Jeffrey Bernstein: Could you speak a little bit about your background and how it informs your views regarding the history of philosophy?
Idit Dobbs-Weinstein: Background in the sense of educational or pre-philosophical background? Background in the sense of Israel?
Bernstein: Any or all of the above.
Dobbs-Weinstein: I cannot proceed directly to all of it, but I can speak about my educational background and show why, in light of it, certain questions are more pressing to me than others. I have two degrees in political science with a focus on political philosophy, and subsequently received two degrees in medieval studies and philosophy. The first thing that became clear to me in my studies was that none of the Islamic and Judeo-Arabic philosophical works were acknowledged in the West as having had an impact upon the West. This suspicion occurred to me sometime during work on my first degree in political science, when I realized how much influence the Islamic and Judeo-Arabic tradition had specifically on Thomas Aquinas and his understanding of "law." As a result, I decided to write my first M.A. thesis on the concept of "law" in Maimonides and Aquinas.
To place this in the broader context of my research, I recognized that the Islamic and Judeo-Arabic philosophical tradition is really informed by a very different thinking or reading of the ancients. I have also recognized there is a serious problem with the ways in which the so-called "Classical" tradition was read--the tradition that is believed to have "originated" Western philosophy and formed its official "canon." The problem is that this canon occludes the Islamic and Judeo-Arabic tradition, and thus this tradition has never really been considered a source for ways of thinking about certain issues, for example, "science," "learning," and "knowing."
The other aspect of my research has to do with the consequences that these occlusions have for ethics/politics or the "political" in terms of what I believe is now experienced, at least by many, as a problem with all normative ethical thinking in light of the Shoah--which takes me to my earlier experience. To a great extent, I can say without gross misrepresentation that my whole thinking is informed by the Shoah, or by the fact that at age five I recognized that there could not possibly be a god (at least not in any of the traditional senses). Most of my compulsion can be said to originate both from historical experience and from my own personal encounter with an absence that could not possibly be spoken of or filled.
Bernstein: History manifests itself in philosophy in different ways for different thinkers (e.g., Nietzsche, Adorno, and Foucault). In what way does history manifest itself as a significant aspect of philosophy for you?
Dobbs-Weinstein: For me, in every aspect possible, and I think Nietzsche, Adorno, and Foucault are very appropriate here. In this sense, I am fully medieval, or pre-medieval in that I say "Ex nihilo nihilo fit." Which means that first, I think we have inherited sets of biases that all too often we do not recognize as such, and second, thinking of philosophical questions throughout history allows us both to see and to become sensitized to biases in our thinking--but also allows us thinking, period. History and philosophy are to me simply inseparable: there is no such thing as philosophy purely speaking. Philosophy is a way of life. What does that mean? We never do anything absolutely "original." Bernstein: To what extent do we take aspects of concrete history that do not seem philosophical and bring them into our philosophical inquiries?
Dobbs-Weinstein: First, I think there is no such thing as history pure and simple either. To quote Benjamin, "history is history of the victors, not the vanquished." In light of what I said earlier regarding the occluded, there is no such thing as a simple historical narrative. There would not be a single history even were we to include those traditions I spoke of before--unless you subscribe to a particular Weltanschauung that depends on a certain conception of a philosophy of history rather than of history.
Bernstein: Could you say a bit more about the occlusion of certain traditions in terms of how they become . . .
Dobbs-Weinstein: . . . decisive?
Bernstein: Yes, but, put another way, we have different strains of philosophical thinking that are "respectable," and then we have strains of thinking that are systematically occluded. Is such a difference one of kind or degree? How do we think these differences?
Dobbs-Weinstein: First, if I were to say anything, I would say that it is a difference (to some extent) in disposition or compulsion. But let me backtrack and ask: what stops some aspects of what we call thinking, even those occluded ones (had they not been occluded), from being "misappropriated" or translated into "philosophically respectable languages"? In one sense, nothing. Caution is the other way in which we can think about it. We can go back to Plato--or more properly to Socrates, who did not write. Dialogue allows for a movement in thinking that elicits thinking as a place that occurs between those who are in dialogue, even with a text. However, once the written word is indeed written, nothing stops it (properly speaking) from being misappropriated. The greatest irony is that Nietzsche, of all thinkers, was misappropriated in some of the most grotesque ways. There are different traditions of being cautious that I do believe belong together in some manner. I place the greatest danger of misappropriation in a broad political context--namely, that "respectable language" can, in turn, become sophistical or rhetorically manipulated, in a manner such that it presents a barrier to thinking. Thinkers such as Socrates, Spinoza, and Nietzsche were attuned to that danger and hence spoke or wrote in a language that repelled members of the academy.
Bernstein: Certainly Maimonides, Spinoza, and Nietzsche all had an ambivalence toward the academy.
Dobbs-Weinstein: They all did! None of them agreed to participate in academic philosophy. After all, professional philosophy is really rather new.
Bernstein: The question, then, is not so much with respect to the relation between thinking and misappropriation, but whether or not such misappropriation occludes the possibility for further thinking.
Dobbs-Weinstein: Yes, for me the most pressing question is how misappropriation serves as a barrier over which layers are constructed of what have been named "errancy" or "forgetfulness," and the way in which this precludes the possibility of thinking both as mimesis and what is understood by "mathema"--the mode or modes of learning and hence, teaching. That, to me, is a serious issue. The academy today is a good example of it. The condition for remaining in the academy is submission to "respectable language." Urging students to engage in dialogue with texts is a hard task for those who come totally unprepared--i.e., completely habituated to a passive relation to knowing. This is a task for which "a lifetime is not enough."
Bernstein: At what point did the idea of "method" begin to function in philosophy as a single, unified criterion by which to evaluate all philosophical texts? How might we begin to retrieve other notion(s) of "method"?
Dobbs-Weinstein: Such an imposed unified method is part of the danger to which I refer. One reason I repeatedly return to the ancients is because of their notion of the "orders of knowing." And the orders of knowing require different ways or approaches that do not project a telos or conclusion as a final end, but rather (1) recognize the limits of both a way of asking a particular question in a single order of learning, and of reaching an aporia and seeking another way, or else (2) require movement from one order of learning, knowing, teaching (what we will name "method") to another.
Bernstein: Even on the most basic level, one has to find interesting your book on Maimonides and Thomas, which begins with the Shoah and ends with Benjamin. How do you see certain contemporary thinkers as akin to certain aspects of premodern and modern thinkers?
Dobbs-Weinstein: There is another way in which I could characterize what I call my obsession or compulsion with the history of philosophy. One way which I could name the movement of thinking that I am trying to think with, or be informed by, is Neoplatonic; it is not the best term, but it is the only one available to me right now. That would tie, for me, in a very strange way, both the Shoah and oddly enough, the quotations in Greek by Aristotle (from the Topics)--that open the Introduction--and Walter Benjamin. I would say that all of these thinkers share certain sensibilities, or relations to, or attunements to thinking and action. Now if I begin from the end (which is probably the place to begin, because in one way the end and the beginning belong together [the Shoah and Benjamin belong together]), I would say that I think that it is the extreme of irresponsibility--in light of the Shoah--not to question what has come to be known as thinking (by "thinking" here, I mean reason--more specifically, what has come to be known as "instrumental reason" or "technocratic reason"). I think that the philosophical tradition, too, is fully complicit in the Shoah at least in this way: the assumption that we are indeed progressing toward something has led to a whole host of normative standards that have allowed not just for the occlusion of texts (much as I love texts, human beings--whatever we may mean by that--come first). It allowed for a destruction that was carried out in the most systematic and rational way. I think that not to take the departure from there today (and it does not matter what you think about the tradition's complicity, or about possibilities in the traditions that are not complicit) would be irresponsible.
Thomas and Maimonides occupy, for me, a pivotal point there, strangely enough: Why medieval "religious thinkers," when I said at the beginning of the interview that I am not religious? No, I am not religious at all. The best characterization would be "agnostic," but by that I mean that I simply do not know. That is a philosophical theme for me. I think what I find rich with possibilities in Thomas and Maimonides is, first of all, the conversation between them. We rarely see that type of conversation today, that kind of influence across extremely different traditions and traditions that are ripe with biases. We dismiss them as "theologians" or "religious thinkers," and yet they have the courage to question in a way that few today do. Thomas and Maimonides have an attunement to traditions and ways of thinking other than their own, and that is remarkable. I would love to see more of that today. In their conversation, questions, textual encounters, and disagreements, I have found a tremendously rich context from which both to think back and to think forward from the ancients to the moderns and "postmoderns."
Why Thomas and Maimonides? Some of it was a historical accident--I really wanted to work on Al-Farabi and Maimonides, but I could not find a place to do that for a variety of reasons (some of which have little to do with philosophy). But I decided to work with Maimonides and Thomas because it is still the case that the so-called "Jewish" and the so-called "Christian" traditions have come to form what we now call, unfortunately, the "Judeo-Christian" tradition. There is no such thing as a "Judeo-Christian tradition." There are definitely repercussions between the two traditions and there are transformations of both traditions within the philosophical context. In terms of the theological context (so to speak), no two traditions could begin from more radically different positions than Judaism and Christianity. In that sense, Judaism is much closer to Islam, because they are both traditions of orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. So there are fewer barriers to thinking precisely because there are no dogmas per se, except for those that accrue later (but I am talking about what comes to form those traditions).
What is, to me, tremendously rich in a thinker like Thomas is his ability to think against sets of dogma, and to think about them nondogmatically. Thomas was a pious man; he was not a "religious thinker." In many ways I believe that if Thomas had lived today, he would have been excommunicated if for no other reason than because of his courage to question all things in order to come to know them. And he is unique insofar as, for him, philosophy is not a handmaiden, it is a complement. Divine science and philosophy are really complements rather than either one being a handmaiden to the other. Thomas does not view philosophy as simply giving to him the method to be applied (and which would allow him to "move on"). Rather, he sees philosophy and divine science as two modalities of coming to know (and as an engagement).
I work specifically on the philosophical material because I am a philosopher, not a theologian. And I work on Thomas because he is the only one who acknowledges debts to Maimonides at key points, most of which have not been recognized to date. And ironically where that influence has been recognized, it has been misappropriated in terms of Thomas and "law." On "law" precisely (and "natural law") they could not be further apart. However, Thomas did influence subsequent Jewish thinkers in their thinking of "law."
But no, neither Thomas nor Maimonides were "religious thinkers." In the case of Thomas, only some of his teachings were condemned. In the case of Maimonides, there was a ban on his teachings, and a great controversy that raged very shortly after his death (actually, even during his lifetime) and which still continues. Piety is, in a curious way, a piety to thinking or philosophy. But Thomas and Maimonides said very little, well, nothing positive about the divine. So they, too, did not investigate that, and in one way I would characterize them as genuinely agnostic. But that recognition of the not knowing is crucial--there is a huge difference between a not-knowing that recognizes its limits (i.e., the Socratic agnoia), and atheism in the sense that there is no God. Since I do not know what "there is God" may mean, I do not know what "there is no God" may mean. I do not even know things that are ready at hand, let alone things that I cannot, in principle, know.
Bernstein: Could you speak a bit about the work that you are doing now and where you see it heading in the future?
Dobbs-Weinstein: Right now I can speak about my current compulsion and where I see it moving. That will shift as indeed my research shifts. I am working right now specifically on Gersonides as a pivotal fourteenth-century thinker who comes to influence, in significant and occluded ways, appropriations of Aristotle under the Averroean garbs (and with Gersonides' modifications), and Euclid. Another way in which that comes to influence later thinking, especially in the Renaissance, is through Proclus and especially Proclus' commentaries on Euclid and Plato. Now, the interesting thing is that those are two themes that come together in some very rich ways in the Renaissance that I am heading toward. What I hope to do is work on the Renaissance appropriations of ancient and medieval philosophy and especially in the encounter between (loosely speaking) Aristotelianism on the one hand (we can include Euclid here) and Platonism on the other. These appropriations give rise to what I believe are two radically different notions of "geometry" that come to inform the seventeenth century. So I see my research for the next few years as being centered around the Renaissance, moving both forward from the ancients and medievals and backward from Spinoza. Where I hope to end this phase of the research is really on Spinoza as a radical alternative to--and critic of--Descartes. Now this is clearly going to take a couple of years.
From there, the only way I can see my research moving, at this point, is toward German Idealism--clearly via Leibniz and Kant--with a focus on what is known as the "Spinozism of German Idealism." I want to look at the different modalities of Spinozism that emerge, but with a certain focus on Schelling, and then move from there to Nietzsche, whom I see as the only Spinozist in the history of philosophy up to the turn of this century. The other thing I am always compelled by can be located around certain issues in contemporary philosophy--questions concerning the "ethical" and the "political." I will continue to do this primarily through Critical Theory (in particular, Adorno and Benjamin). I hope to be able to do a lot more work on Benjamin in particular; I find some very rich relations between Benjamin and Spinoza (amongst others). It was not by chance that he wrote a "Theologico-Political Fragment" (echoing Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise). I want to really think that fragment very seriously, especially in the context of how we are to understand history, which is what this very brief text is a curious reflection on. And then, clearly, there are themes in Lyotard, Blanchot, and Derrida that I am very interested in.
Bernstein: In your teaching, you are attuned to the necessity of moving with and through aporias in the text in order to avoid the occlusion that happens when one attempts too hastily to "find answers." Insofar as aporias may constitute the texts we read, you are interested in not covering them over. By "not showing your hand too quickly," you resist presenting your own position as a "definitive answer" (i.e., an occlusion) to the text. You do realize, however, that in this interview, your "hand" will now be transformed into written word.
Dobbs-Weinstein: Yes, but can you come away from this interview with certain sets of principles that would give rise to something positive, normative, or even descriptive, except for a call to think? I am not so sure. In other words, the question is: What does it mean to say, "I do not show my hand"? Am I deliberately obscurantist? Far from it. In my teaching it takes a slightly different articulation--teaching is action and thinking at once. What I try to guard against most when I teach is not speaking as if my answer were conclusive, so as to avoid (to the extent possible) any kind of dogmatic appropriation. It is understandable why students might wish to imitate their teachers, but there are different modes of imitation. I try very hard to avoid the mimetic appropriation that is immediate, passive, and occludes thinking. One other reason is that if I made clear what my views were, and my views appeared as if they were final, it would preclude the possibility of first, students challenging me and second, learning from my students. The relation between the student and teacher is, to me, a dynamic relationship, and--hopefully this will not be misunderstood as I mean this in the Socratic sense--an erotic one. Teaching and learning is a movement that occurs between. In other words, we are at once both agent and patient, both teacher and learner. If we are not very careful, we can do a great deal of harm. And that, too, I have learned from my teachers, Maimonides especially.
I believe my task is to provoke students to think and to engage them in genuine dialogue and questioning. To paraphrase a rabbinic saying, "I have learned from my teachers, and I have learned from my peers, but I have learned most from my students." And that is a continuous process of learning.