The Logic of “Jewish” Philosophy (more by way of a response to Robert Gressis)

by Daniel A. Kaufman


For those readers who recognized that beneath my humorous essay on “Jewish” Philosophy was a serious point regarding our attitudes not just towards the professional discipline of philosophy but the subject itself, I want to add a substantial postscript. It is inspired, in part, by Robert Gressis’s reply to my piece, which I quote in full:

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?

My response to Robert was, “Yep, you got it.”

Readers also may have noticed another comment on my piece by stolzyblog – “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?” – and my reply to him: “I do the Electric Agora because I enjoy it.”

I find both his and Robert’s underlying sentiment puzzling. When did enjoying something cease being a good reason for doing it? When did it become necessary for something to have Cosmic Significance or to carry Great Moral Weight in order for people to care about it or want to do it? And since when was a good slice of pizza a small thing? Good slices of pizza are hard to find and great slices are exceedingly rare. I’ve traveled a significant distance and shelled out quite a bit of money for things like good and great slices of pizza. Indeed, much farther and much more than I ever would in order to hear philosophers talk. And I’m hardly the only one.

I am reminded of something I’ve heard more than one atheist say in debates with theists, when the latter try to argue that without God there is no meaning or significance or goodness or rightness in life. The claim that there is no meaning or significance or goodness or rightness unless there is cosmic meaning, significance, goodness, or rightness is not just a non sequitur, it is quite a strange idea and beyond that, a recipe for unhappiness. And I would say the same about philosophy or literature or any other such pursuit. At some point, some aspect of your real, tangible, concrete, particular life will come crashing down upon you, forcing you to realize that none of these things are as important as you’d thought, and if you are the sort for whom only things which are that important are satisfying or worth pursuing, you will quickly discover that your life is essentially empty.

Life is made up of the little things, not the big ones. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s also true. And it is the greater part of wisdom, not to mention maturity, to realize that enjoying the pizza or the philosophy is not just a “good enough” reason to eat or do it but is, in fact, the best reason. The wise doctor in the video clip from Annie Hall that I linked to in my previous essay, in counseling young Alvie Singer, who was allowing his life to be derailed by concerns over the “expanding universe,” was absolutely right: “We’ve got to enjoy ourselves while we are here.”

On the philosophical front, there is the further problem that the really big questions that philosophy asks are unanswerable. More precisely, they admit of answers, but those answers suffer from indeterminacy, by which I mean that no amount of evidence or argument  is going to render them non-disjunctive or winnow them down to a small number of non-mutually-contradictory answers. Let’s consider some of these really big questions:

Does “reality” exist independently of the minds that perceive/conceive it?

What constitutes human flourishing (eudaimonia)?

What are moral/immoral actions and on what basis do we determine this?

Does God exist?

Are people capable of acting freely?

The fact is that people have offered multiple, competing, mutually exclusive answers to these questions since we started asking them and there is no indication that this is ever going to change.  And what would or could change it, anyway? Massimo Pigliucci thinks eudaimonia consists of a life of moral virtue, while I think it consists of a life in which a person succeeds in some significant number of his most significant pursuits. Massimo has given me all of his reasons for thinking he’s right, and I’ve given him all of my reasons for thinking I’m right. In fact, we did so in the pages of this very magazine. [1] We remain unpersuaded by one another. Is there any reason to think that if he or I could just come up with one more reason, that would make the difference?  It seems obvious that the answer is “no” and that the wise thing to do, at this point, is to drop the matter and to live and let live. It just doesn’t matter that much that the other agree.  It does matter a lot, however, that we are friends. And if one or both of us keeps pushing and pushing and pushing, that friendship may be threatened.

Spencer Case is convinced that for things to be right or wrong, there must be Objective, Real Rightness and Wrongness. I don’t. In our last dialogue, we found ourselves at an impasse, unable to convince the other. At one point, Spencer even tried to land a ‘gotcha! by asking “Well, what about rape?” Familiar with the tactic – reductio ad outrageum – I refused to play. Things got testy, and it was clear by the end that both of us were somewhat frustrated; irritated even. And what for? What does it matter? Does Spencer really think that my being a moral anti-realist means I won’t oppose rape as vigorously as he does? I should hope not. Indeed, I can’t imagine that to the extent that he and I have any substantially different views as to what is right and wrong, it has anything to do with the fact that he is a realist about morality and I am not. Regardless, the matter will never be settled, and once again, it seems to me that our friendship is much more important than whether he is right about the metaphysical status of moral properties or I am or whether there is even a fact of the matter such that one of us could be right or wrong about it.

As I wrote in my essay on philosophy’s current and future fortunes, published last year in Philosophy Now:

Metaphysical realists will continue to have a different view of the ultimate nature of things than the anti-realists. Deontologists will persist in promoting different views from utilitarians on the nature of moral obligation. Internalists will go on developing theories contrary to those held by externalists on what it is for a belief to be warranted. The point is not that scientists never disagree, sometimes on fundamental matters, but that philosophical disagreements are by nature ultimately unresolvable. For there to be correct positions on their subjects would require that there be some accessible fact of the matter as to what reality, obligation, or warrant really consist of; but no such facts can be established.

When philosophical inquiry into a particular subject is pushed too far and too long, it undergoes a fundamental and disfiguring change. No longer is it about raising an important question or exploring some of the interesting ways that one might approach it so that other people may wrestle with it themselves. Instead, it has turned into an effort to find a conclusive answer to some question. And as we’ve seen, philosophical questions are not the sort that admit of conclusive answers. [2]

In his essay, Robert lists nine indicators that a philosophy is good, the first being that it is true. If what I have been saying here is correct, then at best this is non-demonstrable and at worst, it gets philosophy completely wrong, confusing it with science and other truth-seeking disciplines. This is why in the Philosophy Now essay and elsewhere, I have said that what matters is whether a philosophy is apt or inapt, rather than true or false.

Finally, let me say something about the religious labels applied throughout all of this.  I have said before – and it is implicit in what I’ve said here – that differences in outlook among philosophers have much more to do with their differing temperaments than with  having better or worse reasons. Those differences, after all, persist even among philosophers who have access to and equal understanding of all the relevant facts. I do think that there is something to the Christian/Jewish split in this regard and to the fact that both Robert and Spencer come from substantial Christian backgrounds and share what I will non-pejoratively call an “inflationary” view of philosophy, while I come from a substantial Jewish background and embrace a “deflationary” one. There is, in Christianity, a far greater inclination towards abstraction, universalism, perfectionism, Manicheanism, utopianism, and a fixation with the transcendent than there is in Judaism. Christianity also is the victor in the Western narrative, while Judaism is the loser, one significant consequence of which has been that while Christians not only expect to win, they think it essential that one do so, while Jews not only expect to lose, but have to figure out a way to appreciate and even savor life, upon having lost.





60 responses to “The Logic of “Jewish” Philosophy (more by way of a response to Robert Gressis)”

  1. I find both his and Robert’s underlying sentiment puzzling. When did enjoying something cease being a good reason for doing it?

    On this point, I’ll note that I went into mathematics because I enjoyed it. And, from there, I went into computer science because I enjoyed that, too.

    I like to think that I did my part toward making the world a better place by working in those areas and by teaching students who wanted to master those areas. I might add that I enjoyed teaching, too (except for the grading part). I would have to say that I have lived a reasonably happy life. What could be better than being paid to do what I enjoy?

    Yes, I too am puzzled by Robert’s “underlying sentiment”.

  2. s. wallerstein

    I agree with you that differing philosophies have more to do with differing temperaments (or personalities) than with better or worse reasons.

    However, in one of your dialogues with Massimo, he talks about the need to have a philosophy of life and that whether we are aware of it or not, we all have one.

    I don’t know you (Dan K.) well, but I gather that your upbringing provided you with a philosophy of life that is apt for you, that suits your temperament.

    That’s not true for all of us. For many of us, for varying reasons, our upbringing does not provide us with a philosophy of life which is apt for us. As a result, we search for one either in the Western philosophical tradition or in any of the many alternative traditions such as Buddhism. For those of us who are searching or only have found fairly late in life a philosophy of life which suits us, philosophy means more to us than a slice of pizza does because one or another philosophy found in books or a combination of several plays a role in guiding our lives that a sound upbringing does in many other people.

  3. I think that is fair.

  4. Francis

    I like this! I remember when I started college: I had lofty goals of studying philosophy and physics, with my sights set on uncovering some sort of hidden secrets. I was rather disgusted by one philosophy professor’s advice of ‘doing what makes you happy’. I think that was pretty good advice now, and in the end I decided to become a mathematician, mainly because it’s a lot of fun.

  5. This again?

    To recap: you asserted that “immoral” is just a word. I asked whether “rapist” is also “just a word.” There’s nothing unfair about this question. It’s an implied reductio ad absurdum, a legitimate rhetorical strategy. Calling it a “gotcha” or “reductio ad outrageum” doesn’t transform it into some kind of sin or fallacy. If you don’t like the implications of your views, then change them. Or bite the bullet and say: “Yes, ‘rape,’ ‘genocide,’ ‘fraud,’ etc. are all just words, words for things I happen to be disinclined to do, personally, not categories of behavior that we morally ought not engage in some more substantive stance, as you think.” That would have been wrong, but clarifying and kind of brave.

    You like the principle that we should “live and live.” Great. But what should we say about someone who doesn’t want to do this? Just that his inclinations are different than ours (and we dislike those inclinations)?

    I’m glad that you prefer to do things I would call “moral” and eschew many things I would call “immoral.” But those are the easy cases for your position. Sometimes doing the morally right thing is a massive pain in the ass, no?

    It would be easy and tempting to say such-and-such vindictive thing but I ought not, so I don’t. Sometimes inclination carries along the path of virtue and sometimes not. Nor does it seem that one inclination is just overwhelmed by its opposite in a value neutral way in cases like these when I end up doing the right thing. I want to, can and do evaluate my actions by more than the degree to which I’m inclined to do them.

  6. Well, I’m sorry my piece didn’t seem to clarify anything further. I thought it might. Your remarks here seem to ignore most of what I wrote, but that’s OK. I don’t take it personally.

  7. Consider three things:

    1. Einstein’s theory of relativity
    2. The best pizza you’ve ever had
    3. Nicomachean Ethics

    1 is, arguably, the greatest product of physics; 2 is, arguably, the single best food you’ve had in your life; and 3 is, arguably, the greatest piece of ethics ever written.

    All on a par?

    I don’t think so. I doubt you do, but maybe you do? But I doubt it.

    Here’s another idea:

    Consider Einstein, Domenico De Marco (proprietor of Di Fara’s pizza, my favorite pizza), and Aristotle. What do you think the mindset of these three men is when it comes to making their products? I think–though I could be wrong–that Einstein and Aristotle thought they were doing something of greater importance than De Marco does. Were they wrong? Or is De Marco wrong?

    I’m not saying you don’t have answers here — I think you do, and I can imagine a way you can respond that’s compelling. But I’m not good at simulating you, so I’m curious to see what you say.

  8. Also, I didn’t say that, to be good, a piece of philosophy has to satisfy all nine of the criteria. I said these were all the criteria I could think of that people use to assess whether philosophy is good or not.

    Some philosophers I know (e.g., you) reject some of them as always irrelevant to the goodness of philosophy. But do you reject all nine? None of the nine criteria are ever relevant to judging whether philosophy is good?

  9. I find this a somewhat question. If a person is made happy and feels fulfilled by opening a pizzeria and selling pizza to the people in his neighborhood, my attitude should be that his life would have been better if he developed the theory of relativity or wrote the Nicomachean Ethics?

    I simply don’t think that way. And I see no point in doing so.

  10. In my view, as I said, the ultimate purpose of a philosophy is to be apt. Doing so, of course, may involve other virtues.

    I’m curious as to whether you think the dispute between Massimo and me or between Spencer and me could ever be resolved in some demonstrative fashion? If so, how?

  11. I also should say that this really isn’t responsive to what I wrote. I wasn’t trying to rank life activities. I asked a simple question: since when was enjoying oneself not a good enough reason for doing something? I see no answer to that question.

  12. Robert,
    Well, if Dan won’t, I will: :”All on a par?” Sure, why not?

    Your problem here is that “important” begs a comparison; no, not against “unimportant,” that’s just negation – but of what? The comparison has to be with a standard of Importance. And that has to be defined.

    Important to whom? for what purpose? in what context?

    Important to the history of physics? Important to teachers of ethics? Important to one’s taste buds or one’s stomach?

    Surely; in a hot desert little could be more important than a cool drink of water.

    .You’ve accepted a standard of Importance, and then wield this as though we all should agree (and if not where are we?).

    But importance is a matter of usefulness, group agreement, conversational interest (in both the lightest ‘cocktail party’ sense, and the deepest ‘debate at professional conference’ sense.

    Please bear this in mind before wielding such a term as some sort of litmus test.

    The Buddha’s realization occurred when he was starving himself to death and a roadside merchant offered him a rice-cake gratis. Without thinking, he ate it. It was the most important rice-cake in the history of my religion. And since we are all given over to the fantasy that our personal religion is the most right and most important, it follows that the eating of this rice-cake was the most important event in the history of the universe..

    Except that “important events” are purely an illusion of the ego, mere construction of the five aggregates. (Oh, shit; the problem with being a Buddhist is I don’t even get to be smug; smug gets to be me!)

  13. Spencer:
    Your argument fails to account for changes across cultures or across time.

    Homosexuality, condemned in most post-classical Western religions – what for? to what utility? Worthy of a jusdgment of death, as some Christian fundamentalists insist? Yet the Romans held that a wealthy man who did not have a male lover on the side of his marriage was somehow morally impaired.

    I don’t here account for this. The ‘burden of proof’ is on you. You must somehow demonstrate that the question is irrelevant to your point, or can somehow be resolved into your position.

    This, unfortunately for you, one of many such questions.

    It was not until the late 1970s (CE) that a man could be held accountable in the US for raping his wife. The burden of argument is yours.

    I have no problem being both a moral relativist and yet also strongly committed to ethical progress; simply on the basis of fair-play for those unlike myself.. Women say they don’t like to be forced to have sex. Why is this not good enough for you?

  14. Dan,
    if you take what you say, and shade it with what s. wallerstein comments, you get what I meant when I said that, as a non-professional philosopher, what is important to me is “satisfaction” in philosophy. Once this is achieved, many useless debates simply fade away as unimportant.

  15. ombhurbhuva

    You know that you’re happy when something very simple gives you pleasure. This morning I had a slice of buttered bread and a mug of tea – my own sourdough and the butter from summer milk; the tea just a teabag, Barry’s of course, 2 min. soak. Yes there’s evil and you don’t need special philosophic antennae to discern it. There is also good and it is discoverable. I’m with Aristotle on this – what the good man thinks is good, is good. But how will I know a good man bleats the nay sayer. Wait till you’re in trouble, they often appear when you need them. Eudaimonia as the success of your favourite projects is a dubious proposition. To be insulated from either success or failure is the philosopher’s way. Meanwhile enjoy the bread:
    And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.

  16. Dan: You ask: “since when was enjoying oneself not a good enough reason for doing something?”

    My answer is: very often. People sometimes enjoy doing horrible things. That what we do is enjoyable is a good reason for doing it only when all those horrible things have been ruled out. I feel quite sure your Yiddish exemplars would agree with me on that, just because too often they saw people enjoying doing awful things.


  17. Part of the issue between you and Spencer seems to be the difference between justification and motivation. If I have this right, Spencer’s attachment to ‘truth’ is a sign that philosophy is only worth doing if it is somehow justified, that it has some externally vouchsafed purpose or warrant. And maybe where you stand it is more important to find the motivation for things like philosophy and our other pursuits as being themselves worth doing. Not because of some inherent or intrinsic property necessarily, but because we behave as if these things were important. Their importance is their importance to us, not something transcendent. That is, on one side philosophy is only worth doing if it measures up, and on the other philosophy is worth doing because it is how we navigate our circumstances. It is apt, as you put it. Spencer values philosophy (if I have this right) because it can be measured for its success. You (if I have this right) value philosophy and pizza because engaging with them motivates how we spend our time on this planet.

    I would sincerely like to get a few slices of pizza from the boardwalk in Wildwood NJ, and if I get the chance to visit my mom in Cape May I will do my best to get over there. It has been many years, but I can taste it now.

  18. This is a great summary.

  19. “I asked a simple question: since when was enjoying oneself not a good enough reason for doing something?”

    It’s often, though not always, a good enough reason for doing something. It’s a good enough reason for doing philosophy or physics. But is it the only reason? And can’t the other reasons for doing it be more important? (Important to whom? To most people. Or: important to most people who understand the issues involved.)

  20. I agree that it is a defeasible reason, but all of them are, no?

  21. I’m not sure it could ever be resolved in a DEMONSTRATIVE fashion (though I’m also not sure that it couldn’t be so resolved), but I don’t think you should go from

    1. There is no way to establish whether X or ~X


    2. There is no fact of the matter about whether X or ~X.

  22. Effectively it is the same. We are talking about actual discourse, not heavenly discourse operating in Platonic space.

  23. Well, obviously it’s a defeasible reason, as all such reasons are.

  24. Bunsen Burner

    “I want to, can and do evaluate my actions by more than the degree to which I’m inclined to do them.”

    Really? Like what? What are these actions that you are not inclined to do and yet have developed evaluation criteria that force you to do them anyway?

  25. He refuses to acknowledge the crucial role of motivation. That’s why we went endlessly round and round on the subject of normative force. His view is a classic example of what Anscombe meant by “mesmeric force.”

  26. Christianity is just a form of Judaism that has different prayers, different rituals, and a different day for the Sabbath. Philosophy is not simply a game that can be played well or badly, it’s a way of furthering understanding. Is one interpretation of the world as good as another, or does one do a better job of furthering our understanding than another? As philosophers do we seek the truth and celebrate our discoveries with the rest of the world, or do we just play a game with no further commitment? Plato and Aristotle both wrote stuff that inspired theologians, scientists, and educators. They contributed to civilization. Contemporary philosophy? Not so much. It is far too insular and specialized – it simply makes no difference to the rest of the world.

  27. Your first sentence is false. As for the rest, it’s half correct and half not.

  28. s. wallerstein

    Christianity is almost completely different than Judaism. Christianity is a creed “for humanity”, which is “guaranteed to save your soul”. Judaism is basically the code of the Jews: it doesn’t save anyone and it never seeks to convert anyone.

    In one of the gospels Jesus says that anyone who lusts after a woman who is not a one’s spouse has committed adultery.
    Judaism has rules against adultery, to be sure, but none against lusting after other women and in fact, there are no thought crimes in Judaism. The thought crime (sinful thoughts) is an invention of Christianity.

    The list of differences is very very long.

  29. Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism, combined with Greek mystery religions and neoPlatonism. It is quite distant from Judaism, indeed much more distant than Islam is.

  30. s. wallerstein

    Who or what culture invented the idea of sinful thoughts?

  31. Not sure about that. It may be related to the Greek ethical tradition’s concern with character.

  32. s. wallerstein


  33. Charles Justice

    There you go, you’ve just proved my point that furthering understanding is what its all about. Christianity started as a sect of Judaism. It became a new religion, but it adopted the Hebrew Bible, along with a new text as it’s holy scriptures. One can argue that it is still a sect of Judaism.

  34. Charles Justice

    Yes Judaism is very different from Christianity, but Christianity started as a sect of Judaism, and it still treats the Hebrew bible as holy scriptures. I’m not the only one who says that Christianity is a form of Judaism. Daniel Boyarin, “Border Lines” for instance.

  35. Charles Justice

    The idea of “original sin” goes back to Augustine. Stephen Greenblatt has written a great book called “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” about sinful thoughts etc. It might be that the first people to come up with the idea of “sinful thoughts” were the desert fathers, the Christian hermits that lived by themselves but had to fight off hallucinations as part of their extreme lifestyle.

  36. People certainly say it, but it is wrong.

  37. Charles Justice

    I’m glad that you are so clear and definite about this. You are speaking from inside Judaism. From my perspective, which is outside both Christianity and Judaism, it all seems to be different sects of Monotheism. Same scriptures, different interpretations.

  38. s. wallerstein

    Sure, they have a lot in common just as Marxism and capitalism do. Marx read Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the two founders of classical capitalist theory, with a lot of attention, and in fact, Marxism uses a lot of the same terminology as capitalist economists do, and I suppose that if you look at Marxism and capitalism from the point of view of a hermit outside of the economy, they both seem twins.

  39. Charles Justice

    I think that Daniel is being too coy about philosophy. Apt or not apt – this is the standard for playing a game. You have no problem stating that Christianity is not a form of Judaism, to you, therefore, what religion you are a part of is obviously more than a game, more than apt and inapt. To me, looking at monotheistic religions from the outside, apt or inapt fits, They are all simply different religious forms of life. It bothers me when the religious attitude becomes all -encompassing and absolutist about everything. I prefer the mainstream churches, not the fundamentalists. But other than that – live and let live. I don’t feel the same way about philosophy. Not at all. Philosophers have a duty to seek the truth. A lot of twentieth century philosophy was a mistake, and we are now suffering from it. Two big mistakes were slavishly imitating science and the opposite – running away from science. The worst mistake: thinking that doing philosophy is all about examining meanings and language.

  40. Well, we disagree pretty much about everything, but that’s alright. And I certainly am not being coy.

  41. Charles Justice

    I’m being coy about religion because I don’t care about it. You are being coy about philosophy because you are treating it as a game that you can be either good or bad at playing. Deflationism, in general, is being coy about “truth” and right and wrong. Because truth isn’t a thing or a relation it doesn’t matter. That’s being coy. You know very well that truth matters. Otherwise why is it important that Christianity not be a part of Judaism? Otherwise why is it important that Donald Trump can’t tell the truth and should never have become President?

  42. If you want to address particular issues, that’s fine. But if you want to tell me I’m being “coy,” my answer is, “No I’m not. Have a good day.”

  43. Perhaps it might be more apt to compare Dan’s view of philosophy to chess, instead of to pizza (or pizza making) as it is also an intellectual activity. One plays chess because it is enjoyable to play it, and enjoyable to play it well. There is no higher truth or goal or value to chess – once played, chess games have no truth value (although famous well-played games might have some sort of aesthetic value. But one could argue that chess is not really about that). Chess is, ultimately, a transient pastime.

    The trouble is, if one recalls Dennett’s argument about ‘chmess’*, some of us might be concerned whether or not we are playing one or the other. Playing chmess is just as enjoyable and capitivating as chess, and so the two games are indistinguishable on Dan’s view; but chmess, in contrast to chess, is ultimately pointless (as far as games go). Some might think that the difference is important, that some areas of philosophy are closer to chmess than chess, and that difference may not involve any trancendental values beyond that of truth or facticity, values that are shared by many other intellectual disciplines not usually suspected of transcendental values, such as mathematics, or anthropology. Even if one grants that questions of the truth or falsity of many traditional philosophical problems are chmess-like, it is still possible to maintain, like Kant perhaps, that there may yet be a kernel of chess in some or another form of philosophy (what that is will differ from one thinker to another, and from one era to another).

    Or is philososphy all just chmess, then? Is the distinction between chess and chmess groundless?

    And if I were really attempting to be clever, i might say that even on the ‘Judaic’ view, on this particular question, it is important whether one is playing chess or chmess; in other words, the answer has some sort of factual value, at least in the eyes of the arguer.

    * ‘Higher-order truths about chmess’, Topoi (2006). Chmess is identical to chess, except that the king can move two spaces at once. Dennett made up the game to illustrate ‘artifactual puzzles of no abiding significance’.

  44. I said that philosophy’s aim/point is to be apt. I don’t see any reason why that is of less importance than its aiming at being true.

    The question as to why, ultimately, we pursue any activity is a different one, and I stand by my answer. It is one that I think I have come to in wisdom and which ultimately is more conducive to my well-being, as I indicated in the second essay. Because at some point, reality comes crashing in, and if all one has are illusions of grandeur (and yes, I mean ‘illusions’) then one will find oneself with nothing.

  45. Joe Smith

    Did they have rice cakes back then? I thought it was rice pudding (Kheer) he was offered, and that it was offered by a village girl named Sujata? Also, I thought Siddartha’s realization came during the time he sat under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he had achieved full awakening? I guess it depends on which text of the Pali canon one reads.

    My own enlightenment came one time at a Pizzeria where, when asked what kind of toppings I wanted, I replied, “Make me one with everything”.

    But seriously, I agree with Dan (and Alvie Singer’s doctor) on this and think Spencer’s quest for objective moral foundations and ultimate existential meaning is the dukkha of all dukkhas.

    I also agree friendship is important and we should try not to let our personal religion (or philosophy) blind us to each other’s humanity. I think the comedian Emo Philips captured this well:

    Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I shouted, “Don’t do it!”
    He turned towards me and sobbed, “Nobody loves me.”
    I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
    He said, “Yes.”
    I asked him, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
    He said, “A Christian.”
    I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?”
    He said, “Protestant.”
    I said, “Me, too! Which denomination?”
    He said, “Baptist.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
    He said, “Northern Baptist.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
    He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”
    I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”
    He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”
    I said, “Me, too! Wow! This is incredible. Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
    He said excitedly, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912!”
    I said, “Die, heretic!” And pushed him over.

  46. I don’t buy it, Dan. Perhaps the provocateur gene in your makeup? Cannot tell… would need to sit with you and get to know you. When you launch into one of your (often quite exciting) zeitgeist rants concerning the morose state of various contemporary things, such as education, liberalism, the quality of the open dialog, your chosen profession, etc — you are not doing this because you are driven by ‘enjoyment’. You care, deeply.

    Let’s not play games here. I’m as much a pizza connoiseur as the next guy, moreso I’d testify. Since evacuating the NY metro area a few decades back, the absence of those idiosyncratic high-quality mom & pop shops have left a hole in my soul. I even made a point of lingering in Naples an extra day one summer to sample the best on the plane while ogling — in nearly erotic intensity — the island of Capri and it’s volcano. These and many other revelries of various natures which I’ve partaken of during my lifetime have never once had the slightest tendency to confuse me about the differences between enjoyment and deeper human concerns regading the motivations for doing something.

    You are free to conclude that the answer (or some other form of progress) to our deepest and most persisting questions are unreachable. I do not. If one does so conclude, then I coiuld imagine that such a concluder might adopt a more exclusively gamelike stance towards everything. But this does not mean that people who freely admit to caring deeply about such questions cannot also kid around and have a light touch towards life.

    I think your gambit to widen the analogy between religious personality demeanors and philosophical stance beyond the tongue-in-cheek level (your earlier essay) towards something more apt and real (present essay) is silly. I know of far too many counterexamples in my life of people who violate the simple correlations suggested. I could offer a different unconvincing generality: A guy who spends a healthy part of adolescence/young adulthood getting deeply into D&D gaming and it’s offshoots is very likely to display a stance towards life which is less about skin in the game and more about getting good at manipulating with the glass beads (sic, Hermann Hesse). I mean that hits on your points of temperament and predilection, right? But it has nothing to do with Jewishness.

    I like your stuff, Dan. You expose alot and so it is interesting to explore the landscape you’ve created here. I do plenty of things for enjoyment. I do not visit EA for enjoyment’s sake. I care about the ideas.

  47. Sorry you think it’s silly. Obviously, from the comments, many others don’t. And nothing I said is inconsistent with caring deeply. Indeed, that’s half of what this is about. One can care deeply without things being of Objective, Real, Transcendent importance.

  48. Paul Taborsky

    “There is, in Christianity, a far greater inclination towards abstraction, universalism, perfectionism, Manicheanism, utopianism, and a fixation with the transcendent than there is in Judaism”


    I’m far from being an expert on either religion, but I wonder how accurate this contrast is.

    I say this because it strikes me to be an almost universal trope of in-group vs. out-group characterizations. One’s own group is always perceived to be a locus of humanistic values; the other as deficient in some way, and one way to be deficient is to be attached to certain kinds of ‘supra-human’ values.

    This isn’t limited to western society. I was told once by a Chinese acquaintance that he thought that Chinese were open and emotional people, in contrast to westerners who were cold and calculating and hid their thoughts from others.

    It is a familiar trope in Chinese and Japanese thinkers of a certain period (19th c.) that Western society and culture is concerned with the abstract and transcendent and mechanical, while only Asians have culture and humanism. Now, of course, we are endlessly told that Chinese have no understanding of ‘human rights’ (never-mind that the term, ‘ren’, for benevolence or humanism, appears in Confucius). Interestingly enough, similar characterizations of dualism and otherworldliness were often used by Confucians of an even earlier period to characterize Buddhism. Buddhists were alleged to have postulated a dualistic separation between ‘li’ and ‘qi’ (roughly, principle and material force), while the Confucian tradition maintained their interdependance.

    Yet part of Buddhist self-understanding, I think, is that it is, uniquely, a religion of the phenomenal (this) world, that eschews the ‘metaphysics’ of a soul, god, heaven etc. that other religions postulate.

    And of course, according to Hegel, only in the west has humanity achieved true individuality and self-understanding, while in the ‘East’ “The element of subjectivity has not come forth, religious ideas are not individualized, and we have predominating a kind of universal idea … to the Chinese what is highest and the origin of things is nothing, emptiness, the altogether undetermined, the abstract universal, and this is also called Tao or reason”, in other words, precisely the Asian stereotype of the west!

  49. Do you know anything about the two religions? What I described you would learn in a basic course.

  50. 1. No devil in Judaism.
    2. No “Original Sin” in Judaism.
    3. Very little by way of Jewish theology. Nothing remotely like there is in Christianity.
    4. No heaven or hell in Judaism.
    5. No conception of “sinning in your heart” in Judaism. It is focused entirely on action.
    6. What Jewish sects that do have some of these notions — i.e. Kabbalists — are fringe.


    Also, I did not present this as critical of Christianity. Indeed, I emphasized that culturally, Christianity is unambiguously the winner.

  51. Paul Taborsky

    I’m Jewish myself (but not very observant!), so yes, I understand a bit of this, and especially that Judaism is a religion of doing things, and not belief.

    But I don’t think that being a religion of practice, for instance, necessarily implies a focus on wordly rather then transcendant values. The Indologist Frtis Staal has written extensively on the early Vedic religion of India and on its focus on ‘orthopraxy’ – rule following – as contrasted with the ‘orthodoxy’ of Christianity. But hardly anyone, I think, would claim that Brahmanism is a this-worldly religion. Certainly the later Indic religions that succeded it were not; perhaps the original Brahmanism is something different, more like Judaism, perhaps.

    And while there may be no original sin nor devil in Judaism, one can certainly do the wrong things, or not do enough of the right things, to get in trouble. And there are quite a lot of these.

    I don’t deny that there is some truth to the opposition, but perhaps it is a difference of degree, not kind. Durkheim says that there is a distinction between the sacred and the profane in every religion, indeed that is what religion largely is, and so one might conclude that there is an element of trancendance (the transcendence of the sacred over the profane) in all religion.

  52. davidlduffy

    I read this list with great interest (I had not seen anything quite so bald), but of course then felt the urge to be disputatious, given that the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox make up perhaps over half of all religiously observant Jews worldwide. Google Scholar gave a fun discussion of immortality and resurrection among the founders of (rationalist) Reform Judaism,

    who minimized the “…the full scheme of Rabbinic eschatology, [where] Resurrection will be followed by the Last Judgment, at which point the righteous will be adjudged worthy of eternal life [athanasia]…”. Others see this as the major influence on Christian belief (linear time, Last Trump etc, etc). As Maimonides is quoted later: “we must believe in Resurrection because the Rabbis told us so to believe. If we can believe in Creation, then miracles are possible; and Resurrection is a miracle.”

    While there is no doctrine of original sin per se, there is definitely the concept that the Gentiles were set over the Jews as punishment for rebellion against God (an echo of Adam and Eve’s rebellion which also ended badly?).

    Anyway, plenty of serious things for ethicists and political philosophers at least, to discuss re COVID-19. And since metaphysics has a lot to offer scientific things I am interested in – like the nature of thinking, consciousness, language, cosmology, time, space, mathematics, teleology – I’ll keep reading stuff at EA.

  53. Most of the Orthodox are Hasidim and Haredi, and I already covered them in my summary.

  54. Joe,
    probably all that – memory’s not so good these days.
    For some reason I am reminded of two stories. One from The Gateless Gate:

    Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: “If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat.”
    No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces.
    That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out.
    Nansen said: “If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.”

    The other is an old joke which I hope I can remember rightly, about a Rabbi much admired for his wisdom and insight, who was dying. His deathbed was surrounded by students eager for one last insight from his lips. Finally, one dared ask, “Rabbi, what is the true nature of reality?” To which the Rabbi replied thoughtfully, “the universe is like a drop of water.” All the students murmured in awe at the profundity of this wisdom – except one who suddenly barked out” “That’s crap! what does it even mean?!” The Rabbi looked at him. shrugged, said, “So the universe is not like a drop of water?” and died.

  55. Zac

    Gotta say, I’m more sympathetic to Spencer. You want to saddle him with big philosophical pronouncements, but you’re making a lot of sweeping statements about the status of morality, and he’s simply following those to their logical conclusion. Per your account of morality, you might be personally disgusted with rape, but your philosophy shrugs because it doesn’t fall within your particular domain of philosophically licit justifications. You try to claim that your personal feelings are being attacked here, but that’s dodging the point. Spencer knows perfectly well you find it disgusting and aren’t any less inclined to oppose it. It’s just that he’s putting in tension your feelings and philosophy. And considering your position that morality and philosophy are deeply intertwined with one’s feelings, it’s hard to say exactly what your offense consists in. If you’d really, safely, obviously demarcated the two, I don’t think there would be such a sense of reflexive threat and defensiveness. You want to affect stepping back and say “let’s call the whole thing off”, but it ultimately amounts to a restatement of your position regarding inclinations and the proper scope and interpretation of philosophy, falling back into the same disagreements.

    I notice this in a lot of your other writings and responses too. There’s a “have your cake and eat it too” quality when moral questions arise. You fall back on the claim that it’s all matter of one’s inclinations (dusts off your hands, boys), cry “manipulation” when someone appeals to those inclinations, then turn around and post a response, video, or anecdote meant to manipulate the inclinations of others. You swim in deeply moralizing language and then balk at moral import when it challenges you. There’s a deep and abiding sense of you being implicated in questions of justification and not wanting to fully acknowledge it, aptly or not. Sometimes it seems like your metaethics, when you retreat to it, is more an excuse to flare up your own rhetoric at others and dial everyone else’s down to a comfortably bourgeois level when it seems like it’s targeting you or your perceived cohort. Very well. Evidently, all we have left to say is that our inclinations just differ here. Like the rapist’s. If that upsets you inclinations, I don’t know what to tell you. Wasn’t my idea to declare soupily individualist inclinations the bedrock of morality.

  56. Zac


    “It was not until the late 1970s (CE) that a man could be held accountable in the US for raping his wife. The burden of argument is yours.

    I have no problem being both a moral relativist and yet also strongly committed to ethical progress; simply on the basis of fair-play for those unlike myself.. Women say they don’t like to be forced to have sex. Why is this not good enough for you?”

    It also wasn’t until roughly the 70’s that relativist live-and-let-live formulations of a paradoxically universalist flavor were popularized as well. Que sirrah, I guess.

  57. My argument is that the addition of the Objective! Real! dimension adds nothing to the actual force of moral judgments, which, as I also have argued is all that matters, insofar as ethics is a practical discipline. As of yet, I have heard not only no persuasive reply, but not even a cogent one.

  58. Zac

    What’s cogent or not ultimately bottoms out in your subjectivism as well and appeals to reason melt away into no more cogent a picture than billions of people just doing, like, whatever, bro. That doesn’t sound particularly great for the practical or exhortatory side of ethics if that’s all it is. No statements can magically compel you to believe or want to act on them, and I don’t see why that ever had to be standard in the first place. “Objective! Real!” doesn’t even add any “actual force” to straightforward factual judgments so long as a person isn’t affected by the consequences of their incorrect beliefs or can convince themselves that they aren’t, which (Extra! Extra!) people are really good at doing. So what? Something being practical depends partly on what we do or don’t want, but not SIMPLY on that. And it’s not like we can change our wants at will or wishcast all our wants into workable realities if the world just doesn’t work the way we want it to. As the Putnams put it, passing down Dewey, that’s the transactional nature between us and the world, finding ourselves thrown into problematic situations for which we have to find practicable solutions. Labelling this flatly subjective or objective misses the point. Human values are diverse, evolving, and conflicted, but not infinitely plastic, and even they have to grapple with the limits of reality. We’re a social species averse to suffering, eager to flourish in our pursuits, and inescapably needful of coordinating our behavior on any number of levels, and there’s no conceivable way to do this without broader, if fallible, notions of warrant. We’re all chained to the world and everybody has to pull.

  59. If there’s an objection here to anything I’ve said, I don’t see it. That’s OK. More important fish to fry right now. We are reeling from this coronavirus situation.

  60. I may have more to say about this later, but in truth, I doubt it will do very good. And as I indicated in the essay, I am not all that interested in convincing other people. it’s enough for me to explain myself. you think what you like.