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Pragmatism, Ethics, and Jewish Philosophy: A Hypothesis

Sun, December 16, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Beacon Hill 1 Complex

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that defies precise definition. It is difficult to identify determinate positions held equally by the classical pragmatists, from C.S. Peirce and William James through Jane Addams and John Dewey, as well as by neopragmatists, including Richard Rorty, Jeffrey Stout, and Robert Brandom. Instead, pragmatism can be described as a general commitment to fallibilism, in that both everyday beliefs and philosophical positions are defeasible and revisable, as well as through the dichotomies that it rejects, including mind/body, fact/value, subjectivity/objectivity, emotion/reason, and theory/practice. Similarly, pragmatism expresses a methodological eclecticism, which bypasses the division between Continental and Analytic schools of philosophy. It is consequently the hypothesis of this panel that the intellectual tendencies that pragmatism embodies may revitalize Jewish philosophy by enabling it to overcome sterile philosophical oppositions and to engage in thinking that is situated, tentative, and yet generative.

This engagement between pragmatism and Jewish philosophy is overdue. In the early twentieth century, Mordecai Kaplan and Max Kadushin incorporated select insights of Dewey and Peirce into their thought. More recently, Peter Ochs has adapted the latter’s epistemology for a reparative hermeneutics of Scripture. Hilary Putnam, a philosopher whose secular writings are in the spirit of pragmatism, turned in his later writings to Jewish themes. Yet, these encounters were individual and episodic. This panel by contrast convenes a diverse group of scholars to explore how the spirit of pragmatism can advance Jewish thinking about embodiment, sociality, and moral value.

In his paper, Nadav Shifman Berman contests Mishnah Avot’s (5: 16) opposition between love and self-interest on the basis of Putnam’s collapse of the fact/value distinction. Hannah E. Hashkes arranges a (re)encounter between Rorty and Emmanuel Levinas in her paper to argue that Rorty’s notion of solidarity is, in fact, a pragmatist description of Levinasian reasoning. In his paper, Yonatan Y. Brafman re-reads Soloveitchik’s halakhic writings through the lens of John McDowell’s neopragmatist metaethics to rethink the source of normativity for Jewish practice as well as its relation to emotional life and moral value. Samuel H. Brody will serve as chair, and Randi Rashkover will respond.

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