Moshe Idel on Ars Combinatoria

Moshe Idel gave a interesting series of lectures last winter on the power of language, specifically arts combinatoria, a ability to create a universal knowledge from language. The audio was recently posted. The second lecture on Derrida, Eco, and Culiano give insight into Idel himself. Idel’s use of a single line of Derrida to show affinity to his own project is an old theme for him. But new is Idel’s highlighting that Culiano at the end of his life turned from the study of phenomena to theory, with an implication that this lecture of his was his own turn to theory. These “theory lectures” seem to have already been implicit in his recent work on Kabbalah in Italy.

But were these three thinkers his inspiration right from the start in the 1980’s? It seems they were, but not explicitly. Does anyone remember any relevant passages? If Idel now lists himself and Kabbalah as the study of (the power of) language and magic- Is this a change or implicit already in his PhD? His work from a few years ago Absorbing Perfections still used the words mysticism and esotericism. Can we reread the entire Idel project as disconnected from mysticism and see that it was originally language and magic (as well as esotericism and ecstatic techniques)?

Idel’s first self-written book was the published version of his dissertation on Abulafia where he wrote as an opening paragraph:

The method for attaining wisdom proposed by Abulafia as an alternative to philosophical speculation is essentially a linguistic one.Language is conceived by him as a universe in itself, which yields aricher and superior domain for contemplation than does the natural world

He was telling us right from the start that he is concerned with language as a means to wisdom. Can his project be re-read as knowledge through language? As a side point, am I the only one bothered that Idel ignores how Leibnitz criticized the medieval attempts as arbitrary and not scientific, while Idel glides from the modern to the medieval without a break?

In the same recent lecture Idel claimed that history and causality is over-rated; there are other sources of knowledge. He dismisses Thomas Kuhn & Feyerabend for not recognizing the role of Ars Combinatoria, the recombination of letters as a valid source of knowledge. Eco and Derrida through their interest in ars combinatoria have transcended the Enlightenment interest in science and “clear and distinct ideas.” Idel applauds this. Unlike the limited knowledge offered by theosophic kabbalah such as the Zohar or Ari, or the limited knowledge offered through science, the knowledge of the magical recombination of letters contains all the knowledge of the universe.This would explain why he has never attempted any historical narrative or intellectual history. But it also seems to assume that Idel thinks contemporary readers will resonate with Abulafia, or at least Idel’s books, since Eco is on the best-seller list. And if Eco if read itis because people are beyond history and science.

Lecture 1:
“Sefer Yetzirah and its Commentaries: A major source for ars combinatoria”
Tuesday 8 February 2011, 5 pm, at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.

Lecture 2:
“Ars Combinatoria in Modern Times: Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, and Ioan P. Culianu”
Wednesday 9 February 2011, 8pm, at the David Patterson Seminar at Yarnton Manor.

Lecture 3:
“The Transition of Ars Combinatoria from Kabbalah to European Culture:
Ramon Llull, Pseudo-Llull, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola”
Thursday 10 February 2011, 5 pm, at Merton College.

6 responses to “Moshe Idel on Ars Combinatoria

  1. Pingback: Ars Combinatoria (Sefer Yetzirah, Leibnitz Derrida, Culianu, Eco, Idel) – from Kabbalah to European culture « BLT

  2. Alan,
    Thank you for the interesting comments and links. I was also thinking over the weekend about the degree of influence of Derrida and others on those who study Jewish mysticism. In my case, however, the reading that inspired my pondering was not academic, but rather a book my son gave to me for my birthday called Hatuna shel Avudim. Rabbi Yair Dreyfus is the author. He is the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Siah, which he founded with Rav Shagar z”l. The institution is a bastion of Religious Zionist Neo-Hasidic study and worship. The Dreyfus book is based on classes that he taught over the course of a year on the last of Reb Nahman’s stories, Ma’ase be-Shiv’at ha-Kabzanim. In the introductory chapter he addresses Reb Nahman’s transition from teaching ideas to telling stories. Rabbi Dreyfus’ discussion focuses on how sentences constructed to formulate ideas place limitations on meaning whereas stories offer greater opportunities for the listener or reader to experience and to draw multiple meanings and associations with individual words, phrases, characters etc.. This is pretty clear to those familiar with post-modernist literary discourse. I do not have a thorough knowledge of Reb Nahman’s oeuvre but I could not help wondering whether Rabbi Dreyfus came to his understanding through his independent reading of the tale or through exposure to Derrida and others.

  3. I don’t know enough to give a correct summary of exactly how the Leibnitz ideas on combinations have been carried forward into our time, but certain lines of development seem at least to me vaguely connected.: a) The development of mathematical logic in Boole , Frege etc and the developments after Gödel’s theorem, model theory, recursive function theory and general algebras. They all have some vague connection to Leibnitz, but were developed independently. b) The work of Chomsky and even more so Jerry Fodor on how the mind learns grammars, producers grammatical sentences and represents ideas/objects/impressions that yield thoughts, sentences and propositions. c) Various ideas on promoting the unity of science, how biology is based on chemistry which in turn is based on physics. And how physics is reducible to combinations of basic forces/elements. d) Abstract models of computation, Turing tests. e) Artificial Intelligence.

    But to go from 1)there are no direct non- theory laden observations to 2) the way scientific theories are accepted and rejected is a more complex story than positivists allow(Kuhn, Feyerabend), to 3)we have no knowledge of the external world (Rorty) to 4)it’s all a matter of the play language (Derrida) to 5) ERGO Renaissance magic, is a mouthful, and kind of silly. So undoubtedly all this will catch on and Idel will win the Templeton Prize.

  4. EJ, you skipped the missing link: Wittgenstein on atomic facts.

  5. Adam,
    I am just getting a chance to catch up on emails. Yes, Rav Dryfus has been exposed to post-modernism, but not formally to Derrida or any other formal philosopher. The world of Siah, Othniel, et al have a sense that the grand project of scientific formulation, and abstraction is over. The Israeli Daatim Hadashim include certain aspects of psychoanalysis, Existentialism, and expressionistic aesthetics into their end of a rand narrative theology. And Rav Nahman and Rav Zadok become post-modern in the sense of post-Brisk.

  6. Pingback: מחילוניות המאבק החברתי בארה"ב ועד האבולוציה של הדת – כמה עניינים שבשגרה « לולאת האל – תומר פרסיקו

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