Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Wrestling with an Angel

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Wrestling with an Angel

Article excerpt


Reviewed by Benjamin Balint

A FUNNY THING happened to Hilary Putnam on the way to joining the front ranks of American philosophers. He began his long career, the last thirty-five years of it spent at Harvard, laboring in the far reaches of scientific epistemology, particularly the philosophy of physics and mathematical logic. He went on to command respect for his illuminations of the philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. For most of that career, he was the image of an analytic thinker, a scientific materialist, and a self-described "thoroughgoing atheist" For that matter, he was a Maoist, an anti-Vietnam activist, and a vocal member the Progressive Labor Party, a Communist organization, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the 1990s, however, Putnam grew impatient with the analytic style, and with analytic philosophers who regarded any talk of human flourishing to be hopelessly subjective. In his 1992 book Renewing Philosophy, he insisted that analytic philosophy cannot be the arbiter of whether religious language makes sense. In 2002, with The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy, he challenged the idea that value judgments are subjective and concluded that, in aiding the idea, the fact-value distinction has served to corrupt ediical reasoning. He wrote on pragmatism, in the hopes of reviving the tradition of John Dewey, Charles S. Peirce, and William James.

By turning his back on some of his old habits of mind, however, Putnam found himself turned to face some rather different ideas. When his eldest son announced he wanted a bar mitzvah, the philosopher started attending services at the Harvard Hillel. Finding the experience "transformative,'' he began to pray every morning. Although he says he does not believe in an afterlife, or in divine intervention in human affairs, Putnam, now eighty-two years old, considers himself a practicing (though not an Orthodox) Jew.

The impulse to make philosophical sense of his religious activities led Putnam to a close study of modern Jewish thinkers-a survey that culminates in his latest book. In Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life, Putnam offers a glimpse of three of the most daring twentieth-century Jewish philosophers, and lays bare the affinities that bind them.

Putnam devotes the thinnest chapter of the book to clearing away some misconceptions about Martin Buber (1878-1965). Chief among these is the common misjudgmem that what is original about / and Thou, Buber's classic statement of a philosophy of dialogue, is its teaching about human relationships, not its theology. Yet that theology, Putnam explains, lies closest to Buber's heart-most of all its twin teaching that we cannot talk about God, we can only talk to God, and that to question God's existence is already to stand outside of a relation to Him.

Putnam's imagination finds more resonance in the thought of Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), a German Jew who, like Putnam, though rather more dramatically, came late to Jewish thought. On Yom Kippur of 1913, on the point of converting to Christianity, Rosenzweig was struck by the necessity of remaining a Jew. Coming to accept the commandments, he gave up a university career to found the Frankfurt Lehrhaus, an advanced school for adult education, and he strove mightily to restore a meaningful Jewish life to Weimar Germany.

Rather than attempt a frontal assault on Rosenzweig's daunting master-work, The Star of Redemption, Putnam approaches on two flanks. The first leads Putnam to Rosenzweig through the unlikely path of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein cautioned against turning religion into a theory rather than, as Putnam puts it, "a deep-going way of life. " " A religious belief could only be something fike a passionate commitment to a system of reference," Wittgenstein said. …

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