[K:JNWTS 28/1 (May 2013): 25-30]

Book Review

Hilary Putnam, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein (The Helen and Martin Schwartz Lectures in Jewish Studies). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008.  136 pp. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-2533-5133-3. $19.95.

Gaining greater insight into modern Jewish philosophy can be helpful for Christians in several ways. It can give them a better understanding of the Jewish world and modern philosophical movements as they share their faith. And it can provide a better understanding of the Jewish perspective that lies behind some modern biblical scholarship. For instance, one might ask (following another review in this volume), "How is it that a writer like James Kugel can claim that we should value the ancient interpretation of the Hebrew Bible even though he believes that that interpretation does not accord with the original intension of the Biblical authors?" Thus, it might help us better understand the presuppositions of modern biblical scholars as we sort through their views. Perhaps the answer to the above question about Kugel will be that he is ultimately a pragmatist like Putnam. While the precise verdict may still be out on Kugel, what about Putnam?

Hilary Putnam, a well known philosopher and practicing Jew, has given us a helpful introductory book to three prominent twentieth-century Jewish philosophers: Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas. He also includes a bit of information on Ludwig Wittgenstein. The book is helpful in that it provides useful and well-informed summaries of the views of each of these philosophers. At the same time, Putnam has (in our view) downplayed the significance of the metaphysical assumptions of their philosophical training. That is, as a philosopher who is critical of traditional metaphysical investigation, Putnam thinks that the significance of each of these philosophers is simply their practical philosophy of daily life. Putnam’s own view (known as direct realism) has been influenced by American pragmatism. So this is not surprising. That is, Putnam’s pragmatic moralism colors what he finds significant in these thinkers. He acknowledges the philosophical differences between them, but he finds these differences insignificant for what is important in their writings. Of course, choosing twentieth-century philosophers (especially Levinas) is useful to promote moralism, since many of these philosophers have (like Putnam) abandoned traditional metaphysics. That is, they think it a slight thing to inquire into the nature of God, humans, etc. in order to know our obligations to them. They have bought into Hume’s dictum that "is does not imply ought". Thus, to find what we ought to do, they find it unnecessary to inquire into the nature of things (what is). This ultimately shapes Putnam’s approach to these thinkers. But again, it is also characteristic of them as modern Jewish thinkers. In this sense, Putnam, like one of them, has his finger on their essential unity in spite of the differences between them. This seems to explain Putnam’s recent interest in the subject.

As a result of this focus, Putnam pays little attention to the Hegelian influences on Rosenzweig or the existential influences on Martin Buber. He says more about the phenomenological (Edmund Husserl) and Heideggerian influences on Levinas. But Levinas again is primarily considered for his moral views.

Putnam deals with Rosenzweig’s books, The Star of Redemption and Understanding the Sick and the Healthy, finding much in them he considers helpful. However, once again, Putnam focuses on things in Rosenzweig that he finds useful. Admittedly, he says nothing about the influence of mathematics on Rosenzweig’s approach even though as a mathematician himself Putnam might find that interesting. But he mostly focuses on elements of Rosenzweig’s philosophy that resonate with his own. This seems to be the case when he deals with the event in which Rosenzweig turned down a chair of philosophy at a university. Rosenzweig stated that he was now more interested in the real questions of everyday people than those raised by philosophers. This may resonate with Putnam because of his direct realism, a view that seeks to return metaphysics to the study of the way ordinary people actually experience the world. For Putnam, unlike classical philosophy, this seems to involve the simultaneous rejection of classical metaphysical questions. In this sense, Putnam still shows the pedigree of his analytic philosophical presuppositions and the influence of his teacher, Willard van Orman Quine. But he has moved beyond them. And thus he finds sympathy with Rosenzweig’s rejection of classical metaphysical questions in the name of a turn to people’s everyday questions.

Putnam also praises Rosenzweig for living an exemplary life, even after contracting a debilitating disease. However, he is critical of Rosenzweig’s claim that only Judaism and Christianity are religions leading to God. Rosenzweig, as a non-practicing Jew, was first impressed by the Christian religion and only later returned to Judaism. As a result, he believed that Christianity was the one religion that God used to bring the Gentiles back to himself. But Judaism was still the religion by which Jews could come to God. Putnam finds Rosenzweig’s rejection of the usefulness of other religions (such as Buddhism) to be unbecoming in a thinker that he regards as otherwise having a magnanimous spirit. Obviously for Putnam, as a modern man, to the degree that one holds that one’s religion is the only way to God, he or she is not magnanimous.

Putnam deals with Buber’s "masterpiece" (as he sees it), I and Thou. Again, Putnam does not really do justice to the extent that existentialism suffuses this work. For Buber (as we see it) the I-Thou relation is an existential encounter. This is contrasted to classical metaphysics in which one tries to describe the nature of God, man, etc. For Buber, such ways of thinking are merely I-It relations. Classical metaphysics (as an I-It relation) cannot be the basis for a true relationship with God. Thus, when Buber speaks of the I-Thou this cannot be divorced from his existentialism. In rejecting Buber’s form of the I-Thou relation, this does not mean that we should treat people as things. No! If we truly understand their nature, we know that they are persons and we should treat them as such. Putnam takes these observations from Buber and treats them almost as if they were divorced from Buber’s existentialism. Though he acknowledges this background, he does not find it significant. At the same time, Putnam might correctly try to refine our understanding of Buber. For he points out that for Buber not all I-It relations are wrong. This may seem to question our assumption that Buber regards I-It relations as metaphysical abstractions. And since Putnam has probably read I and Thou more than once, he may have a better understanding of its precise relation to existentialism, and to existentialism of a certain kind. Still, he does admit the influence of existentialism on Buber’s work, but he seems to underplay it for the moral interest that he shares with Buber.

Turning now to Levinas, Putnam describes Levinas as an orthodox Jew (though a rather unorthodox one). Levinas did not think that sympathy could be a basis for ethics. That is, we should not say, be kind to other people because they are in some way like us. For what happens when we begin to define other people as something very unlike ourselves as the Nazis did of the Jews during WWII? If ethics is based on the similarities between ourselves and others, we will discard ethics in such circumstances, as the Nazi’s did. Therefore, in his ethics, Levinas considers the otherness of the other rather than the similarity of the other.

Levinas apparently did not consider that the Nazis should have regarded the Jews as equally made in the image of God (broadly conceived). That is, though a Jew, Putnam does not explain this as Levinas’s metaphysical reason for treating the other humanely. Instead, it would seem on Putnam’s account that Levinas rejected all metaphysical grounds for ethics. One must simply do what is required. That is, ethics has no grounding in being. It just involves imperatives that hang in the air (so to speak).

Putnam does not explain how Levinas then distinguished the obligations we have to other human beings from those we have to our pets (in the kindness we show to them). One would think that our different obligations to them are based on their differing natures. But if metaphysics is in no way the ground of nature, how does the command to love my neighbor make sense? Do I still not have to ask, "Who is my neighbor?" At least I have to distinguish the fact that this being with whom I interact is a human being and thus a fit subject for "neighbor", while this mosquito that is on my arm does not fall under the category "neighbor". Putnam does not explain how Levinas dealt with these questions. However, it would not be surprising to us if he dealt with them by means of his own phenomenological and Heideggerian presuppositions. In the end, based on Putnam’s account, Levinas is the extreme example of a moralist whose moralism is supported by modern philosophical presuppositions.

Putnam has one area in which he disagrees with Levinas. For Levinas, since our love is not based on sympathy, it is not related to self-love. Instead, it is the love of the other as other. So far Putnam does not seem to disagree. However, Levinas concludes from this that we should not consider ourselves as objects of our own love, only others in their alterity. Here Putnam takes issue with Levinas, citing Aristotle to the effect that we cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. However, apart from this, Putnam seems mostly to agree with Levinas. Based on Putnam’s account, they certainly seem to share the same moralistic approach to philosophy and life.

Putnam ends by telling us something of his own religious views, though he does not consider these as important as the philosophers he has described. He says he recently told someone his views were somewhere between those of John Dewey in A Common Faith and Martin Buber. That is, Putnam does not believe in a supernatural God who intervenes supernaturally in our lives. Nonetheless, he engages in Jewish practices and Jewish prayers. For those of us who are traditional Christians, we find this quite odd. How can Putnam pray if he does not believe that God is sovereign and transcendent? What difference can such prayers make? Are they just simply psychological therapy? If so, is this anything more than pragmatism with a vengeance—pragmatism for one’s psychological well-being? Are such prayers simply a vacuous salve with no foundation in reality except one’s personal ungrounded aspirations? Why pray on such a view? Why not just use yoga? For Putnam, the only reason he can produce for using the Jewish prayers as opposed to transcendental meditation is that the latter is not a part of his religious tradition.

When Putnam rejects a God who intervenes supernaturally in our daily lives, he does not seem to consider the classical Protestant Christian position on God’s supernatural activity. This view distinguishes between God’s objective supernatural work in redemptive history and his supernatural work in the subjective lives of individuals. On this position, God’s objective miraculous acts in the physical arena (supernaturally healing the sick, blind, and lame, and stilling storms, etc.) have climaxed with Christ’s resurrection. The miracles we do find after this in the New Testament are the trickle effect that remained for a short time afterwards. That is, God performed miracles through some of the witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, thereby testifying to the truth of what they said. But now these witnesses have died and their testimony is embodied in the New Testament. Thus, God’s miraculous acts in the objective historical arena have ceased until the return of Christ.

However, God still works supernaturally in the subjective lives of people to change their hearts. He unites people to Christ and his resurrection-life, conforming them to Christ’s image. This takes place in the invisible spiritual arena and is thus not miraculous. Admittedly, God’s work in the subjective lives of people unites them to the objective supernatural miraculous resurrection of Christ in history. But this subjective work of God’s Spirit is not itself miraculous, i.e., it does not effect a supernatural transformation in the physical arena. We conclude from this that while God’s people are called to rely on his Spirit for internal supernatural transformation, they are not called to seek little miracles in their lives. This is not to deny that God is still in charge of the physical arena. He upholds it at every moment by his infinite power, directing all things as he pleases. But he does this by secondary causes which work according to their natures as originally created by God. This is not the same as a miracle which involved a direct supernatural intrusion into the physical arena, beginning a new chain of causes and effects.

From this perspective, God’s people are called to pray to him. They pray in Christ, looking for the continual supernatural work of his Spirit, leading them to walk in heavenly supernatural places in Christ. And they pray that he would guide them as pilgrims along the pathways of this world through his sovereign reign over all things. And they look ahead to the miraculous intervention of God in history with the return of Christ. This alone satisfies them, for Christ is their life. Searching for little miracles in this world is but a pittance compared to the glory they have in Christ.

Recognizing the significance of secondary causes in the world has another upside that Putnam should consider. They testify to a personal God. For unless there is a personal God who is uncaused, the universe with its series of causes and effects could not exist. The alternative, that the universe causes itself to exist, is impossible. For it is a contradiction to say that matter and/or energy both exist (to cause themselves) and do not exist (so that they may be brought into existence) at the same time and in the same relation.

It further follows from this that God must rule the world for it to continue to exist. If not, he has created something that is self-sustaining. And something that is self-sustaining is equal to God himself. However, if God created something that is equal to himself, it would not reveal to us that it required a cause beyond itself. But since it does reveal that it requires a cause beyond itself, it cannot be equal to God (who requires no cause). Therefore, the world cannot be self-sustaining (as the Deists claimed), and God must uphold it at every moment.

This leads us into the arena of history. For the collection of moments that God upholds are strung together in the tapestry of history. It follows from this that he has both the ability to intervene in history and a purpose for it. Certainly, if he upholds the universe at every point, he has the ability to introduce into it a new set of first causes, thereby producing supernatural miraculous acts. This would be akin to a new creation. And history must also have a purpose since God, as the most intelligent being, cannot fail to do things for a reason. Thus, history has a goal, an end, or even an eschatology. If that purpose should include the redemption of human beings (whose life is tied to their history), renewing them in a new creation, it is reasonable to conclude that God might act miraculously in history in order to accomplish this.

Only an almighty God (capable of such things) can account for the existence of our universe. Unfortunately, Putnam does not really recognize that the world testifies to God, for he ultimately denies the necessity of articulating God’s nature in language analogous to the world. That is, Putnam refuses to use metaphysical language to describe God’s nature. His "god" (insofar as he assumes one) is indescribable. Denying the importance of knowing God’s nature, he cannot believe that we have offended a holy God and deserve eternal punishment. Without this knowledge, Putnam does not see the necessity of Christ, who as eternal God, could bear our eternal punishment and satisfy it in a moment of time. Thus Christ’s miraculous resurrection is also missed, that having satisfied the wrath of God, death could no longer hold him. As a result, Putnam’s anti-metaphysical (and thus anti-supernatural) worldview further reinforces his moralism. He does not recognize that God’s justifying grace and the renewal of our nature must precede our moral transformation. But those in Christ have a far greater possession. They have Christ. He is the true God. And he is true man, the head of a new humanity. We have a new nature in union with him, a nature that is organically related to the nature we had created by God at the beginning. Who we are (our nature) resurrected in Christ is the ground of what we are called to do (ethics). As a result, in the New Testament the indicatives (who we are in Christ) precede the imperatives. Thus, let us be grateful for what we have. Hopefully Putnam and others will see this one day too, as they see the bankruptcy of moralistic worldviews from present-day Judaism to modern philosophy—even the rubble of conjoining the two.

—Scott F. Sanborn