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  • Science, Finitude, and Infinity: Neo-Kantianism and the Birth of Existentialism
  • Peter Eli Gordon (bio)

Where when I am wander-wearied Is my resting place to be? Shall I under palms be buried? Under Rhenish linden tree?

Or will somewhere in the desert Bury me in a stranger’s hand? Shall I rest by some strange hazard On a seacoast in the sand?

Never mind! I’ll be surrounded By God’s heaven where’er it be, And, as candles, in the unbounded Skies the stars are over me.

—Heinrich Heine, Letzte Gedichte, 1869

Amos Funkenstein now lies buried just north of Berkeley in a Richmond cemetery—seemingly a modest end for an intellectual of such remarkable accomplishments. But like Heinrich Heine, whose poetry he loved to cite, Funkenstein was by nature peripatetic. No country and no doctrine seems to have been large enough to encompass all his various passions. He traveled freely across jealously patrolled academic borders, bridging religion and science, politics and [End Page 30] logic, Judaism and scholasticism. Those who attended his seminars or have merely glanced at the titles of his books know that he could move with ease from Nachmanides to Nicholas of Kusa, from Kepler to the Kabbalah, and from Gersonides to Galileo, as if they were all participants in a single conversation. He often seemed to take a small measure of delight in such transgressions. Yet he was never disrespectful. Like Heine, Funkenstein’s irony was fundamentally humane. He combined sincerity with a sharp, almost cynical cast of mind—their volatile combination is found in all his scholarly work. For this reason, I think, he was capable, as few others in his profession, of recognizing the subterranean bond between science and faith. Indeed, it is Funkenstein’s unique sensitivity to the comingling of religion and science that perhaps best characterizes his legacy. In what follows, I pay homage to this kind of inquiry by addressing one of his most cherished topics—the neo-Kantian theory of knowledge and its effect on modern Jewish religious thought. In marrying these distinctive domains, he attempted to show how faith no longer exists—if indeed it ever did exist—in comfortable isolation from reason. No region of life, he urged us, is so holy that its origins are not also nourished by science and logic. The following, therefore, is written in homage to Funkenstein, who now lies “surrounded/By God’s heaven where’er it be.”

The Neo-Kantian Legacy

In Perceptions of Jewish History, Amos Funkenstein observed that “the excellence of philosophical systems is often recognizable by their ability to dig their own graves.” 1 Like much of the book (the last to be published during his lifetime), this remark is an aphorism, a conceptual shorthand that condenses into very few words a whole wilderness of argument. The crucial idea is Hegelian: philosophical movements do not follow each other in the fashion of waves, one succeeding another in mere series. Rather, schools of thought emerge in violent opposition; they protest some older doctrine whose very radicalism has grown intolerable and seems in any case on the verge of internal collapse. Funkenstein offers this “digging one’s own grave” metaphor as a means of explaining a crucial moment of intellectual history: the progression in modern Jewish thought from neo-Kantianism to existentialism. One of the difficulties of understanding this fateful transition is that neo-Kantianism itself was so thoroughly extinguished as a living scholarly movement. Its memory, if one may speak of the “memory” of a philosophy, was so thoroughly refashioned, indeed caricatured, by the succeeding generation of existentialist thinkers that today there remains little widespread knowledge of its original aims and methods. Yet to a striking degree, the [End Page 31] memory of neo-Kantianism is a memory constructed by a knowledgeable opposition, students who were themselves schooled in the philosophy they then set about dismantling. This phenomenon of philosophical burial is therefore one illustration of what Funkenstein called “counter-history.” 2

Spawned in the last third of the nineteenth century, the fortunes of the neo-Kantian movement were intimatedly tied to the fate of Central European liberalism—its star rose and fell with the progressive...

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