Commentary Magazine

Critique of Religion and Philosophy, by Walter Kaufmann

Intellectual Treat
Critique of Religion and Philosophy.
by Walter Kaufmann.
Harper. 325 pp. $5.00.


Some future cultural historian may write a monumental study of the pervasive image of the “doctor” in present-day intellectual expression. Interest in those who heal is no longer focused on the medical profession, although the end of the March of Dimes and the beginning of the March to the Couch have both increased the professional’s cultural charisma. Our newspaper columns, our philosophy, theology, and political thinking are punctuated with claims about “medicine for a sick society,” “concept healing,” and “physicians of culture.” Not long ago the chaplain to England’s Queen issued a special call for “doctors for a sick society” to treat the “diseases of the body politic.” Less optimistic, another Anglican—Dr. Arnold Toynbee—has placed Western society in the terminal ward, his only prescription, “Hope for a miracle, and pray.”

What a refreshing experience, then, to find a Princeton philosophy professor and Nietzsche scholar, Walter Kaufmann, drawing a map of the hospital wards and writing a detailed and delightful critique of our contemporary half-Cassandras: those who do, indeed, prophesy gloom; but who do not speak the truth, and are believed. Since his book is not only well written, but also the only existing text combining detailed understanding, sympathy, and criticism of both existentialism and analytic philosophy, it becomes a “must” for any man’s spiritual medicine cabinet. Add to this a careful critique of neo-orthodoxy, the Higher Criticism, de-mythologizing, mysticism, Freudian psychology, and certain aspects of Judaism and Buddhism, and the intellectual treat is obvious. Kaufmann understands “critique” in the Kantian sense: to show the limits of what is criticized, what it can and cannot do, its value and its abuses. He is emphatically not out to “debunk” anything, any more than Kant was out to debunk “Reason.”

The two “timeless tendencies” of analytical philosophy and existentialism both err, according to Kaufmann, in providing an inadequate “Vision of Man.” Rejecting the popular view that analytical philosophers are overly critical, Kaufmann also dismisses the charge that they are “unable to make up their minds” as a “myth popular in institutions.” The philosophic flight, he holds, is a deliberate decision to rest complacent in no other man’s intellectual mansion, but to continue to explore throughout one’s life. The failure of the logical analysts lies in refusing to explore the most important areas of human experience. In their search for the clean-cut, they tend to avoid the “messy” areas of human emotion and moral ambiguity. The “British Vision of Man” (which Kaufmann suggests underlies much of analytic philosophy) appears to be that of the British officer in The Bridge on the River Kwai: one remembers one’s manners, keeps one’s feelings to oneself, and—above all—sticks to the rules.

Existentialist man, on the other hand, is haunted by endless dread, fear of death, despair. He wallows in the messiest and most complex of human feelings, and in his desperation makes “leaps of faith” or lapses into the “night of the soul.” His talk, as confused as his intellectual and emotional condition, is of “the Encompassing,” the “Nothing,” the “Ground of Being.” He is not “at home in the world,” but is trapped in it. “Between these extremes,” Kaufmann writes, “philosophy is lost.” And between the extremes there have always been the great philosophers, those who have seen the ambiguity and complexity of life, and the folly of either extreme. Kaufmann wishes to show that the medicine of the great thinkers—including Socrates, Plato, Nietzsche, Goethe, and Wittgenstein—differs profoundly from most popular patent drugs on the contemporary market place. The contradictory claims of these medicines represent not simply a matter of temperament: important philosophical disagreements separate the rival camps.



One of the most important is the issue of “truth,” which Kaufmann discusses in a penetrating way, combining the insights of pragmatism with Oxford philosophy and focusing these on recent theology. He champions the propositional view of “the true” as “the correct.” Many writers, he suggests, find “mere correctness” somehow inadequate as a characterization of truth. Something as rare and important as truth must be much bigger. King Lear is true, they argue, but the statement that “King Lear was written by Shakespeare” is only correct. Such treatment of “truth” is closely related to, although not identical with, the popular theological distinction between “belief in” and “belief that,” e.g. in Buber’s discussion of “Two Types of Faith,” or in Tillich’s subjective and objective criteria for truth. Kaufmann notes that to say one “believes in” King Lear or Antigone, or that these plays are “true,” is not very different, according to this usage, from the gushing tribute that they are “divine.” “One gathers that praise is intended, but the rest is vagueness. We can say that these plays are beautiful, profound, or deeply moving, that they change our attitudes or valuations, that they broaden our understanding of man’s nature or of man’s condition, or that every time we read them we make new discoveries. There is no lack of words, and a profound account is not one that misuses the word ‘true,’ albeit systematically, but one that introduces some precision, explains our admiration, and brings out something we did not see so well before.”

Although Professor Kaufmann is, I think, right in his own “univocal” conception of truth, he will have more trouble convincing his opponents on this point than on any other he deals with in the book. The broader usage of “true” is too widespread, and—more important—too convenient an apologetic device, for theologians to part with it easily. Even thoroughly disinterested readers may find Kaufmann’s recommendation too antiseptic, “philosophical,” and arbitrary in its own right. For it is only when one sees the distinction at work in the churches (and in some apologetics) that one realizes how important a recommendation he is making. Thus, to cite but one typical situation: in the various interviews which bishops and church committees hold with ministerial candidates trained in the fashionable new theology, the bishop or the committee may ask: “Do you believe in God?” (meaning “Do you believe that God exists?”). The candidate, who is an atheist—or perhaps (more fashionably) a pantheist—replies, “Yes, I believe in God.” There has been agreement about words, and the candidate is usually passed. But one wonders both about the honesty of the candidate and the point of holding the interview in the first place under such conditions. One also wonders about the double life he is likely to lead in his parish, if his sermons mean one thing to him and something else to most members of his congregation.

This practice is facilitated by the wording of the Christian Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in his only son, Jesus Christ our Lord. . . .” As uttered by many theologians this is not far different from “I believe in Lear, King of Britain, and in his only faithful daughter, the martyred Cordelia. . . .” That is to say, “I find Lear (or the Gospels) beautiful, profound, and deeply moving. It has caused me to change or modify my valuations and has broadened my understanding of man’s condition. Reading Lear (or the Gospels) was a discovery of the first order for me!”

This usage of “true” and “believe in” is no less misleading and arbitrary when it is found not in vestry-rooms, but in the writings of the most distinguished theologians. Professor Tillich, for instance, has elaborated his central distinction of “subjective and objective criteria” for the “truth of faith” in a recent book, Dynamics of Faith, in the following way: Faith has subjective truth in so far as its symbols adequately express an ultimate concern. Adequacy here refers to the power of creating a reply, or action, on the part of the person having that concern. “The criterion of the truth,” Tillich notes, “is whether or not it is alive.” Faith has objective truth in Tillich’s theology if its symbols express “the ultimate which is really ultimate.” This means, according to Tillich) that the symbols imply an element of self-negation, in the sense that they express not only the ultimate, but also their own lack of ultimacy. Tillich finds such a symbol only in the Cross of the Christ. But if one tries to put these “criteria” to work, they turn out to be good for almost nothing. The subjective criterion, for instance, admits any faith whatsoever, no matter how irrational or absurd, as true—so long as it is alive. Since Nazism is presumably dead, Tillich would apparently have to say that it was true, but is no longer true. We are given no “subjective” machinery to judge or evaluate faiths: they are either true or dead.

The great philosophers—who were also great doctors—did not indulge in such patchwork, Kaufmann argues. The message of these men is conveyed in Nietzsche’s admonition that “having the courage of one’s convictions” is a mistake. “Rather, it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!” What is needed is a change of attitude. It is in his elaboration of this point of view that Kaufmann’s own prescription lies. One’s aim should not be to find a philosophical or religious edifice which one may call home once and for all, Kaufmann urges, but “to rise above the darkness in which most men live.” One should constantly and deliberately subject one’s beliefs to challenge and expect them to be modified and shaped in the process. The most important question to ask when confronting a theologian or philosopher is neither “What does he mean?” nor “Can I be his disciple?” but “What has he seen?”



Kaufmann’s main quarrel with certain well-known contemporary cultural physicians is that they make no attempt to cure complacency and the unrealistic desire for the security of a system of belief and a code of behavior. To do so would be to doctor men. These medicine men choose, however, to bandage the old beliefs and codes in a way which will allow complacent men to rest secure in them without fear of embarrassing contradiction. “Doing theology is like doing a jigsaw puzzle in which the verses of Scripture are the pieces: the finished picture is prescribed by each denomination, with a certain latitude allowed. What makes the game so pointless is that you do not have to use all the pieces, and that pieces which do not fit may be reshaped after pronouncing the word ‘this means.’”

Instead of playing Dr. Frankenstein and piecing monsters together, the theologians should approach the great creeds and scriptures in the same spirit in which they should approach Lear or Buddhism. Kaufmann does not wish to treat them as “mere poetry” or “the Scripture as Literature,” but as records of human experience, intellectual and spiritual flight. By putting new wine in old bottles, by forcing ancient answers on new questions, contemporary apologists approach the ancient records in the wrong spirit, sacrificing in the process both intellectual integrity and the chance of experiencing the impact of the creeds they are trying to adjust. In their defense of Jesus, they forget his words: “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved” (Luke 5, my italics).

So far so good. But Kaufmann is distressingly obscure about some of the practical implications of his medicine. Suppose one accepts what he says about the dishonesty, superstition, and posturing of contemporary theology and Biblical criticism, and about the slim chance that the situation will substantially improve. Suppose one also shares his sympathy for religion, or at least for “spirituality” and “religiousness.” What attitude does one then adopt toward organized religion? Does one join one of the churches or avoid them altogether? The question is profoundly difficult. Some of the issues involved in its answer are, as Kaufmann sees, parallel to those a person must face in assessing his political loyalties, even though the answers hardly need be parallel. The superstition that only Christians can be saved, for instance, is surely no more dangerous than the superstition that only Republicans are righteous, while both are articles of faith in certain quarters.

At one point Kaufmann comes close to giving an answer to the problem. Tragedy, he suggests, opens up the possibility of a profound alternative to religion. The tragic outlook “can be the religion of the irreligious.” The living self-sacrifice of the tragic hero, however, can hardly be institutionalized. “The hope that spirituality may be nourished by a few scattered individuals with no commitment to each other but a common respect for the great spirits of the past, in whose works they seek comfort and strength and to whose achievements some of them add in turn, is compatible with a pervasive resignation. It requires no faith in religion. Those who believe that religion has a future, not merely as a vulgar mass movement or a mess of chronic superstitions, should reflect on the idea of the remnant.”

But the unorganized remnant which Kaufmann seems to envision is strikingly different from the prophetic conception of the “remnant of Israel” to which he is referring here. As the thought occurs in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, the concept of the religious community of the remnant, as well as the conviction that the redemption of the many will come through the service of the few, remain. If the “few scattered individuals” of whom Kaufmann writes withdraw altogether from organized religion, it seems likely that organized religion will quickly become much more a vulgar mass movement. It is easy to agree with Kaufmann that “One cannot act nor abstain from acting without incurring guilt,” and that “Greatness and guilt belong together.” The question which remains is whether one should be guilty in the market place or in the ivory tower. Of course the problem is more difficult today. Jeremiah saw that loyal obedience to God did not depend on the existence of the temple at Jerusalem and its sacrifices, or on residence in Palestine, or on circumcision of the flesh. If few men understood this, how less likely it is that many today will understand that loyal obedience to God does not even depend on a belief that he exists.

There are other difficulties and shortcomings in Kaufmann’s book. One was to be expected: in discussing so many topics, he makes tenuous generalizations and omits important qualifications. His critique of analytic philosophy provides a fair description only of extremists. Cambridge University’s positivist R. B. Braithwaite, to take one example, is so aware of the complexity of moral choice that he thinks the mathematical theory of games is an important tool in providing an adequate description of moral decision procedure. Kaufmann also fails to note that analytical philosophers have been paying increasing attention to history, religion, the law, and politics during the past decade. Nor does he acknowledge, as he fairly should, that the logical analysts’ seemingly esoteric problems are very often ones whose answers have vast implications for more traditional philosophical questions. He likewise exaggerates the concern of the existentialists with exclusively “messy” problems. Camus, for instance, has certainly dealt extensively with more “ordinary” types of moral perplexity. Kaufmann’s discussions of “existence” and Gestalt psychology also are less than satisfactory.

But Kaufmann’s critique nonetheless gives hope of being able to provide an avenue of communication between the rival philosophical camps. It contains the first responsible nontechnical discussion of such important British philosophers as Wittgenstein, John Wisdom, and John Austin. A sympathetic, scholarly, and urbane work, it is a splendid cross-illumination of some contemporary “idols of the tribe.”



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