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For what can be more characteristic of a Jewish thinker than to use the Jewish experience as a conduit to universality?—Rebecca Goldstein1

I. INTRODUCTION In 1991, perhaps somewhat prophetically, before Hilary Putnam published anything about Jewish topics, Kenneth Seeskin recommended looking to Putnam’s writing for insight into how Jews (yes, qua Jews) practice Jewish philosophy.2 Putnam tells us though that up until the past few years he saw nothing particularly Jewish about his philosophy and it is only recently that he has started to see the philosophical side of his life in relation to the Jewish side (4);3 but he does not see himself as a “Jewish philosopher”. In his most recent book, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life (henceforth JPGL), Putnam now claims to join his philosophical side with his life as a practicing Jew.4 Ostensibly the book is a brief discussion of a theme addressed by three modern Jewish philosophers: Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas. What follows is an

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Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity (New York: Schocken Books, 2006) 178. Kenneth Seeskin, “Jewish Philosophy in the 1980’s,” Modern Judaism 11 (1991): 168. References in the text are all to Hilary Putnam, Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein (Bloomington, IN, Indiana UP, 2008) [henceforth JPGL]. Note also that the first chapter on Rosenzweig is essentially the same as his “Introduction” to Rosenzweig’s Understanding the Sick and the Healthy: A view of World, Man, and God (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999). The chapter on Levinas is essentially the same as the entry on “Levinas and Judaism” in the Cambridge Companion to Levinas (New York: Cambridge UP, 2002). Putnam repeatedly characterizes himself as a practicing Jew. See his introduction to JPGL, “Thoughts Addressed to an Analytical Thomist” The Monist 80:4 (1997a): 487, and “God and the Philosophers” Midwest Studies in Philosophy XXI (1997b): 175.



explication of that theme woven together with other aspects of Putnam’s thinking, specifically his ethics. We also pick up some questions that Putnam leaves outstanding and ultimately elaborate on what he must mean in taking Jewish philosophy as a guide to life. II. WITTGENSTEIN Putnam understands the three Jewish philosophers he discusses as having one view in common with Wittgenstein’s5 philosophy of religion (6). Though Wittgenstein’s ideas on the philosophy of religion are known to us only via a few second-handnotes of lectures and conversations6 they have had a disproportionate influence on the philosophy of religion,7 and Putnam is arguably the most prominent thinker to explore them.8 To understand Wittgenstein’s approach consider first a rather traditional philosophical stance toward religious discourse that goes something like the following: Religious statements often appear to take stands on historical or ontological matters. We would ordinarily suppose that a historical or ontological fact-of-thematter under dispute is true if and only if it corresponds to the way things are, and false otherwise. If one were nonetheless to believe the false or dubious statements, she does so non-rationally or irrationally; perhaps she believes on faith. There is considerable reason to believe that many ethical, historical, and ontological claims made by religions are false and can be easily shown to be highly implausible (consider, say, that the Bible endorses genocide as sometimes justified, claims that those on the ark with Noah were the only living creatures at one time or that the





Putnam treats Wittgenstein as “1/4” of a Jewish philosopher, mostly because Wittgenstein never wrote about Judaism philosophically and was only partially Jewish by descent. We have fewer than 30 printed pages of notes that have been collected as “Remarks on Frazers’ Golden Bough” (Reprinted in Michael Lambek, A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion [New York: Blackwell, 2008]) and “Lectures on Religious Belief ” (in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, ed. Cyril Barrett [Berkeley, CA: U of California P] 53–72). Wittgenstein’s impact on the philosophy of religion was initially discussed in terms of what was labeled “Wittgensteinian Fideism.” More recently it can be seen in discussions in introductory and advanced works in the philosophy of religion. See, for example, Richard Messer’s Does God’s Existence Need Proof? (New York: Oxford UP, 1993); Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger’s Reason and Religious belief: An introduction to the philosophy of religion (New York: Oxford, 2003); and Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Robert L. Arrington and Mark Addis (New York: Routledge, 2001). Some of these works deal with the Lectures and Conversations, while others explore the concept of religious discourse as a type of Wittgenstinian language game. Norman Malcolm’s Wittgenstein: A religious Point of View? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1993) is a general discussion of Wittgenstein’s view of religion. See his Renewing Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992), ch. 7 and (2008) ch 1.



universe was fully formed in 6 days). Therefore people with these religious beliefs have them non-rationally—say, on faith.9 Wittgenstein rejects this approach and refuses to accept that belief in religion is a conceptual confusion. Rather, considering religion as essentially “prescientific thinking” to be rejected by post-Enlightenment thinkers is itself an example of a conceptual confusion, a clear case of being in the grip of a picture (11). Wittgenstein sees this conceptual confusion as emerging from conflating a theory with a way of life. The analysis in the previous paragraph treats religion as a theory when it actually is and must be treated as a way of living,10 as “words only have meaning in the stream of life.” To take one example, the role that Jacob and Esau play in the lives of believers is wholly different from the role that empirical beliefs play (13). Conflating those two kinds of roles is itself a conceptual confusion. Wittgenstein charges those who are engaged in the philosophical project of proving or disproving religious claims of missing the point.11 But it seems that pointing out that one is missing the point is not particularly helpful in the absence of a discussion of what the point is. So where Wittgenstein leaves us somewhat unsatisfied, Putnam begins to fill in some blanks and leads us in the direction of the point. Putnam explicates Rosenzweig’s, Buber’s, and Levinas’s key ideas in order to show what religious discourse actually is about and how such an explication can be got from their respective Jewish philosophies. III. METAPHYSICS In Renewing Philosophy Putnam expresses what can be viewed as a Jewish hermeneutical approach to philosophy. He writes: “The only way I know of pointing to a better way in philosophy is to engage in a certain kind of reading, a reading of the work of some philosophers who, in spite of their mistakes and flaws [. . .] point the way toward and exemplify the possibility of philosophical reflection on our lives and language that is neither frivolously sceptical nor absurdly metaphysical, neither fantastic parascience nor fantastic parapolitics, but serious




This way of contrasting the views is suggested by Iakovos Vasiliou in his “Wittgenstein, religious belief, and On Certainty” who describes the relevance of On Certainty to Wittgenstein’s religious thought (in Wittgenstein and the Philosophy of Religion). Note also that the Wittgensteinian program is typically seen in contrast with the programs akin to Richard Swinburne’s. Putnam means “way of living” in the sense that Pierre Hadot uses it in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spriritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. Amold I. Davidson, trans. Michael Chase (New York: Blackwell, 1995). Putnam is careful to argue in a number of places that this does not inoculate religion from criticism, but rather merely from a certain kind of criticism. See, for example, Putnam (1997b): 178; “On negative theology,” Faith and Philosophy 14:4 (1997c): 408; and (1992): 168–79.



and fundamentally honest reflection of the most difficult kind.”12 Beginning with metaphysics, Putnam finds an important Wittgensteinian idea running through Rosenzweig’s, Buber’s and Levinas’s work. In JPGL Putnam makes the case that Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein share a world-view, which sees classical philosophy of religion with its associated metaphysical questions about God, as wholly mistaken about the way religious people think about religion.13 In claiming that religious people need to approach God by acknowledging Him, Rosenzweig views religion rather as a way of life and not something to be reasoned out. Such acknowledgment is akin to the way that Stanley Cavell reads Wittgenstein’s claim that while there may be “truth in skepticism” our relation to the world ordinarily requires acknowledgment rather than proof. And like Cavell’s Wittgenstein, acknowledging, for Rosenzweig, is not a matter of knowledge but a mode of living (27). Like Wittgenstein, Rosenzweig wants to disabuse us of the pervasive metaphysical notion that there are “essences,” and in general to discourage people from following the “trail of philosophy” down misleading paths. These paths are words that have no internal relation to a genuine religious life. Philosophy must take Man, World, and God collectively as brute and, in place of a critique (which would anyway be insignificant to a religious person), we should do philosophy in a way that leads us toward an experience. For Rosenzweig this means adopting a “narrative philosophy” that requires a prose that leads the reader and author to encounter each other. Narrative philosophy is not about the reader or the author, but it is meant to lead the reader into an encounter with the author—to describe an event between reader and author as opposed to proving something about the author or discovering some “essence”. Scientific or historical accounts of revelation may be true, but they are unimportant to the practicing Jew (42) because it is not the truth that is important but rather it is in the religious significance that the meaning inheres. For Buber too, both theorizing about God or saying that it is impossible to theorize about Him commit one to similar metaphysical errors. Any theory of religious knowledge that can answer the question “how do you know that God exists?” is a based on a mistake because on Buber’s conception of the I-Thou14
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Putnam (1992): 141. See also Paul Franks, “Everyday Speech and Revelatory Speech in Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein,” Philosophy Today 50:1 (2006): 24–39. For Putnam’s full treatment of Wittgenstein on religious belief see Putnam (1992): ch. 7. See also Putnam (1997c): 407–22, where Putnam uses Wittgenstein’s views on Religious beliefs to resolve some problems in Maimonides’ thought. A similar idea to Wittgenstein’s is also present in his (1997a). Some limitations of Wittgenstein’s view are presented in Putnam (1997b). Putnam reiterates the point that an important feature of the translation of “Ich-Du” is that it should be rendered as “I–You,” not “I–Thou.” The nature of the relation can get obfuscated in the



relation, asking such a question already assumes that you are outside of the relationship in which you are both participants. One comes to God by entering a relationship with Him, and this relationship does not involve a kind of knowledge. For Buber, the I–Thou relationship one has with friends points beyond the friendship and ideally leads to the Ultimate Thou—the Divine. One can speak to God, that is, enter an I–Thou relation in which all the partial I–Thou relationships (with people and other natural objects) are bound up and fulfilled without being obliterated (65). Similarly when Levinas says (famously) that the saying precedes the said, he means that the obligation is to make myself present (in Hebrew, to announce hineni) to the other, and this precedes any formulation of the obligation. A genuine ethical relation to another presupposes that you realize that the other person is an independent reality and not in any way your construction or your own experience (contra Husserl who takes all experience as a personal construct). To this end, Levinas reinterprets Descartes’ argument for the existence of God. Descartes claims that God must have put the idea of infinity in him because he could not come by that idea himself. Levinas claims that Descartes is not proving something but rather acknowledging a reality he could not have constructed, a reality that proves its own existence by the fact that its presence in my mind is a phenomenological impossibility. The significance of this for Levinas emerges when he transforms the argument by replacing God in the argument with the other. The argument then becomes “I know the other [l’autrui] is not part of my construction of the world because my encounter with the other is an encounter with a fissure, with a being who breaks my categories.” (79) IV. ETHICS Putnam reads a related theme running through the ethics of his three philosophers. Levinas’s key ethical idea—that the fundamental obligation is not derivable from any metaphysical or epistemological picture—is sometimes referred to as an “ethical metaphysics”.15 This refers to Levinas’s position that situates ethics as first philosophy. That means that not only is there no epistemological or metaphysical grounding for ethics, there is no grounding whatever, as any ground seems to leave open the possibility of being undermined. For example, if our system demands we treat others well for some reason, say because they are


contemporary formality implied by the word Thou. The weight of tradition, however, burdens us with the older formulation. See Edith Wyschogrod’s Emmanuel Levinas: The Problem of Ethical Metaphysics (New York: Fordham UP, 2000).



rational (like we are), there is a temptation to consider the other who we might not consider rational to be outside the purview of our ethics (71). Levinas finds this unacceptable. For Levinas, the proper ethical stance insists on a demanding moral perfectionism, and thus his task is to describe the fundamental obligation to the other (not legislating rules by which we ought to interact with each other). The fundamental question is how one should act when one must focus entirely on one other person, provided one’s obligations to others do not conflict with this one. Our fundamental obligation is to make ourselves present or available to the neediness of the other prior to our sympathizing with him and, in contrast with Buber, prior even to an acknowledgment of a reciprocal (I–Thou) relation with the other. The fundamental obligation also involves recognizing that one is commanded to be available for the other. This command is prior to any metaphysical (ontological) commitment— even any commitment to a commander. Asking “why should I be there for the other?” indicates that one is not yet fully human (a mensch) in Levinas’s normative sense (75). Buber too is a “moral perfectionist”. A moral perfectionist is one who takes the ancient questions about how to live as the most important.16 They are perfectionists because the commitment that they insist we have is “impossibly demanding” so that one is forced to strive for one’s “unattained but attainable self”.17 The “I–Thou” relation is one such normative account of human relations demanded of us, without which no system of moral rules and no institution can have any real value. Part II of Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption tells the tale of the love affair between God and man in his preferred style of narrative philosophy. It describes the Biblical narrative as God falling in love with man even before being sure of the beloved’s qualities. And, in agreement with traditional Jewish teachings, the “vertical” direction of the love between God and man must be accompanied by a “horizontal” love of one’s fellow man (48). Rosenzweig holds (unlike Levinas) that it is only when I realize that I am loved by someone wholly other, that I can then learn to love my nearest neighbor. For Rosenzweig it is the awareness of God that evokes the desire to be worthy of such love (49).



Putnam refers to the ancient questions as they are used in Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life (1995). Putnam borrows Stanley Cavell’s moral perfectionism. See part 12 of Putnam’s Dewey Lecture for more on Cavell’s influence on Putnam. (In Proceedings and Addresses of the APA 82:2 [2008]: 101–15)



V. PUTNAM’S ONTOLOGY AND ETHICS Putnam’s own distinctly Pragmatist conception of ethics strikes a similar chord.18 Consistent with the Wittgensteinian view of religion, Putnam argues that when we are talking about ethics the ontological enterprise is wholly misguided. Our ethics should not inflate our ontology to account for our ethical beliefs. That is, it should not appeal to a Platonic realm or to a Moorean ethical property, to explain our ethics. Just as importantly, it should not deflate our ontology—either by reducing ethical statements to the form “A is nothing but B,” as in “good is nothing but utility” or eliminating them entirely by dismissing any talk of the good as merely mistaken. Putnam claims that it is unfortunate that philosophy is divided into different “branches” as arguments from one generally apply to many others. In one passage Putnam discusses this version of ethics (which he calls “pragmatic pluralism”), though he could have just as easily been speaking about religion, mathematics, or metaphysics: “I hold that pragmatic pluralism does not require us to find mysterious supersensible objects behind our language games; the truth can be told in language games we actually play when language is working, and the inflations that philosophers have added to those language games are examples, as Wittgenstein said—using a rather pragmatist turn of phrase—of “the engine idling.”19 In fact, Putnam eschews such ontologizing across the board. Instead, he takes up the Wittgensteininan view that sees any attempt to provide ontological or nonmathematical justifications for mathematics or non-ethical explanations for the truth of ethical statements as deeply misguided. Quine’s essay “On what there is,” Putnam argues, has had “disastrous consequences” for analytic philosophy by making Ontology (sic) respectable. “Exists” may just have different senses in ethics, mathematics, and religion20 and each should be judged by its own criteria. In Wittgensteinian terms, each domain has its own language game that it plays and what it is to “exist” in one, may only bear a family resemblance to what it is to exist in another. VI. UNIVERSALITY At this point the reader may notice that we have not said anything that sounds particularly like Jewish philosophy. This is because Putnam’s three thinkers universalize the positions they advocate so that the approach is applicable to all— Jews and non-Jews alike. However, all three are inspired by Jewish sources and
18 19 20

See Putnam, Ethics Without Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004) ch. 1. Ibid: 22. Ibid: 2–3.



themes and have a separate—though not unrelated—message specifically for Jews. Rosenzweig, for example, urges everyone to experience the redemption. He believes that there will ultimately be a redemption where the Jewish ideal of love for one’s neighbor will be universalized. This redemption should be so seriously anticipated so as to be as if it were being experienced now. Levinas universalizes a number of Jewish themes as well. On Levinas’s reinterpretation of Judaism’s particularity into his own ethics-phenomenology, Jewish chosenness is a universal moral category, not a particular historical fact (69). All human beings are Jews. Just as Jews find that their dignity as humans comes from obeying commandments, so too does Levinas declare that human dignity should be experienced in obeying the fundamental command—to take on infinite responsibility toward the other.21 Every human being must experience him or herself as commanded to be available to the neediness of the other person, and one must know of this command prior to a philosophical account of how such a command or commander is possible. This knowledge that “I myself” received a divine command is not based on metaphysical speculation.22 Nor is it based on an epiphany where one comes to know the commander. In the end, we have but a “trace” of the commander (87). Putnam argues that Levinas’s ethics is universal enough that it can critique Judaism. In an important sense both Levinas’s and Putnam’s ethics can serve to motivate their respective approaches to Judaism, which can in turn shed light on another problem posed by Putnam.23 As we saw, Putnam reads Wittgenstein as arguing that it is incorrect to critique one’s scientific views on the basis of one’s religious views, as religion and science are not interpenetrable. It may, however, seem reasonable to critique one’s ethical views in light of one’s religion, or one’s religion on the basis of one’s ethics.24 Is this allowed on the Wittgensteinian view? Religions sometimes advocate for seemingly misguided ethical positions. Are religion and ethics interpenetrable in a way that religion and science are not, and how do we reconcile those ethical injunctions within religions that are blatantly immoral?



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See Michael Morgan’s “Levinas and Judaism” (in Jeffrey Bloechl and Jeffrey L. Kosky’s Levinas Studies: An Annual Review [Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 2005]) for a discussion of Putnam on Levinas’s Jewish universalism and particularism, especially as it is exemplified in Jewish ritual. This is in contrast with thinkers like Maimonides, Reuven Agushewitz, and others who believed that the path to God is via metaphysical speculation. See Putnam’s “On Negative Theology” (1997c) for a discussion and (Wittgensteinian) critique of Maimonides’ solutions to the problem of ascribing attributes (including existence) to God. Putnam (1997b): 181. This question should not be interpreted as asking if Wittgenstein accepts Braithwaite’s position that religious language is moral exhortation. He does not.



Putnam seems to have an answer in mind. He specifically selects those Jewish thinkers who are (perhaps atypically) both universalists and “Jewish philosophers.” These thinkers were chosen precisely because their universality underpins their philosophy of religion. Levinas, for example, taught repeatedly that monotheism is a humanism. Putnam can consistently claim that one’s ethics and one’s religion are realms that can be, and perhaps ought to be, brought to bear on one another because we want a universalist ethical message regardless of our particular religion. This is supported by Putnam’s (otherwise idiosyncratic) selection of Jewish philosophers. In some respects the project of JPGL expresses this well. In the case of each of Putnam’s three thinkers, Jewish theoretical insight was amassed to offer a critique of classical ethics. Classical ethics was in turn made universal, thereby transcending the original Jewish insights. So we see that Putnam assumes a significant overlap of the ethical and religious spheres (language games) at least as far as we allow our ethics to shape our religion. Putnam does not provide any reason to think it may work the other way as well, and makes no provisions for religion to interfere with one’s ethics. VII. CONCLUSION Putnam’s program is to construct a way to read religion and ethics without the ontological concerns we have come to expect from “theories of religion” and “theories of ethics”. Even no ontology—ethical or religious deflationism, so to speak—is burdensome, with its need to reformulate traditional ethics or religion within a framework unfamiliar to religious people. What Putnam does for ethics is show a pragmatic alternative to classical ethics—one that ameliorates our ontological scruples by making us realize that the insertion of Ontology that Rosenzweig has called a “philosophical disease” can be cured with a renewed appeal to a kind of common sense. In JPGL we see how elements from the Jewish tradition can demonstrate how to read religious discourse as distinct from scientific theory. Putnam shows that the apparent ontological questions need not be about our actual ontological commitments; and just like he has argued that there is a way to objectivity without objects,25 we can also have spirituality without spirits.26 By taking up Wittgenstein’s approach to religion, Putnam obviates the need to address the traditional ontological questions about God. Belief in God is a way of life, not an ontological commitment. By advancing a Pragmatist position on ethics,


See Putnam (2004) Lecture 3. But see also two interesting critical discussions: David Copp’s “The ontology of Putnam’s Ethics Without Ontology” (Contemporary Pragmatism 3:2 (2006): 39–53) and David Weissman’s “Review of Ethics Without Ontology,” Metaphilosophy 36:3 (2005). In doing this, Putnam is extending the program exemplified by John Dewey’s A Common Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1934).



Putnam also obviates the need to address the traditional metaphysical questions about the good. Thus one need not worry about how to ground his ethics in order to account for his use of ethical discourse, in the same way that one need not ground his religion to be a believer in it. We have likewise seen how Putnam sees the realm of ethics in relation to his position on religion. Putnam’s efforts express an important Pragmatist antidote to the recent spate of popular books that attempt to explain away our religious beliefs,27 “disprove” the arguments for God’s existence,28 show the irrationality of religion,29 or describe how evil religion really is;30 as if religion has anything to do with proofs, rationality, or history.31 Baruch College, CUNY






See, for example, Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin Books, 2006); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); and Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York, Oxford UP, 2002). See, for example, John Allen Paulos, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God just Don’t Add Up (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008). See, for example, Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2004). See, for example, Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007). For various reasons, my thanks go to Alan Grose, Chris Steinsvold, and Elly Vintiadis.


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