Mordecai Kaplan — Religion of Human Techno-Genesis and Emergent Evolution


[Note to readers: This longer than usual post represents the center of gravity to my current thinking here at JPP re: Mordecai Kaplan. Preparing a conference presentation on Kaplan and technology, I didn’t think there was going to be too much on topic. I had no idea it was going to look like this. Critical feedback is especially appreciated as these thoughts continue to gel. This is an American Jewish Philosophy, techno]

Kaplan’s least interesting remarks about technology are the more critical ones in which he addresses the phenomenon directly. Much more interesting and of greater import are those interesting lines of connection, the discrete, indirect, and perhaps unintended and unacknowledged  ones in which Kaplan’s thinking  gives to Judaism and to the religion of ethical nationhood the appearance and function of a technological apparatus. The place to look for this more realized technological conception is in The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, Kaplan’s last published and by far most philosophically sophisticated text. Without ever using the Greek term techne, Kaplan offers a self-regulating systems-based approach to religion as civilization, an integrated system in which component features are “organically” interconnected. The technological system stands the human person and human societies in relation to its environment in nature, which human subjects seek to control in conformity to human ends. With a cosmic backdrop, the religion of ethical nationhood as technology is allopoietic, meaning the system is meant to produce effects, an object other than or apart from the system itself, or, in Kaplan’s case, a self-perfecting perfected type of intelligent, self-transcending human subject.

The most visible part of Kaplan’s thinking about technology is the critical one, tending towards  run-of -the-mill anti-technological grist. A threat to general human dignity, technology is identified with automation and roboticization, undermining religion, including the religion of Judaism, and its spiritual values, which for Kaplan were intimately aligned with humanism. In the early diaries, Kaplan complains about modern day apartment life crowds out and makes impossible the sukka, which for him is a standard of simple, plain living, primitive and natural. Not much to it, this is an early reflection from 1917. (Communings of the Spirit, vol.1, 1913-1934, pp.121-2) (CoS). The line of thought finds itself as well in Judaism as a Civilization, where Kaplan notes how “the machine and the technological economy” have “upset” the “whole spiritual life of mankind (Judaism as a Civilization, p.28). In The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (MOG), Kaplan is alert, politically, to the threat to economic wellbeing posed by capitalism and technology, the way technological civilization, with its tyranny of the machine, has “destroyed equality,” turning “man” into a machine meant to maximize profits at the expense of human welfare (MOG, pp218-25, 233, 234-5). Writing in the 1930s, Kaplan writes a lot about machines, and the need to control and humanize technology, as well as the need to humanize our economic life (MOG pp.287, 209). cf. pp.89, 160) Warning us against capitalism and about technology, Kaplan wants to carve out a space for Judaism in technological society. As the power that makes for human cooperation, Godhood constitutes the force in the universe that intends human wellbeing release from all forms of economic and spiritual bondage (MOG, p.289). As Kaplan was to put it in The Religion of Nationhood, where the thought basically repeats itself, Godhood stands against the disruption or disorganization of human life introduced by the machine, representing the fund of infinite and creative “potentiality” in nature that allows human beings to transcend the merely mechanical, and that group religion can “save man” from being “robotized by technology” (The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, pp.91, 104,

As a thinker, Kaplan was keenly sensitive to historical situations. Published in 1937, The Meaning of God with socialism and communism very much in mind. In his diaries, Kaplan grappled with socialism and Soviet communism as a competing ideology. Writing in the political spirit of the time, he aligned the criticism of technology and the promise of Judaism in explicitly economic terms as the material threat posed by technology’s impact on human wellbeing. Kaplan was well aware of technology’s negative impact on skills, jobs and wages for large numbers of workers posed by machine automation and mass production. Indeed, one can follow in his diaries from this time the keen realization that, for all the brutality and Soviet Communism as a collectivist ideology, which he rejected, that communism worked on a larger and more effective human scale, offering more realistic, practical programs to human economic problems than did either Judaism or his philosophy of Judaism. In contrast, the threats posed by technology as understood in The Religion of Ethical Nationhood take on a different shade. Published in 1970, the criticism of technology reflects the more existential realizations of a religious thinker that are post-war, post-Holocaust, and post-Hiroshima, when war, nuclear war, is understood to pose a threat not just to economic wellbeing, but to human existence itself.

While criticism of technology is easy to read on the surface of Kaplan’s thought, there is a subtle, implicit way by which technological model of thinking always seemed to be just under the surface of Kaplan’s religious and theological thought. The very notion of “process theology” owes itself to both science and to technology. Writing in his diary as early as 1913, religion is described in terms of living and social energy generated by individual reactions and counter-reations in relation to each other in groups, and which in turn generate, or produce, moral and spiritual values (CoS, pp.58, 59). As a form of energy, the soul of the cosmos, God is identified pure potentiality. We might identify what might be called, in the spirit of Alfred North Whitehead, this virtuality as the potential that gives life by actualizing the self-organizing system of nature. Showing Kaplan’s thinking about technology in a more complex and even cosmo-theological light, I would point out that almost all the references to machines in The Meaning of God appear in that chapter devoted to that attribute of divinity that Kaplan called “the power that makes for cooperation.” For all his reservations about technology, Kaplan has drawn a tight association between that aspect of Godhood and the power of technology to improve human life, the power of technology defined as “the intelligent manipulation of…psychic and social forces for the maximum of cooperation and individualization” (MOG, p.128). All of this gets more clearly presented only in The Religion of Ethical Nationhood. The principle of ethical nationhood” is not so much a sociological category as it is an organizing life force, the principle of international cooperation forming an organic part of an expansive cosmic principle (REN, p.34). Godhood is machine-like, actualized in part as a social force, whose function is pure process, the brining of physical and social forces into cooperation. The idea can be found in Judaism as a Civilization (p.419), and we see it throughout Kaplan’s writings. As the soul is to the human person, so is God to the world, “reality” waiting to be realized” (REN, p.91).

In this way, the religion of ethical nationhood acts or functions as a tool, a working tool of creation, as the rabbis in Genesis Rabbah understood Torah, a technology, with which to save the human person and human society from these economic, spiritual, and existential threats posed by…technology. If, as I want to argue, the religion of ethical nationhood is a technology, the first thing to consider about it is the idea of potentiality, or “viritality,” and the way potentiality stands in tension with the “actual.” In Kaplan’s conception, the deep and creative potentiality at the heart of the universe, that is the soul of the universe, constitutes the sense of enlarged connections and total adjustments, which can only be incompletely actualized in the real world. Bound up with the imagination, or what one might call the transcendental imagination, the sense of a whole or “metaphysical imagination” is seen to go “beyond the actual into the possible” (Scult, The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai Kaplan, p.139). In The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, Godhood is identified as infinite “potentiality” (REN, 91), the monotheistic idea of one God taken to represent a dynamic and dynamizing principle or force, now in sync with volatizing forces of capitalism and computer technology (p.3). Godhood is force of pure potentiality that constantly upsets and conditions the actual condition of things. Instead of presenting an oppositional force to capitalism, the religion of ethical nationhood is integrated into it as world-technological system.

[[Mention Norbert Wiener]]] Ideally based on the equilibrium between potential and active states, the system maintains itself vis-a-vis forces of “entrophy,” mentioned explicitly by Kaplan and understood as forces of fragmentation and disorganization.

The distinction between art, religion, and technology is not always clear in The Religion of Ethical Nationhood. The ambiguity is constructive or generative. Intentional or not, the elision between “biological, pscyho-social, and spiritual functions is a critical part of Kaplan’s overall conception of the human condition and its plastic constitution or self-constituting. The central place to see this is in the chapter devoted to “Man’s Sense of Destiny,” starting at the precise point where Kaplan talks about art. By this Kaplan meant not modern autonomous art, but rather that effort to shape human life itself into “a work of art,” presented by Kaplan as “harmonious whole,” a “pattern of life [that] would enable us to organize our lives rationally, spiritually, and craeatively.” The tension, also productive, is these values, the ones that can “save man from the danger of being robotized by technology,” are themselves more technological than aesthetic per se. They reflect an “art” based on “a logic compounded of will, skill, reason, intelligence and love” (REN, 104). For Kaplan, this is the true function of “group religion,” and the particular group religion of ethical nationhood conceived as part of a larger technological apparatus, one that is alive, wholly alive with possibility and potential.

As for “human destiny,” Kaplan meant self-metamorphosis and “emergent evolution,” and what gets called today in critical theory “bio-power.” In the same discussion of “art,” which now we should understood better in terms of the ancient Greek word “techne,” self-metamorphosis is understood as “the vocation of man,” the emergence is compared to the “continued development” of “modern man” from the condition of cavemen. The emergence out of “brute force” and “cunning” is psycho-social, also moral-spiritual, and also biological (REN, p.105). The process of this emergence Kaplan thought was now accelerating. Looking at the past four or five hundred years, and now the reader knows that Kaplan has his eye on technologies, he pointed to the increase in population, longer individual life-spans, improvements to health, “the extended influence of the masses” (which I take to mean mass media and communications), the enrichment of mental content, and the spread of democracy. These we know to be the result of technology. For Kaplan, these changes represent more than a quantitative augmentation of human potential and power. Instead they are said to mark “qualitative growth and spiritual maturity,” especially as marked out by moral opposition to war (REN, p.106). These, Kaplan insists, are “latent potentialities” now being “actualized” on a global scale as “man shed[s] all vestiges of jungle heredity” (REN, pp.106, 106-7).

“Human destiny” is biologically plastic and spiritually form-shifting. Increasingly self-aware and intelligent, “man…may metamorphose himself” into “a huger type of creature,” a “creature that participates in the creative process itself” as new technological environments enlarge the field or horizon of human “potentialities.” Soon to possess the biological knowledge with which to change our very genetic nature, able to regulate population growth, psychologically and sociologically expert “to alter the organization of cultural and economic life,” the evolved human creature, Kaplan calls him a “creature,” not a person,” would be unrecognizable to “his” ancestors as related to them in any way. In this conception, the human creature takes “his” place as the “architect or artist of his [sic] own destiny,” both alive and creative, now no longer dominated by biological drives and instincts. The creature stands out as evolved human creature, self-aware of its own telos, “illuminated,” “mature,” and “at one with the rest of living nature.” The transformation is a spiritual one, the emergent future of human mind presented as “prelude to Godhood,” the next step up, a “next higher empirical quality for any level of existence.” Like angelic beings, the evolved human creature is one whose “higher potentialities” are “activated,” “assimilated” or integrated into divine Intellect, nearer to God than we are now (pp.108-11, 112).  In visionary prose, Kaplan presents before the reader Jewish “wisdom or religion” as “the metamorphosis of man into a human animal” (114).

Genetically altered, biological and super-biological, terrestrial and super-terrestrial, could such a creature ever die? Is such a creature even human? The human animal could be a cyborg, standing on the brink of what Kurzweil has called the technological convergence, poised at the point where the human being turns into post-human creature. Not machine, but angel. Not robot, but human animal, neither human nor animal, potentially and actually. Deliberate or not, the slippage between evolved angelic being and the human-animal metamorph both reflects and generates hybrid effects of techno-genesis on human emergence. What this has to do with the religion of ethical nationhood one can safely guess to be as follows. As described by Kaplan, ethical nationhood is a non-sovereign social-political form that divests itself of war and the sovereign right to make war in an age when the ultimate technology is the nuclear warhead.  Assuming the interlocking of society and nature, advanced social organization and the cosmos, the human-animal-angel hybrid stands out as non-sovereign creaturely being. The religion of ethical nationhood is the cosmic backdrop to this new form of cosmopolitan citizenship. Perfected and self-perfecting, a self-actualized field of almost infinite creative potential, the human animals belongs to that special brand of Gnosticism defined by Harold Bloom as “the American Religion.”

Regarding Judaism as a civilization, we would have to read retrospectively to draw precise conclusions about its real or virtual character. Speculatively, we do so only upon the basis of the technological “destiny of man” as dreamed up in The Religion of Ethical Nationhood. Kaplan understood that ours is an age of permanent revolution and that technology is a dynamic force of change, whose energy Kaplan finally figured out how to harness theoretically towards nearing the end of the twentieth century. Stated clearly in the introduction to The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, Kaplan takes particular note of “the computer revolution,” with its power to “stimulate” (if only he had said simulate) “atomic explosions and rocket launchings, and design, develop and test theoretically, inventions that do not physically exist” (REN, p.74-5). The quote comes from Richard Hamming of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, a thought that Kaplan wants very much to put to use for his own purpose. Reading The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, one begins to wonder if, after all, the entire program for the reconstruction of Judaism laid out in Judaism as a Civilization, with its conception of interlocking component features such as land, language, mores, folkways, arts, social structures, etc. was one such design program, meant to simulate an invention, a creation, a form of Judaism that did not then physically exist, did not actually exist. Writing in his diary, anxious about what he thought was his failure to communicate this vision to his own children, he knew that the potential of an emergent Judaism as a civilization in this day and age, at this stage of historical transition was like “trying to make ropes with sand” (COS, p.439).

Writing in his diaries in 1950, Kaplan complained about Abraham Joshua Heschel, “his metaphysical-mystical mind that spider-like issues from itself verbal filaments which go into the weaving of iridescent webs for catching unary flies” (cited in Scult, RAJ, p.216). Kaplan had already registered five years previous the almost identical judgment that “as a romantic mystic, [Heschel] shies away from facts and tries to build his universe of discourse entirely with values” (cited Scult, 213). But how different is Heschel’s from the model or simulation of Judaism as a civilization, Kaplan’s own attempt to make ropes with sand? Not a finished object, these ropes are strands of verbal filaments and of Kaplan’s own emergent faculty of metaphysical imagination. Judaism as civilization will itself evolve, technologically, not as a simple sociological-theoretical object modeled on something that does not physically exists in its own time and place, but as reconstructive project that is utopian, techno-utopian character, not yet actual or actualized. This system is a virtual one, a virtual program, a virtual reality. That’s all it ever was, but this we recognize only in retrospect, under the evolving impact of the computer revolution on Jewish civilization and on the human creature.

Kaplan has almost always been faulted, especially in comparison to Heschel, as theologically and philosophically superficial. Mel Scult has done so much to shake that false conviction about the difference between the two thinkers, but even he recognizes the contrast drawn by Heschel between what he called “the vertical unity of Israel” with “the horizontal unity of Klal Yisrael” (cited by Scult, 219). By vertical unity of Israel we can suppose Heschel to have meant the unity of Israel and God, versus the horizontal plane of Jewish social existence. Kaplan’s model of Jewish civilization lends itself then to a flatness that neither his critics nor champions have necessarily appreciated, but which I would suggest to you as kind of flat and distributive psycho-social-mental energy that comes to define what technology theorists call “network culture,” one that might be better understood on its own terms today than might have been the case in 1970 or 1934, at the dawn of new communication and computing technologies, a world captured better by Kaplan than almost anyone else in the canon of modern Jewish thought.

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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18 Responses to Mordecai Kaplan — Religion of Human Techno-Genesis and Emergent Evolution

  1. dmfant says:

    will give this some thought, when you say that “the religion of ethical nationhood is a technology, the first thing to consider about it is the idea of potentiality, or “viritality,” and the way potentiality stands in tension with the actual” are you trying to make this case in general or just in terms of getting at what Kaplan was after?

  2. zjb says:

    i think both what Kaplan was getting at, but i’m also thinking that he might be on to something, , i.e. that he might be right.

  3. Mel Scult says:

    On the Road to Florida:

    Bertrand Russell called it an “ aha” experience which also might be termed a mini “ revelation.” In your post on Kaplan and Techno-genesis it seems clear to me that you have had such an experience. I frequently emerge from my study and declare to my wife that I am “epiphing again “ when I have some overwhelming insight. I feel your excitement in your moment of epiphany.

    These epiphanies are what keep me going. Kaplan is not a philosopher but is on his way to being one. During the journey he had some amazing philosophical moments but not being a philosopher he did not explicate, analyze or full explain what he meant. This failing gives the careful reader the opportunity to explain what Kaplan had in mind. We are filling in the spaces as one might do in a midrash on the scripture.

    It is clear to me that in your post on Technogenesis you are having such a moment. The notion of using technology as a metaphor to fully explain the concept of Judaism as a Civilization is a brilliant move on Kaplan’s part and on your part and not something I had considered.
    Kaplan was enormously creative in borrowing ideas from other fields and using them in the service of religion. I am thinking particularly of the way he uses the sociological concept of “function” in his efforts at reconstructing religion.

    In my recent research, the notion of the goal or meaning of salvation as being the “ self actualized “ individual has assumed paramount importance. Kaplan read widely in the humanistic literature of mid century and was well acquainted with Abraham Maslow and his colleagues. Thus your recognition of the Kaplanian ideal of “ the perfected and self- perfecting , a self-actualized field of almost infinite creative potential …” [zab] is the most exhilarating notion I have found in Kaplan

    There are so many aspects to your essay which are important. I would like to choose only one, the matter of life as art. In a Hebrew work from the 1950’s Kaplan uses this notion of art not as the stand alone aesthetic “ but as the effort to shape human life into a work of art “ [ coherent aesthetic whole.] {ZAB] I find the roots of this notion in A.D.Gordon the early Zionist theoretician whom Kaplan much appreciated and even used a quotation from Gordon as the epigraph for this Hebrew work “ Ha’emunah ve’hamusar.”

    My only criticism is when you accuse Kaplan of utopianism in his characterizing of Judaism as a civilization particularly in its potentially “techno” character. [ “ that’s all it ever was.”] I have always seen philosophy as a map which does not tell us where we are but rather what our goal might be so that we can chart the way to get there. I think Kaplan does this quite effectively as you yourself point out.

    Many thanks to you for your serious reading.

    Mel Scult

    • zjb says:

      yes, you’re absolutely right reading me. there was something like an epiphany reading Kaplan writing about emergent evolution, techno-genesis, human animality. but half the epiphany was reading your The Radical American Judaism of MMK. Maybe I’ll tweak the utopia thought, but I want to keep part of it, namely the part about trying to make rope out of sand. But no, you’re right. That’s definitely NOT what it “ever was” and I thank you for the kind thought and helpful pushback.

      • dmfant says:

        my own reservations are not so much about the ends but the means, what is (where are) the proposed bond/link that allow for trans-mission/co-operations between actors, how are they actually en-coded/ordered, and aren’t we back to something like the meta-physics of Presence here?

      • zjb says:

        right! but i have no problem with a meta-physics of presence, depending upon the distribution of the constituent components.

      • dmf says:

        but what (Who?) holds them together, gets them on the same page if you will, how do we overcome our all-too-human kluged together cognitive-biases to be organized in anything sustainable enough to really be understood as machine-like?

  4. Gail says:

    I did not read this as carefully as I ought but it’s interesting to think of
    (1) technology as you deploy it here in Kaplan form as something akin to Foucault’s technology, which he really only worked out in 1980;
    (2) all religion as a utopian virtual reality technology (cf. Holly’s dissertation), and so what makes Judaism more so, or differently so?

    • zjb says:

      kaplan’s reading Whitehead and Dewey, in a very naive way, but also Lewis Mumford, and who knows else. so on this he’s on the ball. all religions are virtual, but as we know from the Talmud (and Zohar too), Judaism especially. i think it has to do with its the role of exile forcing the Jews, their religion and culture into a compact, super-crystalized little micro-cosmos. i’ll risk that little bit of historical essentialism.

  5. Gail says:

    Well, I suppose it hinges partly on what one means by ‘virtual.’
    And I was wrong about MF and technology: he was using that sense of social-embodied-systematic in Society must be Defended in 76-77. I don’t think about ANW as being very technological, but I’ll defer to your more recent engagements.

  6. Mel Scult says:

    My sense from the diary is that Kaplan read much Dewey little Whitehead and no Hartshorn.

    Mel Scult

  7. mel scult says:

    People always criticized William James that he had no interest in metaphysics. I think Kaplan was similar but does speculate from time to time about ultimate realities. He lived in the realm where human potential was the ultimate though he visited other realms periodically.

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