Saturday, March 31, 2007

Scholarly Notes: Gersonides

April's column for Or Adam:

Continuing our tour of early Jewish philosophers, this month we will look at Levi ben Gerson (also known as Ralbag or Gersonides). Born in 1288 in Provence, Gersonides was an important and influential figure in medieval Jewish philosophy. He died in 1344.

Like Philo and Maimonides before him, Gersonides attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy with Jewish theology. Unlike the earlier thinkers, however, Gersonides had robust knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. Norbert Samuelson says of Gersonides: “he could arguably be considered the most important astronomer in Christian Europe before Galileo” (228). He brought this knowledge to bear on his philosophical thinking, giving it an empirical and scientific basis lacking in the earlier synthetic adventures. He criticizes Maimonides for trying to stay neutral on cosmological questions and he argues that astronomy and reason can provide definitive answers.

Heavily influenced by Maimonides and Aristotle, Gersonides sees reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth. He believed that the Torah and reason could not conflict; but where they apparently did, one needed, according to Gersonides, to interpret the Torah in a way compatible with reason. Humans, using their faculty of reason, can gain knowledge and understanding of the universe and there is nothing, according to Gersonides, that is in principle out of reason’s reach.

Like Philo and Maimonides, Gersonides believes in God and the Torah. But their attempts at synthesis are what make these thinkers important for secular humanism. The continual and ruthless injection of reason into attempts at understanding the world paves the way for secular humanism. Gersonides, with his consistent and rigorous rationalism, expands the scope of reason and science in grasping the truths of existence and thus, quite unintentionally, limits the scope of faith and the supernatural.

Sources: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Jewish Philosophy: An Historical Introduction by Norbert Samuelson.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The New Kiekekaard

Cow and Boy is a relatively new strip and has quickly risen to one my favorites. It's got a Calvin & Hobbes feel, but instead of a stuffed tiger, it's a talking cow.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

SUPHI: Discussion Question: Origins

Over at Suphi, I posted the following discussion question:
I am often amazed at the different ways that individuals have come to philosophy. Some from a novel or movie, others through religion, many through a philosophy course, and even a few from coming across and reading actual contemporary philosophy on their own.

So I am curious: What inspired your desire to learn more about and study philosophy? Was it a book(s)? What book(s) and why? Did you arrive here from some other path?

My response was:
I was a voracious reader from a young age and novels where my entrance point to philosophy. Some of the earliest novels I read that got me thinking, with hindsight, more philosophically were: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I read these first (I’ve read each of these at least three times) between 11-14 years-old. The first reads were, for the most part, over my head. Nonetheless, they started me thinking about the way the world was: the nature of good and evil, the influence and danger of authority and power, and how individuals relate (or fail to) to each other. These are themes I still think about and struggle with to this day.

My freshman year at Tufts, I took an introduction to philosophy class where we read Plato, Descartes, and Quine. (Yes "two dogmas" during my first semester of college!) I hated my teacher, so I got somewhat turned off to academic philosophy and ended up an English major. By my junior year, I had reread all three of the above novels again and my interest in philosophy re-emerged. I took several more philosophy courses and the rest, as they say, is history.

Friday, March 23, 2007

ASU Philosophy Graduate Students

Along with several of my fellow graduate students, I have started up a group blog: ASU Philosophy Graduate Students. It's already got a few interesting posts. I plan on cross-posting to Philosophy Blog my posts. I might repost comments here as well as I see fit.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Scholarly Notes: Milton Friedman

March column for Or Adam:

For this month's column, we move to the present day to look at one of the most influential secular Jewish intellectuals of the 20th century. Milton Friedman was born on July 31, 1912 in Brooklyn, NY to an Orthodox Jewish family. As Friedman recalls, he was fanatic in his preteen years about observing the Jewish laws. He began, however, to question the rational basis for these laws and finding none, rejected religion.

Friedman won the Noble Prize in Economics in 1976. He was also awarded the National Medal of Science and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. His major achievements were in economic theory, but not just in academia. Friedman worked for several federal administrations starting with President Franklin Roosevelt. While working at the Department of Treasury during World War II, Friedman helped to invent the payroll withholding tax system that most of us are all too familiar with and that Friedman would later regret. He was an adviser for several U.S. presidents, including Presidents Nixon and Reagan, as well as British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher. Serving on the Gates Commission--President Nixon's Advisory Commission on an All-Volunteer Force--Friedman was a vigorous and ultimately victorious voice against the military draft. Friedman also was the intellectual force behind school choice, proposing in 1955 a system of school vouchers to introduce competition and choice into education.

Friedman communicated his economic and political ideas to the general public as well. He made a popular series with PBS in 1980 called "Free to Choose" which was later made into a bestselling book by the same name. It was updated in 1990 and is now available for free on the web: He wrote a regular column for Newsweek from 1966 until 1983 and gave lectures around the world.

The focus of most of his work was on economics and politics with the goal of creating and spreading more autonomy and freedom throughout the world. Friedman did not speak about god or religion often. From what he does say, it is clear that Friedman viewed the question of god as unanswerable, unverifiable, and ultimately irrelevant. What was important was that individuals had the freedom to choose and live their lives. Milton Friedman died at the age of 94 on November 16, 2006.

Sources: Wikipedia; interview, Academy of Achievement; biography, Cato Institute.