Harry Austryn Wolfson

Harry Austryn Wolfson (November 2, 1887 – September 20, 1974) was a scholar, philosopher, and historian at Harvard University, the first chairman of a Judaic Studies Center in the United States. He is best known for his seminal work on the Jewish philosopher Philo, but was the author of an astonishing variety and quantity of other works on Crescas, Maimonides, Averroes, Spinoza, the Kalam, the Church Fathers, and the foundations of Western religion. His greatest contribution may therefore have been in collapsing all the artificial barriers that isolated the study of Christian philosophy from Islamic philosophy from Jewish philosophy (Twersky 1975). Being the first Judaica scholar to progress through an entire career at a top-tier university (Mendes-Flohr 1998), in Wolfson is also represented the fulfillment of the goals of the 19th-century Wissenschaft des Judentums movement.


Wolfson was born to Sarah and Max Wolfson in Astryna (Yiddish: Ostrin), Vilna Governorate (in present-day Shchuchyn district, Grodno Region, Belarus), and in his youth he studied at the Slabodka yeshiva under Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein. He emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1903. In September 1908, Wolfson arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and earned his bachelor's degree and Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he remained for the rest of his career, excepting the years 1912–1914, when he held a traveling fellowship from Harvard which enabled him to study and do research in Europe, and some months in 1918 when he was conscripted into the Army, and together with Norbert Wiener received basic training at Fort Slocum, New York, and was then transferred to the Adjutant General's Office in Washington, D.C.. R.D. Crouse, the scholar of early medieval theology, was among his students.

Wolfson was a professor at Harvard University for approximately half a century, and was a student and friend both of George Santayana and George Foot Moore. He received honorary degrees from 10 different universities (Twersky 1975), and was a founding member and president of the American Academy for Jewish Research. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on September 20, 1974. His brother Nathan survived him by 27 years, living to age 101 until 2001. Another notable family member was his nephew Erwin S. Wolfson who developed the Pan Am Building in Manhattan in 1960.


Wolfson was a tireless scholar. About him Twersky (1975) writes, "He was reminiscent of an old-fashioned gaon, transposed into a modern university setting, studying day and night, resisting presumptive attractions and distractions, honors and chores, with a tenacity which sometimes seemed awkward and antisocial." He spent vast amounts of time secluded in the Widener Library pursuing his research. Schwarz (1965) writes that even in his retirement, Wolfson was "still the first person to enter Widener library in the morning and the last to leave it at night."

Wolfson wrote works including a translation and commentary on Hasdai Crescas' Or Adonai, the philosophy of the church fathers, the repercussions of the Kalam on Judaism, and works on Spinoza, Philo, and Averroes. The best-known of these works are listed below, their publication in several instances—among them the work on Philo—having been considered scholarly events of the first magnitude.

A complete bibliography of Wolfson's work can be found in Schwarz (1965). He was known principally, as mentioned above, for crossing all artificial boundaries of scholarship, as best revealed by the titles of some of his papers:

Wolfson was additionally known as a "daring" scholar, one who was not afraid to put forward a bold hypothesis with limited evidential support. In his work Wolfson therefore often chooses bold conjecture over safe, but boring, analyses (Twersky 1975).



See also

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