[I apologize for the lateness in continuing this series. I agonized quite a bit over whether to continue it, since it would involve discussion of complicated terms. However, פטור בלא כלום אי אפשר, so I will try and keep this as simple as possible. Here’s hoping I succeed. Enjoy! Aiwac
Note: Any mistakes or misunderstanding of philosophical terms should be considered my own and not the author’s.]
Rav Dr. Michael Avraham’s book is at once more modest and yet more ambitious than one might expect from a book on faith. It is more modest in the sense that it is not out to ‘prove’ the tenets of Orthodox Jewish faith. People expecting to find ‘all the answers’ to problems will be sorely disappointed.
Yet this book is also much more ambitious in that it aims to make us question and examine how we think about and understand the world. It aims to challenge the very modes of thought we take for granted in learning about the world and ourselves. Instead of spoon-feeding us with ready-made opinions, it aims to provide us with tools for sharpening our own perceptions and forming our own positions. This is very much a book for thinking grown-ups – whether religious or secular, or something in between.
To accomplish this task, Rav Avraham has to contend with Western philosophy’s superstars and most popular trends – including Kant, Leibniz, Descartes, pragmatism, conventionalism and, of course, post-modernism. This is very much a guided tour through enlightenment and post-enlightenment thought, but with a twist, as Rav Avraham aims to show the weaknesses and limitations inherent in much of what serves as the intellectual basis for much of modern (and subsequently post-modern) thought.
The Emptiness of Analytical Thought
Very roughly put, Rav Avraham argues that post-modernism – the principled negation of the idea of objective truth (or at least of conceiving such) – was the inevitable outgrowth of modern rationalist philosophy. Specifically, it is the result of the quest to achieve full knowledge of the world by way of ‘reason alone’ (i.e. logical postulates, axioms, deduction &c).
This was the quest for ‘analytical’ knowledge of the world, i.e. knowledge which is certainly and unquestionably correct, and which is not dependent on our senses or other fallible means. This is as opposed to ‘synthetic’ knowledge, which makes factual statements about the world (both prior to observation of the world and afterwards), but can never reach the level of certainty of ‘analytical’ knowledge.
To make a long (and fascinating) story short, the more philosophers strove for ‘absolute truth’, the more they despaired of ever getting there. More and more, modern philosophers despaired of making statements that were necessarily true about the world and began to adopt more flexible positions regarding truth. From the pragmatists, who held that truth must be judged within its context, and that searching for the ‘ultimate truth’ is not the goal so much as finding the truth that works within the human system to the conventionalists (such as Hilary Putnam), who saw definitions as merely being whatever society decided they were (thus lacking any ‘inherent’ value).
According to Rav Avraham, this was because of weaknesses inherent in analysis itself. These deficiencies are twofold:
1) Analysis cannot really say anything additional about the world, since it is merely a reworking of what we already know from definitions (e.g. ‘circles are round’, ‘the sum of angles of triangles in Euclidian geometry is 180º’ are both analytical statements, since they merely re-work what we already know by definition).
2) Any analysis of terms rests on axioms which cannot, by definition, be proven. As such, it is impossible for two people who hold by different axioms to debate anything. There is simply no way to decide such a debate, since both sides are ‘speaking in different languages’, or according to different axioms. Since there is no logical way for either set of axioms to demonstrate its superiority, there can be no debate.
‘Purely’ analytical thinkers are thus doomed to total skepticism because of the above weaknesses. Attempts to develop analytical thought without axioms result in permanent regression (i.e. how do you know a is true? Because of b. How do you know b is true? Because of c, and so on, ad infinitum).
As a result, we get postmodernism, which denies absolute truth for this very reason – all statements are made based on unprovable axioms – and how do you know your axioms are any better than mine? Prove it! Indeed, many debates are paralyzed not by rebutting statements, but simply by stating that someone is working based on certain assumptions (“bias”) which are considered wrong a priori (regardless of the facts). So and so’s thought is wrong because they’re operating from a gender/race/class/&c bias. Since it is impossible to think ‘purely’, it is impossible to think at all.
This is the intellectual basis for the ‘hard pluralism’, according to which there are no truths (‘everyone and their truth’). How is it relevant to us? More on that in the next entry.
Coming Up: ‘Who is a Jew?’ as a contemporary analytical problem