IGF 2023: Grasping AI while walking in the steps of Kyoto philosophers

Published on 10 October 2023
Updated on 19 March 2024

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) 2023 convenes in Kyoto, the historical capital of Japan. With its long tradition of philosophical studies, the city provides a fitting venue for debate on AI, which increasingly centres around questions of ethics, epistemology, and the essence of human existence. The work of the Kyoto School of Philosophy on bridging Western and Asian thinking traditions is gaining renewed relevance in the AI era. In particular, the writings of Nishida Kitaro, father of Japanese modern philosophy, shed light on questions such as human-centered AI, ethics, and the duality between humans and machines. 

Nishida Kitaro, in the best tradition of peripatetic walking philosophy, routinely walked the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto alone. Yesterday, I traced his paths while trying to experience the genius loci of this unique and historic place.

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On the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto

Here are a few of Nishida Kitaro’s ideas that could help us navigate our AI future:


Nishida’s work is deeply rooted in understanding the human condition. This perspective serves as a vital reminder that AI should be designed to enhance human capabilities and improve the human condition, rather than diminish or replace human faculties.

Self-Awareness and Place

Nishida delved deeply into metaphysical notions of being and non-being, the self and the world. As the debate on artificial generative intelligence advances, Nishida’s work could offer valuable insights into the contentious issues of machine consciousness and self-awareness. It begs the question: what would it mean for a machine to be ‘aware,’ and how would this awareness correlate with human notions of self and consciousness?


Nishida paid significant attention to the complexities inherent in both logic and epistemology. His work could serve as a foundational base for developing algorithms that can better understand and adapt to the complexities of human society.


Nishida’s philosophy is critical of dualistic perspectives that often influence our understanding of humans versus machines. He would likely argue that humans and machines are fundamentally interlinked. In this interconnected arena, beyond traditional dualistic frameworks (AI vs humans, good vs bad), we should formulate new approaches to AI.

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Nishido Kitara, founder of the Kyoto School of Philosophy

Absolute Nothingness

Nishida anchors his philosophy in absolute nothingness, which resonates strongly with Buddhism, Daoism, and other Asian thinking traditions that nurtured the concept of ‘zero’, which has shaped mathematics and, ultimately, our digital world. Nishida’s notion of ‘absolute nothingness’ could be applied to understand the emptiness or lack of inherent essence in data, algorithms, or even AI itself.

Contradictions and Dialogue

Contradictions are an innate part of human existence and societal structures. For Nishida, these contradictions should be acknowledged rather than considered aberrations. Furthermore, these contradictions can be addressed through a dialectic approach, considering human language, emotions, and contextual elements. The governance of AI certainly involves many such contradictions, and Nishida’s philosophy could guide regulators in making the necessary trade-offs.


Nishida’s work aims to bridge Eastern and Western ethics, which will be one of the critical issues of AI governance. He considers ethics in the wider socio-cultural milieus that shape individual decisions and choices. Ethical action, in his framework, comes from a deep sense of interconnectedness and mutual responsibility. 

Nishida Kitaro would advise AI developers to move beyond just codifying ethical decision-making as a static set of rules. Instead, AI should be developed to adapt and evolve within the ethical frameworks of the communities they serve, considering cultural, social, and human complexities. 


As the IGF 2023 unfolds in the philosophical heartland of Kyoto, it’s impossible to overlook the enriching influence of Nishida Kitaro and the Kyoto School. The juxtaposition is serendipitous: a modern forum grappling with the most cutting-edge technologies in a city steeped in ancient wisdom. 

While the world is accelerating into an increasingly AI-driven future, Kitaro’s work helps outline a comprehensive ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical framework for understanding not just AI but also the complex interplay between humans and technology. In doing so, Nishida’s thinking challenges us to envision a future where AI is not an existential threat or a mere tool but an extension and reflection of our collective quest for meaning. 

A Philospher’s Walk in the steps of Nishida Kitaro could inspire new ideas for addressing AI and our digital future. 

Read more on Nishida Kitaro’s work on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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