Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Thinking Impossibilities

Thinking Impossibilities: The Intellectual Legacy of Amos Funkenstein

Robert S. Westman
David Biale
  • Book Info
    Thinking Impossibilities
    Book Description:

    Intellectuals rarely make a significant impact on one field of scholarship let alone several, yet Amos Funkenstein (1937-1995) displayed an intellectual range that encompassed several disciplines and broke new ground across seemingly impenetrable scholarly boundaries. The philosophy of history from antiquity to modernity, medieval and early modern history of science, medieval scholasticism, Jewish history in all of its periods - these are all areas in which he made lasting contributions.Thinking Impossibilitiesbrings together Funkenstein's colleagues, friends, and former students to engage with important aspects of his intellectual legacy.

    Funkenstein's diverse interests were bound together by common figures of thought, especially the search for pre-modern intellectual groundings of modern ideas and how the seeming 'impossibilities' of one historical moment might become positive resources of conceptual construction and development in another. The essays in this volume take up major themes in European intellectual history, and examine them through the unique lens that Funkenstein himself employed during his career. Of particular interest are ways in which topics of Jewish history are engaged with the larger field of the history of ideas in the West. Richly interdisciplinary and full of fresh insights,Thinking Impossibilitiesis a fitting tribute to an important twentieth-century scholar.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8940-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-2)
  5. Introduction: The Last German-Jewish Philosopher: An Intellectual Biography of Amos Funkenstein
    (pp. 3-10)

    When Amos Funkenstein was an adolescent, he assembled his schoolmates in the courtyard of Jerusalem’s famous religious school, Maale, and declared that there was no God. Called on the carpet by the school principal, he refused to repent, thus beginning a lifelong career ofépater les religieux. Like Spinoza, whose philosophy played a central role in his work, Amos was a trueepikores, a heretic from within his tradition. The termepikores, self-evidently derived from ‘Epicurean’ in the Greek, originally signified in the rabbinic idiom a Jew who, like the Epicurean philosophers, did not believe that the gods intervened in...


    • chapter one Divine Omnipotence and First Principles: A Late Medieval Argument on the Subalternation of the Sciences
      (pp. 13-33)

      Since the early years of the twentieth century, historians of science and intellectual historians have recognized the singular importance of divine omnipotence for seminal discussions of epistemology, law, cosmology, and natural philosophy, to say nothing of the more obvious issues of theology. As it was often observed, if God is omnipotent, thende potentia absolutahe is constrained only by the principle of non-contradiction. Can he then create in us an intuitive cognition of a non-existent, and if so, what effect does this admission have on the certainty of our knowledge of contingent facts? Can God change past events, as...

    • chapter two Was Kepler a Secular Theologian?
      (pp. 34-62)

      ‘Secular theology’ is one of those neologisms that Amos Funkenstein was fond of coining. Readers ofTheology and the Scientific Imaginationcannot help but be struck by the number of uncommon analytic categories that populate the book and that require mastery in order to follow the full argument – terms like ‘univocation,’ ‘unequivocation,’ ‘ubiquity,’ ‘theologumena,’ and ‘ergetic knowledge.’¹ This is a conceptual vocabulary that bears the traces of an etymological ancestry that is largely Latinate, often medieval-scholastic, and sometimes Greek. It reflects both Funkenstein’s intimate proximity to the original sources and the unusual experience of someone who had learned classical languages...

    • chapter three Jewish Traditionalism and Early Modern Science: Rabbi Israel Zamosc’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (Berlin, 1744)
      (pp. 63-96)

      Amos Funkenstein had a knack for exposing novel ideas in short and dense papers that could easily serve as outlines for large monographs. One of them, ‘The Attitude of the Jewish Enlightenment to Medieval Jewish Philosophy’ (1990),¹ attends to the singular relationship of the Jewish Enlightenment movement (Haskalah) to medieval Jewish philosophy. Funkenstein pointed out the following paradox: whereas early modern European philosophy was trying to rid itself of the medieval legacy, Jewish authors who (a century or more later) wished to move their co-religionists to join the movement towards modernity appealedtomedieval Jewish philosophy for support. Whereas in...

    • chapter four Religion, Theology, and the Hermetic Imagination in the Late German Enlightenment: The Case of Johann Salomo Semler
      (pp. 97-111)

      Amos Funkenstein contended inTheology and the Scientific Imaginationthat the ideals of science and theology were intimately connected in early modern Europe. Despite the supposedly secular character of the Enlightenment, I argue that the same proposition holds true for the eighteenth century, at least in Germany. I build my case around an essay that appeared in 1786 entitled ‘Of True Hermetical Medicine: To Herr Leopold Baron Hirschen in Dresden; Against False Masons and Rosicrucians’¹ that quickly became a minor cause célèbre within the German intellectual community. Its defence of hermetic medicine and chemistry generated an immediate negative response in...

    • chapter five Science and the Musical Imagination from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period
      (pp. 112-140)

      For Amos Funkenstein, absurdity constituted the main key to understanding continuity and change in the transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. Funkenstein’s fascination with the notion of absurdity dominates his works on medieval as well as early modern topics.¹ Fascinated by the similarities and differences between medieval and early modern modes of thought, Funkenstein compared thecriticalandtheologicaluse of absurdities in late medieval thought to the seventeenth-centuryconstructiveapproach to various types of impossibilities. He perceived the problem as one of tracing the origin of conceptual pathways. Delineating the history and evolution of the...


    • chapter six Amos Funkenstein on the Theological Origins of Historicism
      (pp. 143-166)

      It is not, of course, a new suggestion to turn history on itself in order to discover the historical conditions for the possibility of the modern historical outlook. This project began in the early modern period, taking on a new direction and momentum with J.C. Gatterer’s complaint that his discipline had studiously exempted itself from the methods it pioneered.¹ Few recent contributors to this ongoing endeavour, perhaps, have undertaken as interesting or fundamental a version of it as the late Amos Funkenstein. As his student Abraham P. Socher has recently observed, ‘One of Amos Funkenstein’s central historical concerns was the...

    • chapter seven Of Divine Cunning and Prolonged Madness: Amos Funkenstein on Maimonides’ Historical Reasoning
      (pp. 167-192)

      One of Amos Funkenstein’s central historical concerns was the development of the discipline and methods of history itself. He was interested in the realization that the recovery of historical truth is not merely the collection and chronological ordering of simple, atomic facts but rather what he called a process of ‘contextual reasoning,’ in which the historical datum is ‘alienated’ from the present and understood through the painstaking reconstruction of its original context. In a rich series of studies he argued that such a realization was first developed through applications of the medieval doctrine of divine accommodation to human finitude, the...

    • chapter eight History and/or Memory: On the Principle of Accommodation
      (pp. 193-206)

      1. In the last decades the relationship between history and memory, history and oblivion, has been scrutinized with unprecedented intensity. This widespread concern arose, we have been told, from multiple challenges: the imminent physical disappearance of the last generation of witnesses to the extermination of European Jews; the upsurge of old and new nationalisms in Africa, Asia, and Europe; the limitations of a dry, ‘scientific’ approach to history, and so forth. These underlying motivations should be submitted to a careful analysis, which is outside the scope of my paper. But they all aim to integrate memory within a more comprehensive...

    • chapter nine Historical Consciousness Revisited: From Vico’s Mythology to Funkenstein’s Methodology
      (pp. 207-226)

      In one of his last essays, ‘Collective Memory and Historical Consciousness,’ Amos Funkenstein sought to reappraise the notion and manifestations of ‘historical consciousness’ in Jewish historiography.¹ According to his own testimony, he borrowed the term ‘historical consciousness’ from the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, who fashioned it in order to distinguish certain atavistic forms of historical comprehension like ‘sensation’ or ‘evocation-of-images’ from the more scientific ‘historical knowledge.’² As Funkenstein showed, this conception inspired Huizinga’s masterpiece,The Autumn of the Middle Ages, and is also implicit in his ultimate definition of history as the ‘mental form by which a culture accounts...

    • chapter ten Francesco Bianchini, Historian. In Memory of Amos Funkenstein
      (pp. 227-278)

      I recall with a still lively amazement a conversation I had with Amos Funkenstein at one of our monthly lunches a few years ago. Usually our talk related to the questions in which he was particularly interested, and I played the role of Simplicio to his Salviati. On this occasion, however, I thought that at last I could introduce a subject that I could dominate. I had been doing some geometry to preserve my sanity during an administrative stint and had solved one or two problems in ways I thought amusing. I gave him the problems; he said that he...


    • chapter eleven Amos Funkenstein and the History of Scepticism
      (pp. 281-287)

      Amos Funkenstein and I debated the history of scepticism from September 1967, when he was the first to question a lecture that I gave at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, until our very last meeting in his hospital room in October 1995. In his bookTheology and the Scientific Imagination,¹ Funkenstein has modern scepticism descending from the heavens, whereas I have it ascending from the rubble of antiquity, emphasizing the fallibility of human beings and of their faculties, an outlook that was revived and employed during the chaos of the sixteenth century. A crucial difference between us concerned Funkenstein’s...

    • chapter twelve Two Talmudic Understandings of the Dictum ‘Appoint for Yourself a Teacher’
      (pp. 288-306)

      Amos Funkenstein introduced the distinction between open and closed knowledge in hisTheology and the Scientific Imagination, and in greater detail inThe Sociology of Ignorance.¹ Open knowledge can be identified by two main characteristics: (a) it clearly demarcates, on the basis of objective and rational criteria, information relevant to a subject from information irrelevant to it; and (b) it is accessible to a population whose size is not restricted in advance. Closed knowledge has the opposite characteristics: (a) there are no explicit criteria stipulating what this knowledge comprises and what it excludes; and (b) it is restricted to a...


    • chapter thirteen Jewish History among the Thorns
      (pp. 309-327)

      I was asked to speak about the place of Jewish history among the other disciplines of Jewish studies. Is there a noticeable tension between the study of Jewish history (i.e., Jewish historiography) and the ‘science of Judaism?’ The question may seem either trivial or tautological – empty of content. If by the science of Judaism we mean the traditional study of Gemara, Midrash, Kabbalah, and Responsa, this discipline certainly regarded and still regards a historical perspective on its subject matter with great suspicion if not animosity, because a genuine historical outlook threatens it with secularization and the relativization of its fundamental...

  10. A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Amos Funkenstein (1937–1995)
    (pp. 328-338)
  11. Contributors
    (pp. 339-342)
  12. Index
    (pp. 343-365)