Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Review of Samuelson's Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy

Samuelson recently wrote a book on the history of Jewish Philosophy. This deals with an older book of his, An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy.

Rather atypically for a book on the history of philosophy, the book starts with a rather lengthy discussion of Contemporary Jewish History. Jewish history is closely tied to Jewish philosophy in a much stronger way than the history of philosophy ion general is linked to human history.

Following that is a discussion of what might be called philosophies of Judaism, that is outlooks on what Judaism is, or various conceptions of the nature of Judaism.

When Samuelson begins to address philosophical issues the discussion opens with Spinoza. Spinoza was perhaps the deepest of the modern philosophers. His work is very difficult to penetrate, and perhaps that is why it has garnered less attention than other modern philosophers, like his intellectual inspiration Descartes, or those who followed him like Leibniz. However, despite his brilliance, it is unclear what makes Spinoza's philosophical output Jewish. Clearly Spinoza was Jewish, and he was a philosopher, but that hardly merits the moniker "Jewish Philosopher". This question has been somewhat controversial, and it should have been dealt with in any text on Jewish philosophy. A case needs to be made for his inclusion. We are given about one sentence on this question.

The presentation of Spinoza is rather compact. Spinoza's ethics and metaphysics are notoriously difficult to follow. This book does not ease the presentation that much. The discussion of applied ethics in Spinoza is a bit clearer. This is where the book addresses Spinoza's views on politics, religion, scripture, and law.

Next is a rather good discussion of Mendelssohn, and his place in the Haskallah. Unfortunately some of the other philosophers who were of the same period got too short a treatment, though I would like to have learned more about them. However the author is to be excused for not giving too much space to Samuel Hirsch, S. D. Luzzatto, as they were minor figures, and the author rightly does not seem to place much faith in their greatness as philosophers, or their centrality in Jewish thought.

The discussion of Hermann Cohen is short and somewhat sloppy, but quite valuable. Very little of Cohen's work is available in English. I was particularly interested in Cohen's notion of infinitesimals, and how Cohen used them in his philosophy of Judaism. There is a small discussion where the concept of a derivative is sort of spelled out, though I was unable to see how Cohen's notion of infinitesimal was unique. I could not really see how it differed from Weierstrass or if it was related to the notion that Abraham Robinson eventually came up with sometime in the 60's. This chapter, iof you read through it carefully, can pay off though, if you are interested in this. It really did make me want to read more of Cohen's work.

Then came a chapter on Buber. The chapter was pretty good, and rendered Buber's I and Thou intelligible, even to someone as deeply rooted in Analytic philosophy as myself. Unfortunately I cannot say the same for the presentation of Rosenzweig. I do not know if the inadequacy here is Samuelson's or Rosenzweig, but I could not really make heads or tales of Rosenzweig's system of thought. It was full of these incomprehensible metaphors, and vast generalizations about religions, and history, and the function of ritual, and things like that. I suspect that this is what passes for philosophy in Europe, so I can put the blame on Rosenzweig for perpetuating this sort of thinking. Perhaps if I had the patience to reread the chapter, it would have proved more rewarding.

The final two sections on Kaplan and Fakenheim were also pretty good reads. The point of Kaplan's Judaism as a Civilization is made clear. There seem to be no necessary conditions for Judaism. Judaism's goal, 9is and ought to be its own self-preservation. This notion has come under quite a bit of attack lately, but it was very influential in the new suburban Judaism that took root in the era immediately following Kaplan.

The chapter on Fakenheim is also rather clear. Fakenheim was made to see Jewish history anew in light of the Holocaust. It was such an event as to chage the nature of Judaism itself. I happen to disagree with Fakenheim in many places, but I shall save that for another time.

Overall, despite the books flaws, I thought that the book was quite rewarding. I got a good picture of modern Jewish philosophy from it. Now I need to fill in the gaps. A flaw I should point out is that it often reads like class notes. It seems like it would be great to hear the lectures that come with the book, to fill in gaps and make sense of everything. There are also good questions at the end, suitable for classes, that serve to reenforce the main themes of the chapter, and the bibliography is pretty decent.

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