A Contextualised View of Historical Figures
I recently finished reading a review of a biography of Maimonides, the medieval Jewish scholar. Despite its copy editing failures, the review had me feeling pretty good about the character of old RaMBaM, and, better yet, helped me crystallise feelings I’ve had for a while (incidentally, this is the link for said review http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/the-utter-silence-of-the-andalusian-refugee/). Full reveal: I was born, raised and confirmed a Catholic: a rather milquetoast elementary education and a more Hellenic-oriented high school experience managed to drill into me a strange fascination and respect for World Jewery, both cultural and historical. Since then, I’ve become a rather strident agnostic, if that isn’t a contradictio in terminis, but the respect for Judaism has remained.
More to the point, what learning more about Maimonides’ character allowed me to do was divorce my respect for the person (or, let’s be real here, his or her more essentialised characteristics) from their historical situation. I like that Maimonides was pushing against mysticism, and “magic,” and other stripes of nonsense. I suspect that, had his project been taken up more fundamentally, “we” would have reached the truth rather sooner than we have.
That being said, I don’t think we can fault anyone for not being agnostic or atheist before the last century or century-and-a-half. Though these people may have had the same rational tool-set that we do, they did not have the aggregate of physical evidence that we have available to us now. Which delivers us to my main point.
For those of you who know me well, this will come as little-enough a surprise. I look on those in current society, especially those who pursue higher education (see importance of aggregate physical data as outlined above), who continue to hold religious views with a modicum of disdain. It does seem to me that it is, in some ways, intellectually dishonest to continue to endorse mysticism in full view of a material reality which accounts for most everything we experience. We can argue about the minutiae of it, but, to my estimation, the metaphysical impossibility of “the super-natural” was proven by Kant in his First Critique (whether he knew it or not), and further underlined by Schopenhauer in his works (again, whether he realised it or not). That being said, the majority of historical Humanity has endorsed these views, including people that, for better or worse, we want to laud and esteem. How then should we deal with this (rather artificial) conundrum?
Although it’s become a rather frightfully over-used simile since the ’50s, I suspect that the adoption of the scientific method, coupled with materialist perspective (in the philosophical interpretation) in the late 19th century was in fact a fundamental paradigm shift for our species. Recognition of the aggregate data which allowed us to free ourselves from the shackles of mysticism that had come before provided a decidedly frightening moment for the individual. How were we then to look upon those paragons that “came before”? Should we condemn the Newton’s (truth be told, we probably should-he was pretty weird), the Leibniz’, the Boyle’s, the Descartes’, the Astell’s and the de Pizan’s, and all those of Antiquity, because they may have been speaking about (G)od?
No, of course not. These were people, these were Staggering Heights, working within their ferment, to broaden human knowledge. We ought to judge them by their times. We ought to contextualise them.
How, then, do we accord what we know now to how we respect these individuals’ legacy? We look upon ourselves, and the work done after this watershed paradigm shift, as an outgrowth of the past. We can look back and weigh what was reprehensible and what was worthy of accord in each individual, based upon the way they furthered capital-t Truth; in the intellectual honesty that they portrayed. In this way, I can find someone like Maimonides, who definitely had drawbacks both personal and intellectual, worthy of my esteem. In this way, we needn’t divorce ourselves from the rich ground from whence we’ve sprung, simply because we’ve walked down the road a bit further.
Uncontroversially, we are products of the society we are born into.
Posted on February 11, 2014, in Maunderings and tagged agnosticism, atheism, contextualisation, empiricism, historicism, history, Maimonides, modernity, philosophy, Western Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.