Flowers (Moses Mendelssohn & Modern Jewish Philosophy) (Judaism & Nature)

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I’ve never seen this image of Moses Mendelssohn. I like the b/w line and dot patterns a lot, and the soft eyes. As for the photographs: last spring, I wanted to take these exact pictures. They made me think of Mendelssohn, about whom I was writing at the time. I took these particular pictures a couple of weeks ago, and they came out just as how I had wanted them to do a year ago. They call to mind an overlooked mise en scène of modern Jewish thought and philosophy. I’m thinking here of the image I recall of “the preacher of morals” standing in a field of blooming flowers in the first chapter of Kohelet Musar, a 1759 (?) text. The opening chapter in the history of modern Jewish philosophy and thought has its first origin in a field of color, ideas open to the glory of physical sensation.

I wonder if Jewish thought and philosophy went off the rails in the 19th century under a generalized influence of Kant German idealism. If you look at the thought-world of modern Jewish religious thought, the attention is on history, but the focus of that attention is on the God-idea. This is true of Graetz no than of Geiger. In the 20th century, the idealist tradition carries over surreptitiously into the supernaturalism of Franz Rosenzweig, which then gets turned into a full-fledged anti-naturalism of Schwarzschild and the early Arthur Cohen (The Natural and the Supernatural Jew). I’m tempted to add (the structuralism of?) Strauss and Levinas into the mix.

Maybe this is not quite right, but I’d like to think that Mendelssohn and his aesthetic writings need to play a part in the new-not-so-new naturalism and the new immanence in postwar Jewish philosophy and thought. Buber too, maybe, but I’m really I’m thinking here about Mordecai Kaplan, Richard Rubenstein (who among other things penned a cutting critique of Arthur Cohen in the first edition of After Auschwitz [1966]), feminism, the new immanence in contemporary Jewish philosophy (Elliot Wolfson, Martin Kavka, Nancy Levene) and theology (Art Green, Brad Artson, Eitan Fishbane, Jay Michaelson), and the Jewish philosophy and science studies group (Norbert Samuelson, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson).

Philosophically, I’m not prepared to give up yet on the supernatural ghost. But I’m more than willing to give it a rest.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Flowers (Moses Mendelssohn & Modern Jewish Philosophy) (Judaism & Nature)

  1. The supernatural ghost should have been laid to rest with Feuerbach. The importance of Cohen is that he turns the noumenal into the methodological principal of origin, laying open the heuristic/axiomatic structure of our judgments, including value judgments. For me that’s a productive direction. Think of the long-held conviction of skeptical epistemologists and critics of language (from my current readings I could point to Toland, Hume, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, but you may adduce others) that all “supernatural” or rather metaphysical concepts are mere “doubles” or shadows, tricks language plays on us by labelling each action or effect as that of an agent or a cause that we then assume to be a being in its own right. That’s how we arrive at the personification of a God as the creator of all beings (by distinguishing Being from beings), the subject as the agent of actions, the soul, etc. — Cohen turned this critical intuition into a theory of liturgical practice that aims at making us aware of how liturgical action moves the (fictional) self into a morally (and aesthetically) productive direction. To be sure, what he believes to be productive is a certain kind of moral action that is always struggling, not so much with “radical evil” but with the political temptation of collective self-assertion, i.e., with the “natural” impulse of every community. Wrestling with our “nature.” [Not sure how this responds to your post.]

    • zjb says:

      And yet even after Feuerbach the supernatural ghost refuses to give up the ghost, again and again. That’s how I read Kandinsky and Klee and how I read Buber and Rosenzweig. Let’s also not forget Malevitch and Mondrian, and later Rothko and Newman. I’m willing to throw Merleau-Ponty, late Derrida, and maybe also Deleuze into the boat. For his part, art critic James Elkins writes (not sympathetically) about how “the spiritual in art” keeps popping up even in contemporary art.

      I’d have to ask how thoroughgoing a materialism it is you want to advance. I’m not prepared to argue that the supernatural ghost is “just” a “mere” trick or shadow, although I understand why you might reasonably think it does. These kinds of arguments are very current. Similar claims are made by critics of consciousness like Dennet and others for whom there is nothing but brain function and brain states, and that subjective states of phenomenal consciousness (qualia) are “merely” an illusion. I find the dualism of David Chalmers more convincing, maybe because I think it makes for a more complex model of consciousnsess.

      At issue is the status of an image and the work of imagination. Does it lie completely out of whole cloth, or is there something else at work in the imagination and its operations? Regarding doubles, tricks, mirrors, and images, I’d take another and very close look at Baudrillard, who is often misunderstood (in no part thanks to his own rhetorical excesses).

      • I don’t think Feuerbach’s materialism works as a constructive philosophy. I really only meant to refer to his critique of the doubling effect of language. — Dennet etc merely repeat the mistakes of 19th-century materialists in that he replaces a positive metaphysics with a negation of all metaphysics. (It really wouldn’t hurt some of these people to pick up a book every now and then, e.g. Lange’s History of Materialism.) Language, though the source of confusion, is also our best and perhaps only guide toward clarification of ourselves as living beings. There’s no communication in science, and really no science, without language and communication. So, no, I don’t wish to advance materialism, but my first intuition is to be skeptical and critical with regard to positive metaphysics, which doesn’t mean we can or ought to do without keeping the space of metaphysics open. It remains an ineradicable question mark. It may even be our major task to make sure it remains one, a task that btw cannot be fulfilled by “having” a metaphysical position (that’s why “value-based” education, popular among Great Books curricularists, is so futile and contrary to the spirit and mandate of liberal arts education). — Since you mentioned Buber, I like to recall that he starts out as a vitalist, not a spiritualist. There is a lesson to be learned from this vitalism, even though it is buried, sublated, refined, sublimated later on. The philosophy of life made the biological force (Nietzsche’s “will to power”) the substratum/subject/source of cultural life (language, institutions, politics, morals, history), which is also a kind of metaphysics and a doubling (by distinguishing between “the force” and its effects). But all our concerns with texts, spirits, selves, moral obligation, and other ghosts of transcendence ring hollow if we cannot show how they tie into and engage and hence root in concerns of life (e.g., survival, anticipation of scarcity in the face of the large-scale threats to life on this earth). And finally, as an aside or ceterum censeo, we remain entangled in the idea of freedom, which is perhaps the only legacy of things past that has not yet been entirely uprooted.

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