On the Existence of Things

Through exploring the distinction between what we ordinarily think of as an experience and what Nishida Kitarō, the founder of the Kyoto School of philosophy, calls “pure” or “direct” experience, I will claim that things don’t exist as those things. My claim is that the existence of natural kinds conflicts with pure experience. 

What I mean by experience is all that exists for you here and now. I mean experience as we use it in sentences such as: “I’m experiencing X.” Experience, therefore, includes arising feelings, thoughts, sounds, sights, etc. It includes everything that is perceived. So, I don’t mean the word experience as we use it in sentences such as: “I have a lot of experience in X.” Pure experience is a specific kind of experience in the former sense.

Pure experience is experience prior to conceptualization (Nishida, 1992). It is unitary. It has no distinctions of self/other, subject/object, sound/sight, etc. All of these come after we apply our concepts to the experience we have here and now. What we usually call experience is already clothed in concepts and corroded with words.

Colour’s five hues from th’ eyes their sight will take;
Music’s five notes the ears as deaf can make;
The flavours five deprive the mouth of taste;
The chariot course, and the wild hunting waste
Make mad the mind; and objects rare and strange,
Sought for, men’s conduct will to evil change.

Laozi, Tao Te Ching, 12

Our habit of categorizing colors, sounds, and so on impairs our ability to perceive their uniqueness. Our habit of categorizing experiences impairs our ability to experience directly and without artificial divisions. Convention decides which signifiers correspond to which signifieds and sets the boundaries of those signifieds (Saussure, 1916/1959). One learns early on how “culture has tacitly agreed to divide things from each other, to mark out the boundaries within our daily experience” (Watts, 1999, pp. 20-21).

The moment of seeing a color or hearing a sound, for example, is prior not only to the thought that the color or sound is the activity of an external object or that one is sensing it, but also to the judgment of what the color or sound might be. (Nishida, 1992, p. 3)

If we recognize the distinction between ordinary and pure experience, we see that things don’t exist as we usually think. They exist in our experience only arbitrarily: they are distinct from everything else because of the concepts we apply to understand them. It is possible to drop conceptualization even for a brief moment, and that’s what often happens during meditation sessions. The belief in grammar and our thinking habits affect one’s metaphysical beliefs (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 21).

Consider the question of the existence of an ocean wave or a constellation of stars. Both of these are perceived as distinct objects only because we choose to. There are no “natural” boundaries between signifieds and no “natural” definitions for them. Things don’t exist as those things: we label them because of the instrumental value of doing so and without implying any metaphysical truth.


Laozi. (1970). Tao Te Ching. Penguin Books.

Nietzsche, F. (2003). Nietzsche: Writings from the Late Notebooks. Cambridge University Press.

Nishida, K. (1992). An Inquiry into the Good. Yale University Press.

Saussure, F. de, (1959). Course in General Linguistics. Philosophical Library. (Original work published 1916)

Watts, A. (1999). The Way of Zen. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: