Monday, August 06, 2007

Philosoopher from catastrophe: Franz Rosenzweig, 1886-1929

Posted by confused, maybe not

I first heard Franz Rosenzweig’s name while sitting on a bus next to the philosopher, Emil Fackenheim.,3604,1059938,00.html, Asking all types of questions about Hegel and Buber, Fackenheim interrupted me and said, “….if you want to read someone really great, read Franz Rosenzweig.” I thought, how can he be great if I haven’t heard of him? But I was in Fackenheim’s class, respected him, and wanted to be smart. Rosenzweig was impenetrable. I kept reading, though, and by the time I arrived at graduate school and was turned on to the later Wittgenstein, I was like, wait, I’ve heard some of this before. Returning to Rosenzweig, the parallels between the two were striking, especially regarding speech and epistemology. (Rosenzweig’s theory of speech is probably closer to Austin’s.) The same thing happened when I was exposed to Derrida (not in the comp. lit sense, but philosophically), I was like, wait, I’ve seen this before. I was then introduced to Levinas, which brought causality to the Derridian connection. As For Wittgenstein, who knows. Hilary Putnam suggests in the preface to Rosenzweing’s Understanding the Sick and The Healthy that the later Wittgenstein may have been influenced by Rosenzweig. Interestingly, although they did not know each other, WW I brought Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein to logger heads with the tradition of philosophy, even though they were products of two very different traditions. Like many in 20th century European dialogic and Jewish philosophy, I feel a debt to Rosenzweig. I assume you all know Wittgenstein’s story, to whom I also feel a debt, so today I introduce you to Franz Rosenzweig’s general critique of Western philosophy.

While fighting on the Balkan front in the Spring of 1916, Franz Rosenzweig and his Catholic friend Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy who was fighting on the Western front, (and later became a Dartmouth professor), began a correspondence in which they discussed Jesus as the Christ from a Jewish and Christian perspective. (Their correspondence was later published by Rosenstock-Huessy, Judaism Despite Christianity.) Their first letters were polite, tame, and boring, so they began to write their honest opinions about the matter. It was nasty at times, but they concluded when one speaks from one’s standpoint, never pretending to speak objectively, but “prejudicially,” one learns more. This theme is throughout the work of Rosenzweig. He wrote:

"I really believe that a Philosophy, to be adequate, must rise out of thinking that
is done from the personal standpoint of the thinker. To achieve being objective,
the thinker must proceed boldly from his own subjective situation. The single
condition imposed upon us by objectivity is that we survey the entire horizon;
but we are not obliged to make this survey from any position other than the one
in which we are, nor are we obliged to make it from no position at all. Our eyes are,
indeed, only our own eyes; yet it would be folly to imagine we must pluck them out
in order to see straight."

Rosenzweig grew increasingly disdainful towards western philosophy, most notably Hegel’s work, while studying and fighting at the front, where he wrote his major work, The Star of Redemption. Rosenzweig’s work both addressed and challenged Greek and Hellenic philosophy from his Hebraic standpoint. In a letter to Rosenstock-Huessy, he wrote: “The conceptualizing human being, that great and most enduring achievement of the Greeks, enduring because it remained without antithesis in itself (even the “ideas” themselves already found their negation in antiquity itself)-this “theoretic man” has now at last cesse de regner. The poetical mind now has to do everything¸ even think; the conceptualizing mind is no longer part of the human soul.” By poetical mind, Rosenzweig was talking about the poetic creativity of the prophets in the Bible. In the trenches, philosophy was of no help in addressing his fears or concerns for human life, or his concern for his own life. It was as if Rosenzweig called the philosopher for help, but the philosopher did not respond. Fearing death, Rosenzweig wanted nothing more than to remain alive. If philosophers did not address his fear of death, it followed that philosophy did not address his most primal desire, to live. He found it irresponsible, writing:

"Why should Philosophy be concerned if the fear of death knows nothing
of such a dichotomy between body and soul, if it roars ME! ME! ME! if it
wants nothing to do with relegating fear onto a mere ‘body’? Let man creep
like a worm into the folds of the naked earth before the fast – approaching
volleys of a blind death from which there is no appeal, let him sense there,
forcibly, inexorably, what he otherwise never senses: that his I would be
but an it if it died, let him therefore cry his very I out with every cry that is
still in his throat against Him from who there is no appeal, from whom such
unthinkable annihilation threatens – for all this dire necessity Philosophy has
only its vacuous smile. With index finger outstretched, it directs the creature,
whose limbs are quivering with terror for its this-worldly existence, to a Beyond
of which it doesn’t care to know anything at all. For man does not really want to
escape any kind of fetter, he wants to remain, he wants to live. "

Rosenzweig moves beyond the philosophical impulse to conceptualize humans; the impulse to reduce humans into studied objects in which one seeks the essence of the human/object. The poet exposes that the self-conceptualizing man – “the theoretic man” (as Rosenzweig wrote) – now no longer reigns over us. Unlike the “theoretic man,” Rosenzweig’s poetic prophet does not reign over people, but takes responsibility for others, reminding people of their responsibility for one another.

Leaping out of the trenches of World War I and disallowing anyone from calling him a philosopher, Rosenzweig made an exodus from the Academy in the same vein that Levinas (decades later) said to Derrida, “Basically you reproach me for taking the Greek logos in the same way one takes a bus, in order to get off.” Rosenzweig’s disillusionment was manifest in rejecting his University position after the War, which he explained in a letter to Friedrich Meinecke:

"The one thing I wish to make clear is that [philosophy] no longer holds the
center of my attention…. The man who wrote The Star of Redemption…is
of a very different caliber from the author of Hegel and the State [A work by
Rosenzweig]. Yet when all is said and done, the new book is only – a book. I
don’t attach any undue importance to it. The small – at times exceedingly small –
thing called [by Goethe] “demand of the day” which is made upon me in my
position at Frankfurt, I mean…the struggles with people and conditions, have
now become the core of my existence…Now I only inquire when I find myself
inquired of. Inquired of, that is, by men rather than by scholars… [T]he questions
asked by human beings have become increasingly important to me. "

Right after the war, Rosenzweig started the Lehrhaus, a free Jewish school in Frankfurt, Germany. Theodore Adorno attended classes at the Lehrhaus, where he found Eric Fromm, heard lectures from Walter Benjamin (who said Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption is one of two books one should read in one’s life), Martin Buber, Leo Strauss (yep, the very neo-con idol from the Univ. of Chicago), Gershom Scholem, Nahum Glatzer, and other leading Jewish intellectuals. This school was filled with many thinkers working philosophies from Judaism that tried to resist their perception of nationalism and their perception of western philosophy’s totalizing impulse to know, conceptualize and categorize; that which subordinates persons to theories of ideology and knowledge. Philosophy stood accused of being like a “blob” trying to absorb or freeze everything into knowledge, or as Rosenzweig said, “essence.” Trying to expose the limitations of philosophical “language-games,” he argued that the telos of traditional Hellenic-Philosophy was the philosophical search for essence(s). He explained:

"The true concern of the philosopher is with the “essence,” the “essential”
being of his[her] subjects.” The philosopher is caught up in the tension
between appearance and reality, never trusting what reality appears to be;
'the philosopher asks: what then actually is? He welcomes any answer that
does not destroy the value and meaning of this single question.' The answer
to the question “what actually is” is the essence, which is – most of the time –
a lifeless, abstract idea. “Remove this immovable question and the lifeless
subject, artificially detached, must inevitably disappear."

In Rosenzweig’s horizon, most philosophers were “selficating” in the market place of ideas, an “egotistical”, abstract world making life into mere thoughts without gestures. Rosenzweig’s other, one who breathes and has a name, is not paralyzed by the pursuit for essence.

"That which has a name of its own can no longer be a thing [essence], no
longer everyman’s affair. It is incapable of utter absorption into the category
for their can be no category for it to belong to; it is its own category. Nor does
it still have its place in the world, its moment in occurrence. Rather it carries
its here and now with it. Wherever it is, there is a midpoint and wherever it
opens its mouth, there is a beginning.
…thinking is always a solitary business, even when it is done in common by
several who philosophize together. For even then, the other is only raising
the objections I should raise myself, and this is the reason why the great
majority of philosophic dialogues-including most of Plato’s – are so tedious.
In actual conversation something happens. "

In his work, Understanding the Sick and The Healthy, Rosenzweig – anticipating the later Wittgenstein - has the philosopher infirmed by uncertainty in a hospital. The doctor in the narrative is trying to help the sick, solitary philosopher move beyond thinking in uncertain abstractions and essences and return to life, not merely philosophical life, but to disclosures that manifest concrete deeds that exceed any idea of such a deed. In other words, for Rosenzweig, getting out of the search for essence means the philosopher has to leap into life, a sort of backward Kierkegardian leap of faith, into that where one’s actions exceed one’s ideas – at least to the point where the philosopher must verify his or her theories in everyday life.

"Everyone should philosophize at some time in his [or her] life, and look around
from his own vantage point. But such a survey is not an end in itself. The book
is no goal, even a provisional one. Rather than sustaining itself, or being
sustained by others of its kind, it must itself be “verified.” This verification takes place in the course of everyday life. "

In everyday life, and everyday discussion, the philosopher will find that life or reality”, writes Rosenzweig, “is” unessential.

In the early 1920’s, Rosenzweig was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Lou Gehrig’s disease. Yet, he continued to write with the aide of his wife, Edith Hahn. She would recite the alphabet “until he indicated for her to stop, continuing until she could guess the word or phrase he intended (or, at other times, Rosenzweig would point to the letter on the plate of his typewriter).Rosenzweig's final attempt to communicate his thought, via the laborious typewriter-alphabet method, consisted in the partial sentence: ‘And now it comes, the point of all points, which the Lord has truly revealed to me in my sleep, the point of all points for which there—‘. The writing was interrupted by his doctor, with whom he had a short discussion using the same method. When the doctor left, Rosenzweig did not wish to continue with the writing, and he died in the night [December 10th, 1929 at the age of 43], the sentence left unfinished.” (Wickipedia)