Reform Jews, Moderate Muslims, and Scholarly Swedes
Published on: August 29, 2013
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  • johngbarker

    I hope you will write about Buber and Rosenzweig; are they not the greatest thinkers of the period?

  • Gary Novak

    When I enable my Bergerian brain circuitry, I notice a similarity between Swedish motif research and Berger’s characterization of reality (in “The Social Construction of Reality”) as that
    which cannot be thought away. Sex differences resurface despite feminist efforts to think them away, and core values resurface in a religious tradition despite changing historical
    circumstances. If we identify reality (or essences) with the forms in which they are received, interpreted, and articulated, then the postmodernist disparagement of “essentialism” seems quite reasonable. As Berger says, those forms are clearly not unaltered and unalterable across generations.

    But postmodernism insists that there is no mind-independent reality: everything can be thought away! That would make even mellow motif research bad-faith essentialism. Paul Tillich begins his “Systematic Theology” by defining the task of theology as continually reinterpreting the eternal kerygma (message) in terms appropriate to changing historical situations. Fundamentalists are offended by the idea that any reinterpretation is necessary, but postmodernists are equally offended by the idea that any recurrence of motifs could be explained by a reality (kerygma)
    behind the scenes trying to push its way into the lifeworld.

    So it seems that the distinction between motif research and essentialism only serves to distinguish between inductive essentialism and deductive essentialism. Yes, inductivists (motif researchers) can also be essentialists: the project of separating wheat and chaff presupposes the essential reality of wheat. If, through faith, one can overcome the fear of negotiating away the core, the activity of separating what abides from what does not can generate enthusiasm for life. One might even say it amounts to a search for God and is the purpose of life.
    Nygren’s “Eros and Agape” sounds interesting. Amazon here I come.

  • “But postmodernism insists that there is no mind-independent reality: everything can be thought away!”

    I am not sure where you encountered this impression of postmodernism, but it is a strange one. Lyotard’s simple definition — “incredulity towards metanarratives” — is the best, and applies equally to architecture (where it was first used) and English Lit. You may be confusing the postmodernist’s “incredulity” in the face of truth statements with an attitude toward reality, which is quite different. To point out that statements about reality are made from a position, and that the positionality of such statements always needs to be taken into account, is not the same as saying that there is no reality that is independent of minds.

    • Gary Novak

      In “Reason, Truth and History” (1981), Hilary Putnam distinguishes two philosophical perspectives: metaphysical realism and internalism. According to the former, “the world consists of some totality of mind-independent objects. There is exactly one true and complete
      description of ’the way the world is.’ . . .
      I shall call this perspective the externalist perspective, because its favorite point of view is a God’s Eye point of view” (p. 49). Internalists like Putnam hold that the
      question “what objects does the world consist of?” is a question that it “only
      makes sense to ask within a theory or description.” They hold that “there is no God’s Eye point of view that we can know or usefully imagine . . .” (50). There is nothing remarkable in holding that
      we cannot know reality from a God’s Eye point of view. But in saying that it is useless—indeed, nonsensical—to try to imagine a God’s Eye view (or what philosopher Thomas Nagel—dismissed as an essentialist by postmodernist Richard Rorty– calls “the view from nowhere”), Putnam is rejecting the concept of mind-independent reality.

      The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy defines metaphysical realism as, among other things, the view there are real objects which “have properties and enter into relations independently of the concepts with which we understand them or the language with which we describe them.” It describes postmodernism as, among other things, a rejection of metaphysical realism.

      One can distrust metanarratives for
      a number of reasons—they may be self-serving or dishonest ideologies. But practicing what Berger—way back in “Invitation to Sociology”—called the art of mistrust does not make one a postmodernist– who believes that metanarratives are necessarily false because they claim to describe non-existent mind-independent realities. Postmodernists do not believe that anything goes; they think it is important to change the way we think and talk about the world (often coercively, since correspondence with the way things really are can no longer be a guide), but they are contemptuous of the idea that we could “get it right.” Their criteria are pragmatic:
      what helps us foster social justice as we understand it? It’s all about linguistic turns, language games, discourses, regimes, traditions, social practices. It’s all about the socio-linguistic construction of reality WITHOUT any recognition of the legitimacy of questions about the adequacy of our constructions in the light of what our dear Berger had the simplicity to call, fifty years ago, ultimate reality.

      • Sorry — I cannot imagine what any of this has to do with the concept of postmodernism. In the final section of your post you do not describe postmodernism at all; you describe what is usually known as poststructuralism. Again, your characterization of postmodernism is simply wrong.

        • Gary Novak

          In your first post you wrote: “To point out that statements about reality are made from a position, and that the positionality of such statements always needs to be taken into account, is not the same as saying that there is no reality independent of minds.” Would you agree that Hilary Putnam IS rejecting the view that ”the world consists of some totality of mind-independent objects.” Are you insisting that he should not count as a postmodernist? But the late Richard Rorty, who described himself as a “postmodern bourgeois liberal,” makes the
          same point. I mentioned that Rorty dismisses Thomas Nagel’s “view from nowhere.” He writes, “Nagel thinks that to
          deprive ourselves of such notions as ‘representation’ and ‘correspondence’
          would be to stop ‘trying to climb outside of our own minds, an effort some
          would regard as insane and that I regard as philosophically fundamental’” (“Objectivity,
          Relativism, and Truth,” p.7). Nagel is not claiming that we can achieve the view from nowhere (Putnam’s “Gods-eye
          view”). But for Nagel it is
          philosophically fundamental to retain the concept of mind-independent
          reality. Rorty, Putnam, Nelson Goodman
          (“Ways of Worldmaking”), and others are not reiterating Karl Mannheim’s
          century-old “relational” sociology of knowledge (we see reality from a
          perspective which must be taken into account lest we “talk past each other”); they are rejecting the idea of a “ready-made world.”

          You may think the philosophers I have mentioned have nothing to do with postmodernism, but listen to a (trickle-down) postmodern English literature professor who invokes the authority of
          post-empiricist philosophers of science on “theory-laden facts” before
          launching into a politically correct “reading” of racist, sexist, homophobic
          literature. I cited The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, which begins its entry on POSTMODERN with “of or
          relating to a complex set of reactions to modern philosophy and its
          presuppositions, rather than to any agreement on substantive doctrines or
          philosophical questions.” You seem to have a more determinate idea of
          the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a postmodernist than the Cambridge Dictionary, which is more inclined to include folks based on
          Wittgenstein’s “family resemblances.” I
          notice you did not respond to my point that Lyotard’s “incredulity towards
          metanarratives”—while a necessary condition for being a postmodernist—is
          clearly not sufficient. It would make Berger a postmodernist when he endorses the sociological art of mistrust and warns that reality is not what it seems. (Incidentally, how does Lyotard’s definition
          apply to architecture?)

          But let me return to the passage that originally caught your eye:
          postmodernism insists there is no mind-independent reality: everything can be thought away! (By the way, Berger
          says “wished away,” not “thought away”—perhaps “wishful thinking” bridges the gap. My books were all in boxes during my recent move.) Setting aside our
          disagreements about the differences between postmodernism, poststructuralism,
          post-positivism, etc., is there something in contemporary thought that is not only incredulous toward metanarratives but toward the whole idea of truth-finding, as opposed to truth-making? Are there
          influential people (whatever you want to call them) who think the idea of motif research is stupid because it takes seriously the superstition, ignorance, and metaphysical realism of our benighted past? Instead of listening for
          signals of transcendence in the historical record as well as in our own lives,
          shouldn’t we just roll up our sleeves like the President in his photo-ops and remake the world as we want it to be? Shouldn’t
          we drop the idea of a ready-made world and improve our exclusively immanent world without windows? That seems to be Rorty’s goal. If I may close with a lengthy quote:

          “The human need which is gratified by the attempt . . . to stand outside all human needs—the need for what Nagel calls transcendence’—is one which antirepresentationalists
          [like Rorty] think it culturally undesirable to exacerbate. They think this need eliminable by means of a suitable moral education—one which raises people up from the ‘humility’ which Nagel recommends. Such an education tries to sublimate the desire to stand in suitably humble relations to nonhuman
          realities into a desire for free and open encounters between human beings,
          encounters culminating either in intersubjective agreement or in reciprocal

  • Praelium

    Another brilliant synthesis from Sir Berger is here and it is a joy to read. Every doctrine of religion includes “inerrant” and “negotiable” parts that are sifted by “modernity”. Catholics wonder if Latin is necessary for the Eucharist, Evangelicals wonder if evolution is necessary for the Creator, Hindus wonder if free-markets will destroy the caste system, Zen roshis wonder if neuroscience will answer all their koans, and Jews wonder if rejecting Jesus as the Messiah is necessary for staying in God’s favor. Modernity has a full line-up for Muslims. Can we draw pictures of religious leaders? And are women, bells, and just war theories good? The best way to welcome modernity is to be humble and to pray for guidance.

    • Grigalem

      “Jews wonder if rejecting Jesus as the Messiah is necessary for staying in God’s favor.”

      No they don’t.

      That’s just silly as well as bone-headed.

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