Quote of the day for Wednesday: Kaufmann on theology

January 2, 2013 • 1:03 pm

I’m reading a wonderful anti-religious book by Walter Kaufmann called The Faith of a Heretic. (Doubleday, New York, 1961). Kaufmann (1921-1980) was a colorful character and a polymath who knew tons about philosophy and theology. Raised as a Lutheran, he converted to Judaism at age 11 and subsequently rejected all faith, becoming an atheist and then a well known philosopher who taught at Princeton most of his career. His specialty was Nietzsche but he ranged over much modern philosophy. I’d never heard of him before, and came across the book by accident, but I’m sure some readers know of him.

Kaufmann’s book is a no-nonsense critique of religion and theology, scathing in only the way someone who has been on the inside could be (viz., Dan Barker and John Loftus), with the added panache of philosophical sophistication. Kaufmann is erudite and clearly expert on many brands of theology, including the Ultrasophisticated Theology™ of Tillich and Kierkegaard—both of whom he condemns unreservedly for their mushbrained approach to religious “truth.” This makes him a delight to read.  Nobody can write off Kaufmann, as they did Dawkins, for not knowing the “best arguments of theology” (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

Wikipedia says this about Kaufmann:

In a 1959 article in Harper’s Magazine, he summarily rejected all religious values and practice, especially the liberal Protestantism of continental Europe that began with Schleiermacher and culminated in the writings of Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann.In their place, he praised moralists such as the biblical prophets, the Buddha, and Socrates. He argued that critical analysis and the acquisition of knowledge were liberating and empowering forces. He forcefully criticized the fashionable liberal Protestantism of the 20th century as filled with contradictions and evasions, preferring the austerity of the book of Job and the Jewish existentialism of Martin Buber. Kaufmann discussed many of these issues in his 1958 Critique of Religion and Philosophy.

But here’s the quote, from pp. 126-127 of The Faith of a Heretic; I’ll have one Kaufmann quote a day for the next four days.  I like this one because it draws a parallel that had escaped me.

Indeed, [theologians] resemble lawyers in two ways. In the first place, they accept books and traditions as data that it is not up to them to criticize. They can only hope to make the best of these books and traditions by selecting the most propitious passages and precedents; and where the law seems to them harsh, inhuman, or dated, all they can do is have recourse to exegesis.

Secondly, many theologians accept the morality that in many countries governs the conduct of the counsel for the defense. Ingenuity and skillful appeals to the emotions are considered perfectly legitimate; so are attempts to ignore all the inconvenient evidence, as long as one can get away with it, and the refusal to engage in inquiries that are at all likely to discredit the predetermined conclusion: that the client is innocent. If all else fails, one tries to saddle one’s opponent with the burden of disproof; and as a last resort one is content with a reasonable doubt that after all the doctrines that one has defended might be true.


Walter Kaufmann (he looks amiable)

137 thoughts on “Quote of the day for Wednesday: Kaufmann on theology

  1. Bravo. Had I known that you did not know Kaufmann, I would have suggested you read him. I haven’t for years, but his books are mines of good instruction and argument. His book A Critique of Religion and Philosophy would be well worth your time as well.

    1. I’m not at all surprised that you would appreciate Kaufmann: he had a clear mind, a clear style, and a very humane sense of values. As I mention below, his books kept me alive during a long period of despair and depression in my younger days.

  2. Interesting to note that these opinions were voiced in print back in the 60s already. Hard to understand why so many are surprised with new atheism.

    1. Erm…hate to break it to you…but few of us “New” atheists are doing much more than repeating the same take-downs of religion first offered up by the likes of Epicurus and Lucretius and Democritus centuries before the Christians invented themselves a syncretic Pagan demigod.

      And, no, the religious haven’t done anything but stick their fingers in their ears and pretend to not hear anything, then or since.

      You want a classic example? In Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, Trypho rips Martyr a new one for mistranslating “maiden” in Isaiah as “virgin,” and for overlooking the fact that said prophecy was fulfilled but a few verses later. Martyr’s response is the exact same one I’ve encountered from every Christian: silence, change the subject, latch onto something else.



      1. Exactly. There is very little new in religion or critiques of religion. I recommend “Doubt” by Jennifer Michael Hecht as a history. She mentions Kaufman towards the end and has several sweet quotes. For example “… those whose belief in God is based on life experience ‘must have led sheltered lives'”

        1. An interesting book, but not without shortcomings. The section on Carvaka is very weak, as she seems to have been sucked in by an anachronistic Marxist reinterpretation of it.

    1. You’re new here, aren’t you? This is so TIRED.

      Science is an attempt to discover the truth. Theories are always open to disproof, and once disproved, new theories must be found. Intellectual and experimental rigour is the name of the game. Nobody is required to have any faith in any theory, but if they want to contradict a well-established theory, such as gravity or evolution, they have to come up with sufficient evidence to do it. The only faith you need is faith that the Universe is not completely random (for which we have plenty of evidence, or else we’re stuffed) and faith that our senses give us some kind of guide to reality, whose limitations we must always test and challenge.

      Religious faith is about as unlike that as could be. It begins with untested assumptions (e.g. “There is a God”) and works backward from there. It attempts to shape the world to fit into predetermined dogmas. There are threats and penalties for wrong belief, or the wrong kind of belief.

      Did you even read a word of Kaufmann quoted above?

      And what’s with “ye”? It’s 2013, not 1613. That seems to be a lame example of Kaufmann’s “skillful appeals to the emotions” (Appeal to Antiquity) only it’s not in the least bit skilful.

      1. Do you have faith or a belief in the big bang theory Shuggy? What about curved space, the speed of light, string? I’m not here to test your uncertain theories of giants, I came to test science itself. Testing is the scientific process, is it not? I don’t believe in science.
        So then back to the test: Is nature measurable?


        1. You “don’t believe in science,” yet here you are commenting on it using a medium (the Internet) and a device (the computer) that are themselves the products of application of science. If your assertion is that religion “works” as well or better, we can certainly test that — instead of typing your reply, just pray that Shuggy gets it, and we can all see here if he replies to what you sent via prayer-mail.

          1. I’ve been away from the computer for several hours, and I didn’t get anything telepathic or prayerful from MJA. My fault for not having enough faith, I guess.

        2. So we may better understand you could you please give your understanding of what the following terms mean (the meanings as you would use them in the context of this type of discussion).

          1) Theory (scientific meaning, not colloquial)

          2) Nature

          3) Faith

          4) Belief

          5) Science (as in “I came to test science itself..”)


            1. That’s too bad. It could be said that scientific theories are “believed”, or even that people have “faith” in them. But you would be either ignorant, or perhaps merely a troll playing word games, to equate the meaning of those words used by a scientist in that context with the meanings of those words as used by religious believers in the context of their religion.

              In the context of religion faith means belief without evidence, explicitly. It means that even attempting to test the belief is a sign of bad faith. That is just the polar opposite of science, which holds that nothing should be believed without good evidence, and that all beliefs are contingent.

              Now, you can pretend that this does not matter, you can remain ignorant, but you do so willfully, you have no good excuse.

          1. Indeed.

            This guy lives in a science based civilization and most likely in the USA, whose lead in the world is based on its lead in…science.

            Might as well not believe in oxygen, which is after all, invisible in the atmosphere.

            Turing test fail.

            1. Science and religious based society. If your going to build your castles in the sky, make sure the base or foundation is real.


              1. MJA:
                Until you can make yourself clear using literal language, it would be better for you to avoid metaphor.

                Sentences with verbs are good, too.

              2. and religious based society.

                Not true.

                Just making stuff up now.

                This is either a 10 year old kid spouting off to adults or someone with neurological problems. It’s just good for minor amusement.

        3. I’m sorry, WHAT??? You DON’T believe in science, yet you freely avail yourself of the technology based on every bit of science you refuse to believe?!

          Such chosen ignorance has a name (and I coined it): “St00pid” (double-0-stupid), licensed to die.”

          Why? Because the very science at which you turn your nose up provides the internet, your cell phone, television, medications, vitamins and minerals in condensed form, the clothing you wear and the transportation to get it and your food to you, from trucks to cars to trains and planes.

          Prove you don’t believe in science; Survive without anything produced or enhanced by the science you disbelieve and disrespect.

        4. No I don’t have faith or a belief in the big bang theory, nor curved space, the speed of light or string.

          I accept the mainstream consensus about those things (which is still not strong for string), but provisionally, and proportionately. I’d be going out on a limb to challenge any of those, not having any contrary evidence.

          (I did an experiment that claimed to measure the speed of light, using a spectrometer, in 1966, and found it very close to the accepted value, but since I don’t know how the equation we used was derived, I have always just kept that in the “interesting” box.)

          So how do you propose to test science itself? Go ahead, feel free, but you haven’t made a very good start.

          1. Actually science has tested itself and found measure to be uncertain or only probable at best. Thus QM. And in that self-proclaimed uncertain state of probability, which includes all the natural sciences not to mention the uncertainty and absurdity of the theoretical sciences as well, is an infinitely immeasurable space dividing itself (super collider) or science from what truly is, absolute!

            Truth is not in the immeasurable divisions of science, it’s in the unity.

            Religion has very much the same problem and the Pope even admitted it, they can’t find the proof or truth either. Science and religion only have beliefs for which require a lot of faith.

            But I bring good news: the day is coming when science and religion, when all of mankind rises above those uncertainties and beliefs and is united by One simple truth. That is what brings me here,
            A love of Truth.


            1. What is truth?

              Either you appreciate that there are concrete things we can say about the world around us through observation & experiment, or you do not. Be a sceptic to the nth degree but then you will never learn anything about the universe because you will forever doubt everything.

              1. I doubt everything but truth.
                If you haven’t found it yet, don’t feel bad; Socrates had the same problem and he was really smart. If you are still searching like so many are, try removing everything that is untrue in your mind, reboot so to speak.
                Try it and see!

      2. Shuggy,

        There are things unprovable because they are presupposed by all proof. Aristotle called these “axioms.” They are not just hypothesis or matters of faith. Here is a link to the short section (“The Fundamental Principles: Axioms”) in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy where Aristotle’s “principle of non-contradiction” (PNC) is discussed. I think this is the direction to move if the super common claim by the pious that science rests on faith is to be undercut at its root. Your are correct in identifying causality and perception as two key roots of science, but if causality and the fundamental validity of the senses can be shown to be axioms or corollaries of axioms, then human cognition and science are grounded without resort to faith of any kind.

        Another popular assertion by the pious is that the demand that claims have evidence is, itself, without evidence, so that the demand for evidence for God can be dismissed. I’ve not got this one untangled at all, but I really suspect that it’s also involved with axioms (an attempt to prove it would, I believe, implicitly assume it.

        Certainly, science will move ahead whatever (by some people anyway), but defending reason and science is important in cutting down irrationalism, including religion with its political muscle.


        1. Axioms are relative to a system in which they appear; in pure mathematics they can be selected for fertility or ease or simplicity or any number of things. In factual science, they are usually selected purely for fertility and because they have (approximately) true consequences.

    2. We only “believe in” scientific theories if the evidence supports them. No faith needed. In fact, faith is deliberately excluded.

      This world-wide network of computers were conversing on wasn’t built on faith.

        1. Empirically.

          When you type on that keyboard, letters appear on the screen. That’s science working.

          The fact that you don’t have polio is also evidence of science working.

          1. Empirical?
            Most would agree the Earth is round.
            But empirically from what I experience, the Earth is flat, has hills, mountains and valley, and even edges or cliffs to fall of. Is the Earth round or rather everything else?


            1. Your experience misleads you. The earth is round. The cliffs etc. are minor deviations from its overall roundness. Google some pictures of the earth from space and have a look for yourself. It’s not rocket science (at least the Googling and looking-at part isn’t).

              (How many more despatches from Cloud-cuckoo land are you going to put up with, Jerry?)

              1. You seriously think that one has to be in space to understand that the earth is round?

                Also, how can you be sure that wht you see is true? How can you be sure that your thoughts or anything is true? Maybe this reality is like the Matrix and we’re all fooled. The point is that considering these all possible scenarios doesn’t lead anywhere. The best we can use is to conclude things from the most objective we have, the physical world we all share (but interpret differently), the best tool for this is science. To say that science is a faith might be true to some degree, (if you concider that we don’t know what’s “behind” it all) but science is the most objective considering the circumstances. Religion most likelt won’t lead anywhere, science does.

            2. “Day after day,
              alone on a hill,
              the man with a thousand voices
              sitting perfectly still;
              and nobody ever hears him.
              They can tell that he’s just a fool.
              And he never seems to notice,
              but the fool on the hill..”

    3. The whole point of science is to apportion belief in proportion with a rational analysis of empirical observation. So, yes, in that sense, I believe that the speed of light is a bit under a quarter of a million miles per second, because I’ve measured it myself and that’s what my observations were consistent with. Indeed, I believe it to be exactly 299,792,458 m/s, because that’s the defined value (or, rather, the definitions for meters and seconds are dependent on that being the value) and all sorts of things I interact with and depend on simply wouldn’t work and couldn’t have been built if light didn’t behave the way it’s described as behaving.

      If we were to wake up tomorrow and have credible observations of light having any other speed in a vacuum, many people would be flabbergasted, lots of stuff would probably be breaking around our ears, but we’d revise our beliefs to best accommodate the fresh observations and go from there.

      In contrast, it is quite common to, for example, encounter a Christian who states that no amount of evidence could possibly convince him that Jesus was not crucified and risen from the dead, and who bases that conclusion on a translation of a translation of a copy of a copy of a Medieval manuscript of a translation of a translation of a copy of a copy of a second century document of a first century story about some really weird zombie snuff pr0n. I do not think it much of a stretch to suggest that such a person’s belief is apportioned other than in proportion with a rational analysis of empirical observations.



      1. In passing, I think it would clarify Einstein™’s equation if c were called “the limiting velocity” or some such, rather than “the speed of light”. Light happens to travel at that speed in a vacuum because, as Einstein™ showed, it can’t go any faster, and it goes more slowly in anything less than a vacuum. The velocity is more basic than light.

        (As part of his estate, Einstein™’s name and image are the property of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in accordance with his Will, and they have a law firm in New York that will come down on you if you attempt to use them for profit, by putting them on T-shirts, for example. Hence my T-shirts saying
        God does not play dice with the Universe.
        The dice are a metaphor.
        So is God.
        are not allowed to say who said it.)

        1. Nature is not the dice game science has made it. Einstein came close to the truth then got lost again, he was a great man.


          1. So you are a determinist. Which enigmatic truth dis Einstein come close to? How did he get lost??? You obviously rely heavily on belief in this ‘truth’, so tell us what the heck it is.

        2. Light travels at the same speed, period. The notion that it travels slower in a non-vacuum is just a simplification to describe the fact that it takes more time for photons to leave point B after entering point A. It’s not because they travel any slower, but because they collide with matter, become absorbed, and shortly thereafter are re-emitted with the same properties. It’s stop and go traffic, not a different speed limit.

          1. Light I believe changes speed through a prism. The speed variance is immeasurable but the effect is truly colorful.
            Rainbows anyone?


            1. As has already been pointed out in this thread, even in dense media, the speed of light remains constant at c. What happens is that the photons repeatedly get absorbed and new photons of similar energy get re-emitted, and that process takes time every time it happens. This, the appearance of the light slowing down. Instead, it’s really a case of stop-and-go traffic.


            2. “The speed variance is immeasurable” Absolutely wrong. It (with the caveat that it is not really a speed variance) is measured with great precision in the form of the refractive index.

              1. “So what is the speed of blue?”

                Exactly the same as the speed of red. If it weren’t, the colours would arrive at us from a distance at different times, and the flashes from a distant flashing white light would have a sequential rainbow effect – a kind of temporal chromatic aberration. The different colours (frequencies, nu) do have different energies, though, where E = h nu .

            1. MJA: Wrong on just about every level. A misquotation of “rules are made to be broken”, an aphorism with a few specific applications.

              In this case, there is simply no point in putting an image or name of Einstein on any product on cafepress.com. They will be blocked, and there is no appeal – like people who preach without evidence on this blo^h^h^hwebsite.

              1. Apparently, they are merely meant to bait and annoy. I knew a teen who used to ask, “Why”, not because she was curious and wanted to know, only because she could follow every answer with another, “Why?”, and see how long it took the adult she was immaturelly and deliberately annoying to finally get annoyed.

                Oh, and did I mention st00pid?

    4. Show me a non-believer of science posting on the internet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. With apologies to Richard Dawkins.

    1. Yeah…not so much. I offer this critique of that parallel from the viewpoint of a practicing litigator in the U.S. So I limit my comments to the common law, and express no opinion about civil-law jurisdictions…although it was my understanding that those countries have less use for precedent than the common law ones.

      First of all, I don’t know a single lawyer–not even appellate specialists–who would ever “accept books and traditions as data that it is not up to them to criticize.” We criticize the hell out of them all day long. We recognize that a lot of precedent is pure horseshit, and in the end it’s ALL political. (Remember Bush v. Gore?) That’s why we fight like cats and dogs over appellate appointments, and election of those who appoint them.

      True, we are stuck with precedent until we can overturn it, and if these work-arounds amount to “exegesis,” then so be it. (This criticism would obviously be a bit tougher if the “parallel” drawn had been to the judicial system in toto, rather than “lawyers.”) In any trial, it’s likely that there’s one lawyer trying to use precedent as a sword, and another trying to use it as a shield. But don’t think for a minute that we respect it or hesitate to criticize it.

      The second parallel to the conduct of the defense lawyer…please bear in mind that that “conduct” is absolutely required, and any defense lawyer who failed to act that way (short of suborning perjury) would be pilloried…and should be. But that doesn’t mean that the defense lawyer believes, in his or her heart, every aspect of their defense.

      The deck is so stacked against criminal defendants (as my compadre Pilot X so colorfully put it: “Once the cops start looking at you, your shit is weak”) that prosecutors are tasked with finding the truth; defense lawyers are tasked with protecting their clients, and the truth be damned. And even so, there are an awful lot of convictions of innocent people. (Of course, it helps if you’re black or some other disfavored minority.)

      Blackstone himself said, in a quotation famously echoed by Jefferson: “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” It’s so axiomatic that it’s called the “Blackstone ratio.” To compare the acts of the criminal defense lawyer (and no, I’m not one) to those of theologians and apologists is a thoughtless insult. It ignores the fact that, unlike in the case of fantasies like theology, these are real human lives hanging in the balance. And if you don’t get that, the next time the police accuse you or a family member falsely…call a theologian.

        1. I don’t think it was meant as an attack on lawyers. It was an attack on theologians who think the strategies for defending someone in a criminal trial are applicable to determining matters of fact in real life.

      1. I can’t argue with your specifics, but I do like what I (perhaps mistakenly) took the be the core of the argument:

        Religion is like law in that the practitioners of both must work in a pre-existing, well-established framework where a role as an advocate (either defense or prosecution, in criminal law for example) is predetermined, and the evidence and rules of argument are pressed into service to reach a preferred conclusion given the advocates’ roles.

        Unlike science, there is no general search for truth within religion or within the various advocates’ roles in law. The goal is to advocate for a religion, a client, or the state. Similarly, unlike law, there is no adversarial system within individual religions.

        1. J.J., I love the way that you’ve expressed this–I think that you’re absolutely correct.

          I also note that the way that you express it is a whole lot clearer and more straightforward than the way that Kaufmann did.

          1. Of course we operate in an adversarial system and in any role involving advocacy we submit the best case possible for the client. However, we also have an overriding duty to the Court; so much so that it is our duty draw the Court’s attention to cases which do not assist our client if such have not been cited by our friend. I would not expect Jerry’s counterpart in the forthcoming debate to do anything other than advance his Church’s propositions and respond to Jerry’s questions and criticisms.

            1. “However, we also have an overriding duty to the Court; so much so that it is our duty draw the Court’s attention to cases which do not assist our client if such have not been cited by our friend.”

              I don’t know where to start with this. It is true that a PROSECUTOR in a CRIMINAL case has a duty to reveal FACTS that tend to substantiate claims of innocence…but as to both prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers, as well as counsel for both sides in civil, family, probate matters, etc., I have never even heard it suggested that one side has to do the other side’s LEGAL research. I’ve only been doing this for nineteen years, but I’ve never heard any lawyer suggest that; I’ve never heard any judge or appellate justice suggest it, and I’m certainly not familiar with any state or federal case that suggests it. For better or worse, such a rule would turn the entire U.S. judicial system on its head.

              1. Thanks for these references…I will look them up. We (at least over here) are so used to thinking of common-law jurisdictions as having similar rules. But if I understand your point correctly, this is a significant difference between the U.K and U.S. systems. I imagine that many U.S. prosecutors would be terrified by the prospect–they seem to have enough trouble just sharing exculpatory evidence.

      2. Well, you’re right.
        I probably should have said “good joke” or something, like these sorts of little jokes about lawyers (which I’m not) or nerds (which I am), you know, this kind of things.
        But again, for the record (ha!): you’re right.

      3. How many laws has man created,
        And how many laws has the Universe?
        I think the Universe is truly free except for people and their self-made laws like you and me.


            1. Dennett gives the etymology in that snippet of lecture, and it doesn’t include any reference to Chopra. However, Chopra is chock full of deepities, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the apropos rhyme has contributed to the term’s popularity.


              1. I think, if the connection is there, and Dennett had said so, Chopra would have sued.

                I, on the other hand, can safely bring the notion up in the form of a question.

                Somebody ought to, considering how Chopak treated Dawkins, and that Dawkins and Dennett are comrades in arms.

  3. I read a book once for which Kaufmann wrote the introduction; I remember him saying something like: Nothing gives the impression of profundity like obscurity. I’ve had this in the back of my head ever since! (And, of course, it’s quite relevant to sophisticated theology.)

    1. He probably got that from Nietzsche:

      “Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water.”

    2. This might have been from the prologue to his translation of Buber’s I and Thou:

      …Certainly, Buber’s delight in language gets between him and his readers. There might as well be a screen between them on which one watches the antics of his words instead of listening to him. The words do tricks, the performance is brilliant, but much of it is very difficult to follow.

      Obscurity is fascinating. One tries to puzzle out details, is stumped, and becomes increasingly concerned with meaning — unless one feels put off and gives up altogether.

      Those who persevere and take the author seriously are led to ask about what he could possibly have meant, but rarely seem to wonder or discuss whether what he says is true.

      Instead of asking how things are in fact, and how one could possibly find out, one wonders mostly whether one has got the author’s point; and if one thinks one has, one may even feel superior to those who have not.

      In the case of a book, longevity is presumptive evidence of virtue, although survival usually also owes a good deal to a book’s vices. A lack of clarity is almost indispensable.

      The style of Ich und Du is anything but sparse and unpretentious, lean or economical. It represents a a late-flowering of romanticism and tends to blur all contours in the twilight of suggestive but extremely unclear language. Most of Buber’s German readers would be quite incapable of saying what any number of passages probably mean.

      The obscurity of the book does not seem objectionable to them: it seems palpable proof of profundity. Sloth meets with awe in the refusal to unravel mysteries

      It is not even impossible that in places Buber himself was not sure of the exact meaning of his text. One of hte last things he wrote was a long reply to twenty-nine mostly friendly critics who had collaborated on a volume on his work that appeared first in German and then also in English. His response, printed at the end of the volume, also contains some discussion of Ich und Du; and here Buber says: “At that time I wrote what I wrote under the spell of an irresistible enthusiasm. And the inspirations of such enthusiasm one may not change any more, not even for the sake of exactness. For one can only estimate what one would gain, but not what would be lost.”

      Thus Buber endowed his own text with authority and implied that he himself could not tell its full meaning. Any attempt to clarify dark passages might eliminate pertinent associations. It should be clear where that leaves the translator!

    3. As usual, Piet Hein said it best:

      If no thought
      your mind does visit
      make your speech
      not too explicit.

      (The Case for Obscurity, in Grooks, 1966)

  4. If all else fails, one tries to saddle one’s opponent with the burden of disproof; and as a last resort one is content with a reasonable doubt that after all the doctrines that one has defended might be true.

    Which works fine in jurisprudence of, say, legal realism courts, but not in the natural law court of empiricism. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jurisprudence ]

    There it is unreasonable doubt to claim magic killed (or created or controlled) nature.

    1. Politicians do the same thing. Facts don’t matter, your ability to convince people is what matters.

  5. Kaufmann’s Faith of a Heretic was one of the first religious skepticism books I ever read, and while in bible College, to boot. (I have been giving it out as a gift ever since when I find new copies.) In addition to being a great historian of philosophy and a humanist (and signer of Kurtz’s 1973 Manifesto), leading Nietzchean and influential comparative religionist, he was a radical for his time when it came to pushing back against numbskull theology and obscurantism in the academy and popularly. Love him. Thanks for giving him some attention here.

  6. Actually, I think the parallel runs deep historically.

    Philosophers developed sophism to make defenses in courts. AFAIK theologians developed it further into dialectics which, I believe, defends religion under court-like circumstances with 3d party arbitrage of outcome. (Never mind that it often could be an offended sect that put up the judges, cf the Inquisition.)

    So this is golden.

    1. OK, I should have checked that for historical veracity. Dialectics was the philosophic method, rhetoric was the generic method, sophists took it further. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectics ]

      Scholastics was the theological equivalent:

      “Not so much a philosophy or a theology as a method of learning, scholasticism places a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference, and to resolve contradictions. Scholastic thought is also known for rigorous conceptual analysis and the careful drawing of distinctions. In the classroom and in writing, it often takes the form of explicit disputation: a topic drawn from the tradition is broached in the form of a question, opponents’ responses are given, a counterproposal is argued and opponent’s arguments rebutted. Because of its emphasis on rigorous dialectical method, scholasticism was eventually applied to many other fields of study.”

      [My bold]

  7. Gotta love the guy. Now I’m especially proud of my name even if he spelled it wrong. Thanks for bringing this to us.

  8. Kaufmann has long been my favourite philosopher; in fact, his books helped me to survive a long period of severe clinical depression in my late ‘teens and twenties.

    FAITH OF A HERETIC is one of his best, but I’d also recommend FROM SHAKESPEARE TO EXISTENTIALISM, which opens with a clear-eyed view of the absence of religious feeling in Shakespeare’s plays: a beautiful and inspiring work of critical appraisal.

    1. As someone in his late twenties who has been living with depression for fifteen or so years, could you explain what you mean here, or point to certain specific things Kaufmann has written that have helped you? I’d like to wade into philosophy as a means of consolation; Stoicism looks somewhat promising.

      Sorry for thread-jacking, Prof. Coyne.

      1. >>I’d like to wade into philosophy as a means of consolation

        I’m afraid that Kaufmann can’t provide consolation… but he can certainly provide confrontation!

        In doing this, he helped me to understand that many aspects of my depression were caused by factors external to my life: political cruelties, social preconceptions, the expectations for life that many people shared, but which I found incomprehensible and alien.

        In short, he helped me to realize that I wasn’t alone: that others long before me had found themselves at odds with their cultures and their times. This gave me the courage to ask questions of my own, and to reach conclusions of my own.

        What I’d suggest is that you try FAITH OF A HERETIC, or FROM SHAKESPEARE TO EXISTENTIALISM, or the book that Eric MacDonald recommended, CRITIQUE OF RELIGION AND PHILOSOPHY.

        I’d also recommend WITHOUT GUILT AND JUSTICE, a book that helped me to overcome a lot of my own personal guilt, and made me realize that there are better ways to regulate your life than to be punitively hard on yourself.

        As for your depression, please accept my best wishes and my hope for your recovery. I lost ten or fifteen years of my life to it, but I seem to have emerged from the other side. It’s good to be alive.

        1. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your suggestions and your kinds words. It means very much to me. It really does.


        2. Great Post! Thanks for the comments. It’s easy to tell that you’ve been there….depression.

          What you said,

          “In doing this, he helped me to understand that many aspects of my depression were caused by factors external to my life: political cruelties, social preconceptions, the expectations for life that many people shared, but which I found incomprehensible and alien.”

          Yes. In Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer discusses the socio-political affects development, especially with respect to development of self worth. This kind of third party discussion and understanding helped me immensely.

      2. I can’t speak abt Kaufman but he sounds intriguing and will definitely be on my reading list.

        Stoicism. Yes. William Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy is practical and easy to read. It has just enough ancient philosophy to make it interesting and he outlines practical ways to alter our way of thinking. I found it enlightening and helpful. My review is here:


        [I’d struggled with blue moods in my teens and 20’s as well and eventually got through it (age 51 now). I wish I had access to more non-religious help back then. As a lapsed catholic I finally found support and understanding in the Unitarian “faith”– really secularism in religious raiment.]

        Another book on my future list is Donald Robertson’s Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which supposedly discusses the influence of Stoicism on CBT. This connection absolutely occurred to me when I was reading Irvine’s book.

        I apologize as well for hijacking the site.

  9. I like some of W. Kaufmann’s writings, but he lost me when he began to participate in EST (Erhard Sensitivity Training) which he mentions multiple times in his “Discoverers of the Mind”.

    In that same book, he seems to either adore or loathe whatever philosopher he is criticizing, and never have mixed feelings about any with the possible exception of Martin Buber.

  10. In a 1959 article in Harper’s Magazine, he summarily rejected all religious values and practice…

    Which means said article is readily available, provided you are or know a subscriber; Harper’s has a scanned archive. The Kaufmann article is in the February isssue. http://harpers.org/archive/1959/02/

  11. Professor Coyne, given your interest in Walter Kaufmann and FAITH OF A HERETIC, could I recommend an essay by George Orwell that looks into similar territory?

    It’s called “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool,” and it’s a beautiful examination of the difference between a religious view of life, and humanism — one that resembles the difference between religion and science, and one that seems equally impossible to bridge.

    1. in the early and mid- 80s, i frequently found used copies for a dollar or two in local bookstores; i always bought them and gave them to friends, as it had a profound effect on my thinking when i read it at that time. i was taken aback by your comment; then, looking online, i see it is a rather more dearly priced item nowadays.

  12. The lawyer analogy was cool! I’m going to have to read some Kaufmann. I think one of things that causes people to make jokes about lawyers (well, OK, many of them do become politicians) is that they are not in search of The Truth; they are hired guns who are obligated to twist everything to support their client’s case. And so it is with theologians…

  13. Walter Kaufmann is one of the unjustly forgotten philosophers of the 20th Century. He’s often regarded more as a good philosophical critic than an original philosopher, but then Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher whose reputation in the Anglophone world Kaufmann almost singlehandedly salvaged, was at his best as a philosophical critic as well. “The Faith of a Heretic” is one of my favorite of Kaufmann’s works, but his book on tragedy is also fascinating.

    1. TRAGEDY AND PHILOSOPHY is an amazing book, and one that I wish more critics would read — if anything, it might lead them to think twice before they toss around a term like “hybris.”

      About the Nietzsche connection: in my ‘teens, I picked up Kaufmann’s translations to learn about Nietzsche, but as the years went by, I grew more and more interested in Kaufmann’s work on its own terms. He is, as you put it, unjustly forgotten… but perhaps, with atheism and anti-theistic views on the rise (and with postmodernism on the wane), a new generation might rediscover him.

  14. I remember Kaufmann and his book, although I never read it. I was just finishing high school when it came out. The reason I remember it is that “heretic” was a word I had heard–people got very serious when they said it–but I was never sure what it meant. Little did I know that I probably already was one. Now I think I should have read the book back then.

  15. I will echo what others have said about Critique of Religion and Philosophy and From Shakespeare to Existentialism. To my mind they form a trilogy with faith of a Heretic. They were my favorite books in the 60’s and I still think about them

  16. Jerry, if you go back to the Wikipedia entry for Kaufmann, you will notice in the references that there are downloadable sound recordings of some of his lectures. There are three lectures on Kierkegaaard, Nietzsche and sartre which you would probably find entertaining, if you had time for them. Even to listen to a portion of the lectures would give an appreciation for his wit and intelligence.

    1. Just put a link to the Alibris site up above (£22 =$36). But, as Jerry says, use your library – ask them to get an interlibrary loan for you.

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