Saturday, March 31, 2012

Walter Kaufmann's Critique of Religion and Philosophy

Who discovered WalterKaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), I no longer remember. Probably, it was Richard Bibby, a medical student and avid reader of philosophy. Later, he went on to become a heart surgeon. Whoever it was the book created a sensation among the people I knew in MIFCU.

Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980)

 Kaufmann sets the tone of his book in the "Preface" which, although slightly dated in terms of the examples he uses, ought to be read by all students who aspire to become scholars. He begins with the comment “Philosophers examine their life, ideas and assumptions not only occasionally but full time.”

Then Kaufmann launches into a sustained attack on what he sees as the idolatry of modern scholarship. He begins with the comment that “The critic who attacks idolatry does the most serious thing of which a man is capable.” (Kaufmann, 1958:xiii).

What is particularly exciting about Kaufmann’s work is his outrage at “the temper of the time” that “brooks cavalier dismissals of such men as Plato, Hegel, and Nietzsche, while one treats the living reverentially.” After providing examples of what he sees as the failure of academics to criticize the work of contemporary scholars, who are elevated to celebrity status, Kaufmann notes: “Ancient Judaism and medieval Catholicism may be submitted to sweeping strictures …” But, of living academic idols “none speaks … nothing but well.” 

Now I am not so sure he is right about Nietzsche, but his other comments are spot on. I'll say more about Nietzsche in a later Blog.

In what reads like a prophetic insight he observes “In a syncretistic age, one must fight the comfortable blurring of all contours and the growing inability to say No. One must insist on important differences … It goes without saying that one does not disagree on everything. And any statement, however silly, can be backed up with a quotation form some great man, not to speak of men thought to be great. Such citations have little value.” Clearly he was no forerunner of postmodernism.

In his view the “Discussion of views one rejects is important” to avoid dogmatism. Therefore, argument and polemics are important because they capture “the excitement of the search for truth” (Kaufmann, 1958: xvi-xvii).

What follows in the subsequent chapters is a sustained argument and incisive critique of academic fashions and well established ideas laced with cutting insights. Most of what he argues remains equally valid almost fifty years after the book was first published.

For example his distinction between “great philosophers,” who question the temper of the times, and “followers,” is telling and seems to reflect the career path of many PhD students:

The adherent of a philosopher is often a man who at first did not understand him at all and then staked several years on a tireless attempt to prove to himself that he did not lack the ability to gain an understanding. By the end of that time he sees clearly that his master’s critics simply fail to understand him  (Kaufmann, 1958:44).

All the people I knew well in MIFCU devoured Kaufmann enjoying his wit and keen observations. He also introduced us to the criticism of Biblical criticism, a subject about which I plan to say more in a subsequent Blog. Kaufmann saw Biblical criticism as deficient in philosophical rigor and paradoxically lacking in criticism. He also stressed the importance of carefully studying all of the world’s religions. Most important of all he offers a strong defense and appeal for the use of reason. He observes “if we are made to choose between reason and religion, the choice is between criticism and idolatry. Whatever in religion cannot stand up to criticism is not worth having …” (Kaufmann, 1958:308).

Looking back what is remarkable about Kaufmann’s book is that it appealed to members of MIFCU who were self-confessed evangelical Christians. Unlike so many Christian students today they did not run away from intellectual engagement. Nor did they take refuge from the secular university in “Christian colleges,” or by only reading writers like C.S. Lewis. Rather they read Kaufmann alongside Lewis and discussed them both.


Steve Hayes said...

For example his distinction between “great philosophers,” who question the temper of the times, and “followers,” is telling and seems to reflect the career path of many PhD students

I am reminded of the tendency of some masters and doctorals students to examine whatever they are examining using a theoretical model devised by their teachers, and distorting their empirical research in order to make it fit the model.

Anonymous said...

A few days ago I received my copy of the "Critique" from Amazon. I have not read it since my student days (1978-1981). At the moment I'm just skimming, but in the next few days will start to read it again properly.

This book, along with Kaufmann's translation of Martin Buber's "I and Thou", had a profound influence on me as a young man. They were instrumental in my abandoning my Christian faith. (I was a theology student.) The impact has dimmed over the years, but I can already feel again some of the excitement I felt at the time.

In his writings (I also read "The Faith of a Heretic" and "Religion, Existentialism and Death") I found a man of deep humanity and compassion. I don't think he is much known these days, which is a shame.