Dodging Dictators and Other Demons: A Family Memoir
Dodging Dictators is a family memoir set against the background of 20th century violence and displacement. It tells the story of assimilated German-Jewish grandparents who got kicked out of Hamburg and Berlin by the Nazis and eventually settled in Brazil. A Brazilian grandfather who was born into São Paulo’s coffee bourgeoisie, broke with his social class, became a leader of the communist party and, in the 1960s, the commander of an urban guerrilla group in the footsteps of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that fought Brazil’s military dictatorship. In 1969 he helped to kidnap the American ambassador and was killed by the regime in 1970. My parents got involved in the resistance against the dictatorship as students, fled to Cuba, contemplated guerrilla training, but then decided to go to Europe as political refugees. Of all places they chose Germany where I and my three siblings were born–just a few decades after the Nazis had driven our grandparents out of the country. We grew up between Germany and Brazil, feeling at home in neither, in a family that gradually fell apart. Today one brother is battling a crack addiction in São Paulo, the other is an actor-slash-taxi driver in Berlin, our sister runs a Yoga studio in a slum in Salvador da Bahia, I teach philosophy in Montreal, our father is developing an ecological farm in Minas Gerais (where he hopes to weather the impending breakdown of capitalism), and our mother is busy staying alive in Berlin after five more or less serious suicide attempts.
The memoir traces the lost world of European Jews from a third-generation perspective and the fate of a Brazilian family through the country’s post-colonial political and social upheavals. At the same time it is also a reflection on Jewish life and memory in post-war Germany and on the ongoing repercussions of violence and persecution in the lives of the victims’ descendants.
I have notes for two essays: one is a personal and critical reflection on how technology is transforming our life (I recently overheard my 5-year old daughter tell “Siri”—who lives in my iPhone—to go wash her ears “with soap” because she doesn’t get most of her questions). The other is about the break between pre-modern and modern philosophy and the fact that philosophy can no longer guide us to living well or offer consolation. Having spent much of my scholarly life reconstructing a pre-modern philosophical project that I now think is obsolete, this is also a self-critical investigation.
On the medium term I’d like to try my hand on a novel, children stories, and perhaps other forms of fiction.
Intertwined Intellectual Worlds in the Middle Ages
I am working towards an integrated history of medieval Jewish, Muslim, and Christian thought. While talk about “intertwined worlds” has become common-place, it remains surprisingly difficult to spell out what this actually means. Despite notable exceptions (Harry Wolfson and Shlomo Pines or, more recently, Sarah Stroumsa and Sabine Schmidtke), most scholars continue to divide things up according to religious affiliation (Jewish, Muslim, Christian), intellectual schools (falsafa, kalām, Sufism, and so forth) or original and imitation (Muslim thought is supposed to derive from Greek thought and Jewish thought from Muslim thought). They thus fail to capture the complicated relations between religious identity, intellectual commitments, and cultural exchange. Correctly conceptualizing these relations is one of the main challenges I will take on in this project. In terms of method, I am less interested in Quellengeschichte than in identifying the questions and problems that Jews, Muslims, and Christians were concerned with—both questions they shared and questions that divided them—and then look at the answers they worked out. With respect to these, I want to capture the dynamic between the often competing intellectual schools—falsafa, kalām, Sufism, and varieties of Neoplatonism. A related short-term project is to look at whether al-Ghazālī’s skepticism in metaphysics and his turn to Sufism may shed light on Maimonides’ skepticism in metaphysics and the turn to Sufism of his son Abraham.
Culture of Debate
I want to work out in greater detail the moral presuppositions and political conditions of the “culture of debate” I propose for addressing the tensions and conflicts arising from religious and cultural diversity in the last chapter of my book Teaching Plato in Palestine: Philosophy in a Divided World. In this context I also intend to collaborate with social psychologists to determine the impact a culture of debate can have on the quality of our judgments.
Deus sive Natura: The Emergence of the Philosophical Concept of the Unity of Nature
Spinoza’s substance monism is often said to have established the metaphysical framework for conceiving the unity of nature. Against the standard view I argue that Spinoza is critically revising the thesis (first proposed by the 4th c. Aristotle commentator Themistius) that God conceived as Reason is identical with the order of nature. The project is both historical and philosophical. My aim is to document the emergence of the unity of nature as a philosophical concept from Antiquity to Spinoza and from Spinoza to German idealism, and to understand the philosophical arguments underlying this concept and the motives for adopting it in different contexts.
Themistius, Paraphrase of Metaphysics, Book 12
Together with Yoav Meyrav from Tel Aviv University I am translating Themistius’ Paraphrase of Metaphysics 12, a key text for the Deus sive Natura project. Our translation with introduction and notes will appear in the Ancient Commentaries on Aristotle Series, edited by Richard Sorabji for Cornell University Press and Duckworth in 2016.