A Reading of Rosenzweig’s ‘New Thinking’
The Homeric metaphor of Scylla and Charybdis provides the general guidelines Rosenzweig seems to stick to in developing his ‘new thinking.’ Not only does it avoid the dangers of idealism and irrationalism charting a third way between them, but it also takes shape as a combination of philosophy and Jewish thought — a combination irreducible to each of its terms, and thus representing a tertium datur beyond them.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Three Spheres. Three Epochs. Three Ways
- Middle Ages
- Three Ways
- The First Way: Hegel
- Two Attitudes of Thought
- Hegel’s Attitude of Thought
- The Three Spheres in Hegel’s Philosophy
- The Divine
- The Natural-Worldly
- The Human
- Hegel and Rosenzweig
- The Second Way: Nietzsche
- Nietzsche’s Irrationalism for Rosenzweig
- Against Values and Hierarchies
- Nietzsche and Hegel
- The Three Spheres in Nietzsche’s Philosophy
- The Divine
- The Natural-Worldly
- The Human
- Nietzsche and Rosenzweig
- The Third Way: Rosenzweig
- Rosenzweig Versus Idealism I: Elements
- Beyond the Human65
- Beyond the Natural-Worldly
- Beyond the Divine
- Rosenzweig Versus Idealism II: Nothingness and Irrationality
- Rosenzweig Versus Irrationalism
- Truth as Relation
- Ex Negativo
- Ex Positivo
- Theory and Praxis
- The Three Spheres in Rosenzweig’s ‘New Thinking’
- The Divine
- The Natural-Worldly
- The Human
- Between and Beyond Hegel and Nietzsche
- The Three Paths in Rosenzweig’s ‘New Thinking’
- Explicit References and Implicit Analogies
- ‘Quod sit’ and ‘Quid sit’ in Der Stern der Erlösung
- Between God and World: The Path of Creation
- The Creator: Divine Power
- The Creature: Worldly Existence
- Rosenzweig Versus Hegel: Creation Versus Production
- Rosenzweig Versus Nietzsche: Creation Versus Eternal Return
- A Keyword for Creation: ‘Relational Otherness’
- Between God and Human Being: The Path of Revelation
- The Revealer: Divine Love
- The Recipient of Revelation: Human Humility
- Revelation as Cornerstone of Reality
- Rosenzweig Versus Hegel: Revelation Versus Dialectical Logic
- Rosenzweig Versus Nietzsche: Revelation Versus Disconnection
- A Keyword for Revelation: ‘Event’
- Between Human Being and World: The Path of Redemption
- The Agent of Redemption: Human Neighbor-Love
- The Context of Redemption: Worldly Life
- Redemption: Communality and Eternity
- Rosenzweig Versus Hegel: Redemptive Praxis Versus Self-Reflection and Theory
- Rosenzweig Versus Nietzsche: Redemptive Praxis Versus Gift-Giving Virtue
- A Keyword for Redemption: ‘Oriented Praxis’
- Beyond Philosophy: The ‘New Thinking’ as Jewish
- Creation: Relational Otherness – Bereshit 1
- Revelation: Event – Shir ha-Shirim
- Redemption: Oriented Praxis – Psalm 115 and Tiqqun
- Final Remarks
- A Third Way between Idealism and Irrationalism
- A Third Way between Philosophy and Jewish Thought
- ‘Otherness’ in Philosophy and in Jewish Thought
- ‘Event’ in Philosophy and in Jewish Thought
- ‘Praxis’ in Philosophy and in Jewish Thought
- Series Index
In his essay Das neue Denken (1925), Franz Rosenzweig warns against the “danger of understanding the new thinking in the sense, or rather the nonsense, of ‘irrational’ tendencies such as, for example, the ‘philosophy of life.’ Everyone clever enough to have steered clear of the jaws of the idealistic Charybdis seems nowadays to be drawn into the dark whirlpool of this Scylla” (GS 3: 156). The quote puts in a nutshell what this book sets itself to investigate thoroughly, that is, the meaning and positioning of Rosenzweig’s ‘new thinking’ in the context of contemporary philosophy. More precisely, it will be shown how the Homeric metaphor of a double danger provides the guidelines Rosenzweig seems to stick to throughout the entire development of his thought—which, at every level, takes shape as an alternative between two opposite philosophical positions that have to be equally avoided: idealism and irrationalism.
Both terms are actually conceived in a broader meaning than the one related to their actual historical manifestations. For Rosenzweig, idealism is not so much a particular period in the history of philosophy, as a basic attitude of thought lying at the roots of philosophy as such. Likewise, irrationalism is not only a philosophical movement, historically set in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but also—and more importantly—a general tendency opposite to idealism. In short, whereas idealism aims at reducing reality to reason, pursuing the goal of a perfect agreement between them, from the point of view of irrationalism, reality is by no means exhausted in the picture rationality can provide of it; rather, reality also consists of dimensions that are ‘irrational,’ in the sense that they place themselves beyond—or even against—the structures of reason.
However, despite Rosenzweig—and this book too, after all—adopting a mostly theoretical approach to idealism and irrationalism, it would not be correct to say that their historical scope is given no consideration at all. By ‘idealism’ Rosenzweig means, of course, a theoretical thinking strategy, but he also mentions the expression “from Ionia to Jena” (GS 2: 13), when referring to it. That means that idealistic thought is also situated in a historical context, with its origin in Parmenides’ philosophy (i.e. Ionia) and its conclusion in the Hegelian system (i.e. Jena). Rosenzweig refers to irrationalism with the term ‘point of view-philosophy,’ thus emphasizing its anti-absolutist character on a theoretical level. Yet at the same time, he does not fail to provide historical coordinates either, as he locates irrationalism’s origin in Kierkegaard’s anti-Hegelianism and follows its evolution up to Nietzscheanism.←11 | 12→
Idealism—or ‘from Ionia to Jena’-philosophy, or the Parmenides-Hegel segment—is a philosophical conception, whose theoretical cornerstones can be found in such notions as absolute truth, reduction to unity, and totality. In this book, it will be called ‘first way.’ Irrationalism, as an antagonistic position to idealism, is characterized by the opposite way of thinking. It implies the dissolution of truth, asserts a plurality of perspectives, and proclaims the untenability of the notion of ‘totality.’ The term ‘second way’ will be used in this book for indicating irrationalism—or ‘point of view’-philosophy, or the Kierkegaard-Nietzsche segment. Based on this scheme, then, it is possible to argue that Rosenzweig’s ‘new thinking’ charts a third way in this context, as its most distinctive features emerge from a rejection of the first way of idealism, as much as they mark a distance from the second way of irrationalism.
Following Rosenzweig’s analysis, philosophical thought has come to an impasse, represented by two, equally unsatisfactory, alternatives: either idealism or irrationalism; either the Parmenides-Hegel segment or the Kierkegaard-Nietzsche one—either Charybdis or Scylla. But if it is philosophy as such that leads to this crossroads—as it seems to be the case in Rosenzweig’s view—the possibility of a third way between and beyond idealism and irrationalism depends on thought being able to pass beyond a purely philosophical forma mentis, making it interact with extra- or even anti-philosophical elements. This kind of interaction is exactly what characterizes Rosenzweig’s ‘new thinking,’ as it manages to integrate contents of thought and ways of thinking coming from a non-philosophical tradition like the Jewish one into a terrain that used to be exclusively philosophical.
Whereas it is sufficiently clear what ‘Jewish contents of thought’1 may refer to, the question arises as to what could possibly be meant by ‘Jewish way of thinking.’ Fortunately, Rosenzweig himself attempts to answer this question in some lecture drafts written between 1920 and 1921. In Grundriss des jüdischen Wissens (1921), for example, Jewish knowledge is said to be “immediate (unmittelbar)” (GS 3: 579). This term is taken to mean a form of knowledge that, other than philosophy, does not rely on conceptual mediation for its own development. The difference between the Jewish-immediate approach and the philosophical-mediated ←12 | 13→one is also mirrored in a polarity between praxis and theory, where the Jewish attitude is placed on the side of concrete praxis against abstract theory. It is in this context, then, that Rosenzweig sees his goal in “leading knowledge back to a knowledge of life […] and making” (ibid.).
A second text, Anleitung zum jüdischen Denken (1921), is also based on two pairs of oppositions: concrete life is opposed to abstract thought and common sense is presented as an antagonist of philosophy. In this view, only common sense (der gesunde Menschenverstand), as a wealth of common knowledge and experience, can be in contact with real life, while philosophy, developing in the abstract realm of thought, is irremediably detached from concrete reality: “we rave (irrereden) each time we rise to the heights of thought” (597)—says Rosenzweig. However, “life does not feel good, as long as thought turns its back on it” (ibid.), so that Rosenzweig’s goal does not consist in simply marking a gap between opposite dimensions; rather, he aims at bridging it, making thought more concrete and thus achieving a “reconciliation between life and thought” (598).
It is at this juncture, then, that Jewish thought comes in. As the immediate, praxis-based way of thinking that it is in Rosenzweig’s view, Jewish thought positions itself in the double-pole framework here at issue, by opposing philosophy and siding with common sense at the same time. Talking about Jewish thinkers, for example, Rosenzweig says that a struggle takes place in them, in which a Jewish way of thinking tries to overpower the philosophical one—more often than not unsuccessfully (see ibid.). On the other hand, by having a common enemy in the abstractive character of philosophy, common sense and Jewish thought are not only seen as in agreement with each other, but, going a step further, Rosenzweig reaches the point where the two notions are even considered to be the same, to be synonyms (see ibid. as well as Fabris 1993: 356 and Baccarini 1993: 374–375).2
Another distinguishing trait of the Jewish way of thinking is its capability to connect the notion of life with those of eternity and truth. In Der jüdische Mensch (1920), Rosenzweig describes Jewish existence in terms of “polarity” (GS 3: 561) ←13 | 14→between antithetical features,3 in particular between a life in time and a contact with eternity.4 The Jewish people live in time, like every other people, but, differently from any other people, they also partake of eternity, as they have been “with God” (bei Gott) since forever. This “direct connection with God is the very core of being Jewish” (ist ja wirklich zentraljüdisch) (574)—says Rosenzweig—and if one now considers that “God is truth” (GS 2: 423), the “proximity to God” (Gottesnähe) (GS 3: 574) that plays such a central role in Jewish life turns out to be also a proximity to truth, which plays an equally central role in Jewish thought.5
According to Rosenzweig, then, two main features stand out as defining the typically Jewish way of thinking: (1) close relation to concrete life and (2) constant reference to the notion of truth. Together, they make Jewish thought settle into a middle position between two extremes. The first feature, establishing concreteness and experience as a foundation for thought, finds itself at odds with the abstractness of idealism—that is at odds with what has been called the first way. The second feature, on the other hand, prevents this anti-idealistic slant from going too far and turning into a form of irrationalism—that is prevents it from following the second way. Preserving the notion of truth as a reference point allows thought to keep its distance from any tendency to give up that notion altogether, thus constituting a permanent check against any possible irrational-relativistic drift.
Now, the point is that when Rosenzweig describes his ‘new thinking,’ he mentions the same features he also recognizes in Jewish thought. Although not framing the discussion explicitly in terms of a contrast between philosophy and Jewish thought, in his essay from 1925, Rosenzweig criticizes philosophical ←14 | 15→strategies that lead to an excess of abstraction and emphasizes at the same time the concrete nature of the ‘new thinking.’ Moreover, it is in that same crucial essay that the Rosenzweigian conception of truth as ‘verification’ (Bewährung) finds its most mature expression—thus testifying to truth still playing a central role in Rosenzweig’s view. Irrespective of the particular shape the notion of truth takes in the ‘new thinking,’6 the very fact that it still takes a shape, that is that it is not completely discarded, is enough to distinguish the ‘new thinking’ from any form of irrationalism.
To put it briefly, concreteness and truth can be taken as the keywords defining Rosenzweig’s ‘new thinking.’ Its concreteness opposes the first way of idealism, while its consideration for the notion of truth represents a stand against the second way of irrationalism. This double distancing from both forms of philosophy is exactly what at the same time brings the ‘new thinking’ closer to what Rosenzweig considers to be Jewish thought. The third way that the ‘new thinking’ comes to represent can thus be seen as an oriented one: it leads away from philosophy—from both of its branches—and toward Jewish thought. This book adopts the idea of a thus conceived third way as a key to the interpretation of Rosenzweig’s position, which basically aims at going beyond the limitations of philosophy—idealism or irrationalism—and getting closer to an extra-philosophical tradition, such as the Jewish one.7
In conclusion, this book will show that a third-way-model can find application at every level of Rosenzweig’s structured picture of reality. At its first level, Rosenzweig’s account of the basic elements, the Urphänomene of God, world, and human being, emerges as a combination of the idealist conception and an irrational view—a combination, though, that is irreducible to each of its components, and thus constitutes a third way between them. At the second ←15 | 16→level of reality, each of the three paths of creation, revelation and redemption turns out to be based on one central concept—‘relational otherness,’ ‘event,’ and ‘oriented praxis,’ respectively—which marks a radical break with both idealism and irrationalism, while revealing its derivation from Jewish sources at the same time. That means, once again, that Rosenzweig’s ‘new thinking’ is not only a third way between two philosophical stances, but it also takes shape as an approach to Jewish thought.
1 The expression ‘Jewish contents of thought’ refers here to notions, concepts, and categories that belong to the Jewish tradition. Here are some examples, in no particular order, of ‘Jewish contents’ that play a relevant role in Rosenzweig’s thought: (1) the three notions of creation, revelation, and redemption; (2) the biblical texts illustrating them, that is respectively, Bereshit 1, Shir ha-Shirim, and Psalm 115; (3) the cabbalistic ideas of Zimzum and Tiqqun.
2 That Rosenzweig sees Jewish thought (jüdisches Denken) and common sense (gesunder Menschenverstand) as synonyms can be confirmed also by what he writes in a letter to Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (February 13, 1921). Talking about his lecture, in whose title the expression ‘Jewish thought’ is mentioned (i.e. Anleitung zum jüdischen Denken), Rosenzweig says: “Originally, I wanted to name it ‘Introduction to the use of common sense.’ If I didn’t, it is only for contingent reasons” (GB: 732). The indifference Rosenzweig seems to show towards the two titles can be a clue to his tendency to merge Jewish thought and common sense into the same notion.
3 Rosenzweig mentions: blind faith and subversive doubt; conservatism and revolution; even capitalism and Bolshevism.
4 This contact with eternity, which according to Rosenzweig is a distinguishing trait of the Jewish people, is acquired by renouncing any connection with those transient elements other peoples usually rely on: “[…] everything other peoples’ existence was rooted in has been taken away from us [Jews] long ago; land, language, custom, and law—the sphere of our living has been deprived of them, and from being simply alive, they have been elevated to being holy. However, we are still living and live eternally. Our life is no longer interwoven with anything external, we have taken root in ourselves, without roots in the earth, eternal wanderers therefore, yet deeply rooted in ourselves, in our own body and blood. And it is this rooting in ourselves, and in ourselves alone, that guarantees our eternity” (GS 2: 338–339).
5 Incidentally, this results in a correspondence and “reconciliation” (Versöhnung) (see GS 3: 598) between life and thought—also typical of the Jewish way of thinking.
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- 2020 (March)
- Idealism Irrationalism Hegel (Hegelianism) Nietzsche (Nietzscheanism) Philosophy Jewish Thought Jewish Philosophy
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 256 pp.