Interview with Alan Montefiore, Author of A Philosophical Retrospective

Alan Montefiore, A Philosophical RetrospectiveThe following is an interview with Alan Montefiore, author of A Philosophical Retrospective: Facts, Values, and Jewish Identity.

Question: Judging just by the title of your book—A Philosophical Retrospective: Facts, Values, and Jewish Identity—one might suppose it consists of a collection of papers on a selection of largely disconnected topics. How are the contents of the book related to each other?

Alan Montefiore: When I first embarked on writing what eventually turned into this book, my idea was simply to look back at all the main topics on which I had written over the years to see how far I still agreed with myself or, if not, why not. Akeel Bilgrami, in whose series the book appears, persuaded me that I risked ending up with something sprawling and overambitious and that I should do better to focus on just one or two of the topics to which I had always kept coming back. So the two main topics of the book that finally emerged are those of the relations between facts and values (or, if one prefers, between statements of fact and value judgments) and the nature of concepts of identity. And yes, I do see them as being quite relevantly connected.

Q: Does that mean “A Philosophical Retrospective” survives as little more than a hangover from the originally intended project?

AM: No, that would not be quite right. For one thing I do try to pick up the threads of earlier discussions of the so-called fact/value distinction from as long ago as the late 1940s, when I was first taught to think philosophically about such matters. More importantly, though it does not appear in the title, a persistent underlying theme is the relevance that such prima facie austere philosophical issues can have for the understanding of some of the dilemmas that may face one in one’s own “real” or, at any rate, “nonacademic,” life, and I try to illustrate this by going back to explain something of how and why this issue took on such personal importance for me.

Q: But did questions concerning the nature of identity and the relations between values and facts pose distinct problems for you or were they somehow connected?

AM: I am not at all sure just how I saw it at the time, but, as I see it now, they are certainly connected. When I was a student, it was widely accepted by philosophers that there could be no logically compelling move from statements of fact to judgments of value—however difficult it might be to determine an exact sense for the terms of this distinction. It was also widely recognized that, if this were so, it provided a very strong conceptual basis for what might be called a characteristically liberal (and largely Protestant) view of individual autonomy concerning the choices of one’s own values. Facts, including the facts of our dispositions and our own present desires, confront us as givens. One may work to change at least some of one’s existing situation, though no sane individual can think it possible to transform those facts into whatever they prefer them to be simply by choosing so. This must mean that certain values, including those used to judge an individual’s responsibilities and obligations, have the status of facts, because there can be no question of individuals determining their own values or responsibilities for themselves. On the other hand, if no amount of facts can logically compel assent to any particular judgment of value, then indeed individuals have to take responsibility for whatever values they may resolve to stand by. It is not for nothing that this doctrine frequently goes by the term the autonomy of morals.

The idea that I came to more recently, and that I explore in this book, is that in certain contexts and for certain people concepts of identity may function as some sort of logically natural bridge between statements of fact and judgments of value concerning those facts. Thus for those for whom the community in which they have grown up conceptualizes matters of identity in this way—if, for example, it allows for no clear distinction between the individual and roles which he or she occupies—the facts of who and what that individual may be are bound by certain obligations and responsibilities. People whose key concepts work in this way will find it impossible to understand how anyone could think they are free to decide for themselves what obligations and responsibilities they should take on. Conversely there are people who will find it impossible to understand how the facts of their family and social identity could be thought to settle the question of how they ought to order their lives. Hence the possibility of intractable and potentially bitter misunderstandings.

Q: Akeel Bilgrami says in his endorsement that “this book on identity brings to bear his subtle and long-standing philosophical preoccupation with the fact-value distinction on his lifelong individual and intellectual struggle with the question of Jewish identity.” Tell us more about what Bilgrami alludes to.

AM: In the book I try to illustrate this by referring to the example of my own experience of finding that for some of the elder generation of my own family and of those closely associated with it there was no question as to where my responsibilities lay, while I, though I could understand well enough that they might take a different view from my own of what I ought or ought not to do with my life, could not for my part understand their seeming inability to comprehend that this matter was up to me alone to decide. It seems to me that a deep conceptual shift of this sort may well be typical of the differences between older generations of immigrant families, whose ways of thought will have been formed according to the deeply rooted but conceptually different traditions of the countries from which they came, and members of younger generations who grow up within the thought of the individualist West. But, in taking the example of my own experience as the case with which I am naturally most familiar, I was led to say something about the perplexities of Jewish identity as they presented themselves to me. I have to confess that, in spite of the fact that I have no scholarly expertise in these perplexities, my own involvements in them did lead me to devote to them a somewhat more substantial proportion of the book than I had originally envisaged.

Q: And how do you approach the “Jewish” portion of identity?

AM: I try to look at three largely interrelated aspects of this characteristically contentious matter. The first is the issue of how far it may be in anyone’s meaningful power to determine the nature and implications of their own identity—not only but especially in the case of those who may be considered by themselves or by others to be Jews: there are, second, questions of how far the possession of a Jewish identity is to be seen as bound up with a relationship to Judaism as a system of religious belief and/or practice and of what might be the longer-term prospects for a purely secular Jewish identity, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora; and, third, there is the well-known but unavoidable problem of what to make of the prima facie tension between Judaism’s claim to being both a religion of universal import and yet that of a historically very particular people. And running through this whole shifting discussion there is, of course, the recurrent theme of my own concern with the issue of whether or not the possession of a Jewish identity is to be understood as carrying with it the acceptance of any particular obligations as to how to order one’s life.

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