Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ante-AntiRationalism

Scott Bradley


It is often the case that I begin to formulate my responses to what I am reading before I have allowed the author to make his or her point. This has the advantage of allowing me to engage in dialogue more out of my own thinking than as affected by the author's — though, after millennia of human thought, every idea is derivative, still there can sometimes be a greater degree of originality in pre-informed thought than in informed. It has the disadvantage of jumping the gun and assigning ideas to the author which she or he does not in fact espouse. As long as we understand the totality of our blabber as simply that, however, little harm is done.

In the present instance, I am responding to Ivanhoe and Carr's premise in The Sense of Antirationalism: The Religious Thought of Zhuangzi and Kierkegaard that these two philosophers were "antirationalists". I find this term unhelpful and far off the mark, at least in the case of Zhuangzi. I should say at the beginning that my critique is largely pedantic; it is the term itself that I find un-Zhuangzian, not how it is interpreted.

I would suggest that to declare Zhuangzi definitively "anti-" anything is to obscure the depth of his thought. If anything, he was "pro" everything — up to a point. Perhaps I am oversensitive to the occasionally ill-considered word. Here are two more that have already occurred in the book: salvation and disaster. Zhuangzi is described as having a project of "salvation"; salvation from what? Salvation from psychological bondage, yes; but this is not what is actually implied by the term. Zhuangzi's entire philosophy rests on the premise that no salvation could possibly be necessary. Zhuangzi, we are told, believed that the Confucian path would lead to terrible "disaster". It might lead to humiliation, a life of internal conflict and early death, yes; but none of this is a disaster. For Zhuangzi no true disaster could ever be possible. Yes, I am being pedantic, but words matter if we are truly to enable the spirit of philosophical Daoism to speak.

Hopefully enough space remains to actually address the topic at hand. Rationalism is loosely defined as the belief (!) that only through the exercise of reason and empirical inquiry can reality be known. Antirationalism is the belief that reason is a wonderful tool of limited value when addressing the deepest questions of life. For these, something non-rational, intuitional and immediate, is required. Irrationalism, on the other hand, is understood as a rejection of the legitimate findings of reason, something that antirationalism would never do.

Zhuangzi speaks of the perfection of reason as when it reaches and understands its limits. And this is where his project of transcendent experience begins. Though it is true that Zhuangzi was opposed to rationalism understood as reason which oversteps its bounds, we would do better, I think, to describe this philosophical point of view as "meta-rational" — that which incorporates and yet goes beyond reason — rather than "anti-" another point of view.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

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