Jewish success, Islamic stagnation

by Chris Bertram on October 19, 2003

Unsurprisingly Mahathir Mohamad’s speech to the Islamic summit has met with outrage in the blogosphere. And quite right too, since his remarks about the Jews are pretty vile. But there’s a kernel of interest in what the bigot has to say. He’s worried about the historical transformation of Islam’s fortunes. After all, as he says:

The early Muslims produced great mathematicians and scientists, scholars, physicians and astronomers etc. and they excelled in all the fields of knowledge of their times, besides studying and practising their own religion of Islam. As a result the Muslims were able to develop and extract wealth from their lands and through their world trade, able to strengthen their defences, protect their people and give them the Islamic way of life, Addin, as prescribed by Islam. At the time the Europeans of the Middle Ages were still superstitious and backward, the enlightened Muslims had already built a great Muslim civilisation, respected and powerful, more than able to compete with the rest of the world and able to protect the ummah from foreign aggression. The Europeans had to kneel at the feet of Muslim scholars in order to access their own scholastic heritage.

But that was then, and this is now. And as Mahathir notices and regrets, the Islamic world has been in a pretty miserable intellectual and cultural condition since the Ottomans. He’s obsessed with the contrast between Muslims and Jews. He may not be right that Jews rule the world, but he is right to notice their extraordinary achievements, and especially their intellectual achievements, and the contrast with the miserable contribution of modern Islam.

Now maybe there’s a respectable social scientific literature about Jewish success and maybe there isn’t. At any rate, I don’t know of it. So far as I’m aware, the only commentator who gives the matter due attention is Bryan Magee in the context of a rather tortured attempt to explain the anti-semitism of his hero Richard Wagner in his 1968 book Aspects of Wagner . In the process of doing this, Magee discusses the cultural achievements of Jews in the modern word. After mentioning Freud, Marx and Einstein as intellectual giants, he tells us that their success is remarkable

… for many reasons. One is that there had been only one Jew of comparable achievement, Spinoza, in the previous eighteen hundred years. Another is that … these three pioneered a Jewish renaissance of fantastic proportions. Jewish philosophers since Marx include Bergson, Husserl, Wittgenstein and Popper. …. Most of the famous psychoanalysts have been Jews … Nobel prize winners so numerous it would be tedious to list them…. All this is doubly amazing when one remembers that the total number of Jews in the world is only about thirteen million. (p.32)

Magee goes on to reel off equally long lists of names from the field of music. The picture hasn’t really changed much since. Look at the lists of Nobel prize-winners since 1968, or the names of the most-quoted scientists and you’ll find many Jews. Thinking about my own field of political philosophy, there are many Jewish names (Cohen, Steiner, Raz to mention but three), and among political philosophers in the blogosphere (Norman Geras , Jacob Levy ) Jews are very prominent.

This success of Jews in public life and scientific endeavour must really grate with anti-semites. And all the more so because the achievements of many of these individuals are, by any reasonable standards, both objective and of the very greatest excellence. Some mad anti-semitic theory might explain why some politician or banker rose to prominence, but no set of conspirators can elaborate general relativity or write Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. That’s stuff you just can’t fake.

Magee asks two linked questions:

First, why in the modern era did Jews produce scarcely any creative work of the first rank until only the last century? Second, why was there then this amazing harvest of achievement? (p. 33)

Magee claims that he has heard two explanations for Jewish success. The first is that Jews are some kind of innately superior race (this he dismisses as being obvious racist nonsense). The second is that “the cultural distinction of modern Jewry is due to their unique religious and intellectual tradition.” But he rejects this too on the grounds that all the Jews who have attained the highest levels of attainment have rejected Judaism:

Spinoza, Heine and Mendelssohn if anyone wants to include them, Marx, Disraeli, Freud, Mahler, Einstein, Trotsky, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Schoenberg. [Schoenberg went back to Judaism, but as a political statement in the face of the Holocaust.] (p. 34)

Magee’s preferred explanation—to which I attach just about no credence at all—is based in a sort of general law of emancipation. This seems to go something like this: original thought requires the freedom to inquire, to deliberate, to argue and so on. But this can’t happen all at once. Given free institutions, it takes two to three generations for intellectuals to really get cooking, to acquire the right habits, to build the right culture. This all happened in European culture with the reformation, but the full flowering of this culture and its highest achievements didn’t really come until the 17th century and after. The Jews, however, were excluded from this and couldn’t really make their contribution to Western thought until two or three generations after the opening of the ghettoes. So this Jewish renaissance, dating from the middle of the nineteenth century, has reached its peak in our own times. (Magee thinks this Jewish pre-eminence is a temporary thing and won’t last.).

Magee has also has some rumblings about Jews, as persons cast hither and thither by economic and political instability, are, somehow the representative modern individuals. But this is really just an afterthought to the main thesis above.

Now as I mentioned above, Magee’s musings on this topic come as part of a lengthy apologetic for Wagner who, despite being a vile anti-semite, get credited by Magee with great insight into the cultural situation of the Jews. But be that as it may, and despite the general vagueness and feebleness of Magee’s explanation for Jewish success in culture, art, music, mathematics, physics etc etc, the question he raises looks to be a good one. Why were such a small group of people able to achieve such striking success over a shortish stretch of history and why do they continue to be successful today? It sure bugs the hell out of Mahathir Mohamad.

{ 59 comments }

1

angua 10.19.03 at 9:48 pm

Cheap answer: Because Jews, even secular ones, have Jewish mothers.

How about this: In almost every generation, Jews feel like they may be the last ones. They are perpetually circling the wagons. You know that greatest achievement usually comes under stress. (The work I do to deadline is almost inevtably better than stuff I have time to dawdle over.) So, perhaps subconsiously, Jews just try harder to leave their mark on the world?

2

Matt 10.19.03 at 10:04 pm

I wonder whether ‘Jewish success’ is a proxy for ‘Western success’… In any case, ‘Western success’ was clearly a precondition for Jewish success.

And about the particular question at hand.. I predict that the discussion will lead, at best, to the proverbial blaze of amateur sociology.

3

Dan 10.19.03 at 10:48 pm

How about this?

Jews, in Western society, have pretty much been on the outside looking in. We have been pushed to the margins. There are several responses to that sort of pressure. For some, the response is to flee the main stream even more. Hence the Hassidic types. For a lot of Jews, the response was to attempt to muscle in to the mainstream. The easiest way (in a meritocratic society) to do that is through education. Become the doctors, the lawyers, the bankers, and so on. Excell in the sciences and get positions in universities.

Of course, there are other reasons. For example, the “Jews can’t own land or businesses” thing in Europe meant that many Jews got into lending money, and as capitalism formed, that became very, very lucrative. And with those nice dense social networks that oppressed minorities live in, things like diamond trading became very profitable.

4

mark 10.19.03 at 11:17 pm

There is another possible explanation… simply put, the uneven distribution of random occurances. Things tend to run in odd spurts, and for 400 years the Islamic world was the place to be for the past 400 the Western World has been the place to be…Maybe intelligence isn’t evenly distributed every generation just generally over time, currently, an uneven distribution has endowed a high number of Jews above average intelligence…like other subsets of groups in the past.

5

Robert 10.20.03 at 12:40 am

I’m no expert on this, but I expect that because Jews faced pressure in Europe, they had to get smart to survive.

Jews in Arab countries were better off, and presumably had less pressure to become smarter. It would be interesting to compare the abilities of Eastern and Western Jews to see if there’s a discernable difference.

If that’s the case, then we may see a general decline among all Jews in Israel, since they are dominant in that country. I do recall a survey a few months back that showed that test scores were, in fact, quite low in Israel: http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/objects/pages/PrintArticleEn.jhtml?itemNo=313491

6

enthymeme 10.20.03 at 1:47 am

It’s spelt Mahathir Mohamad.

Anyway, anyone who is familiar with the geopolitics of the ASEAN region can tell you that the man is a bigot, albeit an unorthodox one.

Interestingly, Mahathir’s political life has been, for the most part, dedicated to race politics. He wrote The Malay Dilemma – a book which got him temporarily expelled from UMNO (the United Malays National Organization – the ruling party) because it violated a party ban on racially sensitive politico-speak at a time when racial relations in the country were at their nadir. In spite of this early censure of his ideas, his notoriety turned into a measure of fame as UMNO subsequently adopted a largely similar economic philosophy as the one espoused in Dilemma.

In the book, Mahathir berates Malay-Muslims for not having the commercial acumen and economic nous of the Chinese, and further chides them for the cultural failings (laziness, lack of ambition) that supposedly underpin their inferior economic status. For the young Mahathir and UMNO, this disparity was alarming, and UMNO sought to reduce said disparity by implementating the New Economic Policy (or NEP) which basically decreed preferential economic treatment for Malays. (One express aim of the NEP was the massive restructuring of equity ownership in favour of Malays.) Preferential treatment was also extended to Malays in higher education (e.g. the introduction of quotas to Malaysian universities – apparently this has resulted in the exclusion of straight-A non-Malay students in favour of poorer performing Malay matriculants). It is, as it were, an extreme form of affirmative action – except that it doesn’t actually redress any past injustice.

As with the Chinese bogey, so with the Jews. What we’re seeing is the reprise of a familiar theme. His latest exhortation to Muslims basically takes the same format: namely, the invocation of bogeymen (the Jewish ‘scourge’; Western ‘colonialists’; etc.) coupled with the decrying of what he thinks are the weaknesses of the target audience (Islam and Muslims) to which he is ministering.

Moving on . . . you say, as regards Magee, that he writes a “lengthy apologetic for Wagner”. Apologetic for Wagner’s anti-Semitism? I hope that is not what you’re suggesting, because Magee took especial pains in Wagner and Philosophy (published as The Tristan Chord in the States) to explain that that is precisely what he isn’t doing: he is not justifying Wagner’s anti-Semitic views. The obvious point being that explaining the germination of Wagner’s views is not the same as validating them.

7

Carlos 10.20.03 at 1:57 am

“Why were such a small group of people able to achieve such striking success over a shortish stretch of history and why do they continue to be successful today?”

Because they were in at the ground floor for the intellectual rise of both central Europe and the United States?

I am a little doubty on the need for special factors here. Keep in mind the same question could have been raised about the Scots.

8

Josh 10.20.03 at 2:41 am

I don’t think there IS a single answer to the phenomenon of Jewish intellectual and cultural achievement; and if there is, I certainly don’t know it. But a few thoughts:
1) I think there’s something in Bryan Magee’s suggestion that emancipation fueled Jewish success. Certainly, the intellectual predominance that Jews have enjoyed over the last century or so only occured after emancipation. And I think that the sense of having been deprived of opportunity for a long time, and suddenly having a new world open before you, does often inspire people to strive and achieve — there’s an excitement about new opportunities that I think inspired many Jews coming out of the ghettos.
2) Another thing that inspires striving is a sense of wounded pride and a desire to prove oneself, to get back at one’s oppressors; and this, too, I think affected many Jews.
3)Related to this, a desire for acceptance has played a big role in the lives of many Jews since emancipation, and this, as Dan points out above, meant trying to win acceptance through excelling (for a dramatic treatment of this topic, see Isaiah Berlin’s remarkable essay ‘Jewish Slavery and Emancipation’ in his book The Power of Ideas)
4) Magee’s rejection of the idea of Jewish religious values as a cause doesn’t fully hold up. While many Jews have become secularized, they’ve often grown up in religious homes or been influenced by values that derive from religious traditions. Certainly the dedication of traditional Jewish communities to learning continues to be felt in many secular, assimilated Jewish households.
5) In the realm of the arts and philosophy at least — and perhaps science as well — it helps to be able to look at things originally, to have a certain intellectual distance and independence and self-consciousness — and these were qualities which more intelligent Jews were more likely to acquire, being in a position of marginality and uncertainty within society, than others (another point Berlin makes). Or, to put it another, more flip, way: intellectuals tend to be somewhat alienated from societies. Most Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries were in a position of alienation from society; so why not be intellectuals? (This would, of course, apply to emigres and marginalized groups more generally, as would some of the other explanations.)

9

Jacob T. Levy 10.20.03 at 3:08 am

Rejecting religious Judaism is perfectly compatible with having been influenced by distinctive Jewish (specifically Ashkenazic, and in the early stages primarily Jewish-from-Germany-or-the-Hapsburg-lands) cultural and social traditions.

One of these is urbanization; another is a massive commitment to literacy and education. Prior to secularization one had centuries of Jewish men who spent much of their adult lives in Torah study– a much greater share of medieval Jews than of medieval Christians led quasi-academic lives. Urbanization– no Jewish peasantry in Germany or Austria, Jews concentrated in the cities, means they disproportionately lack any trait associated with peasant-ness — education, for example.

My guess is that if you control for urbanization and education– say, look at Vienna in the three decades before WW1 and compare Jews to comparably educated members of other ethnic groups– the differences wane pretty substantially, though not quite completely because the Jewish cultural heritage of study and intellectual dispute gave an ongoing boost to Jews even compared with those who had the same nominal level of schooling.

Things do go in bursts. English philosophy and science in the 17th century, French philosophy in the 18th century, Scottish social thought at the same time, German music for a couple of centuries– and science and philosophy from the German-speaking countries from the mid-19th century until around WW1. (Marx, Freud, and Einstein all came from Germanic countries.) Some get exposed to the work of others; some become intellectual circles; some create the idea that such a thing can be done for those who come after; and an institutional environment and the overall state of knowledge happen to gell right to make it possible. And so those born into a given generation with more than their share of intellectual or artistic ability choose to do this rather than that, because it seems possible and exciting to do. At some other time and place, they would have become gifted rabbis or priests, talented businessmen, clever army officers, etc. (Or, if everything had been closed to them because careers weren’t open to the talents, their abilities might have gone to waste.)

With some trepidation I’ll venture the following: Israel has not been producing anything quite like what you’re talking about, though Israel certainly has many excellent academics and intellectuals and a few excellent novelists, artists, etc. But if one generalized from turn-of-the-century Vienna, one would have expected Israel to be producing world-changing geniuses by the scores or hundreds. This might be spurious– Israeli Jews with that potential might migrate to the U.S. in search of greater institutional support and a bigger market. Perhaps there are dozens of should-have-been Israeli Nobelists who were denied the prize because of politics. But I think there are other things at work, too– the Zionist urge to become a “normal” people, the legacy of the attempted deurbanization in early Labor Zionism and the kibbutz movement, the loss of a certain kind of cosmopolitanism that was cultivated in the diaspora. Or maybe it’s that enough generations have passed since secularization that the old cultural habits are wearing off; I’ve seen some anecdotal accounts of that happening in the U.S. as well– the stereotypical old obsession with education is getting assimilated away.

10

nanook 10.20.03 at 3:51 am

Many seem to be assuming that disproportionate Jewish success in intellectual and business endeavours is unique to the Ashkenazic and European spheres.

Is that really true? It seems to me that it isn’t.

11

pathos 10.20.03 at 4:21 am

If I can add and summarize, a confluence of several factors are at play:

1. Prohibitions on graven images steered Jews away from the visual arts (painting, sculpture) and toward more theoretical or non-tangible pursuits.

2. Prohibitions on land ownership and Christian prohibitions on “usury” pushed Jews into banking.

3. The study of Talmud (by the society at large, if not by specific individuals) inculcated a strong “innate” legal sensibility. For those who have attended Bible Study classes and attended Law School classes, Talmudic study is much, much closer to the latter than the former (discussions of Rules of Evidence, burden shifting, etc.)

4. So, you’ve got Theory, Banking, and Law. In a Western capitalist, Rule-of-Law society, the Jews had the tools to succeed.

More specifically, if the Law & Economics school weren’t made up largely of Jews, then the religion could haven’t be written off as completely useless. It’s exactly what Judaism (religiously and culturally) trains Jews to do.

12

cafl 10.20.03 at 4:29 am

I agree with angua. The role of women in the Jewish culture and religion…the “Jewish mother” is a cliche. Compare this with the Asian family. In both, the mother expresses her cultural role by her efforts to provide the best for her children and to motivate their success. In both groups (at least in the U.S.) there is a reputation of over-achievement. To the extent that this translates to children that have enriched childhood experience and values inculcated to strive for excellence, it may explain success in excess of each group’s proportion in the population. Whether any of the foregoing is borne out by data, I don’t know.

13

Jon H 10.20.03 at 6:17 am

One thing about the religion that might have had an effect is the need to have enough people for a, um, not a quorum but similar term which escapes me at the moment.

That might encourage higher density settlement, rather than spreading out in a rural setting. Secular Jews would benefit also through the larger social and business networks. But the religion would promote clustering which would provide the networks with critical mass to be really workable.

14

Jacob T. Levy 10.20.03 at 8:56 am

The term is “minyan.” Ten Jewish men (in Reform, just ten adult Jews) are needed to, as it were, establish a quorum for religious services.

But ten is a pretty low number as determinants of population density go. I don’t think the requirement of a minyan can do much of the work of explaining Jewish urbanization.

15

Micha Ghertner 10.20.03 at 9:43 am

Not just a minyan, Jacob, but the need to have concentrated communities centered around institutions like a synogogue within walking distance for the Sabbath, a mikva (ritual bath), kosher butcher, etc.

16

Chris Bertram 10.20.03 at 10:06 am

A couple of points in response to comments so far:

Enthymeme: Thanks for the spelling – now duly corrected. On Magee and Wagner’s antisemitism: Margee is clear in his condemnation in both books. But in _Aspects of Wagner_ his is noticeably more complimentary about Wagner’s analysis of the cultural situation of the Jews.

A couple of people mentioned the Scots and others as being comparable. But I really don’t buy that. I’m not sure what proportion of the world’s population were Scots in 1800, but probably a higher proportion than were Jews in 1900 or 2000. And the range of achievement is _so_ much narrower. Can anyone name 50 really world-class Scottish intellectuals and artists between 1700 and 1850 without going and looking in a few books? I bet most CT readers could easily name 50 such Jewish intellectuals or artists from 1850 to 2000 without consulting any reference work and that the list would contain representatives from a dozen different fields. As for the French and the Chinese, they’re even less comparable. The French were the most populous nation in Europe in about 1850!

17

Natalie Solent 10.20.03 at 11:09 am

You might be interested in this article by Jim Bennett on the “Judeo-Germanosphere”. He talks about the thrill of mutual discovery and the stimulation brought about “by the everyday interaction of people who had previously been kept in parallel and uncommunicative spheres.”

By the way, I don’t see why you are so down on Magee’s ‘two or three generations for intellectuals to get the right habits of thought’ argument. Sure, it’s vague, but first stabs at this sort of question are necessarily vague.

18

novakant 10.20.03 at 11:14 am

Forget the Scots – take a look at the Irish. They produced 4 Nobel laureates for literature (and actually that number should be 5, because Joyce really should have gotten one too, but hey, Cary Grant never got a much deserved “real” Oscar either…).
I could name at least 25 Irish world class writers from the top of my head.
That’s not too shabby for a population somewhere around 4 million.

19

Natalie Solent 10.20.03 at 11:19 am

Scots, Irish, Jews, Chinese in Malaysia – all thrusting minorities.

20

schnauze 10.20.03 at 11:47 am

nanook:

i can think of two famous intellectual jews from north africa who’ve influenced me: Emile Benveniste and Jacques Derrida (even though he can sometimes be wrong)

21

raj 10.20.03 at 11:53 am

Just to point out a few things:

Einstein was hardly a religious Jew. His achievements, while many and notable, were part and parcel of a rich scientific tradition in Germany and elsewhere in western Europe. He was not the first to develop some of the aspects that became part of special relativity–Lorentz preceded him to some extent, although Einstein provided substantial insights. And general relativity required mathematics–Riemannian geometry–that was developed in Germany decades before Einstein developed general relativity. Moreover, although Einstein was the first in GR, David Hilbert (he of Hilbert spaces) was hot on his heels. In addition, Einstein did not have particularly much to do with the other great development of early 20th century physics, quantum mechanics, although, there too he provided some substantial insights.

Regarding Mahler–I have to admit I am not a fan of Mahler’s music–the fact there also is that Mahler was part and parcel of a rich tradition of German classical music that went back for centuries. Indeed, the Broadway musicals were an extension of the Viennese operetta–few of which were composed by Jews. It was a German tradition, more than a Jewish one.

This is not to belittle the many contributions of Jews to the intellectual and musical world. Not by a long shot. It is merely to put it in a little perspective.

On the main topic. Islamic stagnation? It is far from clear that Islamicists done much intellectually. Much of the algebra a number theory with which they are credited appear actually to have been developed by Indies.

22

Carlos 10.20.03 at 1:07 pm

“A couple of people mentioned the Scots and others as being comparable. But I really don’t buy that. I’m not sure what proportion of the world’s population were Scots in 1800, but probably a higher proportion than were Jews in 1900 or 2000.”

Quick googling suggests one million Scots in 1800, and a world population of 800 million; about ten million Jews in 1900, and a world population of 1.5 billion.

Since I live in a capitalist, federalist, electromagnetic and telephonic society, it may be that I am prejudiced towards the importance of the Scots.

Then again, maybe not.

23

drapetomaniac 10.20.03 at 1:30 pm

a kernel of interest! i thought that the mahathir speech was actually pretty admirable and reform-minded, including his rather pointed observation that obsessive anti-israeliness had gotten the muslim world more or less nowhere. to focus on his conspiratorial and overwrought view of Jews is to miss the point of mahathir’s stance and his speech — but that assumes actually being interested in the muslim world for reasons other than spotting un-PC statements.

to put it differently, i’d rather mahathir’s conspiratorial argument in support of reform and the mid-east peace process than for him to turn into a sadat, playing to a western gallery’s tastes and with less and less credibility in the muslim world.

Islamic stagnation? It is far from clear that Islamicists done much intellectually.

oh brother. if there is a kernel of interest in this bigoted view….

24

Jack 10.20.03 at 1:32 pm

Novakant: three of the four and many other nearlys (Oscar Wilde, Sean O’Casey) were in a minority within a minority — Irish protestants — which is often used as an argument in favour of the benefits of being a (rich) outsider for intellectual pursuits.

25

Andrew Ian Dodge 10.20.03 at 3:53 pm

The reasons Jews excel is becuase, at in my experience, they work harder than anyone else. As the first commenter said this may because they all have Jewish mothers who are pretty much the driving engine of religion and its people.

Cuban-Americans share this trait and have done very well for themselves in the US. Funny enough, amoung Hispanics they are known as the “jews of Latin America.”

As far as Wagner, I must confess I like his work. Of course, considering he was the world’s first heavy metal musician, that is no surprise. It is a shame that he will always be associated with Hitler is many people’s eyes.

26

Barry 10.20.03 at 3:53 pm

If one does not like Mahler there is always Mendelssohn. Oh but he converted.
Come on why not include Henrich Hertz or mathematicians Jacobi or Kronecker?
Why not mention Heinrich Heine?
Mention the French Physicist Lippmann who got the Nobel in 1908. And the mathematician Jaques Hadamard. It gets overpowering.
Georges Bizet, Sara Bernhardt, Offenbach.
Sigh!

27

Neel Krishnaswami 10.20.03 at 4:29 pm

This is a very interesting question! It’s well-known that Ashkenazic Jews tend to score about 3/4 to 1 standard deviation above the European average on IQ tests, and IQ is a decent predictor of academic success. So the population data is compatible with the great success of Jews in intellectual life.

I had assumed that there was probably some sort of genetic component to this, but carlos’s point about the Scots has forced me to reconsider. The gigantic success of the Scottish Enlightenment was in large measure an institutional one: the Scottish universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh had a different funding model than English universities. Students directly paid lecturers at the Scottish universities, whereas positions at were endowed

28

Michael C 10.20.03 at 4:33 pm

A genetic explanation perhaps? I remember reading that Ashkenazi Jews have the world’s highest average IQ among tested ethnic groups.

29

Neel Krishnaswami 10.20.03 at 4:34 pm

This is a very interesting question! It’s well-known that Ashkenazic Jews tend to score about 3/4 to 1 standard deviation above the European average on IQ tests, and IQ is a decent predictor of academic success. So the population data is compatible with the great success of Jews in intellectual life. I had casually assumed that there was probably some sort of genetic component to this, but carlos’s very sharp point about the Scots has forced me to reconsider.

The huge success of the Scottish Enlightenment was in large measure an institutional one: the Scottish universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh had a different funding model than English universities. Students directly paid lecturers at the Scottish universities, whereas positions at universities like Oxford were endowed. Unsurprisingly, the Scottish universities were famed for the high quality of their teaching, since lecturers there had a much stronger incentive to do a good job. That high quality teaching in turn created the extremely vigorous intellectual culture that led to the Scottish enlightenment.

So a reasonable question is: are there any institutions in Jewish culture that could have a comparable effect to 18th century Scottish univerities?

30

rajan r 10.20.03 at 4:46 pm

Could it also be that Jews in medieval Europe was barred from doing a lot of jobs that whatever they are left with they have no choice but to excel in it? For example, in Czarist Russia, Jews were forced to the poorest part of Russia and on top of it all, they were limited to the cities and towns and barred from the country.

In other words, it is the survival of the fittest. Jews that don’t adapt and thrive with their limitations are quite essantially the first to go to Paradise in the several hundreds of pogroms.

Oh, and hi from Malaysia

31

Neel Krishnaswmai 10.20.03 at 4:49 pm

Sorry for the double post.

32

Jimmy Doyle 10.20.03 at 5:09 pm

Magee: “there had been only one Jew of comparable achievement [to Jews in the modern world], Spinoza, in the previous eighteen hundred years.” That can’t be right. What about Philo and (especially) Maimonides? What about the Kabbalists?

33

Chris Bertram 10.20.03 at 5:17 pm

What about them Jimmy? IMHO you’d have to be quite an enthusiast to put them up there with Marx, Freud and Einstein (and I don’t even like Freud). But I’m sure someone will make a case for them.

34

amazed at all this 10.20.03 at 5:44 pm

Wittengenstein was not Jewish. He had Jewish ancestry, but his genius was entirely unrelated to the Jewish culture or religion. He was not likely influenced by it nor did he consider himself Jewish. Putting such figures in the same boat as affirmed Jews widens the net to extremes.

More properly Wittgenstien should be considered a Christian. And perhaps we should be asking why Austria produced so many great thinkers and artists, because surely Poland has relatively fewer (even when one includes its formerly sizable Jewish population).

Few other ethnic groups are evaluated the way Jews are. Such evaluations come from fear and the desire to isolate that one feared and hated aspect of certain successful and talented people. Do we care what ethnic group Rene Descartes came from? (Probably only the French who have a right to be proud of their native son.) How many brilliant Catholic thinkers have their been? Passionate thinkers in areas of science and philosophy. How about the connection between Anglicanism and literature? Few, if any, ask these questions.

It is only natural that many of the top Jewish minds survived WWII, having more money and better connection, which were used to escape. When they found safety, they also found a new careers in American academia and research. I’m sure Hitler had as many geniuses working on his twisted plans.

As to the millions of ordinary butchers, bakers and candlestickmakers. Many of them died. Just as many of the poorer Jews have been the victims of crimes throughout many centuries because they could not buy protection or freedom.

To put all the importance on the nature of Jewishness or even some form of twisted social Darwinism, begs the question.

Jews are not (as a people) smarter or more successful than other groups. It could be in some instances the emphasis on literacy and learning has helped, but that is an emphasis shared by many (though not all) ethnic groups.

Jews have fought very hard and suffered through immense prejudice and survived. That in itself is an achievement. I’m not willing to give any creedence to any other theories flung about without good reason.

All of this is merely buying into that same wellspring that feeds antisemitism.

Jewish life is not special, except to Jews and if affords no great powers except the comfort of unique people’s tradions and faith.

35

Harry Tuttle 10.20.03 at 5:53 pm

On the main topic. Islamic stagnation? It is far from clear that Islamicists done much intellectually. Much of the algebra a number theory with which they are credited appear actually to have been developed by Indies.

So preserving, unifying and extending the knowledge of three civilizations (Indian, Persian and Greco-Roman) is not much? Yea, both the Greeks and Indians knew the basics of Algebra, but they never applied it well as it was too hard to do without zero.

Not to mention Muslims inventing the watch, the telescope, the timing pendulum, the mariner’s compass and astrolabe, soap, spherical trigonometry, the base system of numbering, naming nearly every star visible in the sky or discovering that disease was communicable by air.

Not much…

36

Shai 10.20.03 at 6:51 pm

re the “jewish mother” argument, via Steven Pinker, twin studies have shown that the influence of parents on many metrics (e.g. personality) is low, around 2-5%. In the lecture I link to, he estimates by citation that 40-60% of the variation is genetic, 40-60 something else, presumably culture, random chance, developmental events, etc, some things, like g, being more heritable than others.

re the jewish iq argument, there are two counter arguments, one being that there is (apparently) more variation within groups than between groups, and the flynn effect, et al by which iq’s have risen a standard deviation in one generation, despite similar genetic heritage. pinker used the example of the difference in g between eastern and western european immigrants that subsequently dissapeared, so there’s no reason to believe otherwise for other groups that mirror the socioeconomic differences between the groups in previous generations

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Alihodza 10.20.03 at 7:47 pm

As drapetomaniac points out, Mahatir’s speech was actually very reform-minded, and urged Muslims to stop obsessing over Israeli crimes and get on with impriving their own plight. It is not wrong for him to express his view that Jews rule the world (though most of us here may think it is silly) – from a Muslim standpoint, I guess having a fair degree of control over US foreign policy and the existence of an aggressive nuclear power bent on “reshaping” the Middle East can sometimes be mistaken for “ruling the world”. If we regard pronouncements such as Mahatir’s as just conspiracy theories and crude anti-semitism then how can we hope to engage with the Muslim world?

On the undoubdted intellectual success of Jewish people, Chris’s original post quoted Magee’s “rumblings about Jews, as persons cast hither and thither by economic and political instability,” which I think is far more pertinent than racist genetic theories. Dan (echoed by pathos) reminds us that “the easiest way (in a meritocratic society) to [succeed] is through education. Become the doctors, the lawyers, the bankers, and so on.” Robert goes on to suggest that Jewish talent thrived in adversity, which explains why modern day Israel has comparatively low educational test scores compared to the diaspora. This is an interesting area of study and we have much to learn from their experience.

Ironically, many of the same phenomena can be seen among the Palestinian diaspora now. They are one of the most educated groups in the societies they inhabit as a result of Israel’s ethnic cleansing policies.

However, I find it hard to understand why it is that only drapetomaniac and harry tutle come to the defence of Islamic cultural heritage, which was so maligned by Chris’s original post. Go browse http://www.Muslimheritage.com – their contribution to modern science, culture and technology is massively under-appreciated. Muslims played a substantial role in shaping modern day Europe, which makes the current wave of Islamophobia so strange.

One day, it would be nice to think that people will oppose Islamophobia with the same vigour they now apply to opposing anti-semitism.

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Chris Bertram 10.20.03 at 7:59 pm

Alihodza: _ “Islamic cultural heritage, which was so maligned by Chris’s original post.” _

No so. Or, if so, unintentionally. What Mahathir says about early Islamic achievements (in the passage I quoted) is quite right. But Islam hasn’t made a comparable contribution to science or culture for many centuries now.

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Bob 10.20.03 at 11:57 pm

The chosen contrast made here between Jewish and Islamic cultures is perhaps less illuminating than other contrasts which could have been selected. I have in mind a public debate in the early 1990s about whether what is construed as “Asian values” was and is a conducive factor in the rapid industrialisation of some Asian countries during the last 20 to 30 years.

Exactly what is taken to be characteristic of Asian values is seldom entirely clear. One variation encountered is the legacy from the cooperative social ethic required for cultivating rice in paddy fields. Another claim, made by Lee Quan Yew, the patriarch of Singapore, was put as: “Do not do unto other what you would not have others do unto you,” which he contrasted with what he claimed as the western, Christian ethic of: “Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.”

However, I rather thought Georege Bernard Shaw got there before him with: “Don’t do unto others what you would have others do unto you – their tastes may not be the same.” I then came across this by Fareed Zakaria:

“Many scholars agreed, perhaps none more forcefully than Joel Kotkin, who in his fascinating 1993 book, Tribes, essentially argued that if you want to succeed economically in the modern world, be Jewish, be Indian, but above all, be Chinese.

“I have to confess that I found this theory appealing at first, since I am of Indian origin. But then I wondered, if being Indian is a key to economic success, what explained the dismal performance of the Indian economy over the four decades since its independence in 1947 or, for that matter, for hundreds of years before that? One might ask the same question of China, another country with an economy that performed miserably for hundreds of years until two decades ago. After all, if all you need are the Chinese, China has had hundreds of millions of them for centuries. As for Jews, they have thrived in many places, but the one country where they compose a majority, Israel, was also an economic mess until only recently. All three countries’ economic fortunes improved markedly in the last three decades. But this turnaround did not occur because they got themselves new cultures. Rather, their governments changed specific policies and created more market-friendly systems. Today, China is growing faster than India, but that has more to do with the pace of China’s economic reform than with the superiority of the Confucian ethic over the Hindu mind-set.” – from: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/issue_novdec_2002/asianvalue.html

Whatever else, arguably with the exception of Malaysia there are few if any examples of successful Islamic economies to point to which do not depend on oil deposits. It seems appropriate to ask, Why?

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john c. halasz 10.21.03 at 12:37 am

I wish to remain agnostic about I.Q. and heritability, but, aside from emphasizing the rich Talmudic tradition, which Emmanuel Levinas insists is every bit as worthy as the philosophic tradition of the Greeks, cultivating an ethical rationality of justice, in contrast to the metaphysical rationality of truth, and the imperative of literacy it enjoined, may I point out the Judaism is a closed religion, into which conversion is very difficult, such that historically Jewish communities must have lost membership to the pressures and advantages of assimilation at various places and times, and thus, in some measure, those who remained to pass on tradition/membership were a self-selected group. That said, I don’t think that fetishizing the achievements of Jews as a group, as opposed the appreciating the contributions that they and their traditions have made to our now highly secularized culture and acknowledging their grievous history of persecution, is a particularly apropos and seemly exercise.

As for Wittgenstein, 3 out of his 4 grandparents were Jews who converted to Lutherism and the 4th was Roman Catholic, so, of course, he was brought up nominally Catholic. But both he and is family were fully aware and even proud of their Jewish origins. And if you read Wittgenstein with Levanasian glasses on, it is surprising how much of a Jewish caste of mind there is in his later thought, inspite of his near total ignorance of Jewish tradition. For example, the emphasis on the relational dimension of language, the insistence on the primacy of the ethical and the insistence on the necessity of community in a shared form of life.

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Jon H 10.21.03 at 4:45 am

Jacob T. Levy writes: “But ten is a pretty low number as determinants of population density go. I don’t think the requirement of a minyan can do much of the work of explaining Jewish urbanization.”

True, but if those are all heads of households, those 10 become, what, 40 people? More?

Obviously, in terms of population growth, once you’ve got the minyan (thanks for the word – I thought that was it) anyone else is surplus. I’m not suggesting that founding a synogogue would have a “build it and they will come” effect.

I think the major contribution would be in reducing or slowing dispersal from Jewish population centers, because for devout Jews, going far away would make it a pain in the butt to take part in services.

Also, what Micah said.

Then again, I have no idea if this is true. It’s just something I would expect would have some influence on peoples’ decisions on where to move.

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Doug Muir 10.21.03 at 7:05 am

I note in passing that Malaysia’s neighbor Singapore honors a Jew — David Marshall — as one of its founding fathers.

Marshall was a Sephardic Jew of Iraqi origin; his family moved to Singapore from Baghdad. (Not so unusual, back in the salad days of Empire.) He became politically active as a nationalist in the 1930s. Fought for the British anyway, was captured by the Japanese, and spent the war years as a POW digging coal in Hokkaido.

Got even more involved in anti-colonial politics after the war, and eventually became Singapore’s first Prime Minister — in 1955 IMS (before independence, but during the negotiations for it).

He only served as PM for 15 months or so; his leadership role was eventually taken over by Lee Yuan Kew, and Marshall himself was gradually nudged out of power altogether. He became a dissident/opposition figure in the 1960s, then reconciled with the government in the 1970s and served as Singapore’s ambassador to several European countries. Died in 1993 IIRC, at the age of 85 or so.

He’s an honored figure in Singapore today, with a firm and respected place in their history books.

I note in passing that Singapore’s Jewish community was never large, and is tiny today… but it always exercised influence well out of proportion to its numbers. Noted further, that there is no anti-Semitism in Singapore. (But there’s no anti-anti-Semitism either. Singapore’s official position on these issues tends to be blandly non-responsive, and if you glance at a map you’ll see why.)

Doug M.

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Former Belgian 10.21.03 at 7:51 am

raj: no Einstein didn’t have much to do with quantum mechanics, but Niels Bohr (Jewish mother) and Max Born (Jewish) did. While Heisenberg, Schroedinger, and Dirac were all non-Jews, Wigner, Oppenheimer, and Teller were Jewish as were many others. (The latter two went on to fame/notoriety as nuclear physicists.) And I am not even getting into Richard Feynman, who completely revolutionized the field.

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Former Belgian 10.21.03 at 7:51 am

Having been raised in a country where you’re either Roman Catholic or secular humanist, allow me to ask a heretical question. If for almost two thousand years, the only “out” from their miserable existence that intelligent lower-class people have is joining the Roman Catholic clergy (and hence at least in theory having no offspring) — while in one of the minority groups bright students have rich merchants falling over each other to marry off their daughters to them — is this going to be entirely without differential effect on the population?

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Conrad Barwa 10.21.03 at 10:58 am

Actually it is very inaccurate to say that Wittgenstein was “proud” of his Jewish heritage. He was deeply infleunced by the anti-Semitic tract of Otto Weninger and on his list of ‘sins’ which he insisted on confessing to unsuspecting close friends and colleagues it included lying/downplaying his Jewish background. His sisters would have positively bridled at considering themselves Jews, they thought of themselves as part of the Austrian, very non-Jewish, elite. Most details of this can e found in any of the biographies on Wittgenstein, AC Grayling’s being the most recent.

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Iain J Coleman 10.21.03 at 2:04 pm

Einstein didn’t have much to do with quantum mechanics

Well, apart from the photoelectric effect – you know, the thing he got the Nobel prize for.

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Joshua W. Burton 10.21.03 at 2:14 pm

Chris writes:

“Magee asks two linked questions: First, why in the modern era did Jews produce scarcely any creative work of the first rank until only the last century? Second, why was there then this amazing harvest of achievement?”

I’m surprised that no one has had more of a whack at doubting the prior here, especially since the “great Muslim civilisation, respected and powerful” of which Mahathir Mohamad speaks was itself at LEAST as disproportionately Jewish a creative flame as the recent Western blaze.

Maimonides. Nachmanides. Shmuel ha-Nagid. Benjamin Tudelo. Ibn Shaprut. Abulafia. Judah ha-Levi. Abravanel. Ibn Tibbon. Moses de Leon. Chasdai Crescas. Joseph ibn Migash. Jonah Gerondi. Abraham bar Chiyya. Jacob ben Asher, the Ba’al Tur. Isaac Abalia. Ibn Gabirol. Isaac Alfasi. Dunash ben Labrat. Ibn Ezra. I’ll go on until you tell me to stop….

When the First and Fourth Crusades were fresh horrors in civilized memory from one end of the Med to the other, it was the Christian end that could rightly ask “What went wrong?” And the answer, of course, was that it was nothing they couldn’t put right by expelling the Insidious Jooz from England and Spain. There is not any new thing under the sun, as some philosopher-king somewhere once remarked.

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Chris Bertram 10.21.03 at 2:39 pm

Trouble is, Joshua, that most of us have no idea of the merits of the people on that list. Einstein, Mahler, Wittgenstein are great figures who happen to be Jewish. Those guys might feature as great Jewish figures of the pre-modern era, but that doesn’t make them great simpliciter. (Though they may be). How do they stack up against, say, Aquinas or Augustine or Averroes?

There are a number of paintings in my local art gallerly by Rolinda Sharples (late 18th century). She was NOT a great painter (trust me). But I’ve seen her featured in feminist lists of great women painters of the past.

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Joshua W. Burton 10.21.03 at 3:25 pm

Well, since Aquinas certainly didn’t share this alleged widespread ignorance of Maimonides, and since he in fact almost certainly read Averroes in the Latin translation of (the Paduan Jew) Bonacosa, I imagine there’s room for a middle ground.

Speaking professionally as a theoretical physicist, I’ll hazard a guess that, with fifteen minutes of Google-cribbing, most of us (of you?) can have a clearer idea of what Shmuel ha-Nagid did for medieval poetry, or Tudelo for medieval geography, than you are ever likely to have about Einstein’s or Feynman’s contributions to Western civ.

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Zizka 10.21.03 at 7:34 pm

Wittgenstein was borderline Jewish by Nazi standards. The family had great difficulties coming from this, but was tremendously wealthy and survived.

Austria was the center of an empire so a lot of people probably counted as Austrians who weren’t. And Poles made considerable contributions, as I understand, to logic, math, music, and literature, with a few scientists too. It is striking to me, though, how many presently influential writers, etc., were “Austro-Hungarian”: Freud et al, Wittgenstein, Popper et al, Rilke, Kafka, Hayek et al, Schoenberg et al, Bartok, and others I’ve forgotten.

I think that Jewish insecurity is a lot of the answer. Not psychological, but real. No Jew has ever really been able to have the kind of feeling of entitlement that rooted people like aristocrats and peasants get. “My forefathers have been here, living according to our age-old customs, for thousands of years and we have a right to this land”.

Conversados (converted Jews) made great contributions to Islamic and Hispanic culture. St. John of the Cross, as I understand, was one — a great devotional poet.

Along with the (nagging) Jewish/Chinese mother is the two-or-three-generation family plan, where parents make big sacrifices for their kids in the understanding that the kids will do as expected (well). Families who send kids out into the world to make it on theiur own do less well.

Someone who has little interest in or respect for pre-modern culture is not likely to have much awareness or understanding of the Jewish contributions to that culture.

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Tripp 10.21.03 at 8:23 pm

Former Belgian,

I’m not sure if preventing offspring from the most intelligent, say, 10% of the males in a population will have much affect over, say, 20 generations. But I’m willing to hear otherwise.

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David Foster 10.22.03 at 12:23 am

Are we really so sure that there wasn’t a great deal of Jewish accomplishment during the first 1800 years of the time period? Creative work during the Middle Ages tended to be relatively anonymous.

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john c. halasz 10.22.03 at 8:10 am

Carl Barwa:

Otto Weininger was himself a Jew and, though Ludwig Wittgenstein’s fascination with this text is perplexing, it’s claim that “logic and ethics are one”, difficult as that may be to construe, is probably the source, though Weininger was also a homosexual and an early suicide. As to Wittgenstein’s peculiar confessions to his friends in the 1930’s, the Wittgenstein name was that of a prominent aristocratic family in Austria, if one adds a “von”, and, though Wittgenstein came from a nuclear family of immense wealth, he was ashamed of having left the impression of belonging to such a lineage and thus of having denied his own Jewish provenance, precisely at a time when he became aware of the Nazi threat to Austria and thus his suddenly Jewish status. That his sisters saw no difference between being proud Austrians and proud of their Jewish provenance speaks to the point. (I’m relying on my memory of having read the Ray Monk biography.)

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Still Amazed 10.22.03 at 3:26 pm

john c. halasz – “As for Wittgenstein, 3 out of his 4 grandparents were Jews who converted to Lutherism and the 4th was Roman Catholic, so, of course, he was brought up nominally Catholic. But both he and is family were fully aware and even proud of their Jewish origins.”

If you are proud of your origins, you don’t convert. I doubt the Wittgenstiens converted because of a crisis of faith. They most likely converted to better assimilate. Wittgenstien wasn’t raised Jewish and he didn’t consider himself Jewish. (Which I think is very important) And I don’t understand the eagerness to connect him with the faith considering he expressed far more interest in Catholicism.

“And if you read Wittgenstein with Levanasian glasses on, it is surprising how much of a Jewish caste of mind there is in his later thought, inspite of his near total ignorance of Jewish tradition. For example, the emphasis on the relational dimension of language, the insistence on the primacy of the ethical and the insistence on the necessity of community in a shared form of life.”

Actually I see far more of a Buddhist style of thought in Wittgenstien’s work. It can often be a fusion in Eastern and Western styles of thought. Putting particular glasses on pre-empts the whole evaluation. I’m sure I could read it with a Maimonedian gloss and then I could turn around and view it with a Humean one. Personally I find great similarities between Hume and Wittgenstien’s later work. Hume was every bit the genius that Spinoza was.

Zizka – “Wittgenstein was borderline Jewish by Nazi standards. The family had great difficulties coming from this, but was tremendously wealthy and survived.”

The hell if I am going to allow Nazis to define who is Jewish and who is not.

Jews are a people and a share a faith and certain traditions, but we are not a race. Not in the way the Nazis thought. To call Jews a race is to use that term in an oldfashioned way. In the way the French may be called a race. The Nazis ascribed to it psuedo scientific terms. The oldfashioned terminology is not nearly as loaded.

Wittgenstien’s family – ie some of his grandparents – may have been Jewish. He was not. Wittengstien expressed little to no interest in and no affection for the Jewish faith or traditions. I think he may have had feelings about his heritage. That would not be surprising coming from a deeply anti-jewish culture that could never allow his family to fully divest themselves of that stain (no matter what their wealth). It is that horrible construction of Jews that allowed the Nazi regime to stir up hatred and rise to power.

None of this makes Wittgenstien Jewish. It allows the oppressors to define who is Jewish.

I cannot countance that.

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Conrad Barwa 10.22.03 at 8:26 pm

John C Halosz,

Otto Weininger was himself a Jew

And this is a problem how? Weininger’s self hatred and internalisation of racial ideas was integral to his thought – his suicide was a logical progression about his rather extreme ideas about the Jew being a parasitic and debilitating influence on Western muscular/masculine civilisation; as was his ideas about the feminine as a corrupting influence on manly values. I think his homosexuality was also on par with his Jewishness as a reason behind his suicide. Internalisation of racist attitudes towards Jews was hardly confined to Gentiles alone, it was prevalent amongst mischlinge and some Jews; Heinrich Heine’s “Man of Straw” is an excellent work that explores this kind of antipathy in post WWI Germany. As Hitler is meant to have remarked – “I only knew one good Jew, Weininger and he killed himself”.

though Ludwig Wittgenstein’s fascination with this text is perplexing,

Not really, Weininger’s work was quite influential in the Viennese circles of his time; it was a staple addition to many libraries – including that of Wittengstein’s arch rival Popper, who recounts his father reading Weininger’s book as part of his personal library.

he was ashamed of having left the impression of belonging to such a lineage and thus of having denied his own Jewish provenance, precisely at a time when he became aware of the Nazi threat to Austria and thus his suddenly Jewish status.

If you go back and read Monk’s biography; this is not the reason given for the denial; in fact Monk makes it pretty clear that only fear of social stigma made Wittgenstein ashamed of his Jewish heritage (unsurprisingly given the attitude towards Jews in elite circles such as Cambridge) not any fear of the Nazi threat in Germany. For God’s sake he spent a good chunk of the 1920s trying to go to Soviet Russia to become a manual labourer –hardly the ideal place for someone that would be proud of their Jewish heritage.

That his sisters saw no difference between being proud Austrians and proud of their Jewish provenance speaks to the point.

I am sorry to say this is complete nonsense; LW’s sister’s refused to believe they could be at threat by the Nazis and despite several warnings by friends and opportunities they did not flee Austria when they could. Their reasons for doing so was not because thety had any faith in the Nazi’s good intentions but because they thought that their position in Viennese society would insulate them from any nastiness towards those clearly identified as Jews and less fortunate than themselves.

I agree with ‘still amazed’ who has made the points I would have done; I should also add that LW was very interested in Eastern philosophy and writers, during his time in Vienna before he left for England I believe Tagore was one his favourite authors.

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john c. halasz 10.23.03 at 1:54 am

still amazed and Conrad Barwa:

As I hinted in my first post, I am not interested in “who is a Jew” type arguments, though in the interests of disclosure I am not of Jewish provenance. Nor am I interested in turning over endless pedantic niceties. That said, I did not bring up Weininger and I don’t know what a consideration of that bizarre book, a succes de scandale in Vienna at the time, amounts to as evidence. And as for the very peculiar “confessions” episode- though L. Wittgenstein was a peculiar man- the fact that he saw his allowing for a misimpression about his jewishness as sinful and in need of rectification speaks to his sense of needing to take ownership of an aspect of his sense of self, though shame at his families immense wealth also played a part. (One of his involutary confessors was Fania Pascal, his Russian tutor in the 1930’s when he was considering moving to Russia, and did actually visit there, which paid put to his plan; in the 1920’s, he was engaged in his disasterous career as a primary school teacher in Austria- I think an experiential source of some of his later philosophizing.) There is no doubt that L. Wittgenstein thought of himself primarily as an Austrian and was nominally Catholic, though, while a person of religious sensibilities in his rather tortured make-up, particularly influenced by Tolstoy, he was not a religious believer. And that his grandparents were Lutheran converts- (I accidentally press post rather than preview there)- certainly was due to mercantile motives: they were a prosperous middle-class family of property managers. The “Wittgenstein” name was actually come by honestly: his great grandfather was a manager on a von Wittgenstein estate when Jews were ordered by law to adopt surnames. It was a highly secular- and very musical- family milieu. I used the word “proud” with respect to their awareness of their jewish provenance, when “unembarassed” would have perhaps been better, though in an environment rife with populist anti-semitism, this amounts to a verbal quibble. Nor does such self-acceptance imply jewish self-identification. The only question of minor interest here is whether there still remains some transmission or imprint of a jewish cultural heritage by other routes after three generations of secularization. There are scattered remarks about jewishness in L.W.’s nachlass and they seem to indicate some perplexity on the matter. For example, there is the remark about how jewish Rousseau really is. My guess is that L.W. was not wholely aware of this issue, though he certainly was not an anti-semite, just as he was not aware of any influence from Gramsci, though Sraffa must certainly have been feeding him some Gramscian lines of thinking.

The comparison with the French/Lithuanian jewish phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas is certainly not arbitrary, but would make for an excellent academic dissertaion topic. The emphasis on the modal-relation dimension of meaning constitution, which Levinas traces as the source of the ethical and its primacy, is certainly there in “Philosophical Investigations” and, though it was John Austin who coined the term “illocutionary force”, the phenomenon itself is clearly delineated in some paragraphs there, though L.W. continued to hold to the distinction between what can be said and what can only be shown, and, strictly speaking, this dimension can not be directly said as such. As for comparison with Hume, surely the core insight of L.W.’s later work is that philosophical skepticism is an impossibility, a product of confusion or obfuscation only, and this is why philosophical problem that defend against such skepticism- and in doing so, lead astray- can and must be “dissolved”. A similar take on skepticism is to be found in Levinas and a similarly post-epistemological orientation. Humean skepticism, itself devolved from the Cartesian turn in modern philosophy, is precisely not to the point- this was the misunderstanding at the basis of Saul Kripke’s book on L.W. There is an excellent essay in Cora Diamand’s “In a Realistic Spirit” comparing Frank Ramsey’s neo-humean approach to L.W.’s: so close, yet so far away. And as for Buddhism? Does this refer to the “Tractatus” and Schopenhauer? Else I do not get the point, nor the evidence for it.

No, I stand by my original claim. That Wittgenstein, though assimilated, was of jewish provenance, and that, in his later philosophizing, using Levinas work as a model for distinctively jewish thinking, some residue of such thinking comes into play.

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Conrad Barwa 10.23.03 at 3:01 pm

John C. Halasz:

I am not interested in “who is a Jew” type arguments

Neither am I particularly but in this context what is being debated is how LW perceived his Jewishness, more specifically your erroneous view that it was unproblmatically a matter of pride for him. Some sort of working definition is necessary if these questions are to be engaged in any sensible fashion.

though in the interests of disclosure I am not of Jewish provenance.

I don’t quite see why this should be relevant; neither am I in anycase.

Nor am I interested in turning over endless pedantic niceties.

Er, you have read the tractatus and you don’t place any importance in pedantic niceties, in a work that deals with them at some length. This is a first.

That said, I did not bring up Weininger and I don’t know what a consideration of that bizarre book, a succes de scandale in Vienna at the time, amounts to as evidence.

Okay, of course you didn’t bring up the book I did (why you should think or bother saying otherwise is beyond me). The reason why it is relevant is because it does betray an important way in how assimilated and non-assimilated Jews reacted to the prevalent attitudes of anti-Semitism of the time which COMPLETELY pervaded many European circles at the time, including that of fin-de-siecle Vienna. I suggest you may want to look at the recent work on Popper-Wittgenstein if you want to understand how a book like Weininger’s could characterise the environs of the time. I also suggest that the rather intricate and bizarre theories of race-pride and masculinity that form the bedrock of Weininger’s book indicate more than just passing weakness which is how those who want to ‘rescue’ LW from any possible opprobrium try to excuse his fascination for the work. This kind of thinking was popular in many circles, including some ostensibly assimilated Jewish ones as well as ‘progressive’ groups and it informed much of the debate on the topic (though there was resistance to it as well); anybody who read, admired and subscribed to a fair amount of what the book said could not conceivably be said to be proud of his Jewish origins whatever they might be.

And as for the very peculiar “confessions” episode- though L. Wittgenstein was a peculiar man- the fact that he saw his allowing for a misimpression about his jewishness as sinful and in need of rectification speaks to his sense of needing to take ownership of an aspect of his sense of self, though shame at his families immense wealth also played a part

Actually, this is again not quite correct. Since you have read the Monk biography you should remember that the remarks he published on Jewishness in 1931 repeated many of the same stereotypes and tropes used by European anti-Semites to characterise the Jews as the internal Other and perennial Outsider; Monk does note the LW moved away from this kind of thinking later on but he records that the imagery and descriptions used by LW, most notably in the episode of the Versagt dream sequence, were the same as those used by the Nazis after the Ancschluss. He also recounts that although LW was not interested in ostentation or displays of wealth, he did nothing to correct the impression that he was related/descended from German princely aristocracy (which he was not) and in fact took some pleasure in displaying his aristocratic bearing and style in the environs of Cambridge. At least one of the women he was close to and possibly in love with, Marguerite was most likely a typical European of her period and criticised his one of his friends at the time Paul Englemann as being the “wrong sort of Jew” after which the friendship between the latter and LW cooled and disappeared.

It was a highly secular- and very musical- family milieu. I used the word “proud” with respect to their awareness of their jewish provenance, when “unembarassed” would have perhaps been better, though in an environment rife with populist anti-semitism, this amounts to a verbal quibble.

Mate, are you drunk? The grandfather, as Monk recounts, was a firm anti-Semite and forbade his children from marrying Jews, cut himself off entirely from the Jewish community and added ‘Christian’ as his middle name to remove himself from his Jewishness. The family was raised in an entirely Germanic cultural milieu and as part of the Austrian elite, so much so that when one of the aunts of LW asked her brother Louis, whether it was true that they had any Jewish background to their ancestry he replied “pur sang, Milly, pur sang”. This example (along with several others) can be found on p.5 of Monk’s biography. It suggests to me an attitude very different from the “unembarrassed” attitude you seem to believe existed.

My guess is that L.W. was not wholely aware of this issue, though he certainly was not an anti-semite,

Nobody here is claiming that LW is an anti-Semite, simply that his attitude and that of his family towards their partial Jewish heritage was very different from what you are suggesting.

That Wittgenstein, though assimilated, was of jewish provenance, and that, in his later philosophizing, using Levinas work as a model for distinctively jewish thinking, some residue of such thinking comes into play

This was not your original claim; nobody here is denying LW’s Jewish background, what is at dispute here is his attitude towards it (and that of his family); which you have substantially misinterpreted. As for the link with Levinas, I am confused you seem to be saying two different things in a mixed and unclear manner: (a) LW read Levinas, later in he career and was partly infleunced by him in wirting his last pieces of work and (b) there are intriguing similarities between LW’s work and Levinas’s though the former had no or little knowledge of the latter. There is as far as I know, little evidence for (a) and the timing is all wrong since I think most of Levinas’s work became well-known only by the 1950s; while (b) strikes me as more pluasible, I haven’t heard it made by any LW specialist and I don’t know enough about Levinas’s work to make an informed comment either way.

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Still Amazed 10.23.03 at 3:17 pm

john c. halasz – “As I hinted in my first post, I am not interested in “who is a Jew” type arguments”

But if we are going to talk about why Jews seems sucessful, it is essential that we start from a position of who is a Jew. You can’t just claim to be uninterested in that and still debate the question of the so-called Jewish success. It is important.

Once you spread the net wide enough, that allows anti-semites to base their ridiculous claims of Jewish power and their difference based on such prominent figures.

My point is that I don’t really believe that Jews are more successful than other groups (in the larger scheme of things). When someone has Jewish ancestry it is automatically brought up. That feeds into two horrible notions. One that being Jewish is some kind of (psuedo) scientific racial distinction that you could never divest yourself of and two that the Jewish part is more important than other factors like the intellectual enviroment of the period. Austria was teeming with brilliant minds at this time. I don’t know why. Maybe it was something in the water.

You can see a Jewish gloss in Wittgenstien but that doesn’t make him Jewish. I see a Buddhist gloss, but I don’t claim he was Buddhist.

Being a Jew, I would love to claim Wittgenstien as a native son. But he’s not.

“Wittgenstein was a peculiar man- the fact that he saw his allowing for a misimpression about his jewishness as sinful and in need of rectification speaks to his sense of needing to take ownership of an aspect of his sense of self, though shame at his families immense wealth also played a part”

Wittgenstien was raised in a deeply antisemtic country where converts (such as his family) did their best to make others forget they had Jewish heritage in the interest of forwarding the social and business status. As I said before, I doubt his grandparents converted because of crises of faith. They converted to assimilate.

It is hardly suprising with such a background that a man as rigidly devoted to the concept of honesty would feel it dishonest to hide (or even not tell others about) his heritage. He assumed it mattered as it might have in Austria. I don’t think those on the other end of his famed confession cared as much. It was important because an antisemetic culture made it so.

None of this makes him Jewish. It merely makes him devoutly honest.

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Charles Copeland 10.26.03 at 3:31 pm

Jews have been practising eugenics avant la lettre for at least 3000 years. It’s as simple or as complicated as that.

When you select for brain, you get brain.

When you select for brawn, you get brawn.

The books to read are Kevin MacDonald’s three volumes on judaism from an evolutionary perspective. See here.

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