- On Zhuangzi and Kierkegaard
The Sense of Antirationalism: The Religious Thought of Zhuangzi and Kierkegaardby Karen L. Carr and Philip J. Ivanhoe is an original, insightful, and inspiring exercise in the field of East-West comparative thought. This study is a bold effort to compare critically two very different but nevertheless similarly controversial and provocative intellectual figures who greatly influenced their respective philosophical and religious traditions. As a closely integrated collaboration between a Western-oriented and an Eastern-oriented scholar, the book can be mentioned along with similar "interactive" attempts in recent times such as those by Roger T. Ames and David Hall—although it operates on a more specific basis than the books by Hall and Ames by being focused on one particular thinker of each cultural region. The book is especially praiseworthy and exemplary in the field of comparative studies because it does not merely aim at putting two philosophers side by side in order to highlight coincidental parallels or differences, but rather offers a systematic comparative investigation into a core religious and philosophical issue for both East and West, namely the problem of religious or philosophical criticism of established or "conventional" modes of reflection. Carr and Ivanhoe believe that Zhuangzi as well as Kierkegaard were concerned with such a criticism, and that the modes of reflection that both sought to undermine were the "rationalisms" of their respective cultures.
The book starts with a historical contextualization of Kierkegaard and Zhuangzi. According to Carr and Ivanhoe, both thinkers rejected the philosophical foundations that sustained the deep-seated and venerable but obsolete forms of religiosity in their respective times. Carr and Ivanhoe highlight the penetrating criticisms that the Chinese master brought to the rigidity of rituals and the excessive use of reason in Confucianism, Mohism, and Chinese "Sophist" thinking. In his own way, but in the same perspective, Kierkegaard is seen as a relentless critic of an overreliance on rational explanations and objective thought and as a seeker for a personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ within a larger project of "becoming a Christian" beyond any justifying intentions and in the face of a total absence of authoritative mundane instances.
Concerning the spiritual and philosophical attitude that Kierkegaard and Zhuangzi adopted toward reason, it is held that they should be labeled as antirationalists, but not as irrationalists or suprarationalists since they did not, on the whole, deny the role of rationality in human existence. As antirationalists—in Carr [End Page 130]and Ivanhoe's view—they only rejected the fact that reason alone would enable one to choose and pursue the adequate way of life. Whereas Zhuangzi is said to have advocated a middle path between reason and emotions by affirming the existence of a "natural self " (pp. 40, 74) and by emphasizing the primacy of spontaneity and immediacy over the detached and deceitful use of lucid reason, the antirationalist aspect of Kierkegaard's thought is found in an irreconcilable and ongoing struggle between faith and reason allowing for a passionate inner leap by virtue of the absurd. Because the content of genuine faith is given by an empirical and objective (and hence historical) truth that is by the same stroke fundamentally transcendent, Kierkegaard was forced, according to Carr and Ivanhoe, to describe the Christian faith in a purely phenomenological manner. Being the unjustifiable encounter between two incommensurable realities—a pure, eternal, and transcendent God and a sinful, temporal, and immanent humanity—the condition of Jesus Christ (with which the true Christian has the task of becoming contemporary) must always remain paradoxical. If the Eastern master encouraged us to see ourselves as parts of the Great Dao that works its own way without any rational justification, the Western religious thinker put forward a cure that involves a transcendent horizon (completely absent in the Zhuangzi) that brings reason to a halt and constitutes a constant incentive to believe passionately in an essentially absurd existential status of the God-man exemplar.
Carr and Ivanhoe ascribe...