Friday, 1 March 2013

The Research of Hope

William Kluback’s ‘Karl Jaspers and Schmuel Hugo Bergman: Believing Philosophers’ appeared in the collection edited by Richard Wisser and Leonard H. Ehrlich, Karl Jaspers: Philosopher among Philosophers. Kluback opens with a scene which movingly evokes the attempt to perpetuate Weimar era German-Jewish thought after the Holocaust, in the form of a philosophical conversation between Israel and postwar Germany: a meeting on a street in Jerusalem in April 1949 between Jaspers and Bergman (the subject of my previous post on this blog), who had been the first Rector of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. ‘In 1948,’ Kluback notes, ‘Jaspers had published a book on philosophical faith, Der philosophische Glaube. Bergman had reviewed the book in the newspaper Haaretz a day or two before and now the friends spoke about it.’ Jaspers’ book, writes Kluback, made ‘a deep impression’ on Bergman. ‘The book rightly shocked him. He was stunned by its description of the spiritual situation of the time and by the helplessness of the philosophy that was offered to a tortured mankind.’ For Bergman, Kluback continues, ‘The shattering nature of the problem’ exposed by Jaspers’ book ‘lies in the silence of transcendence’: that is, in contemporary nihilism. Kluback – from the vantage-point of an adherent of religious tradition – points to a post-Kantian ‘anarchy of autonomous, sophistic subjectivity, of inescapable relativism, and of an incurable hedonism’. Weimar thought itself, viewed from Kluback's position, was already coloured by nihilism: ‘Bergman was right when he saw the shattering consequences of nihilism in the decades before 1948 and those which were yet to come.’

Kluback understands nihilism in terms of social coercion, or the way in which a power-hungry rationalism can turn itself into political dogmatism. As ‘philosophers in the age of despotism’, Bergman and Jaspers, Kluback maintains, ‘worried about the efficacy of philosophy […] only because at times some of their colleagues turned to political insanity while others fought and died in physical and spiritual exiles’. For Kluback, ‘The philosopher knew that in the tempests of politics nihilism was the ever present threat to spiritual and physical survival’, because ‘When Bergman spoke of the shattering effect of Jaspers’s book, he recognized the power of nihilism, the profanation of the sacred and the blatant and uncontrolled will to power’. Kluback could be talking about the will-sapping, depressing corruptions which characterize the marketized state bureaucracies of the UK today, such as the higher education system; actually here he is referring to the threat to the creation of the new state of Israel.

‘Hugo Bergman described his reaction to this discussion of nihilism as shattering, threatening the birth of a state in a hostile world where the depths of the oppositon [sic] had hardly been measured. The future demands an unflinching courage, a masterful self-confidence and an incontrovertible hope in man’s reasonableness.’ 

Nihilism hits at the root of the philosopher’s decisive participation in state-building, Kluback emphasizes, because ‘The problem of values was not merely academic; it became the essential quality for the society, the expression of the state’. The emergent state demands an education – a transmitted and interpreted intellectual culture, a community of debate – which is not eroded by nihilism.

‘The Arab question had become acute for the independent Jewish state. There were the historical values, the constitution, the rule of law and the security of the state; all these issues had to be addressed. These were debated and needed consensus and solution. The philosophers had a role to play.’

Kluback’s suggestion, therefore, is that nihilism threatened Jaspers’ philosophical work towards the refoundation and rehumanization of Germany, just as it threatened Bergman’s work as a public intellectual in the new Israel. We can note too that the anti-nihilist ‘historical values’ shared by all three thinkers to which Kluback refers in this connection – Jaspers, Bergman and Buber – were precisely the philosophical values which came to fruition in 1920s Germany:

‘The philosopher [in Israel] accepted the role of educator. Jaspers knew this well. He had been an educator in a Germany destroyed by Nazism. He spoke to the people of the true German spirit. His voice was heard. He had to lay the foundations of a Germany that would seek to lessen the effect of twelve years of totalitarianism. Bergman and Buber had similar tasks in an emerging state. Jaspers would continue his work from Basle, Bergman and Buber from a divided Jerusalem.’
It is clear that the post-postmodern supermarket that is the contemporary university is unable to offer such an anti-nihilist education. The blogosphere is awash with disaffected academics (or post-academics) complaining of their alienation from a higher education system lacking in values – for instance an English lecturer in the UK notes today’s inane cacophony of academic discourse, whilst an American Max Scheler scholar comments on the recent interviewing of only one philosopher, himself, for a post in philosophy (the other candidates included an historian and someone from an English department). Both examples point to the fact that the university itself now is programmed by a relativistic nihilism – by the educators’ own inability to hold to any value, effectively, other than their own self-assertive need to hustle, and make some noise. The academic system fosters quasi-celebrities, strange spectral celebrities whose elite peer group glamour is accrued through the canny autopoietic administration of existing knowledges, rather than the creation of new knowledges; it is as if short-term subcultural infamy is to be attained through the collective self-distancing from truth, rather than long-term public fame - the fame of a Kierkegaard, say - achieved following the individualistic creation of new truths. The Scheler scholar, in his blog post [here], concludes that the genuine philosopher can only respond by returning to the work of searching for truth: ‘we can resist the postmodernist on the grounds that not all texts inspire in the same way; philosophical texts are those that inspire the search for truth [his italics]’. Jaspers’ definition of nihilism in his The Perennial Scope of Philosophy, quoted here by Kluback, had indeed focussed exactly on the absence of truth and loss of faith:
‘“While demonology and deification of man,” he said, “offer a substitute for faith, open unbelief is known as nihilism. The nihilist ventures to appear without disguise. For him all contents of faith are untenable, he has unmasked all interpretations of the world and of being as delusions: for him everything is conditional and relative; there is no fundament, no absolute, no being as such. Everything is questionable. Nothing is true, everything is permissible.”’

It is in contrast to such a nihilist that Bergman and Jaspers, Kluback maintains, are ‘believing philosophers’.

‘When other men compromise and conform to the needs of the time the philosopher remains embedded in his belief in freedom, in human dignity and the communicating community. These beliefs the philosopher shares with all reasonable beings. In them he sees a hint of the Idea of mankind. The philosopher sees danger in nihilism; it becomes his single antagonist.’

Bergman argued, Kluback writes, that ‘if we are to prevent the danger of nihilism “we must turn to God:” this is the powerful task which Jaspers gives to philosophy’. ‘“What he would like,” Bergman remarked, “is the renewal of philosophical belief that is hidden in the religious, the transformation of religion into philosophy. This certainly will not be the way of mankind, although it may be the way of a minority.”’ Kluback signals that (Jaspers’ and) Bergman’s concept of philosophical faith, and their practice as believing philosophers, may be regarded as being elitist (or at least as being avant-gardist); he observes of Bergman that ‘He knew that a turning toward God was not the answer for mankind, but he also knew that the philosopher had to be a believer; on his faith others depended’. Yet Jaspers’ conception of faith, like Bergman’s concept of revelation, is – Kluback stresses – not exclusive. The believer, Jaspers wrote, must be able to ‘acknowledge the faith that is alien to him as a possible truth emerging from a different source, even if he is unable to understand it’. Bergman, Kluback writes, ‘found in revelation a universality which was at the foundation of his idea of The Believing Community’. Kluback suggests how Bergman's position on the hinge of two faiths, liberal-rational philosophical faith and potentially dogmatic-exclusive religious faith, was determined by his own inspiring conception of a decisively directing, socially unifying revelation:

‘He moved easily between philosophical and religious faith. In fact, it would be difficult to distinguish one from the other in his life and thought. This is comprehensible because he believed that a revelation was given to the people and it concerned their earthly destiny, their service to mankind and their vision of a future that spoke of justice, compassion and love. In a letter to his life-long friend Robert Weltsch, the editor of the Jüdische Rundschau (11/2/71), Bergman spoke of his conviction “that only a new moral direction would make it possible to find a solution for all difficulties, however utopian this may be”.’

Kluback also quotes from an important 1945 letter to the philosopher Jacob Fleischmann in which Bergman clarified his idea of the non-dogmatic path of faith – the shared ‘new moral direction’ – which springs from revelation.

‘“I do not believe in an absolute religion. All religious art [sic, pres. ‘religions’], in my view, are methods to a goal, ways. The dogmatic divisions are artistic superstructures which religions have built over or under their dwelling (Bau). In my eyes they are not important. […] Every people, and their epochs have their paths to God. But God is one, and if we feel a nearness to the Jewish tradition, it is because this pedagogy, and not the dogmatic, is close to our heart. I don’t believe in the absolute truth of either Judaism or Christianity. I believe in a particular mission of the Jewish people which has shown itself in such a fruitful way in our time. Thus it is for me tasteless and laughable when Zionists draw from a religious-historical reality simply political consequences.”’

Like Jaspers, Bergman in this letter is suspicious of objective religious forms on account of their potential dogmatism. Again like Jaspers, Bergman would supplant such absolute religion with a decisive hermeneutic of transcendence; a path to God. Because of his personal closeness to Jewish tradition, Bergman (unlike Jaspers) identifies the path to God with his contemporary ‘particular mission of the Jewish people’. Thus for Bergman the non-dogmatic hermeneutic of transcendence itself has assumed the dimensions of a ‘religious-historical reality’: for him here the struggle towards transcendence takes place within contemporary Jewish history, just as for Jaspers, we could add, it first took place within the religious-historical reality of Weimar era Germany. Both religious-historical realities are built out of, and hence consist of, philosophical faith.

Noting that ‘What we find revealed in Jaspers is the capacity of philosophy to describe the nature of faith, a clarification of the modes of faith’, Kluback underlines the fact that Jaspers’ decisive hermeneutic of transcendence remains a Kierkegaardian, negative one. ‘Faith becomes for Jaspers certainty “coupled with distance.” […] Faith defies description; it belongs to experience. Man never escapes the reality of non-belief, of inner doubt and despair.’ Because, as Kluback writes, ‘Faith is not a given to be held in perpetuity undiminished’, ‘Bergman and Jaspers knew that faith was a struggle; it was a gift’. Thus just as the mission towards God is faith, in the sense that it consists of it, faith itself is, consists of, the struggle – the (transcendentally) decided, decisive risk. Kluback quotes from Jaspers’ final book, Philosophical Faith and Revelation : ‘“There is hope without deception”, he said, “only when we do not hold it to be a certainty, not even a probability, but dare to live by it because such a life can be worthy of us and founded in transcendence.”’

Kluback stresses that a philosophical life is ‘formed through commitment’; ‘The philosopher shows the way of faith; he must decide to travel it.’ His very commitment to the path also suggests, as Kluback intimates with an additional quotation from Philosophical Faith and Revelation, that philosophical faith can become a collective, rather than an exclusive or elitist, project: ‘all our actions are based on what we expect of men – and that means of ourselves. Whoever despairs of man despairs of himself. Contempt of man is self-contempt.’ Kluback reinforces this point: ‘Faith is the foundation of man’s actions, of his world view, of his concept of the future.’ Faith thus emerges as the quality which relates people to each other, as well as to the distinct (yet interrelated) phases of human experience – past, present and future. Once more, the point is that each ‘religious-historical reality’ quite literally consists of philosophical faith.

I have tried to suggest in this post that Kluback shows Weimar era Germany and the new postwar Israel alike to be exemplary religious-historical realities instancing how, as he put it, ‘The problem of values was not merely academic; it became the essential quality for the society, the expression of the state.’ The intuition that in these two historical and intellectual moments the projection of philosophical faith became a social – even a state – project, could perhaps become more sustainable through a consideration of the concern within Weimar thought with natural law; particularly if we understand the tradition of natural law thinking as an articulation of what Kluback calls ‘a sacred covenant of belief between the philosopher, the past, the present and the future’. Kluback’s opposition to the lineage of post-Kantian reason – ‘The [French] Revolution declared the end of the sacred tradition that declared that God is truth’ – brings him to quote from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. ‘Each construct of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society […] connecting the visible and invisible world according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures’. Whereas now amidst our nihilism, Kluback comments, ‘We have discovered what it means to deify man, to identify history with natural law’, Jaspers and Bergman ‘knew that faith alone held together the sacred covenant that tied the generations to each other’.     
(The phrase 'the research of hope' is borrowed from Robert Hullot-Kentor's essay 'Critique of the Organic: Kierkegaard and the Construction of the Aesthetic' (reprinted in his Things beyond Resemblance))

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