It is Time for the Analytic Philosophy of Judaism – By Samuel Lebens

Ask a professional philosopher to list three living philosophers who have contributed to Jewish philosophy. They will struggle.

Jewish thought, in recent years, has been primarily influenced by Continental philosophy – Kant, Hegel, and even Heidegger, loom large over the Jewish intellectual horizon. Their influence gave rise to the great Jewish philosophers of the modern age – Herman Cohen, Franz Rosensweig, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and others. But for over a century, English-speaking philosophy has been wedded to an intellectual tradition largely ignored by Jewish thought; that tradition is known as analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy of Judaism is the new chapter of Jewish philosophy waiting to be written, and it promises to give rise to clear headed and articulate conceptual analysis of the doctrines and central notions of the Jewish faith.

In its first flush of youth, in the days of G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, analytic philosophy could be characterized in terms of certain doctrines: realism as opposed to idealism, pluralism as opposed to monism, and logicism (the view that mathematics can, in some significant way, be reduced to logic). But, in the century that followed, every central doctrine of early analytic philosophy was denied by at least some of the great torchbearers of the analytic tradition itself. Crude caricatures persist that try to paint analytic philosophers as all committed to some specific doctrine or another, but analytic philosophy is now too heterogeneous for such caricatures to be apt. There is no substantive philosophical thesis one can identify as separating analytic philosophers from their rivals.

So what is this philosophical school or tradition that continues to claim the allegiance of philosophers, and actually dominates philosophical discourse in all English speaking countries, if it no longer has any unifying doctrines? As Mike Rea has pointed out, what really unites analytic philosophers, and binds them into a single tradition, is a style of philosophizing, and a shared intellectual history. That characteristic style includes the following features: writing which expresses philosophical positions in sentences that can be formalized and logically manipulated; writing which prioritizes precision, clarity, and logical coherence; writing which avoids non-decorative use of metaphor and other rhetorical flourishes; and working with well-understood primitive concepts, and defining very clearly new terms and concepts.

By contrast, philosophy as practiced in Continental Europe sometimes goes out of its way to avoid precision and clarity. This is often for a principled reason: the belief that the sorts of things that philosophers are trying to express simply cannot be expressed in any other way. To eschew metaphor and the odd rhetorical flourish leaves you without the sorts of tools that are specifically needed to lay bare the more profound layers of reality or the human condition. Be that as it may, analytic philosophy is typified by a striving for clarity and precision. In the words of Wittgenstein, who was, ironically, perhaps a contender for the least clear analytic philosopher of all time, “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”

In addition to these matters of style, analytic philosophy is unified by a shared history that started with Moore and Russell (or there about) and continues on to this day. That shared history has given rise to a canon of set texts, and to a growing technical vocabulary. Analytic philosophy utilizes that vocabulary and evolves in conversation with that growing canon of texts. But what does any of this have to do with Judaism?

Jewish Philosophy

Ask a professional philosopher to list three living philosophers who have contributed to Jewish philosophy. They will struggle. Ask the same professional philosopher to list three living philosophers who have contributed to Christian philosophy and they won’t struggle: Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, Marilyn Adams, Eleonore Stump, Nicholas Wolterstorff… the list goes on. Of course, there are simply fewer Jews in the academic study of philosophy than Christians. That’s a fair point. But philosophers will have no problem listing famous living Jewish philosophers who have contributed to secular philosophy: Hilary Putnam, Saul Kripke, David Kaplan, Harry Frankfurt… the list goes on. But why is it that Jewish philosophers haven’t been working all that much on Jewish philosophy and they have overseen nothing like the flurry of scholarly activity that constitutes Christian philosophy today?

Stefan Golzberg recently argued that Jewish philosophy had two major moments, and is calling out for a third. Maimonides was the shining luminary of the Arab moment, in which Jewish philosophy came under the strong influence of Islamic thought, and therefore of the Greek philosophy that Islamic thought had already absorbed. Many centuries later, a number of great thinkers brought us the German moment, in which Jewish philosophy was framed and deeply shaped by the thought of Kant and Hegel.

The third moment, should it come to take root, is when Jewish philosophy finally starts to express itself in the vernacular of analytic philosophy. As we’ve seen, this wouldn’t demand a Jewish philosophy to adopt any particular doctrine, but merely to embrace a certain style, and to engage with a certain cannon of texts, and a specific technical vocabulary.

The failure of Jewish thought to develop a conversation with this new tradition of philosophy is part of what explains the dearth of live Jewish thought. Because Jewish thought has been seen as wedded to Continental philosophy, it has rarely crossed the minds of Jewish analytic philosophers to dedicate time and energy to the exploration of Jewish ideas. Philosophy is alive and well as an intellectual discipline, but Jewish thought is still in conversation with an intellectual tradition which is either fading or, at least, not hugely relevant to philosophical speculation in the English speaking world. And thus, Jewish thought is taught, primarily, as history, in Jewish Studies departments.

If you ask someone with philosophical training today to talk about the philosophy of Judaism, they might talk about the Arab moment, but, reverence for tradition aside, can a philosophy that is based upon speculations about Aristotelian celestial spheres and emanations from the active intellect, really explain contemporary Judaism to a contemporary audience in a contemporary world?

Or, the same philosopher might talk about the German moment. But, true to their intellectual heritage, those German-inspired thinkers often seem more concerned with producing existential meditations on the nature of living a religious life, or discussions of the phenomenology (the what-its-likeness) of religious experience. Those discussions are important. But analytic philosophy would tend to demand a clear account of what truth claims our religions are making, and what justification its adherents have for continuing to make them. Above and beyond an exploration of what it means to live as a Jew, Judaism is called upon to produce a philosophical accounting for itself that is rigorous, and clear. Analytic philosophy has the technical tools in which to frame such an account.

A philosophical account of the key claims and notions of the Jewish faith will help religious and non-religious Jews alike to understand their evolving intellectual heritage, and would facilitate a conversation in which adherents to the faith and its critics would both be armed with a clearer understanding of the questions under debate.

analytic philosophy demands a clear account of what truth claims our religions are making

All streams of Judaism stand in need of this sort of intellectual movement. At present, the Orthodox right appears to be scared of philosophical speculation, for fear that it will lead people to heresy. But a faith that looks scared of philosophical speculation is a faith that is shallow and weak. The left wing of Orthodoxy is in such a hurry to innovate halakhic (i.e., legal) solutions to modern problems (in terms of challenging old gender roles and addressing the place of homosexual couples in our communities), that it sometimes looks as if the philosophical and theological underpinnings of these innovations are taking a back-seat.

The more progressive streams of Judaism also stand in need. Increasingly moved by the pull towards religious pluralism, some Jewish thinkers in the more progressive denominations compare their choice of religion to nothing more than brand loyalty. “There are many ways to God, I just happen to like this one because I grew up with it!” I doubt that that approach has the intellectual clout to inspire generations of devotion, especially as the market-place for brand loyalty becomes ever more saturated with more convenient or fancier alternatives.

The analytic philosophy of Judaism promises to give rise to clearheaded accounts of what it is, in our various streams of Jewish thought, that we actually stand for; and why it matters to us so much. The tools of analytic philosophy equip a thinker to articulate their position and better stake their ground.

The Talmud and its commentaries are full to the brim with hair-splitting distinctions and conceptual analysis. Indeed there are already some impressive publications that seek to apply the techniques of analytic philosophy to Talmudic and Halakhic literature; and there are already probing analytic works that engage with Maimonides, and other Jewish thinkers, not as museum exhibits but as live interlocutors, in conversation with contemporary philosophy. The world at large – critics of Judaism, impartial bystanders, and members of other faiths – has something to gain, in return, upon receiving a clearer articulation of Jewish ideas and insights.

Judaism and Doctrine

One might think that to engage in a systematic program of outlining what it is that Judaism believes is to misunderstand what Judaism is about. Unlike Christianity, Judaism shirks systematization. What binds Jews together, apart from various ethnic, cultural, and national ties, has always had much more to do with what we do than what we believe. We don’t have a history of councils gathering together to decide on an issue of theology or metaphysics, as the Christians have. If we had any councils gathering together, they were more likely to decide upon a matter of law than upon a matter of belief.

Even the thirteen principles of Maimonides, put forward as something of a Jewish catechism, were subjected to generations of criticism. Accordingly, one danger of the project that I’m sketching is that it seeks to create a body of doctrine for a faith that isn’t concerned with doctrine. Some have argued that that was the major sin of the Arab Moment in Jewish philosophy. Some would argue that Jewish philosophy is more at home in the German mold of thought, carving out descriptions of what it means to live a Jewish life, without engaging too much in carving out substantive metaphysical and theological doctrines. Nonetheless, the danger of systematizing an unsystematic religion can be overcome in one of three ways.

One route would have the analytic philosopher of Judaism develop a conception of a faith that eschews doctrine. Give an analytic account of why religion is not the sort of thing that propositional doctrines can aptly govern. An analytical philosophy that describes, in a principled and well-argued fashion, when and where the strictures of analytic philosophy are best left behind, is still an attempt at analytic philosophy! Eleonore Stump, a Catholic philosopher, who is greatly admired by her analytical peers, has made a point of advancing just these sorts of arguments about when and where the traditional tools of analytic philosophy are best applied, and when we have principled reason to augment them.

to give an account of what Judaism is actually claiming isn’t to say that Judaism demands belief in those claims

Howard Wettstein, within the Jewish tradition, has gone further and advanced a stridently anti-doctrinal doctrine in his philosophy of religion. He doesn’t just seek to augment analysis of doctrine with engagement with narrative and poetic imagery, as Stump would have us do. Instead, he argues, but still within the characteristic style of the analytic tradition, against doctrinal religion altogether. In my own work on Jewish philosophy, inspired both by Wettstein and by Stump, I have tried to define religiosity in such a way as to explain why it’s so reductive to reduce a person’s religious faith commitments exclusively to a set of doctrines.

The second route is simply to recognize that to give an account of what Judaism is actually claiming isn’t to say that Judaism demands belief in those claims. It could be that Judaism makes very specific theological claims but doesn’t think you’re damned for not believing them! Judaism might be happy with people abiding by its laws for the wrong reasons, or partially for the wrong reasons. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a precise set of doctrines. To seek to elucidate and defend or attack those doctrines isn’t to create a binding catechism for Judaism.

Another option would be to recognize that from a philosophical perspective Judaism is a great tapestry of many different schools – Rationalist, mystical, Hasidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – of many historical layers – Biblical, Rabbinic, and beyond. An analytic philosopher of Judaism doesn’t have to analyze or defend an entire system. Surely it’s interesting enough to focus upon particular threads of the tradition at a time and to point out what their adoption would entail.

I have tried to engage with this notion of exploring a single thread of the tradition, with regard to some Hasidic metaphysics; adopting certain characteristically Hasidic claims for the sake of argument to see where they lead. Tyron Goldschmidt and Beth Seacord have written an engaging article about those Jews who believe in reincarnation, and how that belief can be used to address the problem of evil. In this way, one can make a real contribution to the map of philosophical possibilities that we end up sketching together, and a real contribution to Judaism’s self-understanding. But, you’re not necessarily being prescriptive. You’re not forcing Judaism into a doctrinal mold.

Prospects for the Future

The Association for the Philosophy of Judaism knows of more than a dozen early career philosophers who are well trained in contemporary analytic philosophy – they understand its technical vocabulary and logical tools, and are immersed in its literary cannon – as well as being well versed in traditional Jewish texts. Those young scholars are eager to create a conversation between the two traditions. As far as I’m aware, this is unprecedented. Never has there been such a large number of young PhDs in the world of analytic philosophy who are also Jewishly literate to such a high degree.

It seems, that in many ways, we’re just a few years behind Catholic analytic philosophy. Christian analytic philosophy, in America, has been overwhelmingly a Protestant affair (things were somewhat different in Britain where a number of the most prominent analytic philosophers were also Catholic: Anscombe, Geach, and Dummett, for example). But, in the American Catholic context, where Continental philosophy had been a dominant influence, a generation of Catholic philosophers trained in analytic philosophy finally emerged and created an opportunity for new chapters of Catholic thought. Jewish philosophy finds itself, now, in a similar situation – with a number of scholars poised to create a sustained conversation between the analytic and Jewish traditions.

One main obstacle that lies ahead, at this early juncture, is whether that number of Jewish scholars will stay within professional academia, dedicating time to writing on these topics and creating enthusiasm in a new generation of their students, or whether those scholars will leave academia altogether. It is well known that finding a secure job in the humanities, in this economic climate, is tough. The most reputable 20 or so analytic philosophy departments in the world are probably putting out, collectively, more than 100 new philosophy PhDs each year. Where are they all going to find jobs? In such a competitive market, is specialization in a new and somewhat quirky field really a good career move?

A generously funded initiative in Jerusalem aims “to reclaim the distinctive Jewish theological tradition that originates in the Hebrew Scriptures, Talmud and Midrash.” In essence, the initiative is designed to uncover the unique theological ideas that animate the Hebrew Bible (and early Rabbinic sources).  This is an important initiative, but we should note that the new chapter of Jewish thought will have to be both broader and more specific. It needs to be broader insofar as it has to engage with the entirety of the living, evolving Jewish tradition, and not merely its earliest strata.  It should be more specific insofar as it demands a sustained interaction with a particular academic tradition – namely: analytic philosophy. For those reasons, the Jerusalem initiative, despite its importance, isn’t necessarily the most natural or comfortable home for the young scholars I’ve been talking about.

The John Templeton Foundation, it must be noted, has been very generous in donating some seeding money to the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism. But, a professional association is one thing, and a job is another! If a critical mass of these early career scholars do not find a secure career path, and find institutional support for their research, this third moment in the history of Jewish thought may well suffer a stillbirth.