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  • The Discipline of Philosophy and the Invention of Modern Jewish Thought by Willi Goetschel
  • Sander Gilman
Willi Goetschel. The Discipline of Philosophy and the Invention of Modern Jewish Thought. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. 280 pp. US$65.00 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-0-82324-496-6.

In 1798 Immanuel Kant complained that the academic disciplines (in his case law and the humanities) were a problem in the creation and generation of knowledge. A major Jewish thinker of the early twentieth century, quite ambivalent about his own Jewishness, was unambiguous about the detrimental impact of the disciplines of the epistemic problems Kant critiqued. Georg Simmel saw the very division into the social, humanistic, and natural “sciences” (Wissenschaften)asa block to an understanding of the cultural embeddedness of knowledge in the most complex interactions of life as well as in the politics of the everyday practices of human life. Academics were the problem for Kant, not as a calling but as an institution, and the idea of a “Jewish” academic philosophy within or beyond the university would have struck him, even with his Jewish followers such as Salomon Maimon, as even odder. (Not perhaps as odd as he thought Maimon to be.)

In his most recent book Willi Goetschel offers chapters towards the problematic idea of Jewish philosophy that he sees (based on his case studies) running from Spinoza to continental philosophy, if just by marginal references. Maimonides’s reception of and struggle with Aristotle’s Ethics are left in history. Rather, Goetschel begins his account (not his book) with Spinoza, then moves on to Moses Mendelssohn, Maimon, Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Margarete Susman, and concludes with Hermann Levi Goldschmidt, Goetschel’s favourite Jewish philosopher. What Goetschel presents in this volume is not a systemic account that flows from the Dutch Enlightenment to Gold-schmidt’s Swiss exile and the expansion of the dialogic into post-Second World War continental philosophy. Rather, he begins with a paradigmatic chapter on Heinrich Heine’s On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (1834) as the first modern exponent of a Jewish philosophy in contrast to that of the Greeks.

Beginning with Heine sets the book on its critical course. In the biographical essay Ludwig Börne Heine chooses the image of the classical world as the metaphor through which to present to the reader the dichotomy between two seemingly antithetical forces. Heine sought the basis for Börne’s essayistic criticism [End Page 509] of Goethe in the juxtaposition of Nazarene and Hellene: Börne reveals his Nazarene limitations in his judgements concerning Goethe as well as his comments on other authors. Heine writes:

I say “nazarene” in order to avoid the terms “jewish” and “christian;” even though both of these terms are synonymous to me and are used, not to indicate a religion, but a temperament. “Jews” and “Christians” are, for me, semantically related terms in contrast to “Hellenes,” by which I do not mean a specific people but an inherited as well as an acquired intellectual posture and manner of observation. In this regard I would like to note: all people are either Jews or Hellenes, people with ascetic, iconoclastic drives craving spiritualization or people with a joyful, proudly developing and realistic essence.1

Heine truly does not mean to ground a Jewish versus a Greek idea of philosophy (in spite of Goetschel’s quite correct and amusing claims that Heine introduces his mother to resolve the debate between the two). Heine’s contrast becomes best known, at least in the anglophone world, through Matthew Arnold’s formulation in his Culture and Anarchy (1869):

When the two [Hellenism and Hebraism] are confronted, as they very often are confronted, it is nearly always with what I may call a rhetorical purpose; the speaker’s whole design is to exalt and enthrone one of the two, and he uses the other only as a foil and to enable him the better to give effect to his purpose. Obviously, with us, it is usually Hellenism which is thus reduced to minister to the triumph of Hebraism.2

Certainly, Arnold is not heralding the triumph of a Jewish but...


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