What are we? Chopped Liver? A Reply to Robert Gressis

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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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. 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 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.”

Postscript

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.

23 comments

  1. Amusing; a humorous riff, but containing much to the point.

    But why prune Danish? Why not rugelach or halva. (I admit I haven’t eaten either in years; but when I was in NYC, I could eat halva morning noon and night. My girlfriend didn’t understand it – she preferred Greek sweets, esp. baklava. She didn’t understand why her parents ate Chinese on Christmas either, although this was perfectly obvious to me.)

    – “we don’t believe in an “original sin,” “fall of man,” “indelible stain” or any other such meshugaas” – what the Buddha refers to as “questions not leading to edification.”

    The notion of perfectibility presumes that perfection must somehow somewhere already exist, in order to be conceived by what is admittedly an imperfect human mind; hence (paradoxically) the Ontological Argument. Otherwise we admit an imperfect mind is necessarily incapable of a conception of perfection and hence imperfectible. (It’s odd that this problem still haunts some philosophers and even logicians 2500 years since Plato. One good thing about Aristotle, as antidote to Plato is that he was willing to be wrong. He didn’t actually say that, but it is clear from the way he shades some of his articulation of differing points of view.)

    Anyway, the earth will fall into the sun in how many million years, so what does it matter?

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      1. Understood most of it (some by resonance with words I already knew and in context)); had to look up tsebruchen and tseharget. (Actually only found tsebruchen; the internet has shamefully few resources for research on Yiddish.)

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        1. The book this is from by Jackie Mason — “How to Talk Jewish” — is hilarious and well worth a buy. It is a tragedy that young people are not aware of this ridiculously funny comedian.

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  2. I congratulate you on your courage in adding a Woody Allen film clip just when his publishers have refused to publish his memoirs due to pressure groups.

    From what I’ve read of the case, I believe that Woody is innocent or at least there is no decisive proof against him.

    In any case, he is the funniest guy in the last 3rd of the 20th century, and how can you in good conscience censor someone as funny as he is, whatever he’s done in his private life?

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  3. Thank you for the interview with Helen Joyce, one of the most illuminating guests that you’ve spoken to, although Jane Clare Jones was also enlightening.

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  4. If the attitude you describe is jewish, I know quite a few people who secretly are jewish, probably without knowing it.

    I actually may be jewish myself. The idea of riding a horse is slightly disgusting to me, although eating horse meat doesn’t shock me – it can be very tasty. I wouldn’t touch a sailboat with a very long pole. I don’t know anything about car repair, although I once, in 1996, changed a lightbulb in my little car. I think putting mayonnaise on pastrami is a crime, although a bit of mustard is fine.

    What does “tsebruchen” mean? And “tseharget”?
    Some of the other expressions weren’t difficult to guess; the German roots are visible or they looked a lot like certain words and expressions in my own dialect. And when I couldn’t guess the meaning, Duckduckgo was there to help me.
    I did not immediately find the translations of tsebruchen and tseharget, though.
    And “alter kacker” sounds pretty rude, to be honest.

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    1. That’s why I put “Jewish” in scare quotes. It’s meant to match the use of “Protestant” and “Catholic” in Robert’s piece.

      ‘Alter kacker’ is “old man.”

      “tsebruchen” = broken down.

      “tseharget” = falling apart.

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      1. Yes, but you know where “kacker” really comes from.
        My 89 yr. old mother would give me a nice whack on the side of my head if I called her an “alte kacker”.
        My observation that there are plenty “jews” to be found everywhere, was just my way to agree that all that talk about “catholics” and “protestants” etc. is silly.

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  5. OK, so let me see if I get the gist of the response.

    The Jewish position is this: it’s not true that either most philosophy is good or most philosophy is bad. Instead, most philosophy is fine. Nothing special.

    Why think that? Because the Jewish attitude is to lower our expectations. We’re never going to get ultimate answers to anything of importance, so just enjoy yourself and treat philosophy like the endeavor it is: enjoyable for some, fruitless for all. Once you’ve lowered your standards in that way, then you won’t get worked up about philosophy’s badness or goodness because even good philosophy is, at the end of the day, like a nice stroll or a delicious piece of pizza. Enjoyable, but of transient importance.

    Have I got that right?

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    1. I should add that the reason why we aren’t going to get “ultimate answers to anything of importance” isn’t mainly epistemic — though it is that — but because there aren’t any. Or better put, because there are many, and there is no fact of the matter, access to which would enable a person to select among them.

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  6. Pretty funny. Two quibbles though. If the telos of pursuing philosophy is roughly equivalent in value to a good slice of pizza, them why bother with things like electric agoras? Also, it’ perfectly fine, even laudable given the unconscious mental penchant which has invaded cilture since the 17th century, to be suspicious about abstractions and theprizing. But why are pondering transcendent questions necessarily tied in with this flaw? It is a nasic human need, pixxa notwithstanding, and can be contended with quite non-anstractly, with persistence and tact.

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  7. Robert is having trouble getting this reply to go through WordPress, so I am posting it for him:

    OK so here’s (the beginning of) my response:

    It seems to me that if you lower your standards, you can still have strong opinions about the goodness or the badness of philosophy. For instance, pizza is not ultimately that important, but you can still have high or low standards for it. I’ve known New Yorkers who don’t think there is good pizza in LA. That seems like pretty high standards to me, but I’m a Catholic with regard to pizza.

    Second, I’m not sure if you’re Jewish, Dan (I mean, in this sense–obviously you’re Jewish in the normal sense). I hear you regularly lament the decline of philosophy as a discipline, so I suspect that you’re actually a Protestant, at least with regard to contemporary philosophy (though maybe you’re Jewish with regard to philosophy over history).

    Third, I guess I do think philosophy is more important than just something that does or doesn’t float your boat. I haven’t thought very rigorously about this, but I think philosophy is something that everyone does, just to a better or worse degree, and that they do it with respect to some of the important moments in their lives. Of course, maybe you’re not talking about philosophy in that sense; you may just be talking about professional philosophy, as it’s done right now. I can certainly see someone looking at contemporary analytic epistemology and thinking, “hey, if that floats your boat, then go nuts. But it’s really just glorified stamp-collecting or video game playing, so don’t put on airs.”

    But historically great philosophy–Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, etc.–I don’t know. I can’t help but to think that this is, in fact, really important, enriching stuff, like great literature. But enriching in a different way. And again, for all the Jewish person says, maybe that great stuff really is super important. But then the pizza analogy (mine, not yours), starts to fail.

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    1. I believe that the Jewish custom of shrugging our shoulders (I’m Jewish myself) has to do with being left out, with being excluded, with being discriminated against for thousands of years. If you’re excluded from what’s supposedly “happening”, you can of course react angrily (as many excluded groups do) or you can adopt a sour grapes attitude: “after all, the stuff that those people think is all that great isn’t really all that great.” That seems to me a healthier and saner attitude than being constantly indignant and angry, and having adopted that attitude, the Jews went on to construct their own very complex counter-culture, which includes elements of so-called Jewish humor.

      Western philosophy of course has not included Jews until fairly recently, with the exception of Spinoza and Marx, both of whom did not write as Jews. In fact, Marx is openly anti-semitic in his writings. So once again, having been excluded from Western philosophy until the mid 20th century, Jews tend to take it a little less seriously than people whose ancestors literally wrote it. It’s not ours, it’s theirs. And of course if you look at, much of Western philosophy (post Greeks), it’s simply dolled up Christianity: Nietzsche is one of the few philosophers who realize this.

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        1. Ok. I just received your essay as I sent off my reply above. I’ll take a look at it.

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