nishida as the "place where infinite past and future are considered to be contemporaneous with the present." He goes on to say: "The dialectic of life means that in the present the past and the future exist contemporaneously. The present, while being uniquely determined, possesses spatially infinite possibilities. The present is the place of act-intuition. Therein we have our bodies. Since the past and the future are contemporaneous with the present, the world has a circumference. The world is through and through expressive. Expression is nothing but spatialization of temporal things." [20]

    To the end of his philosophical activities, Nishida was faithful to Hegelian philosophy. However, Nishida was not totally satisfied with Hegel's rationalistic schematic dialectic. Nishida sought a dynamic dialectic, and found an irrational element in the Hegelian dialectic. This was possible for him because he read Hegelian dialectic in the light of Zen Buddhism.

    Interpreting Hegel's proposition in his Logic to mean that pure being is the same as non-being, Nishida introduces a new viewpoint which transcends the relative concepts of being and non-being. According to Nishida, pure being is conceivable only when we interpret it to be the self-determination of Nothing. Nishida emphatically asserts, "at the root of our self-consciousness, there is absolute Nothing. If there were something, we would be merely things, not selves. Self is the eternally new Now. The self is the eternal becoming. Since it is being as the self-determination of Nothing, it is being and at the same time Nothing; non-being here is Nothing. . . . Real dialectical movement begins when Nothing becomes being. ... Hegel's notion of the real, the concrete, must be interpreted as the content of what I call 'self-consciousness of Nothing.' It must be real Nothing. Only then can we say that the real union of being and non-being is becoming." [21] What he calls "self-consciousness of Nothing" is Nishida's definition of the self. The self is basically an acting self. To act means to see the external world as the internal world. Nishida sees something absolutely irrational at the core of the self. The acting self becomes rational in so far as the act is seen objectively. The real nature of self is



p. 28

the self-conscious determination of Nothing, but the determination itself constitutes the content of concrete and objective knowledge. Hegelian dialectical logic is not the result of logic, but it is possible by identifying the logical process with the self-conscious process of Nothing. In the following passage we find Nishida's interesting interpretation of Hegel's Reason: "Hegel's Reason must be interpreted as the self-conscious determination of 'Expressive Self,' having dialectic meaning of self-consciousness of Nothing. It is dialectical, not because it is rational, but because it involves the meaning of self-consciousness of Nothing, which is an event of our inner self. It is dialectical because it is the logic which recognizes real and concrete Life. . . . In understanding concrete reality Hegel's dialectic fell into the pitfall of simple schema. Reality cannot be understood in terms of logical schema, but it must be understood in terms of the history of life, which includes reason. Hegel's logic is an abstraction of the concrete life which is the self-conscious determination of Nothing. The question why Idea became Nature by negating itself can never be answered from the standpoint of rational Idea. Ideational determination is to be understood as the limit of what I call 'the self-conscious determination of Nothing.'" [22] Thus Nishida offers a logic of the illogical. In this logic, it is possible to think that self-affirmation is self-negation, and that non-being is being. Nishida, in scrutinizing the dialectic of Hegel, curiously enough, saw Kierkegaard's unity of paradox as the basis of Hegel's logic, for Nishida firmly believed that reason is possible only in life and that the contradiction of reason is, after all, the paradox of life. Nishida concludes that that which determines dialectically its own self is Nothing, which determines being. It is not power or physical force but self which may be regarded as the pure spirit. It is also identical with the God that dialectical theologians speak of.

    To sum up, Nishida's philosophy is a synthetic product of Zen and Hegel. It is in agreement with Zen in that it places importance on the intuitive method. The intuitive method, for him, is the method of "act-intuition," which enables him to see the logic of paradox in life, and also enables him to bring the identity of contradicting terms to a focal point, which is our physical body. It is also Hegelian in that it identifies the logic of the illogical with the Hegelian dialectic, without losing sight of the Hegelian Absolute, which is seen in his concept of "historical reality."

    However, we must not ignore the basic difference between Nishida's philosophy and Hegelian philosophy. Nishida, being dissatisfied with the rationalism of Hegel's dialectic, searches further and discovers irrationalism behind the Hegelian Absolute. Thus, the key word for Hegel is Being, while



p. 29

Nishida's key concept is Nothing. Again, Hegelian dialectic is progressive and always involves a developing synthesis in terms of "Becoming." But the dialectic of Nishida or Zen is through and through paradoxical; it is identity of contradiction. The negation of an idea has a tendency to be self-contradictory. Nishida's theory of time also is conceived of, not as a progressive series of moments, but paradoxically as the "Eternal Now."




1. His 哲學ソ根本問題續編 Tetsugaku no Konpon Mondai Zokuhen ("Fundamental Problems of Philosophy, II") (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1934) contains an essay entitled "Cultural Forms of East and West, A Metaphysical View," in which Nishida characterizes Western culture as the culture of Being, a spatial Weltanschauung, reality viewed from without, and the Oriental culture as the culture of Nothing, a temporal Weltanschauung, reality viewed from within.

2. Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1948), p. 261.

3. Ibid., p. 250.

4. D. T. Suzuki, "Reason and Intuition in Buddhist Philosophy," in Charles A. Moore, ed., Essays in East-West Philosophy: An attempt at World Philosophical Synthesis (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1951), p. 22.

5. D. T. Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), p. 38.

6. Ibid., p. 117.

7. Ibid., introduction by C. G. Jung, p. 11.

8. Ibid., p. 67.

9. Suzuki calls this method, "Sokuhi no ronri" 即非ソ論理 (logic of Sokuhi). The term "sokuhi" is taken from the proposition that "Taccittam acittam yaccittam," that is, "Mind is no-mind, and that is precisely the mind." See Suzuki's 鈴木大拙選集第七卷 Suzuki Daisetsu Senshu, Dai Shichi Maki, ("Writings from Suzuki Daisetsu," Vol. 7) (Tokyo: Shunshu Sha, 1952), p. 201.

10. D. T. Suzuki, "Reason and Intuition in Buddhist Philosophy," in Charles A. Moore, ed., Essays in East-West Philosophy, p. 18.

11. F. S. C. Northrop calls this method "the paradoxical linguistic method" in his essay, "Oriental and Occidental Methodology," in Charles A. Moore, ed.. Essays in East-West philosophy , p. 152. He points out that in this proposition two different "A's" are used. "A" in the subject is the indeterminate term and "A" in the predicate is a determinate concept. But his explanation does not alter Zen's contention that "A" in the subject is reality that we wish to apprehend and "A" in the predicate is the conceptual attempt to understand it, and that reality is truly beyond our conceptual description.

12. J. Loewenberg, ed., Hegel's Selections, The Modern Student's Library (New York; Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929), Introduction, p. xxi.

13.  Raymond B. Blakney, Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941), p. 251.

14. Hegel, Early Theological Writings, T. M. Knox and Richard Kroner, trans. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 312.

15. D. T. Suzuki, "Reason and Intuition in Buddhist Philosophy," Charles A. Moore, ed., Essays in East-West Philosophy, p. 25.

16. Junjiroo Takakusu, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, W. T. Chan and Charles A. Moore, eds. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1949), p. 163.

17. Quoted in Torii Hakuro, (鳥井博郎) 獨逸觀念論移植史. Toitsu Kannenron Ishokushi ("History of Transplantation of German Idealism") (Tokyo: Mikasa Shobo, 1935).

18. See also my article, "Nishida and Royce," Philosophy East and West, II, No. 4 (January, 1952), 18-29.

19. See Nishida, 哲學論文集第二, Tetsugaku Ronbunshu Daini ("Philosophy Essays, II") (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1937), p. 12.

20. Ibid., p. 151.

21. Nishida, 續思索シ體驗, Zoku Shisaku to Taiken ("Thinking and Experiencing -- Continued") (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1937), p. 107.

22. Ibid., p. 117.