Wednesday, March 14, 2007

On Asking Questions the Rishonim Didn't Ask

There is probably a difference between deviating from the methods of the Rishonim on intrinsic Torah issues, and deviating from them as a result of extra-Judaic developments. For example, the Rishonim were bothered by certain questions that bothered the philosphers of their day, and weren't bothered by others that the contemporary philosophers didn't care about (or never thought of). Moderns find some of the great medieval philosophic questions to be unimportant or trivially answerable, and have other problems that bother them which the Rishonim never dealt with. These shifts in what bothers people are often attributable not to deteriorating Torah knowledge and instincts, but to changes in how external society thinks. The Rishonim were influenced by the thought of external society just as we are, and the questions they pondered and answers they wrote because of that influence are not necessarily any more valid than the questions and answers our generation is inspired to offer by the equivalent influence in our times.

(Comment originally posted at

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On the Study of History

Modern science has demonstrated the enormous value of empirical study in testing theorems and thereby isolating the truth from everything else. Unfortunately, planned and controlled experimentation is not possible in all fields of human intellectual endeavour. For example, a theory of national governance cannot be tested in a laboratory to see whether it results in a just and happy society.

I believe that one of the principal merits of the study of history is that it reveals the closest available approximations of experimental evidence regarding political and sociological questions. The dynamics of every historical situation are highly complex and only ever partially understood, and no situation ever repeats itself in all its details - so no social theory can ever be rigorously tested for accuracy or effectiveness in one historical scenario and then applied to another with any sort of guarantee of success. Nonetheless, history provides us with the best (and only) empirical evidence that exists about humanity - in particular, about the human collective. It therefore allows us to test and improve our understanding of humanity via some of the methods that make science so reliable and successful.