In an old notebook I have some notes taken from a talk by the German existentialist, Karl Jaspers. Jaspers was talking about Immanuel Kant.
He said Kant asked a new question and Kant’s new question was, “What is the source of the agreement between the representations that enter our minds and the objective world outside our minds?” Maybe the outside world impresses itself upon our minds. Maybe our minds produce the outside world. Kant rejected both of these answers. Kant said that, since our own minds are one of the things we know as an object, we can’t use what appears to the mind to understand the subject-object relationship.
Instead, Kant sought to get beyond the subject-object split by talking about the ground or condition of all objectivity. Kant answered his question by saying that the mind seems to produce the outside world, not with respect to its existence, but with respect to its form.
We order the world according to the forms of space and time, which are not attributes of the things in themselves. So, as best I understand, in Kant’s view space and time only exist in our minds as ways to organize our experience, but our experience is of real objects. It is important to realize that Kant did not think the world is an illusion. He thought that our access to the world was through mere appearances that suggested a reality beyond.
I was reading these old notes to try to understand the point of view of Michael Fishbane in Sacred Attunement. He understands reality from the neo-Kantian viewpoint of philosopher Herrman Cohen. Cohen’s school taught that language as a symbol system fleshed out our limited experience of reality.
It is in this vein that I understand Fishbane’s use of the metaphor from Exodus 33:22 of the “crevice of the rock.” He suggests that we humans all share the limitations of Moses in a hole in the rock only getting hints and impressions of reality.
This “finitude of the spirit” means that we cannot know reality directly, but only through paying attention to what we perceive and then transcending that by a kind of artistic and poetic intuition.
Kant’s theory of perception removes perception from pragmatic reality too much, in my opinion. For instance, the recent events of landing on a comet or flying past Pluto are based on space and time being part of the essence of reality. It seems astrophysics would become uninteresting if it was only about the arrangement of objects in our minds. The same would apply to baseball or mowing the lawn. It seems to me we know the material world more directly than philosophical idealism allows. But I recognize that just because accepting the world that presents itself works for me and makes life interesting, does not necessarily make it true.
Nevertheless, Fishbane’s belief that God extends himself to us through the things we perceive is even more useful, it seems to me, if we have more direct access to reality than he allows. And his position has the advantage of showing strong epistemological humility (not claiming we know too much or know too easily).
He couples this “spiritual finitude” with “physical finitude”. By this he just means our mortality. Death sets a boundary. He speaks of accepting our mortality and of death and life being one. I do not really understand this last, since I see death as the negation of life.
In this discussion he does not mention the resurrection of the dead. I find that interesting because he earlier strongly affirmed the pharisee’s belief in the oral Torah. But he doesn’t seem to hold to the other famous teaching of the pharisees.
I found this interesting article online on “Hermann Cohen’s Secular Messianism and Liberal Cosmopolitanism.” One explanation for some of the things that puzzle me about Fishbane may be that he has substituted for biblical eschatology a secular, idealistic, and somewhat political hope. This would not surprise me. A lot of people do that nowadays.
All in all, I am coming around to the view that Cohen is very important background for understanding Fishbane.