My column’s Jewniversity challenge

January 09, 2017 09:47

He was a favourite of Margaret Thatcher's, and one of the most significant thinkers of his time, so the Jewish Year Book was naturally keen to include him.

But Karl Popper, political theorist and philosopher of science, was less keen to be included. He responded to their request in his characteristically grouchy manner. 'I do not believe in race.  '

Both his parents were from Jewish families, but they had converted to Protestantism shortly before he was born. Popper regarded himself as a cosmopolitan, and disapproved of ethnic labels.

“Racial pride is not only stupid but wrong, even if provoked by racial hatred. All nationalism or racialism is evil, and Jewish nationalism is no exception.” In fact, he was particularly harsh on Zionism, far more so than other nationalist ideologies.

When asked whether he was Jewish, he recoiled much in the way of his closest friend, the Austrian-born art historian, Ernst Gombrich, who wrote: “I prefer to leave that enquiry to the Gestapo.”

Starting today, I’ll be writing a column, Jewniversity Corner (apologies, the title was irresistible), which each month will feature the ideas of a prominent Jewish academic. The case of Karl Popper highlights the problem of definition. Who counts as a Jew? And who gets to decide? These are questions I’m going to skirt around; they’re way above my theological pay-grade (though there are some brilliant Jewish academics who have intriguing contributions to make to the debate).

Mind you, I’m not going to struggle to find noteworthy individuals to write about. Again, depending on how you define a Jew, around 20 per cent of Nobel Prize winners have been of Jewish origin. If there’s one area Jews have excelled in over the past century, above all others, it’s academia. The reasons for this are multifaceted and controversial, but they are in part a result of the emphasis Jewish families put on education, and no doubt in part because a marginalised status in society has produced a useful, lateral perspective on the world.

The scholars I choose for this column will be heavily weighted to reflect my own interests and prejudices (the social sciences — psychology, anthropology, sociology, criminology, economics — and jurisprudence and philosophy). But please do send in suggestions (@DavidEdmonds100). There are very few criteria: they need to work, or have worked, in academia, and have fascinating ideas worth marking — oh, and they need to be alive.

Were he still alive, I’d want to include Professor Sir Karl Popper CH FBA, FRS, not least because, although he would never admit it, he was hugely influenced by the Viennese Jewish milieu in which he was raised in the first three decades of the 20th century. His critique of nationalism, his advocacy of the open society and his hostility to identity politics, were fashioned out of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the rise of fascism and antisemitism. He may not have regarded himself as Jewish but he couldn’t prevent his Jewishness being thrust upon him. It would have annoyed him to feature in the Jewish Chronicle. But, heck, he was often annoyed, and no one could dispute the value of his scholarship.

Over the following months, I’ll be covering the ideas of other remarkable Jewish academicians, starting with a man who shares Popper’s Viennese origins.

He’s (arguably) the most famous philosopher on the planet and (indisputably) one of the most contentious …

David Edmonds is a writer and senior research associate at Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. His most recent book is ‘Philosophers Take On The World’ (Oxford University Press)

January 09, 2017 09:47

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