Again After Weimar German Philosophy (One More Try)

So I got raked over the coals by a stranger at Facebook. I had it coming. She found my excoriation of the Weimar and post-Weimar gang of fellows “childish.” She has a point. It would be a terrible waste, anti-intellectual, and un-dialectical to write off an entire period of philosophical reflection, no matter how noxious. So I’ll confess that I still love Bauhaus, and late works by Buber, Kandinsky, Klee, and Rosenzweig (although, to be sure, they remained members of aesthetic rear-guard Expressionism) (as per Rosenzweig to Willi Haas, the generation of 1919, not 1929).

Aside from what I think I have learnt by taking up a contrarian point of view vis-à-vis this and that thinker, here, in a nutshell, are the topoi I value from the Weimar and post Weimar guys.

–Arendt: space of appearance, the public sphere, political action, political risk, natality and the new

–Benjamin: the thought-image, philosophical surrealism, profane illuminations, critique of progress

–Heidegger and Jonas: worldliness, naturalness, finitude, equipmentality, that fourfold place between earth, sky, mortals gods,attention to things.

–Strauss: the notion that politics is based on images; the way Strauss points back to the cave

–Taubes:  counter-history, against history, heretical imperatives, a certain violence of thought

–Schmitt: watch out for enemies and keep to your friends (do I have to include Schmitt?)

But do I really need them, these guys? Their time and place still sticks in my craw. In addressing political dynamics, they reflected upon the politics of their place and time in 1920s and 1930s Germany. I just can’t see that there’s a lot to work with here that’s not, in some deep way, rotten, and I don’t see how this rot does not get reflected in their thought.

To re-set contemporary Jewish philosophy, I’d rather go to Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Peirce, James, and Dewey. American racism I can deal with much more than the anti-liberal drifts of the almost all the Germans in this period towards totalitarianism. The Americans give you a world with less jaundice. Without holding one’s breath for too long, one can only hope that the racism in this more cosmopolitan country proves to be more corrigible than the racism in Europe.

Excepting maybe Buber, it’s just not clear what we’re supposed to do with this old German stuff, except to study it as a historical-intellectual curiosity. Besides, in another ten years, more room in the historical archive will need to be found to make room for Derrida, Deleuze, Irigaray, Levinas, and all the 68’ers. I’ll admit to being something of a historical determinist, but I like the sense of distance it brings to a theoretical subject.

Without being too flip, let let me try it this way on a completely separate tangent, assuming that historical-theoretical tangents do, in fact, separate. It’s that I can’t see any of the Germans hanging out with the Jewish lesbians. As regards the Americans, because they are fundamentally pragmatic and liberal, you could force them to get used to the idea and then to embrace the reality, that, yes, not everyone is heterosexual. And the Germans? Strauss? Arendt? Maybe someone out there knows better, but  I’m not seeing how they help.

I’m sure Judith Butler might have more to say on the matter, less churlish, and more constructive. I think I have a pretty good idea, but, to be frank, I’m running out of gas on this one. I’ve peeked at Bonnie Honig’s edited volume,  Feminist Interpretations of Hannah Arendt. Many of the more charitable contributors labor mightily to “rescue” Arendt for feminism,  even as everyone, including the most charitable note the absence of direct reference and even hostility towards gender and sex, and the aversion to “the politics of the personal” in Arendt’s political philosophy (chp 1, pp.127-8, 135-6). In the end, one can appreciate the effort, the theoretical tools, and the hermeneutical skills brought to bear on these kind of philosophical rescue attempts, but I wonder if it’s worth the effort.

As for “the Jewish lesbians,” more tomorrow.

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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2 Responses to Again After Weimar German Philosophy (One More Try)

  1. hayyim rothman says:

    “To re-set contemporary Jewish philosophy, I’d rather go to Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Peirce, James, and Dewey.” – I am aware that some writing has been done (was it by Ochs?) on the possible nexus btwn the american pragmatists and jewish thought… and obviously thinkers like kaplan were heavily influenced by this thread. On a very basic level, if it is just that you prefer one set of ideas/mode of discourse to another then fine. but if part of your problem is the historical distance, i dont see how any of these thinkers are any closer such that turning to them would make any more sense than turning to weimar era germans.

    i suppose they seem closer in a certain sense because as americans these thinkers are, in one way or another, in our blood. we run into them all the time (i was just swimming in walden pond for god’s sake!) without even trying. but does that mean that they really are much closer?

    also, especially when it comes to religious questions i dont personally see where there is much room for conversation between the transcendentalists and judaism. if you do, how?

    • zjb says:

      the closeness can, in this case, be geographical, as you indicate, and also “spiritual-mental.” peter ochs was the first to draw peirce into the discussion. mel scult has interesting things to say about kaplan and emerson. as for the transcendentalists and judaism, it’s a missed conversation, one that never happened. that it could of is suggested to me by all the spiritual-cosmic stuff in Kazin’s Walker in the City and in his diaries. Kazin was taken with the transcendtalists, religiously-spiritually oriented, invested in Jewishness, but had no way to put them together. see my blog post on kazin, where i quote him on the Brooklyn Bridge. it’s a remarkable passage. as for historical distance, kazin brings the transcendentalists into the 1950s and 1960s, and Garry (sp?) Troudeau does the same in Doonesbury into the 1960s and 1970s.. obviously, i’m just goofing around. maybe it was basheret that you found yourself in Boston. think about it on your next swim at Walden!

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