Jewish philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-J066-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 12, 2024, from

2. Strengths and weaknesses

There are two weaknesses in Jewish philosophy as practised today. One is a tendency to historicism, that is, the equivocal equation of norm with facticity and facticity with norm that leads to an abdication of philosophical engagement for a detached clinical posture or an equally unwholesome surrender of judgment to the flow of events. Historicism is a natural by-product of respect for tradition, or of expectation of progress. It becomes particularly debilitating under the pressure of positivism, whether of the logical empiricist sort that dominated philosophy for much of the early twentieth century, or of the more endemic sort that thrives on the sheer givenness of any system of law and ritual or that allows itself to be overwhelmed by the press of history itself. It is not unusual, even today, when logical positivism is widely thought to be long dead, to find scholars of Jewish thought who substitute historical descriptions for philosophical investigations, often in the process begging or slighting the key philosophical questions. Nor is it unusual among those of more traditional stamp for scholars to be found who imagine that a faithful description of the contents of authentic Jewish documents constitutes doing Jewish philosophy – as though faithfulness to the tradition were somehow a substitute for critical grappling with the issues and problems, and as though the question as to what constitutes faithfulness to the tradition, conceptually, historically, morally and spiritually, were not itself among the most crucial of those issues and problems.

The second weakness is a narrowing of the gaze, a tendency to substitute philosophy of Judaism for the wider discourse of Jewish philosophy, as though the resources of the tradition had nothing (or nothing more) to contribute to ethics, or natural theology, or metaphysics and logic, for that matter. The work of the great practitioners of Jewish philosophy has repeatedly given the lie to such narrow expectations. In every epoch of its existence, Jewish philosophy has played an active role in the philosophical conversation of humankind – which is a universal conversation precisely because and to the extent that those who take part speak every language and bring to the conversation experiences that are universal as well as those that are unique.

But if two weaknesses are to be mentioned here, at least one strength should be cited as well: Jewish philosophy, although intimately engaged throughout its history with the philosophical traditions of the West, has also been a tradition apart. The open access of most of its practitioners to the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Jewish sources has afforded a perspective that is distinctive and that can be corrective of biases found in other branchings of the tree of philosophical learning. The early access of medieval Jewish philosophers to Arabic philosophical and scientific writings, and to the Greek works preserved in Arabic, enriched and broadened their philosophical repertoire. The scholastic learning of later medieval Jewish philosophers and their collaboration with scholastic thinkers made them at once participants and observers of in the lively philosophical debates of their day. The immersion and active participation of Renaissance and Enlightenment Jewish philosophers in the movements that spawned modernity gave them a similar philosophical vantage point. All philosophers must be, to some degree, alien to their society – Socrates and Nietzsche, and for that matter even Plato, Aristotle and Descartes were, to some degree, intellectual outsiders in their own times – not so alien as to have no word or thought in common with their contemporaries, but not so well integrated as to become mere apologists, or complacent and unquestioning acquiescors in the given. Jewish philosophy has long made and continues to make a distinctive, if today underutilized, contribution to cosmopolitan philosophical discourse in this regard. It shares the problematic of Western philosophy but typically offers a distinctive slant or perspective that calls into question accepted verities and thus enhances the critical edge of philosophical work for those who study it.

Citing this article:
Goodman, L.E.. Strengths and weaknesses. Jewish philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-J066-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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