Paul Nahme joins the Brown faculty as the Dorot Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies and Religious Studies, but much of his research interest falls under the category of philosophy. He focuses on the period between 1789 and 1933 — often referred to as the long 19th century — and Jewish philosophers doing work in Germany at the time.
Nahme’s interests have always fallen squarely in this discipline, beginning when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. While taking courses in general philosophy, Nahme found himself drawn to European continental philosophy, specifically to ethics.
“At the end of the 19th century, there were these philosophical movements related to social theory and critical theory, that were nested in political questions but rooted in these abstract philosophical questions as well. I found that to be a very interesting interface,” Nahme said.
He soon found himself reading the works of Jewish philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas. Nahme’s research sparked many questions about the philosophers whose work helped establish the roots of the post-modernist movement. During that research, Nahme came across the work of Hermann Cohen, a man whose philosophy touched on both the more abstract movement known as neo-Kantianism, which he helped found, and more popular ideas about the roles of Jews in German society. Nahme was as intrigued by what Cohen left out of his writings as what he included.
“Even in his systematic philosophy, where so many of his ideas are drawing on rabbinic sources or making reference to the religion of the prophets, he never talks about Judaism. He never names it outright. I thought that was really interesting — that someone so clearly influenced by Jewish tradition wouldn’t just declare that he’s writing a Jewish philosophy,” said Nahme, explaining that the omission was at least in part due to the culture of anti-Semitism at the time.
Nahme went on to write about Cohen’s work for his dissertation at the University of Toronto, where he earned his Ph.D. in religion and Jewish studies.
For that dissertation, he focused on one of Cohen’s major influencers, the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides. Nahme wrote about how Maimonides influenced Cohen’s writings and how Cohen began bringing ideas from medieval Jewish rationalism into his own modern philosophy.
Since graduate school, Nahme has continued to study Cohen’s work and he’s used his dissertation as a starting point for a book he’s currently writing, in which he explains the context of Cohen’s arguments.
“What I’m trying to do in the book is explore the wider problem of what it might have meant to be someone who considered himself to be a German Jew seeking a sort of secular society for Germany — but only knowing how to avoid ridicule by doing that through philosophy,” Nahme said. “It’s about trying to address the issue of secularism in philosophical terms.”
Nahme uses Cohen’s philosophy to address larger issues that were playing out in German society at the time, such as where the roots of a constitution should come from when different groups have different belief systems.
“What Cohen was saying was that in order for German Jews to be members of society, we need to figure that out. We’re not Christians, so we can’t just say that the Christian sources of the state make perfect sense to us. And we’re not pantheists. We have a theory of monotheism, so we have to negotiate.”
In addition to his book, Nahme is exploring other topics as well. He’s looking at how the Jewish enlightenment movement, known as the Haskalah, influenced how traditional Jewish law was studied at the time.
“What I’m trying to do is think about the parallels between this new form of Jewish learning and some of the actual philosophical movements in the late 19th century that are in many ways making parallel claims about leaving behind the idea of history as determining everything and instead looking at the way in which ideas have a life of their own.”
Between research projects, Nahme will be teaching three courses this year: “Methods in Religious Studies” in the fall, “Ethics after Auschwitz,” and “Religious Minorities Against the State: Jews, Catholics and Other Imagined Enemies” in the spring semester.
Coming to Brown from the University of Kansas, Nahme says he’s found an intellectual community where many of the faculty he once consulted via email are now just a knock on the door away.
“For me, having these phenomenal scholars as conversation partners just creates this extra inspiration and motivation to be working. I’m thinking about ideas for my work all the time, but now I’m talking about them all the time with friends and colleagues. That’s something I think is really unique about Brown.”