Over at Crooked Timber, they are having another silly bout of deciding who was the great philosopher of the twentieth century. We don’t know why this compulsion to name the greatest philosopher has suddenly sunk its memish jaws into the Zeitgeist: Leiter did a similar thing a couple of months ago, and Mark Taylor, in his op ed piece about Derrida, was moved to call Jacques one of the century’s three great philosophers (the others were Moe and Curly).
The candidate from greatest of one of the CT-ers is David Lewis. David Lewis! It is like calling the greatest philosopher of the seventeenth century Antoine Arnauld.
One philosopher never mentioned in this embarrassing sweepstakes is Franz Rosenzweig. Yet LI would venture to say that, of those philosophic tomes composed on little notecards or in little journals by soldiers in world war one, only two have stood the test of time: The Tractatus-Logico and Stern der Erloesung. (pdf file)
We’ve been reading the Star of Redemption since we found it on the web. Shamefully, we read Heidegger and Benjamin in grad school and never picked up Rosenzweig. Yet, as everybody knows who reads the introductions to Benjamin, Rosenzweig was a big deal for both Benjamin and Heidegger. Karl Löwith wrote that Heidegger’s true philosophical contemporary was Rosenzweig. Heidegger claimed never to have read him.
Claim and counter-claims. This is a tissue that LI sees no sense in exploring. One thing is certain: Stern der Erloesung does not begin like a David Lewis essay. It begins: “The knowledge of everything begins with death and the fear of death. To shed the anxiety of the earthly, to take the poison needle from death, the breath of the plague from hades, is precisely what is missing from philosophy.” (Vom tode, voen der Furcht des Todes hebt alles Erkennen des All an. Die Angst des Irdischen abzuwerfen, dem Tod seinen Giftstachel, dem Hades seinen Pesthauch zu nehmen, des vermißt sich die Philosophie.” Rosenzweig ends this passage thusly:Man shouldn’t try to rid himself of the fear of the earthly; he should remain in the fear of death.
(Der Mensch soll die Angst des Irdischen nicht von sich werfen; er soll in der Furcht des Todes – bleiben).
It is pretty easy to imagine how the fear of death, and its image as the fear of an earthly creature, one on earth and made of earth, would occur to a soldier in the Balkans in 1916. There is a gap in our historical consciousness of what World War I meant – we transpose, in America, the realization among intellectuals that mass, mechanized killing is the unexpected fruit of Western culture, to a post Holocaust period. In U.S intellectual history, the erasure of the first World War operates as a necessary moralizing prelude to the anti-communism of the Cold War. Lenin is then reduced, by way of Churchill’s phrase, to a bacillus released in Russia – a pathogen apart from history. This is flattering to Churchill, whose history in World War I consisted of a rumsfeldian fuckup in Gallipoli. This is also flattering to the governing classes, directly responsible for the deaths of millions in that war.
Rosenzweig wrote the Star of Redemption after having been a part of the Neo-Kantian movement – after having written a well received book on Hegel and the State. He could witness how, within a liberal, rational culture that presented itself as the creator of organizations that operate with rules to create an optimum of tolerance, wealth, and liberty, the same organizations could apply the same rationality to create vast killing machines, that whole ensemble of hundreds of thousands of men, trenches, machine guns, barbed wire, tanks, and planes set in motion to kill each other again and again, for pointless gains, with an intensity and duration never before experienced on earth.
“The fear of the earthly must be taken from him only with the earthly itself. But so long as he lives on earth, he must also remain in the anxiety of the earthly. And philosophy betrays him in this “must”, insofar as it weaves the blue haze of the thought of everything (allgedankens) around the earthly. Because of couse: an All doesn’t die, and nothing dies in the All. Only individuals can die, and everything mortal is individual. This, that philosophy must make the individual vanish out of the world, this de-creation of the Something is the reason it must be idealistic. Because Idealism, with its denial of those things which divide the individual from the All, is the instrument with which philosophy works over its recalcitrant material until it no longer counters its general (Ein-und Allbegriff) concept with any resistance. Once this mist has been spun around everything, death is clearly swallowed up: if not in eternal victory, yet, even so, in the general night of nothingness.”
Eventually, we want to comment about the essay of Tom Nairn over at Open Democracy. Nairn is trying to understand the apparent seizure of irrationality in the U.S. philosophically – reclaiming the legitimacy of the nation (as opposed to the nation-state, that thing continually bartering itself to the IMF); tracing the working through of patterns that arise naturally from the hegemony of the American capitalist system, etc., etc. Nairn assumes – and we agree – that the major task in the world today is to curb American power. Americans are reckless, sporadically immoral, ignorant, and create much too little for the amount they suck out of the world system. There are, however, self correcting mechanisms at work that Nairn doesn’t mention. We’ll return to this later. We should say, Nairn’s article is written in an alarm clock style (which is something of an LI specialty): it is as if every sentence had to keep the reader awake. However, the style tends to get in the way of the sense. Metaphors keep being sent out to do battle in sentences that witness their melancholic last stands, over and over again (see – sentences like that). However, he racks up a good ratio of commonsense to drivel.