The aim of the research undertaken at the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies (MCAS) is to present two dimensions of Jewish scepticism:
- Scepticism in a specific sense, as discussed in modern critical debates on the history and impact of ancient philosophical scepticism from antiquity to the present, with a special focus on the early modern period.
- Scepticism in an extended sense, manifesting itself in sceptical strategies, concepts, and attitudes and towards elements of tradition occurring in literary, dialogic, educational, and social phenomena (i.e., cultural expressions of scepticism).
One of the most important research objectives is to examine whether the method of enquiry implied in the term “scepticism” could be regarded as an anthropological constant—despite the alleged dialectical difference—across both Eastern and Western philosophy and culture. The assumption would be that people in every culture express doubts about the truth claims of authorities, the reliability of texts and their social or mystical relevance, the power and presence of divinities or the power of reason and the controlling power of social structures and their respective consequences. It is the task of researchers at the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies to find new perspectives, methods, and/or theories to address sceptical modes in different cultures, languages, religions, and Weltanschauungen while avoiding pre-textual generalisations.
Research Programme of the Second Funding Period: 2019–24
In the second funding period, MCAS will structure its research activity around the following four key topics (further information see below):
- Scepticism between Enquiry and Doubt (2019–20)
- Sources of Knowledge (2020–21)
- Scepticism and Language (2021–22)
- Limits of Scepticism, Limits of Faith (2022–23)
- (Jewish) Scepticism as a Strategy and Challenge in Past and Present (2023–24)
These key topics were chosen because of their fundamental significance to all periods of Western philosophy and thought. The first two key topics were also addressed in the first funding period, and they will continue to be covered during the second phase of MCAS’s research due to their development during the early modern and modern periods. Modern discussions of epistemology, revelation, the sciences, and doubt are the turning points of modern thought. Since terms such as “theology,” “science,” and “dogma” essentially differ in meaning in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern and modern periods, further research is needed. These topics also reflect a logical progression from a typology of scepticism as a phenomenon within the Jewish tradition to its specific manifestations in principal contexts and finally to the grounds for its acceptance or rejection, especially in the face of the sequence of events in Jewish history up to and including the Holocaust. Every topic will be studied with reference to abstract philosophical enquiry, concrete expressions within Judaism, and complementary phenomena from other traditions. The historical scope of the research will be extended from the early modern period to the present—not neglecting, however, the earlier historical periods, which continue to play a decisive role as a background for more recent developments in (Jewish) scepticism.
As in the first funding period, the Maimonides Centre for Advanced Studies not only welcomes applications scholars within the fields of Jewish studies and Jewish philosophy, but also from scholars in other fields. It will conduct research that will either offer a broader context or allow fruitful comparison with the Jewish aspect of the themes discussed.
Scepticism between Enquiry and Doubt (2019–20)
The first year of the second funding period will engage with the nature and scope of scepticism in the Jewish context by problematising two opposing portrayals of scepticism and investigating their presence in the Jewish tradition. According to the first approach, which was extensively studied during the first funding period, scepticism is understood as an attitude to life which leads to tranquillity facilitated by the suspension of judgment and which is associated with the ancient Pyrrhonist movement, whose salient features survive mainly in the works of Sextus Empiricus. The second approach understands scepticism as doubt; not as a way of life, but as an epistemological obstacle, a “malady” (Hume, Treatise 22.214.171.124) which should but perhaps cannot be cured. This approach to scepticism is generally associated with early modern thinkers, most notably with Descartes and Hume. Although usually taken as the dividing factor between scepticism in antiquity and its early modern counterpart, variations of these two types are found in different contexts throughout the history of scepticism, sometimes side by side, and somewhat undermine this “neat” historical distinction. Naturally, a different understanding of the sceptic necessitates a different understanding of the dogmatist, their perpetual opponent.
During the academic year 2019–20, MCAS will study these two “paradigms” and the whole spectrum in between as well as their mutual dynamics, their particular Jewish manifestations, and their appearance in other traditions for comparative and contextualistic purposes.
Sources of Knowledge (2020–21)
The academic year 2020–21 will be devoted to the study of one of the main aspects of sceptical thought; namely, its attack on the reliability of the different alleged sources of knowledge. In traditional epistemology, the sceptical attack is usually directed towards reason or sense perception as avenues of knowledge. In the religious sphere, it can be directed at the reliability of revelation, prophecy, divination, or the authority of tradition, especially when they contradict human reason or everyday experience. The sceptical position is also relevant in cases of competing sources of knowledge (the paradigmatic case being reason versus revelation) or conflicting authorities, where sceptical arguments are used locally in order to prioritise one source over another. MCAS’s research will revolve around three aspects of scepticism in the context of sources of knowledge: (1) its manifestation in revealed religion; (2) its employment in early modern empiricism (against their rationalist opponents); and (3) its role in the debate about the foundations of moral knowledge.
(1) Many philosophers and theologians engaged with the sceptical potential of the apparent unconformity between revealed knowledge and rational sense, either by attempting to eliminate it, offering a concession to the sceptic by limiting the sphere of the known—allocating space for faith—or embracing scepticism towards the possibility of knowledge and finding refuge in faith alone. This area of research was explored in the first funding period. However, the richness of its sources calls for additional studies.
(2) The senses have traditionally been considered a major source of knowledge. This particularly holds true for those philosophers commonly classified as empiricists, who took sensory inputs to be the foundation of knowledge. However, sense perception has also been seen as a particularly intricate source of error and as something of only minimal epistemic value. Ancient sceptics and their modern successors based many of their arguments on misperceptions and hallucinations. This raises at least two sets of important questions about the extent to which the senses can provide us with knowledge: first, questions concerning the range of objects we can know through the senses (are they accidental properties or genuine access to their underlying substance?); second, questions concerning their reliability and adequacy. Thinkers who were dissatisfied with the epistemological possibilities of empirical evidence typically opted for a rationalist view, attempting to ground our knowledge on operations of pure thought, and often employed sceptical arguments in order to refute their empiricist opponents. As far as Judaism is concerned, it is important to note that several medieval thinkers expressed open mistrust towards sensory data, as did Spinoza in the early modern period. In later periods, Jewish thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, influenced by German idealism, adopted rationalistic terminology in order to oppose the empirical aspects of Judaism, mainly reflected in ceremonial laws and customs.
(3) Early modern philosophers disagreed as to whether moral knowledge depends on rational insights (the intellectualist approach) or on certain moral perceptions or emotions (the sentimentalist approach). This (particularly early modern) debate remains formative for our thinking about morality.
Scepticism and Language (2021–22)
In the academic year 2021–22, MCAS will focus on the relationship between language and scepticism. The ability of language to represent and communicate “truth” has been challenged by sceptical arguments throughout the history of thought. Within the confines of active religions that are founded upon sacred texts, of which Judaism is the earliest, the sceptical challenge becomes crucial to the soundness of tradition. The investigation of scepticism in the context of language will be conducted from three angles: (1) the status of sacred texts; (2) language and meaning; and (3) the place of translation in the transmission of knowledge.
(1) The status of sacred texts is susceptible to sceptical approaches whenever it is analysed through the lens of philology, for which doubts about the reliability of a textual tradition are a starting point. This type of doubt becomes problematic when the text in question is canonical or is considered to be divine. What is more, when there are competing texts claiming to contain the divine message, as in the case of the three Abrahamic religions, the sceptical dimension of philology boils down to establishing the authority of the sacred text by doubting the authenticity of “other” texts, as the medieval apologetic and polemic literature shows. In the modern period, there is a change of paradigm as the discussion in Protestant universities deprived the Old Testament of authority, considering it fully insignificant for the understanding of the New Testament (Schleiermacher’s approach). For this reason, researchers will address how Jewish philosophers of religion approached the neo-Valentinian gnostic separation between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as a problem of de-dogmatisation. Within this context, MCAS scholars will also explore the use of philology as a confessional tool in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the role of scepticism and doubt in recent conceptions of Jewish and Christian hermeneutics of the Hebrew Bible.
(2) When moving from the question of text to the more fundamental question of language, the sceptical element is transferred to the question of meaning and reference, or, more specifically, whether an expression can have a meaning at all, and, if so, whether it can be understood correctly. This sort of linguistic scepticism poses a problem with respect to the understanding and interpretation of the religious message, especially if it is taken to be a bridge between the natural world and the realm of the divine. This has led to the development of a rich tradition of exploring language, meaning, and speech in the Jewish tradition, in philosophical, mystical, and hermeneutical contexts.
(3) The relationship between translation and scepticism is natural given the function of translation as an agent of the migration of knowledge. The idea of a potential loss of meaning when translating from one language to another has long been examined, either with reference to scientific texts or in attempts to translate scripture. This raises questions concerning either the universality or the hierarchy of languages with regard to precision, purity, and the ability to convey the divine message. Since the work of David Hume, philosophers have even come to doubt the very existence of a determinate meaning of our thoughts or linguistic expressions in the first place.
Limits of Faith, Limits of Scepticism (2022–23)
In its final year, MCAS will examine the role of scepticism in limitations of faith and then turn the question inside out and examine what happens when scepticism become its own object and whether it can be upheld as a tenable position.
Sceptical positions towards faith are as old as faith itself, but they create an interesting dialectic when they are posed from the perspective of a believer rather than from an external perspective. In this respect, scepticism functions as a delimiter of faith, sometimes to the point of collapse. The final year will explore this phenomenon both in specific instances and with reference to Jewish history taken as a whole.
In the context a comprehensive understanding of the Jewish faith, perhaps the most effective sceptical consideration is the appeal to the problem of theodicy. In other words, how can there be a perfectly benevolent and omnipotent God given that there is evil in the world? Since Jewish history abounds with threats, pogroms, discrimination, and displacement, engagement with the problem of theodicy is commonplace in Jewish thought. The Holocaust, as an unprecedented catastrophe, threatened to push the problem of theodicy to its limits, as expressed in the famous question of Hans Jonas (1987): “Can there be a God after Auschwitz?” In the final year of the second funding period, Jewish approaches to theodicy will be explored.
The final question to be studied is whether or not scepticism can be upheld as a tenable position. Being a sceptic is less demanding than being a dogmatist, or so it seems. Whereas the latter has to defend her or his views by means of arguments, rendering themselves vulnerable to counter-arguments, the sceptic assumes the comfortable stance of simply questioning the views of others without committing to assumptions that are susceptible to challenge. In fact, this was one of the main reasons why ancient Pyrrhonists recommended adopting scepticism as a pathway to tranquillity. However, anti-sceptics have developed various types of arguments that attempt to show that there is a limit to scepticism and that not all forms of questioning our knowledge claims are reasonable. Considerations of this sort compel the sceptics to defend their position, or at least to uphold its coherence. In this spirit, the final year will turn scepticism against itself and ask: Is scepticism even possible?
(Jewish) Scepticism as a Strategy and Challenge in Past and Present (2023–24)
Though scepticism is often discussed as a particular philosophical doctrine – the doctrine that we cannot have knowledge about a specific domain – it can also be taken in a much broader sense. According to this broader conception, scepticism is a general attitude to life and enquiry that comes with a range of different tactics and strategies. A sceptic in this broader sense questions and attacks all dogmatic convictions by pointing out their dependence on dubious assumptions or their reliance on fragile and vulnerable methods of argumentation. Thereby, they find themselves surrounded by insurmountable uncertainties, while the course of life still requires them to take action and thus a stance on how things actually are.
MCAS’s research during the previous year has shown that this broader type of scepticism goes far beyond what is treated in philosophical epistemology and is in fact an important element of Jewish life and culture, which for various reasons is particularly shaped by controversies and dialectical disputes. In its last year, MCAS thus seeks to focus on the specific operation of sceptical thoughts and strategies in Judaism and beyond, thereby highlighting both the difficulties created by a sceptical attitude and its often innovative and critical force. It thus not only focuses on explicit discussions of scepticism as a philosophical position, but also investigates forms of scepticism that are used more implicitly as a discursive strategy, sometimes employed to sceptical ends, but sometimes also to dogmatic ones.
The aim of the year will be to focus on different sceptical narratives and argumentations, including not only philosophical and theological arguments, but also narratives in religious discourses in general as well as visual and literary narratives and political discourses that evince scepticism or employ sceptical strategies. Typical questions to be pursued this year are: To what (argumentative or rhetorical) end and how do (Jewish) philosophers and theologians return to sceptical considerations and what are their implications? What is the significance of stories about sceptics or accusations of scepticism in religious discourse? How is scepticism manifested in visual and literary sources and how is it employed to convey meaning and messages to the audience? How exactly and with respect to which sources is scepticism harnessed as a tool to challenge an opponent or authority in politics and social discourse?
Exploring these different ways of dealing with scepticism—endorsing it as an adequate description of our human condition or employing it for the implementation of some practical end—might not only help us to provide a better understanding of past developments in Jewish thought and culture, but also to reveal more general insights regarding how to deal with uncertainties, of which we are presumably much more aware nowadays than before.