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Starting Small

Tracing Hilary Putnam’s roadmap to God

David Kaufmann
November 25, 2008

Modern philosophy is usually pretty disappointing. We want it to be wise. We count on it to tell us what we know, what we should do and what we can hope for. But then we take a philosophy course in college and find out that philosophers write for each other. They parse. They pick nits.

Hilary Putnam’s Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life is not disappointing. In a short series of equally short lectures on four important religious philosophers of the 20th century (Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Ludwig Wittgenstein), Putnam outlines a rigorous and yet livable approach to Judaism. He writes for a general audience. He doesn’t indulge in parsing. There are no nits.

Instead, Putnam asks us to confront some fundamental issues. What is the essence of the divine? How do we account for evil? What are the ethical demands that religion makes on us? He suggests that we need to pose these questions differently. We should not ask what God is, but how we should experience Him. We should not explain evil but confront it. We should find our way to God through our relations with our fellow humans and not the other way around. According to Putnam, the big problems aren’t so big. In fact they aren’t even problems.

Putnam’s book is recognizably and in a certain way also traditionally Jewish. It presents its own coherent argument in the guise of a commentary on other texts. It speaks through them as well as about them. This approach allows Putnam, who has been one of the leading American philosophers of science for over four decades, to begin with Wittgenstein’s insight that faith is different from science because it does not depend on proof. You can abide by the tenets of the Torah even if you don’t strictly believe that they were handed down at Sinai. You can balance the story of Adam and Eve and the theory of evolution because religious truths are not necessarily damaged by contradictory evidence.

Religion can withstand secular science because religion is more than a series of dogmas. It represents a way of life. It expresses an attitude toward the world and is deeply entwined with a set of everyday activities and commitments. Religion cannot be outfoxed by science or logic. Try as they might, cosmologists cannot prove that the heavens do not proclaim the glory of God.

But God’s glory does not tell us anything meaningful about what God actually is. Putnam argues that all discussions about God’s essence are hopelessly misguided. Our attempts to fathom essences lead us into even worse confusion. Try to define the essence of a piece of cheese and you’ll get a good idea of what he means.

So how can we talk about God if we cannot say what He is? The world provides us with an important clue. We live in thick personal networks, but have real trouble being certain that we really know other people. We can guess what they’re thinking and we can get a notion of what they’re like, but can we say who they really” are? Where would that really” be? It would have to lie beyond the contingent messiness of everyday life. And that messiness is all we can count on.

We might not know other people in any strict sense, but we can acknowledge them. We can accept that we all exist in a complex set of relations with each other. In a similar way, we might not know what God is, but we can acknowledge that God is and that we stand in His presence. If we can’t really talk coherently about God, we can still talk to Him. This means—and it is a profound point—that just as we cannot pin down God’s essence, we cannot explain why catastrophe does not cause the heavens to darken. We cannot account for evil—to say, as the Kabbalah does, that evil is the excess of God’s justice tells us too much and too little—but we can argue with God about it. We can fight it.

That fight and our acknowledgement of God redirect us to concentrate on the business of this world. Putnam indicates that we can only prove ourselves worthy of God’s love by imitating it through loving-kindness. This is a difficult task because it does not always entail large, public acts of heroism. In fact, it rarely does. It is private, constant and requires an exhausting attention to the world. It requires, in Rosenzweig’s words, the strength to meet the small—at times exceedingly small—thing called the demand of the day.”

Our confrontation with the demand of the day” would seem to mean that our ethical behavior flows directly from our experience of God’s love. But it is also possible to see ethical behavior as an intimation as well as an imitation of God’s presence in the world. It allows us to move beyond mere nature.

According to Putnam (who is here following Levinas), we can transcend ourselves through a rather strict adherence to ethics. If we truly believed that we were unique, we would not restrict our loving-kindness to those who were like us, as is so often the case. Our benevolence would extend towards everyone. Of course, we cannot be reasoned into this sense of responsibility. We cannot base it on the order of nature. Quite the opposite. Responsibility of this order makes us reach beyond our daily concerns. It is a mundane repetition of Abraham’s hineni,” his here I am” in the presence of God. Just as the children of Israel accepted the yoke of the Law when they said, We will obey and we will hear,” those who lead the ethical life obey the summons of responsibility before they ask why they should. It is there—beyond survival, beyond desire and beyond personal advantage—that they rise above nature. It is there that they sense God’s path through the world.

Because Putnam’s emphasis lies squarely on our relations with each other and our relations with God, he leaves out a lot. He figures God as our beloved and not as our judge. He is not particularly interested in the supernatural, in miracles, or in the world to come. He does not even seem to care if God did indeed create the heavens and the earth. He pays attention almost exclusively to our worldly existence as Jews. Because of this, it is easy to imagine that a lot of people will not find Putnam’s arguments all that convincing. For them Judaism is more than a way of life. It is an assertion of eternal truths. It tells us about God. It insists on creation. It places our hopes beyond this world.

My guess is that none of this would particularly bother Putnam. He would argue that such claims only lead us back to our previous conceptual muddles. More to the point, he does not think that philosophy is about being right. In another context, Putnam has written that philosophical reflection gives us an expectedly honest, clear look at our own situation…through the eyes of one or another wise, flawed, deeply individual human being.” Putnam obviously feels that our own situation is one in which we have been stymied by discussions of God’s nature and vexed by the question of God’s providence. It is also one in which many of us have given up on a Jewish world that is torn apart by doctrinaire disputes and painful political-religious divisions.

Putnam has drawn a map for those who are trying to find a rationally justifiable and emotionally satisfying way back to a more robust Judaism. He also provides something of a prescription for our present ills. If we dwell on our relation with God, we can live together as Jews without falling into bitter arguments about what He is. If we see Judaism as a way of life, then we can maintain both study and the practice of the mitzvot while allowing for a large degree of tolerance. If we can balance our love of the people Israel with our responsibility to those who are not like us, we will be able to maintain solidarity without succumbing to xenophobia. Putnam’s lectures, whatever their limitations, fulfill some of our best wishes for philosophy. Through their attentive accounts of Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, and Wittgenstein, they indicate what we might hope for. More importantly, though, they indicate what, if we take care, we still can do.

David Kaufmann teaches English at George Mason University.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.