George Walford: From Hegal-San to NIAT

Kitaro Nishida’s An Inquiry into the Good has been re-issued in a new translation. [1] Reviewing this, [2] Hide Ishiguro remarks that it does not contain the two concepts, of absolute nothingness¬†and the self-identity of the absolutely contradictory, which account for its author’s fame as a Zen philosopher. Kitaro Nishida has doubtless earned his glory; IC sometimes feels that anybody who grapples with these concepts deserves to be famous, and not just for fifteen minutes. But if it is being suggested that they are all his own work, or that nobody else has ever formulated them independently, some correction is called for. The mode of thought from which they derive has been traced in ancient Chinese writings, [3] the concepts themselves date back at least to Hegel in the early 19th Century, and a line of descent in which they become increasingly explicit runs down through the English Hegelians (William Wallace, W. T. Stace, Hutchinson Stirling and others) Francis Sedlak and F. S. Johnson to Harold Walsby.

Kitaro Nishida is presented as a Zen philosopher, and in philosophy to be absolute is to be unrelated or (the same thing) related to nothing. [4] (Use of the term to mean unqualified, unlimited or unconditional complies with this since qualifications, limitations and conditions come under the general head of relations). Sometimes, as in “absolute monarch” the meaning, although obviously connected, is weaker; there can be a number of “absolute” monarchs but not more than one absolute in the strong philosophical sense. (Two or more would be related to each other, if only by their differences, and hence not in the full sense absolute).

Philosophers, and those strange people the Masters of Zen, may accept the absolute, but other responses tend to be hostile. Liberal thinkers revolt against the concept, and with good reason, for every proposed absolute has been shown questionable or false. Everything changes, so no proposition can be true except within limits, with qualifications, in a relative sense; the pursuit of understanding is inherently open-ended. Yet all who think rationally about the absolute find themselves bound to accept its existence. For everything that is, is, and this totality, the totality of being, excluding nothing, is related to nothing and therefore by definition absolute. All observation is against the absolute and yet from the undeniable proposition that what is, is, its existence follows inescapably. This deserves our attention.

Ordinary thinking starts by taking something for granted. We accept something we believe to be a fact, some statement, belief, observation or whatever, and think away, often with satisfactory results. Science questions more sharply, penetrating below the surface of things, criticising its own methods and striving to falsify its own conclusions. Yet even physics, the paradigmatic science, while it shows the world presented by our senses to be largely illusory, still takes the existence of a physical world for granted; the readings on dials and the markings on photographic plates are interpreted as evidence of events at least partly independent of the enquiry. It is difficult to see how else thinking can be carried on. Something must, it seems, be accepted to start with, for nothing can come out of nothing.

Serious thinking, in science and elsewhere, recognises no limits; it seeks to understand everything. Yet in order to function it must, it seems, take something for granted, and what is taken for granted cannot be understood. If this contradiction is built in, as it seems to be, how can fully rational thinking ever get started? Hegel’s conception of the absolute provides the answer.

Kant dismissed any theory of the absolute as impossible, and Herbert Spencer condemned it as merely religious, something to be worshipped, or perhaps ignored, but not understood. [5] Hegel, on the contrary, presents it (in what he calls its first definition) as the valid starting-point for rational thinking. After some discussion of the contradiction entailed in making a beginning, pointing out that his initial definitions “are derived from a survey of the whole system, to which accordingly they are subsequent” [6], he starts with absolutely pure being, being that is absolutely nothing but being. Being absolute (unrelated) this is not the being of anything, for “of” posits a relation. It is pure being, the being of nothing but being, and since nothing simply is (everything that is, is in some particular way) pure being is the being of absolutely nothing. It is not related to absolute nothing, it is it. Hegel begins by taking absolutely nothing for granted.

Being nothing, being is not being; being nothing, it is being, the being of nothing. It is absolutely self-contradictory. Being nothing but the being of nothing it is absolutely self-identical. The concept of the self-identity of the absolutely contradictory, being no concept at all – nothing is absolutely self-contradictory – is absolutely simple; to think nothing is to think it. Far from seeking it, we rather have to repress it in order to think anything. Zen, with its koans intended to blast the student free from the accustomed securities of the relative, offers one means of overcoming this habitual repression; unrestrained rational thinking provides another, and one with the advantage of being replicable.

Through the Hegelian exposition an apparent difficulty persists. In this absolute beginning there is nothing but being; there is not, for example, thinking, yet here we are thinking it. Francis Sedlak resolved this more clearly than Hegel managed to do. Abandoning even the illusory appearance of an implication, carried by Hegel’s “being,” that something is being taken for granted, he starts by taking nothing for granted. [8] With Sedlak we start by thinking nothing, and if we think nothing we are not thinking. But if we think nothing there must be nothing, and indeed there is; we have seen absolute being to be the being of nothing.

Nothing cannot be questioned; nothing cannot be doubted; nothing can be completely relied on under all conditions. Nothing, in short, is absolutely true. Nothing is absolutely true. (Put the emphasis where you like). Every thing, absolutely every thing, is related to other things and therefore not absolute. Nothing is unrelated and nothing therefore absolute. Nothing is absolutely true. This statement conveys no information; it is completely nonsensical, mere wordplay. It says nothing, and nothing is absolutely true. With this formulation Walsby expressed absolute truth. [9]

In doing so he provided systematic ideology with an absolutely solid foundation. The only proposition this study puts forward without qualification, the only absolute assertion it makes, the only thing it takes for granted, is that nothing is absolutely true. [10]

Walsby’s proposition (the present writer, scrambling up the shoulders of a whole tower of giants, reduced it to an acronym: NIAT), carries a corollary: if nothing is absolutely true, then everything is relatively true. No proposition, belief, system, principle, thought or assumption is absolutely false. This being so, none of the systems of assumptions, beliefs, propositions, principles and so on known as the major ideologies can be absolutely false. Each of them embodies some truth, and the object of the study is to render these partial truths, and the relations between them, more explicit in order to facilitate realisation in practice of that unconditional, unqualified, absolute truth which in their totality they constitute. Hegel: “The forms of thought must be studied in their essential nature and complete development; they are at once the object of research and the action of that object.” [11] It was not the least of Harold Walsby’s achievements to perceive that the forms of thought appear not only to introspection; in the historical record, in words written or spoken, but also in present social activity as the behaviour of the major ideological groups.

[1] Kitaro Nishida 1990, An Inquiry into the Good, translated by Masao Abe and Chrisopher Ives, Yale UP.
[2] TLS 28 December 1990.
[3] The History of the Dialectic, unpublished paper by Harold Walsby, undated, c. 196-?
[4] See, for example, defmition IV.3 under”absolute” in the Shorter Oxford.
[5] Wallace W. 1894, Prolegomena to the Study of Hegel’s Philosophy Oxford: Clarendon Press, 293.
[6] Hegel G. W. F. 1975 Hegel’s Logic translated by Wm Wallace. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 25.
[7] Hegel 124-7.
[8] Sedlak F. (1919) Pure Thought and the Riddle of the Universe. London: George
Allen & Unwin Ltd. 3.
[9] As did Hegel, Sedlak and others, in their various formulations. At the memorial meeting held for Walsby in 1973 Glynn Faithfull drew attention to a large notice: PUT NOTHING ON THE WALLS.
[10] Yes, this statement does apply to itself.
[11] Hegel 66.

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(A Letter, Reprinted from Freedom, Anarchist Fortnightly, 15 December.

In Freedom of 1 December Alex Pradier quotes Berkman, Christie, Melzer, Colin Ward, Malatesta, April Carter, Proudhon and one non-anarchist on government. They say (and according to Pradier anarchists in general also say) that government handicaps or prevents free activity. It is the greatest invader and the worst criminal man has ever known, it fills the world with violence, fraud, deceit and oppressive misery. It is the administration of society against its will. It is intrinsically coercive and antithetical to freedom, oppressive and repressive. Proudhon drives the point home: “The government of man by man is servitude. Whoever lays a hand on me to govern is a usurper and a tyrant. I declare him to be my enemy.”

Similar declarations can be found in most, perhaps all, anarchist writers. Condemnation of government, not merely of this or that government but of government as such, of the principle of government, has to be accepted as a major theme of the anarchist movement. Anybody who supports government – any government – can hardly be regarded as an anarchist.

What, then, of those who fought on the government side in the Spanish Civil War? Undoubtedly they were heroic in their anti- Fascism, but when people fight and kill and die in support of a government can they sensibly be regarded as anarchists?

Yours etc. George Walford

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DOES capitalism satisfy human needs? As put by the revolutionaries and repudiators the question is a trick one; they carefully avoid specifying whether they mean some needs or all needs. Obviously capitalism does not satisfy all human needs; one has only to read any newspaper or look into the mean streets of any big city to see that. But, equally obviously, it does satisfy some needs; there are over five thousand million people in the world today, nearly all of them living under capitalism, and if you are alive then some of
your most urgent needs have been met. Capitalism, like every social system, satisfies some human needs while leaving others unsatisfied, and whether the emphasis is placed on those satisfied or those unsatisfied depends upon the ideology of the speaker.

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ACCORDING to one study of the British General Election of 1987 no less than 20% of the voters “changed their intentions during the campaign and did not vote in June 1987 for the party they had indicated a preference for in the previous March.” That strongly suggests expediency rather than attachment to any set of political principles (or class position either) as the major influence affecting their voting behaviour. (William L. Miller How Voters Change: The 1987 British election campaign in Perspective, reviewed by Gillian Peele in TLS 7 December)

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RUSSIAN history since 1917 can now be seen to have been following a classical trajectory. The drive towards a cooperative and egalitarian society lost impetus and the old ways took over again, at first behind a screen of revolutionary declarations, later more openly. The French, English and American Revolutions, Buddhism, Christianity and the Reformation have all preceded the Soviet state along this path, and People’s China seems set to follow it.

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TOYOHIRO Akiyama has been into space aboard the Soyuz rocket. His trip was an advertising stunt – “the rocket itself was, of course, plastered with ads for Japanese nappies” – and Brian Appleyard objects to this commercial degradation of a noble enterprise. But Appleyard also complains of the lack of progress in space exploration, and Akiyama’s trip may indicate the way forward; experience over the last three centuries and more suggests that when space-flight is able to offer commerce a profit it will, if we may use the phrase, take off. (Sunday Times 9 Dec).

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FEMINISM contends that men beat their wives because patriarchal society allows them to do so. However, to say that men beat their wives because they can does not explain why they do. The implication is, that without restraining laws and ethical codes, men would give way to their ‘deep-rooted impulses to savagery’ (Andrea Dworkin). This nonsensical Hobbesian notion is crowned by the infantile belief that people actually obey laws. In reality, society operates on a system of fatta la legge, trovato l’ingano (make a law and find a way around it). (Claudia 1990, Love Lies Bleeding, sent in by Donald Rooum).

from Ideological Commentary 50, March 1991.