Annotated Study Carrel: A Series. Part I

March 10, 2010

I spend my days sitting at a study carrel, its tiny desk and shelf space overwhelmed by books. There is a reason for each book being there; each one represents a line of thinking, a narrative thread, a potential avenue in my dissertation. Like the space itself I often sit overwhelmed by all of these books and the seemingly infinite yet always overlapping research possibilities they represent. At the recommendation of The Ciceronian, I have decided to present an annotated bibliography of these books, a few at a time, in order to expunge some demons. However, since this is the internet (and more specifically Yesterday’s Salad), I will view these works through the gaze of why they’re important to me and not why they’re important to you. I originally planned to write about all of the books I could squeeze into frame in one picture taken with my cell phone’s camera, but I think I’ll run out of steam before that happens. And so, without further ado, I give you the first part in a series.

Wolfson of Harvard: portrait of a scholar by Leo W. Schwarz; with appreciations by Charles Angoff and Isadore Twersky and an epilogue by Lewis H. Weinstein

This is a biographical study and appreciation of the life and work of one of the greatest scholars of the twentieth century, Harry Austryn Wolfson. Wolfson was the first appointment in Judaic studies at an American university and contributed significant studies in the history of philosophy as well as the philosophy of religion. He was also one of the main advisers of Jacob Agus, the guy I’m writing my dissertation about.

Between Berlin and Slobodka: Jewish transition figures from Eastern Europe by Hillel Goldberg
This book is at times insightful and at times batty. It examines seemingly disparate figures who nevertheless share a background in the world of the Lithuanian Yeshiva in general and in circles associated with the Musar movement in particular. Musar was a phenomenon within East European orthodox Judaism that stressed the perfection of one’s moral character and the cultivation of virtue. What Goldberg does that is interesting is that he studies a figure like Wolfson who completely abandoned Jewish observance in order to pursue the universal claims of philosophy in order to demonstrate that his method of reading philosophical texts was somehow (unconsciously? subconsciously? this part is unclear) inspired by the orthodox Musar thought-world he rejected. Goldberg also looks at those whose continuity with orthodox tradition was unquestioned, like Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the patron saint and revered teacher of thousands of modern orthodox rabbis, Goldberg himself included. This book is just kind of crazy, but it’s kind of fun too. My guy, Agus, grew up in a very similar milieu but came to embrace non-orthodox, liberal Judaism, hence my interest in the book. These questions of intellectual biography consume me these days. How do we weigh continuity versus change? When a figure breaks with a tradition to what extent do they by necessity bring aspects of it along with them? Are we not equally defined by what we reject as we are by what we embrace?

(A draft of this post was saved at 11:11:11. Spoookkkkyyy.)

Jewish Philosophy as a Guide to Life
Rosenzweig, Buber, Levinas, Wittgenstein by Hilary Putnam

Widely considered one of greatest philosophers of our time, Hilary Putnam’s career has been as varied as it has been important. He is known as a naturalist, a philosopher of science, and an important builder of bridges to span the chasm separating “analytical” and “continental” philosophy. What is less known, however, is that later in life, Putnam began to take an interest in Jewish religious practice. In an autobiographical introduction he tells the reader what brought him late in life to examine works by three of the 20th century’s finest exponents of Jewish religious thought…and Wittgenstein (he explains the seemingly odd choice to include him in the introduction as well). I don’t think I’m going to end up using this book at all, especially since I learned today that somebody recalled it and Butler Library will have my head if I don’t get it back there before the 22nd of this month. What’s really interesting about this book is what it tells us about Putnam himself; about the appeal of religion to even the sharpest of philosophical minds; about how we see people return to religiosity later in life. (Is there any connection here to Said’s argument about “late style”? I’m not being rhetorical; I’m asking because I don’t know.) Another interesting exercise is to link Putnam’s story to the broader narrative of the Jewish intellectual in American life. If Wolfson was an immigrant who was reared in pietistic, East European orthodox Judaism, but left the fold to pursue the universality of scholarship and philosophy, then Putnam (Professor Emeritus at, you guessed it, Harvard!) represents the scholar for whom Wolfson blazed the trail. (I can’t help but think of Tommy Lee Jones’ speech in No Country for Old Men about the dream he has.) Putnam also represents the story coming full circle as the defender of the universal finds himself groping for a way into a tradition previously left behind.

I’ll take my completely blown mind as a sign that it’s time to leave this exercise behind…for now. This has been “Annotated Study Carrel”.

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