restricted access Jewish and Islamic Philosophy: Crosspollinations in the Classic Age (review)
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 41.2 (2003) 271-272

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Lenn E. Goodman. Jewish and Islamic Philosophy: Crosspollinations in the Classic Age. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999. Pp. xv + 256. Cloth, $55.00.

This book is a bold if not audacious survey of select themes in Jewish and Islamic philosophy. The "crosspollinations" to which the subtitle refers carry the author back to classical Greece, and forward to Spinoza, Kant, Bergson, Darwin, and beyond. Medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophers are placed as the centerpieces of a humanistic tradition rooted in the past and still resonating in the present.

This is a view of medieval philosophy to which many a medievalist would like to subscribe, but which few would dare describe with such brio and eloquent assurance as Lenn Goodman, who is both a historian of philosophy and a philosopher. This confidence waylays Goodman, though, in that he regularly substitutes pronouncements for patient explanation and argument. The reader who is not already familiar with the issues discussed and positions advanced will have a hard time following him. More informed readers may well question many of his summary judgments and piquant observations.

The ideal reader of this work is one who has read Goodman's other studies, to which the notes frequently refer. The arguments adumbrated here are presumably laid out in detail in these earlier essays and books. The text before us is thus for the most part more a statement of faith, the author's summary credo, than a reasoned exposition of Jewish and Islamic philosophy. To Goodman, "the approach is synthetic rather than descriptive" (ix).

The book deals with "issues of abiding philosophical interest: freedom and determinism, the nature and meaning of history, the basis of ethical values, the foundations and social implications of friendship, the viability and relevance of the idea of God." These admirable themes are pursued in separate yet complementing chapters that compare the tenth-century free-thinker and physician Muhammad ibn Zakariyâ al-Râzî and Epicurus; the tenth-century pietist Bahya ibn Paquda and Kant; and the fourteenth-century Maghribi historian Ibn Khaldûn and Thucydides. Three other chapters compare, respectively, Maimonides and such major Islamic philosophers as Avicenna, Al-Ghazâlî, and Ibn Bâjjah; Maimonides, Al-Ghazâlî, and the Persian ethicist Miskawayh (tenth/eleventh centuries); and Maimonides, Aristotle, and Spinoza.

It is at once obvious that Maimonides (twelfth century) is at the heart of this work, reflecting Goodman's longstanding interest in this towering figure of medieval Jewish philosophy. Less obvious is Goodman's contention that Maimonides is to be seen not only in relation to Avicenna, Al-Ghazâlî, and Ibn Bâjjah, but also to Râzî, Bahya, and Miskawayh. Goodman has constructed a narrative of persons and ideas, abstracting from their contexts common concerns and purposes. While there is much to admire in these constructions—patently erudite and challenging as they are—the direct filiations Goodman assumes are often conjectural at best.

Take, for example, Goodman's chapter on "Maimonides and the Philosophers of Islam," with its subtitles of "Creation" and "Theophany." These terms are shorthand for Maimonides' treatment of the science of physics and metaphysics, both in their normative and extraordinary appearances. Goodman correctly notes that Maimonides is deeply indebted to Muslim philosophers (and their Greek predecessors) for his knowledge of these fields, though he does stretch matters in singling out the importance of Al-Kindî and Râzî as influences upon Maimonides' thought.

Goodman does this in part because he believes Maimonides shared, in varying degrees, a creationist position with them. Goodman accepts at face value Maimonides' assertion that only a creationist thesis allows for voluntarism, a (theologically) meaningful Divine Will. "Only voluntarism," Goodman asserts in the name of Maimonides, "can break the stranglehold of necessity, making emanation itself possible, allowing change, and crucially, allowing change in the natures of things, that is, evolution, as a means of bringing creation to 'maturity'"(98). This statement, besides its anachronistic introduction of evolution into medieval notions of change, misinterprets Maimonides' view...