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

By Wasserstrom, Steven M. | Shofar, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

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


Wasserstrom, Steven M., Shofar


Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life: Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein, by Hilary Putnam. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2008. 121 pp. $19.90.

The analytic philosopher Hilary Putnam, Cogan University Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard University, has in his retirement produced a slim and unpretentious volume of four studies devoted to modern Jewish thought. As described in an autobiographical introduction, Putnam developed a personal interest in his Jewishness late in life. He notes a course on Jewish thought that he developed in 1997, though he does not mention that he also published an article on negative theology and a study in the philosophy of religion in that same year ("On Negative Theology," Faith and Philosophy 14.4 [October 1997]: 407-422; "God and the Philosophers," in P. A. French, T. Uehling and H. Wettstein, eds., Philosophy of Religion [Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997], pp. 175-187). This is not to say that Putnam became a full-blown Jewish philosopher. Given the grand scale of his larger philosophical production, these pieces remain comparatively minor elements in an imposing corpus. Nor does Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life attempt to "reconcile" his faith with his analytic philosophy. Putnam describes his current religious standpoint as "somewhere between John Dewey in A Common Faith and Martin Buber" (p. 5).

Drawing on the model of Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life, Putnam prefers a Jewish philosophy that is not reducible to a set of propositions, but rather provides models for a "way of life." Putnam reads Rosenzweig, Buber, Lévinas, and Wittgenstein in support of this view, and his readings are provocative and insightful. Still, except perhaps in the case of Wittgenstein, who is not a "Jewish thinker" (Putnam calls him one-fourth of a Jewish philosopher), Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life will not be an extraordinary resource for those already familiar with these thinkers. Nonetheless, Putnam is a masterful teacher, and his elucidations of four difficult thinkers are valuable in themselves. Perhaps the most striking reading in the present climate of thought is his admittedly out of-step"What I and Thou is Really Saying" (pp. 55-67). He acknowledges this state of affairs:" Very often people are surprised that I value the thought of Martin Buber" (p. 58). He provides examples of misunderstandings of J and Thou in an effort to redress this situation. …

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