What are we? Chopped Liver? A Reply to Robert Gressis
by Daniel A. Kaufman
According to Robert Gressis’s most recent essay, a “Protestant” philosopher is one who thinks that professional philosophy today is crap, while a “Catholic” philosopher is one who think it’s terrific. He alleges that the balance within the discipline is somewhere around 80% (Protestant) 20% (Catholic). By my calculations this adds up to 100%, and I have to admit that after reading the essay, I was plotzing. “What am I, chopped liver?” I thought. But then I wondered if maybe I should forgive Robert. After all, he is a goy himself, and goyim aren’t always the smartest and tend toward extreme modes of thought. So while I don’t mean to kvetch and at the risk of being a nudnik, I’d like to point out to Robert that in fact there is a third option for philosophers and that is to be Jewish. We Jews are far more sensible than the goyim, after all. Professional philosophy is crap? Professional philosophy is wonderful? Feh. Professional philosophy is OK … it’s fine… it’s what it is. Abi gezunt. Of course, it would be better if I was running it, but … well … what can you do?
Why think so many philosophers are Protestants to begin with? Here Robert is a little bit of a ganef, citing Cambridge psychologist Jess Whittleston (a shiksa if there ever was one), who says that most people think they are great at things and that others are terrible at them, from which Robert deduces that philosophers are people and philosophers are Protestants and people are naturally Protestants about everything and ipso facto and so on. Azoi? Sounds like bubbe meisse to me. Jews are the first ones to admit when we aren’t good at something, which is why you never find us working in auto repair shops, riding horses, or on or anywhere near sailboats. That means that when we do say we are good at something, you can take it to the bank, so when I say that philosophy is OK, but would be better if I was running it, you should believe me. What does it matter, though? The people running philosophy today are a bunch of schlubs who wouldn’t listen to me even if I was put in charge.
What makes philosophy good or would make it better? Robert has a lot to say about this this, but rather than bore you by going through the whole megillah, I’ll just summarize some of the key points so you can see how farblondzhet the poor man is. Robert says that philosophy is good if it is true, but everyone knows that where there are two Jews, there are at least three opinions, so this is nothing but goyishkeit nonsense. He also suggests that if a philosophy is influential then it is good, but if that was the case, then Christianity would have the best philosophy in the world and Judaism the worst, and any such idea is completely meshugah. Then Robert claims that a philosophy is good if it is original, but this also makes no sense, in light of the current state of affairs. If originality were the thing, then philosophers should all aspire to be Jewish as we are the originals. The Catholics are knockoffs and the Protestants are knockoffs of knockoffs and the Mormons are knockoffs of knockoffs of knockoffs, and then there’re Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and … oy vey iz mir.
The “Jewish” philosopher is defined by being sensible, grounded, anti-utopian/dystopian, and suspicious of excessive abstraction and speculation, against which the rabbis of the Talmud repeatedly inveighed: “As it is written in the book of Ben Sira: Seek not things concealed from you, nor search those hidden from you. Reflect on that which is permitted to you; you have no business with secret matters.” (Chagigah 13a). Our concern is with the practical, not the transcendent: “Not inquiry but action is the chief thing.” (Aboth i. 17)
We have no interest in getting inside your head and correcting your beliefs: it’s enough for us that you don’t act like a schmuck. (Jews, as a general matter, don’t seek converts.) We don’t expect things to be perfect or have happy endings – we don’t even have any real conception of the afterlife, of paradise, of Hell, or what have you. You live, eventually you become an alter kacker, and then you die, and that’s it. Make the most of it. We don’t expect “ultimate” questions ever to be answered or institutions to be anything other than flawed, so we don’t try to fix these things more than is worth it. We don’t think human beings are perfectible, and we don’t believe in an “original sin,” “fall of man,” “indelible stain” or any other such meshugaas. Inevitably, we’ll screw things up sometimes, so we apologize and try to do better (the idea that one might be “redeemed/saved/etc for ALL TIME” isn’t credible, which is why we have to say “sorry” every year, on Yom Kippur). No one has ever given us bupkis – and many have tried (and are still trying) to kill us – so we don’t expect others to have our best interests at heart, which is why we attend to our own problems rather than looking to others or to government to do so.
The trouble with the “Protestant” philosophers is that they are too opposed to the establishment, and the trouble with the “Catholics” philosophers is that they are too enamored with it. More generally, both expect far too much out of philosophy and like children, never seem to know when it’s enough. The “Jewish” philosopher’s attitude towards philosophy, in contrast, is best expressed by a shrug of the shoulders, arms up, hands upturned: “What do you want from me?” he asks, “Sure, philosophy’s farkakte and some of the people running it are farshtunken, and the whole lot of them look tsebruchen and tseharget, but abi gezunt. Have you eaten yet? I could go for a nice prune Danish.”
The following clip from sums things up nicely, with the little boy representing goyishkeit philosophy, and his mother and the sage physician representing “Jewish” philosophy.