164 - Man and Superman: Gersonides and the Jewish Reaction to Averroes

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The super-commentator Gersonides and other Jews digest the ideas of Averroes.



Further Reading

• J.D. Bleich, Providence in the Philosophy of Gersonides [trans. of Book 4 of the Wars] (New York:  1973).

• S. Feldman (trans.), Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides): The Wars of the Lord, 3 vols (Philadelphia: 1987).

• S. Harvey (trans.), Falaquera’s Epistle of the Debate: An Introduction to Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge MA: 1987).


• G. Dahan (ed.), Gersonides en son temps (Louvain: 1991).

• S. Feldman, Gersonides: Judaism Within the Limits of Reason (Portland: 2000).

• G. Freudenthal (ed.), Studies on Gersonides: a Fourteenth-Century Jewish Philosopher Scientist (Leiden: 1992).

• R. Glasner, “Levi ben Gershom and the Study of Ibn Rushd in the 14th Century,” Jewish Quarterly Review 86 (1995), 51-90. 

• S. Harvey, “Arabic into Hebrew: the Hebrew Translation Movement and the Influence of Averroes on Medieval Thought,” in D.H. Frank and O. Leaman (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (Cambridge: 2003), 258-80

• M. Kellner, Gersonides’ Commentary on Song of Songs (New Haven: 1998).

• T.M. Rudavsky, “Divine Omniscience and Future Contingents in Gersonides,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 21 (1983), 513-36.

• T.M. Rudavsky, “Creation, Time and Infinity in Gersonides,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 26 (1988), 25-44.

• N. Samuelson, “Gersonides’ Account of God’s Knowledge of Particulars,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 10 (1972), 399-416.

• J. Staub, The Creation of the World According to Gersonides (Chico: 1982).

Stanford Encyclopedia:Gersonides

Stanford Encyclopedia: Falaquera





Jorge on 16 April 2021

Material culture philosophy

Hi Peter,

Hearing in this episode how Gersonides considered that the Agent Intellect also participates in practical knowledge made me think about whether this sort of knowledge can also be a medium for making and transmitting philosophical insights. I heard an interview with you in another podcast, where you referenced cave paintings as potentially containing the philosophical insights of prehistoric cultures and where you also spoke about how while working with Chike Jeffers in the History of Africana Philosophy, you found yourself expanding your view of what philosophy is and where it can be found.

This inclusiveness is one of the things I have come to appreciate the most about this podcast. I really like hearing about philosophical insights developed in the realms of medicine, religion, music, etc. Now please take into account that I am just at this part of the podcast and perhaps this has changed in episodes to come, but whenever you talk about these philosophical insights, they seem to be either philosophical writings about these disciplines or by people mostly associated with these areas of knowledge. For what I've heard, with the Africana podcast (which I am so excited to listen to when its turn comes) you seem to have expanded this to also include oral traditions, but this seems to still limit philosophical thought to verbal language.

Would you consider the possibility of thinking of nonverbal material culture like certain rituals or traditions, arts like painting or architecture and crafts and ornaments as a way to make and transmit philosophical thought? Would you maybe consider making an interview episode with an art historian specializing in craft to talk about these possibilities?

I will put my cards on the table and admit that I read on an interview that the reason for you being one of the few people that likes to hear a recording of their own voice is that it sounds like that of your twin brother; and in that same interview you mentioned that he would fit the bill for one such sort of expert. The curiosity about the prospect of listening to an interview that sounds like someone pretending to interview themselves might factor into my wanting to something like this to happen.

Nevertheless, I am mostly really interested in hearing what historians of philosophy would have to say about for example "gothic architecture" and its making, taking it seriously as a medium to convey messages of philosophy, morality and the status and ideas of those who make it the way that John Ruskin did in The Stones of Venice (minus the victorian national romanticism and Christian moralizing). How would you apply those "20 rules for history of philosophy" to read from something that is not written nor spoken in words but inscribed in things either through symbolism or (how Ruskin does) in their style or the manner of their making? Better yet, trying to find philosophy handed down the generations and developed through craft or other knowledge that can only be transmitted through doing.

I know that you made some episodes on philosophy and art, music and religion but, (at least for what I've gotten to hear for the moment) they have been about what people thought about those disciplines but not the way they thought through them.

Most probably you have addressed this already and I just have to be a patient listener, but if this is not the case, I would love to hear what you have to say about non-verbal ways of doing philosophy. It might also just be extremely difficult to do, since the podcast is itself verbal in nature. But maybe that is precisely what would make such sort of discussion the more interesting, in part because it follows the "without any gaps" inclusive spirit of the podcast but also because it would prove a helpful exercise in doing what you said about the importance of the history of philosophy in ep 151: "To be useful, historical ideas don’t always need to fit neatly into our ways of thinking. They can shake us out of those ways of thinking, helping us to see that our assumptions too are a product of our time and place." Thinking of philosophy done outside of what can be spoken or written down is perhaps one way to do what you said in that quote.

As always thanks for your podcast,




In reply to by Jorge

Peter Adamson on 16 April 2021

Material culture

Yes, that is a great question and one I have thought about too, if only for the obvious reason that it is my brother's field, as you note. In theory, I would love to do an episode that is all about some kind of material culture - like, one thing I had thought about doing in the future is an episode about gardens. But one could imagine lots of possibilities here, e.g. clothing, architecture, maps, etc, not only the more obvious idea of paintings or sculpture. The thing is that when I actually sit down to plan out a list of episodes for  a new "season," I usually wind up thinking "yikes, this is going to take forever, where can I cut down the number of episodes?" Plus since it is not really my field at all, I am a little nervous about doing it badly. Originally I expected the episode about mathematics and art for Renaissance Italy to be more about actual artworks but I found that it was quite a lot even just to deal with explicit texts about aesthetics, like Alberti's On Painting.

Still I will take this as encouragement to keep thinking about it. If you or anyone else has a specific suggestion on a material culture topic for the Reformation period I would be interested to hear it!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jorge on 16 April 2021


Dear Peter,

I was thinking of perhaps a Bernini, The Extasy of Saint Teresa and the church where it is housed seemed like a great example of depicting mystic experiences erotically (and could link to that planned Spanish mysticism episode) for the reformation. I also thought of those Durer engravings when relating it to the printing press episode (especially as a continuation of theories of vision) were some things in my mind.

That being said, gardens sound amazing! To be honest I am really curious about what you would have to say about them. Maps are also great, especially once you get into the age of discovery! I am thinking about also depictions or descriptions of the native's material culture (and of the natives themselves in drawings and etchings) by the Europeans. I don't know if you know about Serge Gruzinski's Images at War book or Italo Calvino's short essay in Collection of Sand called How New the New World was? I remember having gone to a conference where an art historian specialized in the subject talked about some early maps where at first when Europeans thought they arrived in Asia they made a map, and once they realized it was a "new land" they took the same map but colored what would be known as America in green. Perhaps since these two are not the sort of obvious art history subjects it would take some of the pressure off for your dipping your feet in doing one such episode.

I would be very excited to hear what you have to say about any of these subjects. Consider yourself encouraged.



In reply to by Peter Adamson

Jorge on 17 April 2021

Another fun subject

Hi Peter,

I thought of one subject that might also be super interesting and maybe easier to approach, scenography or set-design.

You can probably relate it to the response to the Reformation by the Catholic Church. This has the advantage of there being a great primary source written about the subject in the form of practical manuals written by Ferdinando Galli Bibiena.

It also deals a lot with the practical use of perspective (and here some theory of vision and perception can come into the fore) for making backgrounds for theaters.

If you are interested there's a short article called Architecture and Perspective in the Illusory Spaces of Ferdinando Galli Bibien by Alessandra Pagliano that could be cool to read.

This also has the advantage that it is an area in between all those "classic" arts like painting, drawing, architecture, theater, etc. while not being one of them, which means it can still remain a bit less intimidating.

Another subject I thought would be amazing for you to cover is ornament. In Stilfragen, Alois Riegel traces a history of vine scroll motifs that started in the Greek world and came back to the west as arabesques in a trajectory similar to the narrative the podcast has had with respect to philosophy. I don't remember where I read it (I'll try and find it and tell you later). but I could find a very small reference to it in James Trilling's The Language of Ornament, where there is talk about the apearance and spread of styles in model-books. What's interesting is that since the skills needed to create a plate were analogous to those needed to make a finished product goldsmiths (etching) and woodcarvers (xylography) they could also be used to display their skill and advertise it to a wider audience. Later, you could have famous architect-polemicists that were quite influential like Piranesi who never really built any building.

By the way Piranesi is fantastic in terms of thinking about ways that people reacted to what it meant to recover the classical past, he proposes a different type of neo-classicism focused on exuberant ornament rather than the more austere and universalist view of the "primitive hut" of Laugier.

In Trilling's book there's also a fun section about interlace ornaments most famous in Ireland and thought to be Celtic in origin by most people, but that arose according to him in the Roman Empire and with Roman examples mostly preserved in Egypt because of its dry conditions. This has led some people to look for connections between Irish and Egyptian monks as to make sense of this phenomenon of apparent cultural exchange. I think that this illustrates graphically one of the things which you emphasize a lot in the podcast, which is how the limits of what manages to survive overtime can influence our views on history and the narratives we construct about it.

Checking the dates of both Piranesi and Bibiena, they might be beyond the scope of the Reformation, but maybe it's an interesting to keep them in mind for a later "season" nonetheless.



In reply to by Jorge

Peter Adamson on 17 April 2021


Thanks for all these great suggestions! To be honest I am beginning to think you should just start a podcast of your own...

Nelson Wattie on 20 March 2023

Conceptual Art

This discussion of non-verbal means of conveying philosophy should not be left without some mention of Conceptual Art. The artists of this movement see their final work as the "materialisation" (Daniel Knorr) of a concept they have thought through in advance. They even consider the concept (from philosophy or the social sciensciences) to be of greater importance than the (material) artwork displayed in galleries or other spaces.




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