Harry Austryn Wolfson

The American scholar and educator Harry Austryn Wolfson (1887-1974) spent half a century as Harvard University's Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy. He was a leading historian of medieval philosophy in Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Harry Austryn Wolfson was born in Austryn, Lithuania, on November 2, 1887. He received a thorough traditional education in the legendary yeshivot of Slobodka, Kovno and Vilna before abject poverty and oppression by the czarist regime caused his family to join the great emigration to America. Following his father in 1903, Wolfson settled in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he supported himself by part-time Hebrew teaching while he completed the requirements for his new homeland's high school curriculum.

A $250 scholarship, won by a competitive examination, brought Wolfson to Harvard University, where he was to remain with few interruptions for the rest of his life. In 1911 he earned a bachelor's degree, then followed up with a travelling fellowship in Europe. He spent two years visiting the great libraries at the Vatican, Paris, London, and Vienna in order to exhume, annotate, and classify scores of neglected Hebrew texts. With these two years behind him, he went home to Harvard to earn a Ph.D., awarded in 1915, and to become an instructor in the fledgling Department of Hebrew Language and Literature.

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The Essential Academic

In 1925, thanks to a wealthy Harvard alumnus named Lucius Littauer who was looking for a suitable way to memorialize his father, Wolfson became the Nathan Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy. The appointment was a double coup. Not only was Wolfson the first professor to occupy this post, but he was also the first in any American university to occupy a chair devoted solely to Jewish studies.

It was not long before he proved himself worthy of this great honor. A stream of scholarly papers and books entrenched Jewish studies firmly within the realm of humanistic research in the United States, while close attention to the university library's acquisitions on all his topics of interest soon built the Judaica Collection into one of the country's finest research resources.

Principal Areas of Interest

Wolfson wrote more than 150 books and articles, primarily on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophy. His research was devoted to an examination of the structure and growth of philosophy stretching between the writings of Philo Judeas, a first-century Jewish thinker who had lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and those of Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Jewish counterpart in Amsterdam.

Wolfson viewed Philo as the originator of a philosophical trend because, living during a time of increasing Hellenization, he had found ways to interpret the incoming Greek philosophy "in terms of certain fundamental teachings of Hebrew Scripture." Adopted first by Christian thinkers and then by scholars of Islam, Philo's ideas influenced all of medieval philosophy until Spinoza arrived on the intellectual scene to pose maddeningly rational questions that challenged an all-accepting Jewish faith. Despite his presence in a metaphysically-conscious academic era, Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community. Nevertheless, he left his massively detailed Ethics as a permanent record of his scholarship.

Although few other scholars dared to undertake the daunting task of studying Spinoza's works, Wolfson tackled the project with enthusiasm, publishing The Philosophy of Spinoza in 1934, following up with Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam in 1947. Finally, over a period of years, he produced The Structure and Growth of Philosophic Systems from Plato to Spinoza, which tied together these two works plus several others published on Christianity and Islam. The over-arching theme of all these works summed up his belief that the philosophies of all three religions, stemming from the same root, could be viewed essentially as one philosophy written in Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, with Hebrew's senior spot giving it the central and most important position.

To support this theory on the history of ideas, Wolfson had a particular method of analyzing even the most intricate philosophic texts. He called it the "hypothetico-deductive" method, or the method of conjecture and verification, which was the traditional way in which Talmud had been taught in the Lithuanian yeshivot. Although each of these long-dead philosophers were worthy of lifetime study, Wolfson did not confine his attention to them.

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Selected Works

Other major works from Wolfson include Crescas' Critique of Aristotle: Problems of Aristotle's Physics in Jewish and Arabic Philosophy (1929), The Philosophy of the Church Fathers (1956), and The Philosophy of the Kalam (1972). In addition, a number of his essays were collected and published as Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays (1961).

Afterword

Constantly immersed in his academic work, Wolfson never found time to marry. After he retired in 1958, he continued to write and to study, leaving a memory of distinguished scholarship behind him when he died of cancer in 1974.

His legacy is greater than the just the contribution he made to the study of religious philosophy and its history. Because he used the rigorous analytical methods he had learned in yeshivot which were later obliterated by Hitler's minions, later scholars were granted a glimpse of the intellectual heights which had made these schools an accepted part of academic history. A member of many learned societies, he was president of the American Academy for Jewish Research (1935-1937) and of the American Oriental Society (1957-1958).

Further Reading on Harry Austryn Wolfson

The best reference source on Wolfson is Leo W. Schwarz's "A Bibliographical Essay" in Harry Austryn Wolfson Jubilee Volume on the Occasion of His Seventy-fifth Birthday (1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Commentary, April, 1976.