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Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 16. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. p64-67.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Keter Publishing House Ltd.
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In his article on the Jewish involvement in philosophy in the Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques, written over a century ago, Solomon *Munk pointed out that the Jewish mission to know God and to make Him known to the world was not basically involved with philosophy. After surveying the part played by Jews in philosophy, he concluded that "the Jews, as a nation, or as a religious society, play only a secondary role in the history of philosophy." As a nation or as a religious society this may be true, but even when Munk wrote it was not the case that Jewish participation in philosophy had been insignificant. Since his day the participation of Jews in philosophical activities has become extremely important.

It used to be said that the peculiarly Jewish role in philosophy had been that of middleman, transmitting the ideas of one culture to another, as some Jewish scholars had done in Spain, translating Arabic thought into forms available to Christian Europe. This, of course, was only part of the Jewish involvement in philosophy in the Middle Ages. Since the Renaissance many thinkers of Jewish origin have made central contributions to philosophy, and have played seminal roles in the development of modern Western thought. Some have played roles as Jews; others, who are of Jewish descent,Page 65  |  Top of Article have functioned as individual intellectuals, or sometimes as Christian thinkers.

14th to 17th Centuries

It may have been because they could not function within the Jewish nation or the Jewish religious society that many intellectuals of Jewish origin from Spain and Portugal, functioning in Iberia, Italy, France, and Holland, developed crucial philosophical views. Being spiritually dispossessed, and forced into an alien Christian intellectual world, the Marrano intellectuals may have been led into a more profound philosophical examination of their situation, and through it to a new evaluation of man's place in the cosmos. The drama of the forced conversions, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the terror of the Inquisition created a class of Marrano thinkers trying to find their place in the world, trying to find meaningful values, and trying to use the intellectual tools of the Christian world they found themselves in to justify their appreciation of the nature and destiny of man. In Spain and Portugal, the efforts of many Jewish Conversos now went into explorations of theology and philosophy to find a viable and significant theory. From the time of *Pablo de Santa Maria (converted in 1390), until well into the 17th century at least, Iberian intellectuals of Jewish origin were in the forefront in developing creative interpretations of the human scene, trying to define a Christian view that they could participate in. Most of the novel theories developed during Christian Spain's Golden Age were the product of this group. Spanish scholasticism, with its emphasis on universal law and natural rights, started from the views of Francisco de *Vitoria , and was developed by the humanists, Las Casas and Alonzo de la Vera Cruz. Spanish Erasmianism, with its emphasis on liberal Christianity, Christianity without theology, and a Christianity based on moral teachings rather than doctrines, was mainly a convert view. The Jesuit obedience theory was set forth by Diego Lainez, a theologian of Jewish ancestry. Christian kabbalism as a justification of the position of the New Christians was developed by Luis de *Leon , showing the role of Jewish Christians in an apocalyptic age.

Outside of Spain, exile thinkers of Jewish origin played an important role in philosophical thought. Judah *Abrabanel in Italy provided a major statement of Renaissance Platonism that was influential all over Europe. Juan Luis *Vives in the Lowlands was one of the chief exponents of humanism. It has been suggested that Montaigne's closest friend, the French humanist Etienne de la Boétie (1530–1563), was of Marrano origin. His Discours de la servitude voluntaire (1576; Eng., Anti-Dictator, 1942) is a plea for human freedom and dignity against the tyranny of rulers and is the first modern statement of nonviolence as a means of protest.

The Marranos who settled in Amsterdam in the 17th century had been trained in Christian philosophy, and debated their problems in terms of European philosophical thought. *Manasseh Ben Israel , known as the Hebrew philosopher, provided the main perspective through which philosophers like Mersenne, Grotius, and Cudworth saw Jewish ideas in philosophical terms. Within the Jewish community of Amsterdam, Marrano intellectuals like Uriel da *Costa and Juan de *Prado raised basic philosophical challenges not only to Judaism, but to the whole framework of revealed religion. Coupled with the radical biblical criticism of Isaac *La Peyrère , their criticisms led to the formulation of a new basic metaphysical ideology for a naturalistic nonreligious world in the theory of Baruch *Spinoza . Spinoza, starting from issues raised by heretical thinkers within the Jewish world in Holland, quickly developed a rationalistic, scientific metaphysics to explain the cosmos in terms of logic, psychology, and the 'new science.' Spinoza's naturalism soon became one of the fundamental presentations of the ideology of modern man, greatly affecting the materialists of the Enlightenment, the German idealists, and other movements. Spinoza has become the symbol of the pure modern philosopher, persecuted by religious orthodoxy, but preserving his philosophical ideals and mission. One of his opponents, *Orobio de Castro , tried to provide a philosophical defense of Judaism against Prado, Spinoza, Catholicism, and the liberal Christianity of Limborch and John Locke. Orobio de Castro, originally a professor of metaphysics in Spain, played a significant role in late 17th-century thought, influencing Locke, Bayle, and Fénelon.

18th to 19th Centuries

Philosophical activity in Amsterdam died out in the 18th century. The last thinker of note was Isaac de *Pinto who challenged *Voltaire 's antisemitism, and Enlightenment atheism. His most influential work was in proposing the theory of modern capitalism against Hume and Mirabeau. He was one of the very first to understand the role of credit and circulation in the modern economic world.

The Enlightenment world, starting in Germany, led to another level of Jewish participation in philosophy. As Jewish intellectuals were emancipated and could participate in the full range of gentile society, they began to apply themselves to philosophical problems, especially of an ethical and general religious nature. The first to make his entry into the general philosophical scene in Germany was Moses *Mendelssohn . His writing on aesthetics, psychology, metaphysics, and philosophy of religion made him a central figure in Enlightenment thought, influencing his close friends, Theodor *Lessing and Immanuel *Kant . Mendelssohn sought to show that 18th-century Deism, the universal religion of reason, was the same as essential Judaism. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, he advocated religious toleration and equality for the Jews. Mendelssohn became a symbol in the general philosophical world of the enlightened and liberated Jew, who could contribute greatly to the mainstream of culture.

A Jewish doctor, Marcus *Herz , a friend of both Kant and Mendelssohn, played an important role in the development of Kant's philosophy. He was Kant's official "advocate," and discussed the latter's theories with him as they were being formed. Lazarus *Bendavid , at the end of the 18th century,Page 66  |  Top of Article became one of the major expositors of Kant's philosophy. One of the first, and most important, critics of Kant's views was the Lithuanian émigré, Solomon *Maimon , who came to Germany, learned philosophy, and offered a skeptical critique of Kant. Kant considered Maimon's views to be the most astute of any of his opponents, and some of his theories regarding the creative function of the mind became important in the development of German idealism.

People of Jewish origin only begin to play a role in the course of the development of 19th-century German thought around the middle of the century. Moses *Hess and Karl *Marx redirected German idealism into a materialistic socialist ideology. Julius *Frauenstadt became Schopenhauer's main follower, exponent, and editor of his writings. Adolf *Lasson was one of the very few advocates of Hegelianism. One of the founders of neo-Kantianism, Otto *Liebmann , attacked the various metaphysical theories after Kant, and urged a return to the master. As a result of his efforts the neo-Kantian movement developed, and one of its most important leaders was Hermann *Cohen , head of the Marburg school. Cohen emphasized a panlogistic transcendental version of Kant's thought, as opposed to some of the speculative metaphysical interpretations. Cohen stressed the objective side of Kant, and sought to justify a priori knowledge of nature and values. He also tried to identify Kantian ethics with liberal socialism. Cohen played a very significant role in the development of German philosophy. One of his students, Arthur *Liebert , edited the journal Kantstudien, in which many of the discussions of neo-Kantianism took place.

In the course of the 19th century, Jews were gradually able to attend the universities and hold positions in them (often only if they were converts). They began to participate in the full range of intellectual activities. Jacob *Freudenthal of Breslau became one of the foremost scholars of ancient thought, both Greek and Hebrew, as well as one of the most important Spinoza scholars. Adolphe *Franck in France, the first Jewish professor at the Collège de France, a follower of Victor Cousin, made important contributions in the history of thought, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of law. Xavier *Léon founded the Revue de métaphysique et de morale to combat positivism and encourage speculative philosophy. The reform rabbi, Felix *Adler , started the *Ethical Culture movement, and played an important role in formulating and advocating a humanistic nonreligious ethical view.

20th Century

By the end of the 19th century secularization and assimilation had proceeded to the point where large-scale participation by Jews in philosophy was possible since antisemitic barriers were gradually being removed. Jewish intellectuals could devote their energies to trying to give philosophical interpretations of man's situation and his achievements. Many of the most original theories in 20th-century philosophy are the products of thinkers of Jewish origin, who have come to play a larger and larger role in European thought.

Starting with Henri *Bergson at the end of the 19th century, some of the major speculative philosophers have been Jews. Bergson's Creative Evolution and Samuel *Alexander 's Space, Time and Deity have been two of the most prominent efforts to develop metaphysical systems in terms of modern knowledge. Vladimir *Jankélévitch in Paris, starting from Bergsonism, continued to try to find metaphysical meaning in human existence. Léon *Brunschvicg devoted himself both to historical scholarship and to maintaining the idealistic tradition in France. Karl *Joel developed a system called "the new idealism" in Germany. In America Paul *Weiss has been developing an original metaphysics influenced by Whitehead, and Mortimer *Adler has been advocating neo-Thomism. Nathan *Rotenstreich , in Jerusalem, has been setting forth a theory about human nature and the bases of values. The neo-Kantian movement in its many forms was led by Jewish thinkers, the most prominent of whom were Ernst *Cassirer and Leonhard *Nelson . Cassirer set forth a developmental Kantianism. Nelson, founder of the New Fries School, emphasized the psychological side of Kantianism. Other major figures who came out of the neo-Kantian movement were Emil *Lask , Franz *Rosenzweig , Samuel Hugo *Bergman , and Fritz *Heinemann . The phenomenological movement, which has been so important in 20th-century thought, was started by Edmund *Husserl . Seeking an unshakable foundation for human knowledge, he developed his phenomenological method and transcendental phenomenology. Max *Scheler applied the phenomenological approach to Catholic doctrines and to social psychology. Edith *Stein (who became a nun), influenced by Scheler, combined Thomism with phenomenology and existentialism. Aron *Gurwitsch has emphasized the application of phenomenology to psychology, Adolf *Reinach to the philosophy of law, and Moritz *Geiger to aesthetics. Herbert *Spiegelberg wrote the history of the phenomenological movement, and was a leading exponent of it in America along with Fritz *Kaufmann . Emanuel *Levinas , one of those who introduced phenomenology into France, played an important creative philosophical role in the contemporary European scene. Jewish thinkers, and some of Jewish origin, have played important parts in the existentialist movement. Jean *Wahl in France was a leading spokesman and theoretician. Martin *Buber was one of the most important figures in religious existentialism. The writings of Simone *Weil have played a significant role in postwar Christian existentialism. Jacques *Derrida was the founder of postmodern deconstructionism. George *Simmel was one of the most important figures in the naturalistic movement, both for his biological and Darwinian interpretation of Kant, and for his theory of sociology. Wilhelm *Jerusalem followed out some of the implications of pragmatism, Darwinism, and positivism. In America, Morris Raphael *Cohen , Horace *Kallen , and Sidney *Hook have developed some of the naturalistic ideas of James and Dewey.

In radical philosophy some of the major figures have been Jewish thinkers who have developed new interpretations of Hegel and Marx. Gyorgy *Lukacs , Ernst *Bloch , and WalterPage 67  |  Top of Article *Benjamin set forth creative versions of Marxism, extending its insights into many cultural fields. Alexandre *Kojève has played a most important role in reinterpreting Hegel's thought. Herbert *Marcuse combined *Freud 's and Marx's views, including those of the early Marx, into a powerful critique of modern society that was very influential on New Left thinkers. On the other side, two thinkers of Jewish origin were leaders of Russian Orthodox thought in Russia. Semyon *Frank , originally a Marxist, developed a metaphysical defense of Christianity. Lev *Shestov was a leading anti-rationalist fideist. Among non-Marxist social philosophers and social critics, Jewish thinkers have also made significant contributions. Julien *Benda criticized the role of the intellectuals. Elie *Halévy wrote against the tyrannies of fascism and communism. Hannah *Arendt analyzed the bases and nature of totalitarianism, and the nature of political freedom. Chaim *Perelman has done important work on the nature of justice.

In the analytic philosophical movement, which has been important in the English-speaking world, philosophers of Jewish origin have been in the forefront. One of the first proponents of linguistic analysis was Fritz *Mauthner . Leaders of the logical positivist movement included Herbert *Feigl , Philipp *Frank , and Friedrich *Waismann . Ludwig *Witgenstein established himself as one of the towering figures of 20th-century philosophy. The work of the logician Alfred *Tarski was also most important in this movement. Among the important American analytic philosophers are Max *Black , Nelson *Goodman , Arthur *Pap , and Morton *White . Thinkers of Jewish origin have played basic roles in 20th-century work in the philosophy of science and logic. Emile *Meyerson developed a philosophical view of the world based on modern science. Sir Karl *Popper has been one of the most important in evaluating the nature of science and the problems involved in gaining scientific knowledge.

In the area of historical studies and interpretations of philosophy, Jewish scholars have been in the forefront throughout this century. They have developed the best of European scholarship and have provided some of the most important ways of understanding various philosophical traditions, as well as editing some of the basic texts. Raoul *Richter wrote an important history of skepticism from antiquity onward. George *Boas wrote on Greek philosophy and on French thought. Hans *Jones , through his demythologizing method, helped in the understanding of Gnosticism. Richard *Waltzer examined the transition of Greek thought into Arabic philosophy. Shlomo *Pines wrote on Arabic and Jewish medieval philosophy. Harry Austryn *Wolfson examined the religious philosophical tradition from Philo, through the Church Fathers and medieval Islamic, Jewish, and Christian thought up to Spinoza. Raymond *Klibansky was influential in medieval and Renaissance studies. Paul O. *Kristeller was a leading figure in the many areas of Renaissance studies. One of Ernst Cassirer's contributions was a monumental study of the development of the modern problem of knowledge from the Renaissance onward. He also wrote on English Platonism and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Alexandre *Koyré was a leading figure in the study of the history of science from the Renaissance onward, as well as an important Descartes scholar. Leon *Roth wrote important interpretations of Descartes and Spinoza and showed their relationship to Maimonides' thought. R.H. Popkin wrote on the history of skepticism from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. David *Baumgardt did important work on the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, and Elie Halévy wrote the basic study of British philosophical radicalism.

The historical scholarship done on German thought from Kant onward is too copious to mention in detail. Neo-Kantians, especially, have studied the development of German philosophy extensively, and much of the basic work on Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Schelling, has been done by scholars of Jewish origin.

Participation in philosophy by Jews has grown rapidly, especially in this century. Jewish concern with fundamental issues about man and the world has, no doubt, contributed to this, as has the growing toleration in academic-intellectual circles, especially in the West. The decline of Christianity as a central factor in European philosophy has also made it more possible for Jews to play a role in this area. At the present time in America, and to a lesser extent in England and France, among younger philosophers there are many important figures of Jewish origin who will probably play a most significant role in the decades to come. In Central Europe there are few Jewish intellectuals left, and in Eastern Europe they are being driven from their positions.


L. Magnus, The Jews in the Christian Era (1929), 241–8, 330–65, and passim; C. Lehrmann, L'élement juif dans la pensée européenne (1947), 43–66; A.A. Roback, Jewish Influence in Modern Thought (1929), 333–53, 401–40, incl. bibl.; H.G. Gadamer, in: L. Reinisch (ed.), Die Juden und die Kultur (1961), 78–90; H. Landry, in: S. Kaznelson (ed.), Juden im deutschen Kulturbereich (1959), 242–77; A. Altmann, in: L. Finkelstein (ed.), Jews, Their History, Culture, and Religion, 2 (19603), 954–1009.

[Richard H. Popkin]

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Popkin, Richard H. "Philosophy." Encyclopaedia Judaica, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed., vol. 16, Macmillan Reference USA, 2007, pp. 64-67. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 19 Nov. 2017.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2587515717

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