Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hilary Putnam: Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein.

Hilary Putnam
Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life:
Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2008.
Pp. 136.
US$19.95 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-253-35133-3).

(My review will soon appear in Philosophy in Review)

Putnam is famously willing to change his opinions and preoccupations. This book is born of one such transformation: Putnam’s turn towards Judaism. Its brief autobiographical introduction tells us that the process began when Putnam’s older son announced that he wanted to celebrate his upcoming bar mitzvah, a request that brought the family to services held at Harvard’s Hillel House and eventually resulted in Putnam’s praying on a daily basis and teaching a course in Jewish philosophy. That course brought Putnam into contact with the works of three leading Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, Franz Rozensweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas, and helped him ‘reconcile’ his apparently contradictory Jewish and philosophical ‘sides’ (6). He came to interpret the ideas of those thinkers in a manner sympathetic to the approach to religion he found in the later Wittgenstein. Inspired by his recently acquired yet profound appreciation for that triad of Jewish (and definitely continental!) philosophers, Putnam set out to write a book which would ‘help the general reader, especially the general reader who would go and read one or more of these thinkers, to understand the strange concepts and terms that appear in their works, and to avoid common mistakes in reading them’ (8). Considering how short the book is, Putnam can only be congratulated for the remarkable extent to which it achieves his goals.

The first chapter, ‘Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein’, argues that Rosenzweig shared Wittgenstein’s distaste for systematic philosophy as well as his understanding that a religion should be thought of as a way of life rather than a theory about the world. Putnam explains how Rosenzweig rejected not only both essentialism and nominalism, but also the mindset that leads to the adoption of such doctrines. It is fascinating to see how he brings his analytic background into the discussion. If Derek Parfitt can be mentioned in connection with Understanding the Sick and the Healthy (a short book by Rosenzweig which Putnam suggests should be read before the magnum opus, The Star of Redemption), the Messiah’s arrival must be nigh! Stanley Cavell’s ideas are mobilized to explain that, for Rosenzweig, God’s presence must be acknowledged rather than proven. The chapter goes on to explain Rosenzweig’s call for a ‘new thinking’ that is organically connected with life as it is lived (and more particularly, with life as lived in a Jewish ritual framework). The chapter concludes with Putnam’s criticism of Rosenzweig’s negative opinion of religions other than Judaism and Christianity.

Discussion of Rosenzweig continues into the next chapter, ‘Rosenzweig on Revelation and Romance’, which takes on several major themes from the Star of Redemption and offers important advice about how it should be read. As is the case with Buber and Levinas, Rosenzweig is concerned to square the universal ethical values that are foundational for Judaism with its more particularistic and communal aspects. Putnam may have slipped at one point in this chapter (44) by attributing great significance to what may have been a simple error in Rosenzweig’s recollection of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac. For a moment he reads The Star of Redemption with the obsession for detail applied by Leo Strauss to the Guide for the Perplexed.

Chapter 3 is largely devoted to getting people to interpret Martin Buber’s I and Thou correctly. Putnam efficiently warns of various pitfalls that lie in wait for the novice reader, pointing out difficulties in the translation of several key terms from German to English. He reminds us that Buber is a ‘moral perfectionist’ rather than someone interested in setting down practical rules of conduct, and that Buber does not claim all ‘I — Thou’ relationships to be necessarily good or all ‘I-It’ relationships to be bad. He insists that Buber was not concerned solely with inter-human relations — he was serious when he wrote about God. Appropriately, Putnam supplies a neat reformulation of Buber’s theology — in less than eighty words!

I remember reading somewhere that Putnam once said Levinas was an important philosopher, but that he suffered from a ‘speech defect’, i.e., a difficulty in expressing ideas clearly. The chapter on Levinas goes a long way towards resolving that problem by offering a clear restatement of some of his main themes, including the priority of ethics over metaphysics, radical responsibility towards the ‘Other’, and Levinas’ relationship to Jewish tradition. Helpful comments are made regarding several of Levinas’ more obscure tropes: ‘face’, ‘trace’ and ‘height’. In a very clever expository move meant to help out analytic philosophers, Putnam attempts to demystify Levinas’ relationship to Husserl and Heidegger by pointing out similarities and links between continental phenomenology and the ideas of Rudolf Carnap. It is refreshing to see that while Putnam has great respect for Levinas, he is also willing to conclude the chapter with some powerful criticisms of the master. Against Levinas’ demand for asymmetrical ‘infinite responsibility’ towards the Other, Putnam reminds us that, ‘[i]t is Aristotle who taught us that to love others one must be able to love oneself’ (99).

Like the Introduction, the Afterword to this book will be of special interest to Putnam-watchers. While pleading that ‘I do not for one moment delude myself into thinking that my own reflections.. . . are deep religious philosophy in the way that the writings I have been discussing are profound,’ Putnam goes on to locate his own ‘current religious standpoint’ as ‘somewhere between John Dewey in A Common Faith and Martin Buber’ (100). While rejecting the standard supernatural elements of traditional Judaism, Putnam is unwilling to do without some picture of God as a person, ‘which need not be “taken literally”, but is still far more valuable than any metaphysical concept of an impersonal God, let alone a God who is “totally other”’ (102). The Afterword concludes with a useful summary of the main differences of opinion between the book’s protagonists, but it also points to their broad similarity when contrasted with the main competing strategy for squaring Judaism with naturalism — Maimonides’ program of negative theology.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College, Israel