Page 149 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 33

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HYMAN / HARRY AUSTRYN WOLFSON
139
WOLFSON’S CONCEPT ION OF PHILOSOPHIC TH INK ING
As a historian of philosophy, Wolfson applied rigorous historical
methods and techniques to the philosophers he studied; at the
same time he was well aware that a historian of philosophy must
also have a conception of what philosophy is and what philoso­
phers do. Whatever else he may be, a historian of philosophy
must also be a philosopher. Regrettably, Wolfson never provided
us with an explicit essay describing how the nature of philosophy
is illuminated by the study of its history, but his views may read­
ily be gathered from the careful study of his writings.
Wolfson’s thesis concerning philosophy, philosophers, and
philosophic writing may be summarized in three propositions:
(1) a philosopher formulates his position by acting as a com­
mentator on and a critic of philosophic traditions which have
reached him from his predecessors, rather than as an innovator;
(2) a significant philosopher thinks in systematic terms, however
unsystematic his writings may appear; and (3) philosophers
write by means of hints, allusions, and innuendos, rather than
by means of explicit statements containing their views.
In viewing a philosopher as commentator and critic who re­
examines and clarifies old ideas, tracing implications that had
not been seen before, Wolfson emphasizes the tradition-centered-
ness of philosophic speculations. The philosophic enterprise is
primarily “literary,” or, as Wolfson once called it, “bookish,” and
exegesis is its major method.
In his introduction to
Spinoza,
Wolfson recalls that he once
discussed with a group of friends the importance of bookish and
philological learning for an understanding of the history of phi­
losophy. One of those present asked him: “How about Spinoza?
Was he a bookish philosopher?” Without hesitation Wolfson
replied:
As for Spinoza, if we could cut up all the philosophic literature
available to him into slips of paper, t’oss them up into the air,
and let them fall back to the ground, then out of these scattered
slips of paper we could reconstruct his
Ethics.
Toward the end of his
Spinoza,
Wolfson considers the tradi-
tion-centeredness of philosophy once again; but this time he also
inquires concerning the possibility of philosophic originality or
novelty. He writes: