Searching for Butterness

I’ve been reading and re-reading Franz Rosenzweig’s Understanding the Sick and the Healthy. It’s an incredibly fast read and well worth the time. It manages to accomplish quite a bit in its brevity (72 pages), and while the content does not feel philosophically rigorous, this is in fact its rigor. This explains the introductory essay by Hilary Putnam, who skillfully compares and contrasts Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein and their struggles with philosophy. The book presents us with the story of a man who has been paralyzed by theoretical thought, now in treatment at a sanitarium for philosophers. Walking about his day, doing normal tasks, all of a sudden he is struck–and stopped! A thought that cannot be resolved. What if his senses can’t be trusted? What if there is no meaning in the world? How does one function?

Basically, Rosenzweig wants to challenge the primacy of reason and philosophical method when it comes to finding and experiencing true and meaningful understanding of the world. An example he uses that had me grinning was the philosopher’s encounter with butter. Philosophers do philosophy everywhere except for where they actually live, he suggests. In everyday tasks, such question is necessarily suspended. After a long discussion about how one comes to want a particular slice of butter (what’s a “slice” anyway?), he writes:

“In practical life no one gives up his intention to buy butter merely because he is unable to prove that the butter he wishes to buy and the butter on sale are identical. The single exception to this is the philosopher, but even he carefully restricts his meditations to theory. When he goes shopping he is unwilling to have an empty stomach as a reward for his thoughts. In theory, of course, he cannot be refuted. As soon as he asks: ‘What is this actually?’ the butter disappears. As for the name—well, that is a matter of convention. Different languages have different names for one and the same thing. If a philosopher, however, should turn his back on our slab of butter, claiming it cannot be butter, because the French call it buerre, the proper place for him would be an institution accommodating philosophers exclusively.” (53)

This question is further explored by Putnam in his brilliant introduction:

Putnam’s creative rendering of this question in logical terms exposes the absurdity of assuming philosophy has recourse to some kind of privileged position of truth. Of course, while Putnam renders this in “analytic” terms, one must be careful to not assume that “continental” thought is somehow immune. I often wonder if the esoteric precision of phenomenology, or the dizzying whirls of poststructuralism, etc., might also be rendered in this kind of parody, for they, too, stop human beings in their tracks and render them unable to move forward. Rosenzweig’s critique passes across the “analytic-continental” divide, just as Wittgenstein’s does. It would be entertaining to see Putnam’s analytic example translated into continental terms, which would contain all sorts of parentheses, hyphens, German words, and more.

This does not suggest that those kinds of analyses are not useful. As Putnam goes on to say, rendering thought in analytic terms can be helpful, and Rosenzweig (suggests Putnam) was interested in conceiving of a new way of doing philosophy as well (what he called the “New Thinking,” which is decidedly dialogical). Nonetheless, I think the critique is powerful and should cause every philosopher to pause and examine how “useful” and how destructive the discipline can be. Philosophers are like doctors; they hold an incredible power, and it can be used to liberate or bind, heal or corrupt.

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One Response to Searching for Butterness

  1. Rex says:

    Excellent writeup. You just think sometimes: has philosophy progressed genuinely in its spirit since the times of Socrates at all?

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