Irad Kimhi and the Tower of Babel

A prefatory anecdote. Karl Löwith tells the story that the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen was introduced to Leopold Zunz, a founding father of Jewish Studies, as “a former theologian and now philosopher,” to which Zunz replied “a former theologian is always a philosopher”—upon which Löwith comments, also in reference to Cohen, that the inverse is also true.

UChicago hosted a wonderful conference this weekend — kudos to organizer Mathis Koschel! — on Irad Kimhi’s recently published and quite notorious Thinking and Being. A few quick impressions and thoughts.

From what I understood (as an outsider to analytic logic and metaphysics), it first seemed to me like a replay of the 1929 Davos debate between Cassirer and Heidegger. The main frontlines seemed to run between neo-German Idealists of various stripes, some closer to Kant, some closer to Hegel, on the one hand, and, on the other, Kimhi, whose position seemed to be a mixture of Heideggerian anti-metaphysics and Wittgensteinian quietism.

One of the basic differences between the camps seemed to be that the idealists believe that eventually reason, or subjectivity, can be fully self-transparent, infinite, autonomous, and, therefore, free. Kimhi, on the other hand, from what I understood, like Heidegger in Davos, insisted that there is nowhere such a ‘breakthrough to infinity’ (Cassirer). We are finite and freedom lies in acknowledging our heteronomous determination, especially in the face of language, to which he referred at least a dozen times as a divine gift.

So, you have the late-Heideggerian thought of language as a divine gift and mystery, something that likes to “clarify itself but also hide itself” (note the blend of Wittgensteinian and Heideggerian diction); as well as the Heideggerian motive of reaching ad fontem in Kimhi’s return to Parmenides’ challenge of how to think that which is not. He lacked, however—or rather: fortunately—the eschatological passion of the Heidegger of the 1930s. Like Gadamer, he seemed to be closer to the more mellow 1950s and onwards Heidegger.

From Wittgenstein, on the other hand, he seemed to take the Tractarian gesture of throwing away the ladder once you climbed it: after all the logic puzzles and metaphysics, you ascend to something like a therapeutic awareness of the limits of the sayable.

If this is, very (very) roughly, how history repeats itself then I guess we can count ourselves lucky. Perhaps all the ugly politics are left aside this time, our “Heidegger” tempered by Wittgensteinian quietism seems to have no taste for conservative revolution.

There was one highly interesting moment though in the last session, in which Kimhi was scheduled to responded to the previous talks. Rather than giving a lecture, he read out Gen 11, the story of Babel and some passages from the creation story: on naming, the impiety of wanting to make a name for oneself, and how names are something we have to receive from others, a gift, in the pious acknowledgment of which consists our freedom.

It was quite beautiful to see the theology wash to the surface, a bit as if Newton had published his alchemy. The room of analytic logicians was puzzled at first but then slowly starting to try and take it seriously and engage with the story he told or at least try to understand Kimhi in the ‘metaphors’ (?) of his choice. When I asked him about Gen 32, he did not want to get into that.* Still, it felt like he is too serious about the theology for it to be mere ways of talking.

I might be wrong. Or perhaps Löwith has a point after all about those who float without ladders.**


Two footnotes:

* I wanted to know whether he sees a difference there regarding the issue of naming with the Babel story. In Gen 11 the tower project is a challenge to God and, with the desire for a name, an impious project. In Gen 32, Jacob taking up God’s challenge and wrestling with Him makes him worthy of a new name. God gives the name and (maybe) issues the challenge, but it seems that sometimes some kind of agonistic relation with God is not impious.

** When Löwith said “the inverse also holds” he probably meant that a philosopher is always a former theologian (since he argues in Meaning in History that philosophy of history is secularized theology). I read the inverse to be: a former philosopher is always a theologian. Not sure Löwith has a point on the first reading. The second seems more plausible.

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