JEWS IN PHILOSOPHY
The roots of Western civilization lie in Athens and Jerusalem. From the latter came Judaic monotheism and its expression in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, which are the ultimate source of many, if not most, of the metaphysical concepts underpinning the world view, values, and sensibility of the Western mind. According to the Book of Genesis, the world is the product neither of chance, nor of necessity; rather, it is created ex nihilo in a deliberate act of will by a God who is transcendent to it, and whose absolute unity is the ground of all existence. The God of the Hebrew Bible is, furthermore, supra-personal, not sub-personal; i.e., God is not portrayed as a principle or as a material force or process, but rather as a Being possessing intelligence, freedom, and will. Man, who is cast in God's image, shares in God's freedom and creativity, from which follows the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person. The world that is created is the best of all possible worlds that are consistent with human freedom. But a world open enough to accommodate the full expression of human freedom will also be one that is inevitably vulnerable to both moral and natural evil. It is, consequently, a very imperfect world, a world forever suspended between the poles of nothingness and paradise. History is the arena in which the story of human freedom is to be played out; and it is intended to be a narrative of purpose, creativity, and progress. But to attain the blessings of freedom and its limitless possibilities, humanity is required to conform to the system of moral normativity revealed at Sinai. Israel is to spread this word, but not by conquest, nor by proselytization. Rather, by simply conducting itself according to the precepts of the Torah, Israel is to lead by example, thereby becoming "a light unto the nations."1 The God of Israel is thus immanent, not in nature, but in human history.
This system of Hebrew metaphysics had no precedent in prior or contemporaneous pagan thought, but it did resonate with certain trends in later Greek thought. It was Philo Judaeus, a leader of Alexandrian Jewry and the first important Jewish philosopher, who began the synthesis of Hebrew and Greek thought (the latter primarily Platonic, but with some Aristotelian, Pythagorean, and Stoic elements). He thereby laid the foundations for the later philosophical and theological development of Christianity.2 The medieval rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides continued this process of attempting to reconcile reason and revelation, philosophy and religion, the Greek and the Hebrew. His classic work The Guide of the Perplexed had immense influence within the Jewish world and beyond, influencing such non-Jewish thinkers as Thomas Aquinas, G. W. Leibniz, and Sir Isaac Newton. The economist John Maynard Keynes, an expert on the life of Newton, went so far as to conclude a lecture prepared for delivery at Cambridge University on the three-hundredth anniversary of Newton's birth by characterizing him as "rather a Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides."3
The major Jewish figures in philosophy after Maimonides were Baruch de Spinoza, Karl Marx, Edmund Husserl, Henri Bergson, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Sir Karl Popper (all of whom were estranged from Judaism). In order to gauge the magnitude of the Jewish contribution to philosophy, the Jewish representation in the following three lists of "Great Philosophers" can be averaged to show that approximately one-sixth of the greatest figures in Western philosophical thought were either Jews, or of Jewish descent: BBC Great Philosophers Series, Trinity College Philosophers List, Fifty Major Philosophers. The authors of the last of these lists have also written a book entitled One Hundred Twentieth-Century Philosophers,4 which shows Jews to constitute approximately one-fourth of the major twentieth century figures. What follows are links to lists of Jewish philosophers and thinkers and to other data on the Jewish contribution to both twentieth and pre-twentieth century thought.
- Jewish Philosophers
- Influence of Judaic Monotheism on Western Thought
- Jews Listed Among the 250 Most Frequently Cited Authors (from antiquity to the present) in the Arts & Humanities (22% of authors)
- Jews Profiled in Thinkers of the Twentieth Century (30% of those profiled)
- Jewish Authorship Among the Twenty-Seven "Most Important" Philosophical Works of the Twentieth Century (37% of works)
- Jewish Authorship Among the Fifty Most Frequently Cited Twentieth Century Works in the Arts & Humanities (44% of works)
1. Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6.
2. See http://www.iep.utm.edu/philo/.
3. Essays in Biography, by John Maynard Keynes (Macmillan, London, 1961, p. 316).
4. One Hundred Twentieth-Century Philosophers, edited by Stuart Brown, Diané Collinson, and Robert Wilkinson (Routledge, London and New York, 1998).
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