Friday, August 31, 2012

Retweeting on Blogger Because I Don't Actually Tweet

The Tweet that made me start this post (seen here):

And then the tweets that I saw while tracking it down that fall into the 'while I'm at it...' category:


...and that's all for tonight.

(Why don't I tweet? I hear you cry. Two reasons, at least, each sufficient even in the absence of the other: first, a prolix fellow like myself can't hardly express himself in 140 words let alone 140 characters* -- witness this post -- and second, it'd just be another time-suck I can ill afford.)

* The Chinese have it easier. Chinese is not a primarily monosyllabic language -- each syllable is not a word (Classical Chinese was, I believe, but present-day Mandarin is not) -- but their words tend to be made up of two characters (sometimes three, sometimes one). As opposed to English. So they can say a lot more in 140 characters than we can. Maybe if I ever actually, y'know, learn Chinese I'll tweet.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

From a Commonplace Book

Nihil tam absurde dici potest, quod non dicatur ab aliquo philosophorum.
(Nothing can be said that is so absurd that it has not been said by some philosopher.)

- Cicero

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cool Factoid of the Day: Googling "mre uptl"

I just saw this in this Making Light thread, and I thought it was really cool.

What do you get when you Google 'mre uptl'?

(Check it out if you don't want to be spoiled....)

You get responses for New York City.

Why? I'll let David Goldfarb explain it: "Because if you type "new york" with your hands shifted over one letter on the keyboard, "mre uptl" is what comes out." -- So when people type that, "New York" is what they mean.

Which, as Goldfarb goes on to say, is pretty damn impressive.

It does occur to me that, sadly, this is a phenomenon that will only work while a smallish number of people know about it. Because if enough people know about it, and talk about it, as Making Light and (now) I have done... then Google will start to turn up *that* in its searches, and it won't be true any more.

This is a slowly self-refuting fact. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Poem of the Day: the Moon's Mourning of Neil Armstrong

It was posted here, on, and I hope that the author, Roz Kaveney, doesn't mind me reposting it.

(For Neil Armstrong)

In her white silent place, the hangings dust,
grey pebbles stretching to the edge of black
so far away. The goddess feels a lack
somewhere elsewhere, an ache deep as her crust

and weeps dry tears. The gentleman is gone
the first who ever called. His feet were light
as he danced on her. Went into the night
quite soon, his calling and his mission done

yet still his marks remain. Footfalls and flag.
The others she forgets. He was the first
to slake her ages long and lonely thirst
for suitors. Now she feels the years drag

as they did not before he came to call.
Our grief compared to hers weighs naught at all.

-- Roz Kaveney

This reminds me, slightly of Jonathan Coulton's lovely song, "I'm Your Moon", which was the love song that Charon sung to Pluto to reassure it after it was demoted from planethood.

Earlier thoughts about Neil Armstrong's passing here.

"Obama: Republicans Will Be Willing To Deal In My Second Term"

Lucy, Charlie Brown, Football

(headline from here.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

One Small Grave For a Man, One Giant Diminishment for Mankind

My semester begins tomorrow, and I'm teaching two brand-new classes (more on this soon), so I've been spending full time getting ready for the past week -- so full, in fact, that I've barely opened a newspaper (or the modern equivalent, a browser window). I've just been working, preparing my classes. One of which will include a two-day unit on the moon landing of July 20, 1969. Finally, this evening, ready as I'll ever be, I went to Garry Canavan's web site for the first time in days and days... and see his links about the death of Neil Armstrong.

Having read quite a bit about Mr. Armstrong, his achievements and their cultural impact made the impact on me all the greater, I think, but it would have been pretty great anyway. But I can say with solid grounds that the sense diminishment -- how small we, as a species, have become since that moment forty-three years, one month and six days ago. As Pamela Sargent put it (in's fun symposium of SF writers' memories of the moon landing (done for the fortieth anniversary)), "Humankind’s hopes these days are more limited and more desperate, confined to hoping that we can save our own planet from an ecological catastrophe."

I liked Esquire's obituary for Mr. Armstrong (via GC), and Charles Peirce's words at the same site too. Here's a bit of the obituary:
The idea still fills people with childlike disbelief and wonder. Once upon a time, a man walked on the moon. With Armstrong's death, we're mourning, not so much a man, as a conception of the world in which human beings believed themselves to be capable of anything....

...our technologies promise us so much less than they used to: "You can play Angry Birds any time you like" rather than "you can stand on different planets." But also, we've grown up, left behind our unrealistic optimism. The real question of our moment is whether the amazing power of engineers will destroy the planet we have rather than whether they will bring us to new ones. We have come to understand that human beings are bound to the earth. Forever. This terrestrial understanding isn't wrong. It's just smaller than the hope that motivated Armstrong.
And here's a bit of Peirce:
What he thought when he looked at, night after night, is a perspective lost to all but eight old men. Sooner or later, there will be none of them left. On that day, like today, we should mourn for what we once thought we were. From that day forward, I fear, it is all going to sound like myth and magic, and the tales that the old men told around the ancient fires.
Words of diminishment: thus words not really about Neil Armstrong at all, but about us. (But that is true of a lot of eulogies, a lot of obituaries, a lot of funerals.) About how little we have become. But, again, having read a lot on this topic very recently, this is only the most recent occasion for this sentiment, the last one being the fortieth anniversary three years ago. The next one will be at the fiftieth, perhaps, or maybe at the next death. And then, of course, we'll forget it again, until the next one. The moon landing, once a proud achievement of humankind, is now a depressing occasion for shivering in the shadow of the greatness of the past. Easier to think about other things. And there are, indeed, courses to prepare, children to raise, and blogs to write, to say nothing of apocalyptic crises to avert. So we'll wait, and not feel the diminishment again, until the calendar or the grave gives us reason to. (Or -- for my students and myself -- when the syllabus demands it.)

For one giant, leaping moment in 1969, because of what he did, humanity looked up and felt able to stride across worlds. But ever since that leap, we have all felt smaller in its shadow.

When we remember to.

Gerry Canavan headlined the news "A Thousand Years from Now They’ll Wonder If He Was Real", which put me in mind of the marvelous moment from Chapter Five of Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer, set millennia from now, in a wrecked and ruined future:
Many of these were so old and smoke-grimed that I could not discern their subjects, and there were others whose meaning I could not guess... I came upon an old man perched on a high ladder. I wanted to ask my way, but he seemed so absorbed in his work that I hesitated to disturb him.

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

The warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even what emotion it was I felt....
The man who took that picture died yesterday. Let us hope that we do not live to see his accomplishment hang as a forgotten painting in an old museum, in a painting used to train apprentices to clean because it isn't worth anything. (And even in the decaying world Wolfe portrays, the moon is green, because before we gave up it was irrigated.)

Neil Armstrong, rest in peace.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

From a Commonplace Book

Is William Butler Yeats Number One? A young professor at Columbia, one of the best lecturers on Shakespeare I ever heard and a man whose opinions I took very seriously, once remarked to me that Yeats was “the best poet in English since Shakespeare.” This would mean — going chronologically — that he was better than Donne, Marvell, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, and T. S. Eliot. Today’s critical consensus on 20th-century poets in English looks something like this: Eliot and Yeats, tied for first; Frost second (not prolific enough after his earlier best stuff); Pound, Stevens, and Auden battling for third. (Of these six, four were American, one Irish, and only one English. For years English poets have resented the outsiders’ superiority.)

-- Jeffrey Hart

Thursday, August 23, 2012

From a Commonplace Book

Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.
(The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.)

-- First sentence generated by the surrealists in a random phrasemaking game.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Poem of the Day: A Dramatic Monologue by Robert Frost

I love Robert Frost dearly, but I must admit that most of my favorite ones are among the shorter ones -- no longer, say, than After Apple Picking or Mending Wall. When confronted with one of his longer poems, somehow, it's a bit easy to blink and slide on to a shorter one.

But it's a mistake: some of his long poems are amazing. For instance this one I'm about to reprint entire.

Before I do, however, I thought I'd share with you the passage that I saw quoted which led me to track down the rest and read the whole -- so that if anyone should be tempted (as I am) to blink, you'll have something which might serve as a counter-impulse to continue. This is the passage that I saw quoted:
That's a hard mystery of Jefferson's.
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn't true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.
....which is kind of amazing. A simply fabulous reflection on that amazing text.

But the context is really good too. So if that intrigues you, do read the whole thing:
The Black Cottage

We chanced in passing by that afternoon
To catch it in a sort of special picture
Among tar-banded ancient cherry trees,
Set well back from the road in rank lodged grass,
The little cottage we were speaking of,
A front with just a door between two windows,
Fresh painted by the shower a velvet black.
We paused, the minister and I, to look.
He made as if to hold it at arm's length
Or put the leaves aside that framed it in.
"Pretty," he said. "Come in. No one will care."
The path was a vague parting in the grass
That led us to a weathered window-sill.
We pressed our faces to the pane. "You see," he said,
"Everything's as she left it when she died.
Her sons won't sell the house or the things in it.
They say they mean to come and summer here
Where they were boys. They haven't come this year.
They live so far away—one is out west—
It will be hard for them to keep their word.
Anyway they won't have the place disturbed."
A buttoned hair-cloth lounge spread scrolling arms
Under a crayon portrait on the wall
Done sadly from an old daguerreotype.
"That was the father as he went to war.
She always, when she talked about war,
Sooner or later came and leaned, half knelt
Against the lounge beside it, though I doubt
If such unlifelike lines kept power to stir
Anything in her after all the years.
He fell at Gettysburg or Fredericksburg,
I ought to know—it makes a difference which:
Fredericksburg wasn't Gettysburg, of course.
But what I'm getting to is how forsaken
A little cottage this has always seemed;
Since she went more than ever, but before—
I don't mean altogether by the lives
That had gone out of it, the father first,
Then the two sons, till she was left alone.
(Nothing could draw her after those two sons.
She valued the considerate neglect
She had at some cost taught them after years.)
I mean by the world's having passed it by—
As we almost got by this afternoon.
It always seems to me a sort of mark
To measure how far fifty years have brought us.
Why not sit down if you are in no haste?
These doorsteps seldom have a visitor.
The warping boards pull out their own old nails
With none to tread and put them in their place.
She had her own idea of things, the old lady.
And she liked talk. She had seen Garrison
And Whittier, and had her story of them.
One wasn't long in learning that she thought
Whatever else the Civil War was for
It wasn't just to keep the States together,
Nor just to free the slaves, though it did both.
She wouldn't have believed those ends enough
To have given outright for them all she gave.
Her giving somehow touched the principle
That all men are created free and equal.
And to hear her quaint phrases—so removed
From the world's view to-day of all those things.
That's a hard mystery of Jefferson's.
What did he mean? Of course the easy way
Is to decide it simply isn't true.
It may not be. I heard a fellow say so.
But never mind, the Welshman got it planted
Where it will trouble us a thousand years.
Each age will have to reconsider it.
You couldn't tell her what the West was saying,
And what the South to her serene belief.
She had some art of hearing and yet not
Hearing the latter wisdom of the world.
White was the only race she ever knew.
Black she had scarcely seen, and yellow never.
But how could they be made so very unlike
By the same hand working in the same stuff?
She had supposed the war decided that.
What are you going to do with such a person?
Strange how such innocence gets its own way.
I shouldn't be surprised if in this world
It were the force that would at last prevail.
Do you know but for her there was a time
When to please younger members of the church,
Or rather say non-members in the church,
Whom we all have to think of nowadays,
I would have changed the Creed a very little?
Not that she ever had to ask me not to;
It never got so far as that; but the bare thought
Of her old tremulous bonnet in the pew,
And of her half asleep was too much for me.
Why, I might wake her up and startle her.
It was the words 'descended into Hades'
That seemed too pagan to our liberal youth.
You know they suffered from a general onslaught.
And well, if they weren't true why keep right on
Saying them like the heathen? We could drop them.
Only—there was the bonnet in the pew.
Such a phrase couldn't have meant much to her.
But suppose she had missed it from the Creed
As a child misses the unsaid Good-night,
And falls asleep with heartache—how should I feel?
I'm just as glad she made me keep hands off,
For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.
As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish
I could be monarch of a desert land
I could devote and dedicate forever
To the truths we keep coming back and back to.
So desert it would have to be, so walled
By mountain ranges half in summer snow,
No one would covet it or think it worth
The pains of conquering to force change on.
Scattered oases where men dwelt, but mostly
Sand dunes held loosely in tamarisk
Blown over and over themselves in idleness.
Sand grains should sugar in the natal dew
The babe born to the desert, the sand storm
Retard mid-waste my cowering caravans—

"There are bees in this wall." He struck the clapboards,
Fierce heads looked out; small bodies pivoted.
We rose to go. Sunset blazed on the windows.

-- Robert Frost, North of Boston (1914)

Two pedantic footnotes:

1. Anyone interested in why Frost calls Jefferson "the Welshman", and whether he was right to do so, should look here for more information.

2. Most online reprintings omit the space between the preantepenultimate and the antepenultimate lines, but it's there in the original printing, and I think it improves the poem. What can I say? In poetry, sometimes punctuation makes all the difference.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Poem of the Day: Oscar Wilde's Sonnet to Liberty

Sonnet to Liberty

Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes
See nothing save their own unlovely woe,
Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,—
But that the roar of thy Democracies,
Thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,
Mirror my wildest passions like the sea,-
And give my rage a brother——! Liberty!
For his sake only do thy dissonant cries
Delight my discreet soul, else might all kings
By bloody knout or treacherous cannonades
Rob nations of their rights inviolate
And I remain unmoved—and yet, and yet,
These Christs that die upon the barricades,
God knows it I am with them, in some things.

-- Oscar Wilde (1881)
I particularly love that last line.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Thoughts on Yoram Hazony's Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

Note: Since this entry is long even by my generous standards -- just shy of 10,000 words -- I have made it available as a doc file here and as a pdf file here for anyone who might prefer to read it in that format. Those versions, however, are lagging behind this one insofar as incorporating typo fixes goes. -- SF

The better part of wisdom, then, will be for every man to suspect the conclusions of his own mind.

-- Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (2012), p. 172.


Yoram Hazony's new book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, is a fabulous book, and I recommend it highly to everyone interested in the bible; most people interested in philosophy would like it too. Of course, in the characteristic way of academics, my praise does not mean that I agree with all of Hazony's arguments. Some of them I find so convincing that I find it hard to imagine how anyone could disagree (although, people being people, I'm sure that some will). But others I have some serious disagreements with -- although disagreements might not be quite the word: I think the arguments are basically right, all things considered, but that there are important issues passed over which call the entire project into question. It is these latter issues that I will focus on in this not-quite review.

Why a not-quite review, and not just a review tout court? Because I am disqualified in several senses from writing a proper review. I will enumerate them here, so that any readers who wish to can bail, and others will be forewarned to make allowances for them.

First, I know Yoram. I haven't seen him in, well, decades, but we've exchanged a few emails and I think of him as a friend. I liked him when we were together in person, and hope to see him again sometime. I know him as an incredibly smart, interested and interesting person; I am disposed to think well of him. It is for that reason, more than any other, that I preordered his book and read it as soon as I got it. So I am biased in his favor.

Second, I know Yoram's politics, and worldview more broadly, and I disagree with him in a large number of ways. Yoram is an Orthodox Jew, a right-wing Zionist (when I knew him, he was living in the west bank settlement of Eli, although he no longer does) and a conservative in many senses. While there are important issues we agree on -- he is spending a lot of his energy and time promoting the model of the liberal arts college, a project I cheer on -- for the most part I think he is fighting for causes I either oppose or am agnostic on. I am (perhaps overly) aware of a lot of the political impetus behind his scholarly work. For these reasons I am disposed to be suspicious of his intellectual projects,. So I am biased against him.

It would be overly glib to assert that these two biases counteract each other and leave me a neutral party, and I don't think it's true. What I hope is that as someone who likes and knows Yoram, but disagrees with him in pretty fundamental ways, I will have an interesting and worthwhile perspective on his work. I think that's true. But it's certainly not a neutral perspective. Caveat lector.

Finally -- and perhaps most importantly -- I am disqualified from writing a review because I am expert in none of the areas Hazony (to shift back to the customary way of referring to authors, even ones one knows) discusses in his book. I am not a biblical scholar -- indeed, I don't even know Hebrew. I am not, despite a two-decade old major in the subject, a philosopher. I am a historian, but the history involved in this book is distant from any expertise I possess in both time and space. Nor do I know well any of a number of other fields which could easily shed interesting light on Hazony's work. Rather, I approach Hazony's book as an interested amateur. Now, that too might be a worthwhile perspective -- Hazony is writing deliberately so as to speak to non-specialists. Indeed, since what Hazony hopes to do is to change the way academics and others talk about certain issues, I am in one of the target audiences for his book. But I can't confirm or deny what he says on other than internal and logical grounds -- not on grounds of independent expertise. So remember, as you read this: I Am Not an Expert In This. (IANEIT).

Now, I desperately want to read reviews of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by people with expertise in a wide variety of areas. I'd like to read reviews by Richard Eliot Friedman, by James Kugel, by Neil Gillman; by Daniel Dennett, by Eric Reitan, by Edward Feser, by Hilary Putnam, by Dan Fincke. (Not that I have any reason to think that any of those people are planning to review the book.) But it was just published. The only reviews I know of so far are basically promotional reviews -- reviews saying, hey, this is a good book, read it, rather than ones taking stock of or issue with the book in a knowledgeable way. So, in the meantime, here's what I think, knowing no better.


In chapter two of The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture Hazony makes an interesting argument that the purpose of a text is far more central to its interpretation than any other facts about it -- its date, say, or its author. Now obviously this is a complex issue, not least because our understanding of a text's date will (not inevitably but usually) shape our understanding of a text's purpose. But nevertheless, it's an interesting argument, and one that I don't recall seeing advanced in any literary criticism I've read. (But remember, IANEIT: I Am Not an Expert In This.)

Taking seriously this idea, that an author's purpose is central to interpreting their text, let me start with Hazony's own statement of his own purpose, from the opening paragraph to his first chapter:
In this book, I propose that if we want to understand the ideas the Hebrew Scriptures were written to advance, we should read these texts much as we read the writings of Plato or Hobbes -- as works of reason or philosophy, composed to assist individuals and nations looking to discover the true and the good in accordance with man's natural abilities. I don't mean that this is the only way to read these texts. Nor do I believe that the understanding that emerges from such readings has to give us the final picture of the biblical authors' worldview. But... I believe that in reading the Hebrew Scriptures as works of reason or philosophy, we come much closer to the teachings of the biblical authors meant to place before us than we do if we assume these works were composed as reports of "revelation" -- of knowledge obtained by means of a series of miracles.
Hazony's text divides into two major parts, the first outlining how one would read the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Tanakh as I will call it here,* -- what it means, for example, to read as philosophy a book that is composed primarily of narratives, prophetical orations and legal codes. The second part then offers readings of the philosophical stance of the Tanakh in five areas: ethics, political philosophy, epistemology (focusing entirely on the book of Jeremiah), the nature of truth, and the nature of reason and revelation. There are some other issues that Hazony goes into, either as peripheral matters or as necessary ground-clearing to this work, and some of this is quite interesting (for instance, his discussion of the different purposes of (and natures of, and self-descriptive metaphors of) the Tanakh and the New Testament is very good), but those are the basic parts of the book, following naturally from Hazony's own self-understanding of his own purposes.

But before we leave Hazony's statement of purpose, let me draw some attention to a few features of it. First, note that Hazony's paradigms -- not in the by-now all-but-ubiquitous Kuhnian sense of the word (i.e. roughly "worldview"), but in the root sense of archetypal cases which are the purest and best examples of a phenomenon -- for philosophy are Plato and Hobbes. And much of the surrounding vocabulary reflects this emphasis -- in particular his repeated pairing of reason and philosophy as if they were all but synonymous, and his thumbnailing of the purpose of philosophy as works "composed to assist individuals and nations looking to discover the true and the good in accordance with man's natural abilities". This is a decidedly old-fashioned sense of what philosophy is and what it does. (Replace "Plato and Hobbes" with "Wittgenstein and Heidegger", or "Kripke and Derrida", and you get a very different sense of what to expect from philosophy). In a work that sets out to say what the Tanakh's philosophy is, the fact that Hazony has a very particular, and in many ways a very dated, idea of what this thing called "philosophy" is is of some import.

I can imagine Hazony replying that the old view is preferable, and that anyway can one really say that Plato and Hobbes are 'dated'? To which I would in turn reply that the old view may well be preferable, and that I would be interested in (if skeptical about) an attempt to restore those emphases to philosophy, but that such a project would need to be done, not assumed, and that it would need to confront the fact that the changes in the nature of philosophy in modern times was not simply a change in fashion, but occurred for reasons, and whether those were good or bad they would need to be addressed. And as to the idea that Plato and Hobbes can't be dated, I don't mean to imply that their ideas are wrong, let alone obviously wrong, simply that their conception of philosophy as an enterprise is no longer the one that is current, and that various things follow from that (for instance, when people take Plato and Hobbes's ideas seriously these days, they tend to restate them in a modern idiom). So I maintain it is of some import that Hazony has a old-fashioned notion of philosophy, since even if such could be defended, Hazony doesn't really do so.**

A second feature to note about Hazony's statement of purpose is one that is slipped in in a single word. Read again Hazony's statement summing up "works of reason or philosophy" as ones which are "composed to assist individuals and nations looking to discover the true and the good in accordance with man's natural abilities". The notion that not only individuals but nations might be engaged in "looking to discover the true and the good in accordance with man's natural abilities" is a particular and (to my mind) peculiar one. Most philosophy -- and here, I think (although IANEIT) this is not only a characteristic of modern philosophy, but of older philosophy too -- focuses on an individual search for truth. This is not to say that only individuals and not groups do philosophy, but in general the groups who do philosophy are schools of thought -- a set of people working deliberately together in a particular enterprise. That a nation might do such a thing requires a fairly particular idea of not only what philosophy is, but what nations are. It presumes that they are fairly coherent groups, ones which can be said to be engaged in specific enterprises, and that the sort of enterprises they might engage in include philosophical inquiry.

But I would suggest that this is not simply a verbal slip or a throwaway word. Rather, this notion that nations have the sort of coherence, collectivity, purpose, agency and so forth that this implies is, in fact, a deep and central part of Hazony's thinking. Recall that (as I mentioned before) Hazony is a Zionist. For him, Zionism is not merely about a simple desire to provide a refuge for Jews threatened with antisemitism, nor the creation of a place where Jewish culture (religious or secular or both) can flourish, let alone the ethnic colonialism that Zionism's opponents see it as. Rather, he sees nations as concrete entities, much in the way that (say) Marx saw classes. They are unified; they have agency; they do things. As with Hazony's view of philosophy, this too strikes me as a very old-fashioned view (albeit one that is still prominent in some circles), in this case a sort of Nineteenth-Century (ethnic) nationalism. Unlike Hazony's view of philosophy, I find this particular idea far less defensible (which is not to say, of course, that defenses might not be interesting or illuminating).

Ok, so Hazony is not just a Zionist, but a nationalist, in the broad sense of a believer in the reality of nations and the virtues of nation-states. But this is a book on the bible. Does his nationalism matter for it? -- Well, I think it does. First of all, Hazony's statement of purpose is (logically and textually) prior to his exploration of the Tanakh's political philosophy. Which is to say, Hazony gives the appearance of going into the bible with the preconception that the "nation" is a unit in a particular (and, I think, basically erroneous) sense. At the very least this will color his reading of the bible's text, which he sees as promoting nationalism as a political philosophy. Now, the causal order is complex here -- Hazony is a nationalist (at least in part) because he is a Zionist, and Zionism arose (at least in part) because of the biblical ideas of Jewish nationhood, so that in some sense the textual idea is prior to Hazony's own assumption. Nevertheless, it is worth be wary of the possibility of a subtle, cross-historical sort of circular reasoning here.

Furthermore, Hazony's Zionism is not unrelated to his purpose in writing The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. For Hazony's purpose is not limited to what he says in the paragraph I quote above. As he himself notes, "[t]he author of any given literary work usually has multiple purposes in mind in composing his text" (p. 49). If Hazony's primary purpose is to reshape how we read the bible -- he himself has called it "one of those 'How to Read the Bible' books" -- a secondary purpose, I think, is entwined with Hazony's larger aim of promoting the welfare of the Jewish nation. Hazony is a Jewish patriot (not quite the same thing as being an Israeli patriot), and I think one of his purposes in this book is to forward that cause. In large part he seeks to do this by increasing the intellectual respect in which the foundational text of the Jewish nation is held (more on this in a moment) -- not only for the sake of the text, but for the sake of the nation. But he also seeks to get us to think of nations as things which exist in the sense he sees them, to think of the Jewish people as the sort of thing which might do philosophy -- in part, by convincing them (us) that we began by doing it. This is, among other things, a political purpose. And while the pursuit of philosophy by more people in more ways is something I heartily endorse, the idea that nations (can) do philosophy is one that I think we ought to be deeply suspicious of, on factual, moral and epistemic grounds. And I am all the more wary when such an idea is not openly proposed and argued for, but is rather assumed, since assumptions can be far more affecting than arguments.

Finally, Hazony presents (at least in the above-quoted paragraph) his purpose as one involving a change in how we read the bible -- " if we want to understand the ideas the Hebrew Scriptures were written to advance," he, writes "we should read these texts" in a particular way. That is, in this formation the motive is understanding the Tanakh: given that purpose, read this way. But Hazony has a complementary purpose (again, as he writes, books are usually written with multiple purposes), namely to put forward the Tanakh as an important text in the history of philosophy and (hence?) in the discipline of philosophy. Hazony's introduction complains of the way that various histories of philosophy omit the bible from their story (pp. 16ff). His attack on the dichotomy between reason and revelation (and his concurrent, but not I think identical, argument that the Tanakh is more the former than the latter) is intended to make room for the bible in the history of philosophy. In other words, Hazony is not only saying that the proper way to read the bible is as philosophy; he is also saying that the proper way to read the history of philosophy is to include the bible in it. (I don't mean to imply that he is at all cagey about this purpose; it simply isn't mentioned in the paragraph I happened to quote above.) So as we evaluate Hazony's arguments, we should bear in mind this one as well.

Indeed, there is really a third argument here, namely that the Bible's philosophical interest is not merely historical, but is also of current philosophical interest: that is to say that it not only has shaped the development of western philosophy, but that it says things that ought to shape what we think, philosophically, now. Hazony -- in a way that fits with what I'm describing as his old-fashioned idea of philosophy -- does not actually distinguish these ideas: he seems to think that a claim of a work as formidable in the history of philosophy amounts to a claim that it is currently relevant too. While I agree that the history of philosophy is important in the current practice of it, I'm not sure that this means that a work's philosophical relevance simply follows from its historical importance (although IANEIT). So I think that this, too, is a matter that will deserve separate evaluation: does Hazony succeed in arguing that philosophers working today ought to read and take seriously the bible for their current work?

So those are Hazony's purposes, and some of his assumptions. The next obvious question is: Does Hazony succeed in his purposes? Are his arguments successful?


Well, as you should know by now, IANEIT. But in my view the answer is: in part.

Hazony's readings of the bible are, I think, quite convincing. He casts extremely interesting light, for instance, on the ongoing contrast the Tanakh makes between the figure of the shepherd (instantiated in a series of figures, from Cain to Abraham to Moses to David) and the farmer (likewise from, from Abel on). His readings are very careful not to reduce figures to a clunky allegory, but to understand them as symbols while retaining their narrative and individual complexity.*** He is particularly good at drawing together separate strands of biblical narrative, showing how later ones complicate, shade and revise earlier ones -- and vice-versa. As I will get into later, I would call these readings "literary" rather than "philosophical", but whatever they are, they're good. He makes the text richer, makes one wish to return to it while at the same time shaping one's view of it. To the extent that Hazony is indeed trying to write a "How to read the Bible" book, he has succeeded magnificently.

There are, to be sure, quibbles one could make about many of his particular readings and the details of various of his arguments. I will mention one example. Hazony spends a large chunk of chapter seven talking about the idea that the Tanakh don't distinguish words and objects. (God only know how they'd translate Quine's most famous book.) It does not assume, Hazony argues, the distinction that the Greeks do between them. He focuses on the Hebrew word davar (דבר), which quite ordinarily means both "word" and "object" -- as he says, "the usage of davar is broader still, extending to cover not only speech and thought, but all that is embraced by the English term thing as well" (p. 208). He argues that rather than a dualism between language and the world, the biblical authors saw only a single sort of thing, which he calls "the object as understood".**** This all seems convincing to me. But there is an odd lacuna, where at times Hazony talks of things as opposed to speech, where the English word actually has some of the ambiguities of the Hebrew. Judging from the excerpts Hazony discusses, "thing" is not quite as flexible as the Hebrew "davar", But we do use "thing" both in opposition to words but also as a synonym for them. (How can you say such things? is an example.)

Thus, in the examples that Hazony uses of davar as meaning "object", he translates it***** as "thing" (p. 208). But in three of the five examples he gives of davar meaning "word" the English word "thing" also works:
You shall not shout, nor make any noise with your voice, nor shall any thing proceed from your mouth until the day I tell you to shout. (Joshua 6:10)

The commandment which I command you this day is not hidden from you... But the thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your mind, that you may do it. (Deuteronomy 30:11, 14)

Beware that there be not an unworthy thing in your mind, saying, the seventh year, the year of release is at hand, and your eye be evil against your poor brother, so that you give him nothing. (Deuteronomy 15:9)
And, most significantly, in all three of the examples which Hazony sites of passages in which uses of davar are ambiguous as to whether they refer to words or objects, he also translates it as "thing".

Now, I'm not saying the words are equivalent. As I said, in two of the five examples of "davar" as "word" that Hazony sites, you can not translate it as "thing".§ Still, it seems like the existence of a parallel overlap in English, given the linguistic focus of this particular passage, is a real gap in Hazony's discussion here. I'm not quite sure what impact it would have on his overall conclusion -- perhaps none -- but I'd have liked to see him say that.

But such quibbles aside, Hazony's work is, I think, a magnificent book about the bible. It introduces new techniques for its interpretation, and demonstrates them with fascinating and powerful readings. Insofar as Hazony seeks to convince us that this is how the bible should be read, he succeeds quite well.

But having said that, this still leaves us with three (interrelated, but not identical) questions. First, does Hazony make his case that the Tanakh is a neglected work in the history of philosophy? Second, is in fact accurate to say that the method of reading that Hazony proposes (and demonstrates) amounts to reading the Tanakh as philosophy? And third, does Hazony make the case that the Tanakh is philosophically relevant for us, now -- that it has valuable contributions to make to contemporary philosophy?

We will start with the first question. While Hazony doesn't confront this aspect question head-on, it seems to me there is an ineluctable contradiction at the heart of his wish that the Bible get its due in the history of philosophy (and similar areas of intellectual history), namely, that if the Tanakh hasn't generally been taken seriously over time, then that fact alone does much to disqualify it from mention in those histories. Which is to say that Hazony seems to be claiming both that the philosophical tradition has been unjustly ignoring the bible's intellectual contributions, and that the bible's intellectual contributions have been omitted from the standard histories of philosophy. But of course if the bible's views have indeed been overlooked -- and Hazony himself demonstrates in much detail the way that Christian approaches to the Tanakh have obscured what he sees as its intellectual arguments -- then they haven't made contributions to the history of philosophy as it actually happened.

Here is where Hazony's conflation of a work's importance in the history of philosophy with a work's current (or abstract) philosophical value tells. It's quite possible to say that an important work was ignored -- so that, while it had (and has) current (and abstract) value, that value wasn't actually incorporated into the philosophical conversation. (It's also possible to say that a once influential work was overestimated, and has, in the light of present views anyway, little value.) But the philosophical tradition, like any intellectual tradition, is in large measure an ongoing conversation. That a voice has been unjustly ignored, and perhaps should no longer be, does not alter the fact that it has been ignored.

Now the contradiction here is not quite as stark as I'm making it out to be. There are ways that these ideas -- a work was both influential and ignored -- can be reconciled. Perhaps a work's ideas were incorporated into a tradition without their source ever being acknowledged. Or perhaps a work was once influential, but that influence has been forgotten. (Hazony talks about that possibility in this article, but not in the present book.) And of course it's a fair point to say that the fact that a work made important points is itself a fact of intellectual history, even if it is a fact that did not impress later contributors in a tradition. Nevertheless, Hazony does not confront this particular contribution, or clarify what exactly he wants from histories of philosophy (a recognition that there are ideas in the Tanakh were not influential although they ought to have been? A recognition that they were influential but this fact was never recognized or has been forgotten?) Until he clarifies these issues, I think you have to say that while he succeeds in arguing that the bible does have views on philosophical topics, what this means for intellectual history is left unexamined.


What about the broader issue -- namely, whether the very successful method (and applications of it) that Hazony proposes for reading the bible amount to reading it as philosophy (setting aside the issue of the status of that philosophy in the history of the subject)? Does he make that case?

Well, Hazony's readings are, as I said, successful in my view. And part of that is that he succeeds in demonstrating that the Tanakh has substantive philosophical positions on issues such as the role of the state, ethics, epistemology and the nature of truth. I am less sure, however, that that is adequate to qualify the work as philosophy. This is a tricky issue -- as Stanley Cavell has noted, the question of what counts as philosophy is itself a philosophical question -- but I think that the Tanakh, even granting Hazony's readings of it, does not qualify as philosophy on at least two counts (or perhaps I should say in two senses), one minor, and one more central.

The minor one is simply that one might argue that an essential aspect for a work's being philosophy is that it is engaged in the ongoing conversation that has made up philosophy since Plato, if not before. There are various versions of this idea -- that philosophy is best understood as a conversation, or a series of texts, rather than actual issues -- and I'm not myself sold on any of them. (For example, they leave quite uncertain the claim of, say, Indian or Chinese philosophy to that status -- an exclusion that I think most people would not want to countenance.) Nevertheless, my own thoughts aside (and IANEIT) it's an important school of thought on this issue, and it seems worth mentioning. But of course it's something that an be easily gotten around -- if Hazony is successful in convincing philosophers that the Tanakh is best read as philosophy and thus incorporating it into the conversation in the future. In this sense, Hazony might be right if and only if he succeeds -- he might, that is, make the Tanakh philosophy rather than discovering it to be so. But this just presses the questions of the work's qualifications in other senses.

Which leads me to my major concern, which is that while I think Hazony quite clearly shows that the Tanakh takes philosophical stances, I don't think that Hazony succeeds in showing that the Tankah makes arguments. And insofar as the reasoned argument is central to what philosophy is, this is a disqualifying problem.

Now, it's not the case that reasoned argument is all that philosophy is. Philosophers have always relied upon stories and fables to make points -- Plato's cave, Descartes's demon, Nietzsche's madman and Wittgenstein's society of builders all come to mind. Images, counter-examples, rhetoric -- lots of philosophy takes forms apart from arguments. For that matter, some have (ironically) argued that Wittgenstein makes no arguments (I don't think that's true, save in an overly narrow sense of the term argument (but IANEIT)). One might claim the same for Emerson, who has influenced so many philosophers, and whom Cavell has labored so hard (in a project with some similarities to Hazony's, come to think of it) to argue is and should be understood as a major philosopher.

Nevertheless, I think that argument is pretty central to philosophy, and that most people would agree to this. Most if not all of the fables cited above, for instance, are made in order to explain or advance arguments in which they appear. Whether a work that is, overwhelmingly, non-argumentative can be philosophy strikes me as questionable.

Hazony, of course, sees this problem, and has a chapter -- chapter three -- devoted to it. But I think he elides his own question there. He conflates two issues: can a narrative and orational work present positions on philosophical issues, and can a narrative and orational work make arguments on them (at least, without diverting from their major modes to present strait argumentation á la Ayn Rand which everyone agrees the Bible does not do -- and thank God for that!).

Let me tread carefully here. Hazony is at great pains to say that the Tanakh is not simply presenting its philosophical positions as true on the basis of divine revelation (as, he argues, the New Testament more or less does). And I do think he's successful in showing that. But he seems, ironically, to fall into a dichotomy he is also at pains to attack, namely the reason/revelation dichotomy. Having shown that the Tankah's basis for its claims is not simply that God said it, I believe it, that settles it, he seems to take for granted that the (only) alternative is reason.

But I don't think that's right -- or, if it is, it necessitates in taking "reason" so broadly that philosophy must itself be something narrower. Nor, I think, is it simply a matter of topic, whereby any text which has positions on particular issues (epistemology, say) thereby counts as philosophy. After all, a lot of modern science has cast very powerful light on what have been, traditionally, philosophical questions; that doesn't make the science into philosophy. Philosophers can and do do philosophy based on the science, but that is a separate enterprise, involving making reasoned arguments of a particular kind which are grounded in the science. And the same point could be made for a lot of disciplines -- economics, political science, anthropology, history, and so on.

Which is to say, that I think that Hazony succeeds in showing that the Tanakh is engaging in reasoned discourse, taking stands on philosophical issues -- but not in showing that it makes philosophical arguments. And that this distinction is precisely the one that is relevant in distinguishing between a work that might be interesting on philosophical points (such that philosophers might wish to read it) and a work that is, itself, philosophy.

Consider, as an example, Hazony's discussion in chapter four, "The Ethics of a Shepherd". Hazony convincingly shows that the Tanakh returns repeatedly to the contrasting figures of the farmer and the shepherd; that it sees these types as having fundamentally different types of moral outlooks and approaches; and that it prefers the latter (although not in a simple way that does not recognize its limitations and the virtues of the farmer). This is, indeed, a complex ethical view as Hazony presents it.

But what are the arguments in favor of shepherd ethics over farmer ethics? I don't see that Hazony shows the Tanakh makes any. Not that it claims a preference for the former on revelatory grounds either. Rather, it presents a narrative -- in Tolkien's words, a history, real or feigned§§ -- which shows those types in operation. Is the claim that these were real events, and therefore the conclusions drawn must be accepted (which, obviously, doesn't follow)? Or is it that these ideal types can be seen in any human situations? Or simply that they are the most useful categories for understanding particular ethical questions? Or what? Well, so far as Hazony clarifies matters, none of these -- it simply presents the schema, with a great deal of literary complexity, and draws its conclusions (or makes its points) based on that narrative; but why we should ourselves adopt those conclusions is not addressed.

Now, again, I'm not saying that this is not a text upon which one could build philosophical arguments. Having uncovered these patterns in the biblical narrative, Hazony, or someone else, could easily make an argument about why this moral conclusion is in fact correct -- based on simply the biblical narrative, or based on other considerations, or some mixture. But then, people can (and do) philosophize based on Shakespeare's stories too. It doesn't make them, themselves, philosophy.

Again: I'm not saying that Hazony fails in showing that the Tanakh has reasoned views on philosophical points. But the reasoning in question is literary -- narrative (whether fictional or historical) -- not philosophical. Narrative reasoning is powerful, and often more persuasive than reasoned argumentation. (Actually, it seems more akin to the persuasion of the sophists than it is to that of their opponents, the philosophers.) But it is not argumentation.

One more example, considered more briefly, will suffice, although I think some variation on this point could be made for each of Hazony's chapters. In chapter eight, Hazony argues -- again, successfully -- that the Biblical texts have a view on truth that is quite different from the correspondence theory that dates back to the Greeks. He argues that rather than dividing words and objects into two categories, that the Tanakh has just one category -- davar, "objects as conceived" -- and that "truth" can apply to davarthat we would call objects as much as words, and that it involves reliability rather than correspondence. Now, this is an interesting view of truth -- Hazony does not mention, save in the most passing and fleeting of fashions, the American Pragmatist philosophers, but it seems to me that what Hazony sees as the biblical view of truth has a lot in common with the Pragmatist one. It's certainly a view of truth for which arguments can be made. And Hazony is persuasive that it is the view that the biblical authors in fact held. But what he doesn't do is show that they have any arguments for it, in a philosophical sense. It's not that the view is unmotivated, nor that it is divinely sanctioned. But whatever justification for it arises from the Tanakh does in virtue of its successful use, rather than out of argument. They make a case for it by employing it, and showing it works. But they don't argue for it -- not even to the extent of turning that into an argument by saying, 'we're going to show that this view is right by employing it successfully--'. Rather, they just adopt it.

Now, Hazony might justly accuse me of splitting hairs here. Does it matter, he might ask, whether or not the views the Tanakh presents are argued for as long as they are presented clearly and motivated by things well within the bounds of rational inquiry? If it's not philosophy as presently conceived, so what? Can't we still take it seriously?

Well, yes -- except as philosophy. Which is to say that taking something seriously as philosophy is very different from taking it seriously as narrative. Which leads me to my final question, whether Hazony succeeds in presenting the Tanakh as something that contemporary readers interested in philosophy ought to take seriously in the context of that pursuit. Is the Tanakh relevant, philosophically, today?


By now the reader will have will have anticipated my skepticism on this matter. But I should begin by emphasizing that my view here is not wholly negative. As Hazony presents them, the various philosophical views of the Tanakh could well be worth taking seriously as philosophy, even if the Tanakh itself merely presents (rather than argues for) those views. But there are a lot of caveats here, and I think they're worth spelling out.

First, the fact that the Tanakh is (at best) ancient philosophy not previously considered as such will mean that any influence its philosophy can have will be greatly filtered. Obviously philosophers still can and do take seriously the arguments of Plato and Hobbes. But they don't take them straight; at the very least, they rephrase them in a modern idiom, and consider (and defend, and most often adjust) them in the light of later philosophical work. There are contemporary platonists and hobbesians, but none who simply ignore the views of Kant and Rawls. What Hazony presents as philosophical views he presents in (to some extent) a modern philosophical idiom, but he does not consider how they hold up against later philosophical developments. He would probably say doing so is premature -- that first the views must be understood. And it's hard to begrudge him that. At the same time, any philosopher waking up, a Rip Van Winkle several thousand years out of date, is going to be of questionable relevance to contemporary philosophy. The conversation has simply moved on. Donny, you're out of your element. §§§

(One aspect of this, which Hazony doesn't really address, is the fact that at least some of the historical changes that have taken place since the writing of the Bible several thousand years ago do, in fact, change the sort of arguments that philosophers can and do have. Perhaps this isn't true about epistemology or ethics -- although even in those cases a claim could be made. But in his fifth chapter, Hazony writes a whole chapter about the relation of the individual to the state without any recognition that what "the state" refers to nowadays is a radically different thing than what it referred to in the past, or that social, economic and technological changes have transformed the issues involved significantly if not fundamentally. At the very minimum, any philosophical contribution that the Tanakh might have into political philosophy as it is relevant to matters today is going to require a very substantial rethinking and reformulation of its views -- possibly so substantial as to make them basically new views strongly influenced by the Tanakh rather than the same views reformulated.)

Related to this point, I'm somewhat unsure about Hazony's own familiarity with contemporary philosophy. It's far from nonexistent -- he cites a bunch of contemporary philosophy, and seems fluent with it. Certainly he seems to know as much about it as, say, I do. But then, IANEIT: and I might be missing what Hazony is missing. And even I can tell he's missing a fair bit.§§§§ For example, Hazony contrasts the biblical view of truth with the correspondence theory of truth, and with the coherence view of truth -- two standards, two be sure. But there's been a lot of recent work in this area, and how Hazony's arguments would stand up for someone familiar with it I simply don't know. (I should add Keith DeRose to my list of hoped-for reviewers.) I myself kept thinking of pragmatist views of truth, as I noted above; and an expert might contrast the (rather varying!) views of Peirce, James and Dewey with those of modern pragmatists such as Putnam and Haack. (And that's just the neighborhood I live in; there are lots of others that I don't know, and it seems Hazony doesn't know either.) Into such a rich intellectual ecosystem, will something which has skipped thousands of years of intellectual evolution have something new and relevant to say? (Again, the contrast here is with the views of earlier thinkers, Plato and Hobbes and so forth, whose successors have continuously changed and updated those views to fit the ongoing intellectual ecosystem.) I don't know, but I'm somewhat skeptical.

Of course the belated, rip-van-winkle nature of the views in the Tanakh is not, in and of itself, an insurmountable objection. It's a problem which could easily be overcome (by, say, a series of self-appointed tanakhians who would do for the Tanakh what modern platonists do for Plato). But this, of course, raises the question: why should we take these views seriously?

This is an issue that Hazony does not actually address. He seems to take it for granted that the views ought to be taken seriously. And, of course, insofar as one is interested in the Bible as a topic of study -- or any of the many disciplines that that would be an adjunct to, like the history of the ancient near east -- he's right: it's self-justifying. But the same does not hold for the Tanakh as a possible entrant into contemporary philosophical debates. That needs independent justification. Which is to say that if Hazony's project succeeds in arguing that reading the Bible as philosophy is a powerful and important way to understand the Tanakh, he doesn't really try to argue that it's a powerful and important voice in contemporary philosophy. He just assumes it.

He does so -- he can get away with doing so -- because of the importance that our culture places on the Bible. Obviously, one would think, if the Bible has philosophical views to advance that's self-evidently important, right? Well, yes: but it's important because of the cultural role the Bible has and has had; and that is due to its religious importance.

There is a subtle sort of circular reasoning at work here. Remember that what Hazony is trying to do is establish the Tanakh as a worthy and interesting work of reason, apart from its role as a religious text (that is, apart from the question of its revelatory status if any, apart from its historical role in the development of Judaism and subsequent religions, etc.) But his ultimate argument for taking it seriously depends on the esteem in which we hold the Bible, which is entirely dependent upon those factors which Hazony is trying to sidestep.

To clarify this, imagine that someone wrote a book called The Philosophy of the Epic of Gilgamesh. This would be of obvious interest to anyone already interested in The Epic of Gilgamesh, and quite possibly of interest to people interested in the intellectual history of the Ancient Near East. But its importance to contemporary philosophy would be a wholly separate issue, one which would need separate justification on its own merits. Why isn't this true of the Bible? I submit we don't feel it's need because it's *T*H*E* *B*I*B*L*E* we're talking about -- that is, because of its claimed connection to God. We are back, in other words, on the grounds of revelation -- not reason.

Okay, so the importance of the philosophy contained in the Tanakh (on Hazony's (persuasive) reading) needs separate justification. But here is precisely where the issue discussed above -- the lack of arguments for these philosophical views, their grounding in narrative and poetic forms -- becomes telling. Because the reason that we ought to take this philosophy seriously, not as ancient intellectual history, but as a possible influence on contemporary philosophy, is going to rest on the strength of the arguments for these views. And those arguments are simply lacking -- certainly from the Tanakh itself, where the grounds for them are narrative.

I don't know -- but I suspect -- that Hazony seeks to argue for the importance of the Tanakh as philosophy not simply for its own sake (although obviously that too) nor simply because he finds the views powerful (although he clearly does) but also for reasons connected to his Jewish nationalism: putting the major texts of the Jewish nation into the center of the philosophical conversation of the west in the same way that many texts by the Ancient Greeks or 19th Century Germans (or, although he doesn't mention them, Contemporary Americans) already are. Not, note at the center of the conversation about Judaism or about religion, nor even (only) at the center of the conversation about the history of philosophy, but at the center of the conversation about philosophy that is happening now. But this he does not succeed at, because he literally does not give us reasons -- that is, arguments -- for doing so.

Could such arguments be given? In principle, sure. The views that Hazony ascribes (again, convincingly) to the Tanakh are interesting and certainly could be defended. But there is one potential problem in so doing, and one underexamined reason why many people -- even, possibly, including Hazony himself -- might not even want to. It is with these that I shall end.

First, there is the issue of God. In his introduction, Hazony is at some pains to note that oddball metaphysical views of many favorite philosophers -- Socrates's daimon, Nietzsche's eternal return, James's belief in spirits, Newton's astrological beliefs, and so forth -- and to point out that many works of philosophy even ascribe philosophical claims to various supernatural forces (e.g. Parmenides's ascription of his philosophy to divine revelation), and that the Tanakh should not be ruled out as a work of reason on those grounds.

And I agree: the Tanakh shouldn't be ruled out as a work of reason on those grounds -- namely, simply because it attributes some speeches and acts to God. But there is an additional consideration that none of Hazony's comparisons quite address that do -- potentially -- call its status as a work of reason into doubt.

The oddball metaphysical views of various other philosophers can be divided into three (possibly overlapping) categories. First, some of them are simply personal biographical details about various philosophers that people these days don't take seriously, and which (and this is key) one needn't take seriously to take their arguments seriously. So far as I know (IANEIT) no one these days takes Socrates's beliefs that he had a daemon talking to him, or Newton's astrological musings, or James's spiritualist dabblings, seriously. But we don't need to. Newton's astrology is entirely apart from his contributions (which, of course, are more science than philosophy, but I'm throwing him in here because Hazony does); James's spiritualism doesn't bear on his philosophical or psychological ideas in any but peripheral (and discardable) ways. Even Socrates's daemon, which (at least as the story is told in the Apology) is more central to his belief that he was wisest because he alone knew he knew nothing, is not central for the arguments that support that idea -- it is a matter of the context of discovery, not the context of justification. (And to whatever extent that it is the bedrock of Socrates's claims, of course, then we shouldn't take them seriously).

Second, some of the odd metaphysical views that Hazony discusses are actual philosophical positions which are argued for -- Plato's forms and Nietzsche's eternal return, for instance, fall into this category. But here the views stand or fall on the arguments, and if the arguments aren't sound, then those views are discarded. What saves those philosophers for others, however, is the fact that they make many arguments that are entirely separable from those metaphysical views. Plato's argument in the Euthyphro about deities as the source of morality (briefly, that if they could choose otherwise, then it's arbitrary and not morality at all, or if not, then they're not its source) is not dependent upon the notion of the forms. Neither are Neitzsche's arguments about morality. But here the separability of the views is key.

And, finally, some of the oddball metaphysical views Hazony mentions can be read simply as literary devices or concessions to a prevailing cultural belief, in which case, again, they are separable from the arguments.

But -- at least arguably -- the Tanakh's philosophical views rely upon God in a way that fits none of these categories. Certainly the existence of God is not a personal, eccentric belief of the authors of the Tanakh; it is not a philosophical position that is argued for in the Tanakh (it's mostly assumed); and it seems wrong to suggest it is simply a literary device. So the question is, is the existence of God a foundation upon which the philosophical views Hazony unveils rests? Or is it incidental to them?

Now, it's a bit hard to say specifically from Hazony's book if this is true or not because, to repeat, he doesn't actually show that the Tanakh presents arguments for its views. So it's not easy to say precisely what they're supposed to be grounded on. But there are reasons to think it's essential. For instance, Hazony is at some pains (in chapter eight) to make the case that the Tanakh does not argue that one must obey halacha (Jewish law) because God commanded it but rather argues that one ought to obey it because it will lead to a good life. The question is whether that argument can even begin to get off the ground without the postulate of the existence of God. Myself. I'm rather doubtful that it can. But -- again -- we'd need to see actual arguments.

Now some of my Noble Readers may by this point be chaffing at my assumption that the presumption of the existence of God disqualifies something for philosophical consideration. And of course in some obvious ways it doesn't. There's lots of philosophy that's written assuming that God exists -- theodical speculation, for example, or musings about how free will might fit with divine foreknowledge. But those are all specialized areas of philosophy -- subcategories, if you will. So far as I know (IANEIT) philosophical papers on areas such as ethics, political philosophy, epistemology and the nature of truth -- four areas where Hazony explicates a biblical view -- do not make that assumption.

This is not out of any bias against religious views. It's simply that such views limit the effectiveness of one's arguments. If you want to persuade through argument, you need to get people to agree to your premises, so you tend to limit the premises to what will carry the widest possible consent. And the existence of God doesn't fall into that category, at least not these days. Further, I would suggest that it shouldn't, since it's simply too big and complex an issue to tie into an epistemological framework. One doesn't want to be limited to arguing that given certain considerations, and presuming the existence of God, then a particular argument holds. It simply brings up too many extraneous and widely-disputed issues. §§§§§

In other words, while neither an author's belief in God, nor an author's description of divine revelation in a philosophical text, nor the hinging of some of their arguments on unproven metaphysics are an insurmountable problem, I think that having unproven metaphysical assumptions (i.e. the existence of God) as foundational for most of their arguments is one. And while, lacking arguments, it's not clear whether this is the case for the philosophy of the Hebrew scripture as Hazony outlines it, it seems like it might well be the case.


Which leads us to the final issue, namely, to the reason why Hazony himself -- or, if not Hazony personally, then most people who share his rough outlook (e.g. religious thinkers who wish the Bible to be taken seriously) -- might themselves not even want the Bible taken seriously in the realm of contemporary philosophy: that if it were to be so taken, it would not be taken whole.

Philosophical views are not simply adopted whole by other philosophers. Of course certain arguments are taken as sound by nearly everybody. But nobody these days is simply a platonist or a hobesian, full stop. Philosophers take parts of any given view with only minor revisions, take others with substantial ones, and fully dismiss yet other parts. Of course, what people accept differs from case to case (on both ends). But even in the (fairly rare, I believe (IANEIT)) cases where a contemporary philosopher can be seen as largely adopting an older philosophical view, they tend to update it, to qualify it, to change it in some places -- to alter it, in other words, in the light of later philosophy and subsequent considerations.

Are people who take the bible seriously as a religious text -- and of course Hazony, as an Orthodox Jew (a fact he mentions in the book) is presumptively one of those -- really willing to see the philosophy of the Bible chopped up, accepted in part, discarded in part, updated, and generally disassembled in this way?

Of course, as an atheist, I have no problem with this. I think it would be fine to treat the Bible simply as one more philosophy. In fact, I think it might be culturally advantageous to have the Bible routinely spoken about as a particular, fallible work, no different in kind or authority or correctness than, say, Plato or Hobbes. To have it be routine that thinkers say such things as "the Bible has views on epistemology but they have been updated and improved," or "the major work in the Tanakh stakes out a particular political philosophy which is now commonly accepted as untennable". But are religious people really willing to go there? Because even if Hazony, personally, is (and from what I know of him I wouldn't be at all surprised if he was), I doubt that most are.

For that matter, to whatever extent Hazony wishes the Tanakh to be taken seriously as a part of a larger project of Jewish nationalism (and while I don't think it's Hazony's only consideration or even his major one, I strongly suspect it is one of his motivations), making it philosophy could backfire. Greece, to be sure, does still bask in the glory of the philosophical accomplishments of its ancient days, no matter how closely Occam's razor may shave off Plato's beard. But that respect is in part built up from the role that ancient Greek philosophers have had in the ongoing, historical development of world civilization. Which is to say, even if you think Plato is dead-wrong about a lot of things, his importance -- and hence brilliance -- can't be denied. But a text newly taken seriously as a philosophical work must needs take its lumps right now, in the present. What if the result of that is to convince the academy that yes, the Tanakh was written to develop philosophical views -- and that those views are silly or long-since refuted? I'm not saying that this will happen, or even that it's likely to, but if you're throwing the Tanakh into the rumble tumble of the philosophical debate you have to be prepared for it to happen. Are religious thinkers really prepared to do that?

Nor is it simply others dismissing the Bible -- after all, religious thinkers live with people doing that now. But taking the Bible seriously as philosophy means precisely entering into an encounter with its text with a good-faith willingness to oneself find that the views therein are unjustified, dubious, wrongheaded, or flatly ludicrous. If you're not doing that, then you're not really taking the Bible seriously as philosophy -- you're trying to sell something to other people as philosophy, without taking it that way yourself.

One answer Hazony might make to this is to point out that he emphasizes repeatedly that the Bible is an anthology, one which presents strongly differing views on many (philosophical) issues, and which encourages the pursuit of reason. And that's fair enough. But Hazony also describes the Tanakh as representing a school of thought -- which more or less implies some common ground. And he also, in various places, describes some ideas as common to the biblical authors. Is he -- or are others -- prepared to take those views as simply another fallible philosophical view?

In other words: if the Bible is to be read as philosophy, it must cease to be read as scripture. You can't have both.

To read a work as philosophy is to see where it's right, where it's wrong, where it's on the right track but needs emendation -- and so forth. It's to treat it as a fallible, human product. Again, I myself have no problem with this. But is this really a trade-off that most admirers of the Bible will wish to make?

Maybe. Maybe they'll have faith that the philosophy in the Bible is correct (although that is, again, precisely not to treat it as a work of human reason). But I think that all readers of Hazony's deeply impressive, richly interesting book should understand that that is precisely what he's asking. That if Hazony succeeds not simply in changing the way we read the Tanakh, but in getting it adopted into the intellectual philosophical conversation as a work of philosophy (however brilliant), then that will necessitate dethroning it as scripture. As accepting it, in the end, as just another old book. Are we ready for the philosophy of the old Hebrew books that used to be scripture? Because that's what Hazony's argument implies.

If they really think the consequences through, it may turn out that those who are most opposed to reading the Hebrew scriptures as philosophy are not atheists or secularists, but instead those who, on religious grounds, wish them to keep their status as scripture.

Anyone who cares about the Bible should read this book. They'll learn a lot from it, and profit from it. But they may find, in the end, that the very care for the Bible that lead them to read and profit from them will also lead them to reject it.

Update: Typos fixed; (peripheral) link added.

* For, presumably, stylistic reasons, Hazony refers to the set of texts he is writing about in his book as the "Hebrew Scriptures" -- the Hebrew bible, which is different from the Old Testament in that the books are in a different order and that they are not read in the retroactive light of a later set of works. But, for various reasons of my own, I am going to refer to those texts using the traditional Hebrew term, Tanakh -- which is an acronym for the Hebrew names for the three major divisions of the biblical books, the Torah (the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch), Nevi'im (the prophets) and Kethuvim (the writings. If you want to know why I made this choice, well, just read the post, bearing in mind Hazony's admonition that its author's purpose is central to the interpretation of a text. (I will also use "Bible" as shorthand for "Hebrew Bible", and hence a synonym for "Tanakh".)

** In this context, it's worth noting that Hazony's doctorate is in political science, and that (at least in America) the philosophical wing of political science is more traditional (in this sense) than the philosophy done in philosophy departments.

*** I don't know if Hazony has ever read J. R. R. Tolkien, but I think that his readings of the bible are against allegory in the specific sense that Tolkien famously stakes out:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the reader. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
This is not, of course, precisely Hazony's point -- he thinks the Tanakh is pointing towards certain points, that the author does press a view; -- but then again, Tolkien himself does that in his own history, as do the majority of histories (of all sorts) for that matter. What Tolkien dislikes is not authorial presentation of views, but the doing so in a clunky and schematic way that is false to human experience; and it is precisely these readings of the biblical stories that Hazony avoids while still showing how they make points.

**** Hazony rejects the idea that the biblical authors simply use a word with two meanings, saying that they "seem not to feel any need to oppose word and object to one another in the manner of the Greek philosophers. Had they felt the need for such an opposition, it seems likely that they would not have remained satisfied with using a single word to describe both.... the biblical authors use the word davar as though they see no need to draw a sharp boundary between word and object." (pp. 209 - 210) I personally find this convincing, but there is an obvious counter-reading that Hazony does not address, namely, that (in a Whorfian sense) the nature of their language led them to conflate (even, to be unable to distinguish) these two ideas, and that if they had had a richer vocabulary they might have thought differently. Personally, I am not convinced by such crude Whorfianism. But it does seem like a gap not to at least address this fairly obvious objection.

***** Hazony doesn't include the sort of sentence that most works on the bible do, along the lines of "I have used such-and-such a translation" or "all translations are my own", or anything of the sort. I am presuming that Hazony either translated the passages himself, or at the very least selected and corrected traditional translations to the point where he is willing to stand by the translations he uses, since he does often discuss mistranslations of various words (which differ from the translations he quotes). But he doesn't say specifically.

§ Thus, neither of these passages sound right:
And Moses said unto the Lord: "O Lord, I am not a man of things, neither heretofore, nor since you have spoken to your servant, for I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue." (Exodus 4:10)

Forty years old was I when Moses, servant of the Lord, sent me from Kadesh Barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him back thing as it was in my mind. (Joshua 14:7)

§§ Hazony resolutely, and probably wisely, avoids the question of the historical accuracy of what he calls "The History of Israel" (namely, biblical history as presented from Genesis through (Second) Kings). It is a can of worms he is better off leaving closed. Nevertheless, I do think it matters, and that any exploration of the philosophy of the Tanakh in greater depth than Hazony's self-described introduction in this book will have to confront the issue. This is not to say that history cannot be written so as to present views on other topics (obviously it can be and often is), nor that fiction is so malleable that it doesn't have anything to tell us about human nature (I think it clearly does), but nevertheless they operate differently -- the way a historian shapes a story to make a point is different than the way a writer of fiction does. If, say, the figures from Adam through Joshua are simply myths, but those from David on are historical (which is my best sense of the current historical holding most widely agreed upon (IANEIT)), then the way that Abel reflects David is going to work very differently than it would were both historical, or both fictional. (For that matter, preexisting fictions retold are yet a different category; and there are many others too.) If we are to interpret the philosophy of the Tanakh, ultimately we will have to decide what sort of text it is -- that is, what relationship its various parts had to real events and (not the same thing) what relationship its authors thought it had to them, insofar as we can figure it out.

§§§ Note that this notion that the philosophical conversation might simply have moved on does not necessarily imply a doctrine of philosophical progress (although I personally do think philosophy progresses, although not inevitably nor always). Richard Rorty, for example, held a view of philosophy as changing in ways that couldn't be described as progress in any terms other than internal ones, but still clearly held that the conversation changed, and for reasons. Which is to say, that even if someone doesn't believe in philosophical progress it's still not the case that the issue here is only one of fashion. Rather, the only model that won't see this as a problem is one in which various philosophical views are eternal, unchanging entities, all available at any moment (from their development on) for adaptation with no sense that there might be things that ever rendered any of those views obsolete. Such a view seems to be related to Hazony's rather old-fashioned view of philosophy. But I think (in a twist that, of course, those holding it would disallow) that it's become untenable.

§§§§ One of the starkest examples of this, for me at least, is Hazony's appendix on the nature of reason. Hazony talks about the fall of the scholastic view of reason and the multiple views of how reason works that currently exist -- fine, although I'm unclear how deeply his reading in the latter goes (although I myself, as I should hardly need to acronymize by now, ANEIT). Certainly, though, he didn't convey a good sense of the various different schools and trends in thinking about the nature of thought that have developed in the modern age. (Again, given his description of the losses incurred with the ending of the scholastic view, I myself felt the omission of Peirce, whose ideas in "More Consequences of Four Incapacities" contrast the scholastics with Cartesian ways of thinking, and then argue for moving beyond Descartes without simply accepting scholasticism either.) But the odd part here was that Hazony then goes into a several-page digression on another view of reason, one compatible with modern science, by means of an explication of the epistemological ideas of -- Isaac Newton. Hazony justifies this by pointing out that Newton's "purpose in composing the Principia was precisely to provide us with examples of proper reasoning" (p. 269). Well, fine. But it's hardly what Newton is remembered for. And there has been a lot of work on the philosophy of science in the last three centuries or so -- work which has been able to draw on, for its study, the actual practice of modern science, which Newton is often said to have originated. A single example makes a terrible data set. (And for that matter, in thinking about Newton's epistemology, I'm reminded of Keynes's remark that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago". Taking his ideas about reason as the major organizing text in a discussion of how to reconceive of reason is simply bizarre (and speaks, once again, to Hazony's old-fashioned conception of philosophy).

§§§§§ It doesn't help matters that the God that Hazony describes as portrayed in the Tanakh is very much not the God that tends to be defended by philosophical believers these days -- the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, unchanging, ground-of-being God of most Western philosophy for more than a millennia. Rather, Hazony argues that the Tanakh presents God as not all powerful ("God, powerful though he may be, is not all powerful", p. 94, emphasis in the original), is not a a perfect being (p. 304, footnote 120: "As far as I can tell, the Bible makes no claim to the effect that God is a perfect being"), is capable of changing His mind ("Isaiah... knows quite well that the God of Israel is changing his mind, and that that which is prophesied does not in every case come true.") I think Hazony is right that this is how the Tanakh portrays God, and that he helps restore our understanding of the text by wiping away the layer of Greek philosophy that had been read into the biblical portrayal of God. But at the same time, this means that the majority of philosophical arguments for the existence of God that have been offered in Western philosophy are simply unavailable to a philosopher seeking to develop the Tanakh's arguments, since they apply only to a being so differently defined that it is questionable whether they should really have the same name. If Hazony is right about the Tanakh, then any reasons to believe in its God will have to be developed more or less from scratch (since the Tanakh itself, of course, gives none).