Philosophy. A Note on Lévinas, Putnam, Nozick and Derrida

Robert Nozick between Athens and Jerusalem.

Is he right to think Ethics is Greek or Jewish?

I was recently reading quickly through Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations, a copy I borrowed from an office I use somewhere I gave one course in the last semester, while giving an exam on Derrida. Much to my surprise noticed a reference to a contrast between Greek and Judaic ethics. That created an unexpected link between Nozick and Derrida, since the idea of Greek versus Jewish philosophy, or culture, or ethics, is something that Derrida considers carefully in a long essay on Lévinas, ‘Violence and Metaphysics’, collected in Writing and Difference . The context in which Nozick introduces the distinction between Greek and Jew, is the difference between ethical ‘push’ and ethical ‘pull’. The push is Greek, and refers to the concern in Ancient Greek thought with cultivation and flourishing of the self, in an ethics which is based on the balance and health of the self. The pull is Jewish, according to Nozick, and comes from the Old Testament, or what Nozick calls the Hebrew Bible. It is the pull of ethical law, the obligation to follow commands of the kind handed down to Moses as the Ten Commandments.

Where did an Analytic philosopher like Nozick come up with this? How does a philosopher who usually avoids cultural context, and comes from a way of thinking which regards cultural and historical context as highly secondary to philosophical argument, come up with this historical-cultural generalisation? Nozick gives thanks to his Harvard colleague Hilary Putnam in the acknowledgements section. We don’t expect cultural-historical generalisations from Putnam either, but Putnam did make one major departure from concentrating on Analytic philosophy. Two of Putnam’s texts refer to Emmanuel Lévinas, whose work took European philosophy since Kant as its departure. Lévinas’ work is full of allusions to Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger and belongs to the French Phenomenological work of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Where did Putnam refer to Lévinas and what was that about?

Putnam refers to Lévinas in ‘Lévinas and Judaism’ which can be found in The Cambridge Companion to Lévinas edited by two notable commentators on European Philosophy: Robert Bernasconi and Simon Critchley. Putnam’s essay is rooted in Putnam’s strong Judaism, I am not sure if he is a believer, but then I could say the same about Lévinas who was a Talmud teacher for children as well as an academic philosopher. The point is that Putnam takes Lévinas seriously as an expositor of what Judaic religion is. Lévinas ‘ s philosophy, most famously in Totality and Infinity, rests on a distinction between Greek Ontology and Judaic Ethics, the latter rooted in the Torah, the “Hebrew Bible” and the tradition of study of it. Greek Ontology takes the ‘Same’, that is the Ego or the Self, as primary; Jewish Ethics takes the Other as primary. Putnam briefly but significantly refers to Lévinas’ views on Ontology and Ethics in Ethics without Ontology.

It looks very much like Nozick got the ex-cathedra judgement that the ethics of Obligation from Lévinas via Putnam. He very probably did not consider Derrida’s critical remarks. Like Nozick, Putnam and Lévinas, Derrida was Jewish himself. I won’t recapitulate Derrida’s argument here, I will just note some problems in equating Greek Ethics (often known as Virtue Ethics) with Self-Cultivation and Jewish Ethics with obligation. One obvious point is that the Biblical Jews were following the commands of the God of their nation rather than abstract obligation as such. Their ethical commands are clearly located in the rules and taboos of antique eastern Mediterranean society. In any case, how can we locate obligation in a purely Jewish origin? Nietzsche who contrasted Roman master morality, meaning Greek Virtue Ethics, with Judaic Slave Morality, meaning the ethics of obedience to God, also located the origin of ideas of other worldliness and abstract morality in Plato, even as Plato developed a version of Virtue Ethics. Nietzsche clearly though that Old Testament morality was tied to Jewish national identity, and regarded the morality of obligation as Christian rather than Jewish. Christianity meant the teachings of the historical Christ as interpreted by St Paul, the converted Jew, from the point of view of Neo-Platonist philosophy.

Heidegger certainly thought of the early Greek ethics, as an Ethos which preceded ethical rules, abstraction and obligation in the way of life as it was lived. Ethical obligation arises in Heidegger from a turning away from Being, something that is phenomenal for Heidegger, towards law outside Being trying to dominate it, that law came from Plato.

Some philosophers have regarded Old Testament Jewish ethics as an extreme example of an ethics of obligation. Hegel presents Judaism as excessive in its sense of obligation, in comparison to Christianity, a view he supports with reference to the story of Abraham and Isaac. Kierkegaard looks at the story in a more favourable way, though his interpretation is a critique of obligation which argues that the story shows the necessity to will the unethical in obligation to God, and that ethics can only be properly rooted in a self-relation which becomes a relation with the absolute externality of God.

Kierkegaard argues for an alternative to the ethics of obligation by looking to the self which has to live with the paradox of ethics founded on following an absolute, subjectivity and God at the same time.ş Kierkegaard classifies Kant’s ethics of pure obligation with the Greek following of Ethos of the community, as both examples of following external rules and universality, instead of the paradoxical unity of particularity and universality in absolute subjectivity.

Of course in recent decades a wide variety of thinkers have sought an alternative to obligation ethics in Greek Virtue and flourishing: G.E.M. Anscombe, Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum amongst many. Nussbaum though distinguishes between an emphasis in Aristotle on luck and fragility as opposed to the abstraction of a rule obeying moral self in Plato.

Nozick’s attempt to distinguish between Greek and Jewish cannot be upheld, though he uses it with great force for establishing a central ethical tension.