EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2015/16
The Role of Jewish Mysticism in Early Modern Philosophy and Science:
Kabbalah, “Atheism” and Non-Mechanical Philosophies of Nature in the 17th-18th Centuries
Paris, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), 12-13 October 2015
Main organizer: Cristina Ciucu (National Center for Scientific Research, Paris)
Co-organizers: Sylvie Anne Goldberg (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris) and Gad Freudenthal (National Center for Scientific Research, Paris)
Original mission statement
The purpose of this EAJS Conference was to facilitate horizontal, international and cross-disciplinary communication among (mainly European) scholars interested in studying the role of Jewish mysticism as ferment in the emergence of Early Modern European thought. To favour this line of research, we wished to bring together experts in different facets of the history of Early Modern thought, Jewish and non-Jewish, hoping that this collaborative effort could shed new light on the importance for European cultural history of its encounter with Jewish mysticism.
The Conference was to discuss the following four main interrelated themes:
- Kabbalah’s alliance with different hermetic and alchemical traditions and the subsequent emergence of a new “Kabbalistic alchemy”, involving both philosophy and the emerging New Science;
- The growing affinity between the notion of nature and that of the divine (with the key-role played by the concept of spiritus mundi) in its relation to non-mechanical philosophies of nature;
- Kabbalah’s appeal to philosophers and free-thinkers, representatives of a “Spinozismus ante Spinozam”, and the emergence of a new form of pantheism nourished by the eclecticism of the humanist tradition;
- The association of Jewish mysticism with pantheism and “atheism” triggered by the numerous Spinozist controversies (Leibniz vs Spinoza, Henry More vs Franciscus Cuperus, Johann Franz Buddeus vs Johann Georg Wachter, Jacobi vs Mendelssohn, etc.).
The expected (immediate and long-term) outcomes and outputs of this EAJS Conference were the following: (i) an innovative collective volume of the theme of the Conference, which would stimulate further research in this area; (ii) the creation of contacts and collaboration among scholars and advanced students; (iii) the contribution, on both practical and symbolic levels, to the disenclavement of (a segment of) Jewish Studies and the communication with other fields of scholarship.
Actual Event. Programme, interventions and discussions
Touching on Jewish studies and the history of Jewish thought, early modern and modern European intellectual history, the history of European philosophy and the history of science, this conference aimed at offering a more nuanced, contextualized and pluralistic view of the Early Modern intellectual world, by taking into consideration various heterodoxical religious elements. More precisely, it is from the vantage point of some particular forms of heterodoxy constituted by the various avatars of the Kabbalistic tradition during the 17th and 18th centuries, that we attempted to take a new look at different aspects of early modern thought (with some of their institutional implications).
Among the numerous aspects of-, and stages in the process of encounter and hybridization between Jewish or Christianized Kabbalah and non-Jewish early modern thought – synthetically discussed in the Introductory presentation (Cristina Ciucu) –, four were directly approached during the Conference:
1) The alchemical marriage between the Kabbalistic symbolism and different forms of proto-chemical experimentalism and natural philosophy during the 17th century.
Kabbalah offered a symbolic framework and – as was already the case with Paracelsus and Johann Baptista van Helmont – alchemy, medicine and chemistry were blended with Kabbalistic elements, sephirotic theosophy was associated with experimentalism. The birth of Episteme was assisted by Gnosis. Some of the tenets of this alliance, its contexts and its implications were explored in the presentations of Professors Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann and Bernd Roling. Professor Schmidt-Biggemann introduced us to the thought of the foundational figure of Heinrich Khunrath, a pioneer of the synthesis between Paracelsianism and Kabbalistic symbolism that would inform 17th century’s natural philosophy. Professor Bernd Roling analyzed the growing influence, during the 18th century, of a special form of Kabbalah (a Gothicized one) in a Sweden dominated by Paracelsianism. These case studies offered as well an insight into some of the historical and ideological mechanisms accounting for the appeal of Kabbalah in some parts of Europe.
2) The polemics and controversies around Spinoza’s monistic “kabbalism” helped forge and refine philosophical concepts and notions, while creating the conditions for the emergence of a nucleus of historical approach to the Kabbalistic tradition (for instance, the distinction operated in Buddeus’s Defense – and adopted by many subsequent philosophers and historians – between the Luriarianic and the pre-Lurianic Kabbalah). These philosophical and theological debates, involving some major figures – like Bayle, Leibniz, Noel Aubert de Versé, Georg Wachter, Johann Franz Buddeus, Jacques Basnage, Jakob Brucker, Friedrich Jacobi, Moses Mendelssohn or Hegel, to quote just a few –, concern both the kabbalism of Spinoza, and the Spinozism (i.e. the pantheism) of the Kabbalah. They would propel both Spinoza and the Kabbalah at the forefront of European intellectual life. Dr. Mogens Laerke discussed one of the decisive moments/stages in the history of the Spinozist controversies, involving Georg Wachter’s famous Der Spinozismus im Jüdenthumb (1699), Buddeus’ response and defense in Defensio cabbalae Ebraeorum (1700) and the subsequent revision of Wachter’s initial position in his Elucidarius cabalisticus (1706). Dr. Laerke’s paper argued that-, and demonstrated how this episode will set the bases for future readings, misreadings and interpretations, up to 19th century German idealism.
In order to fully seize the tents and implications of this episode, a closer look at the original problematic was indispensable. Professor Yitzhak Melamed’s paper (read by Dr. Mogens Laerke; Professor Melamed had to cancel his flight the very day of his departure, due to visa-related problems, but he sent his paper to be read and discussed) re-opened the question lying at the very origin of these intellectual debates, by analyzing the possible relation between the Spinozist system and the Lurianic Kabbalah (Isaac Saruq’s version) such as it was presented in Abraham Cohen of Herrera’s kabbalistico-philosophic syntheses Gates of Heaven (Puerta del Cielo, Amsterdam 1655). One of the most widely read Kabbalistic texts in the non-Jewish world, Herrera’s treatise has already been suggested as one of Spinoza’s sources (by Giuseppa Saccaro-Battisti, for instance). Professor Melamed’s paper sheds new light on this problem, by embarking upon a thorough examination of the Spinozist concepts of infinite substance and limitation, as compared to Herrera’s definitions of the tzimtzum and the emanation.
3) The discovery of the Lurianic Kabbalah, mainly due to the translations, studies and commentaries of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth and Francis Mercury van Helmont. The relations, friendships and correspondences these two Christian kabbalists established with various contemporary thinkers and philosophers (like Henry More, Ralph Cudworth, Ann Conway or Leibniz) contributed to the crystallization of major philosophical concepts and ideas: new forms of panpsychism, monism, hylozoism or the concept of monad. Tracing back the notion of monad and its implications (including the concept of pre-established harmony) to the Renaissance Neoplatonic-hermetic-Kabbalistic syntheses and discussing the imprint of some “Kabbalistic” ideas (as transformed by Knorr von Rosenroth) on the vitalist stages in Leibniz’s philosophy would have ideally been the object of our Leibniz specialist’s intervention. Unfortunately, Professor Frédéric Nef could not be present to the event, but he agreed to contribute to the Proceedings. Seventeenth century philosophy was also at the core of Professor Brian Copenhaver’s paper. Prof. Copenhaver analyzed some aspects of the early modern thought in light of Henry More’s theosophy and Kabbalah interests, while trying to propose a (binary) framework for the analysis of complex positions like that of More or Newton: theosophy vs. modern science.
Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Quakers, alchemists, experimentalists: Kabbalah (under its various forms) exerted a special fascination and left a strong imprint on 17th century English intellectual life, with implications for the history of science, philosophy, literature and politics. A historical survey of these multifarious phenomena – not unrelated to the millenarian movements and the resettlement of the Jews in England – was proposed by Professor György Szönyi Endre. But if England represents a special case, it is by no means an exception. Professor Didier Kahn extended the discussions to more popular aspects of these phenomena, as reflected in the Abbé de Villar’s Le comte de Gabalis ou Entretiens sur les sciences secrètes (1670). Delving into the historical references and scorn “objects” of this humorous and very-widely read text, we can measure some of the impact and response to these “sciences secretes” among the non-initiates.
4) No processes, ideas or syntheses discussed during this EAJS Conference would have been possible without the active participation of Jewish philosophers and kabbalists. The engagement of Jewish intellectuals with their cultural and social surroundings stands as a major factor behind most of these developments. Professor Moshe Idel and Dr. Elke Morlok demonstrated this point by attending to two key figures of the 18th century who deny and undo boundaries by operating and incarnating these syntheses among (Jewish and non-Jewish) philosophy of the Enlightenment, scientific thought and the Kabbalah: Salomon Maimon and Isaac Satanow. For Salomon Maimon, radical rationalism, skepticism, a neutral monistic view and the notion of anima mundi were equally prerequisites for a fecund scientific approach. In Professor Idel’s analysis, although Maimon certainly contributed to the re-opening of the Spinozist issue in German idealism, his pantheism, as well as his notion of material cause, can both be explained by means of his Kabbalistic background. Isaac Satanow displays the same inclination to synthetize rationalism and idealism, secular knowledge and tradition, science and Kabbalistic symbolism. Dr. Morlok offered an analysis of the role played by Kabbalistic symbolism in articulating contemporary scientific discoveries, rational philosophy and mysticism, in Satanow’s little-studied treatise Imre Binah.
Following each session, the discussions tackled punctual problems and questions concerning each presentation, as well as the following broader topics:
- The auto-definition of the Christian vs. Jewish Kabbalah (main discussants: Moshe Idel and Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann);
- The issue of a comprehensive (alternative) theoretical model for the phenomena discussed, including a common reflection on existing models, such as Popkin’s “third force” (discussants: Brian Copenhaver, Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann, György Szönyi Endre and Cristina Ciucu).
- The role of the (Christianized) Kabbalistic tradition in the constitution of national identities, with their linguistic component (discussants: Bernd Roling, György Szönyi Endre, Maurice Kriegel and Brian Copenhaver).
- The relation between the Spinozist thought and 18th century Jewish philosophers (primarily Salomon Maimon) (Yitzak Melamed’s position discussed by Moshe Idel, Elke Morlok, Cristina Ciucu and Mogens Laerke).
- A more general discussion on the notion of pantheism and of its genealogy (discussants: Mogens Laerke, Brian Copenhaver, Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann).
- The issue – central in my initial statement, but not directly addressed in the different papers – of the opposition (beginning with the second half of the seventeenth century) to the emerging mechanist model, and of the role played by the Christianized Kabbalah in this dynamics (discussants: Moshe Idel, Mogens Laerke, Cristina Ciucu and Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann).
Outcomes and outputs
The proceedings to this EAJS conference are intended to offer a comprehensive picture of the variegated positions (of philosophers, scientists, historians or theologians) and of the numerous disputations reflecting the reception and the (mis)interpretations of various elements of the Kabbalistic literature, as received and disseminated by non-Jewish scholars. They should contribute to forge less binary or dualistically construed representations of some of the processes that fashioned modernity, and (hopefully) overcome some persisting dyads of contemporary thought.
Oxford University Press and Brill will be approached during the following weeks. The chair-persons, as well as scholars who, for different reasons, could not participate in the conference – like Peter Forshaw (University of Amsterdam) or Frédéric Nef (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales) – were invited to contribute.
As stated in the rationale, this conference aimed as well at setting the bases for “a long-lasting international cross-disciplinary network including early career scholars and established specialists”. Indeed, it helped create bonds among scholars (and students) and we hope it marks the beginning of a long-term institutional and scientific collaboration in terms of collective and individual publications, teaching and (further) conferences.
Paris, October 29, 2015
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