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.  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. 
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.