Senior Fellow: April–August 2021
Research Project: Contemplation: Champions and Critics
This project proposes a historical and systematic study of the ideal of theoria (contemplation) and three sceptical challenges that were raised against it: one epistemological, one metaphysical, and one theological. Aristotle argues that if we pay to see theatrical plays or wrestling matches, then we should enjoy contemplating the universe all the more: it’s a better show, and what more, it’s free! The project will work out the metaphysical and cosmological premises that ground the ideal of contemplation: a view of the universe as ordered by a divine mind (nous, ‘aql, sekhel) that the human mind can attach itself to by grasping that order; in Maimonides’s words, the intellectual love of God which arises when we grasp God’s wisdom in the order of nature. The ideal of the contemplative life, then, assumes that we can attain knowledge and that knowledge connects the human being and the divine mind. The best-known challenge to this ideal is that of the Sceptics, who argue that human reason is too weak to attain knowledge. However, there are two additional challenges. Firstly, the Epicureans, who argue that the universe is the outcome of blind, mechanical causes and that although knowledge of the natural order is possible, it has no intrinsic value. Secondly, proponents of divine voluntarism (e.g., al-Ghazālī) argue that the divine will, not the divine mind, orders the universe, and hence grasping that order is neither possible nor a path to connect with God. This project will seek to trace both the ideal of the contemplative life and the challenges to it from antiquity to the nineteenth century, with a special focus on Jewish philosophers from Maimonides to Spinoza. In addition, it aims to examine links between the three challenges sketched above and competing concepts of the human good—grounded, for example, in faith or in mystical experience.
Carlos Fraenkel has been the James McGill Professor (joint appointment in the Departments of Philosophy and Jewish Studies) at McGill University in Montreal since 2016.