Page 125 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 20

Basic HTML Version

— H
A. W
did actually tell us the processes of his own reasoning from the
very inception of his thought to its complete maturation,” he
writes, “then the history of philosophy would be simply a matter
of collecting and classifying philosophic data. But no philosopher
has ever given expression to the full content of his mind. Some of
them tell us only part of it; some of them veil their thought
underneath some artificial literary form; some of them philoso-
phize as the birds sing, without being aware that they are repeat-
ing ancient tunes.” And the argument is clinched in a few
sentences that have the power of rhetoric without the use of
rhetoric: “Words, in general, by the very limitation of their
nature, conceal one’s thought as much as they reveal it; and the
unuttered words of philosophers, at their best and fullest, are
nothing but the floating buoys which signal the presence of
submerged unuttered thoughts. The purpose of historical re*
search in philosophy, therefore, is to uncover these unuttered
thoughts, to reconstruct the latent processes of reasoning that
always lie behind uttered words, and to try to determine the true
meaning of what is said by tracing back the story of how it came
to be said, and why it is said in the manner in which it is said.”
To carry out such a plan requires a mastery of the literary
medium, and this is evident from the first chapter on “Hellenistic
Judaism and Philo” to the summing up in the last chapter,
“What Is New in Philo?” The latter is a feat of compression and
a model of limpid clarity. But there is something more. In order
to communicate the originality of Philo’s ideas and their impor-
tance for subsequent philosophy and religion, Wolfson employs
a literary form as arresting as its ideas are striking. He invents a
synthetic mediaeval philosopher who is composed of all the com-
mon elements of the Christian, the Moslem and the Jewish phil-
osopher and who in a space of ten pages analyzes and formulates
the entire radical revision of Greek philosophy, which is traced
back to Philo. The literary form underscores the intellectual
drama that unfolds. And the curtain falls on a statement which
anticipates and whets the reader’s appetite for the volumes to
come: “This, then, is the new period in the history of philosophy,
ushered in by Philo and ushered out by Spinoza. If we still
choose to describe this period as mediaeval, for after all it comes
between a philosophy which knew not of Scripture and a phil-
osophy which tries to free itself of Scripture, then mediaeval
philosophy is the history of Philo. For well-nigh seventeen cen-
turies this Philonic philosophy dominated European thought.
Nothing really new happened in the history of European philos-
ophy during that extended period. The long succession of phil-
osophers during that period, from among whom various figures
are selected by various historians for special distinction as inno-
vators, have only tried to expound, each in his own way, the