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SPECIAL UNIVERSALS – A JEWISH PERSPECTIVE?
This short essay was written in the 1930's while Unger was living in Paris. His attitude to the intellectual fashions of the day was ambiguous. He was fascinated by the fact that Jewish minds had so much to contribute and wondered whether there is such a thing as a Jewish mindset.
The following considerations seek to compare a few outstanding figures of the 20th century in order to understand a particular type of personality. All are thinkers, all are Jews and all present similarities of intellect and behaviour, although each one comes from a different discipline. The special feature of their behaviour that we wish to look at is a bent, an inclination to universalism, to all embracing ideas. Their universalism is particularly interesting because it originates and is borne by a specialised method of perception. It characteristically views all things from a single perspective, one area of facts, where it originated and where its validity was demonstrated. Since the thinkers to whom we wish to draw the reader’s attention were all Jews, it may be assumed that we are looking at a feature that is characteristic of a Jewish mindset, and our study may contribute to our understanding of modern Judaism.
The scholars in question are very different one from the other and all are indifferent to the essentials of Judaism, as is evident from their works and their cultural impact. They share a character profile, almost even a physical profile and the similarities of character and cultural phenomena would seem to point to a real national Jewish type of mind, and this quite apart from the question of the partial universalism, if we may be allowed to term it thus, a specialism that grows into a universal.
Let me first sketch the intellectual portrait in the abstract, independent of its incarnations.
The scene where this kind of person is to be found is typically the world of science. To the personality in question, science is an all-dominating ideal, a sovereign imperative of utmost stringency. From this the personality draws inexorable strength, a disinclination to compromise, non-compliant persistency in the pursuit of the truth that he himself discovered. He is concerned ‘not to be betrayed’, is suspicious, feels animosity against and disdain for any adverse view, every position that does not confirm the certainty of his truth. In a nutshell, he will be intolerant of every deviant. From an emphasis on the stringency of science, there will follow a certain disinclination as regards philosophy, particularly metaphysics, as obscure and tending to mysticism. Yet he will lay claim to sovereign and all-embracing truths that properly belong to philosophy. He takes the claim away from philosophy and appropriates it to his specialised scientific work. From this there emerges the already mentioned broadening out from a specialised scientific discovery into something that has validity for and dominion over every other sphere of knowledge – a particularised universal.
It would be wholly inappropriate to explain such a person’s tendency to universalise in terms of pure psychology and then deny objective validity to the results by declaring them to be truisms. Rather, the analysis of the particular mindset serves to explain the inclination that allows certain discoveries in the field of specialised sciences to be made, discoveries that lend themselves or even require one to transfer or apply them to all other possible areas of thought. We often find an accompanying cultural phenomenon, namely that such personalities will unduly emphasise or exaggerate the applicability of their discovery to areas where it may no longer be relevant. This is also often accompanied by a desire to make something more generally known, to spread ideas by forming a school of thought. It may become a trend, a fashion. The widely disseminated, vulgarised effluencies of some scientists’ work will flow into the general intellectual life of educated and half-educated people. The age will feel enlightened and look at all things from the perspective of the current , intellectual fashion. This, as well as the formation of a school of thought will then entail a parting of the ways of the founder and the disciples.
There is one sphere of knowledge that would seem to have adopted the ‘new truth’. and its principle of interpretation – religion.