Friday, February 8, 2013

The Philosopher's Failings

As a graduate student, I studied with Aryeh Leo Motzkin (1934-2006) at Boston University from 1993 to 1996.  He was the adviser for my master’s degree.   

This was not a good time for Professor Motzkin.  He appeared to be plagued by personal issues, was often distracted, late to class, or gone from class entirely.  It was obvious that all was not well with him both physically and emotionally.   

He was at odds with the Department of Philosophy.  The chair at that time eventually had Motzkin’s office moved out of the department entirely.  But worse was yet to come. In 1995 allegations surfaced that Motzkin had sexually harassed female students, and at least one female professor.  A special committee was formed, and they recommended that he be dismissed.

It was stated that:  “Motzkin had sexually harassed students, sexually assaulted and harassed a faculty colleague, violated BU's Illegal Drugs and Alcohol Policy by serving alcohol to underage students, and made false reports to the hearing committee regarding the charges against him. Motzkin denies some of those charges, but he does not dispute that he is unfit to teach.”

Professor Motzkin brought a lawsuit against BU, claiming that depression, and the use of SSRIs, had inhibited his ability to make judgments. He claimed his firing was discriminatory, due to his disability.  This case was dismissed in 1996.  Details can be found here and here.

This leads us to the collected volume of Motzkin’s writings brought out by Brill in 2012, and edited by Motzkin’s “last student” Yehuda Halper, called Philosophy and the Jewish Tradition: Lectures and Essays by Aryeh Leo Motzin.  Of course, this book does not touch upon the events at BU.  Eva Brann, who wrote the preface, refers to “some circulating tales,” about his time in America, but says no more.  Halper refers to Motzkin’s life after 1996 as his retirement.

The lectures and essays themselves touch upon Motzkin’s favorite topics, the intersection of Judaism and philosophy.  He explores this in various settings, usually against the backdrop of Muslim Jewish philosophy during the Middle Ages.  For Motzkin, philosophy is a timeless pursuit, one that does not change, evolve, or transform.  It is the pursuit of intangibles, and everything else takes a back seat.  All other things, including religion, are slightly debased as a result.

The problem with this view, of course, is that philosophy does indeed change.  It is just as dynamic as any other discipline.  By holding reason or Reason, as he would say, on this lofty perch, Motzkin’s thinking seems outdated and irrelevant.

However, he does have very interesting things to say about the project of the coordination of philosophy and revealed religion.  The reader of this book should be aware of the very tight focus of this volume on these specific issues.  Although these essays were written for general audiences, one must have an interest and some background in this area to fully engage the material.

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