Rosenzweig and the Systematic Task of Philosophy (review)

Unfortunately I don’t have time to flesh out anything particularly worthwhile about it right now, but I came across an interesting review of the very promising Franz Rosenzweig and the Systematic Task of Philosophy:

Kant was the thinker who placed the idea of system on philosophy’s agenda, although Rosenzweig thought it had always lain like an embryo waiting in the womb of philosophical rumination. Hegel and Schelling seized on this in particular, and formulated their systems as responses to the new challenge. A century later, however, the landscape of philosophical questioning had substantially changed: how to view the question of system seemed in a precarious situation that is ultimately unsatisfactory.


Is the ‘system’ still an option for thinking the Whole or, to put it in Hegel’s famous phrasing, to grasp one’s own time in thought? In philosophy, the form of system has pretty much faded from general debate since the flowering of neo-Kantianism in the first third of the 20th century. Among the tendencies running counter to such attempts are the huge material and methodological differentiation of the various sciences, the obligation sensed everywhere in the West to remain ‘open’ and receptive to other cultures, and the numerous efforts to construct a hermeneutics of historical-biographical phenomena, extending all the way to a philosophy of everyday life.

Over against this decline in system thinking in philosophy there looms a veritable boom in building systems in other spheres. Today we seem to encounter concepts of system wherever the description and theory of certain sub-spheres of the world, life or human existence are concerned: in cosmology, ecology, economy, biology, sociology or psychology. However, the systems theories in biology, sociology or the information sciences, for example, do not regard themselves as direct descendants of those older efforts in philosophy to contemplate the “unity of the One and All” in the framework of a system. The anarchic element inherent in these tendencies, and more generally the consciousness of the fragmentary nature of everything that can be done and achieved, would appear, at least in the realm of philosophy, to be in direct opposition to the form of thought of a grand system. If nonetheless one wishes to preserve rather than jettison the question of the Whole and the ‘universe’, the “All”, as a motif in philosophical questioning, then despite those objections, the figure of a system must be critically examined anew, perhaps in a way still seldom applied. That is the basic question with which Pollock confronts and interrogates Rosenzweig’s work.

Rosenzweig formulated a system that does not deny those anarchic elements. On the contrary, it draws its sustenance from them. With his system, Rosenzweig wishes to lead us on to the threshold of everyday thought in its concrete simplicity. But more than just discursive thought is important here. The concrete experience of what is thought plays its decisive role in life with the same weight (cf. Pollock, pp. 235-257). Thus, as Pollock convincingly describes it, Rosenzweig’s “system of philosophy” also assumes a figure, and can be experienced in all its stages in that Denkfigur. In its graphic character as ‘figure of thought’, the “star of redemption” becomes a motor for construction of a system, from the building blocks of its structure down to its finished final form.

Interesting. The reviewer, Hartwig Wiedbach, concludes:

Precisely when it comes to encyclopaedic or medical systematicity, Pollock’s central thesis that a “system of philosophy” in Rosenzweig’s sense must not only be thought but also experienced is intriguing. Whether that is possible is decided not only by the coherence of an author of a system in terms of its exposition and conceptions. Its possibility is also determined by the success or failure of an attitude toward the realities of everyday life and death acquired through experience along its way.

4 thoughts on “Rosenzweig and the Systematic Task of Philosophy (review)

  1. These are interesting observations about systematicity. Is the book already out? Is there a connection between, say, thinking systematicity and thinking systematically (what sort of thinking would that be?) – Kant’s system was left unfinished (if we are to believe, say, Eckart Foerster) – but does it really matter?

    • Yes, the book is out. I just ordered it through ILL.

      As for Rosenzweig’s relation to “systematic,” “systemic,” “systems,” “holism” or why not, “networks” etc. I think it is best understood against the background of many of the philosophical debates from the early 19th century in response to Spinoza’s ontology of relations, really. Paul Franks touches on this in an article/rejoinder to Peter Gordon’s book on Rosenzweig and Heidegger in the Jewish Quarterly Review from 2006 (I can email you the article if you want):

      . However, I would suggest framing this issue against the background of—once again—the philosophical debates of 1800. Of special relevance is the work of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, who, in a succession of controversies conducted first with Mendelssohn, then with Fichte, and then with Schelling, focused the generation of 1800 on the question whether, if Spinoza is right to regard determination as negation—to regard all properties as irreducibly relational and extrinsic rather than intrinsic, and all beings as individuated within a single whole—it is possible that there are any genuine objects at all, that there is something [End Page 390] rather than nothing.3 In the case of human beings, this amounts to the question whether it is possible to be a genuine individual capable of embodying ethical value and of undertaking ethical acts. To Jacobi’s question of nihilism, which is at once both ontological and ethical, Hegel joined his younger but more established friend, Schelling, in answering that one could have one’s holistic cake and eat it too—in short, to put it in Hegel’s terms, that through a complex form of communally articulated reciprocal recognition, one could indeed be ethically individuated through negation. Departing from this German idealist view, but following the suggestion of Schelling’s later philosophy, Rosenzweig developed Jacobi’s counter-suggestion that individuation involved a relation to something genuinely other and outside the whole, a relation that could be characterized as “faith” or “revelation,” in terms that were drawn from theological tradition but which were taken in what was arguably a far from traditional sense.4 Yet Rosenzweig clearly did not feel that this made him in any straightforward sense an anti-Hegelian, or cut him off from the German idealist tradition. As Gordon himself argues, “Hegelian categories survived in Rosenzweig’s philosophy, despite (even against) Hegel himself. In this sense, Rosenzweig remained a Hegelian in the very fashion he opposed him” (p. 116). It is in this context—the context of what Rosenzweig called “1800”—that his own characterization of The Star as “merely a system of philosophy” demands to be assessed, along with Gordon’s claim that “it recovers the ‘All’ of idealism, which is now regarded as a lived, temporal, and relational structure, not as a seamless and rational totality” (p. 203). Rosenzweig does not fit naturally within the confines of Weimar modernism.

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