- Walter Kaufman: Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic by Stanley Corngold
Walter Kaufmann was born in Freiburg, Germany, in 1921 and [End Page 593] died prematurely in Princeton at the age of fifty-nine, having served more than thirty years as a professor at Princeton University.
Upon completion of the gymnasium in Germany he was, as a Jew, denied by the Nazi regime admission to a university. Influenced by Rabbi Leo Beck and Martin Buber, Kaufmann began the study of the Hebrew scriptures and the Talmudic tradition with the thought of becoming a rabbi.
The Kaufmann family fled Germany in 1939, migrating to the United States. Walter entered Williams College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, having studied with John William Miller, who lectured on the philosophy of history, and James Bissett Pratt, who occupied the chair of intellectual and moral philosophy. Walter subsequently entered Harvard University. After a year at Harvard, Kaufman joined the Army Air Force. The war was over by then, and Kaufmann was sent by the Army to Germany as an interrogator for the Military Intelligence Service.
Corngold relates that “early in his undergraduate years, Walter abandoned his commitment to Jewish ritual while developing a deeply critical attitude toward all established religion.” When posted to Germany he chanced upon an edition of the collected works of Nietzsche. Upon returning to Harvard, he completed a doctoral dissertation in 1971, “Nietzsche’s Theory of Values.” The same year he began teaching at Princeton. Three years later he published Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, a book that is still in widespread use. At Princeton, Kaufmann subsequently brought his knowledge of Hebrew moral and cultural traditions to bear in a criticism of Christianity in general, the gospels, and St. Paul in particular. He found the Trinity absurd, and upon reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit, he concurred, “There is no supreme being beyond and the spirit is not to be found in an other world.” Defending Judaism against Christianity, he shunned the metaphysics of Plato and Aristotle, which Catholics regard as the rational preamble to the acceptance of the Faith.
Kaufmann identified himself as a humanist. In his sense, “humanism” implies, first of all, anthropological study, one centered on man’s subjectivity—his thoughts, feelings, velleities, moods, accompanied by his sense of self. Kaufmann could say, “I am much less interested in metaphysics and theology than in what religions do to people—how they affect human existence through religion, faith, and morals.” In the aggregate, a more likely story of Christ’s redemptive act would be hard to invent.
From that insight, Kaufmann found kinship with Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, and others. He intellectually engaged Sartre, Bultmann, Tillich, and Niebuhr, but was repelled by the lukewarm Protestantism of uncritical Americans who, unlike their European colleagues, “need to be brought to their senses.” The son of a clergyman, Kaufmann had a grasp of the varieties of Christendom, he was well aware of the differences between Lutheranism and Anglicanism, and between Catholicism in France, Italy, and Ireland. He would have none of it. He [End Page 594] eventually brought out a three-volume work, Discovering the Mind: Vol. 1: Goethe, Kant and Hegel; Vol. 2: Nietzsche, Heidegger and Buber; Vol. 3: Freud, Adler, and Jung.
Stanley Corngold does a remarkable job welding into a chronological whole his subject’s multifarious writings—a “tragic humanism,” he calls it in his epilogue. Kaufmann’s treatise on Nietzsche was shortly followed by his Critique of Religion and Philosophy and Faith of a Heretic. He reached a much wider audience by publishing in the late 1970s versions of his thought in the Reader’s Digest, including notably a treatise entitled Religion in Four Dimensions: Existential and Aesthetic, Historical and Comparative and a trilogy, Man’s Lot. Clearly he was not a detached scholar but an apologist for a materialistic point of view.
This book certainly acquaints the reader with the thought of William Kaufmann, but it does more than that; it acquaints the reader with the thought of a prominent, late twentieth-century generation...