One of the most distinguished analytical philosophers, Putnam has written an unusual book that uses the thought of key philosophers to find points of commonality between the religious and the philosophical.
Distinguished philosopher Hilary Putnam, who is also a practicing Jew, questions the thought of three major Jewish philosophers of the 20th century—Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas—to help him reconcile the philosophical and religious sides of his life. An additional presence in the book is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, although not a
Distinguished philosopher Hilary Putnam, who is also a practicing Jew, questions the thought of three major Jewish philosophers of the 20th century—Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas—to help him reconcile the philosophical and religious sides of his life. An additional presence in the book is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who, although not a practicing Jew, thought about religion in ways that Putnam juxtaposes to the views of Rosenzweig, Buber, and Levinas. Putnam explains the leading ideas of each of these great thinkers, bringing out what, in his opinion, constitutes the decisive intellectual and spiritual contributions of each of them. Although the religion discussed is Judaism, the depth and originality of these philosophers, as incisively interpreted by Putnam, make their thought nothing less than a guide to life.
One of the most distinguished analytical philosophers, Putnam has written an unusual book that uses the thought of key philosophers to find points of commonality between the religious and the philosophical.
"Putnam is a master teacher, and his elucidations of four difficult thinkers are valuable in themselves." —Shofar, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2010
"Written by the distinguished emeritus professor of analytical philosophy, this intriguing little study is a concise presentation of three figures in modern Jewish thought: Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas." —AJS Review, Vol. 33/2
"In yoking Jewish thought to his efforts to give philosophy a human face, and in giving us glimpses of three men who helped shape a vibrant and beautiful form of Jewish thought, Hilary Putnam—to his profit, and to ours—has sided with Isaiah." —FIRST THINGS, October 2008
"Hilary Putman has been in the thick of philosophical discussion for more than half a century... engagingly personal... there are interesting, characteristically Putnamian insights to be had throughout." —Abraham Socher, Times Literary Supplement, November 7, 2008
"... Putnam has... discovered a barely contemplated terrain, where American pragmatism and Continental Jewish existentialism are happily intermarried. Mazel tov." —Michael Fagenblat, Common Knowledge, Volume 15, Number 2 (rec'd 6/09)
"Philosopher Hilary Putnam, who is also a practicing Jew, examines the thought of three major Jewish philosophers of the 20th century—Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas—to help him reconcile the philosophical and religious sides of his life.... Although the religion discussed is Judaism, the depth and originality of these philosophers, as incisively interpreted by Putnam, make their thought nothing less than a guide to life." —Joseph Haberer, Book Editor, SHOFAR, Vol. 28.1 Fall 2009
"In these attractive and important essays, Hilary Putnam, one of the most brilliant, influential, and important philosophers of the second half of the 20th century, invites us to listen in as he talks about how his turn to Judaism has involved an encounter with these major Jewish philosophers and thinkers and what the result has been in terms of the significance of Judaism for him and potentially for others." —Michael L. Morgan, author of Interim Judaism
Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein
In 1997 a long-lost notebook of Wittgenstein's was published under the title Denkbewegungen (Thought-movements). Wittgenstein had recorded this notebook in Cambridge in the years 1930–1932 and then again at Skjolden in Norway in 1936–1937.
The first remark in the notebook (in my translation) reads: "Without some courage, one cannot write a sensible remark about oneself." The second remark consists of just three words: "I believe sometimes" [Ich glaube manchmal] (19).
Ludwig Wittgenstein is not a "Jewish philosopher," despite his Jewish ancestry. He came, after all, from a family that had been Christian for two generations, and whose own religious reflections, although certainly relevant to those who think about the philosophy of religion, were rarely on the Jewish religion, about which there is no reason to suppose he had any substantial knowledge. Nonetheless, I am going to discuss a certain similarity I find in Wittgenstein's attitudes toward philosophy and those of Franz Rosenzweig, one of the best-known Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century.
Wittgenstein is often thought of as virtually a "debunker" of philosophy, an "antiphilosopher," whose mission was to expose as confusions the problems that are of major concern to professional philosophers. And in fact, in Philosophical Investigations, §464 he himself described the aim of his later philosophy in this way: "to take you from something which is disguised nonsense to something which is undisguised nonsense," and thus to show that the "disguised nonsense"—the grand philosophical "positions"—that so enchanted us was really patent nonsense all along. It is for this reason that Peter Gordon has criticized me for daring to compare Wittgenstein to Rosenzweig (in a book I very much admire, nonetheless). For Gordon, Wittgenstein is simply a philosopher who "meant to argue ... that philosophy is a disease, and that we require only a therapy that will remind us of those common meanings that generally worked for us when we were going on about our daily and unphilosophical affairs." Needless to say, I would never have made the comparison I did, and that I shall repeat in the present volume, if I thought this was an accurate description of Wittgenstein.
In fact, this is an erroneous way to view Wittgenstein, as it considers his main concern to be that which is discussed in departments of philosophy. But the tendency to become enchanted with nonsense, and to try to force reality—or, as Rosenzweig will say, Man, World, and God—to allow itself to be seen through the lens of inappropriate pictures, is neither the monopoly nor the creation of professional philosophy. What concerned Wittgenstein was something that he saw as lying deep in our lives with language (and he certainly did not think one could be "cured" of it once and for all, and certainly not by simply being reminded "of those common meanings that generally worked for us when we were going on about our daily and unphilosophical affairs"). If one really understands Wittgenstein, then one will see that the need for and the value of escaping the grip of inappropriate conceptual pictures is literally ubiquitous. The pursuit of clarity that Wittgenstein's work was meant to exemplify needs to go on whenever we engage in serious reflection. If this idea is grasped, we will see that far from being a way of bringing an end to philosophy, it represents a way to bring philosophical reflection to areas in which we often fail to see anything philosophical at all.
Moreover—and this, I believe, is of utmost importance for understanding Wittgenstein—Wittgenstein never accepted the facile idea that religion is essentially a conceptual confusion or collection of confusions. To be sure, there are confusions to which religious people are subject, ranging from superstition to a temptation on which Wittgenstein remarks more than once in his Nachlass, the temptation to make religion into a theory rather than (what he thought it should be) a deep-going way of life. This is a temptation that Kierkegaard devoted much of his writing to combating as well, and is, I believe, one reason for Wittgenstein's lifelong interest in Kierkegaard. But to consider religion as essentially "prescientific thinking," as something that must be simply rejected as nonsense after "the Enlightenment," is itself an example of a conceptual confusion for Wittgenstein, an example of being in the grip of a picture. This is why Wittgenstein attacked the way in which anthropologists were viewing primitive religion decades before it became "politically correct" to do so, and the notes that we have of his fascinating "lectures on religious belief" show that he was largely concerned to defamiliarize religious belief, to get us to see how unique a way of living and a way of conceptualizing it is. It is not that Wittgenstein was against enlightenment (without the capital E); it would be more accurate to say that he attacked the antireligious aspect of the "Enlightenment with a capital E" in the name of enlightenment itself.
I began with a quotation from Wittgenstein. My next quoted comment is from the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria. I encountered his remark in a favorite book—Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life. In this brilliant collection of essays, one of the great historians of ancient philosophy argues that we fundamentally misunderstand the nature of all ancient philosophical schools if we think of ancientphilosophia as the academic philosophy of modern or even late-medieval times. He uses the following words of Philo's to illustrate the idea of philosophy as "a mode of existing-in-the-world, which had to be practiced at each instant; and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual's life":
Every person—whether Greek or barbarian—who is in training for wisdom, leading a blameless irreproachable life, chooses neither to commit injustice nor return it to others, but to avoid the company of busybodies, and hold in contempt the places where they spend their time—courts, councils, marketplaces, assemblies—in short, every kind of meeting or reunion of thoughtless people.... Such people consider the whole world as their city, and its citizens are the companions of wisdom; they have received their civic rights from virtue, which has been entrusted with presiding over the universal commonwealth. To be sure, there are only a small number of such people; they are like embers of wisdom kept smoldering in our cities so that virtue may not altogether be snuffed out and disappear from our race. But if only people everywhere felt the same way as this small number, and became as nature meant for them to be: blameless, irreproachable, and lovers of wisdom, rejoicing in the beautiful just because it is beautiful, and considering that there is no other good besides it ... then our cities would be brimful of happiness.
Pierre Hadot is no philosophical reactionary. He does not believe that we can simply return to one or another of the ancient philosophical schools. But he does believe that the ancient idea of transforming one's way of life and one's understanding of one's place in the larger scheme of things and in the human community is one that we must not lose. Philosophy certainly needs analysis of arguments and logical techniques, but is in danger of forgetting that these were originally in the service of this very idea.
I have begun with this idea, the idea of philosophy (or philosophia) as a way of life and not an academic discipline, because three philosophers I shall be discussing in this small book—Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas—are thinkers who very much represent the ancient tradition that Hadot writes about. I also believe, even if it is less obvious on the surface, that Ludwig Wittgenstein is of the same vein.
I already mentioned that for Wittgenstein religion, at its best, was not a theory. He was aware, of course, that religion often includes belief in miracles, or in an afterlife, or both. But even these beliefs, he argued, were not like scientific beliefs; for Wittgenstein "words only have meaning in the stream of life," and the role that such beliefs play in the life of the believer is wholly different from the role that empirical beliefs play. The idea that religion can either be criticized or defended by appeals to scientific fact seemed to him a mistake. And I am sure that Wittgenstein, like Kierkegaard, would have regarded the idea of "proving" the truth of the Jewish or the Christian or the Muslim religion by "historical evidence" as a profound confusion of realms, a confusion of the inner transformation in one's life that he saw as the true function of religion, with the goals and activities of scientific explanation and prediction. And I believe one finds a very similar attitude expressed when Rosenzweig discusses revelation. For example, in his great open letter to Martin Buber titled "The Builders," Rosenzweig attributes to Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), the great founder of neo-orthodoxy in Germany, the claim that the giving of the Torah at Sinai is a historical fact. Rosenzweig's response is interesting. He does not deny that traditional Jews believed in this "fact," but he questions whether traditional Jews were concerned with the epistemological question "why believe in Judaism," and whether they had just one reason for their way of life:
But for those living without questions," he writes, "this reason for keeping the Law was only one among others, and probably not the most cogent. No doubt the Torah, both written and oral, was given Moses on Sinai, but was it not created before the creation of the world? [Rosenzweig here and in the rest of this passage is referring to stories contained in the Talmud and midrash]. Written against a background of shining fire in letters of somber flame? And was not the world created for its sake? And did Adam's son Seth not found the first house of study for the teaching of the Torah? And did not the patriarchs keep the Law for half a millennium before Sinai? ...
The "only" of orthodoxy should no more frighten us away from the Law than the "only" of liberalism ... Judaism includes these "onlies," but not in the sense of "onlies." The problem of the Law cannot be dispatched by merely affirming or denying the pseudo-historical theory of its origin or the pseudo-juristic theory of its power to obligate, theories which Hirsch's orthodoxy made the foundation of a rigid and narrow structure, unbeautiful despite its magnificence. Similarly as with [Jewish] teaching, which cannot be dispatched by affirming or denying the pseudo-logical theory of the unity of God, or the pseudo-ethical theory of the love of one's neighbor, with which Geiger's liberalism painted the façade of the new business or apartment house of emancipated Jewry. These are pseudo-historical, pseudo-juristic, pseudo-logical, pseudo-ethical motives: for a miracle does not constitute history, a people is not a juridical fact, martyrdom is not an arithmetical problem, and love is not social. We can reach both the teachings and the Law only by realizing that we are still on the very first lap of the way, and by taking every step upon it ourselves.
In a similar vein, Rosenzweig wrote, "It would be necessary [for the person who has succeeded in saying "nothing Jewish is alien to me"] to free himself from those stupid claims that would impose 'Juda-ism' on him as a canon of definite, circumscribed 'Jewish duties' (vulgar orthodoxy), or 'Jewish tasks' (vulgar Zionism), or 'God forbid' 'Jewish ideas' (vulgar liberalism)." But in "The Builders" and in other writings as well, Rosenzweig expresses disagreements with Buber's too antinomian version of Judaism as well as with Hirsch's too rigid one and Abraham Geiger's too intellectual one. Thus in his most famous work, The Star of Redemption, Rosenzweig writes, "The presentness of the miracle of revelation is and remains its content; its historicity, however, is its ground and warrant." The first part of this sentence formulates a point of agreement with the dialogic philosophy of Rosenzweig's good friend, Martin Buber; the second part insists that subjective experiences of presentness must show their meaning and warrant in history, which is something Buber never says. Judaism must not be reduced to a dead set of observances, or even to a modern set of slogans or an ideology; on the other hand, Judaism is nothing without historic continuity. Whereas Buber constantly dichotomizes, separating Judaism, and, in fact, every religion, into meaningful elements, which he identifies with, first, an a-conceptual and, indeed, unconceptualizable moment of dialogic relationship to God, the famous I/Thou moment, and, secondly (as we shall see in chapter 3), the transformatory effects of that moment upon one's subsequent life in the "It-world," and meaningless elements, which he identifies with dogmas and rules, Rosenzweig stresses interdependence. Gesetz (Law), Rosenzweig tells Buber in "The Builders," may not have religious meaning, but it always has the potential to become something more than Gesetz, to become Gebot (divine bidding). After all, Jewish education, which Buber values as much as Rosenzweig, is not a matter of "I/Thou" experiences. But we go through the "dry" spells, the preliminaries, the study of biblical and postbiblical Hebrew and Aramaic, the acquisition of facts, and so on, for the sake of what they make possible: the genuine learning which justifies all the hard work that came before. Similarly, keeping a "mitzvah" (a part of the Jewish Law) can, as a result of our "inertia," seem mere legislation, mere Gesetz, but as a result of our study and devotion, our attentiveness and openness to the divine, it can also become a divine command, a Gebot. Law, in its essential duality as Gesetz-potential-Gebot is not to be seen as a meaningless shell that has crystallized (or ossified) around the living heart of Judaism, which is how Buber (at the time Rosenzweig wrote "The Builders") seemed to see it.
Rosenzweig and Metaphysics
Most of us who try to learn about Rosenzweig begin with his magnum opus, The Star of Redemption, and I shall defer my discussion of that work (or rather, of a part of that work) to the next chapter. In the present chapter, I shall discuss a much more accessible work, the charming little book titled Understanding the Sick and the Healthy. Rosenzweig's philosophy is sometimes characterized as "existentialist," and the "target" of Understanding the Sick and the Healthy has often been taken to be "German idealist philosophy." The first of these characterizations is correct, provided one's paradigm of existentialism is the religious existentialism of, say, Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, or even the highly personal existentialism of Nietzsche before The Genealogy of Morals and The Will to Power, rather than the more tendentious and phenomenological existentialism of Sartre. It is also true that a major target of The Star of Redemption was Hegel's philosophy. But to think that the satirical description of metaphysics in Understanding the Sick and the Healthy was only directed against German Idealism is to miss something very important: that Rosenzweig's attack in this book, just as much as Wittgenstein's, is an attack on a pervasive philosophical illusion, an illusion that Rosenzweig describes as the illusion that philosophy can deliver knowledge of "essences" (a knowledge unknown to ordinary common sense). That is why in Understanding the Sick and the Healthy, Rosenzweig mockingly describes ideas drawn from materialism, empiricism, positivism, Hans Vaihinger's then well-known philosophy of "As If" [Als Ob], and not just Idealist ideas. Moreover, Understanding the Sick and the Healthy was intended for a general reader, and Rosenzweig certainly did not think that the typical assimilated German Jew of his time was in danger of becoming a convert to Hegelian or post-Hegelian metaphysics. What "philosophy" represents in Rosenzweig's Understanding the Sick and the Healthy is not a technical subject at all, but a temptation to which all who think of themselves as religious may be subject at one time or another. "If this were merely some philosopher's personal concern," Rosenzweig writes, "we would not object; there are so few philosophers, even taking into account the assorted breeds. But as it happens any man can trip over himself and find himself following the trail of philosophy" (42). The temptation to "follow the trail of philosophy" that Rosenzweig speaks of here is, I believe, the temptation to substitute words, especially words that have no religious content because they have no internal relation to a genuine religious life, for that kind of life. This is the very temptation that Kierkegaard was centrally concerned to combat. Kierkegaard did not combat the temptation to substitute abstract talk for actually living the religious life because he imagined that most nineteenth-century Danish Christians were about to become metaphysicians, any more than Rosenzweig thought that most German Jews of his time were about to become Idealist philosophers. Like Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig viewed metaphysics as an exaggerated form of a temptation, indeed, a "disease," to which we are all subject.
Excerpted from Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life by Hilary Putnam. Copyright © 2008 Hilary Putnam. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Hilary Putnam is Cogan University Professor in the Department of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Harvard University. His most recent books include Pragmatism: An Open Question, The Threefold Cord, Ethics without Ontology, and Words and Life.
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