Philosophy 68 - 4.3.1 Defining Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Philosophy

The previous chapter on the early history of philosophy examined how and whether organized philosophies differ from Indigenous belief systems and religions. It was mentioned that the emergence of a philosophy has been described as a transition from a system of myths (mythos) to a rational system of ideas (logos). If this distinction appears blurry at times, how much more difficult might it be to untangle theology from philosophy—or to determine what constitutes Jewish, Christian, or Islamic philosophy?

In a provocative article, 20th-century rabbi and scholar Eliezer Berkovits (1908–1992) tackles the question of what is Jewish philosophy and who should be considered a Jewish philosopher (Berkovits 1961). Is a Jewish philosopher anyone who is both a Jew and a philosopher? Consider, for example, the Sephardic Jew Baruch Spinoza, often cast as a Dutch philosopher. Inspired by the French philosopher René Descartes, Spinoza developed a metaphysical model of God, humans, and the world that challenged religious orthodoxy and established a moral philosophy that functions independently of scripture, laying the foundation for a rational, democratic society. Excommunicated by his own community, Spinoza emerged as one of the most important thinkers of the early modern era (Nadler 2020). Should Spinoza be considered a Jewish philosopher? Or, even more on point, should Spinoza’s work be considered Jewish philosophy?

Berkovits did not think so. He argued that unlike Descartes, who created a new philosophy—a modern epistemology that gave rise to advancements in politics and science—Jewish philosophers have not been involved in the project of creating something from scratch. They did not have a blank slate to start from. A Jewish philosopher—and the same could be said for a Christian or Muslim philosopher—always works with a partner, i.e., the events and facts central to the religion. For example, all three of these monotheistic religions have foundational texts that claim that God created the world. This is a metaphysical starting point for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers—and it runs counter to Aristotle’s supposition that the universe has always existed, emanating from the unmoved mover.

Whereas each of the three monotheistic religions produced rich bodies of thought that address the nature of reality (metaphysics) and ethics, this section examines those Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thinkers who carried the mantle of the Greek philosophical tradition into the early modern age, often in partnership with their own traditions.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax