- The Lives and Minds of Traditions
The History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, and the History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank and Oliver Leaman (hereafter HIP and HJP), are two substantial works of reference first published seven and six years ago, respectively. The recent appearance of HIP and the forthcoming appearance of HJP in paperback provide an occasion to consider some of the issues they raise that are of particular interest to scholars who work at or across the boundaries of traditions. The two books raise such issues as whether philosophy in different cultural frameworks constitutes different "kinds" of philosophy (validating the need for distinct subdisciplines) and whether different cultures articulate thoughts in distinctive ways or otherwise exhibit different "mentalities." They highlight the possibility that traditions may betray themselves by accepting (e.g., under colonial pressures) alien images of themselves. They provoke the question "Are we failing (refusing) to recognize philosophy because it takes an unfamiliar form?" as the obverse of the question "But is this philosophy?" And although the two books have an editor in common, their material is organized in significantly different ways, suggesting the need to consider how best to structure the investigation of sizable histories of culturally linked traditions.
HJP begins boldly by problematizing its subject matter. In his introductory chapter, editor Frank identifies "the simple answer" to the title question of this chapter, "What Is Jewish Philosophy?" by declaring Jewish philosophy to be "an academic discipline invented in the nineteenth century by scholars intent on gaining a foothold of academic respectability" (HJP, p. 6). Frank intends to caution his readers against assuming that "the problems and issues that exercised earlier generations" are similar to those that "we are inclined to pose" (HJP, p. 8). No doubt the presence [End Page 403] of an academic discipline devoted to a subject makes a difference in how people approach that subject, but what difference it makes is not altogether clear.
Frank appears to be trying to launch his readers safely past both the reef of an assumed "idiosyncratically Jewish enterprise" (HJP, p. 4) extending along the whole of the chronology and the sandbar that treats "Jewish" as a strictly non-attributive modifier of "philosophy." While steering around the latter, Frank inverts a remark made at the end of I. Husik's 1916 History of Medieval Jewish Philosophy, which held that "there are Jews now and there are philosophers, but there are no Jewish philosophers and there is no Jewish philosophy" (HJP, p. 5). Frank contends that, on the contrary, only since the nineteenth century and the construction of an academic discipline could there be Jewish philosophers "in a non trivial sense" engaged in Jewish philosophy (ibid.). But if the sandbar extends up to the nineteenth century, then three quarters of HJP cannot be a history of Jewish philosophy but only of philosophers who happened to be Jews.
A very plausible account of what HJP is about rests, nevertheless, on the possibility of using Jewish culture (texts and practices) as sources (of problems) and resources (material with which to articulate solutions) for engaging in philosophy. HJP offers to tell the history of that enterprise. This account may be treated formally, so that it is left open what is to count as Jewish culture and what is to count as engaging in philosophy. Jews who engage in philosophy without drawing on Jewish culture-Leaman mentions Wittgenstein and Derrida in his concluding chapter (HJP, p. 896; cf. HJP, p. 87, on the problem of Ibn Gabirol)-are not part of the history of Jewish philosophy. There is no reason gentiles could not contribute to Jewish philosophy, provided they possessed sufficient mastery of the cultural material. This approach does not beg any questions about whether there are idiosyncratic Jewish ways of thinking that generate...