Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy: Chapter 2

In Chapter 2, Kaufmann addresses the divide within contemporary philosophy between an overly detached and academic positivism and an overly emotional and sometimes sloppy existentialism.  He also focuses on the question of the nature of man as central to understanding any system of philosophy.  I especially appreciate this because it has been my entry point into the study of culture, religion and philosophy.  But even more so, I am fascinated by his description of the great divide in contemporary philosophy because it is so recognizably similar to the great divide in contemporary theology.  I would even suggest that the divide between conservative and liberal Christianity is not a matter of degrees of faith or (Biblical) faithfulness, but rather one of philosophy.  The two strands adopt different approaches to theology and are thus, as often as not, unable to even communicate.  However, before I detail the connections I see, I will attempt to briefly outline Kaufmann’s argument.

Kaufmann begins with this assertion: “Contemporary philosophy is largely a philosophy of revolt, or rather two philosophies of revolt. It is convenient to call them positivism and existentialism, though both labels are problematic and justifiable only as stenographic devices” (20).  (Although the bulk of the chapter is a critique of positivism, he uses this as a counterpoint for critiquing existentialism, as well).  He contends that while each philosophy has limitations, each also has something of significance to contribute.  Indeed, this is the difficulty–neither can be simply dismissed (22).   He explains that “their lack of mutual understanding and this downright contempt for each other are due largely to what both camps have in common: both have repudiated most traditional philosophy and thus lost common ground” (22).  Put another way, “both movements are bothered by the abstractness and artificiality of so much traditional philosophy and try to bring philosophy down to earth again” (31).  Each is significant for the way in which it responds to traditional philosophy.  Unfortunately, a chasm has arisen between the two traditions.  (One might argue that that chasm has begun to be bridged.  I am thinking of Richard Kearney’s project in On Stories and possibly Judith Butler’s work in Precarious Life and Frames of War which seek to articulate a more integrated understanding of man, but I will return to that in a moment.)

This passage is exemplary of Kaufmann’s critiques: “the analysts [positivists] are generally most reliable in single sharp analyses; but when they attempt to construct a larger picture, whether of ethics or the mind, their partiality stands revealed. Existentialism, on the other hand, suffers from two great dangers. First, it tends to ignore the ordinary for the extraordinary and to mistake the uncommon for the rule. Secondly, it does not demand of itself, let alone achieve, the greatest possible clarity of which its often difficult subject matter is capable” (47).  The great need is a philosophy which can integrate both the careful, pointed analyses of the positivists and the grand, artistic awareness of the existentialists.  Thus he writes, “the great philosopher is a poet with an intellectual conscience” (34)–one attuned to the (grand) heart of things, but no less careful in his (or her) analyses.

As much as I appreciate Kaufmann’s careful consideration of these two philosophies, I particularly resonated with his contention that this division, or bifurcation, is rooted in a particular conception of man: “The bifurcation of the world is always rooted in a prior bifurcation of mankind and man. Wherever two worlds have been postulated, man was first divided into two parts–senses and reason, body and soul, phenomenon and noumenon–and often there were also thought to be two kinds of men: the mass and the elite. The doctrine of two worlds goes hand in hand with a superior valuation of the other world, the unseen one” (39).  This point is of particular concern in the context of contemporary theology, as well.  Conventional theology has accepted this bifurcation and thus struggled to articulate the value and meaning of a Christian way of life in this inferior physical existence.  That bifurcation remains at the heart of the divide in contemporary theology as much as in contemporary philosophy.  However–Kaufmann notes “again we are confronted with a bifurcation of man; again reason is on one side; but the emotions have taken the place of the senses” (41).  Thus the common caricature of postmodernism as being overly feelings-oriented.  Irrationality is no longer framed in terms of flesh vs. spirit, but as heart vs. mind.  The shift is small, but weighty.  However, the hope remains for a dialogue and perhaps conception of man and the world which is not bifurcated.

I am particularly interested in how this bifurcation and divide plays out in a theological arena.  I contend that these philosophical revolts were accompanied by and even entangled with parallel theological revolts.  In the attempt to bring theology “down to earth again,” both conservative and liberal theologies have separated, emphasizing different aspects of the bifurcated man–leading signally to a situation Kaufmann describes in damning language: “The analytic philosophers and the existentialists can no longer communicate with each other or any truly different point of view, they have lost the art of dialogue” (33, emphasis added).  This is truly the great loss and truly what I fear for our future.  Without dialogue, any forward movement is jeopardized; without the ability to perceive and engage new ideas, any learning is threatened.

Although it seems to resonate throughout contemporary Christianity, I see this especially at play in Adventism.  Increasingly, what might be called liberals and conservatives “though both labels are problematic and justifiable only as stenographic devices” are unable to dialogue in any meaningful way.  Instead, there is a “lack of mutual understanding and… downright contempt for each other.”  I think this might be accurately and productively explored by considering that conservativism resonates with positivism’s concern for sharp analysis, often separated from the messiness of emotion, art and the big picture, while liberals tend to be more existentialist and, as such, prone to a lack of concern for careful Bible study even as they emphasize more existential, artistic and big picture concerns.  This is epitomized in the twin critiques that conservatives are more concerned about being right than social justice while liberals ignore truth in favour of social justice.  Following Kaufmann, I would contend that both aspects are important.  Social justice should not be at the expense of intellectual conscience or vice versa.  Furthermore, this impacts on wide-ranging questions of both theology and lifestyle (which need not–rather, must not–be separated).

This chapter also includes an interesting critique of Wittgenstein which is well worth reading.  I am especially intrigued by Wittgenstein as I have heard his Tractatus quoted by conservatives against postmodernism, while I have come to understand Wittgenstein, via his later work, as very much in agreement with postmodern/continental/existentialist/liberal concerns (though, according to Kaufmann, by no means limited to them).

Let me share one final quote.  Describing the divide between positivism and existentialism, Kaufmann writes, “the difference is partly one of temperament. One tendency is rooted in gregariousness: a social game for brilliant minds. The other is born of solitude and the intensity that courts it. And each suspects the other, often with a strong dose of contempt.”  While admittedly many of the differences to be addressed and dialogued about are not merely temperamental, I appreciate this observation for its return to the significance of (a philosopher’s) personal experience.  Continued discussion cannot be merely a discussion of ideas, but must also entail some discussion of the various journeys by which we come to hold particular ideas.   On another trajectory, if we were to consider the temperamental implications of belief, perhaps we might also allow for the value of variance, the value of different temperaments as essential to any task or any community–and thus these differing perspectives, these differing revolts, as part of a larger whole, a larger (human) body, a larger mankind, something like what Paul figured in his writings.


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