Jan. 9, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 7

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    Honored book questions concept of tolerance

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    The philosophies of Franz Rosenzweig and Sigmund Freud are central to Eric Santner’s analysis of religious tolerance and intolerance.
    Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people could see past their religious differences and recognize that they are all the same underneath? Eric Santner, Professor and Chairman of Germanic Studies, Committee on Jewish Studies and the College, thinks this might not help us understand one another very much; instead, it can even inhibit the passions of political and ethical engagement.

    Recently honored by the Modern Language Association for a book about the connections between theology and psychoanalysis, Santner begins his discussion with a gesture of religious intolerance. More precisely, it is against tolerance, that seemingly noble, or at least inoffensive, concept that often ends up as an ethical and political cop-out, particularly among liberals.

    “Once ‘tolerance’ becomes your main value,” Santner explained, “any radical gesture becomes ‘intolerant.’ The search for a fundamental global sameness or a general equivalent can be a way of defusing genuine political debate. The task is to move beyond the simple opposition of ‘tolerance’ or ‘fundamentalism’ and to show that both are ways of avoiding facing our shared–though radically heterogeneous–involvement in the crises of globalization.”

    Explaining the thinking behind his book, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig, Santner suggests there are some good reasons, as well as some misguided ones, why the legacy of the Bible should trouble people. “The ethical resources of monotheism,” which he argues both the inventor of psychoanalysis and the great Jewish philosopher-theologian were drawing on, “can’t simply be captured by ‘tolerance.’ The very demand for justice is intolerant.”

    His book reflects the need to take the legacy of such demands seriously, especially when they are uncompromising and frightening. Scholars have recognized this as a daring feature of the book, which philosopher Slavoj Zizek described as “one of the key texts of the last 100 years . . . on a par with Heidegger and Wittgenstein.”

    Santner argues that rather than trying to see beyond external differences, believing that “every stranger is ultimately just like me, ultimately familiar,” people can take a cue from psychoanalysis, which shows that the possibility of any genuine sense of community is based on “the fact that every familiar is ultimately strange and that, indeed, I am even in a crucial sense a stranger to myself.” It is this essential insight, which Freud applied to the inner self, that Santner sees Rosenzweig applying to people’s political and ethical relationships to others.

    Taking this point further, Santner criticizes biblical scholar Regina Schwartz and Egyptologist Jan Assmann, who in various ways condemn the Bible’s legacy of monotheistic ‘intolerance.’ He writes that the vision of tolerance and multiculturalism in their work is a defense against the unnerving otherness that Freud and Rosenzweig perceived–an otherness that belongs both to “our neighbors and ourselves.

    “By learning to open to this uncanny dimension in the other and the self–a dimension that has to do with the ways we have been inscribed in the relations of power and authority–we at the same time open to new possibilities of inhabiting a shared world,” said Santner.

    Meanwhile, Santner hopes that Chicago can become a major center of Rosenzweig studies, which is just one part of the tremendous growth of interest in modern German-Jewish thinkers. In winter 2001, Santner and Paul Mendes-Flohr, Professor in the Divinity School, taught a seminar on Rosenzweig. “We also hosted an important workshop on this still neglected but brilliant philosopher,” Santner noted.

    To expand the department further, Santner’s colleague David Wellbery, the LeRoy T. & Margaret Deffenbaugh Carlson University Professor in Germanic Studies and the College, was given funding when he joined the faculty to start a center for Interdisciplinary Research on German Literature and Culture. With the help of Robert Pippin, the Raymond W. & Martha Hilpert Gruner Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College, the center’s work will move the department further into the realms of philosophy and theory. The center of all the department’s work, however, continues to be the eventful encounter with literature.

    The department’s Bosch Program brings three young German scholars each year who offer graduate seminars in English and courses taught in German for undergraduates. This provides a chance to study with budding experts in their native tongue, which often is not available outside of Germany.