Review of The Sense of Antirationalism: The Religious Thought of Zhuangzi and Kierkegaard

by Karen L. Carr, Philip J. Ivanhoe
Book Reviewed
Book Title
The Sense of Antirationalism: The Religious Thought of Zhuangzi and Kierkegaard
Book Author
Karen L. Carr, Philip J. Ivanhoe
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Place of Publication
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Robert Elliott Allinson
The Journal of Religion
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September 24th, 2012

Book Reviews

On the whole, the book is a fine introduction to a philosopher particularly difficult to introduce. And while Antonaccio may not have supplied all the details the reader would like, she has provided a spacious and useful framework in which those details can be fitted, once they have been supplied. KELLYDUN JOLLEY,

Auburn Universzty.


PHILIPJ. The Sense of Antzrattonalzsm: The Relzgtous Thought of Zhuangzt and Kierkegaard. New York and London: Seven Bridges Press, 2000. 158 pp. $23.95 (cloth).

This book is cowritten in a lively, engaging form by Karen Carr, from the discipline of religious studies and Philip Ivanhoe, whose background is in the disciplines of religious studies and Asian languages and philosophy. Unlike typical coauthorship, these two authors write separate pieces about Zhuangzi and SGren Kierkegaard and then together offer a combined vision. Refreshingly, the empha- sis is on contrast of exemplars of two different and irreconcilable ways instead of comparison between similar thinkers. In a striking passage. which sums up the book, the authors, writing jointly, aver: "This contrast-between an inherently healthy and harmonious, prerational self in the Zhuangzi and an inherently cor- rupted and defiled self in Kierkegaard's writings-is perhaps the most profound and dramatic difference between their respective positions" (p. 89).

The authors unite these thinkers under the rubric of antirationalism: "We came to believe and have argued that the most characteristic features of antirationalist thinkers are that they do not wholly reject rationality but they also find it not only inadequate but potentially inimical to a proper appreciation of the truth" (p. 118). Perhaps this tendency would be better described by the phrase "limited rational- ity," since the "antirationalist thinkers . . . do not wholly reject rationality." For ex- ample, it is stated that Kierkegaard was not an irrationalist (p. 29). The authors point out that "it is helpful to recognize that both Zhuangzi and Kierkegaard were antirationalists but their antirationalisms are distinct in form, function differently and lead toward profoundly dissimilar religious goals" (p. 57). With such wide gaps, is the concept of antirationalism-which, the authors acknowledge, derives from Angus Graham (pp. 117, 130)-sufficient to bring these two thinkers to- gether? Despite the possible limitations of this bridging concept, this book has much to offer.

In CarrS account of Kierkegaard, her interpretation of the story of Abraham and Isaac is very different from the view that the Knight of Faith holds his faith in fear and trembling. For her, Fear and Tremblzng "is . . . a discussion of Abra- ham\ willingness to sacrifice Isaac because G-d told him to" (p. 105). However, Kierkegaard "rejects all ownership of the ideas expressed in the pseudonymous works" (p. 106). And, "the pseudonymous authorship [here referring to Fear and Trembltng as a case in point] on a general level, represents Kierkegaard's effort to provoke the individual into thinking about what different types of living mean, even as he attempts through it to distance himself from the reader's project"

106). In the authors'joint conclusion, however, the story of Abraham and Isaac is taken as representative of Kierkegaard's position-not as one of his pseudony- mous positions-and as "one of his most famous and powerful discussions"
119). Which version is the reader to choose? Is this another Eitherlor? Is Kierkegaard distancing himself from this version? Or is this "one of hzs most fa- mous and powerful discussions" (emphasis added)?

TheJournal of Religion

This question discloses a deeper question. For these authors, Kierkegaard's ver- sion of the story of Abraham and Isaac serves as an example that drives a wedge be- tween Kierkegaard and Zhuangzi. In theirjoint conclusion, the authors state: "The remarkable commitment that Kierkegaard's vision demands is captured well in one of his most famous and powerful discussions: the story ofAbraham and Isaac. The idea that not only something but everything depends upon one's relationship to G-d is brought home with more precision and power when compared to Zhu- angzi's naturalized form of religion. . . . Kierkegaard's position seems not merely absurd but unthinkable from the Daoist point of view, which seeks to return to what it believes to be the underlying harmony between us and the world" (p. 119).

For Kierkegaard, to follow G-d, one must throw ethics away. This kind of blind

faith is not to be found in Zhuangzi. As the authors write together, "One cannot

imagine Zhuangzi-or any Confucian thinker-invoking an example such as

the parable of Abraham and Isaac" (p. xv). Is the reader intended to reduce this

difference via the single author's device of claiming this to represent Kierkegaard's

pseudonymous works? Unless this is a delicious attempt at postmodern irony,

Kierkegaard's distancing himself from his own writings (the story of Abraham and

Isaac in particular) would make Kierkegaard into a skeptic and would then ally

him more closely with the view taken of Zhuangzi as a skeptic. But this is not the

course that is taken in this book. In both their introduction and their conclusion

the joint personae consider the story of Abraham and Isaac an unbridgeable di-

vider between the two thinkers. But if this story is one from which Kierkegaard

himself distances himself, how can it be attributed to him? And if it is not attrib-

uted to him, then how can it be used as evidence of Kierkegaard's position as

contrasted with that of Zhuangzi? Without Fear and Trembling as evidence of

Kierkegaard, it is difficult to sustain the contrast between Kierkegaard and



For the joint personae, "Zhuangzi ends his life as he has lived it, in practice, a

happy skeptic" (p. 7). Did Zhuangzi live his life as a happy skeptic? "Sometimes

clashing with things, sometimes bending before them, he runs his course like a gal-

loping steed, and nothing can stop him. Is he not pathetic? Sweating and laboring

to the end of his days and never seeing his accomplishment, utterly exhausting

himself and never knowing where to look for rest-can you help pitying him? I'm

not dead yet! he says, but what good is that? His body decays, his mind follows it-

can you deny that this is a great sorrow? Man's life has always been a muddle like

this. How could I be the only muddled one, and other men not muddled?" Is this

Zhuangzi who is writing, or Kierkegaard? It is Zhuangzi in his second chapter, not

the existentialist Kierkegaard. Part of this passage is quoted (not the part that in-

cludes the self-reference) and interpreted as a description of those seduced by so-

ciety who have not mastered the Daoist way (p. 61). But where is the evidence for

this interpretation? In light of the self-reference, Zhuangzi himself must be in-

cluded in this group. If so, this quotation from Zhuangzi is inconsistent with one

term of the authors' contrast, the term describing Zhuangzi versus Kierkegaard in

the passage quoted at the beginning of this review (p. 89).But if Zhuangzi himself

thinks (sometimes) that life "is a great sorrow," then can this be taken as evidence

of a harmonious self? It also sounds like a very rational self in its reasoning about

life. But without Zhuangzi's harmonious, prerational self, it becomes difficult to

use a harmonious, prerational self in Zhuangzi to maintain the contrast between

Zhuangzi and Kierkegaard.

Sometimes the authors of this book adopt a view that Zhuangzi's project is one of transformation of the reader: "Zhuangzi offered the Daoist vision, according to

Book Reviews

which individuals were to . . . learn to hear and heed the spontaneous inclinations and tendencies of the Heavenly duo" (p. 29). Involving Zhuangzi in a transforma- tive quest, albeit to a different goal, would certainly be one that would be held in common with Kierkegaard. But if Zhuangzi is a skeptic, what sense can be made from such passages in his second chapter as "and someday there will be a great awakening when we know that this is all a great dream" (Chunang Tzu, Basic Writ- ings [New York: Columbia University Press, 19641, p. 43)? Is this skepticism? Would skepticism permit the view that we can know the distinction between real- ity and illusion? But if Zhuangzi is not a skeptic, then skepticism cannot be relied upon as a means to contrast ~huangzi with ~ierkegaard.

Perhaps the problem lies in the immensely complex and sometimes self- conflicting thought of each thinker (Zhuangzi and Kierkegaard) that makes them notoriously difficult to interpret singly, not to speak of in tandem. Or, perhaps neither thinker thought his own answers adequate to his own great questions. Nonetheless, they are very different from each other. As the authors write in their joint personae, "the radical nature of their respective positions is more fully seen when each is read in light of the other" (p. xv).

The two authors are to be congratulated for this in-depth interchange both with each other and with these two iconoclastic thinkers. It is hoped that this innova- tive genre-a study of contrasts that partially crosses disciplines, maintains the in- tegrity of each coauthor, and yet attempts a comprehensive vision-will provide inspiration for comparative studies in the future. ROBERTELLIOTTALLINSON,

The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

DE VRIES, HENT. Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectiz~es from Kant to Derrida. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. xxiii+443 pp. $55.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

This book is a welcome exploration of the link between violence and religion, a linkage that, the author argues, spills over into philosophical and ethical thinking, manifesting itself in some of modernity's most cherished secular ideals, such as "Enlightenment," "democracy," and "cosmopolitanism." In a series of four densely written but compelling chapters, Hent de Vries offers a probing rendering of Jacques Derrida in the light of figures ranging from Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, and Walter Benjamin to Emmanuel LCvinas and Michel de Certeau. The author suggests not only that the public and political arenas of human action are always already overdetermined by the "religious" (i.e., God, the other, faith, miracle, testimony, sacrifice) but that religion itself is noteworthy-indeed, exemplary-because it illustrates the operative "pervertibility" of any decision, any act of responsibility, religious or not.

The basic thesis of Religion and Violence is that the "transcendental historicity" of religious, ethical, and political witness entails an aporetic testimonial logic that makes violence practically inescapable. De Vries sets this up masterfully in a treat- ment of Kant's distinction between "pure" (moral, rational, true) religion and re- ligion infected by alien, nonreligious elements, by error. Following Derrida's lead, de Vries notes how "pure" religion's sense of absolute responsibility requires the critique, censorship, indeed sacrifice, of nonreligious elements in order to miti- gate heteronomy and radical evil. Yet the truth of religion itself is indeterminate and contentless, existing only supplemented by the shapes of determinate, singu- lar ("revealed") testimonies, the likes of which "can only approximate [their]

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