One loves the work of Ruth Wisse and honors her for her long labors in trying to maintain scholarly seriousness in an American academy that, during her lifetime, seemed in many ways to have turned against itself.
In a new essay on the decline of the language, however, she makes the case for the academic importance of Yiddish by arguing, among other things, that:
Philosophy and Political Theory may be curiously handicapped by their neglect of a tradition of thought that resists grand explanations and holds apparent contradictions in delicate balance. I sometimes wonder what would happen if students of Hegel and Marx were simultaneously required to study the humbling cadences of Sholem Aleichem, or if the Jews who once flocked into German universities had taken their Yiddish in with them rather than deferring to the Ubersprache. The assumed inferiority of Yiddish to German not only fueled contemptuous disregard for another culture, but ignored what by other standards are ethically and intellectually stronger ideas than those emerging from German Enlightenment.
Really? A disappointment to see this kind of gesture from Ruth Wisse—Ruth Wisse, of all people, engaging in such special pleading for her own discipline of Yiddish over the actual intellectual tradition to which she normally devotes herself.
Even the odd phrasings of the paragraph suggest a bad conscience. That “by other standards” acts, I think, as something of an escape hatch from the absurd suggestion that the (tiny) tradition of Yiddish-language philosophy is better than the (enormous) tradition of German-language philosophy. Even so, it’s not a particularly good hatch: For judging “ethically and intellectually stronger ideas,” what “other standards” could there be?
The problem isn’t richness of language. There’s not much doubt that English is a wealthier language than German in, say, poetry. If Goethe is the Shakespeare of German, then who’s the Milton? If the modernist Rilke is the W.B. Yeats, then who’s the T.S. Eliot? But the history of English-language philosophy is nonetheless much, much poorer than the history of German-language philosophy. From Wolff to Heidegger—so many names: Kant, Feuerbach, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl—that tradition batters us with thinker after thinker. One can reject them, and reject their (too easily conflated) schools of thought, without denying their intellectual power.
Down the path that Wisse seems to be pointing lies the kind of relativism that thinks Heidegger must be a second-rate philosopher because of his Nazism, or that Hannah Arendt is dismissible because of her association with Heidegger. Or, for that matter, that Frege’s philosophical investigations into logic are wrong because he was a truly vicious anti-Semite, or that Bacon’s theories of science are unimportant because he stole money on scale unknown to any other philosopher, or that Seneca had rotten ideas about Stoicism because his student Nero turned out so poorly.
Perhaps there is something to such claims. We don’t typically think that poetry, for instance, is ruined by the personal and public faults of its authors: Villon was a thief, Chaucer was a bureaucrat, and Swinburne was a nasty little neurotic who liked to have women beat him, and none of those facts require us to dismiss, unread, their poetry. But philosophy does seem to demand something more from its practitioners, with Socrates as their model. And perhaps, then, we should take seriously—take as philosophically significant—the faults of would-be philosophers.
But we’re not going to get there simply by relativistic gestures, elevating, for cultural reasons, a minor tradition such as high philosophy in Yiddish. In an age when Jews are under assault in many academic circles, one understands the temptation to overpraise and overvalue in response. But not when it comes from someone normally as thoughtful as Ruth Wisse.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.