Questioning the Supremacy of Reason


Part 2

The attempted correspondence between Girard’s mimesis and the Buddhist interdependence now calls for the unveiling of certain implications. Before dwelling into the realm of ethics, we shall see how, on matters of rationality and reason too, and first, Girard’s theory and Buddhist philosophy seem to be profoundly in agreement.

If Western philosophy were to be brought back to the history of one key concept, it may probably be just this one: Reason. Or rather — that it may be only at times the explicit object of philosophical enquiry, but always the silent background tone. In the early centuries of pre-Socratic philosophy, several of the Ionian thinkers tried to explore the core concept of Logos. With Plato, the light of enquiry, that is, reason, became gatekeeper to allow one access to, and understanding of the ideal nature of reality. Scott Garrels comments: “In his pursuit of objective truth and ethical grounds for the moral life, Plato believed that reason alone was capable of perceiving directly these most absolute forms of reality.” 1 And many centuries later, with Descartes, forefather of modern philosophy, it is a process of reasonable doubt that could confirm the fundamental and revolutionary philosophical realisation, cogito ergo sum. Seemingly, a majority of authorities in the traditions of Western philosophy have assumed, or concluded, a certain self-sustainability, evidence, independence or primacy of Reason. Our use and even our conception of philosophy are so soaked in a belief of the supremacy of reason that we struggle to even think of a philosophical endeavour able to avoid, confront, and more, transcend this still too unquestioned reliance. This is one of the challenges that Buddhism undertook, many centuries ago, in its initial discursive form as well as in its later technical systematisation through the Buddhist schools of thought.

Nāgārjuna, the 2nd c. CE Indian philosopher, is generally regarded as the second most important figure of Buddhism after the Buddha, for its role in setting most of the foundations for Mahāyāna Buddhism, the later movement of the Buddhist tradition, found today prominently in Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan and traced in the Buddhism popular in the west. The proponent of the Mādhyamika School is recognised as a fantastic technician, who tried to apply Buddha’s teachings in a systematic manner, especially through his masterpiece, the Madhyamakakārikā (Great Verses on the Middle Way). Nearly two millennia before Derrida, Nāgārjuna aimed at targeting a number of conceptual formations in order to show their leaks and ultimately their groundlessness. The concept of Śūnyatā, or emptiness, particularly central in Mahāyāna Buddhism, is generally connected to his scholarship. The idea of emptiness suggests that all objects of the world lack an intrinsic essence, because they are only the crossing points of ever-changing cause-and-effect phenomena. 2 Thus Śūnyatā is an extension of the concept of Anattā, prevalent in the early Hīnāyana Buddhism: it is the non-self, not only of beings (Anattā) but of all phenomenal things. 3 All objects of the world, including ideas and concepts, can be proved to be mere combinations of other elements, through a process of analytical reasoning that Nāgārjuna named Catuskoti or Four-Fold Dialectics. Through this method, he deconstructed philosophical concepts such as existence, causation, or time, and even more cardinal Buddhist notions such as Nirvāṇa or the Buddha himself. All such concepts vanish through a careful investigation, and their emptiness is revealed.

guill top right

The supremacy of reason is questioned. Reason is not anymore an initiator, but a byproduct: it is not reason that guides human life but certain drives of human life that affect the way we reason.

guill bottom left

In his classic study of Madhyamika philosophy, C.W. Huntington further clarifies the Buddhist perspective on reason, as drawn from the works of Nāgārjuna and his follower Candrakīrti. Nāgārjuna’s method aims at exposing, from within, the unsaid ontological and epistemological assumptions of any rational undertaking: “The Mādhyamika’s deconstructive analysis tries to illuminate and dissolve this presupposition [of rationalistic ‘grids’ to understand reality] by turning epistemological and ontological language back on itself so that is devours itself whole, without leaving a trace.” 4 Thus are revealed the necessary ontological and epistemological components of any philosophical endeavour: the questionable and reductive assumptions that there is something rather than nothing, and that something is known, or can be known. The supremacy of reason is questioned. Reason is not anymore an initiator, but a byproduct: it is not reason that guides human life but certain drives of human life that affect the way we reason. Huntington explains: “Treading the path means cultivating perfect wisdom, and the cultivation of perfect wisdom initially entails a rigorous reevaluation of empirical experience, culminating in the realization that our concepts and percepts have been profoundly influenced by inherited belief structures that cannot be entirely illuminated by any strictly rationalistic analysis.” 5 Reason cannot rule over reality, precisely because reason is also a conditioned, that is, a contextual product: “… all experience is radically contextual. All things are necessarily conditioned and quite empty of independent existence. All words are contingent and devoid of fixed, referential meaning.” 6 This explains why concepts too are void of independent existence. They are parts of a nexus of interdependent phenomena: “Eventually it becomes apparent that any form of meaning (truth) and existence (reality) is bound up in this deeply paradoxical nexus of interpenetrating relations.” 7

line 1

“The Mādhyamika’s deconstructive analysis tries to illuminate and dissolve this presupposition [of rationalistic ‘grids’ to understand reality] by turning epistemological and ontological language back on itself so that is devours itself whole, without leaving a trace.” ― C.W. Huntington

line 2

The problem is not philosophy as such, but the reflex of limiting philosophy to the attainment of rational standpoints. Buddhism invites us to bring philosophy further ahead, beyond the reductive boundaries of reason. When Huntington explains that Buddhism finds a use for philosophy as a propaganda, 8 he may mean that the intellectualised, rational approach to aspects of reality (for instance to Anattā) is a proper entry to a more correct understanding of truth, but that this understanding must be deepened through another, complementary and completing approach: the Buddhist practice. Only the latter can introduce “perceptions that cannot form part of the existing perceptual world.” 9 Philosophy is a propaganda: it is to be believed until one realises its limitations and its necessarily conventional truth, in order to start exploring the deeper levels of reality.

In the oeuvre of René Girard, one would hardly find a technical critique of rationality in a properly philosophical language, but he nonetheless truly expresses his doubts as to the alleged self-sufficiency of reason. Commenting on the appeal to reason, through the course of his literary study of mimetic desires, Girard explains that this human faculty is rather an excuse, a cover for deeper human phenomena: “The victims of metaphysical desire always choose their political, philosophical, and religious ideas to fit their hatred; thought is no more than a weapon for an affronted consciousness.” 10 In his view, it seems that reason is not the foundational energy initiating human passions and actions, as we think of it after Plato or the European Enlightenment, but an a posteriori add-on only serving to provide a sense of confirmation.

guill top left

“It will perhaps have been our last mythology. We “believed” in reason, as people used to believe in the gods.” ― René Girard

guill bottom right

On another occasion, Girard presents rationalism as ‘our last mythology’: “The rationalism that you mention was not real distancing, but a dike that is in the process of giving way. In this, it will perhaps have been our last mythology. We “believed” in reason, as people used to believe in the gods. August Comte’s formidable naïveté is a clear symptom of this.” 11 Further, the leap spanned between the Buddha to Nāgārjuna, where a critique of the heteronomy of the self is expanded into one of reason altogether, may also be found in Girard’s reflection: “The further man strays from God, Dostoyevsky tells us, the deeper he plunges into the irrational, at first in the name of reason and finally in his own name.” 12 First come the mimetic energy and its damages, then arrives reason which attempts, in vain, a late justification, and finally, remains the solipsistic faith in the self as an ultimate, yet completely illusory, mirage.

In his later works, Girard continues to address the powerlessness of reason in front of the devastations of mimesis. In Battling to the End, for instance, he uses, with Benoît Chantre, the couple of concepts of rational model and mimetic model, where the former is still subsidiary to the latter: “The rational model tries to oppose the mimetic model, which is always stuck on a single figure who has become a rival or an obstacle. The rational model cannot thwart mimetism. Mimetism’s law is implacable, as Clausewitz constantly reminds us.” 13 Reasonable analysis and opposition to the mimesis of humans are thus, too, inevitably bound to fail.

Interestingly, both Girard and Buddha encourage a pragmatic growth over abstract refinements, and this may be observed in the very form they adopted to share their results. These confirm the aforementioned awareness of reason’s fundamental “weakness” to express a certain depth of truth. Neither the Buddha, through his dialogues, and Girard, through his literary analysis, did rely on abstract demonstrations, but rather, on illustrated stories. On the one hand are the similes of the Buddha, meant to be easily understood by all. On the other hand are the life stories told by Cervantes, Proust or Dostoyevsky and commented upon by Girard. Girard decided to present a highly intellectual concept of interdividual psychology through a series of life stories, rather than through a list of arguments, and through the lenses of novelists rather than through that of philosophers. In both cases, the two thinkers could have had appeal to abstract, logical propositions to express their thought but, probably aware of the limits of these means, they preferred having a more pragmatic way of conveying their information, through the stories of actual human beings.

These characters, in Buddha’s similes and in the literary studies of Girard, are like models to us. they present a life journey that may be ours, with its obstacles, its mistakes and its possible solutions. And this brings us to the final level of resourcefulness of both the Mimetic Theory and the Buddhist worldview: ethics.


Image courtesy: Wired



  1. Scott R. Garrels, “Human Imitation: Historical, Philosophical, and Scientific Perspective,” in Mimesis and Science, ed. Garrels (East Lansing, USA: Michigan State University, 2011), 5-6.
  2. Paul Williams, “Nāgārjuna,” in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Burswell (New York, USA: Macmillan, 2004), 581.
  3. Roger R. Jackson, “Śūnyatā (emptiness),” in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, ed. Burswell (New York, USA: Macmillan, 2004), 809-810). Neil Ormerod has reached a conclusion similar to the one developed in my “The Non-Self of Girard”, but through a slightly more direct argument: Buddhism considers all conditioned things as heteronomous, and desire is one of them, therefore desire, too is interdependent (Neil Ormerod, “Questioning desire: Lonergan, Girard and Buddhism,” to appear in Louvain Studies: 22).
  4. C.W. Huntington, with Geshé Namgyal Wangchen, The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Mādhyamika (Delhi: Motilal Barnasidass, 1992), 107.
  5. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness, 109.
  6. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness, 109.
  7. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness, 110.
  8. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness, 111-112.
  9. Huntington, The Emptiness of Emptiness, 108.
  10. René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 158.
  11. René Girard, with Benoît Chantre. Battling to the End, trans. Mary Baker (East Lansing, USA: Michigan State University, 2010), 119.
  12. Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel, 157.
  13. Girard, Battling to the End, 131.